Saturday, October 18, 2014

Bittersweet Symphony

I've never been good at song lyrics. I make them up as I see fit even if they make no sense. As long as they sorta make sense to me. My cousin has always been better at this. She knew every commercial jingle when we were tweens, back when that word didn't exist.

Anyway, all day the only song that comes to mind is Bittersweet Symphony, by the Verve. Today we said goodbye to our German exchange student. Paul was here for two weeks and was with us 24/7. Two Saturdays ago, it was like bringing a new baby home from the hospital. Will he like us? Will we like him? Will he eat? Will he sleep? Will he get sick? What will we do if anything happens? What if he wants to leave? Yet today, after he left, our daughter said, "It's so sad. We'll never see him again." Although we assured her we would, or at least that she would and her brothers would, it is so bitter to say good bye. There is an uncertainty, a longing to have what you had. We will really miss this wonderful person who came into our lives full force, who melded into our family seemlessly, and played with the boys like they were his brothers. Brothers - the tussles and the hugs.

I have tasted plenty of bitter foods in life, the ones that leave you despairing and sad. And I have tasted deliciously sweets fruits too, the times that happiness kisses you. So today is bittersweet. I am so sad to see Paul go. It should be longer, I keep thinking. But I am so. so. so. so. tired. It was exhausting hosting and entertaining and keeping on keeping on. The house is a wreck. The fridge is full of god-knows-what. I don't remember my children's teachers names, or any of the paper work I am supposed to fill out by Monday. So there is a sweetness in knowing I will eventually get my life back. And back in order. I ran today for the first time in three weeks. For all the sweetness in having him here, there is a sweetness in returning to the normalcy of life.

But back to Paul and the Symphony of life. The song lyrics are this:

'Cause it's a bittersweet symphony, this life
Try to make ends meet
You're a slave to money then you die
I'll take you down the only road I've ever been down
You know the one that takes you to the places
where all the veins meet yeah,

So we were trying to mix it up, you know. Trying to make it not be about "slave to money then you die". This was our thing. Something out of the norm. Giving our children a gift of an exchange student with whom they will hopefully remain in touch. But what did he see? Just the only road I've ever been down. The same thing I've done every day. But there is a real beauty in that and that is the symphony. I thought the lyrics were "where all ways meet", which could mean that we all intersect at some point, but the veins? They only intersect in your heart, right? Did we show him our heart?

The thing about a symphony is that it is LOUD. It's not a quartet, or a chamber group, or an orchestra, it's a SYMPHONY. To show someone your life, someone who is a complete stranger, a complete outsider, and say, This is what we do. This is our life. really risks them saying WHAT? are you kidding me? It's someone shouting at you "THIS IS WHAT YOU DO? THIS IS YOUR LIFE?" But you know, it was awesome. It was someone asking and answering questions, someone pointing out to you, WHAT IS THAT? WHY DO YOU DO THAT? It was someone giving me perspective. Completely innocent, impartial, non-judgemental perspective. Don't we all want a little SYMPHONY in our lives? Someone who says, "REALLY? INTERESTING!" Someone who shouts at us a little. "REALLY? YOU KNOW ALL THIS? WELL YOU DON'T KNOW ME YET!" He did not say that. He was super-polite, saying things like, "I am fine. Really." or "I do not know how to say..." and "It is not necessary". Um, yes, it is necessary for me to do your laundry once in two weeks. "I do not think so." It was a casual conversation with ultra-correct English being spoken. "It is not a problem." Someone who wakes us up to what we do and why we do it. It's refreshing. It's inspiring. I love the people I meet who teach me something new - about myself, about my life, about how I do things.

My first graders do the same. This year I feel like they are saying, "REALLY? YOU THINK YOU KNOW HOW TO TEACH? WELL YOU DON'T KNOW ME YET!" It's awesome. It's a new perspective. It's inspiring.

