Monday, August 25, 2008

School Days

For four years now, I have walked by crying mothers in hallways on the first day of school. Outside of the kindergarten class last year, a woman was sobbing so loudly into her husband’s arms that I could hear her even as I turned the corner and walked into the first grade classroom. At Lucy’s school, a group of mothers gathered outside the school to consol each other. I wondered if I could eek out one little tear. I cry at the Olympics, movies, even commercials! Surely I could manage some waterworks for my little daughters heading off to school.

The truth is (dare I say it?) the first day of school usually finds me… happy. I love my daughters. I love spending time with them and love that the summer finds us with lazy afternoons where we can all head to the pool or the park and not worry about having to be anywhere at a certain time. But the summer, while wonderful, can also be exhausting. As a summer mom, I’m not just the carpooler, homework helper, and dinner maker. Suddenly I’m the fill-every-minute-of-the-day person who, after the girls have spent a morning painting a mural, playing in the pool and tree house with their neighbors, and creating a wooden block town for their Littlest Pet Shops across the living room, will inevitably hear, “So, what are we doing today?”

I also know that part of the sorrow outside the classrooms comes from the idea that school represents the passage of time. This of course is a human condition from which none of us are exempt. There are times when the brevity of our lives strikes me so intensely that it takes my breath away - listening to a father giving a toast to his “little girl” at his daughter’s wedding, looking at Evie’s legs stretch across the couch, realizing that my niece and nephew are halfway old enough to go to college. And I am always aware at a birthday, whether mine, Toby’s or the girls, that life is far too short and passing by too quickly. Maybe it’s because my youngest is still home, but for some reason school doesn’t invoke this emotion from me. I am usually too excited about the new grade - this year Lucy will learn to read! And Evie will take acting! - to feel sad about it them getting older. I also think school represents for me the positive aspects of them growing up. I love that Evie can lie in her bed and read to herself now and am enjoying Lucy’s confidence and enthusiasm about heading to a new school this year.

So maybe I’ll surprise myself, but next week when I drop the girls off at school, I don’t expect to need to bring any Kleenex. I’ll probably just bring some money - Noni and I have a date with a cup of coffee and a few hours of quiet.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

When in Rome

For over a month now, I have watched surfers at the beaches in Malibu. They have always been part of the back drop - an interesting diversion when I look up from building a sand castle with the girls or pulling Noni back from the water. Last week it was suddenly different. Perhaps it was exhaustion from our family going through several nights of the stomach flu, but watching the surfers on the beach suddenly reminded me of all the activities I had given up since having children - the snowboard sold at a yard sale, the paints dried up in their tubes. I looked out at the surfers and thought, I want to be there. I want to be riding on a wave, feeling free and independent, even if just for an afternoon. I mentioned the idea of taking surf lessons to Toby and we realized that, with his brother and sister-in-law in town, it was the perfect opportunity to spend a few hours at the beach away from the kids.

A few days later, I found myself pulling on a wetsuit and grabbing onto a surfboard. As we walked over to the beach, some apprehension began to sink in. Our instructor told us how he had grown up in northern California, surfing while surrounded by sharks, but that in recent years there have been more sightings in southern waters. I have two friends, both reasonable and fairly brave people, who are so scared of sharks that they won’t set a foot in the ocean. I don’t have that type of phobia, but I have never liked the thought of floating in murky water with tasty pink toes dangling beneath me. Growing up on Lake Champlain, I spent a lot of time waterskiing. As soon as I was up on the skis, I always started to worry about being back in the water. I wasn’t afraid of crashing. It was the thought of sitting in the cold, dark, lake water while the boat slowly circled around, with lamprey eels swimming below my feet. A friend had been bitten by one and had to go to the hospital with the eel attached to her body in order to remove its clenching jaws. Walking along the beach with our instructor discussing surfing with sharks, I wondered if maybe I just needed to know I had the freedom to take the surfing lesson, but didn’t actually need to go through with the plan? This thought passed quickly because as soon as we hit the water, I found that I didn’t have time to worry about sharks. I was too consumed with water pounding me and trying to avoid being slammed in the head by my surfboard or another surfer.

