The Last Five First Days

I did a little round up of the last five first days of school…

  1. 2010. I loved his little outfit here. He lasted exactly 4 days at his first preschool. He was not, as the director put it, “Ready to contract when the group contracted.” Which is hippie language for sit still during story and snack. He was definitely more of an expander than a contractor. There were tears. Mostly mine.

 

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2. 2011. This year he was an honors student at the School of Life! Mostly because he’d bite ya. A lot. So school-school wasn’t so much his thing.

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3. 2012. The first year he lasted! We finally found him the right school and he’s still there. It was a rocky year but he got a toehold and it’s been getting better and better ever since.

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3. 2013. Kindergarten.  He had one of those miraculous life-changing teachers who helped him turn the corner. Thank God for gifted teachers who cherish the kids that need a little extra help, and just shower them with love. She believed in him and he shone. fd2013

4. 2014. First grade. Another great, nurturing teacher and a year with much progress.

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5. 2015. Today folks. Second grade. Bless him. Look at that face.

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I can remember each of these days so clearly. Mostly because we were so worried about him. Transitions are Tariku’s toughest thing, and back-to-school is a seismic shift. In the past, the resulting tremors have shook our home to its very foundation. For years, he came home from school ricocheting off the walls. There were daily talks with his teacher. We thought the rest of our lives were pretty much going to be spent in a parent-teacher conference, like we were stuck in some existentialist play: You just think you’re at back-to-school night, but really you’ve died and gone to hell and you’re never leaving.

But Tariku went off for his first day of second grade today, and on the ride home, Scott and I were pinching each other. “Did you see how he walked in there like a champ?” “Did you see how he said welcome to the new girl?” Did you notice he didn’t say anything bizarre or inappropriate?” “Did you notice his body was pretty calm?”

I’m actually not surprised it went so smoothly. I’ve suspected this year is going to be different. Yesterday he woke me up at five in the morning and said, “I’m nervous for my first day of second grade.” He crawled into bed and we cuddled. I told him it was totally normal and fine to be nervous and that he was brave and I was proud of him. We talked about some of the things he likes at school- his friends, playing bounceball, pizza day etc. This little scene may seem totally mundane, but it signals something is changing for Tariku. It’s a huge leap for him to identify anxious feelings and talk about them.

Then we Googled dinosaurs for what seemed like 11 hours and when I looked up it was somehow only 7am. I’m really ready for school to start.

I’ll still be biting my nails until the pick-up, but mostly I’m heaving a huge sigh of gratitude. As if I’ve been holding my breath for five years, and I’m finally allowed to breathe out. How lucky we are for all the help we’ve received along the way. How blessed we are with this amazing kid, who teaches us every day about healing and hope.

Making Space

 

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For those of you who don’t know, we’re in the process of getting certified by Los Angeles County to adopt a child through the foster care system. That’s a picture of our CPR/first aid training (if you’re looking to do it, we highly recommend Ron Calloway).

Whenever I post about some new phase of our progress, I inevitably get 20 well-wishing texts, thinking that we’re bringing a baby home tomorrow. I forget that most people have no idea how this thing goes. There are about twelve million steps: paperwork and meetings and doctor appointments and rabies shots for the dogs and replacing windows because there are no regulation screens and and and…

We’ve been slowly chipping away at it for about six months. Staring at the final hurdles, I found myself feeling paralyzed. I kept landing in an overwhelmed face plant on the bed.

One morning, I decided to throw myself into it guns blazing and just get the thing done. I sat down with my trusty legal pad and looked objectively at every item on my list, with the intention of prioritizing and then attacking it systematically. It was immediately clear to me that the thing I needed to do most was to make space– in the garage, in Tariku’s room, in the disastrous kitchen cabinets.

Most of all, I needed to make space in my heart. I needed to make space in our life for another child.

One of the hardest things about the adoption process is that there’s too much time to overthink it, and a million legitimate reasons to get cold feet. Scott and I looked at each other every night and said, “Are we crazy? This parenting thing just got a little easier. It just got fun. We’re traveling. We’re going out in public without a scene. He’s in a great school. We relax now while our kid cannonballs into the deep end and swims the entire length of a pool. I don’t even have to get my hair wet anymore! And now we’re gonna go F it right up?”