No change, I can change
I can change, I can change
But I'm here in my mold
I am here in my mold
But I'm a million different people
from one day to the next
I can't change my mold
No, no, no, no, no

So I always thought the lyrics were "I'm here in my mind", not "here in my mold". Now I see how different the meaning is. "Here in my mind" is a good thing. You're settled. You're secure. You're you. "Here in my mold" - not so much. You're trapped. You're conformed. You're like everyone else. So I don't know. Am I like everyone else? Every other American Paul met? Does he see any distinction? Do I?

The other funny thing is that of all the billions of people, how did this one single person, male, German, age 15, come into our lives? He was funny, smart, kind, cute. He was so much like us. So much of the million different people we are were in him. It was a wonderful bittersweet symphony. We will miss him. We will miss our time together. He spent a good 40 minutes swimming in the Atlantic Ocean in October last weekend. He was so happy. How do you recapture that? How do you find words to explain that symphony of life? But we said goodbye to the ocean, and we said goodbye to Paul.

Well I never pray
But tonight I'm on my knees yeah
I need to hear some sounds that recognize the pain in me, yeah

I do pray. But tonight I'll pray for one more person in the world. One more family that is so like my own. One more family that knows the lyrics to the Bittersweet Symphony, because, don't we all? Tomorrow they will wake to meet their son at the train station in Frankfurt. Their son who they haven't seen in two weeks. What a symphony it will be.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Know Me Best

As I sit here on a Sunday morning, consumed with thoughts of lesson planning and wondering, perhaps wrongly, why we don't teach the whole dollar first and not the penny, which is 1/100 of a dollar and that just doesn't make sense to a first grader necessarily, I am distracted by the words of one of my old students ringing in my head.
He came to camp this summer after being on vacation and he was surprised and happy to see me standing in front of the amphitheater in the woods.  He said, "You know me, right?"  I said, "Of course I know you.  I've missed you.  How are you?" and we shared a hug.  As the others in his troop filed in he asked them, "Do you know her?" pointing up to me.  They nodded and shook their heads unsure of how well they actually did know me.  Then he would ask me, "Do you know her?", "Do you know him?"  And I replied, "Yes I know them, from camp.  But not like I know you."  As we ran through our activities, he made sure to ask the question over and over.  "Do you know her?"  Finally at the end, as we gathered our materials, he ran up to me, "You know me best!  Right?  You know me best!"  I laughed and hugged him again.  "Yes, I know you best."  I had been his teacher for nine months.  I had seen him each morning at 7:50 am.  I saw his mother and his sister bring him down the hall to class.  I spent eight wonderful hours a day, learning, laughing, and watching and talking with this little boy.  I did know him best.  I had seen him sad and happy, confused and awed by learning, learning about others, and about the world.  He announced to the rest of his troop as they marched off, "She knows me best!"  His voice rang with the pride and pleasure of someone who is loved. That is true.
Perhaps that is all we need to be as teachers, not the lesson planning gurus but the people who know them best, at least for these brief, long days in first grade and elementary school, where they are trying to figure out the world and need someone to ground them in the familiar.  What they know best is being loved.  My own children are the same - they know I know them best, love them best, but they need to go out in the world feeling that there are others who know them, if not love them, best.  It is part of my responsibility, my job to find those people who can care about them enough to get to know them best.
I will go back to lesson planning, I can't imagine getting through a day without a map for these little boys on which to guide their steps.  But the new common core would have us forget that they are children who, before they can know anything, have to believe they have someone who can 'know me best'.  I heard a teacher once say excitedly, "The common core is wonderful.  The students are entering the classroom asking, Mrs. B., What is our objective today?"  Sorry, I just don't get that.  I want students who are excited about learning, but not concerned about the objective.  Leave that up to the teacher.  I want them to say, What are we going to read today?  What are we going to do today?  What are we going to write and see and explore today to learn and find something new?  And it's not that different for older students. Really, it's no different for us as adults either.  We all want someone who can know us and try to understand us, in our families, our friendships, and our work environments.  Someone we can know knows me best.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Living Here

