Friday, December 31, 2010

Holy Sparks for the New Year: Repairing the World



“Don’t do to others, that which is abhorrent to you. That is the law.
All else is commentary.”
The Talmud



I had a teaching colleague who confided in a mutual friend about me, “The trouble with her is when she sees a problem, she thinks she supposed to fix it.” It kind of blew me away. I thought that was what everyone did.


When my sister Sandy was alive, sometimes when I would call her, she could tell just from the sound of my voice. She would ask me, “Are you having trouble with the cruelty and stupidity of the world again?” The answer was almost always “yes.” We’d talk things over, so in a short while I usually could get back to my hopeful and optimistic self.

What if there was a way to repair the world? How are we going to fix this deeply flawed world? Is it something that is our work to do? The problems are so big, our power so small. But is it really? How can we make things better for each other and ourselves? I have an idea that might work, at least a little to alleviate the horrible troubles we are going through right now.

One idea I’ve picked up along the way is the idea of Holy Sparks. This is from Jewish Midrash (a story) that explains our obligation of performing acts of kindness and help. We can repair what’s broken in the world and restore the world to wholeness and peace by correct action. These actions are called “tikun olam,” or “repairing the world.”

The actions can be as simple as showing kindness, prayer, feeding people who are hungry, listening to a distraught friend, lending money, sitting with a person who has lost someone, visiting the sick and imprisoned, reconciling with a family member, etc. The belief stems from the understanding that sparks of Divine light are in all matter.

Imagine this: Every time we perform actions to help someone, the sparks are released exploding into the sky so that the Divine’s goodness is revealed to the world. See the sparks like fireworks. If we miss an opportunity to do any of these things put before us, that spark is trapped forever. You only get one chance for each action. If we release enough holy sparks the world will be transformed.

Last year I was driving my grandson, Aiden, home from preschool. He was 4 at the time. I pulled up to a red light. On the median divider stood a homeless man, as sad and bedraggled as any person I had ever seen. He was holding a cardboard sign asking for help. I reached in my purse, found a $5 bill, looked him in the eye, and handed it to him. The man smiled and I smiled then I drove on. After a few minutes, Aiden asked, “Why did you do that, Grandma?” I said, “Well, I just believe we need to help each other if we can.” When we got back to Aiden’s house, he ran in his room, rustled around for awhile, then came out, hugged me, then handed me $5 of play money from his toy cash register. It was such a reminder of how kids watch us to see how to act. His action made me cry .


The imagery of holy (whole) sparks speaks to my heart. When we get it right, we help, we nurture, we share, and WOW. A golden spark lights up the sky. The New Year is an opportunity for starting out on a different foot, to forgive, to get out of our own heads and troubles, to be the face of good in the world. What we need more than anything is hope that things will get better. Isn’t it worth a try?







I am speaking to myself as much as putting this idea out in the world, but I just think that if enough of us try it, it’s a beginning.



What if 1/3 of us did it? Or 1/2 of us? Would the world look like a different place?







Monday, December 6, 2010

Mama's Christmas Carrot Cookies and Family Cookbook


In my family, we had tea every day at 4:00 p.m. My mom always had homemade cookies, muffins, or date nut bread to go with the tea. She was a wonderful cook and her house always smelled like heaven. She died about 15 year s ago and I still miss her every day.

A few years after my mother died, I discovered that I didn’t have all of her recipes. I had a few favorites, but was missing many more. I felt kind of panicky because I had lost something extremely valuable. I began to email my sisters and nieces hoping to find the rest. Much to my relief, the replies came quickly with so many recipes that I began to compile them into categories. That gave me an idea so I emailed again, this time asking for everyone’s favorite memories of my mom. When those rolled in I knew I had the makings of a family cookbook. While reading everyone’s stories, I understood that my mom made everyone feel special and loved. It also made me cry more than I had in years.

 
Everyone who has lost an important person in their life knows that grief comes in waves. It hits you hard, and then goes away. I could be driving down the street feeling fine, hear a song on the radio like “It’s a Wonderful World” by Louis Armstrong (her absolute favorite), then I’d burst into tears. Having the cookbook to put together gave me a mission that year and it helped me to get through the holidays.

At the time I didn’t have a digital camera, so I drew and painted pictures of the food by memory. I cut out and glued the paintings on each recipe to put together one master copy. Next I color copied each page and I made 12 copies. I let Kinko’s put a clear plastic cover and back page and they bound them in plastic, also. The cover showed through nicely. I made a copy for each sister and for all nine of our children, put them all in large envelopes and mailed them off several days before the holiday. The carrot cookies were only made for Christmas Eve so I wanted them to arrive in time.

Mama’s Christmas Carrot Cookies


Preheat oven to 350 degrees

Cream the first 3 ingredients below:

½ cup softened butter



½ cup shortening



1 1/8 cup white sugar



Add 2 eggs



1 ½ cup carrots



(cook until soft, then put through the food processor or blender)



In a different bowl:



Sift all 3 items below through a metal strainer:



3 cups flour



2 tsp. baking powder



1 tsp. salt



Mix all the dry and wet ingredients together.



Put parchment paper on a cookie sheet.







Make rounded tablespoon size drops for the cookies-I use a medium sized melon baller.





Bake for around 12 -15 minutes- They don't get brown just check to see that they are firm, but watch for the bottom burning.







Orange Icing



1 package confectioner’s sugar



2 oranges grated



Juice the oranges



½ stick of butter, softened



Add the sugar and butter then mix. Use as much orange juice from the 2 oranges as needed but don't make it too runny, then add in the grated orange rind.



When the cookies are cool, spoon as much icing as you want over the cookies.



Cut maraschino cherries in half, blot on a paper towel, and then place one on each cookie after icing. Delicious- not too sweet, but the flavor of carrots and oranges together is so wonderful.


Here's what my niece Cindy wrote in her memory of my mom for the cookbook: "The joy of walking up the stairs to her home after a long, long trip-tea every day-how wonderful it was for the whole family to be together-date squares, carrot cookies, reading on the back porch, having her put her large knitted afghan over me for a nap, sweet peas growing in her yard, decorating Christmas cookies at her house with all the cousins, watching her bring plates of food to neighbors who were alone or sick. She was so loving." If you ever have the opportunity to put together a family cookbook I know you will find it an exercise in love.















Author tags:

Saturday, December 4, 2010

10 Ways to Nurture Your Child's Spirituality


As the holidays approach, I worry about the influence our material culture has on kids. At a young age, children are being taught to believe that if you just have the perfect toy or electronic gadget, their lives will be perfect. Being adults we know the truth. It makes us feel better for a little while, then we want something else.