I wasn’t sure how surfing would feel. I imagined it like snowboarding, the feeling you get when you are riding down a mountain in deep powder. There are a lot of similarities, but surfing is a lot more raw. Unlike snowboarding, where the mountain is a constant and you can stop or start at your own will, in surfing you are at the mercy of the wave, which dictates when you start and how fast you will go. Because of this, it’s also a lot more fun. Every time I started paddling to “catch” a wave, my heart would start racing. Half the time I would end up tossed off the board with salt water rushing into my ears and nose. Once, the board slammed into my back and neck, giving me pause for a moment before getting back on the board. But on the times when I did get up, it was a great feeling. Our instructor warned us that once you start, surfing becomes addictive. Even after an afternoon spent doing face plants, I can see how that happens.

The best thing about the afternoon was that for two hours I thought of nothing else but the waves and my surf board. It was a great escape from the daily routine of life with kids. I even liked it how our instructor told Toby and I that if we just surfed a couple of days a week for the next two months, we’d totally have it down. If he had seen us walking to the beach three hours before, buckets, shovels, umbrella, five towels, sunscreen, lunches, snacks, sippy cups, stroller, and three kids in tow, he would never have mistaken us for a couple who had the time to spend a couple days a week surfing. But for an afternoon we were.

When we walked back to our spot on the beach, with the girls running around like sandpipers in the waves, I was perfectly content to look out at the surfers from my spot on the sand and know that at least I got a chance to give it a try. I am happy to say that even if I left Southern California today I could say, yes, we survived an earthquake and yes, we learned how to surf.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Saving the World and other Small Tasks of Parenting

The best love is the kind that awakens the soul; that makes us reach for more, that plants the fire in our hearts and brings peace to our minds. That's what I hope to give you forever. - Noah in The Notebook

An old woman stopped me in the bread section at the grocery store to let me know that I have a “beautiful family.” I smiled back, thinking she was sweet. Then she shook her head sadly and said, “Oh, I just hope they grow up in a peaceful world.” For some reason this came like a punch in the stomach - unexpected and painful. I froze, cinnamon bread in hand, as she hobbled on by. She likely intended to be kind, possibly just offering a blessing of peace. But the shake of her head gave the statement such an air of hopelessness that I immediately started to question myself. Was I irresponsible and selfish to even have children in a world like this? I had a sudden flashback to standing in front of the television, hand on swollen belly, and watching a plane crash and change the world.

At our old church, a Unity church, our pastor always talked about envisioning a whole and better situation rather than dwelling in the negative. We sang, “Yes there is peace on earth”, rather than asking to “let” it be, because we were affirming our vision of world peace. During the primary, whenever Toby or I would start discussing the issues we currently face in the world - environmental destruction, war, etc., we would often end up sitting down at the computer and donating $25 to the Obama campaign. This process of attempting to turn fear into a positive reaction helped us to reach our maximum allowed donation for the primaries. Apparently the future state of the world for my children weighs on my mind quite a bit.

Of course I’m not na├»ve enough to believe that Obama can save the world from its problems. And, as much as I am an advocate for getting involved in community activism, even if we all get together to work towards world peace, I think it’s still a long uphill battle to solve all the problems of the world. It’s easy to turn on the news or open the newspaper and feel nothing but discouraged.

Plus, the truth is that throughout the history of humankind, no mother has ever really been able to look at her child and promise her a peaceful world. While we can look at the world and feel panic over global warming and terrorism, Laura Ingalls’ mom sat in the cabin with the girls while it was surrounded by wolves, nursed her children back to health from malaria, watched grasshoppers eat her family’s food for the winter and fought off fires that threatened to burn down their home. It was far from peaceful and in fact the threats were far more imminent. She didn’t have the luxury of worrying about the future because the present danger was always lurking over her shoulder.

Toby and I recently rented “The Notebook.” Prior to watching it, a friend warned us that it was a pretty bad movie. Admittedly, the second half didn’t even hold up to made-for-tv standards. But in the first half, Rachel McAdams and Ryan Gosling shone as teenagers who fall head-first, unabashedly in love. When I was watching this movie, while lying on the couch with my husband at my side, I felt totally at peace. It occurred to me that even with all of the problems in the world right now, the stress and chaos that most people feel in their lives most often comes not from the world around, but from a lacking in their own relationships. Lying there I thought, the best way for the girls to grow up in a peaceful world is to grow up knowing how to love. We can offer it to them as children by giving them a base for what unconditional love feels like. Then I want them to be able to be with someone they trust and love completely, to fall head-over-heels in love with someone who will share their life in a safe and meaningful way.