Living here is really great.
There are five other people who live here, and
while my husband might be from Mars,
and I might be from Venus,
I am not sure where my kids are from.
Yeah, heaven and all that stuff,
but sometimes, I'm just like, "Where are you from?"
"Are you new here?"
Like they don't know where their bedrooms are,
because I say, Put That In Your Bedroom
and five minutes later it's on the stairs.
That is not the bedroom, that is the stairs.
And I feel a little crazy explaining that
to 13 and 15 year olds.
My ten year old knows where his bedroom is.
He doesn't know where his feet are.
Today I came in from my run
and on the Kitchen Counter
are about 4 pairs of rolled up dirty socks.
I cannot explain this.
Either my husband had a Meltdown Moment
and gathered up all the socks from the floors and put them there
so they would be noticed and put away
Before Mommy Gets Home
or the kids are losing it.
I just want to walk into my kitchen after a run and start a pot of coffee
and I'm greeted with dirty stinking socks.
So I proceeded into my Meltdown Moment.  I Went There.
"Why are there F***ing socks on the Kitchen Counter?
There are about three places socks belong:  On Your Feet, In the Drawer, or In the Laundry,"
I say.
But when I say this to them, I can see what they are thinking.
"She's wrong.  There are actually Five Places..."
So living here is great,
but it's a little weird sometimes too.
Things seem to change without any warning.
I asked my son how crew practice was and he said,
"Oh, I'm not doing that anymore."
And I'm like, What?  I live here
and I don't know this.  How does this happen?
When did this happen?
And I want to say, "This was not approved by the Activity Committee."
And I feel like that is how things get done in the world,
there are committees for things and
obviously we are need of a committee here.
And the other side of my brain is like,
Don't go sounding like one of Those Moms.
So while we don't actually have an Activity Committee,
I feel like we might need one.
It's just a little weird.
Having teenagers is suddenly about Decisions Being Made Without Approval.
Stupid Decisions.
I thought my husband and I were the CEO/COO/President/In Charge Person
And now suddenly we are not.
Well, we are, but not in the minds of these people who are Obviously New to the Planet.
There are no questions being asked about Can I do this?  Can I eat this?  Can I go here?
It's a little shocking.
And again, I just say, "Are you new?"

I asked my other son to put the chairs we use for parties Down In The Basement.
I know it sounds like I'm always asking my kids to put stuff away, and honestly
that might make up about 90% of our conversations.
Again, really weird.  But that's living here.
So anyway, one chair is red and one is white, so I'm thinking, I'm picturing,
Ok, the chairs are down the basement.
And then I look out the window
and something thin and red and chair-looking
catches my eye.
I look again and see that the chairs are outside
and that they are up high,
high like in the trees.
And I'm like, "Squirrels?"
"Squirrels took my chairs?"
And then I'm like Crazy Mom again,
thinking I must need medication.
But no, the chairs are indeed In the Trees,
precariously perched on some old wood boards that he, my son,
who cannot get off the couch to put socks away,
has nailed into the side of these two trees,
like some kind of weird tree house.
And again, I'm like, "This was not approved by the Activity Committee."
But I don't want to sound too crazy.
And my next thought is This was not approved by the Safety Committee, either,
so we really need like a Summit Meeting.
This is larger than just one committee.
We'll have a Summit or something,
because this summer is Not Going to Go Well.
Maybe I'll just start with drawing everyone a map.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

