Sunday, January 31, 2010

Bookend Your Day

with a few thoughts.

I created these cards for the girls about a month ago. Eve was really in the throes of struggling with anxiety at bedtime and cried every morning when I woke her up for school, desperately searching for some reason I ought to let her stay home. I hated to see her start and end her days like that and, honestly, it was wearing on me, too. So one day I sat at the kitchen table and thought about how I could help. The idea I came up with was this.

Each girl has a ring with six alternating-color beads on it. There are three questions to ask before they get out of bed in the morning and three to ask right before they fall asleep. My plan was to have them hold the ring and slide the first bead as they ask the first question: (AM) What can I expect from today? Then as they come up with an answer (spelling test, PE, crazy rushed schedule, visit from Gram...) they slide the second bead. The morning questions are:

1. What can I expect from today?
2. What can I do to make today great?
3. What can I do for myself today?

I was hoping that these questions would first, allow them to put some sort of a frame around the day, second, give them the opportunity to understand their role in making the day what they want it to be, and third, remind them that some portion of the day ought to be set aside to do something purely selfish.

The evening questions are:

1. What made me happy today?
2. How did I help someone else today?
3. What am I looking forward to tomorrow?

I wanted them to look back on the day and focus on the bits that they enjoyed, the places where they chose to make a difference in someone else's day, and find a reason to get out of bed tomorrow.

So far, they are excited to ask the questions every morning and evening. I started out doing it with them but gradually I weaned them away from that. I want them to realize that these can be things they ask themselves anytime and their answers can be private if they want them to be. I don't want to be responsible for helping it along. I want it to become a habit of mindfulness. Eve and Lola each have rings especially made for them by me with their favorite colored beads and Lola, my tactile child, delights in sliding them back and forth as she asks and answers the questions. Eve, my tangible, love-treasures-I-can-hold child, sleeps with her bead ring under her pillow, her hand wrapped carefully around it.

As for me, I've found that asking myself the same questions is a powerful reminder, especially the notion that it is okay to do something purely for myself each and every day.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Notes From a Private School Interview

Yesterday Bubba and I took Eve to a family interview at my #1 choice of schools for her. You may recall a previous post where I waxed poetic about this place, so when they called us for an interview it is an understatement to say I was over the moon.

We all sat down to talk in the headmaster's office and there was an instant feeling of ease and friendship. The headmaster, I'll call him Mr. P, called Eve by name and referred to things he knew about her from reading her application and she smiled shyly and gave a very 10-year-old-girl giggle. He had a list of questions that we were all encouraged to answer, some directed at Bubba and me and others more for Eve. He was interested in the subjects she loves the most as well as those she doesn't like. As a former math and science teacher he didn't take offense when she confessed that she thought math was "boring." He is on a mission to make math and science exciting and relevant to these middle school girls so he saw this as a challenge.

Mr. P wanted to know what qualities her favorite teachers possess and how they speak to her as a student. He wondered if she had any questions for him about the school and was pleased to field inquiries about lunch and PE. Yet another clue that this school is not all about "academic excellence" but sees these girls as whole human beings who are perfectly developmentally appropriate when they are thinking about social situations with as much weight as school work.

When he asked Eve to find a quiet spot in the hall and answer some questions in writing, Bubba and I were able to talk with him some more. We discussed parent involvement - he said, "This is a time when these girls are beginning to individualize and pull away from their parents. They will be pushing you away and that's okay, but that's not our cue to step off the stage and turn our backs. They still need our guidance and listening ears, so please, join us as a chaperone for a field trip, an internship teacher for a particular skill. Make your presence known. Remind your daughter that she is important to you and you are around for her." WAHOO!

We talked about Eve's current experience in her classroom this year and Bubba put it perfectly: there is a "learning transaction" taking place. The teacher gives a short lesson and lots of worksheets, the kids listen and turn them back in. No joy or passion there. No interest in retention. Mr. P was struck by that and added his wish that each and every teacher in a classroom, any classroom public or private, be simply "delighted" by their students' mere presence and excited to teach them and learn with them. Yup. That's what we're looking for. A dialogue, not a learning transaction.

When I wondered about how parents stay on top of their child's academic work, Mr. P explained the conference structure and their version of "report cards." They don't use grades or numbers. Instead, the reports are written as an open letter to the student. "Mary, it is such a pleasure to see you begin to understand the complex things we're working on this year. I've noticed that you are somewhat apprehensive when we start a new unit but as soon as we dive in..." These reports are comprehensive and detail the struggles and triumphs of each individual, social and academic. Because they are directed at the student, they carry a weight and power that a series of letters or number scores on a sheet could never hope to.

When Eve returned to the room, Mr. P gave her a huge grin and said he couldn't wait to read her writing. He offered to answer any other questions we had and made sure Eve knew she could email him if she remembered something important after we left. As we walked out he acknowledged Lola (who had been sitting quietly in the corner reading except for a few well-placed comedic comments sprinkled throughout the interview) as "the most entertaining and well-behaved guest." As "family interviews" go, this one was definitely all-inclusive and we left feeling more than heard. We left feeling as though we could be part of this larger family. An equal voice in this community of people who are committed to changing the way middle school girls learn. I'm ready for this learning dialogue and if Eve's response is any clue - she skipped and hopped up the sidewalk yelling, "I love this school! I wanna go here so bad!" - so is she.

We'll know in March. It can't come soon enough.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Angst. Or, How Facebook Occasionally Puts Me Right Back in High School Again

That "suggestions" panel on the right side of your Facebook page - you know the one? Yeah, it occasionally sends me back to high school angst. The names of people that I knew somewhat but never felt socially confident enough to actually speak to at a party or even walking down the hall at school pop up from time to time as suggested friends. I know that the suggestions are based solely on the social network of "common friends," but it still stops me cold. What is the protocol here? I mean, if I was afraid of being rejected by this person face-to-face, twenty years later it seems that I'm still worried that sending them a friend request will result in a rejection.

Lately I've gotten several suggestions of people who were ahead of me in school by a couple of years. I was certain that most of them didn't know me (or want to know me) in high school - a puny little school of less than 400 students. Why the heck would I think they would be interested in knowing me now? And, furthermore, why am I interested in following them on Facebook? Honestly, I'm not really, but the mere suggestion brings back those teenage feelings of inadequacy. The notion that I'm not "all that" and shouldn't even aspire to it.

I wish I could be a little more voyeuristic, at least for a bit, but Facebook stubbornly refuses to let me. One of the suggestions I got today happened to be someone I was actually frightened of in high school. She was the former girlfriend of my major love in high school and, according to him, she truly wished me harm when the two of us started dating seriously. She was a year ahead of me in school and, thankfully, we didn't share any classes or extracurricular activities in common, but I knew enough to cross to the other side of the hall when I saw her coming. So when I saw her name pop up on my "Suggestions" list, I had to know. I clicked on her profile picture, but it didn't actually zoom large enough to satisfy my curiosity. I could see enough to know that she hasn't gotten enormously overweight and when I took the time to see which organizations she has become a fan of, I knew I had been right to be afraid of her. She doesn't live too far from me, frighteningly enough and either she is a corrections officer or she is close to some because that's what comprises the majority of her profile. Yikes. Definitely not sending her a friend request...

Friday, January 22, 2010

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Revelations

I've been steeping myself in the waters of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy lately. Eve's therapist suggested a few books to me and they are the kind of books that, when you read them, you go, "Duh!" Duh in a good way. Like, why didn't I realize that? Why have I been doing the absolute, complete opposite of that for the past several months (or my entire lifetime, as it turns out) and expecting different results?

Thankfully, neither my therapist nor Eve's reprimands me for it. They both assured me that it's perfectly normal and reasonable to live the way I've been living, but that now it's time to change. For everyone's sake.

As to the anxiety and fear Eve is struggling with, we've been encouraged to work toward it. Face it. Walk through the fire and realize that as we come out the other side, we are just fine. Do that 495 times and eventually the notion that fire is not so scary will sink in. One day at a time, this notion is scary. For Eve, the idea of sitting right inside the vortex of her fear is overwhelming to say the least. But her therapist said something last Monday that really struck me. She said, "The anxiety feelings can't hurt you. They feel awful and they make your heart race and your stomach flutter and your palms sweat, but your body can't maintain that level of anxiety for long so if you just sit with it, your body will eventually calm down. In the meantime, the feelings can't kill you. You won't bleed or have a heart attack or stop breathing. They can't hurt you even though they threaten to."

I don't know if Eve believes it, but as her mother, that was what I needed to hear in order to let her sit with it. Each and every mothering instinct I have urges me to do the opposite; fix it, rescue her, swoop in and save her, but if I can continue to remind myself that she is not going to die, maybe I can let her conquer this on her own and reap the rewards.

*The books I am loving are: Tamar Chansky's "Freeing Your Child From Anxiety," and Dawn Huebner's "What to Do When You Dread Your Bed" and "What to Do When You Worry Too Much."

Friday, January 15, 2010

Maya Angelou is My Mother

Well, sort of. She has written a new book called "Letter to My Daughter" and I've just barely begun to read it and already I've been reminded why this woman is one of my all-time heroes.

