Merry Happy Everything!

concert

hanukkah

santa

The presents are (mostly) wrapped. Just one more trip to the grocery store. Dinner with dear friends tonight. Ready for our annual Christmas day tradition: eating chocolate chip waffles and watching Elf. It’s been so festive around here. We’ve done ice skating, The Debbie Allen Hot Chocolate Nutcracker (adorable), latkes, cookies, concerts, candles, crafting, playing drums to Christmas with Weezer on repeat.

There have been moments of big fun. And moments of big feelings. It’s certainly better than it used to be, but Tariku still gets mega-stressed around holidays– worse than me even. He gets particularly fixated on gifts and has real anxiety around lack. He can’t bear anyone getting a present that he doesn’t have. He can’t bear to not get exactly what he wants. He can’t bear not knowing what’s in the boxes. The anticipation can make him so miserable that I sometimes wish we could just go to a deserted island, put our heads down, and wait out the holidays with no gifts at all.

This year, he’s obsessed with the inconsistencies in the Santa story. Every morning for the last month we’ve been subjected to a nonstop barrage of questions: How old is Santa? Where does he live exactly? How old is Rudolph? Does his nose still light up? Is the list alphabetical? Do we know anyone naughty?

It’s like being interrogated by a cross between Carl Sagan and Amy Poehler’s Kaitlin from Saturday Night Live:

I can be quick to attribute any and all household discord to my failings as a mother. Every year I try something different. I do more; I do less. We leave town; we stay home. We have people over; we spend it alone. If I could only get our boho, interfaith, mixed-up Holiday thing down, I’m sure everyone else would finally be able to relax and have a good time. Because, y’know, I control the universe. We can do such a number on ourselves as mothers.

This morning I read Jennifer Hatmaker’s post on Parenting Kiddos Who Sabotage Big Days. It offered honesty, information and helpful tips. Most importantly, it made me feel less alone and reminded me to release my expectations. The worst that happens is it’s a bad day. Big deal. So thanks for that Christmas gift, Jennifer Hatmaker!

I don’t think it’s going to be a bad day, btw. I think it’s going to be a great day. But it’s nice to know we’ll be okay no matter what.

Alright, I’m off to pick up our Buche de Noel and the biggest latte you’ve ever seen from our scrumptious local Lark Cake Shop.

Wishing you all a very warm and beautiful night, full of music and joy.

And kindness… to yourselves, moms, most of all.

Not Bad at All

tree

The crumbling gingerbread house is barely hanging in there on the dining room table, next to my menorah from Hebrew school graduation. The fake log made of coffee grounds is fake crackling in the fireplace. The cranky child is finally asleep. The PMS tea is steeping. The computer paper snowflakes are clothes-pinned to the barn lights. The tree is my best one yet; really, it is. Our house guest walked into the house this evening, looked at it and just said, “Thank you.” I shed a little tear.

The world is quiet, save the soft churning of the dishwasher and the washing machine. Which is to say: quiet enough. It’s never quite the Hallmark card/Pinterest board/Barbie Dream House, is it? But it’s still pretty great.

The thing that comes to mind are Snoopy’s words of wisdom from You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown (Yes, I played Snoopy in summer camp. Of course I did. Rachel Weintraub, witness!):

Not bad. It’s not bad at all.

Love you all tonight. I’m sure that’s a song, too.

house

Thanksgiving Part 2: The Thankful Part

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Here’s a picture from the first year we brought T to Thanksgiving. Cute, right? I think we managed to stay for about 20 minutes. From the beginning, social situations have been scary and challenging for T. I still shudder when I recall my dear friend stooping to say hello, and T responding by punching her right in the snout. At that time, aggression was a daily occurrence for us. I was covered in bite marks. Scott and I would struggle to smile, while vigilantly monitoring him at gatherings. We were masters of the quick exit. The car ride home from T’s first three Thanksgivings were tear-filled. I think Scott may have even offered a few drops to the communal river.

This is T now, at the drums in the front of the room. Just look at that confident kid.

playing

At first, he wasn’t super-psyched about Thanksgiving, because all of the kids attending were older and he was worried he wouldn’t have anyone to play with. Then, the other kids (the most terrific teens in existence- they give me hope for the whole species), had the idea to have a family jam. I mentioned it to Tariku and he immediately lit up and begged to bring his drums. I very hesitantly asked if we could bring his kit, while acknowledging that it was potentially the world’s worst idea. They responded with a resounding YES.

The other kids even learned the Phineas and Ferb theme song to play with him. Scott jumped in as well. At six years old, Tariku sat in front of a room full of about twenty-five people and was funny, focused, and good.

When Scott was a kid, discovering music saved his life. It gave him a passion, a sense of purpose, something to dream about, something to work for. For me, that thing was books. Through books, I felt connected to the world around me.

At Thanksgiving, I believe I was seeing the seeds of that very process for my own son. As soon as he sat down and started to play, he was glowing with pride and purpose.

tday

And you see this guy I’m sitting next to… I’ve known my friend Colin since I was seventeen years old. Back then he had really long hair and always wore a black motorcycle jacket. I had really nineties hair and wore…well, I generally wore a lot less than I do now. His teenage singer/songwriter son blew me away. How strange, these 10,000 miles of road behind us. How surreal and incredible to see our kids now the ones at the front of the room, playing their hearts out. I’m so thankful we’ve made it far enough to see this happen.

