Sunday, April 18, 2010

Can I Help?

Naomi has reached an age where she will no longer lay quietly on her back while I change her diaper.  She squeals and writhes and does her best to flip over and crawl away.  It is almost impossible to change her, unless...I give her a wet wipe.  As soon as I hand her a wet wipe of her very own, she redirects her energy toward using it to wipe her own little bum.  When she first began making it clear that she wanted to hold her own wet wipe, I had to be sure to give her a fresh clean one (she'd try to grab the used one from my hand) because it would go straight into her mouth.  The next step was that she would try to wipe herself with it and then put it in her mouth.  But now she will just do her best to wipe, and then let me throw the dirty wipe away with my wipe when we're done.

Tonight as we were going through this ritual, and I was marveling, again, at how quickly she transforms from fighting me to helping me when I give her that wipe, I remembered a talk by Kenneth Johnson, "We All Have a Father in Whom We Can Trust."  In it, Johnson tells two stories.  First, as a boy of five, he loved to watch his dad working in the shop in their back yard, building furniture for the family:  

He invited me to help him by passing a hammer, a screwdriver, or some other tool. I was convinced that my help was necessary and that without me he would not be able to complete his task...As I look back and reflect upon those wonderful memories, I realize that my contribution was not necessary for my father to complete the work he was engaged in. I was the beneficiary, as through these experiences I came to know him and to love him.

In the second story, Johnson is now the father of a five-year-old son.  One day he had prepared their front door for a new coat of paint.  Just as he was about to start painting, Kevin asked if he could help:

I hesitated before responding, considering what effect this would have on the fulfillment of my dream, or alternatively how he would feel if I declined his offer. It was almost as if I heard someone else say, "That would be a great help. Thank you."

Providing him with an old shirt of mine that covered him completely, almost touching the floor and with sleeves rolled back several times, we went to work on the door that secured the main entrance to our home. He was applying paint to the bottom panel as I worked on the top section. I noticed that because of his age and physical stature, he wasn’t able to spread the paint evenly and that beads of paint were resulting. Each time he bent down to recharge his brush, I would hastily smooth out the paint on the bottom panel, returning to my assigned area so that he would not realize what I was doing. After a while I decided that more important than a first-class paint job was the opportunity to work with my son. On reflection I realized how well he was doing. Thereafter, every time I approached the door and saw the distinctive style of decoration, I was reminded of what is really important in our lives.

Johnson compares both of these experiences to our relationship with God.  God invites us to help him in his work, not because he needs the help, but because of the relationship it allows us to develop with him. 

Now I'm thinking about the work I do around the house, and the role my children play in that work.  The easiest way for me to "get something done" is to stick the kids in front of a movie.  Then they are so quiet, and I can concentrate and work quickly and lose myself in the task.  Alternately, I can leave them playing, try to get some work done, and be constantly interrupted by them, the frequency of the interruptions having a direct correlation to the urgency with which my task needs to be finished.  But this talk suggests a way that I rarely, if ever, employ, in which I ask the children to help me with the task I am trying to accomplish.  Then, instead of having the completion of the task as my main goal, the goal becomes getting to know my children better, spending time with them, teaching them, loving them.

I really like the idea of this.  It is so hard to do in daily life!  For one thing, it requires that you have a much smaller list of things to get done, because working with children can be slow.  It requires changing your expectations--the door doesn't look as nice when you are done painting it if you let your five-year-old "help" you.  I can think of so many times when I've been hurrying to make dinner and a child comes into the kitchen and says he wants to help, what can he do to help?  And I say, essentially,  "go away, that would help me the most."  Ouch. 

Now, to be fair, Johnson was not taking his five-year-old to work with him at the office every day and letting him help there.  The help was invited for weekend projects when he was home from work.  As a stay-at-home type, I do not have an office to go to where I can "get my work done" without the children.  But what if I think of the work as being the children, not the meals or laundry or cleaning or errands?  Now that changes things.  If my work at home is raising children, not housework, then involving them in housework is getting my most important work done. 