So Long

Last week I said ‘So Long’ to what was my first class of my own students in a very long time.  The boys looked a little more nervous than excited about the summer awaiting them, not as confident as their fifth grade counterparts who knew what summer held for them.  The first graders have quickly forgotten what it’s like to be a child again for the summer.  The school routine quickly takes over their lives and they adjust and assume that this is what it means to be ‘big.’  It’s what we teach them from an early age – ‘so big!’ we say with smiling faces and great anticipation, yearning for the time when they are so big and can do more things for themselves, can go to school, can tie their shoes, can write, can draw, can put their clothes on by themselves.  This is what we tell them, and this is what we tell ourselves.  That they will be big and that we will have five minutes of peace.  So the boys learn to be so big, doing and keeping cadence with a rhythm not of their own making, following in line and listening to others.  And then for the summer they can be little again, playing childhood games, wandering away the idle hours, wondering about what to do next.  No time to keep, no homework, no uniforms, no teachers, no classmates, no be nice, and play well, no quiet now, and please sit down.  No pay attention, when all they will be paying attention to is a frog they are trying to catch in a pond.  It is wonderful to return to childhood innocence these days.  These little ones don’t know yet what it is like to have summer vacation.
But I do.  I love not having to wake to the alarm, having my own children to keep me entertained.  It’s been happening for over a month now, the climb to summer.  But it comes with a passing, a rite of passage and these are bittersweet.  They come with a eager anticipation and leave us with heartfelt sorrow.  It started with a Crew banquet, where I realized my son will be a sophomore in high school, and I cried.  It started with a Last Baseball Game, where I realized we won’t be returning to the Minors Field again, and I cried.  It happened when I marched out behind my first graders at a graduation ceremony so they could walk with their second grade teacher, when I realized all we had done and learned this year and how we loved each other, and I cried.  It happened when I took Annie to her Last Day of Seventh Grade, when I realized she is So Big, and I cried.  It struck me that what I wish I had said, what I wish I had taught them when they were babies, is “So Long”,  for I wish they could be here, be mine, be young, for so long.  I want the hours to slow down now.  I’m not in a hurry to watch them grow up anymore, to be on their own, be independent, go.  I like who they are right now and I wish it would last so long.  I like where they are, that my son comes home to his curfew, that they need rides to friends, that they ask me about what they can eat and do and watch.  I know it won’t last so long.  I’m like the first graders, keenly aware that something is changing, not sure what to expect, sure I can’t go back, not sure I can go forward.  I wish it would last so long.
Our oldest, we are told, should start looking at colleges, thinking about what he wants to be, who he will be.  It won’t be long.
Our youngest is the only one who still fits under my chin when I hug him.  It won’t be long. 
I overhear them play and laugh and tease each other – I can’t imagine this house without that noise.  But I know it won’t be long. 
Yesterday at camp, a boy came to me and nearly with tears in his eyes blurted out, “I miss school.”  He was shocked by this seemingly foreign revelation, but I knew just how he was feeling.  I told him it was normal and that I did too.  But I should have said Don’t worry – it won’t be long.  For nothing stays even when we wish it would.  School, or summer, or children. 

So I say so long to a wonderful school year, and I wish for these days to go on and on - So Long, like a summer of my childhood, where there is magic and the possibilities are endless.  And some day for my own children to experience the endless possibilities of their lives.  But not yet.  Not for so long.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

The Whole Cup

For some odd reason, I really crave going to coffee shops.  I'm not some snobby know-it-all coffee barista or connoisseur.  It's not that I'm looking for an escape from home, although it is a good excuse not to do household chores.  It's not that I'm looking for friends or someone to talk to.  It's not the coffee that lures me in.  It's not the ambiance, although I do like a certain local shop for it's funky decor and art.  But really no, it's not that either.  I mean Dunkin Donuts does not have ambiance.  Starbucks tries, but there's bound to be trash on the floor, crumbs in the leather chairs, and someone talking a bit too loudly. When we went to Seattle, we bypassed the original Starbucks store, on our way to brunch at a place a little fancier.  On the way back we passed it again and were not about to wait an hour in line just to see the inside of a cute little shoebox of a store. No, not the ambiance.  Maybe the smell, no.  Maybe the cool-looking, hip people.  No.  The real reason is that I can pretty much count on one thing at a coffee shop - getting to drink the whole cup.