Every year we write what we’re thankful for for on the tablecloth. Here is this year’s contribution:

Tdaynote

Thanksgiving Part 1: The Giving Part

tdayT

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This Thanksgiving, I tried to figure out a fun way to ease Tariku into the idea of giving to others. Until now, I’ve been lazy about including him in our charitable efforts, for the reason that there’s a lot less whining without him. I’ve justified this by telling myself that modeling right action is enough. After all, that’s how I learned from my own parents, who were always active in numerous organizations. It seemed time to do something more proactive, however, since we’ve been focusing with Tariku on building empathy.

Honestly, I don’t often volunteer on Thanksgiving, because it’s the one day a year that soup kitchens and food banks actually have enough helpers. But in this case, it seemed a great opportunity to explore the concept of gratitude. We volunteered as a family with Gobble Gobble Give, a wonderful grassroots project that donates food and clothes to LA’s homeless each Thanksgiving.

We filled up the back of our truck with Gobble Gobble Give’s meals and donations and drove around handing them out to people. I wanted to do something concrete, so that Tariku could actually look people in the eye and have an experience of interacting with individuals.

Make no mistake, he did not want to go. He wanted to stay home and play dinosaurs or cards, or anything else really. He probably would have even preferred to clean up his room. I had to strong-arm him into it (okay, maybe I also promised him Cheetos if he cooperated).

We started by visiting our friend Cindy, a homeless woman who hangs around our old neighborhood. Tariku has known Cindy since he was a baby and was happy to visit her, but couldn’t figure out why she was included on our route. He had never realized she was homeless. She gave us big hugs, took donations to deliver to her friends and gave us some suggestions.

Then we went to some intersections in Pasadena that we pass every day on the way to T’s school. By this time, T was insisting on handing out all the bags himself. He was skipping, smiling his enormous smile, bringing the Tariku sunshine and making everyone laugh.

The only trouble arose when we passed a disturbed looking young man, cursing at a wall. I wouldn’t let Tariku walk up to him for fear the man might be dangerous, and T was upset with me for “leaving him out.” On our way home, T meditatively ate his Cheetos. I asked him if it had made him feel good to give to other people.

He said, “Mom, I’m still worried about that one guy.”

It was amazing to see his perspective shift over the course of a few hours. I hadn’t walked into the day with big expectations– I had simply wanted to transmit my belief that the best way to express gratitude is through action. But the experience really got a hook in him, so now I’m wondering, how do I take this ball and run with it?

I’d love to hear your suggestions. Let me know… how do you impart the spirit of giving to your kids?

Tune in tomorrow for Thanksgiving Part 2: The Thanks Part.

Birthdays and Butterflies

candles

balloons

running

On the morning of his birthday, Tariku woke me up saying, “Your baby is six today!”

I immediately teared up. He put his arms around me and said, “It’s okay, Mama. Everyone has to grow up sometime.”

I am not even making this up. He writes the best dialogue, that kid.

Six.

He was eleven months old when we brought him home from Africa. His legs were like skinny, limp noodles. When I tried to look into his eyes, he often looked away. We were worried about his motor development. We were worried about his lungs. All I wanted to do was hold him to my chest. All I wanted to do was feed him and fatten him up.

For three months, he was no more than five feet from my body at any given time. I pretty much just fed him and walked around with him; that was the shape of our days. I held him and wandered in circles around the neighborhood, the house, the mall. And slowly, slowly, I felt him relax into my body. Slowly his eye contact improved. Slowly, his muscles caught up and in no time he was zooming around the house. It was the hardest and scariest and most tender time in my life, those initial months with T.

When I say he relaxed into me slowly, I mean it took years. It has only been the last six months that I feel something big has shifted in him. It’s hard to put my finger on exactly. Certainly, many of his trauma-based behaviors have subsided. There is something even sparklier and more alive behind his eyes. He is less afraid. I feel like I’m just getting to know my son.

We held his birthday at HIS spot: Proud Bird Restaurant. Proud Bird is one of those historic Los Angeles hidden gems. It’s right across the street from LAX and the airplanes pass directly overhead. He likes to sit on their patio for hours every Saturday, never losing his wonder at those marvelous beasts taking to the air.

airplanes

It was a special thing for him to be able to share it. T was friendly and sweet and, as always, exploding with that wild joy of his. Not that long ago, being around crowds used to pitch him into a panic. His party was a huge success. A triumph, really.

DANCE

His birthday happened to coincide with the hatching of our last butterfly. We raised five of them from caterpillars and the late bloomer was a real holdout. I was starting to get worried for the other ones in there, waiting around.

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We got the Butterfly Garden as a Christmas present and I was a little bit resentful, initially. I thought, Really? You’re going to make me order worms in the mail? It turned out to actually be fascinating and fun for all of us. I’m not sure who was more excited when they started to emerge.

Here’s the thing I didn’t expect: it was cool but it was also gruesome. I had a jar full of caterpillars and food and poop pretty much on my dining room table for a week. Then they turned into cocoons straight out of the movie Alien, in which they turned to goo. When they hatched, I sat watching them, mesmerized by metaphor and miracle, and then out of the blue one of them started bleeding. I almost had a heart attack. I looked it up and found that it’s normal for them to bleed- they expel the last vestiges of the caterpillar they once were. Seriously, real life butterflies are not a Hallmark card.

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butterfly1

When it was finally time to let them go, Tariku cried and got mad at me because he was going to miss them. It took him about fifteen minutes to come out of his room. Resolute and silent, with a tear-streaked face, he took the habitat outside, gently laid his hand on the top of it and said goodbye. Then he set them free. We laughed and ran after them until we finally gave up and just practiced our cartwheels for a while.

It is impossible to raise butterflies and not meditate on growth and transformation- the bloody complicated mess it all is.

It is also impossible not to marvel at the prize: wings.