Tuesday, February 10, 2009

On Sisyphus and opening the burgundy door

I love being a stay-at-home mom. I know it's not the right choice for everyone, but I love that I've had the opportunity to spend the time I have with my kids. I love that I've been there for each of their first smiles, first words, first steps and now for homework assignments or questions about life. What I don't love is the never ending pile of laundry. Whites, darks, pinks and reds, sheets, towels, rags, and back to whites... over and over and over again. The other day my friend Chea, who makes me laugh out loud on a daily basis with her Facebook status updates, wrote of her life with two young boys that she "thinks that if Sisyphus spent a day as me, he'd go running back to that rock as fast as his legs could carry him." I can relate. And, as much as I love what I do, I'll admit that there are days when I stand over a pile of unmatching socks and think, "What am I doing with my life?" It is for that very reason that I decided, as I mentioned in my previous post, that this would be the year that I reclaim art in my life. After seven years of child-raising, perhaps it's the seven year itch, but I'm suddenly craving more time to dedicate to my own interests.

For my first attempt, I enthusiastically set up an easel in my room where I could still watch the girls play in the backyard, put Noni down for a nap, and painted a mediocre painting of palm trees. I didn't care that it was mediocre - it felt great just to put paint on the easel. Plus, there's nothing like a seven and five year old to boost your ego about your own art. ("Mom, that is amazing!") But the whole time I felt slightly stressed that Noni would wake up while I was covered in paint. After an hour, I quickly cleaned everything up just as Noni was stirring in her crib. Well, everything except the palate. One palate left on the dresser + one curious nineteen-month-old + one white rug = a giant blue stain on the rug in our room. Not the best way to start your year of reclaiming art. Feeling discouraged, I wondered if maybe this wouldn't work after all.

I just finished reading "A New Earth" by Tolle. (Yes, I love Oprah.) He talks about the three modalities of awakened doing: acceptance (bringing peace to things that you may not enjoy, but need to do), enjoyment, and enthusiasm. He explains that "at the height of creative activity fueled by enthusiasm, there will be enormous intensity and energy behind what you do." I read that and thought, OK, I'm going to give it another try.

That is why I found myself driving around in the dark in a strange neighborhood in Los Feliz on a Monday night, looking for a long dark driveway that would lead to a gate that would lead to a burgundy door. I had found the "meet-up" online - as the meet-up page explained, a woman opens up her studio twice a week, hires a model and invites in any artists who wish to bring their charcoals and $15 for three hours of figure drawing. I parked my car, grabbed my paper and charcoals, and took a deep breath, wondering if I was more frightened of the possibility of a murderer behind the burgundy door or my inability to draw after eight years.

What I found behind the burgundy door was wonderful: a group of artists circled around a model, working away with charcoals, pencils and pastels. The walls in the dusty room were covered with colorful oil paintings and drawings of all sizes. A coffee pot bubbled in the corner and music played softly in the background. I set up my pad of paper and began to draw.

At first I felt awkward, but as time went on I warmed up and started to enjoy myself. The artists around me were amazing. Everyone was either a professional artist or some form of it - a lot of them paying the bills by keeping their day jobs as storyboard artists. It was intimidating at first, but everyone was friendly and down-to-earth and, after asking the artist next to me for some tips, I realize that I should be grateful for an opportunity to learn from them. By the last 25 minute sketch, I found myself fully immersed in my drawing, not worrying about anything around me, but just enjoying the focus and energy I was throwing into my work. I didn't leave with any works of art by a long stretch, but I felt completely satisfied. On my way home, I recognized that I had been indeed fueled by enthusiasm.

It's funny how even the feeling of folding laundry can change if you feel like you have a creative outlet in your life. I will never particularly enjoy laundry, but I think I'm working towards acceptance. And that's a lot easier when I know that twice a month, I'll enter an art studio and have three hours with nothing to do but draw.

(Side note: Only in LA would the model have surgically enhanced, gravity-defying breasts and a pair of Uggs next to her to pull on for cigarette breaks!)

