Painted Smiles and Iron Guts

25 08 2009

This morning, my classroom is buzzing with the taptaptaptapping of students’ fingers on keyboards. I thought I would miss the sound of pencils and pens scraping against paper, scratching out ideas and shaping words. The tapping has much more energy–it’s a sound you can almost ride, and I do. And I almost feel like I’m cheating in a way, drafting off these young minds punching keys with the conviction that they have something to say that matters.

Anyways, this morning we’re tapping about objects. The kids brought in autobiography boxes, which they construct from pictures, drawings, artifacts, newspaper clippings. One student brought in a box that lights up, another chose to adorn his with a plastic mound of spaghetti. They’re all shapes and sizes and they contain all kinds of magical talismans: wands, Eiffel Towers, rubber duckies, pom-poms, dog collars, movie tickets, pigs made out of yarn. So the prompt was to write about an object–tell the stories or ideas that your chosen object represents.

My object is a gummy worm. Last week, when I went to pick up Ruthie, she came charging towards me with a strange, lopsided gallop. Usually, I get knocked over with a hug, especially on days when she’s particularly good, but on this particular day, she ran towards me and took a knee. And then, my little buddy reached into her shoe, where she’d been “keeping it all day so it’d be safe.” There, in the toe of her baby blue croc, she had been hiding a plastic baggie containing a single yellow and red gummy worm. She proudly handed me the baggie, proclaiming, “I sabed it for you, Mommy! All day I sabed it for you! It’s a treat for you for being so good.” Her little eyebrows arched with the seriousness of what she was saying. Of course, I had no choice but to take the treat from her with a wide, affirming smile. “Go ahead, Mom, you can eat it.” So I did. It was very warm. I didn’t really think much about it until the teacher told me, with the worm half-eaten in my watery mouth, that she’d had it in her shoe since they received goody bags that morning. Mid-chew I realized that I was consuming a worm which had endured the playrgound, the toddlers’ bathroom, naptime, lunch, and all of the super-yuck places that toddlers put their feet. Then, having made the decision to not-think about where this worm had been, I swallowed. Hard. With my eyes shut.”Thank you, baby. That was, er, delicious.”

So much of parenting requires an iron gut and a painted smile. There are so many things you have to do has a parent: maintain a calm and even voice, place your screaming-squirming-kicking-thrashing toddler on her “angry spot” with a stoic face and a gentle grip, create a dinner out of nothing at the end of a 12-hour day. Being an adult is not so glamorous or powerful-feeling as I’d always thought it would be. I never thought I’d find myself standing, in a dress and heels, consuming candy from my child’s shoe.

“I didn’t even guess that I was happy”

17 06 2009

There is this wiggle-shimmy-dance-thing that I do whenever I am enjoying what I’m eating. It’s subconscious. I never knew I did it until I caught Ruthie doing it one day across the dinner table from me. We were positively inhaling sugared strawberries from a bowl between us. She started wiggling her little booty on the seat and shimmying her shoulders, her mouth closed in the shape of mmmmmmm. Even now, I can remember the way those strawberries felt so cold and so new on my tongue; the way they bled that sweet, pink syrup; the way they melted into the insides of my cheeks.

Today, as I sit down to write, I catch myself doing that dance of satiation. Why? Because I have three glorious hours of quiet writing time spread out before me like an empty glass lake. Because ever since I woke up this morning, my mouth won’t stop smiling and my toes won’t stop bouncing in time with the music I’ve been listening to. Because my coffee is the perfect temperature. Because today, I am my friend.

Mornings like this make me wish I were a poet, which I am not. So I’ll share a few lines from the poem that captured my attention this morning. Linda Pastan, in her poem “The Happiest Day,” writes

I didn’t even guess that I was happy.
The small irritations that are like salt
on melon were what I dwelt on,
though in truth they simply
made the fruit taste sweeter.

PJ Rides

15 06 2009
Ruthie touches the wind.

Ruthie touches the wind.