What do you think?

Chinks in the Armor

Reporting back on our lives without television.  Remember how one of the benefits of only having a computer is that its use is password protected?  A little problem with this occurs when I am trying to take a nap and the boys are home from school.  They have discovered that if they awaken me from my nap, and ask for my password,  I will usually give it to them, roll over, and go back to sleep.  When I wake up, I am surprised to see them on the computer.  "Hey, I thought your screen time was over," I say.  "It was," they reply, "but you gave us your password so that you could keep sleeping."  Hmm...

Things like this happen: Dan brings Adam home from an outpatient surgery to remove a growth on his lip.  The stitches are causing him extreme anxiety, and he is hysterical.  Dan suggests that the thing Adam needs most is to be "plugged-in."  I immediately cave, with only the weakest breath/ just the half-formed thought of protest sounding faintly in my mind. 

Eli spends two days home from school with pink eye.  He begs for computer time because he is "so bored."  I agree to 30 minutes.  When it is over I hear him asking his three-year-old sister if she wants to watch some cute pink Pokemon.  The next thing I see is Eli logged-on to Esther's account, using her 30 minutes to watch some more of his movie.  When that time ends, he wants to know if he can have Adam's time, or if I will just let him use my account during the 2-3 hours of naptime in the afternoon.

When I say no, there will be no screen time today, or no, we will not extend screen time past each child's 30 minute allotment, one of the most common responses is that it is not fair that I get as much screen time as I want.  When I tried to explain to Eli earlier this week that I do not sit around playing computer games and watching movies when I'm having screen time, he said, "can I have more screen time if I promise not to play any games or watch any movies?"  He wanted to do Pokemon "research"--he is creating recipes using fruits and berries from the Pokemon world.

I'm kind of spineless.  I do not like it when my children are angry with me.  I don't like having to say "no" to them over and over and over again.  I start to question I being too extreme?  Would it really hurt them to have a few more minutes?  Can I survive this day without my nap?  Would I be willing to give up using the computer so that I could ask them to do the same?

The system that has been working pretty well is that they cannot have any screen time M-F, but then the weekend often turns into a free-for-all screen orgy.  This is not exactly how I envisioned things.  Because of all the begging, pleading, whining, cajoling, related to screens, I would really just like to throw this computer out the window sometimes so that I can get some peace while, at the same time, sticking to my guns.  But it is such a beautiful iMac!

When I got rid of the television and DVD players, I also got rid of nearly every DVD and VHS tape we owned.  I kept the "Sunday" viewing...movies made by the church, or about the scriptures.  If I then restrict library trips to Friday afternoons or Saturday mornings, and then return all the DVDs they've checked out Sunday or Monday morning, there is less temptation in the house.  But as long as we have internet, there is always plenty for them to do online (and for me), even without owning a single game, Wii, X-Box, etc.

I have tried a system in which I promise to have no screen time until they are in bed for the night, after 9 p.m.  This kind of works, as long as I'm consistent.  But I like my screen time, too, and I justify it by saying that I need the computer to run the bills, look up phone numbers, communicate through email, store and order photos, do family history research...

We've gotten off track recently because the last week of February was midwinter break and then the first week of April was spring break.  Regulating the screen time is much harder for me when the boys are home all day.  They really struggle to take "no" for an answer, and I really struggle to be consistent.  Summer is right around the corner, and I really want to figure this out.  This morning both boys are back at school, and here comes Esther asking for her 30 minutes of screen time.  Just a week ago, she had completely stopped asking for screen time on weekdays, because I just said "no" every time.  Darn that pink eye of Eli's and that mouth surgery of Adam's.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Sorry for all these ancient posts

I was going through my post archives tonight and noticed a number of drafts from a long time ago that I had never published.  I published a bunch of them, thinking they would show up way down in the blog according to the date that I started writing them (several years ago).  But they all showed up here at the top, so now it looks like they are current posts.  I'm so unsavvy.

