Learn by Teaching

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This past weekend, I had the privilege of delivering the keynote at the Parenting in Space conference, a fantastic therapeutic parenting conference. I followed up my presentation with a workshop on therapeutic writing. The conference was put on by some of my touchstones in the therapeutic parenting community, including Christine Moers, Billy Kaplan of House Calls Counseling, and Lindsay Crapo. If you’re parenting special needs, or just parenting period, please check out their writing.

I felt a bit out of my league, particularly since only a week before I had been weeping over a screaming child in an airport bathroom, vowing to cancel the engagement the minute I got home. I figured, look at me- what could I possibly have to offer a roomful of people hungry for guidance and hope and support?

Once I’d had a chance to recover, I reasoned that I had the deepest respect for the conference organizers who, for some reason, believed in me. I decided to trust their opinion and just go tell the truth.

I’m so glad I went. The special needs parenting community is a club I never asked to join, but what a gift it has been to my life. Through it, I have seen such bravery and resilience, such commitment and love. If you want to have an experience of truly cutting through the bullshit, go to a therapeutic parenting conference. You will walk into a roomful of strangers and feel like you’ve known them forever. You will circumvent all surface differences and have intensely vulnerable conversations with people you would probably never meet in “real” life. And somehow, even after hearing horror stories about hurt children, you will walk away more deeply in love with humanity. That’s the magic trick Parenting in Space manages to pull off. I was honored to be there.

Here is a little excerpt from my speech:

…I believe the most important thing we did with Tariku, was simply telling him he was safe and loved and we weren’t going anywhere. Over and over and over. I’d even whisper it in his ear while he slept. With time he started to believe it. And the strangest thing happened- I also began to believe I was someone who was strong, who could make a child feel safe, who stuck around through thick and thin, and that was an honorable thing to be.

Even then, it took years, and we had to find a school that was wiling to work through some sticky points with us. He still has a hard time being strong over his body and words. But honestly, he’s such a delight now, we found ourselves sitting around like- this is so EASY. What the heck- let’s do it again! If not us, who?

We went into our second adoption with our eyes open. When we went to visit our new son in his foster care placement, we saw all the signs of severe trauma. We knew his hair-raising story of  neglect. At three yrs old, he didn’t know what a book was – I brought one out and he tried to wear it as a hat. He couldn’t count to three. He had a failure to thrive and was barely the size of a two year old. On our way home from one of our initial visits, I was crying so hard, we pulled the car over and held hands in silence for a while.

We wondered- were we doing the right thing? Were we about to ruin our lives and the life of our shining star of a son who had made so much progress?

Scott said, “Well, you have to believe in someone sometime in this life.”

And I thought, with this man, with the community of support around us, with God, I can do this.

Good story, right?

Except that last week I was sitting in an airplane bathroom holding a screaming toddler for hours, with silent tears streaming down my cheeks. As soon as we landed, I planned to call Billy and cancel, because I couldn’t imagine I had anything to offer. I couldn’t remember any of the right things to say. Ever. I was yelling again. I was crying myself to sleep. Half the time, ok most of the time, I still have no idea what to do, and I wrote a whole book about it!

A good long plane ride with the two worst behaved children in the history of United Airline flights, was a bracing dose of humility for me, the parenting blogger. But when I got some alone time (please, get yourself some alone time) I realized I was back to square one, and that’s a sacred place to be, if you can embrace it. Because square one is where you have the most potential for growth.

The best gift trauma has given me is to release me from the need to be perfect, to win all the time, to please people and fit in. It’s forced me to give up on this big redemption story of mine, in which I impress everyone with my shiny outsides. Because, as it turns out, it’s not my redemption story at all.

That airplane aside, we’ve started to see glimpses- moments, hours, even a whole day here and there- of who our new son truly is, inside his big, wooly, itchy trauma sweater. He’s hilarious. He’s musical. He’s gentle and smart. I’m crazy about him.

I’m glad I didn’t cancel because I eventually remembered what I wanted to say… we don’t have to remember everything. We don’t have to memorize the playbook. We just have to be willing to start exactly where we are, every day. We have to be willing to forgive ourselves, release our own shame, and let it radiate outward to our families from there. We have to be willing to be wrong, to apologize and repair. Mostly, we just have to stick around and keep loving them until they believe it. Not because we’re saints, but because we’re committed and willing to learn.  And because, at the end of the day, we believe in our children and in ourselves.

