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Friday
Apr182014

Why Ordinary Things Matter--My Messy Beautiful

I held the sticky note in my hand, suddenly feeling awkward. Moments before, I knew exactly how I was going to answer the “… is a warrior because …” sentence. But my mind’s eye quickly filled with the faces of people I knew who are doing hard things, people who were, in the lingo of Momastery, warriors.

I thought of friends and family who survived cancer and the punishing rounds of treatment. I thought of those who must muster the strength to fight emotional and bureaucratic skirmishes to support their kids with special needs. I thought of those who have confronted failure, in whatever form, and endured.

But not everyone is engaged in dramatic public combat in what Glennon calls this “messy beautiful life.”

From our own difficult moments, we all know that it’s not just the big public battles that wear us down—it’s also the daily conflicts of everyday life that so often leave our souls frayed.

But we all have the power to mend ourselves and others. As I looked at the bulletin board filled with completed “warrior” notes, I thought of how many people I admired for the most ordinary of reasons. The friend who is unfailingly kind. The teacher who is seemingly unflappable. The non-athlete who keeps lacing up her shoes to get outside. Simple things, yes, but ones with surprising steadying power on those around them. And I clearly could not fit all their names on one sticky note.

Carry on, warriors.

Me and my friend at Barnes and Noble. By the way, she is a warrior because she is incredibly warm and welcoming to other moms.

 

Friday
Mar282014

Snug as a Bug in a Rug

You used to carry a Blackberry, department-store lipstick, and a corporate credit card in your always-appropriate black leather work bag. That tote is fraying now, its pockets frequently filled with broken crayons, goldfish crackers, and an emergency supply of baby wipes, just in case. Some days, you feel a little worn around the edges yourself, after making yet another peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich with a sippy cup of chocolate milk for a little girl who lives each day with the untempered passion of childhood. Luckily for you, she's easy to forgive, especially when she suddenly falls asleep, wrapped up as snug as a bug in a rug.

Monday
Mar242014

Reading List: Five Great Parenting Articles

When I saw this New Yorker story, I laughed out loud in my very cluttered home office, because I swear they must be spying on me. Or perhaps their writers in recent days have fallen down the same rabbit hole of thought-provoking parenting stories that I have. In case you missed them, here they are:

1. NYT: Homework’s Emotional Toll on Students and Families

There are parenting strategies available to deal with those struggles, certainly — but when, and why, did our evenings at home become so dedicated to that particular interaction?

Ah, homework. One of the things that struck me while I was reporting this Arlington Magazine story on homework was how many families with homework challenges thought they were the only ones struggling with the volume or quantity of schoolwork that their children were bringing home. They were wrong. Parents, kids, teachers, and administrators all over Arlington County and the country are wondering how to manage the issue of homework.

 

2. The Atlantic: What Applying to Charter Schools Showed Me About Inequality

At another open house I attended (for a different charter school), a mother was incredulous to hear that the school anticipated having zero open slots for new kindergartners. They expected their already admitted pre-K students to fully fill those classrooms.

Gen X parents (including myself) are often criticized for being helicopter parents, for enrolling their kids in organized activities or preschool too early, for worrying too much. Well, folks, here’s what happens when you think you’re opting out of the madness: You show up at an information meeting at a public charter school in your community, only to learn that if you really wanted your5-year-old kid to have any chance of attending that school as a kindergartner, you apparently should have applied two years ago.

 

3. The Atlantic: The Overprotected Kid

The playgrounds were novel, but they were in tune with the cultural expectations of London in the aftermath of World War II. Children who might grow up to fight wars were not shielded from danger; they were expected to meet it with assertiveness and even bravado. Today, these playgrounds are so out of sync with affluent and middle-class parenting norms that when I showed fellow parents back home a video of kids crouched in the dark lighting fires, the most common sentence I heard from them was “This is insane.”

I too remember exploring my Minneapolis neighborhood on my own—riding my bike to my best friends’ house, selling Girl Scout cookies door to door, hitting tennis balls against the wall of an office building across the street from our house. Would I let my kids do the same today? I don’t know. When we’re at the playground, I scan for them constantly, like a well-trained lifeguard at pool, making sure they are in sight. When we listened to the Ramona and Beezus books last summer, my jaw dropped when we heard the chapter where Ramona, then in kindergarten, walks herself to school. (!) If you did that in Arlington today, you’d probably find yourself having an unexpected conversation with the nice people from social services about supervising your child more appropriately—or else. Has our level of concern gone too far? Hanna Rosin seems to think so, and in some cases, she’s probably right. But I’m not sure providing a playground where kids can play with fire is really the answer either.

 

4. New Yorker: The Reckoning: The father of the Sandy Hook killer searches for answers.

All parenting involves choosing between the day (why have another argument at dinner?) and the years (the child must learn to eat vegetables). Nancy’s error seems to have been that she always focused on the day, in a ceaseless quest to keep peace in the home she shared with the hypersensitive, controlling, increasingly hostile stranger who was her son. She thought that she could keep the years at bay by making each day as good as possible, but her willingness to indulge his isolation may well have exacerbated the problems it was intended to ameliorate.

I still feel ill when I think of Sandy Hook. It fills me with sorrow. But so did this story of Peter Lanza and his fruitless attempts to connect with his increasingly troubled and unreachable son.

 

5. NYT: Reaching My Autistic Son Through Disney

As Cornelia and I return to the kitchen, Owen walks in right behind us.

He looks intently at us, one, then the other. “Walter doesn’t want to grow up,” he says evenly, “like Mowgli or Peter Pan.”

We nod, dumbly, looking down at him. He nods back and then vanishes into some private reverie.