Soporific Sudoku (written in 2006)

Although, like most people, I had been aware of the existence of Sudoku for some time, I did not successfully complete my first puzzle until August of this year. After that, it became a kind of addiction for me. Now I use Sudoku to help myself fall asleep at night.  There's nothing quite like a number puzzle to get the worries of the day out of your mind.

Eli & Adam's Other Mommy (written November 2006)

Michelle told me this week that her kids refer to Leslie as "Eli and Adam's Other Mommy." I would say that this is a very apt description of her. Leslie is Dan's 25-year-old sister. She sleeps in a cold, dark bedroom in our basement, affectionately referred to as "the ice cave." While Leslie claims to be living with us in order to save money while she attends school, I think she may have been hired by an altruistic philanthropist to inject an element of fun into the boys' otherwise dreary lives. Leslie, for instance, is the creator of the multiple rainbow layered birthday cakes that are becoming a thing of legend among the boys' friends. Eli's birthday was in May, after Leslie had left for the summer. Knowing this, she made his 7-layer birthday cake several weeks in advance, freezing each layer, so that we could put it together on Eli's big day. When we cut into it at his party in the park, the kids and adults were amazed. It was so tall and colorful. Adam, of course, wanted his own, so for his fifth birthday in October, Leslie made him a 5-layer version. Leslie and Adam have the same birthday. Last year and again this year, Leslie crafted an amazing balloon festive masterpiece. This year's is depicted above. For Halloween last year and this year, the boys got to draw whatever they wanted on their pumpkins, and then Leslie carved it for them. Right now, as I type, Leslie is behind me in the kitchen making gingerbread cookie batter so that they can make gingerbread men together after school tomorrow. She is planning an ice skating trip with them before she goes West for the holiday. Leslie takes the boys on bike rides. She downloads pictures of Harry Potter and Legolis and Lord of the Rings and gemstones and whatever else they are interested in.  If only all children were so lucky as to have Leslie as their other mommy.

Trippin' in the District (written April 2007)

Last Friday (April 6), Dan came home from work early and we all piled into the car and drove to Washington D.C. We were planning to leave around noon (2 at the latest), so of course we left at 4:30. In spite of our late departure, we still arrived by 1 a.m., so I was pretty impressed with us. Dan drove the whole way, and we only stopped once...that is almost unbelievable, considering we had three children under the age of 8 in the car with us. We spent Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday nights at Dan's sister's house in Falls Church, Virginia. We were planning to sleep on an air mattress in the living room, but Melinda's roommate spent the weekend with family, so we had her king bed all to ourselves. Esther was comfortable in her portable crib, and the boys slept on the floor in Bug's room.

We were planning on spending Saturday visiting the museums with Dan's cousin Carma and her family, who were down for the weekend from New York City. When Melinda talked to them Saturday morning, they were headed to the Air and Space museum, and we were just waking up. She told them we could probably be there in 90 minutes or so. We first drove to Rockville, Maryland, to pick up my brother James and get a quick tour of his house. He had an ultimate frisbee game that afternoon, and had left his cleats at work, so our next stop was the World Wildlife Fund headquarters downtown. We found a parking spot just across the street from the entrance. James took us up to his cubicle, where he had some presents for the boys. Then we went down to the exercise room in the basement and played on the balls there. When we finally left it was a little after 1, and James had to catch the metro back to Maryland for his game. We got back in the car and went to find a parking place. This, of course, took a long time, and by the time we had parked, everyone was starving. Melinda had invited a friend from the Ukraine to meet us on the Mall, so we tried to find her in the Botanic Garden. It was hot and muggy inside, and the people were packed together like sardines. We were trying to maneuver the giant, unwieldy blue jogging stroller (which Esther refused to sit in), so everything seemed to take twice as long. Our next stop was the Museum of the American Indian, where Melinda had told us we could get all kinds of Native American foods in the cafe. Dan was craving a Navajo Taco, so we stood in the 30 minute line to get in. Esther was beside herself by this time, so I sat and nursed her while everyone else went to get food. We finally hooked up with Carma and Greg at the outdoor sculpture garden near the museum of African Art. They were exhausted by this time, and headed back to their hotel, after spending the day waiting for us to arrive. The kids ran around together for about 15 minutes, and then we parted ways. Our next stop was the Museum of Natural History.  So much for meeting up with them in about 90 minutes.