You see, every morning I use my hip little Italian one-cup stovetop coffee brewer.  It was perfect for camping across the country and it still works just as well.  I get up early, shower, put my coffee on, do my hair, and then when the coffee's ready - wham! - something happens and I don't get to drink a hot, whole cup.  Even if I'm good and prepared and have my travel mug ready to go, with all my stuff by the door, and I make it out to the car and am accompanied on the way to work by a hot steaming travel mug, I don't finish it.  White-knuckle driving or singing to the music or some other far-off day-dreaming keep my distracted from my cup.

At work, forget it.  I even tried to take in a hot carafe of coffee, the big kind with the silver lining that pretty much ensured that the coffee stayed hot for a good three hours, sure that at some given moment in the day I would be able to savor a whole hot cup, but alas.  Someone or something always interferes, and even if it seems worth it, like good conversation or a productive meeting, it leaves me feeling sad. Always my mug goes home with a few table spoons of coffee swirling around in the car, that inevitably spill on my coat, my books or my lap as I load it up for the long cold drive home.

And so it is that the only place in my happy little life that I have the chance to savor a whole hot cup in one complete and productive sitting is in a coffee shop.  Thank heaven for them!  This must have been the same allure for Parisians hundreds of years ago as they sat on the squares under fanciful umbrellas at cute little chairs and tables just right for two cups or three, sipping and gossiping and looking and talking and philosophizing and finally getting to the bottom of it all - the bottom of the cup.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

I'd Be Darling At It

There's a saying going around on the internet, I don't know what it's like to be a millionaire but I bet I'd be darling at it. It dates back to ? Kate Spade has a bag and a cuzi for your phone with it emblazoned on them.

Well, gosh darn it, Duh. Don't you think we'd all be darling at it?  Really I would. About ninety percent of the people I know'd be darling at it. It's being darling at the hard stuff that counts.

Like being a good mom. Or a homemaker. Or a cook. Or a wife. Or a coworker. Or a daughter. Or a sister. Or a skier. Or a skater. Or a seamstress. Or a whatever the hell you want to be.

You see I tried to be darling this morning.  I woke up early to get my son ready for the Klondike derby for Boy Scouts.  I went in his room and quietly whispered to him that it was 6:20 and what would he most like for breakfast?  Anything. Pancakes? Waffles? (Even though the waffle iron is down the basement and the basement is really cold this morning.) A bagel and egg sandwich?  Anything. So he placed his order for a bagel with "the egg and sausage on the plate."  As in, not-a-sand-wich. Got it.  Here comes the darling mom part.  I didn't even wake up my husband.  I was going to drive Matt to the church for his ride to the Derby so he didn't have to go out into the falling snow.  Darling wife too.  
I cooked without making any noise. Darling co-habitator.  I made eggs over-hard and over-easy.  I made my coffee and poured my cream.  I was perfectly darling. It was still before 6:30.  And then I realized there was no noise.  But then I heard it.  He was up.  We were fine.  I was darling.  And then my husband came downstairs.  Hmmm.  Do you want eggs?  No.  He reached for the cereal.  Not so darling.  Still no other noise.  Is Matt up?  NO.  Wake him up.  Ask him ten million questions.  Where is this?  Where is that?  Do you have this?  YES.  YES.  YES.  Not so darling.  Comes downstairs.  Here are your eggs.  No time for that.  Not so darling.  Where are your underarmour liner pants?  Couldn't find them.  Not so darling.  It's now 6:55.  Late.  Not so darling.  Out the door with "Dad will drive me" and a Sandwich.  No to the hot- chocolate-I-made-so-you-can-stay-warm-on-the-drive?  Not so darling.
It lasted all of ten minutes.  I was darling at it.