It’s as if a thunderbolt just passed through the kitchen. A full sentence, and not just an “I want this” or “Give me that.” No, a complex sentence, the likes of which he’d not uttered in four years. Actually, ever.

Years ago I read Ron Suskind’s A Hope in the Unseen, which followed the difficult journey of Cedric Jennings, a student at Ballou High in Southeast D.C., to a summer program at MIT and college at Brown University. Simultaneously inspiring and heart-breaking, the book was no academic Cinderella story; Cedric struggled mightily, both academically and culturally, at the Ivies. Now Suskind has written a new book—Life, Animated--about unexpected power of Disney to open a window into the mind of his autistic son Owen. But Owen clearly knew that already. "Ohana means family," Lilo says in the 2002 Disney movie "Lilo and Stitch." "Family means nobody gets left behind or forgotten."

Friday
Mar072014

When Stories Come Too Close to Home

My phone buzzed with a text from a friend as I was getting Scooter from preschool. There was a car accident in front of the local elementary school, my friend said. Did I know anything?

No, I texted back. Accident? What accident? Confused and concerned, I drove by the school, where I found the road blocked by police cars and yellow tape. Back at my laptop, I soon learned what was happening. A neighborhood mom had been doing what all of us do daily—buckling her child into a car seat—when she was hit by a truck. While her child was unhurt, she was seriously injured.

The news made me feel sick to my stomach for so many reasons. As the mom of young kids, this accident unnerved me. It happened just blocks from our house, on a street that we walk daily on our trip to school. And it could have been any of us. Like Sandy Hook, I found myself constantly refreshing the pages of local news sites and Facebook, hoping to hear that this mom would be OK.

Heartbreakingly, though, she was not. Later that day, local news sites reported that she had died from her injuries, leaving behind a husband, three small children, and a community stunned with shock and grief. Bunches of flowers began appearing at the spot where she was hit; a helium-filled “You Will Be Missed” balloon was tied to a telephone pole.

As a journalist, I felt just as ill. Earlier this year, I finished a sprawling beast of a story for a local magazine. The topic? Pedestrian safety, or lack thereof, in our community. Hauntingly, the issue began showing up on newsstands only a few days before the accident; I received my copy in the mail the day after the crash.

It was truly unsettling. I wrote that story, and researched the hell out of it, because I thought there was a problem in our community that needed to be discussed: the gap between the county’s admirable goals of encouraging residents of all ages to walk and bike more and the modern reality of our very busy roads. If you want people to skip the car in favor of other transportation options, you have an equal responsibilty to make sure those those streets are safe for non-drivers to use.

Clearly, we have a lot of work to do.

One of the most eye-opening facts I found in my reporting was how dangerous even relatively low speeds can be. Despite Arlington’s typical posted speed limits of 25 and 30, I swear that the effective speed on our local roads is 40 miles per hour. We’re all rushing to work, to school, to soccer, to daycare, and the dry cleaner, and I am no exception. But I now stick to the speed limit. Why? Because if a car going 40 miles per hour and hits a pedestrian, that pedestrian’s chance of dying skyrockets to 85 percent. Eighty-five percent. I want no part of that grief-filled number. Do you?

The police are still investigating the accident, but if there is anything I wish people would take away from that tragedy and my article, it is that we cannot afford to be so recklessly impatient on the road. Slow down. Stow the phone. Pay attention to all the users on the road. All of our lives depend on it.

Tuesday
Mar042014

Discovering the Writing Wisdom of Second Graders

A glimpse into fairyland.

While parents like me crowded into tightly packed rows of kid-sized chairs, the Little Supervisor and her fellow second graders gathered in wriggly groups on the classroom’s colorful area rug. The occasion for their gap-toothed grins, excited expressions, and carefully combed hair? Their class publishing party, where they soon would have the chance to share their original stories with moms, dads, and fidgety younger siblings.

But this party had a twist. Before they stood behind their desks to read aloud their mysteries, travelogues, or fairy tales, these seven- and eight-year-olds had to do something that most published adult writers fear: Speak publicly to the crowd about their work.

One by one, the students got up from their spots on the carpet, taking a gargantuan-seeming handheld black microphone from the previous speaker. In the endearing, fleeting lisp of pre-tweens who are still losing their baby teeth, they introduced themselves, explained their chosen pieces, and what they liked about writing.

As a parent, I thought the presentation was—to use a favorite expression here at Chez Books and Bicycles—frighteningly cute. The Little Supervisor, who has borrowed seemingly every Rainbow Magic fairy book in the school library, said her favorite piece that she’d written was “A Fairy Good Time,” about the time she and her little sister discovered Lizzie the Sparkle Fairy on their windowsill. Why? “Because I love fairies and I believe in fairies,” she said, and I felt my heart crack, just a little, at her quiet declaration of faith in those magical creatures and the power of imagination in a child’s life.

What I didn’t expect was that the journalist in me was similarly enchanted. My daughter said she liked writing because you could either make it up or it could be real, which I thought was a pretty good summary by a 7-year-old of the appeal of fiction and nonfiction to writers and readers. One child said he enjoyed writing because it made him feel free, and I thought, “Yes.”

I left the classroom that morning full of appreciation for my child’s school. We ask so much of our schools today, from teaching our kids how to avoid substance abuse and recognize bullying to racking up college credits in high school and learning economic principles in grade school. (Think I’m joking? Check out the Virginia Standards of Learning.) But as I listened to the Little Supervisor and her classmates, I realized that her teacher and her school had gone beyond the state-mandated writing requirements to teach the most important lesson of all: Write from the heart.