Her first chapter is titled, simply, Home. Here is the first bit of it that struck me like a claw hammer to the big toe:

"I believe that one can never leave home. I believe that one carries the
shadows, the dreams, the fears and dragons of home under one's skin, at the
extreme corners of one's eyes and possibly in the gristle of the
Something tells me that this book is one that I'm going to
keep chewing on and chewing on and quoting over and over again. This woman is so
thoughtful and deliberate and absolutely filled with love of life. Yup, she's my
mother, too.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Yeah! What He Said!

I was lucky enough to catch a snippet of an NPR interview with author Richard Wiseman today on my way from point P to point Q (points A through O having already been navigated much earlier in the day). He has recently published a self-help book that actually examines the claims of other such books and dispenses advice based on scientific research he has compiled. Not being an avid reader of self-help books, I was only listening with one ear when something caught my attention. Mr. Wiseman claims that, through research trials of his own, he has discovered the benefits of "expressive writing" for individuals who are seeking some solution to a dilemma. Hmmm.

I perked up a little. Seems that he has found that talking to friends or family or even a therapist proves somewhat helpful to a person in distress, but simple expressive writing offers a deeper level of understanding and comfort. (By the way, I found this definition of "expressive writing" - Expressive writing is the kind of writing you do when your primary purpose is to explore and/or communicate your personal experience, your opinions about things, your response to the world, including the world of reading. The writing is focused on you the writer instead of an objective subject outside yourself.) Mr. Wiseman discovered, through his research, that the simple act of forming the sentences, crafting the words, and adhering to the mechanics of writing help to organize a person's thoughts and clarify their desires.

I was struck. Yeah. I get it. Even though the vast majority of my writing occurs in my head prior to actually getting it down, when I'm 'writing' in my head, I think altogether differently than I do when I am venting to a girlfriend or crying to my mother. The act of knowing that there will be some audience for my words, whether it is an email to a confidante or a blog post or a chapter in the book I'm working on, gives the words a different weight. It helps me to cut through the bulls&*t and figure out what my point is. What am I asking for? Support? Advice? Amusement?

Mr. Wiseman went even further to say that this kind of writing is prevalent in relationships that are strong and solid. Those married couples who took the time to communicate with each other in writing (via emails, text messages or love letters) tend to be more communicative overall and stay together longer. Now that was food for thought. I know that when Bubba and I sit and talk and I'm emotional and unclear on what it is I want or even what I'm complaining about, he gets frustrated at my "all over the map" communication style. When I take the time to write it out and organize it for myself, I am more rational and clearer about my needs and wants, and Bubba is more responsive. Maybe it's a good thing he travels so much and I'm forced to send him emails or text messages to convey important issues. Maybe we were on the right track, after all.

Maybe I'll go write him a love letter right now.

Friday, January 08, 2010

Haven't I Been Here Before?

Poor Eve. When she came into this world as my daughter, she had no idea what she was in for. Of course, she didn't really have a choice, either, but being my daughter has got to be difficult. All of the demons I alternately ignored and wrestled with in my teens and stuffed away in some closet throughout my twenties came slithering out as soon as she began to separate from me.

For the past several months, Eve has been fighting some major anxiety issues and in my efforts to help, I'm afraid I've only made things worse. I am sympathetic to a point, rational and logical about new strategies until a few of them fail, and lose my ability to hide my frustration fairly quickly. My heart is breaking for her but wishing it were different and desperately hoping for some epiphany is not making it so.

Talking with Bubba last night, I finally gave voice to the dark cloud that has been lurking inside me since this all began. Eve's fears and my inability to penetrate them with love are feeding my own greatest fear a hot fudge sundae with whipped cream and nuts. There aren't many things I'm truly afraid of. I've learned to trap even big, hairy spiders and release them outside in the garden. The things that could unexpectedly happen throughout a lifetime - debilitating accidents or illnesses, losing material possessions - those don't give me a moment's pause. The one thing that stops me in my tracks is the thought that I might fail my kids. That I might somehow prove a completely unworthy parent who, not for lack of trying but perhaps for lack of ability or talent or sheer capacity, had no business having children in the first place. My attempts to help are failing her. I am beginning to lose faith in myself and I know she can tell.

So we're asking for help. Again, this is not something I have ever done lightly. Admitting that I don't know where to go from here is difficult, but I need to get my little girl back. Tonight I am meeting with a therapist who can hopefully give Eve the tools to combat her own fears and provide me with the support I need to trust my own instincts as a parent again. That pervasive belief that there is a 'solution' out there that I just haven't found yet is beginning to taunt me instead of giving me hope. I need to remind myself that I'm not solely responsible for bringing up my children and that drawing on the resources and knowledge of others is not an admission of defeat, but a caring, compassionate way to give my daughters the tools they need to grow up happy and peaceful.