A meditation teacher once told me that joy was the natural state of humans. He said in the beginning it's like our hearts are bright, shiny-clean mirrors. Then, once negative things in life happen, the mirror becomes covered by feelings of worry, fear, anger, jealousy, etc. There are some conditions in our environment that we can control that have the potential to continuously wipe the mirror clean for our children and ourselves.

Maybe you've watched as magical, happy small children you know turn into not-so-charming materialistic kids who have lost their spark of individuality and joyfulness. Wanting more and more stuff stifles all the good qualities the child originally possessed. Make no mistake, the cultural norms promote and take over a large part of your child's life. If you go to a really good church or temple, that can counteract some the cult of ownership, but I think mostly it’s building a breathing space for your kids just to be.

Materialism isn't the only cultural problem. Chronic rushing and busyness, loud music and TV, insane competitiveness, overfilled schedules, force kids to grow up too early, robbing them of their innate spirituality. My grandson, who is 5, has only been to two movies and has limited PBS Sprout exposure. On Saturday, Aiden went to see Toy Story 3. So yesterday I took him to Safeway where we walked the aisles. Little pictures of Woody, the cowboy, jumped out at him from every turn. Cereal boxes, cookies, videos, called out to him, making him want all of it. We bought a box of Rice Crispies with Woody's picture only because we were making marshmallow treats. Apparently there was supposed to be something Toy Story related in the box, but we never found it, leaving Aiden disappointed. As much as you try to keep children from being influenced by our cultural materialism, it's designed to strike home.

Here are some ideas to help you create a space that allows your child to grow spiritually and develop a rich interior life.

1. Let them know there is something bigger than themselves, it can be called God, or it can be certain ideals your hold like Truth, Social Justice, Kindness, or Honesty. Something has to be bigger than them. You can use any word you like; Spirit, Creator, just don't let your child be the center of the universe.
2. Let them see you helping others in your community. Assisting family and neighbors when they are sick or in trouble, and showing kindness is great modeling. Especially let them see you giving without expecting anything back.
3. Give your children the time to dream. It's a gift to allow them periods of silence. Some quiet and solitude-don’t keep them constantly involved in competition, sports, TV, video games, etc. It robs them of their ability to think freely, to breathe, and to relax. Contrary to the popular belief that being alone occasionally is problematic, it's important for them to learn how to think and dream. When I taught high school, the principal told the whole faculty, "Watch out for loners and report them to us." I laughed out loud, thinking it was a joke. There has to be a middle way: alone all the time bad, never alone, equally detrimental.
4. Show and teach gratitude- for everything from food on the table to a warm bed, beautiful flowers growing in the yard, to being grateful for a kindness from a stranger. You can say grace before dinner, use any words you like, but start saying it or ask the kids to say it.
5. Encourage their imagination in as many ways as possible. A chance to use their imagination-give them lots of art supplies, wood blocks to build, don’t tell them what to do, don’t praise the art or project, say instead, “Tell me about your picture.” They will.
6.Take them to Yosemite instead of Disneyland. Okay, you can take them to Disney a few times, but mostly take them out into nature and to appreciate beauty. Have your kids seen the way stars look when you are in the mountains or the desert? A full moon rise? Appreciation for the miracles around them encourages wonder and awe in yourself and your kids. Get them outside, growing vegetables, go camping, look at plants, and point out the intricate beauty of frogs, bugs, and the flight of a hawk.
7. Exhibit peace and respect for others. Watch what you say and do in front of your kids-screaming at other drivers, calling people names are noticed. When you show respect, politeness to others, when you let people go ahead of you on the freeway and in the supermarket, your kids see it. Everything you say and do is noticed. If you don't want to hear it coming out of your 5 year old's mouth, don't say it.
8. Storytelling, books, and family ritual-Children learn from storytelling, both family and otherwise, borrow great books from the library, develop family rituals. This helps kids feel connected to you, their world, and the child's ancestors. There isn't any culture in the world, except maybe ours, where the ancestors are not called upon to help them or remember them to bring them into community with their lives. Family rituals can be as simple as praying together over meals or just setting healing intentions for others
9. Be careful with TV, movies, video games, etc. Children have their own inborn temperaments to be sure, but if they are exposed to scary or adult movies or games it harms them. Especially watch out for oversexualized or violent images have a terrible impact.
10. Be convinced of your child's innate sense of the sacred and their own spiritual centers. Children have moments of shocking awareness that are periods of grace. Don't underestimate their intuitive, soulful knowledge.

A few minutes ago, I went outside to clear my head and finish my coffee. Two small deer walked into the yard not 20 feet away from me. I could feel my heart jump a bit, lifting me up, cleaning the mirror again. I went to theology school, but I don't know everything about what we are doing here on this planet at this moment. I just know children's and our own spiritual lives need nourishing and a sacred space to grow freely. It's the best gift you can give them.


Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Thanksgiving Feast: The Cheese Stands Alone


First thing I noticed was the kids were wearing turkey hats they had crafted. The hats, with construction paper feathers glued on, were eerily similar to Native American headdresses, but no matter. Trying not to offend, the teachers had opted for turkeys. No pilgrims kitsch either.

I was invited to Rebecca’s class for the Thanksgiving feast. I was supposed to volunteer, however there wasn’t much to do. I tied a few boys’ shoelaces, broke up a fight over a puzzle, went out to recess with them and took photos. All the food was arranged on a buffet table: popcorn, ambrosia, pretzels, little cupcakes with orange and yellow frosting, red peppers cut in strips, and cranberry juice.



When we returned to the classroom, the teacher asked me to read a book to the circle of children. It was called Pip and Squeak, which was a pretty drab book, so I added my own commentary as I read on.



When the families arrived, moms and grandmothers mostly, one dad, the teacher had the children sing Farmer in the Dell, Over the River and Through the Woods, and another one I didn’t recognize at all.



The children were told to sit down next to the placemats they made with strict instructions not to eat before everyone had been served. I like that the teacher talked about manners.



The big question was asked: What are you grateful for?

With answers that were all similar like the world, their moms, and my little grand girl however, said, “I’m grateful for my Grandma.”



Feeling bad for the dad who made it all, I tried to make myself useful by spooning the ambrosia onto kids’ plates, “See little marshmallows?” Not many takers. The kids ate their food, sang one more song and it was over.



Rebecca came over to give me fast kiss goodbye, so excited because she was going to the after school program for a few hours. “It’s movie day!” I asked her to stand still and put on her turkey hat so I could take a picture.