We’re asking for trouble. No, really, we are. We know exactly what early childhood trauma does to the brain. We’re looking to adopt a boy around 3-5 yrs through the foster care system, who will inevitably carry trauma, loss, and deep grief. And then there are the risks involved, which terrify me. The worst being the possibility that the child will not be able to stay with us, which can happen. Sometimes I think we should just call a stop to all this immediately. And then I wonder if I’m having genuine reservations or I’m just scared.

Phew. That’s a lot. Even writing it gives me a stomachache. No wonder I was feeling paralyzed.

In the midst of all this, I happened to read Marie Kondo’s absurdly popular and totally psychotic organizing book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. Yes, it’s that book that suggests you talk to your clothes.amess2

Well, I did it. I took two whole weeks, working all day every day. Everyone pitched in. We took everything we owned out of every drawer and cabinet and closet in the house and mostly we just gave it all the hell away, if only to avoid having to put it back. It was miserable.

It was also exactly what I needed. I’m not sure it changed my life exactly- check in with me in six months and see how we’re doing. But I did have ample time to reflect on what we truly needed and wanted, and what was important to us.

As I worked, I left space. I cleared drawers and left them empty. I left empty hangers in Tariku’s closet.

I wrote our child-to-be little notes as I went. In some cases I actually printed them on label tape and stuck them to drawers. I thought the visual reminders would help Tariku start subconsciously making space of his own.amess

I wrote:

We love you little brother!

This is your dresser!

In the garage, I created a bin for keepsakes and put it next to Tariku’s. On the bin, I wrote:

Welcome. We love you. We are waiting for you.

The current update is that we’re probably just a few short weeks away from completing our certification, which will make us eligible to get a placement at any moment, although it could take a while. Whenever it happens, the empty drawers are ready.

As I organized, I told myself that if after all that work, I found I ultimately didn’t want to go through with this adoption, that would be fine too.

Instead, I looked around and it was clear to me: we have a beautiful home, full of so much love and music and joy. We’re not at all crazy to want to share it with a child who needs a home. It’s okay to have ambivalent feelings. It’s okay to be scared of the unknown. It’s okay to start getting excited about it, even though the road ahead may be a rocky one.

And just look at all this room in my heart, after all.

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Real Life and Its Skunks

IMG_6911I’m sitting at the very far corner of the coffee shop this morning, because I still smell vaguely of the skunk that sprayed our dog for the fourth time in a month. We’re calling the movie of our life right now, Skunkageddon: Revenge of the Rodents.

We hired a company to humanely trap the skunks and return them to whatever hell mouth they hail from. They’ve trapped twelve so far. Twelve. There are two sitting calmly in traps in the yard right now. This morning I locked beady eyes with one of them and tried to psychically communicate with him. I told him that we wished his family well, but would appreciate it if could they would all go across town and terrorize a Republican family instead.

acoveThen I went inside and stared for a few minutes at the sole rotting avocado in the fridge, because I didn’t make it to the grocery store yesterday. Like if I stared hard enough, it might magically turn into an egg sandwich.

A study in opposites, my mind drifted back to Greece last week…

ausboatAfter we left Athens, the rest of our time was spent on an epic odyssey, exploring the beaches of Aegina and then driving through charming villages tucked into the folds of the Peloponnese Mountains. As I sit here annoyed by the guy on his cell phone next to me and vaguely nauseated by the residual skunk smell, I can remember drinking an iced coffee in the dappled light beneath the Sycamore tree that shaded the town square of Karyes. I remember standing quietly by the bell tower on the town’s tallest peak and listening to the goat bells echo through the hillsides. I remember eating grilled octopus in a seaside taverna, while the kids trolled the shoreline for sea urchins.

I don’t mean to over-romanticize…I can’t say Greece was relaxing, exactly. Vacations with active children who struggle with transitions are not generally relaxing. There were times I was so tired and brain-baked and T was acting like such a little jerk, I wanted to swan dive off one of those beautiful cliffs. There were also times I felt numb, like I couldn’t feel my life.

Or rather, I could feel my life, but they weren’t what I deemed the appropriate feelings-  the awe and gratitude I believed to be equal to the scenery. I got mad at myself. I yearned for that pre-kid me, the one who would just drink it all in, content to roll with inconveniences, to drift wide-eyed  through the world with five dollars in my pocket.

But there was this one moment…

One morning, we took a little boat to the tiny, uninhabited island of Moni, off the coast of Aegina. We played for a while on a gorgeous little crescent of beach, in the shadow of cliffs that contain caves where acetic monks once lived.

We walked over a little path that traversed the island and found ourselves in a deserted cove, with only a single sailboat anchored in the distance. The water was deep and you had to jump off the rocks to get in, but all the kids took the plunge eventually. After T jumped, I swam along next to him as he looked under the water with his goggles. He lifted his head and excitedly said, “THIS is what the ocean looks like!” As if the world and his dreams had fallen into line for a brief moment.afood

I looked around at the thousand shades of blue water, the cliffs rising above us, the cloudless sky, that smile of my son’s that can turn a whole day around, and I thought, “THIS is what Greece looks like.”

What I meant was, this is what sharing the world with my son looks like. Its moments of wonder can feel even richer for being harder won.

And that’s where I go in my mind this morning. Because, in the words of Gershwin, you can’t take that away from me…

Not even as real life and all its skunks close in.akastanitza

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Meeting the Gods in Athens: Greece Part 1

acropolisWe’re back from our Greek odyssey, and in only two California days, the blue-green Mediterranean water and the hot, star-canopied nights eating grilled octopus while stray cats circled our feet seems years ago already. But what memories we made!

Before we left, I was nervous about taking T on such an epic adventure. He hadn’t been on a long plane ride since we brought him back from Africa. I had no idea how my jumping bean would sit still for that long, or how he’d deal with all the transition and unfamiliarity once we arrived– not generally his strong suits.

But we had gotten an invitation to travel with close friends, one of whom is Greek, and it seemed a once in a lifetime chance to go explore the Greek islands with a native. In spite of the fact that Scott was going to be on tour and couldn’t join us, I decided to plunge in.

I encourage anyone afraid of traveling with your kids to just go for it. I’m so glad we did, and not because it didn’t have its challenges. Some of my fears were definitely realized, as Tariku’s manners aren’t exactly European. I was frequently embarrassed, and had to discipline him pretty much constantly, which is my least favorite mode. It was a shock to his system to discover that there are different rules in different cultures. I also think it’s an essential lesson for any human, so I tried to do my best to convey it without shaming him. Some moments I was more successful than others. In the end, it was one of the trip’s most valuable takeaways- to learn to function, even thrive, when surrounded by a different language, different food and different customs.zeus

There are mind-bending layers upon layers of history in Greece, and it was fascinating to be there at such a historical moment, with the banks closed and the whole Greek financial system (and that of the rest of Europe) hanging in the balance. As we visited the ruins of the buildings where democracy was born, we were watching that democracy vibrantly unfold around us, with protests in the square and lively debates in the cafes, the foreign press lounging around smoking on the sidelines.

Our little group was comprised of our friends John and Fred, their two sons, age 7 and 4, and Tariku and me. Our first afternoon there, we dragged three kids under 8 up the Acropolis in the hot sun and the little angels were just wide-eyed with wonder and respect. Bwahaha! Just kidding! They whined and bargained for frozen lemonade the whole way up, while bemoaning the fact they couldn’t throw rocks off the side.

And while the museums of antiquities produced more giggles (butts! wieners!) than awe, the kids were fascinated by the myths. Zeus and his lightning bolt. Odysseus lashed to the mast of his ship in order to hear the siren song. Medusa and her head of snakes.

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“Medusa” became the kids’ favorite game It was kind of like tag, except one kid was Medusa and could turn the other two to stone.

At the temple of Zeus, Tariku asked me, quite genuinely, “Was Zeus Jesus’ dad?”

It’s a hell of a question.

And forgive my theology here, please, people, but I told him what I basically believe to be true… That throughout history, people have looked around at the mystery and beauty and terror of the world and have felt God in their hearts. And that they have called God many different things and imagined him or her in many different ways.

“But which is real? They can’t both be real,” asked Tariku. “Is Zeus real real? Is the hydra real? Is Zeus dead now?”

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Fair enough questions.

I told him that 2500 years ago people were sitting in the same place we were, and telling the very same stories. Those people are long gone and we don’t remember most of them, but the stories are still just as alive today. So, in a way, myths are real, in that they tell us very important truths. But that’s not the same as them being historically accurate. And that we’re not always sure what’s historically accurate or not, but we can be pretty sure there never was a hydra running around.

“Oh yeah?” he said. “Then what’s THAT BEHIND YOU?! AAAHHHHHH. HYDRA!!!” And with that. he was off down the path, away from the Acropolis and toward the winding streets of the old part of the city, where he found an overpriced trinket of Medusa and declared it the coolest piece of art he’d seen all day. I refused to spend 28 euros on the thing, and he cried so I bought him a gelato instead. Ah, I feel more cultured already.

While the kids were placated with their ice cream, I turned toward the Parthenon. If you face just the right direction, you can almost imagine the flesh on the bones, how it might have looked all those years ago. It blew my mind, that we’re essentially the same people standing here now, iPhones and space travel and open heart surgery and Lady Gaga notwithstanding. It’s hard to hang around Greece and not wax philosophical. After all, it’s where the whole thing started.

We’re still gods and monsters, creators and destroyers, lovers and rapists, spirit and animal.

And we tell the most exquisite stories.

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Travel Guilt

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Yeah, I’m gonna talk about that tired old subject: being a working mom…

I was in upstate NY last weekend for the Woodstock Writers Festival, which was an absolute delight (Thanks, Martha Frankel! And for the photo, Kevin Buso). Compared to many moms I know, I go out of town on business fairly often. I have conflicting feelings about this. I always miss my family. I always experience things I wish they could be experiencing with me.

And…

I also love waking up WHENEVER I WAKE UP, with no one interrupting my dreams by crawling on my head or farting in the bed. I love not making anyone breakfast. I love going to the hotel gym, or reading, or catching up on emails in bed over a giant pot of Earl Grey tea.

This is an extremely privileged version of working mom-ness, to be sure. And I wallow in a lot of guilt, as many of us do, about my time spent away from my child. I feel even more guilty that I enjoy it. Then I remember: Scott goes out of town all the time, because it’s his job. His job is awesome, and brings so much to all of our lives. Not the least of which is our house and the food on our table and drum lessons and groceries from Whole Foods and and and…. But that’s not the end of the story. He loves his work. He never would have considered giving up his work. Why would he?

All of this is also true for me, and yet I feel compelled to apologize for it.

Many of my friends justify working with the idea that it’s better for their child, because their resulting sense of fulfillment makes them a better mother.

I’m not sure that’s true. I’m also not sure it matters.

Scott would never say that he should work because his music makes him a better dad. He would say that he finds joy in parenting and he finds joy in his work and that both of these things are important to him and help give him a sense of meaning and purpose.

Some of my anguish is certainly due to a cultural double-standard, but not all of it. Some of it is the sense of urgency brought on by the fact that my seven-year-old currently looks like he’s about ready to take the SATs and has a girlfriend and a report card and a lot of opinions and I am acutely aware of how few years I have left that he will still want me to carry him to bed. Which is a good thing for my lower back, but a devastating development for my poor heart.

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I look at his sweet little nose, his still-round cheeks. He catches me staring at him, throws his hands in the air and says, “WHAT are you looking at?”

“You,” I say. “You’re so big!

He rolls his eyes. “Everyone needs to grow up sometime, Mom.”

I think- what am I doing, spending my days facing the f-ing blank page again and again, when I could just be connecting with this precious being every minute of every day? And then I think, he will grow and change, no matter how hard I stare and try to memorize his face. He will grow and he will grow and there are things that will be irretrievably lost. We will also collect treasures I can’t even anticipate yet. And while all this growing and losing and gaining is happening, I’m still going to string words together on paper every day, because that’s what I’m compelled to do.

I just interviewed a super-famous and crazy-cool actress in her sixties (it’s still a secret- I’ll let you know more in a couple of weeks!), and she told me: “Jillian, I was so guilty about the time I spent working when my kids were young. And I shouldn’t have been. I really shouldn’t have been.”

I have been clinging to that like a buoy in the mom-ocean of blame and competence and guilt and joy and judgment and acceptance and fear and love.

The working mom discussion can become so strident and politicized on both sides. The truth is that all of these grown-up decisions have consequences, don’t they? Either way. Consequences suck.

But last weekend I found myself staring out at the Catskill mountains, getting ready to talk to a bunch of people about memory and art and writing– much of the stuff I’ve been deeply engaged with since I was a little kid. I thought, there are consequences, yes. I’m most at peace when I can hold them in the same hand as I do my embarrassment of riches.