My Saturday morning begins with the heavy sounds of Ruthie barging down the short  hallway that joins our rooms, still half-asleep, blanket and bear in tow, her hair teased a solid four inches out from her head by what I call sleep-traveling. She’s almost always smiling, proud of herself for spending the night alone and happy to be jumping into my bed, where she not-so-patiently waits for her chocolate milk as I fumble for the remote control. Once I get the t.v. on, I can usually steal a few kisses on her forehead, right along her hairline, which has the sweetest smell I’ve ever known.

Every morning, she has two chocolate milks. On Saturdays, I let her drink the first one at home, then we go to Starbucks for the second. This past Saturday, we loaded up at the wee hour of 6:40-something to make our weekly coffee schlep: Ruthie wearing panties and a chocolate milk stained butterfly t-shirt my parents bought her at the zoo when she was less than a year old, me in my pajama pants and Hanes tagless undershirt. Neither of us had on shoes. I picked her up and thunked her into her car seat, buckled her in (so she wouldn’t “go to jail”), and tucked her blanket in real tight around her legs. With Allison Krauss playing and the windows rolled down, we crept out of the driveway. I caught Ruthie’s eyes in the rear view mirror to see her mouth pulled into a tight smile that only children in a state of heightened anticipation can manage. As we picked up speed down the street, she squealed, “We’re goin’ on anudder PJ ride, aren’t we, Mom? Only girls go on PJ rides, huh?” She laughed and laughed from her gut and so did I. In Alabama there aren’t many days when the air feels cool on your skin, but on this Saturday morning in June, the air felt delicious. We spent the rest of the drive in awed silence, both of us with a hand out “touching the wind,” as Ruthie put it.

Until Ruthie gave it a name, I hadn’t really thought of our PJ rides as a ritual––they were just what we did. Since then, I’ve been thinking a lot about rituals, how they’re made, and why they’re so comforting. At what point does one aspect of a daily routine begin to shape itself into a ritual? What’s the difference between a ritual and a routine? Why are rituals so satisfying? And what are they satisfying?

So I picked up an old friend (Robert Fulghum’s From Beginning to End: The Rituals of our Lives) and began reading. Again. Here’s what he says:

To be human is to be religious.
To be religious is to be mindful.
To be mindful is to pay attention.
To pay attention is to sanctify existence.

Rituals create sacred time.
Sacred time is the dwelling place of the Eternal.
Haste and ambition are the adversaries of sacred time.

When I think of the word ritual, I think of churches and candles and chanting or reciting words that I don’t understand. Fulghum’s interpretation of the word is so comforting to me because it’s so personal. In a sense, we make our own rituals out of the things that we do on a regular basis, out of the routines and habits that structure our daily lives. Having a three-year-old around makes it much easier to recognize sacred moments when they happen, because three-year-olds are mindful. Always.

Futi Kunga

8 04 2009

Two nights ago, Ruthie discovered Futi Kunga in our kitchen pantry. What follows is the story of our new found friend Futi and how she came to be.

I was washing dishes in the sink because we don’t have a dish-washer. Er, we do have one, but it sits on the back porch because it has to be wheeled over to the sink in order to work. When I wash dishes, Ruthie usually plays in the pantry or with the magnets on the refrigerator. I could hear her babbling, but I was mostly just focused on not breaking a glass. When I (finally) finish with the dishes, I turn to Ruthie and begin the whole let’s-get-ready-for-bed process. Actually getting in the bed takes at least an hour of prodding, changing, whining, resisting, and brushing teeth with princess toothpaste. I tend to be fairly impatient about moving things along at the end of the day. So I was standing behind her, nudging her away from the pantry, and cooing, “C’mon, bud. Time for bed. Let’s go. C’mon. Let’s go. C’mon…” Ruthie whipped around, eye brows raised in her most serious serious face and whispered to me.

“Futi Kunga’s in there, Mom. She’s got those beans. You see those beans down there? Futi Kunga’s gonna eat um, Mom.” (I keep our canned food on the very bottom of the pantry.)

I asked Ruth if Futi might want to come to bed, and she (again with the most serious serious-face) said, “No. She’s not comin’ with us in the bed. She’s gonna sleep in there tonight.” I nodded, like, “Oh, right. Of course.”