Latest Favorites

First on the list of our latest library book favorites is The Dog Child by Simon Black, illustrated by Honorio Robledo. I thought this book was cute, and a little bit weird, but it was a big hit with the boys. It is about a couple who treats their dog as though she is their daughter, even sending her to kindergarten. Finally they have a human baby, and the dog gets to go back to being a regular pet.

The next book that merits mention comes with a warning. I am not actually recommending this book. This is by far the most violent picture book I have ever laid eyes on. I actually couldn't believe what I was seeing. Because of this, I have been showing it to everyone who comes over. That has launched the book to celebrity status in our house, and Adam has begged for it ever since. I actually don't recommend that you read it to your child, but you might want to look at it just for shock value: The Three Little Wolves and the Big Bad Pig by Eugene Trivizas.

My third recommendation is this nonfiction book about a group of children who grew vegetables together one summer: A Harvest of Color: Growing a Vegetable Garden by Melanie Eclare.

Ode to Leslie (written June 2007)

Yesterday morning, Leslie left us. Right now, it still feels like she might just be gone on an overnight trip to Muskegon, or even a week-long vacation in Utah. But she is not coming back, and that is very sad. Leslie is one of Dan's baby sisters. Adam was born on her 20th birthday. Leslie moved into our basement in late summer of 2005. She spent two school years with us, while completing a Master's degree in viola.  Those two years were a gift to me and my children that I'll always be grateful for.

2nd Visit with New Counselor (written July 2007)

Since I'm going to see my new counselor for the third time tomorrow, I thought I'd best hurry and record the highlights of my session last week. Here are some of the things we talked about:

1. "Positive Intent" This is a phrase that came up over and over again. My counselor kept telling me that every negative emotion has a positive intent. She said that actually, according to the theory of positive intents, every action has a positive intent as well. Instead of focusing on how bad if feels to have a negative emotion, she encouraged me to try to figure out what the positive intent of that emotion is...what it is trying to get me to do.

2. We talked a lot about my messy kitchen. We made a plan that I will focus on keeping 4 things clean as my first priority, because with them, I can usually make dinner: a knife, a cutting board, a pot, and the table. If the table is clean, we can sit down to eat, Adam can work on his writing, I can have a place to cut up things, and I feel less overwhelmed.

3. I received the assignment to research Daniel Goleman's concept of emotional intelligence so that we could talk about it next time. I haven't done that yet.

4. I received the assignment to search for research jobs on the LDS employment website.

We talked a lot about my plan to go to nursing school, and how that may not be the best plan for me. We talked about the fact that I may be using school as a crutch. Instead of relying on school to get me motivated to accomplish things, it would be good for me to figure out how to motivate myself to accomplish the things I want to do, like writing for a living. We talked about the three things I'd most like to do in a job, namely writing, research, and teaching. I guess I should add talking to people.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Anne Lamott: Sit Down and Write

I would like to start out by thanking my friend Eileen for recommending that I read Anne Lamott.  I had never heard of her, but Eileen gave her such a rousing endorsement that I took notice.  I got Bird by Bird: Instructions on Writing and Life, read some (or all?) of it, laughed a lot, and forgot about Anne Lamott for a season.  That was many years ago.

More recently, while searching The Readers' Choice: 200 Book Club Favorites by Victoria McMains for titles to recommend to my book group, I noticed Operating Instructions: A Journal of my Son's First Year by Anne Lamott.  It looked good, and I remembered having heard of her before...(see how keen my memory is?)