Her response was, “No Grandma, I have to hurry. I gotta go, my friends are waiting.”



By the time I snapped the picture I just got the back of her, hair flying, her turkey hat in her hand, jacket slung over her shoulder, and her backpack bouncing. I was kind of stunned. So soon?



As I drove home, I thought of the old Malvina Reynolds’ song, “Turn around.” The lyrics go something like, “Turn around and she’s two, turn around and she’s four, turn around and she’s a young girl going out of the door.”



That night as I told my daughter what happened, she said, “And that’s the difference between a 5 year old and a 6 year old.” Right on schedule, but damn it. I’m just not ready yet.




Monday, November 22, 2010

Thanksgiving Feast: The Cheese Stands Alone


First thing I noticed was that the kids were wearing turkey hats they had crafted out of construction paper. Each hat had multiple paper feathers decorated with crayons and glued onto a head band. These were eerily similar to Native American headdresses, but no matter. Trying not to offend any affinity group, the teachers had opted for a turkey motif. No pilgrims kitsch either.

I was invited to Rebecca’s class for the Thanksgiving feast. I was supposed to volunteer, however there wasn’t much to do. I tied a few boys’ shoelaces, broke up a fight over a puzzle, went out to recess with them and took photos. All the food was arranged on a buffet table: popcorn, fruit ambrosia, pretzels, little cupcakes with orange and yellow frosting, red peppers cut in strips, and cranberry juice.

When we returned to the classroom, the teacher asked me to read a book to the circle of children. It was called "Pip and Squeak", which was a pretty uninspired book, so I added my own clever commentary as I read on.

When the families arrived, moms and grandmothers mostly, only one dad, the teacher had the children sing Farmer in the Dell, Over the River and Through the Woods, and another one I didn’t recognize at all.

The children were told to sit down next to the placemats they made with strict instructions not to eat before everyone had been served. I like that the teacher talked about manners.

The big question was asked by the teacher: What are you grateful for? With answers that were all similar, like the world, their moms, and my little grand girl, however, piped up by announcing, “I’m grateful for my Grandma.” When Rebecca gets nervous, she has a tendency to speak too loudly, so everyone heard her proclaim her devotion. Nice.


Feeling bad for the dad who made the unappreciated sweet fruit salad, I tried to make myself useful by spooning the ambrosia onto kids’ plates, “See little marshmallows?” Not many takers. The kids ate their food, sang one more song and it was over.

Rebecca came over to give me a quick kiss goodbye, so excited because she was going to the after school program for a few hours. “It’s movie day!, ” she told me. I asked her to stand still and put on her turkey hat so I could take a picture.

Her response was, “No Grandma, I have to hurry. I gotta go, my friends are waiting.”

By the time I snapped the picture I just got the back of her, running with her turkey hat in her hand, jacket slung over her shoulder, and her backpack bouncing. I was kind of stunned. So soon?

 
As I drove home, I thought of the old Malvina Reynolds’ song, “Turn around.” The lyrics go something like, “Turn around and she’s two, turn around and she’s four, turn around and she’s a young girl going out of the door.”

That night as I told my daughter what happened, she said, “And that’s the difference between a 5 year old and a 6 year old.” Right on schedule, but God, I'm just not ready yet.





Saturday, November 20, 2010

Hearts Wide Open



I'd been invited to



the kindergarten Thanksgiving Feast



walking in to get my volunteer badge



A male teacher, leading his kids on



a purple paint line



towards recess,



turns to shush the kids



who stay the course



but five little boys at the very end



do some kind of insane



heart dancing



arms and legs flying



heads bent down like jazz musicians



feeling it



music in their feet



like Aborigines



Following their song line.

Friday, November 5, 2010

For Rebecca: Now That She is Six

Is she too much?

Or too loud? Or difficult?

Not at all, she’s not.

She’s joy walking

it is said

of the pony-tailed kind.



Vanessa Siejo

Rebecca is a joyful and fearless tree climber. She reaches for the sky; I lift up my arms to tether her back to earth. Not because I want to because I would love to see her climb as high as she craves, but I just understand how vulnerable her little body is to a fall. Sometimes I think, “Maybe if she wore her pink bicycle helmet and scooter pads on her elbows?” Then I realize, “nah.” Still too dangerous. What she needs is a big big net…
She’s a hula hooper, an apple cruncher and bubble gum lover. She has her own little stash of it in the rear of my Nissan, near her booster seat. My sister was horrified. I said, “For God’s sake. It’s not heroin. It’s Bubble Yum.” I know I am a bit indulgent.

Rebecca, the new 6 year old, has been annoyed me with lately. Her 8 month old baby sister, Ava, has begun to crawl, then stand against anything that will hold her. When I watch them in the afternoons after Rebecca comes home from kindergarten, I have to focus on the baby because everything in the house is a hazard to her. Ava puts every little fuzzy or piece of plastic thing into her mouth.

 
Rebecca is cranky and kind of snarky with me because of the diverted attention. I ask her to help pick up a dropped sippy cup, run get a diaper, a paper towel. Well, she’s naturally upset because she was the only star in my universe. She shouts, “no” at me, defiant and hurt. “I’m tired. Don’t ask me anymore.” I promise her 100 million dollars, a pony, and a big surprise for her help. She laughs and still says no. Then she sighs, big and dramatic, with arms flapping, but she relents.

This girl is at once heartbreakingly compliant and occasionally kind of naughty. An avid soccer player, a delicate ballet dancer, a singer of musicals, a lover of all things physical. Now that she is a beginning reader, adults cannot spell secrets around her any longer. Her hands are torn and calloused from learning how to swing on the rings at school. Just last week, she hurt her stomach muscles practicing the hula hoop for hours on end to master the skill.

Already, she’s lost her two top and bottom teeth. Luckily, her two top teeth have come in big, straight, and white. When I look at her, I see my oldest sister, Sandy’s school picture, from 4th grade. Her looks and smile have changed so that I can begin to see the young woman she will become.

There is a big girl tenderness in her smile that is new. Compassion for homeless people led her to ask to run a lemonade stand to raise money and wants to know the details in everything.

Because we both love music, I told her an old musical is being revived in San Francisco called West Side Story. She asks about the music. I said, “”Have you heard “I Feel Pretty?” Her face brightens, “Yes.” She has and asks about the other songs and wants to know the story. I tell her it’s kind of too old for her, but it’s about two people who love each other. but other people want to stop it. She wants to know what happens and I deliberately get vague.

 
Rebecca is the daughter of my daughter. I was in the delivery room when she was born six years ago this week. I was so happy that my daughter now had her own girl. The green clothed nurse, put her on Beth’s belly for a couple of minutes, then put her in a warming tray to clean her up. The baby began screaming hard.After washing out Rebecca’s eyes and scrubbing the blood off of her face and torso, the nurse wrapped her in a white with pink and blue striped receiving blanket. All the suction had formed the baby’s tiny head into a cone head so the nurse wrapped her head like a little Muslim girl to cover it. Rebecca had stopped crying and the nurse posed her upright for photos.

I took in her small presence, but I feel immediately that she has been around the wheel more than a few times. Her deep, dark blue eyes tell me so. I love her thousands of times more than that day, but still, I loved her then. Since she began to talk, she has called me “Bama” and “Dama” and now finally, “Grandma.”

I now know in my mind and heart, something I didn’t know when I was so young having my own children; children are who they are. We can try to steer them certain ways attempting to keep them safe from everything bad, but children have their own inborn temperaments and gifts, and more precisely, their own journeys to make. We just get to be their companions riding in the sidecar while they steer the motorcycle. Grandparents are powerless and we know it. I just want to stay close enough to breathe in her joie de vivre and to whisper in her ear, " I love you more than the stars in the sky."



When I was five,

I was just alive.

But now I am six,

I'm as clever as clever.

So I think I'll be six

now and forever.



A.A. Milne

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Grandma Martha's Caramel Corn


My granddaughter Rebecca, who is 5 ½, came to spend the night last Friday. The day before she arrived I asked her what she wanted to do. Here are her replies:



1. Dinner? Mac and Cheese and Hot dogs

2. Movie? Ice Age

3. Activities? Movie, reading, painting, and cooking

4. Snack? Grandma Martha's Caramel Corn

5. Breakfast? Blueberry Pancakes

6. Book? The Land of the Big Red Apple (Laura Ingels Wilder's continuing series, Little House, about her marriage and her own little girl, Rose.) It's a chapter book we’ve been in the process of reading for several months.



The caramel corn takes 1 hour to cook, so we did the prep work before dinner. My mother used to make a big bowl of this when we had family parties. It’s delicious, easy, fool proof, and cheap.



While I popped two bags of popcorn, I thought about my mom and how much I miss her and how she would have loved this little girl and that I made her recipe with my granddaughter.



Here's the recipe:



Grandma Martha's Caramel Corn

1. Pop 3 1/2 quarts of popcorn

2. Pour it into a deep turkey pan or some a deep disposable pan that is at least 4 or 5 inches deep and large.

3. On the stove, in a saucepan put 1 cup brown sugar, 1/4 cup corn syrup, 1/2 tsp salt. Mix together.

4. Cook on medium heat until bubbly-cook for 5 minutes (low to medium heat)

5. Take off the stove.

6. Put in 1/2 tsp baking soda, mix it in (it will rise up to the top-this is very dramatic, like a science fair volcano)

7. Pour the mixture all over the popcorn, mix it around with wooden spoon (it's really hot so be careful).

8. Place in 200 degree oven for 60 minutes (set the timer for 30 minutes at first and turn it all over again)

9. Take out of oven, stir into a large bowl, and mix again, breaking up the big pieces. Let it cool.

10. Put it in an airtight container to store.



I let Rebecca mix the butter, salt, syrup, and brown sugar. The rest is just too hot for a child to handle.



Ice Age, the movie, was really good. When the viewer thinks Diego, the saber-toothed tiger, is dead, Rebecca's eyes got all teary and her mouth turned downward. I told her, "Don't worry, darling. The movie has a really happy ending or I wouldn't show it to you." She loved the baby in the movie just as much as I did.





Together we watched the end of Ice Age and ate some caramel corn and drank lemonade. After the movie, we continue to read 1 or 2 chapters after she gets into pajamas, brushes her teeth, and gets under the covers. I read it out loud to her.



She fell asleep listening to me read Little House on the Prairie book at 8:15 p.m. which is a record. Usually she drags bedtime out until it' s 10 or 11 p.m. and we are both bleary eyed in the morning. She fights me and tests me a little bit each time she comes. She wants to see how far she can push it. Mostly I’m a pushover and she knows it.



This morning we ate blueberry pancakes and drew pictures and painted with my watercolors. I particularly liked the drawing she made of herself, little sister, and cousins wearing bright red clothing. I brought her home at 11:30 a.m.



As I write this on Saturday night, my house seems really still and empty-missing her presence, but needing to rest up for work the next morning.


Saturday, October 9, 2010

Everything is Satisfactual

The intense summer heat is gone. There is softness in the air, the October light has changed the quality of our days, and there is usually a breeze which makes Ava take notice. She squints and looks around, holds her face up, freezing for a moment at the way it feels on her eyes. I watch my granddaughters, Rebecca and Ava, three afternoons a week. Rebecca is turning 6 in one month and Ava is 7 months old. I stay for dinner and help out with dinner, bath time, and clean up.


We drift through these autumn afternoons by being quiet, but we sing, too. I’ve been teaching them Zippity Doo Dah. Mr. Bluebird on my shoulder. It’s the truth, my oh my, what a wonderful day! Rebecca and I sing. Ava listens.

Ava is sitting up, then overnight she has learned how to crawl. She does something like a pushup and stiffens her legs trying to stand. Her baby neck is thinner; she is beginning to look like a little girl rather than a baby. She has chubby sturdy legs to kiss and blow on. Ava’s head is covered with white blond hair that looks red in the sun. I have to stop myself from rubbing it all the time it is so soft.

On these warm afternoons, I take the girls out to the front yard. Rebecca either climbs the small elm or swings from the knotted rope suspended from a limb, while I sit on the grass with the baby. Ava loves the feel and sound of dried leaves, crinkly, rubbing them between her hands, she goes to eat them, and in one swift motion I uncurl her little hands, brushing the leaves back to the earth. We both watch Rebecca swing from her rope like Tarzan. I try to teach her the yell, but I can’t do it right.

I hold Ava under her arms and bounce her up and down while she does a little baby dance, feet doing a jig. Rebecca and I let her join us in a game of kickball. I swing the baby brushing her feet against the ball so she actually kicks it to her older sister. Ava takes it all in seriously like she wants to do a good job. Her eyes are dark blue marbles, her cheeks pink, her mouth holds two bottom teeth that are barely visible.