Been here before. Guess I'm learning this lesson again. Wonder how many more times I'll circle this tree before I get it...

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Details, Shmetails

I have been called detail-oriented.
I have been praised for being detail-oriented.
I have been hired for being detail-oriented.

I often count that quality among my greatest strengths.
I am beginning to wonder whether it is actually my kryptonite.

In my 20s I delighted in remembering which flowers my mother-in-law loves the most so that I could have a vase of them ready in her room when she came to visit. I was known for making sure that friends of mine who had special dietary needs had something to fill them up at any dinner party I threw. Bubba's clothes were always ready for him to pack for a business trip at any moment. My files were organized at work so that if I called in sick and someone needed something, it would be clear where I left off.

In my 30s I have steadily begun eliminating crevices that need constant care and attention. That chandelier that takes special light bulbs (12 of them!)? Replaced with another that is simple and pretty and takes normal CFLs. The pile of clothes to be ironed over the weekend? The dry cleaner has become Bubba's last stop of the day on his way home. The one and only gluten-free granola bar the girls like to snack on? Sometimes we run out and they have to eat an apple or a handful of nuts.

I can recall walking past houses with the dog that caught my eye because of the clever details - windowboxes and cobblestone driveways. Things that set this house apart from the others in the neighborhood used to thrill me with possibility. Now I just feel tired. Who fills those flowerboxes with geraniums in the spring and ornamental kale in the fall? Who decorates them for the holidays? Who seals and cleans the driveway? Either they're paying someone to do it or the homeowner has a lot of time on his or her hands. If there are details like this that I, a perfect stranger walking by, can see readily, I imagine that there are season-specific fingertip towels in the guest bathroom and fresh flowers on the entry table. Someone has taken the time and care to make sure that the linens are fresh in the guest room and all of the can lights in the kitchen have working bulbs.

Like a multi-faceted crystal whose faces, each and every one, need to be free of smudges in order to throw rainbows all around the room, I see each of these details in my life as work. Something to be maintained. Where before I would have taken that as a challenge and a purpose, I now wish my life looked more like the river rocks I see next to the creek. They sit quietly among others like them, edges smooth, some of them pockmarked, not casting colors about or shouting, "Look at me!" They are solid and sturdy, worn by time and cool to the touch, fitting softly within my palm. There are no corners to clean, no sharp edges to take care with. The only detail to tend to is the slight bit of mud stuck to one end. That, I can handle and get back to my walk.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Same Road, Different Day

The same three mile stretch I drive at least twice a day. To and from work/school. It's mostly straight, four lanes with a turn-lane in the center, lined by strip malls and condo complexes and apartment buildings. There are four or five stoplights between home and work. I could drive it in my sleep.

I'm pretty sure I know it like the back of my hand. The streetlights that line it are impossibly tall, their mottled grey and silver steel poles stretch dozens of feet in the air and make an abrupt 90 degree turn to hold out a light that shows us the way home after dark.

Back in our work/school day routine, the days come one after another just like the streetlights. Mondays are the busiest, hoping I've gotten enough groceries to pack lunches for the week and make nutritious dinners as quickly as possible on our busy evenings. Tuesdays are anxious, six packed hours at work and home to get the girls off in two different directions for activities and then back home within minutes of each other to sit and do homework and eat before falling into bed. Wednesdays I can breathe a little easier, knowing that Thursday and Friday I will have to myself to start laundry, walk the dog, write a little and gear up for the weekend. I know these days like the back of my hand and, while there are subtle differences between them - Eve has little homework on Wednesdays and Thursdays, Lola has to study for her spelling test on Thursday nights - the weeks are mostly similar. The days are only different in their "mottling," like the slight variations in the patterns on the streetlights.

Driving home yesterday I looked out of the windshield about a mile ahead. Catching my breath, I realized that when I look at the streetlights lined up alongside the road I can see the shape of the road itself. Following the line of lights as they sit sentry on the sidewalk there is a slight curve as they follow the wave of the road. Taken as a whole, the outline they provide is beautiful, slowly, gracefully arching like a wave on the shore. Focusing back on an individual pole, my field of vision narrows, constricts. Looking back ahead, I can feel my mind and muscles relax. My perspective is more open.

I'm going to spend today looking ahead. Not planning ahead, but seeing the pattern in our days and weeks as they stretch out before us. Something tells me that, put together, they will look pretty gorgeous, too.
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