Of course I also want the girls to live in a world where they don’t have to worry about pollution, terrorism, poverty, global warming, etc. and, while I try to think positively, the world that we are handing to their generation is something that will always concern me. I will do my best to turn that worry into positive energy and activism and to teach them to do the same. But on the numerous days when I’m too busy to go canvassing, or when I feel defeated after reading the newspaper, I will give them a hug and know that in that small action I’m making a step towards giving them a more peaceful world.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Surviving Six

I recently watched my nephews and niece for three days, bringing the kid count up to six. When I explained that I was “embracing the chaos of six kids” on my Facebook status, a friend wrote “you and Angelina Jolie both!” I loved that I read that comment in food stained pajamas, hair un-brushed, with a chorus of kids asking for breakfast in the background. Just like Angelina, right?

In fact, I had just recently picked up the People magazine with Brad and Angelina on the cover. (Now that I live in LA, I feel like I can buy it without quite as much guilt - I‘m just researching my neighbors after all.) “Brangelina” are a nice distraction from daily life - they walk the red carpet one day and then sell their twin baby photos for $14 million dollars the next. Yes, they have six kids. They probably also have six nannies, six chefs, six cleaning people, six landscapers… Which is why it also cracked me up that in the magazine, on the opposite page of their spread, they showed another couple with six kids who could maybe “give some advice” to Brad and Angelina.

This couple, looking like they hadn’t slept in months as they sat in their cluttered playroom, described the importance of making the time for a date night once a month but joked that they usually ended up in Target by the end of the evening to pick up some diapers. (And I’m reading it thinking, wow, cheers to you guys, we only have three and haven’t had a date night since I can remember!) I’m pretty sure Angelina has never set foot in a Target, so I’m not sure exactly what advice People magazine had in mind.

I can tell you anyway, after just three days, that there is no advice for “raising” six kids because there‘s no way you can. You just try to keep them alive and fed and maybe even occasionally bathed as they run wild through the house. Every once and a while you yell out to make sure the baby hasn’t escaped from the house. Mostly you do lots of laundry and prepare lots of glasses of milk and snacks. You try your best to keep your sanity (which was maybe a little shaky anyway after a summer with three kids home all day) despite being bombarded with requests every time you walk into a room:
“Where are my shoes?”
“Can I have a snack?”
“Lucy hit me!”
“Mom, take Noni away, she’s getting into our game!”
“I need a glass of milk.”
“What are we doing next?”
This is all at the same time and with the new Miley Cyrus CD blaring at top volume in the “background” so it sounds more like:

Don’t get me wrong, my nephews and niece are very well behaved kids. And in general, barring the occasional attempts to scratch each other to death, the girls are pretty easy as well. But after just a few days, I felt completely drained. At one point, I went to the backyard to bring our cat in for the evening and ended up collapsing on a chair. I sat there for about five minutes, wondering how long I could pull off sitting in the chair before Toby started to become suspicious about my cat searching skills. It was just so calm in our yard. So…quiet.

So Angelina, I’m going to give you some advice from a tired mom who survived three days with six kids. Read the article about yourself. Look at the article on the following page. Then call the poor woman, apologize for the author who thought your lives were even remotely similar, and then offer to send over your chefs and nannies and landscapers. Even for just a day. Take it from someone who did it for three days - that woman needs a break.

And as for me, the benefit of watching six kids? Suddenly three seems almost even peaceful.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

You know you live in Los Angeles if…

1. Your mother-in-law tells you , “I’m on 405 driving south” and it sounds weird to you that she didn’t say the 405.

2. You eat avocados two meals a day.

3. Three of your neighbors have had cats eaten by coyotes.

4. Your six-year-old leaves a note on your bed saying “PLEEEAAASE buy me a Chihuahua”.

5. Your four-year-old keeps asking for surfing lessons.

6. Your start convincing yourself that smog is a good thing (protects from UV rays, better sunsets…)

7. You see three celebrities and thirty different types of fruit at the farmer’s market.

8. The checkout guys at the grocery store (and by grocery store, you mean Trader Joe’s) are talking about yesterday’s film shoot as they bag your food.

9. You stop reading the weather report and put your raincoat in storage.

10. You are eating lunch and notice that the chandelier is shaking and the water is sloshing around in your glasses.
(Yes, we survived our first L.A. earthquake! And yes, CNN, in its usual style, over-hyped it completely.)