I marvel at Rebecca’s strength. Her hands are covered with healed over blisters from mastering the rings at school. Her big top teeth have come in. Her face is sweaty from the exertion, making her look like a Renaissance painting with blond curls that encircle her face, dark blue eyes, pink tiny mouth. Sometimes she climbs too high and it scares me. I love that she climbs trees and appears fearless. I wish she would come down, too, but I don’t say that. I just urge her to come down a little bit.

We have serious bath time discussions. Rebecca tells me that she doesn’t want me to spend any time with anyone but her. I tell her I understand and still, “Would she like it if I didn’t like her little sister?” Just something to think about, I tell her. I understand about jealousy I say. Then I tell her how when I read something someone has written that is very popular sometimes I feel a little jealous. I want my writing to be liked a whole lot, too. Love me best. Please.

I try to tell her how love doesn’t run out, there’s always enough, how you love people in different ways. I search for the words in a continuous inner dialog, something to put into print and illustrate how deep my love for her runs. “I’ve known you for almost 6 years. I’ve only known Ava for 7 months. Do you see how that might be different?” She is not convinced.
I try to take a mental snapshot of the soft light, Rebecca’s strong arms holding herself swinging in the air, the baby pulling grass, then smiling up at me to show me her hands full of green tufts and I wish it to go on forever.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

You Have to Suffer to be Beautiful

My mother's words. Sometimes said in annoyance through tight lips holding a bobby pin between her teeth, sometimes in jest. I'm also quite sure that she was repeating her own mother's words. Mostly she said them as she attached tight little circles of hair close to my scalp while I yelped from the scraping of my head if she grabbed a pin without the rubber tips. God that hurt.

The year is 1953 and I am  four years old. It's Saturday night and we are preparing for church tomorrow morning at Christ the King Catholic Church in Auburndale, Massachusetts. Early on Sunday morning my mother brushes out my sunbleached  blond hair into bouncy curls that surround my head. Standing over me, my mother pulls my starched and ironed pale yellow dress over my head and  my petticoats.

The petticoats make a swishing noise when I purposefully wiggle my hips. I slip on my black patent leather Mary Janes over white socks. My shoes make a delicious sound when I skip around  in circles on the hard wood floors. I had shined them the day before by wiping Vaseline over them with a soft white cloth.

My stomach is empty and growling, but we aren't allowed to eat breakfast before church. My mother and older sisters have to fast before Holy Communion and even though I am too young to go up, I still wasn't offered food and I wouldn't have asked.

My sisters, also curled and ironed and swishing, follow my mother into a pew then kneel down to say our prayers before Mass begins. The priest enters, swinging a censure, with Frankincense and Myrrh on fire, smoke swirling up to the ceiling, sending our prayers directly up  to heaven. Tinkling bells ring and my stomach continues to growl. We stand up, kneel down. I copy the big people, taking my right fist beating my heart three times. Mea culpa. Mea culpa. Mea maxima culpa. Suffering is good. It makes us beautiful.

Last night I was brushing Rebecca's hair after I washed and put creme rinse it. She is my oldest granddaughter and at 5 1/2, has blond hair that is very thick and luxurious, but really a pain to comb out. I try to be gentle and still I end up hurting her trying to get the tangles out. It's become a battle between us. Turning to my daughter, I said, half jokingly say, "Shall I tell her Grandma's saying?"   She shook her head. I don't want to put those words in Rebecca's consciousness either. I did tell my daughter the saying, but I really hope she knows I was kidding, but still language matters.

The truth is my sisters and I would have been beautiful without all that suffering. Pictures of us as kids bear it out. We were strong, blond, cute, tanned girls with bright blue eyes, big white straight teeth. We were all beautiful already. My oldest sister, Sandy caught polio when she was 12. Every family picture of her after that, right before it was taken, my mother would quietly slip in taking Sandy's crutches away. There aren't any photos of her with crutches as a girl or young adult. 

In our family, the woman have spent a lot of time, money, dieting, shaving, plucking, and surgery trying to be beautiful. It's funny how words stick, sayings permeate thought, and how language really does have the power to move us in ways we don't always examine. Even now after most of my estrogen is gone, sometimes I look in the rear view mirror at a stop light, feeling good about myself, then I see it. In the bright sunlight, a couple of long gray hairs on my chin. Geesh.

I once heard someone say that he hoped God was a  big smiling Italian grandmother, tomato sauce splashed on her flowered apron, arms outstretched, saying, "Mangia! Mangia!"  I'm hoping for a God who looks at all of us like I look at my granddaughter. Realistic, but also with total love and acceptance, seeing our inner and outer beauty and goodness, and rooting for us to see it, too.


Friday, September 24, 2010

YOU WANNA PIECE OF ME?

We have our routine. When my grandchildren, Rebecca 5,  and Aiden 4, come to visit me in my little cottage, after they settle down to relax, they both will begin to inspect my living space. What are they looking for?  They are making sure I am  keeping some key items in my home in the same condition and space as their last visit.

If I had one of their colorful paintings on my refrigerator held up by magnets, then they want to make sure it's still there.  Of utmost importance to both Aiden and Rebecca, are what I keep on my window sills, the significant religious and pagan items I love. Sea shells and stars I've collected, beach rocks, hawk feathers, a silver Cobra with ruby eyes, pieces of drift wood, statues of Mary and Guadalupe, turquoise candles, and pink quartz and tiny amethyst crystals surround my window sills.
The latest development in the last year has been that  both Rebecca and Aiden always want to take home a small memento of me and my home, back to their own houses. It reassures them in a way I can't quite explain.

For Aiden, he always wants to take home MAG-A-NETS that I made several years ago. I created small paintings of fruit, color copied them, pasted them on periwinkle blue card stock, then laminated them. I glued the strongest  magnets I could find to the back. On the way out the door, he asks me, "Grandma, can I take some mag-a-nets? I really need some. We don't have enough. " I always say yes. He's taken maybe a dozen home, and I've yet to see them on his own fridge. Perhaps, like a little squirrel, he's saving them in a tucked away space somewhere in his room. Who knows?  The times we make cookies together, it seems to satisfy his need by taking home some. This week it was lemon frosted cookies in a paper bag.

Last week Rebecca spent the night. Right off she made sure that the little pink, bejeweled notebook she gave me last Christmas was sitting on my computer desk. She picked it up, flipped through the pages, then set it back in the same spot. Touched my little silver bell music box, turned it upside down, twisted the winder, listened to "Silver Bells" for a minute and then put it back. Rebecca gets on her knees on my bed, then methodically  touches my Abalone shells, my gold framed picture of myself and my sisters, tiny rosaries, every little thing.