Once we got in the bed, I learned that Futi Kunga had come from the dungeon––a place that, for Ruthie, is the most terrifyingly awful place she can imagine, so terrifyingly awful that the word is uttered with the weight of words-you’re-not-supposed-to-say. But, and this is important, “Futi did not drive there.” We don’t know how or why Futi was in the dungeon, but we do know that she got out (because she’s in our pantry).

So what’s Futi been doing since she moved in? Well, yesterday, Futi ate a banana Ruthie left for her, and tonight, we read Futi a story about bunnies. We went to tuck her into the pantry for a good night’s sleep on the canned beans, but Futi insisted on sleeping in the other side, where the vacuum cleaner is.

2 Things

7 10 2008


On Sunday, I took Ruthie to the grocery store. Before we even got out of the car, “Green car, Mama? Can I get in the green car? They have them here. They do. I’m gonna ride in the green car.” As we walked up to Kroger, she spotted the lone green car across the parking lot. I hate those stupid car/carts because they’re breeding grounds for every kind of viral fungal bacterium that seems to stick to all children between the ages of 2 and 5 in the form of a thick crust of snot between their nose and their upper lip and often times caked all over their cheeks. Of course, my child is not prone to the snot-crust-cake because her cheeks and nose are generally chapped from the considerable amount of time I spend wiping her face off.

So anyway. She boards this ship of black grimy grundge and happily honks away on both of the horns in the car, as this is a two-seater. We head to the frozen foods aisle where I always begin my schlepping through the grocery store. As I’m debating over whether we eat enough Homestyle Eggo waffles to make it worth my while to purchase a box of 10 or a box of 25, I hear Ruthie talking to herself. “This is my special day. This is MY day. My day. It’s my day. Is it my day? It’s my day. It is.” I don’t know what she’s talking about until we get to the pizza section. It is at this moment that she turns to me and proudly declares: “THIS IS MY DREAM COME TRUE, MOMMY! IT IS!” And it is also at this moment that I realized that we have very little control over the cultural messages that our children receive in this world. My only comfort was that at least in Ruthie’s version of the fairy tale dreams come true, she was the one driving the car.



We planted mums this weekend.

The Grocery Store

8 07 2008

A globe of not
plastic, not glass, but
of light and rubber:
a balloon––
boisterous, mysterious,
floating in a summer’s
salon of heat and cash registers.
Bobbing against halogen lights,
escaped from
the child’s sweaty fist.

(Re)Considering Disney Classics

14 04 2008

For the past 6 weeks or so, my homelife has taken on the musical scores of The Little Mermaid, Cinderella, Peter Pan, and101 Dalmations. How did this happen? Well, like most of my parenting mistakes, I all began at Target. I was moving down the DVD aisle, looking for the Doodlebops (an educational show about three young people: 2 boys and a girl, one purple, one blue, one orange. Disturbing? yes. Harmful? not if you don’t count my singing along to the theme song.), when I came across The Little Mermaid. “OH!” I cried. “I used to love this movie! Ruthie, looooook! You and Mama are going to watch this as soon as we get home. Kay?”

After the first 40 minutes or so, I realized that I had made a mistake. My background in gender theory has problematized every encounter with popular culture in the first place. In this case, I was completely and utterly horrified at what I had subjected my child to. Main issues with the film:

  • Ariel trades her voice for a body.
  • Ursula is the ultimate excessive woman (who lives in a vagina, no less)
  • There is no mother
  • The Law of the Father is explicitly introduced in the second song in the film when the daughters of King Triton exult in their names “Great father who loved us and named us well…”
  • Ariel marries at 16.

With each viewing (by now, Ruthie was incessantly inquiring after both Ariel and Ursula), I became more and more engrossed by the representations of gender and gendered relationships. Now I know some of you readers are probably saying what nearly everyone says to me when I go off on the Little Mermaid tirade: “But do you really think Ruthie gets all of that from the film? I mean, c’mon! It’s a kids movie.” This vignette is for you, wary reader.