Here I am with Billy, Christine and Lindsay, feeling grateful:

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On Keeping a Journal

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Yesterday, I spent 5 solid hours on a plane correcting a toddler, who was banging with both fists on the seat in front of him, throwing his shoes, and screaming like I was sticking pins under his toenails. It has been a long time since I was so desperately beside myself.

The good thing about your life exploding is that it twists your arm behind your back and manhandles you back to square one. Beginner’s mind. Humility.

The growing pains of going from one child to two, both of them with lots and lots and lots of needs, has left me little dedicated time for writing. I steal an hour here and there, early in the morning, late at night. I have to fight for even that much. I know it won’t be this way forever- it will change as all things do. I also know that when it changes I will be both relieved and beset with panic. Because change does that to me.

Part of me wants to follow the path of least resistance and check my creative life at the door of motherhood. Find ecstatic joy in macaroni collages. Marvel at the potential of the popsicle stick. Instagram whimsical, earth-friendly ways to decorate for each holiday.

I’m not knocking the creativity, even art, we bring to mothering. Not at all. But I am also a writer and an individuated being. I’m not interested in pouring every ounce of my creative inner life into my children. I need sacred space in which my mind can wander and my self-expression doesn’t have to be stamped with a G rating.

Before kid #2, I had a pretty manageable schedule, in which I had hours at a time to work. To daydream. To write and write and write. And now I don’t. The end.

I can’t shoehorn 3 more hours into my day.

So what now?

It’s easy for me to get stuck in resignation and self-pity. It’s also a convenient out. I have a perfectly reasonable excuse to not write right now. Writing is very hard- I’m tempted to surrender far too easily.

Whenever I find myself facing this dangerous mindset, I return to a place of curiosity.

What is it I really want to say right now? What’s burning to come out of me? What’s essential?

Then I look realistically at my limitations, and summon all my creative resources and say- how? How am I gonna do this? Is there a way of accomplishing this that I never considered before?

I’m someone who works things out on the page. I ask myself questions and I write and list and chart until I come to some semblance of a conclusion or a next action. This may take minutes, or hours, or weeks. I usually do this in my journal. So journaling has again become so important to me, with my radically limited time. There’s almost always time for a journal entry.

The most important thing I’ve learned in all my years of writing is not to expect every word to be a publishable pearl.

I have kept diaries for roughly a billion years. I have stacks upon stacks of them moldering in the garage and there they will stay until I die, when they will be shredded and donated to the SPCA for kitty litter. They are process documents. They are research and therapy and muscle building. They are not works of art.

I’ve employed a lot of different journaling methods over the years, and I recently did a complete overhaul. I had grown pretty lackadaisical about it, so I gave my journal a hard look and noticed that my writing was completely compartmentalized. I had a tiny notebook I carried everywhere, a large journal I kept in my bedside table for morning pages, a legal pad with an ongoing albatross of a to-do list, a smaller legal pad for grocery list/stuff we needed….

And then I happened upon this post by my friend Karen Walrond at the wonderful Chookooloonks, which suggests putting everything in one notebook. At first, I blanched. I mean- my grocery list next to my Deep Thoughts? Heresy! But in the spirit of curiosity, I decided to give it a try. If I didn’t like it, it only cost $15.

When you organize your thoughts differently, your perspective shifts. Man, I needed that shift so badly. I realized I was compartmentalizing not just my actual physical lists, but also the various aspects of my life. My Writing Time was sacred, as opposed to the to-do list- the minutae.

Combining all has caused me to notice it’s the same me- same heart, same mind, same soul- wandering the aisles of Whole Foods or sitting down at my desk with my important frown on. And life, all of it, is what art is made of. Not just the lofty parts- the passionate love affairs, the dazzling sunsets, the childhood tragedies. Toothpaste, tin foil, animal crackers, crushed tomatoes… has its own poetry.

When we let the high and low- sublime and ridiculous- coexist, a certain kind of magic happens. Without any extra effort, just by proximity, the creative work is lent texture by the daily details and the daily details demand a different level of consciousness.

I also find that having a “friend” always nearby to whom you can tell your most awful thoughts helps those thoughts to not leak out the sides.

For instance- Tariku has been having trouble sleeping lately.

A few nights ago, I had been around and around with him for 4 hours. It was 11pm and there he was, sitting in front of me and I was at THE END. THE END. I wanted to say the worst things. You don’t even know.

Instead I said, “Just sit here and color for a minute.”

And I turned to my journal and wrote all those awful things in giant, psychopath lettering. Then I turned back to him, and said, “Let’s try again.”

Not exactly a gratitude journal, but I got to say it all! With zero consequences. Because there is no such thing as a thought crime.

I can’t say enough good things about putting it all in one place. When I color with the kids, I do my crappy drawings in my journal. When I give my students a writing prompt, I do it along with them.

I almost never look back at it. But as a result, all of my work has many more layers of richness.

What goes in your journal?

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(photo credit: Casey Sjogren)

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Happy Enough New Year 2016!

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On Christmas day we rushed Bright Eyes to the emergency room with pneumonia. He seems to be pulling out of it now, but it was deeply nerve wracking. It feels like it’s been weeks and weeks of nothing but of sickness and worry around here.

At 11pm on New Year’s Eve, I was on my hands and knees cleaning vomit off the bedroom floor after a stomach flu raged through the house for 2 days, thinking, hey, at least they missed the rug this time. Scott lay on the couch in his checked pajamas and stared at the ceiling in shock. On the other side of our fence, the bass pounded from our neighbor’s black tie party. When I was done cleaning the last of the barf remnants, from my voyeuristic vantage point at the kitchen window I could see flashes of glittery dresses and crisp bow ties twirling next to the pool, where burlesque dancers lounged on enormous rafts shaped like swans. Yup- swans.

Then I shuffled papers from pile to pile for a while on our annoying dining room table that has crumbs and glitter and lord knows what else ground into every crack of the reclaimed barnwood rustic bullshit I’d never buy again in a million years because I have to clean it with a toothbrush. The whole house looked like a giant to-do list.

I set the bar low and wrote down some pathetic resolutions. Like- take walks. That kind of thing.

I thought- Oh, my poor life, my self, my soul, where have you gone? I’m a shell of a human in green socks and Birkenstocks on New Years eve, pretending I need more filtered water so I can spy on my neighbor’s swanky party.

I peeked in to the bedroom, where the two kids were through the worst of all the illness and finally asleep in our bed, snuggled in soft blankets and snoring gently, curled beside each other like two commas in different point font. I sat on the edge of the bed for a moment and just breathed with them, watching the deep calm of their sleeping faces and the sweetness of it all was nearly painful.

There was everything, right there. The parties we weren’t at. This crazy family we somehow lucked into. All of our choices and blessings and regrets. All the years, passing faster and faster. Everything we still long for and everything we have and everything we traded and fact that we don’t get to keep it. Any of it.

I did a little exercise I sometimes like to do when I am faced with choices or doubts. I ask myself- on my deathbed, what will I wish I had done with this day?

I thought, I didn’t do so badly. Today, I took care of the people I love. Today, that’s enough. I’ve earned my night’s rest. I wouldn’t rather be on a swan, or anywhere else, really.

When we woke up, everyone felt better and we took Bright Eyes for his first time bowling and we laughed and laughed and ate gross chicken fingers and it was pretty awesome. There will be other parties.

Wishing you all bright and beautiful things in 2016!

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Holiday Huddle

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Please forgive my month-long absence from writing anything more complex than a grocery list. My brains are scrambled eggs. I’m not even sure I just spelled eggs right.

After months of hand-wringing and waiting, we finally transitioned a new three-year-old son into our home!

About a year ago, Scott and I decided things had gotten too easy. We were doing things like exercising regularly, meeting deadlines, having dinner parties, and keeping our hair relatively clean. We decided to go ahead and screw all that up and have another kid!

Our nickname for him is Bright Eyes One-Sock. He’s a ridiculously adorable peanut with sparkling eyes that could kill you dead with cuteness. And he can’t manage to keep both socks on for ten minutes at a time.

This time, we’re fostering-to-adopt through LA County, which means that our family is living with a certain degree of uncertainty. Part of the reason I’ve been abstaining from my usual over-sharing is that there are both safety and legal considerations. Also, the adoption is not yet finalized, nor will it be for months, and that’s if we’re lucky.

For that reason, I haven’t known how to write about Bright Eyes. But I also don’t know how to NOT tell you about him. I’ve been writing about our family’s journey for seven years now, and have always made it a point to get as real as possible about the glorious mess of it all.

And wow- has it been messy. And beautiful. And scary. And tender. And exhausting. Our whole family is struggling to accommodate an enormous change. Once again, we’re all doing the trauma dance: the tantrums and the tenderness, the breakdowns and breakthroughs. Late at night (by which I mean 9:15), when I tally up the day’s triumphs and failures and find myself wanting, I think, “You wrote a WHOLE BOOK about this. Why can’t you remember what you’re supposed to do?!” And then I try to fill out an insurance form and I realize I can’t even remember my own home address. That really happened.

Trauma is a baffling beast. I have been dealing with our first son’s PTSD for years and it still bests me often. Trauma has been my most terrifying opponent in this life and also my greatest teacher. When I think about the trauma we’re experiencing as a society right now, and our fearful, primal, and often-illogical reaction, it’s pretty much the macro version of what my children go through daily. I believe there is nothing more important than facing down trauma with love. It is so essential right now to locate the love that is there, always, somewhere deep beneath the fear- in our homes, in our communities, in our world. Love wins. Ultimately, it does.

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There have been big, bright, boisterous holidays in our past and I’m sure there will be again. This holiday season has instead been an intimate and fragile time- a season for huddling together.

Rain in Los Angeles is akin to Armageddon. A cloud wrung out nine drops of moisture two days ago and our power went out for six hours. Sirens wailed in the distance. Both my boys woke at 5am.

There was no heat or light and only the sound of the rain on the windows. I put hats and sweaters on everyone and bundled us off to the living room, where I lit candles and we snuggled under ten blankets. To stave off fear of the dark, I staged a filibuster and told an hour long story that was pretty much Star Wars meets King Arthur, but with fairies and talking flowers and an evil dragon that melts robots to make jewelry. Wonder of wonders- they actually listened! And as the sky finally brightened and I wrapped it up (the robot was saved, the dragon defeated, of course), I thought- I will always remember this. This small, sweet moment. This pinpoint of light in the darkness. Even when I can’t remember my own home address, I will remember this.

Wishing love and peace and moments of light, big and small, to all of you. From our huddle to yours.

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L.A. Sunday Funday

us n muralWe had a crazy fun family day on Sunday, inspired by The Industry’s Hopscotch Opera, which Scott and I were lucky enough to experience the day before. Hopscotch is performed entirely in cars that drive around L.A., and at various sites at which the cars stop. Beg, borrow, or steal a ticket if you can. It’s remarkable. The city  itself is an integral thread in the fabric of the story, and we walked away pumped to explore more of this magical, maddening place we call home.

Tariku’s passion for visual art has really been blossoming lately, and he constantly draws dinosaurs and sea monsters and knights and dragons. He is obsessed with drawing the Phoenix, which seems like a particularly poignant symbol for a boy who has come so far.

us muralsSo Scott and I decided that we’d all go see the downtown murals, and then design our own to “paint” (with chalk) on the walls in our backyard.

It was a blast! We wandered the Downtown Arts District and gaped at the mind-blowing street art, then settled in at Wurstkuche to munch their outstanding sausages and fries (yum!), while we drew our design plans. We then took the plans home and executed them. Afterwards, we rewarded ourselves with some pumpkin pie we had picked up at The Pie Hole.

The experience gave us a chance to educate Tariku about the history and culture of street art, which was thrilling to him, because it’s essentially the Robin Hood story, but with art. We also talked about color, composition, and how we choose our content.

Most importantly for us, we discussed how art is positive way to express our feelings- especially the ones that are bubbling up and need to get out of us! Tariku probably said is best: “It’s better than screaming and yelling!”

Amen to that.

I can’t extol enough the virtues of project-based learning. Or of a stroll through the Downtown Arts District.

Look at that proud face.

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