This time Rebecca focused on a 5 inch high  statue of Mary in her red dress, blue robes, standing on top of the world, bare left foot crushing a snake. "Can I take it home, Grandma?" I thought about it and decided, yes, she could. I asked if she would take good care of it. Rebecca nodded. "Okay then. You should put something around her so she won't break on the way to your house, " I told her.

She got out my scotch tape and reached up on the kitchen counter for paper towels. Rebecca, in deep concentration, reverently rolled the paper towels over and over Mary's small frame. She spent several more minutes and the rest of the roll,  taping it all in place. Finally, she nestled Mary into her tiger skin purse for the ride home.

Children love repetition, and a ritual is repetition over and over again.  Ritual gives all of us a sense of security, comfort, and familiarity so very important for our well-being. It is especially potent when ritual is personal so that it speaks to us when we don't have the language to explain. I'm not positive what it all means, just that we do the same dance each time, and it all has an edge of mystery to it. All I know is they want part of me to keep and it makes me really happy.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

What Aidan Learned in Kindergarten

If you've read my previous blog about my two grandchildren starting kindergarten a couple of weeks ago, you'll know that it was heart wrenching for me to see them flung into the big world. They seemed so small, so vulnerable.  Well, I'm here to report that they are doing well and negotiating their new environments with all the sharply honed skills of  CIA operatives in training. Especially Aiden for whom I was most concerned. He has been observing his peers, learning the subculture of school, and figuring out how to crack the system all in his first week.

Aiden has an October birthday so he is still 4 years old. He's a little smaller than the other kids, but has charm and intelligence, a winning smile with a gorgeous dimple, and beautiful, light blue eyes. I know he can get anything he wants out of me. The first day of school all went well. Aiden went to the after-school program for a few hours, found the bathroom, ate his lunch, made friends with a beauty named Ella.

The second day, however, his lunch disappeared. He had enough guts to tell the teacher, he didn't suffer in silence, which is good. He spoke up for himself. The adults went into protective mode. He was personally walked down to the cafeteria, an account was set up, and not only that. The cafeteria lady said with a smile, "Honey, would you like regular or chocolate milk?" 

Aiden was in heaven. Why only his Grandma had given him chocolate milk! Mac and cheese, pizza, corn dogs, CHOCOLATE milk, for crying out loud. A whole new world opened up for him. He went home and told his parents, "Do you know they have a restaurant for kids at the school?"

Day three. Aiden has his lunch with him, but he's thinking to himself, "How do I get back to that wonderful place?"  So what he did was: he ate his lunch and  his snack at the morning snack time. Again he was walked down to the cafeteria, ordered lunch AND chocolate milk and put it on his parents tab.

His explanation was that he had to do it. His lunch was gone already. The good news is this:  he is still innocent enough to confess, but  it won't work a second time. I think he's going to be just fine.

Monday, September 6, 2010

One Minute Unexpected Beauty...

Labor Day. It's a beautiful morning, slightly warm with a little breeze. I'm itching to write since it's been a week or so. I was sitting outside drinking my coffee thinking about what I wanted to write about, when out of nowhere, plop! I was hit by a flurry of bird poop on my shorts, shirt, and hands. Not just any poop, but deep purple wet stuff like someone had squished a bunch of blueberries and thrown them overhanded at me. Fresh out the shower, I haven't looked at my clean hair yet. How unfair is that? I was minding my own business thinking happy thoughts.

Two days before, on Saturday, same lovely weather, again thinking happy thoughts with a cup of coffee in my hand, when a big spotted Cooper's hawk landed on the post on my small deck not 3 feet away from me. I was so startled and excited that I called to my granddaughter, Rebecca,  "Come look. A hawk!  My yelling upset the big bird, who took off  in flight before Rebecca could see it. Still, how fun is that?

You can see where I'm going with this. Both great metaphors for how life can treat you: one minute unexpected beauty, the next, bird poop all over you.

After the hawk left, Rebecca and I packed up to go swimming at our local high school. We left the house with matching Trader Joe's bags for bathing suits, goggles, and towels.  I try to swim everyday and on Saturdays, Rebecca is my swimming buddy.  A little reluctant to take her into the deep pool they've moved the lap swimmers into, I just decided to take her, but I'd stay right next to her to grab her if need be. We paddled around for 30 minutes, lost 2 kick boards over the edge of the pool, had races, laughed and enjoyed ourselves.

While in the pool, I took a close look at Rebecca. At 5 1/2, she has lost her front two top and bottom baby teeth. On the top, one top big tooth is almost all the way down and straight, big and white. Her looks have changed from baby to toddler to little girl. Her hair, cut to her shoulders for kindergarten, is very blond in front from the sun and swimming, her eyelashes are long and have darkened along with her eyebrows. For a flash of a second, I could see what the grown up girl will look like. With the sun on her face, she looked so happy, so radiant.

Even though life can throw anything at you, including a shower of purple bird poop,  it's those moments of time slowing down, noticing unexpected beauty, that I notice more and more with my grandchildren.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

1st Day of Kindergarten


Thirty four years ago this week, my son began kindergarten. The sweet old ex-nun teacher smiled and introduced herself to Randy who was hiding behind my legs. Then she said, "I would never tear a child away from his mother." Immediately he clung to me like I was his life raft. He cried and threw himself on the ground. I had to go home to turn off the coffee pot, but I returned and spent most of the morning with him sitting on my lap.  I worried that he was too attached and young for his age.

Three years later I brought my daughter to the same teacher and kindergarten room. I bent down to kiss her goodbye and she skipped off into the room while giving me a little backwards wave. That time I was the one who got in my car, turned the corner from Cardiff-by-the-Sea Elementary School and burst into tears.

This morning both Rebecca and Aiden, my two oldest grandchildren, began kindergarten. I got up very early and was out the door by 7 to make the rounds with my camera. I got to my daughter's house and rang the bell. Rebecca came out to greet me. For the past few weeks, Rebecca has been determined to learn how to use the monkey bars at her  school. The result has been some rather big blisters that popped on her hands, but then again, she has mastered the new skill. It's the kind of girl she is.

She's 5 1/2 and more than ready to go. Let me tell you about her unique and heartbreakingly adorable outfit she chose: long brown corduroy skirt, white t-shirt with a horse on it, plaid bandanna tied behind her hair, and her very own "Little House on the Prairie" apron  and bonnet tied around her neck. Oh, and silver shoes.