Ruthie is eating mac and cheese with us at dinnertime. She leans in real close to me, grabs my cheeks with both hands very gently, and says with conviction, “I’m gonna get married like Ariel.” I might have choked. Adam started laughing. I was incredulous. Who told her that she got married?! I was already upset by the fact that Ruthie paid particular attention to the parts when King Triton was mad and by her obsession with Ursula, who she says is “not very nice.” I was equally distraught by her newfound interest in princesses and “pretty” things.

I’m not entirely sure what we’re going to do about this Disney catastrophe in our household. On the one hand, I don’t want to teach Ruthie the age-old binary that insists good is pretty and bad is ugly. I also don’t like the assumption that women need to be saved (as seen in Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, and many other children’s stories). And the absence of mothers in many of the Disney movies is especially disturbing. However, I was brought up on Disney movies and seem to have turned out alright (for the most part anyways). Several other people whom I esteem and admire have admitted to having favorite Disney movies.

This being said, I have not restricted Ruthie’s Disney movie time. While I remain vigilant over the screenings, I have decided that withholding the movies might not be the best thing either. When she’s old enough to have some idea of how brainwashed she has been, she can unlearn all of the idea that she comes to think of as “natural” as a result of her socialization. Meanwhile, we continue to praise her for being “smart” and “funny” and “pretty.” We notice when she does a good job drawing and we affirm creativity and imagination.

One day I came home from class and found Ruthie and Adam outside looking under a rock. When I walked outside to see what they were up to, Ruthie stuck out her little finger, pointing to a creature that resembled a maggot or something equally disgusting, and said, “Look, Mommy! A gggrrrrruuubbbb. Is he a sweet little boy?” I can say with some certainty that none of the “princesses” featured by Disney would be depicted searching for grub (although Timone and Pumba do have a healthy appetite for such tasty morsels).

In the end, Disney movies will probably not take too much of a toll on her innocent existence… perhaps the best we can do as parents is educate our kids about the world around them as it is rather than censor every single thing that they encounter.

in just–

24 03 2008


When I was in high school, we didn’t read any of the kinds of poems that I use in my own classroom. Now that I’m working with the amazing and talented Emma Bolden in the Art of Writing Club, I’m learning that my secondary English education was sub-par at best with regard to poetry. The only poem that I can really remember from high school is “Two Roads Diverged in a Wood” by Robert Frost. I’m pretty sure that we had to memorize it. I learned more poems in French than English. So now that Emma and I are collaborating on this project, I have been drinking poems each week, amazed and appalled by my lacking knowledge of this world of words painting other worlds with their sounds, their shapes, and their strange new meanings.

When I started teaching high school English, e.e. cummings soon became my favorite poet. His beautiful invention never ceases to fill me with a sense of awe. I simply relish the following poem, which captures the day that I spent with Ruthie collecting all of the flowers that have bloomed within a 2-mile radius of our house. By the time we were finished, she was covered in fresh cut blooms. Her favorite was the big pink one with pollen in the middle. She kept pointing at it with a serious countenance, warning me: “Make you sneeze, Mommy.”

Spring is like a perhaps hand
(which comes carefully
out of Nowhere)arranging
a window, into which people look (while
people stare
arranging and changing placing
carefully there a strange
thing and a known thing here) and

changing everything carefully

spring is like a perhaps
Hand in a window
(carefully to
and from moving New and
Old things, while
people stare carefully
moving a perhaps
fraction of flower here placing
an inch of air there) and

without breaking anything

e.e. cummings

The Great Debate

22 01 2008



I have seen countless talk shows featuring stay-at-home moms vs. working moms. I would have to declare it a draw. Both walks of life have some considerable compromises (which is what entitles us to be named “mom”). For me, I think I chose the right path: that of working mom. Mostly because I lack the patience that stay-at-homers must have. I think we should start calling stay-at-home moms Gladiators. “Stay-at-home” suggests a certain passivity that staying at home with a two year old does not any any shape or form allow.

