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.





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.





Sink or Swim… Er, Float

11 06 2009

Ruthie with cute, pink, ruffled floaties.

Ruthie floating not-on-her-own. Notice the cuteness. And the pinkness. And the ruffles. Oh, the ruffles!

Last Sunday, Ruthie and I, along with a very dear friend, broke into a local neighborhood pool while its patrons were at church. Thankfully, there was only one family there, and they were lounging at an angle that would allow us (and by “us,” I mean my dear friend) to inconspicuously jiggle the gate in just the right way with just the right amount of pressure so that it would open without the key. Once I saw the gate swing open, we plowed through and set up camp in a nice, shady corner where we could eat lunch.

Ruthie loves the pool, but I’m trying to break her into her floaties this year and have been, thus far, unsuccessful. I’ve gone to great lengths to find cute, pink ones; they even have a ruffle. She’ll put them on and wear them in the baby pool, on the steps of the big pool. She even ate lunch with them on. But she won’t let them hold her up. I’ve tried coaxing her to simply stand on the third step and lift her feet, I’ve tried luring her out into the middle of the pool with motor boat sounds and bubbles, but always she is stubbornly resistant to the very notion of using the floaties to FLOAT! I finally got her to let me hold her in the pool and drag her around with her arms out “like an angel.” For a solid half hour, I pushed and pulled her all over the pool, but as soon as she felt my grip loosen, she’d freak out and pull her arms down to her sides. Which made her sink. Which made her swallow water. Which made her even more fierce in her determination to not let me go. I even tried just pulling away real fast, but she had a death grip on my index fingers and I didn’t have the heart to rip them away. All I could think of was that swim teacher who told me to swim to him and kept walking backwards, all the way down the pool. I thought I was going to drown. When I tried to pull away from Ruthie, her face had the look of sheer terror that must have come over my own face when that jerk wouldn’t stand still.

I wanted her to see that she could trust the floaties, that they would keep her up. Having seen tons of kids her age positively leaping into other pools that I’ve high-jacked this summer, only to bob right back up to the surface with those floaties sticking up out of the water. I thought kids just knew that floaties would keep them up. While I can remember being afraid to swim, I can’t ever remember being afraid to float. The problem is that Ruthie has no confidence in her floaties. Her refusal to rely on them to help her float actually makes her sink. In order for them to work, she has to kind of relax into them. But because it’s new and scary, her whole body tenses up at the possibility of me letting go, she jerks her arms down, and her head goes under.

This whole experience struck me as somehow significant and metaphorical, but I couldn’t quite pin it to anything until I came across this passage from Oswald Chambers:

Naturally, we are inclined to be so mathematical and calculating that we look upon uncertainty as a bad thing… Certainty is the mark of the common sense life, gracious uncertainty is the mark of the spiritual life. To be certain of God means that we are uncertain in all of our ways, we do not know what a day may bring forth. This is generally said with a sigh of sadness; it should rather be an expression of breathless anticipation.

And brilliant E.L. Doctorow insight  that Anne Lamott quotes in Bird by Bird:

Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.

I, like Ruthie, am on the cusp, the brink, the brim of lots of unknowables. I have a new job in a new school system teaching a grade that I haven’t been with in over four years. In recent months, I have experienced tremendous changes in my personal life as well. I have no idea what my life will look like in the fall, or even in, say, July. For the past six weeks, my shoulders have been in knots and I often catch myself holding my breath for no particular reason. I am tense because my life is new, different, and, well, scary.  When things seem out of control to me, my tendency is to run straight through as fast as I can. This tends to send my life spinning even more out of control. And so, as I quelled the frustration that I felt at Ruthie’s resistance to letting go and trusting the floaties, I realized that I may need to do the very same thing in my own life: trust more and fight less.

Ruthie resigns to the baby pool (with ponies, because ponies make everything more Fashionable, and thereby, more fun.)

Ruthie resigns to the baby pool (with ponies, because ponies make everything more Fashionable, and thereby, more fun.)

Ruthie never did float on her own in the big pool. She resigned to the baby pool, where she kept her floaties on and bobbed around like a little shrimp. That is until she confessed that she needed to go “poopee” (however you spell that) and we realized that you have to have a freaking key to get into the bathrooms. It was nap time anyways.





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.