All I could think of was, "God, don't let anyone make fun of her. Please." She was so delighted with herself. Her vulnerability hit me hard. Up until now she's lived in perfect acceptance and praise. It struck me how defenseless and little she was. I took pictures of her alone and with her mom and baby sister. I kissed Rebecca on the cheek, told her to be herself and I loved her very much. Then I was off to try to catch Aiden before he left for school.

Aiden, at 4 1/2, wasn't dressed when I got there so I waited until he got his pants and shoes on. The other day I took him to the library and the first thing he told me was how he had boogers in his nose that were hard and they were bugging him. He couldn't breathe right. I listened and commiserated. This morning his mom was squirting a saline solution into his nostrils to alleviate his sore nose. 

Aiden, with his shiny reddish blond hair and big blue eyes, was dressed in a red shirt and brown pants and tennis shoes. I stood him in front of the bedroom door and told him to say, "I love kindergarten" while I snapped away. He smiled bigger than normal and did  just as I said. I kissed him, said "I love you" and told him to have a wonderful day. Later, when downloading the pictures, I realized how he barely stood taller than the doorknob.

As I drove to work I realized that  I'm stuck in the same space as years ago only now my focus of concern is for my grandchildren. Added to my thoughts for my children, now I have four grandchildren about whom I worry, offer whispered prayers of protection, and hope that everything will be fine.

They have only been on this planet five years. They are so small, so completely lacking in guile and experience. And yet, they both are well-loved, with extended family, going to the best schools around, and so cute, so smart and sociable. I wish I had known while my parents were still alive how many people you carry around in your heart as you get older and I wish they were here to see this day. I know my mother would have said, "Stop worrying. They'll be fine."  Then she would have made us a cup of tea.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Baby Toes

My youngest grandchild, Ava, has just turned 6 months old this week. She is all big blue eyes and pink cheeks, full of good cheer, just looking for something to gnaw on to relieve her teething. She's smiley and loves the outdoors, but mostly she adores the wind blowing through the trees making them sway.

She's an observer, this baby. Ava watches each person who comes through the door or walks by the yard and wants to make eye contact right off. Of all my grandchildren, for some reason, I notice the changes she makes each week. Before, I would sit her on my knee facing outwards, and she would be happy for a long time. Now, all of a sudden, Ava turns her body around to smile at me and to respond to my voice. I can almost see all her synapses firing at once.

A few weeks ago she began to sit up. We went over to my son's house. My daughter in law has one of those things called a "boppie"  that sits on your lap for nursing. Well, it seemed like a great safety net to put behind Ava while she sat on the floor with some toys around her. It worked for awhile, but I think Ava'a back gets tired. She slumped forward, then realized she could reach her toes, grabbed her big toe and began to suck on it. The baby looked up at me, smiled, then went back to sucking her toe.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Whoops...My Mistake!

When Rebecca was 3, she was very curious about bugs and assorted small animal life that visited my small yard. Together we examined intricate spider webs, snails, and other tiny creatures of beauty. One day we went swimming in my landlady's pool in the adjacent yard. and we found an inch long lizard dead in the pool. Rebecca and I sat on the steps while I held the baby lizard in the palm of my hand so we could really get a good look at it. It was perfect in every way, except, of course, it was lifeless.

"Can I take it home, Bama?," Rebecca asked. "Sure, honey." I set the lizard aside on top of a brown leaf on the cement by the stairs of the pool so I wouldn't forget it. We finished our swim, dryed off, and I carefully carried the lizard in my open hand to my apartment.

Rebecca and I searched for a small box. I found a little gold Macy's jewelry box with cotton padding. I layed the lizard down on the padding and then I Scotch taped the box shut. I put the box in her diaper bag then I promptly forgot all about it.

An hour after Rebecca went home I got a worried phone call from my daughter. With alarm in her voice she said, "Mom, what the heck...?" I tried to explain. I told her we know the lizard hadn't died under unknown circumstances. "For cripes sake, the lizard drowned. He didn't die of a disease or anything." Rebecca loved it, that's all. She found it beautiful and so did I. But I guess I scared my daughter. So now I have a rule: No dead animals or insects should be sent home without warning my children first.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Family Reunion-37 Years After Campland

The kids in this picture belonged to my three older sisters and I. At 24, I was pregnant with my youngest during this camping trip.  My son, the boy in the red robe is 39 years old and the father of two now.          

Thirty seven years ago, in 1973, my  sisters Sandy, Lois, Joan and I decided to take all of our kids camping on Mission Bay in San Diego for one week. We had 8 kids between us, all age10 and under. No men with muscles, just our wits and cunning to help us survive.

We didn't really know what we were doing. Our father and mother drove down to help us get set up. My dad and I put the huge green Army surplus store tent up with pegs in the ground. None of those new cool tents with the bendable poles for us. My mom brought delicious homemade pies and cookies. We were exhilarated and happy to be together.

We didn't have enough money or food. We especially had no idea how much 8 children could eat when faced with the fear of hunger. Our trip to the store for supplies cost a fortune, yet we seemed to have mostly Mac and Cheese mix, Cheerios, coffee, milk, hot dogs, and I recall, a hefty supply of Safeway Truly Fine toddler sized disposable diapers. It only took a few days for the kids to realize that whoever was fast enough got the most. My son, at 2 1/2, began stealing cut up hot dogs from my sisters' plates. He'd lean over, pause with his fork in the air, then dive down to grab the meat and swoop it into his little mouth.

It was hard to control the group. The older kids began acting as a mob. We bought them a bunch of little plastic parachute men. The older children disappeared for a short time, and as we found out later, they had climbed a tower by the camp store, leaned over letting the teeny parachute men drift down to earth. The upshot was that they got yelled at and kicked out  of the tower. To hear them tell it, they were banned for life.

My sister, Joanie, is a compulsive cleaner. She began sweeping the dirt under the picnic table and that covered our whole camp site. Over and over she swept, but still our area became filthy after every meal. Joanie washed the table repeatedly, with no lasting result. We scrubbed the kids and their hands with soap and water. This was not so easy, because the spigot to get water was on the same utility pole as our electric source. Not such a swift idea. My sisters and I had to be vigilant that none of the babies were electrocuted. One did catch impetigo on her cheeks and neck, however.
The little kids and babies were safely tucked into sleeping bags in the tent by 8 p.m. My sisters and I sat by the campfire drinking red wine and laughing, telling stories, and listening to music. We let the oldest, Heather, stay up with us for awhile because she was 10 years old and no longer a baby. By 10 p.m. teams of Fascist inspired campground men drove by in beat up golf carts telling us it was time to go to bed-Quiet down, shut up. We couldn't believe it. Who the hell did they think they were? But we were mildly tipsy and massively tired, so we went to bed. My sister, Sandy, on crutches couldn't get into the sleeping bags on the ground easily, so she slept in the back seat of her big wood-paneled station wagon.