Yesterday, I spent the day with Ruthie since Adam worked the holiday. I spend the weekends with her all the time, but usually, Adam is there as well… or at least he’s an option if I need to get anything else done. So Ruthie and I vacuumed the living room and the bedrooms together–she with her little Dirt Devil that lights up and makes a strange clicking noise that sounds nothing at all like a vacuum cleaner. Then I took her down to the basement to do the laundry. She threw in the Downy ball and cried when I wouldn’t let her pour in the detergent. We “folded” clothes, which meant that she wadded them up in a ball and I smoothed them out and folded them as she handed them to me.

We went to Party City to buy her “Thomas Birthday,” which wound up being a Dora one since those were the first party goods she saw upon entering the store, causing her to pitch a death-defying fit in the shopping cart. She then wailed when we had to put the Dora balloon in the back behind her seat, insisting on holding the balloon’s hand on the way to the grocery store. We made it out of the grocery store with one more balloon that the clerk insisted on giving her even after I told her we had some in the car. Then we went to Chick-fil-a for lunch, where Ruthie ate 2 and a half nuggets and a few fries before insisting on climbing in the claustrophobic playroom that reminds me of those commercials where bacteria is visible on every surface, writhing in technicolor nastiness. It took her 20 minutes to climb up in her socks, which caused her to slip a lot. I intercepted her as she shot out of the yellow tube and carried her out. Thankfully, she looked up at me and nodded, saying “Time to go now, Mommy.”

Once we got home, I was relieved to see that it was 1:00, nap time. She slept for a total of 25 minutes before she cried hard enough to get her put in the big bed, where she slept soundly for another hour and a half. During this time, I finished cleaning and got ready for her birthday dinner with Adam’s side of the family.

We had pizza (her favorite) for dinner, which she adamantly refused to even entertain the thought of eating. And, finally: CAKE. She would not have a mere slice of cake. Instead, she insisted on dragging her finger along one side of the cake as I deceptively cut pieces from the other side so she would think she was indeed eating the entire cake. She coaxed the icing onto her little spoon, “C’mon blue,” and wiggled with pure satisfaction.

After opening a score of oversized toys that make all kinds of zany and annoying sounds, she finally passed out at 8:30. And I did too.

I’m writing this from work, where I have many similar challenges with less severe personal costs. For instance, if I lose my temper, I am not staining my child’s opinion of me or shaping her idea of how people deal with stress. Rather, I will be blown off as being a tired teacher (a creature rarely conceived of as having any emotive capacity). If I can’t think of something to do next, I just ask the students to read their novels. No problem. At home when I can’t think of what to do next, I put Ruthie in front of Dora and pretend not to feel terribly guilty about it. I have nothing but respect for stay-at-home Gladiators. I admit that I am not one of them. I won’t say I couldn’t be because everytime I say that, I get tested in ways that prove me wrong. I’d rather not be tested right now.


14 12 2007


Signs that I have not been at home for the past week: the laundry is clean and folded, but not put up; the bathtub is beginning to mildew; there are piles of various, unrelated items on my kitchen table including but not limited to: 4 snowman dessert knives, bubble wrap, fake green apples, cords, Mr. and Mrs. Claus salt and pepper shakers; every surface is covered in a thin layer of dust; the only food we have in the house is breakfast related; and, finally, the ultimate signifier of my absence: a clear sippy cup with a purple lid holding the ground-beef remains of the other night’s taco dinner (it’s in the fridge at least).

Where have I been? I have been in the online archives of Cornell’s “Making of America” collection; sifting through writings of Louisa and Bronson Alcott; away from my house and my child, who knocked three little tikes down on her way to the door when I picked her up yesterday afternoon. I’ve been at Audra’s house crying at midnight with the conviction that I am too stupid to write this paper, swinging on her swing, covered in a blanket. I’ve been in the library where students dressed as gorillas have strolled nonchalantly past and chunked bananas in the trash can by my table in the wee hours of the morning. I’ve been sweating in my desk chair, listening to the Vince Guaraldi Trio.

Now I am almost finished, but not quite. Then it will be Christmas time… finally.