I'd also be darling at having a clean house, if I didn't have children.
I'd be darling at having children, if I didn't have a house to keep clean.
I'd be darling at being a daughter, if I wasn't preparing a chicken pot pie at the same time my mother was sitting at the kitchen table telling me her story and sipping tea.  Why didn't I sit down and listen?  CPP be damned.
I'd be darling at cooking, if I didn't get sucked into a movie with my daughter and didn't keep saying, "Did we take the biscotti out of the oven?" Yes.  (But you forgot, darling, that you put the Chicken Pot Pie in the oven when the biscotti were done.)
I'd be darling at sitting down to play games with my kids, if there wasn't a Lego Nerf gun on the couch where I like to sit.  (They are pretty much the same thing, and they get preferred seating in our house no matter how much I yell and am not so darling.)
I'd be darling at running, if I wasn't so tired.
I'd be darling at ALL OF IT, if I wasn't doing all of it.
The part to navigate is how to seem semi-darling at all of it.  My darling moments today included answering the phone when one of my son's friends called and I didn't want to talk to him.  I was trying to be darling by using all the left overs to make a CPP.  And maybe lighting the candles for dinner.  That was darling.  Does that count?  I was trying to be darling when we sat at dinner and asked Matt 8 million more questions about the Derby that he did.not.want.to.answer. because a.) he was exhausted, and b.) he was hungry.  And then I was darling when I tried to apologize but he rolled his eyes at me and I wasn't darling then.

So, how to be darling:  I picture Doris Day, or Eva Gabor, or Marilyn Monroe or Dorothy Parker.  What did they do?

Sit on couches with long cigarettes and watch and laugh.  I'd be darling if I could get away with wearing that dress all day.
So in this era - Clear your house of all expectations.  Forget the jobs you have to do.  Forget the house and the cooking and the movie you're watching.  Don't pick up a book.  Don't get sucked into anything.  Don't have any expectations that your kids will answer questions, or wear warm clothes, or clean up their toys. Just sit and watch and wait and laugh.  You'll be darling at it.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Perfectly Lumpy

It's another cold winter morning in the Northeast, with more snow predicted!  That's fine by me.  I can handle one more wintery blast, although my toes would argue.  They are in their own permafrost.  We came across an old baby calendar a few weeks ago, mixed in somehow with the Christmas decorations, and I had written down funny things the kids said.  According to the calendar, Jay called it "Snow Bites" instead of frost bite.  That's how I feel, snowbites, on my toes.  All the time.

Anyway, my surefire cure-all for snowbites is Cream of Wheat, that childhood comfort food like no other.  Morning, afternoon snack, or dinner, Cream of Wheat is so good.  Butter, honey, sugar, whatever.  The funny thing is that this is one of the few things I had in common with my brother.  He and I were very different in lots of ways, but Cream of Wheat was one of our strongest bonding points.  No one else in our family really liked it all that much, and if they did, they liked it Creamy.  Austin and I liked it Lumpy.  And I could make it Perfectly Lumpy.  I remember standing in our kitchen on the orange yellow linoleum tile and Austin requesting that I make it, not mom.  I felt so honored and so good, so expert at something.  So I did.  I made Perfectly Lumpy Cream of Wheat.  This is one of our stories.  The thing is, I can't remember all the details.  Did I make it a lot?  Was it just once?  Memories play tricks on us.  I want to know how old we were.  Was it on our way to school?  Was it on a snow day?  Why did he like mine best?  Did anyone else eat with us?  In my memory it was just the two of us, sitting in the kitchen with our steaming bowls and all the accoutrements.  Maybe watching snow fall, maybe it was a Two-Hour Delay.  Maybe it was after we shoveled outside.  I don't know.  There are lumps in my memories.  I wish I could ask him.  Wish I could go back and laugh about it with him.  Wish I could make it for him again.  I enjoy making it for my two boys; the others don't like it.  Jay and Charlie like it Lumpy just like we did.  I want to tell them, Remember this.  Remember every detail about it.  Remember our old white tile kitchen floor and the curtains and the crooked table that the bowls slide off if you're not careful.  Remember that you are talking hockey again and it is just the two of you and the others are off getting ready somewhere.  Remember that your homework is one the table and you have your orange pajamas and one sock on.  Someday these memories, these stories will bring you back to a moment that you will treasure, a nugget of gold in an otherwise crazy life.  The thing is, growing up together, it's not just that you know each other's stories, you are each other's stories.