Friday, February 6, 2009

The art of parenting from sink to swim

My mom said she learned how to swim when someone took her out in the lake and threw her off the boat. I said, "Mom, they weren't trying to teach you how to swim." - Paula Poundstone

Plunge into the sublime seas, dive deep and swim far, so you shall come back with self-respect, with new power, with an advanced experience that shall explain and overlook the old. - R.W. Emerson

Two summers ago, we rented a house in Duck, North Carolina with some friends from Maryland. The girls were in heaven spending a week with three of their best friends at a house near the beach, with a pool in the back to boot. Evie and the two older kids all knew how to swim and immediately took to showing off for each other the craziest ways to jump into the pool. Lucy floated in the pool with a life jacket and watched them for the first couple of days. Then she decided that she'd had enough of feeling left out. So one afternoon she jumped into the pool. And started to drown. Toby immediately jumped in, fully clothed, and rescued her. The next day she did the same thing all over again. The image of Lucy's face staring up from the water will never leave me. I have nightmares about it still. I never realized drowning would be so silent, but it was. She didn't splash or make a sound, just looked up with huge eyes, terrified, and started sinking.

When we got back from North Carolina that summer, I decided that Lucy needed to learn how to swim. I signed her up for swim lessons that fall, but understandably she wasn't thrilled at the idea of walking in from the freezing cold into the moderately cold "bubble", or basically tent over Hood College's pool, and learning how to swim while shivering and with her arms covered in goosebumps. I decided that a bad experience might turn her off and put my swimming goals for her on hold for the time being. I wasn't too worried about drowning anyway since the only water she regularly encountered was in the bath tub.

Fast forward to this past summer, a move to southern California, and my drowning fears resurfaced. We live in a city where you can swim outdoors almost year round. Almost all of her friends from school have swimming pools. And that little girl who jumped into the deep end without even knowing how to swim? Well, she's decided that she'd actually rather stay on the side of the pool or attached to a floatie from now on.

One of the first things I did after we moved to L.A. was to sign the girls up for group lessons at the Y. Lucy refused to go in. After deciding that the number of kids might be intimidating her, I signed her up for private swimming lessons. She refused those at first as well, but then bargained that she'd go if Evie took lessons too. So, to Evie's delight, she spends twenty minutes every Wednesday with an instructor in the pool. In eight weeks, Evie has learned how to dive, swim the butterfly, do flip turns, somersault backwards and forwards, and collect all of the rings underwater without coming up for breath. Lucy, on the other hand, is improving at a slower rate. As in only the instructor and I can tell there's been any improvement at all.

I'm seven years into this whole parenting thing and I feel pretty confident overall. But every once and a while a situation comes up where I question my own approach. I have tried bribes ("any toy you want if you can swim to me"), threats ("no more playdates if you don't try to swim"), sheer frustration ("Lucy, come ON, just TRY it") and I've even contemplated just a good old fashioned toss off the side to see if she could make it. I've finally settled on encouragement. When I say encouragement, I mean both to Lucy and myself. After two months of lessons, Lucy has gone from refusing to get in the water at first to now pushing from the wall to me, if I am close enough that she can reach out her hand and grab my arm without even moving from the wall. I am encouraging her each time with applause for even the tiniest of efforts. I am also whispering words of encouragement to myself. My normal dialogue? "You're doing a good job parenting. This is the right approach! Be patient. It'll happen!" I try to remind myself that she is not refusing to swim out of obstinance but out of fear, and that helps a bit with the whole patience part of it on my end.

In most situations, I would give both of us a break and decide that she's just not ready and try again another month, another year. Lucy doesn't want to bike? That's fine for now. Not ready to play in a soccer game? She was probably too young anyway. But swiming is a must. I can't give up on her and I can't let her give up either. I suppose learning to swim could serve as a metaphor for all things in life since the only thing that is holding her back is the fear that is keeping her from trying. I'm trying my best to help her get to the point where she's confident enough to give it her best shot. I don't care if she can ever swim the butterfly or the backstroke. I just want her to be able to swim to the side of the pool if she falls in. Though Ill admit that what I'd really love is for her to jump into the pool fearlessly once again - only this time to resurface from her jump and swim to the other side.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Daddy speak

I felt I needed to add an update after my prior post about Noni learning everything she says from her sisters...

A few nights ago, Lucy was acting too rough in the tub and Toby told her she would have to go to time out if she kept it up. She kept kicking so he held up his hand and began starting to count down towards time out, "Five, four, three..." until she stopped. Last night when I was giving the girls a tub, Lucy started kicking again. Noni turned to her and yelled, "Stop!" Then, before I could say anything, she held up her little hand and started counting, "Five, four, five..."

Apparently she picks up some expressions from her parents as well.