I read the book.  I almost wet my pants I was laughing so hard in places.  I also found great comfort in it, and hope.  You will not want to read the book if you try to avoid profanity as a rule.  But you will be missing out on one of the truest accounts of first-time motherhood I've ever read.

Now I'm in the middle of reading Bird by Bird again.  This time I have not forgotten who Anne Lamott is.  When I read something that I want to remember, I try to write it down.  But I'm not sure where to start writing or where to stop with this book.  I think I just need to memorize most of it.  On the second page of the introduction, Lamott writes of her father, who was also a writer:

"He could go anyplace he wanted with a sense of purpose.  One of the gifts of being a writer is that it gives you an excuse to do things, to go places and explore.  Another is that writing motivates you to look closely at life, at life as it lurches by and tramps around.  Writing taught my father to pay attention..."

Have you felt this as a blogger, an historian, as a diarist or journal-keeper?  When you are in the habit of writing things down, do you find that you notice more of what is happening around you?  How frequently do you say to yourself, "this will make a great post" and pay special attention, or get out your camera, just to better capture the moment?  If I write something down, I remember it.  The rest is lost.

Lamott's father got out of bed every morning at 5:30 so that he could spend a few hours writing before the rest of the family woke up.  She tells her writing students that in order to write, they need to sit down.  "You try to sit down at approximately the same time every day.  This is how you train your unconscious to kick in for you creatively" (6).

I was reading something recently about making sure that we are not so caught up in the busyness of life that we neglect the most important things.  I asked myself, what important thing am I neglecting?  The answer came in a flash, and it was unexpected: Writing.  The answer surprised me because writing is something that brings me a great deal of pleasure, so I don't usually think of it as important.   I like thinking of it as something that I am supposed to do, something that God has given me to bring me happiness, something that he wants me to spend time on.  I like the idea that by doing something I love to do, I could also be doing something good for others.

So I am going to try to sit down a little more frequently to write, instead of waiting until I think something "blog-worthy" has happened.  And if you enjoy what I write, please let me know.  And keep reading!

Books, Books about Books, Lists of Books

I like to read books.  

I like to read books about books: Nancy Pearl's Book Lust is a great example.

I like to make lists of books that I've read.  Unlike my sister Karen, who keeps her book list in a dedicated journal, I have always made my lists on random pieces of paper that get lost.  Now, however, I keep track of my books on a website for readers called, which, hopefully, will never get lost.

I like to collect lists of books to read in the future.  One of my favorite Christmas presents of all time is a list my above-mentioned sister Karen made me of her ten favorite books in each of 6 different categories.  If you have a list of favorites to share, please pass it on!

Besides lists of favorite books made by friends, I have a special affinity for "must-read" lists made by  book "authorities" of some kind.  One I recently discovered (and spent over an hour perusing) is Time Magazine's Best 100 English-Language Novels from 1923 to "the present" (list published in October 2005).  This is a particularly nice list as it gives a brief synopsis of each book, alerting me to the fact that I do not actually want to read Lolita, no matter how many times I've seen it listed.

One of my mental hobbies is thinking up different reading lists or themes for imaginary book clubs.  Here are some of my ideas:

*Books about by authors from a different country each month.   I just found a blog tonight for a group in Scotland that does this very thing: Round the World Book Group.
*Books that have been made into movies.  I might start with The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham or The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro.   
*Books in thematic pairs.  One pair of books I'd like to read and discuss is Life of Pi by Yann Martel and Max and the Cats by Moacyr Scliar (some say Martel plagiarized Scliar).   Another pair I've been thinking of is Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy with Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert (married women having affairs and committing suicide).
*Dystopian Fiction: 1984, A Brave New World, The Giver, The Handmaid's Tale...
*Books with strong religious or spiritual themes
*Multiple books by the same author
*Books about the craft of writing.  The one I'm reading right now and loving is Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott