Tariku Turns Seven!

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My little man turned seven Friday. Add your own cliche about time here. It’ll be true. It’s all true. These milestones never fail to blow me away.

Here’s a belated birthday party picture dump, because I was (supposedly) observing the National Day of Unplugging while throwing a party for 80 people. Why so many? Because I’m a sucker, that’s why. And because I can’t stand any of the kids feeling not-invited and then I can’t stand for parents to have to find childcare for siblings and then I of course want all our besties there to dance with me and do the heavy gift-lifting. So we just invite em all, and wheeee!!! I have many commendable personality traits, but being sensible ain’t one of em.

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Did I manage to do it unplugged?

Well…

Sorta.

We had some people over Friday night for T’s actual birthday and we did turn off our phones. We talked and hung out by the fire pit, looking at the stars through T’s new telescope. The kids played music for hours. They weren’t exactly playing ukuleles and washboards or anything– they were totally plugged-in and jamming to Katy Perry’s “Firework” over and over. But the the jam was not Instagrammed.

On the morning of the party, I cheated. Scott didn’t unplug, so I pretty much just barked texts at him all morning:

Text the DJ and confirm!

Text Meredith and see if she wants to ride over together.

Text Jen and see if she’ll take pictures.

Scott said, “I don’t think the point of this is that you get a personal secretary and a personal photographer.”

True, true. But it was still an educational experience…I did learn that if the day ever comes that I get to have a personal secretary and a personal photographer, it will make me feel relaxed and awesome!

At the actual party, my phone did remain in my purse. I didn’t take pictures (photo credits are all Jen Rindler- thanks, Jen!), which is, like, a Herculean effort for me. The truth is that I had a great time without it.

What I liked most about my pseudo-unplugging, was that even in the ways that I failed, it made me more conscious. I did walk away from it feeling grateful for the ways technology enhances my life and aware of the ways that it’s probably extraneous.

Overall, the party was a smash. Tariku gets super, super super excited about his birthday. He’s already planning next year’s party. I’m not kidding. He’s also assigning birthdays to his stuffed animals, so that “they” can also have parties.

As you can imagine, that’s a whole lot of pressure and expectation for everyone. So it was a wonderful weekend, but also anxiety provoking for all of us. I’m glad we did it and I’m just as glad that it’s over and we’re getting back to our usual routine.

I can’t believe I just said that, but it’s true. Even though it was initially contrary to my free-spirited nature, the practice of establishing a routine for Tariku has been far and away the most effective thing for increasing his sense of security in the world. The more consistency we employ, the more regulated he is. I’ve come to crave the structure as much as he does. It makes all of our lives so much easier.

So now we are back to relative normal, and eagerly awaiting Tigey’s (T’s tiger/alter ego) bday. I’m a little bit worried about it, because frankly Tigey can be a real a-hole. He’s like T’s Jungian shadow. But we’ll be okay. We’ll make it through. And I can’t say for sure, but I’m pretty sure I will opt to stay plugged and Instagram the heck out of it. Because you deserve to see a stuffed tiger in a party hat.

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Our Experience with Foster Care/Adoption Training

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Scott and I spent the last two weekends getting our foster care training certificate through a private agency called Five Acres. The Five Acres mission is to provide safety, well-being and permanency to children and families in crisis. We were inspired in part by the journey of our friends Shawna Kenney and Rich Dollinger (Shawna wrote about it here), and also by the fact that we want to grow our family and are not sure the route we want to go yet. We’ve often talked about fostering a teenager at some point in the future, so we figure why not start learning all we can about it now.

So we’re out there gathering information, soaking it all in, waiting to have that feeling of rightness I had when I first looked at photo album of Ethiopia, immediately turned to Scott and said, “That’s where our kid is.”

During the intense four days of training, we grew to feel close to the other eight expectant faces we faced across that long white table, eating our lunches out of paper bags while gamely participating in role plays and discussions. I was moved by everyone’s willingness to be vulnerable. Vulnerability is such a rare and brave thing. We shared our questions, our doubts, our losses, our hopes for our families.

We learned the nuts and bolts of the foster care system, as well as talking in depth about loss, abuse, attachment, trauma and family. Together, we made lists on chalkboards:

What are things people need to feel safe?

What is an expected loss vs. an unexpected loss?

What are some reasons children are removed from their homes?

We watched a few documentaries that were uniformly well-made and heart-wrenching. I highly recommend them to anyone. They included Aging Out, From Place to Place and, one of my favorite movies about adoption, Closure (see it if you haven’t!).

After posting about the training on social media, I’ve had a deluge of emails and messages, all saying the same thing: I want to talk to you more about foster care. Clearly the daunting amount of children in the social services system (20,000 in LA county alone, 500,000 nationwide) is on the minds of a lot of people. And I’m so glad, because, wow, do these kids ever need help and love.

Hearing some of these children’s stories reduced me to a trembling, mascara-streaked mess. But they also left me feeling inspired to participate in some capacity, as well as empowered with the tools to do so. I’m not sure if we’re going to try to adopt through LA County, but the options aren’t just foster or do nothing. There are so many ways we can all help. Here’s a really great post about it from Kristen Howerton at Rage Against the Minivan: What you Can Do. You can also just call Five Acres and ask.

By the end of each training day, I was so drained that I pretty much came home and crawled into bed with Tariku, using afternoon movies as a bribe for snuggles.

As I’m reflecting on the experience, I keep thinking about a discussion our group had near the end of the training.

“When things get hard, asked the woman leading the workshop, “What will you have in your back pocket that will keep you committed?”

I answered that, when facing situations that might inspire fear or judgment, I try to build a bridge to my own life. Watching the movies of those teenagers, I was reminded of my own angry and confused adolescence. I was reminded of my brother- an epic seeker/wanderer- and so many of my friends who have struggled at various times. I was reminded of a time not so long ago when Scott and I held our heads in our hands every night, completely overwhelmed and despairing in the face of Tariku’s trauma-related behaviors. I would never for a minute think that any of us was undeserving of love, or help, or a home.

I believe this even now, when T is standing at the foot of the bed insisting that I listen to him belch to the tune of Gangnam Style (true story).

Here’s the other thing I keep in my back pocket…

I remember first holding Tariku as a baby, burying my face his little nest of hair and thinking that he smelled like powder and cookies and everything good and sweet on God’s earth and that he was truly perfect and I’d never be that happy again. I didn’t require anything in return. I didn’t require anything at all. I had everything I needed.

It was a small moment. I probably thought the same thing a thousand more times before he started smelling like french fries and dirty feet and all the rest went out the window. But for some reason, that moment is the embodiment of love for me. The memory of it can sometimes give me superpowers. I go back to it all the time when the waters get choppy.

Friday Faves 1/23

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1. I loved Kelly Wickham’s Talking to Children about Ferguson and Social Justice post at Little Pickle press. I’ve been thinking a lot about how to approach these tough topics in a developmentally appropriate way. I don’t want to raise Tariku blind to these deeply important issues, but I don’t want to frighten or overwhelm him either. Kelly writes, “The easiest definition [of social justice] presumes that everyone deserves equal economic, political, and social rights and opportunities. Teaching children that everyone is deserving of such things means teaching them to value diversity and all people. Instead of tackling all those things at once, however, it’s best to choose themes based on the questions that children are asking.” She also suggests using art projects to explore different topics, so that kids have a way of expressing feelings that might come up. It’s a terrific post and was extremely helpful to me.

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2. Who Was Martin Luther King Jr.? This biography series for young readers covers a broad range of historical figures. The stories are clear and engaging. For a brief moment now and then, these books can help me get Tariku more interested in Rosa Parks than Spiderman.

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3. The Buddha Board is the best holiday present we got this year. It’s simply a board with a ceramic surface, a brush, and a water receptacle. You paint on the board with the water, and as it dries the image fades. It’s a great emotional release as well as good practice at creating and letting go, again and again. I’ve spontaneously used it during some difficult conversations to paint funny pictures of my feelings (ie- a head on fire). It brought some humor to a hard moment. Tariku has been practicing his Japanese characters. I have no idea where he learned them. Don’t look at me- I just paint heads on fire.

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4. This extra large, ruled, soft cover Moleskine notebook is The One. I’ve used these notebooks as journals for years. My garage is filled with stacks of them. The Buddha Board got me thinking that for the last six months, I’ve drifted away from writing in my journal. Journal writing is important to me because, much like the Buddha Board, the writing is about process rather than product. Journals have always been the place I write terribly, messily, carelessly. It’s easy to shove aside when I’m racing toward deadlines. But journaling is essential to remembering who I am, and it informs and deepens my other projects. I’ve recommitted to it and have been busting out the Moleskine again.

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5. The Empathy Exams, by Leslie Jamison. Jamison manages to combine a mastery of craft with an ability to still leave the raw emotional seams showing. These brave essays reach both outward and inward, exploring sticky things like empathy and sentimentality without wrapping them up in a forced bow. It’s awesome.

To My Son on his Gotcha Day 2015

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It was T’s “Gotcha Day” last week, which is adoption-speak for the day we finally held him for the first time. I write him a letter every year, trying to preserve for him (and me) a snapshot of who he is at that moment in time. It has been six years. Six. When did that happen? The love in my heart for this kid blows my mind every day. Here is this year’s letter to my not-a-baby-anymore:

To Tariku on his Gotcha Day:

It’s a strange phrase- Gotcha Day. The way you say “gotcha” is so cute that it has overshadowed any doubt I may have had about the name. I guess I’ve never been exactly comfortable with how glib it sounds- how completely unequal to the task of describing that transformative day when we first saw your beautiful face. I will never know that day’s equal. I’ll never forget the too-thin contours of your fragile body, the understanding in your eyes alternating with confusion and skepticism. And always, that that special joy you bring to every room you’re in, the fundamental quality of yours that trumps all else.

Here is a little snapshot of you today… six years after we first met you. Nearly seven years old. How could that be?

You are a natural musician. You have been playing drums now for a couple of years already and the look on your face when you play is somehow both expressive and serene. You often give your dad and I a hard time about practicing, but, contrary to our free-spirited nature, we’re insisting. Because if we know anything, we know that it’s all about practice. Nothing worthwhile comes magically. Or rather, it is magic. But the magic only knows where to find you if you’re practicing.

Once you’re playing, you love it. You practice with your dad. When he was getting ready for this last tour, you played the entire Everything Will Be Alright in the End album front to back nearly every day with him.

You two are even improvising your own jams now. You asked me today for a neck holder for a harmonica, so you can play harp and drums at the same time. Hang tight- it’s on its way.

On Thanksgiving, you jammed with a roomful of teenagers at the LaZebnik’s house and I was awed by your confidence. Those kids adore you. You have such a big, wonderful tribe. There is so much love for you, it could blow the ceiling off the house.

You are an incredibly social kid. You are obsessed with birthdays, particularly your own. You start planning your next party about three days after the last. You make guest lists and wish lists and play lists. Don’t worry- we’re going to throw you an epic bash. Of course we will!

You hate that I limit your time staring at a screen, which is a big conflict for a lot of parents right now. I can’t wait to see how the next generation’s brains evolve, developing new ways of processing information. But with no crystal ball, how can I be sure what’s the best way to monitor your use of technology? Technology has given a lot to my life and I am as guilty as anyone of being glued to one screen or another a lot of the time. But I worry about your brain. About how the constant, distracting information barrage might impede your ability to think and feel deeply.

But I probably needn’t fret about that. You are and always have been a deep well, with a heavy history for such a little boy. Somehow you’re able to effortlessly combine that depth with your natural hilarity and mischief. You are very funny. You just mastered the “orange you glad I didn’t say banana” knock-knock joke and I doubt it will be your last.

The one thing I don’t limit is your treasured time investigating Google maps.

“What’s the biggest city in China?” you’ll call out to me as I do the laundry downstairs.

“What is the big airport in Tokyo?”

“This is where polar bears live!”

“This is the Indian Ocean!”

Lately your career ambitions as 1. Weezer drummer and 2. airplane painter, have been supplanted by your aspirations to be a medic. You are currently running a large dinosaur hospital, where the dinosaurs are bandaged with Scotch tape and toilet paper.

It is impossible to say what I am most proud of in you, but if I had to pick one thing it would be this kindness and caretaking, which doesn’t stop at dinosaurs but extends to your friends and family, too. Compassion is something that you’ve had to work on over the years. When you came to us, you were such a fierce, self-sufficient little thing; it was every man for himself. It seemed every move you made was meant to convey the sentiment: “I got this. Don’t bother, bumbling big people.” You still screech whenever anyone tries to help you with homework. But slowly you are learning to give and receive help and trust. Until very recently all the dinosaurs did was fight each other and then get shoved under the couch. Now they’re healing in your hospital.

You like math and science. You like the earth and the sea and the animals and the stars and the plants.

You still love your airplanes as much as ever. You go to the airport every Saturday and watch those giant beasts take off and land, take off and land, over and over. You never tire of it.

It is these things that captivate you these days: healing and flight. Because you, my wild and glorious boy, go straight for the miracles.

As I say to you every night before bed… I love you to the moon and back a thousand million billion times. You’re the best thing that ever happened to your dad and me. I can’t wait to see what this next year reveals to all of us.

With big crazy love always,

Mom

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Pie Fight!

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I smashed my iPhone and I’m up in the mountains. Gah! Email me. Don’t bother texting….

Anyway, hello from Big Bear, where it is actually cold and there is actual white stuff on the ground!

As we wound up the mountain road and the first dirty, slushy patches of snow appeared, Tariku screamed like he had won the Publisher’s Clearing House. It’s strange to me that snow is exotic to him. My childhood was so different than my son’s sunshiney LA life, where the darkest wintery days barely require a sweater.

I remember the magic of waking up in the morning and seeing the world newly white. I remember evenings in the downstairs den snuggled in front of the fire under an afghan, looking out windows frosted over with snowflake patterns of ice and listening to my favorite Burl Ives album. I remember trading in my ice skates every year for a new pair, waiting to see if the lake froze over and we’d actually be able to skate outside and not just in the indoor rink, with its watery hot chocolate.

Scott is like, who cares? Winter sucks. He just remembers getting hit in the face by snowballs and the one time in fourth grade he nearly froze off his little toe. He doesn’t have the nostalgia for seasons that I do. Then again, I have nostalgia for nearly every piece of lint that ever blew across my path.

I’m currently sitting in a café in Big Bear, drinking a decent almond milk latte across the table from my friend Fred. We just dropped our kids off at ski school. I decided to give myself a pass from skiing today and instead just hang around and write and read and caffeinate. I’m unreasonably ecstatic about this plan.

I want to share a bit about our New Years with you, because it was one of my favorites. First of all, Mr. Shriner took me out to a beautiful dinner and dancing. We had a super-fun, sorta-wild New Years Eve. I think it was a response to the midnight yoga/chanting/interpretive dance that I made him go to last year (totally serious- I did that to him and he stayed with me).

Tariku dragged me and my aching head out of bed at six the next morning, pumped to embark on our mission for the day. Tariku has been begging– begging– for a pie fight for the past three years. New Years day we decided to do it.

The three of us went to the grocery store and bought a stack of pie tins and a landfill’s worth of whipped cream bottles. Then, after searching my soul about whether I wanted to be videotaped in a showercap or get gross whipped cream in my hair, I came down decisively on the side of ruining my blow dry. Hair be damned, it was a blast! It’s so fun to to listen to Tariku’s wild laughter.

The New Year causes us to reflect on the passage of time, and I’m always painfully aware that his little boy laugh will soon go the way of his toddler babble. So it was particularly sweet. I think we’re going to make the pie fight a tradition. We followed it with Box Trolls and a spaghetti and meatballs living room picnic. It was a happy way to spend the first day of 2015.

I didn’t make a big resolution, but I do aim to enjoy my accomplishments more this year, whatever they may look like. I’m so hard on myself. It’s not that I don’t love my work– I do. I’m just uncomfortable with finishing and sending my creative babies into the cold cruel world. My therapist Judy actually used the word “grim,” which startled me. Me? Grim? The originator of the First Annual New Years Day Pie Fight?! But it’s true. I tend to underplay my accomplishments, to apologize for my success, to close one project and immediately open another without even a breath, a sip of tea, a glass of bubbly, a Mallomar…nothin’. This compulsive over-sharer didn’t even tell anyone for days that I had finished my book. I aspire to be less grim. To bust out the Mallomars. To love and respect my own work the way I hope others will.

2014 held a lot of sadness, with many troubling themes rising to the surface. It was a year that the deep institutionalized racism in our culture found a powerful place in public dialogue. The incidents that provoked this dialogue were so sad and frightening, but the outcry was heartening to me. It leads me to hope that this year and the next and the next will see progress. That my son will grow up into a world that is safer for black men. A world that is kinder to their bodies, their hearts, their human rights, their souls. I hope the same for women. I hope the same for all of us.

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Wishing you lots of self-care, dancing, safety and pie. Happy New Year!