I think we swam in the bay and lounged on the beach, but I can't remember that at all. I remember all the work, dirt and exhaustion. When the babies in diapers woke in the morning, the stuffing in Safeway Truly Fine diapers long since separated from the plastic, had gathered into wet, urine soaked wads into the feet of their fuzzy sleepy suits. Filling up 8 little bowls of cereal and 8 small  glasses of orange juice, my sisters and I silently came to a consensus. Originally we had signed up for 7 nights, but we knew when we were beaten. Waving goodbye to Campland on the sixth night, we packed up, taking all of us, mountains of dirty laundry, and the 8 kids to a motel. We all showered, went to a laundromat, then to an "all you can eat"  buffet restaurant that served cheap steak and baked potatoes. Sleeping in rows together like little logs, all of us  finally slept soundly with full stomachs and clean pajamas.

This past weekend, we met again in San Diego for a family reunion. Some of us were missing. My daughter and her two girls couldn't come because the new darling baby screams her head off in the car. Too miserable for the baby and my daughter. Next year though...I've promised my oldest granddaughter, 5,  a tandem ride on her pink Boogie board.


Our parents are gone now. My oldest sister, Sandy, died 5 years ago of breast cancer. Sandy's girls came with their kids. Her daughter Cindy wore a necklace that held a tiny amount of her ashes. I brought part of her as well by making her super delicious fruit dip.

Joan's boys were both far away, one in Maui, and one in New York. My cousin Gail and a new boyfriend came plus her sister Elizabeth joined us with her daughter, Laura, and her two darling sons we hadn't met. We celebrated my son's little girl, my granddaughter's first birthday, surrounded by all these people and more, a wonderful new husband and stepson, maternal grandparents, a daughter in law's fun, spirited sister and husband, and more. All the kids played, danced, and ate together, getting wild with too much sugar, but content to be a member of the same big tribe. What I wanted the most from this party was for the kids to know their cousins and aunties. I wanted them to feel the security and love of an extended family.


All of the kids in the beach picture are grown now and busy with their own lives;  a television producer, a lawyer, a teacher and campus minister, a teacher of blind children, a social services worker, a public relations director, a entrepreneur and baker, a school bus driver and photographer, and a very talented elementary school teacher. Between them another 8 children have been born. When they talk about Campland, the kids remember nothing but complete fun and freedom.
 
I sat back for a moment watching everyone interact. It has not been all rosy. There have been tensions and fights, hurt feelings, and times of not speaking. But I am so grateful to have had this time for all of us to be surrounded by a big, noisy and loving  family. So grateful and happy it continues on.


Monday, July 26, 2010

The Height of Cynicism: Target's Use of "Free to Be" Theme Music

I am so damn mad. This afternoon I was sitting on my bed making a birthday card for my one year granddaughter, listening to The Food Network, when all of sudden, bam. I hear it.

"There's a land that I see where the children are free

And I say it ain't far to this land from where we are

Take my hand, come with me, where the children are free

Come with me, take my hand, and we'll live

                                                       And you and me are free to be you and me."

For a second I was hit by nostalgia. Oh, Free to Be. Awwwww. Then it hit me.  I had instant heartburn. I look up to see the Target advertisement is using the song to sell products made in foreign countries by women making .50 cents an hour. In our money grubbing, greedy culture where everything is up for sale, (example: Christo's majestic artwork ripped off on AT&T commercials), some  things are just sacred.  And I really hate to think that some 30 something advertising executive, who heard these songs for the first time as a little kid, probably from a feminist mother, misinterpreted the songs, and decided to use it to sell products that exploit people, mainly women, all over the world.  A company that exploits the labor of women as employees and in the manufacturing of its products, using a song about freedom?  Damn it. What is wrong with us?

For those of you who are unfamiliar, Free To Be, was a children's album from the 1970's. It was produced by Marlo Thomas and the proceeds would benefit the Ms. Foundation for Women. The songs were written and sung by many famous people like Harry Belefonte, Mel Brooks, Michael Jackson, Rosey Grier, Carol Channing, and others. All the songs had a message for children about men and women being equal, doing what they desired in life, and treating everyone with kindness and tolerance. I raised my kids with it, as did all my sisters and friends. We were true believers-we wanted a new, freer, and better world for all our children.

I know I sound a little irrational to be so upset, but for God's sake, you and I have been watching the Gulf Coast for the last 90 odd days,  people, eco-system and animals, being destroyed by corporate bastards who find absolutely nothing sacred, but profit.  I've been working up to a slow boil about the trashing of our culture by people who care nothing about anything except money. The British Petroleum ecological disaster is the prime example in our lifetime.

Well, feminism is sacred to me. Idealism is sacred to me and social justice too.  Those songs were about letting people do what they want in life no matter what sex they are. The songs are about equality between men and women, showing emotions, sharing parenting and housework, about tolerance and choice to live our lives as we see fit. To see them used by a corporation who came in busting unions and paying minimum wage, who buys products from companies who run sweatshops is just too much.

To put it in historical context, the 50's and 60's  most girls were told to focus on their looks, be good listeners, and to make boys feel good. They were told to be good girls and to take care of others rather than themselves. When I grew up, newspapers featured classified ads had two classifications in the paper. One said "Jobs-Men" and the other, "Jobs-Women."  My first day of college the PE teacher, a woman, said to my all female classmates, " I know you are all just here to get your Mrs. degree." 

I never saw a man pushing a baby stroller or changing a diaper. I never witnessed  a woman doctor or dentist or a male elementary school teacher at work. None of my friends verbalized the desire to have a career. When I was 11 I told my friends I wanted to be a lawyer. We were walking down the street when I said it. My little gang of girlfriends all stopped, turned around to look at me. One of them said, "Girls can't be lawyers." I was dumbstruck.  I hadn't realized until then that was a weird thing to want. I don't remember what I said in response. I do remember it clearly because it's frozen in my memory as a defining moment.

When I was a young mother, in the early 70's, the "women's" magazines  like Redbook began to feature articles by Gloria Steinem and Letty Pogrebin, Marlo Thomas and Betty Friedan, discussing the unfairness and inequality of our culture towards women, how constricted their lives were, and how these expectations and limitations caused unhappiness, frustration and poor economic outlooks for one half of the population. It was so exciting to be on the forefront of social change. We were sure things would be better for kids.
Lordy, in the United States, forty years later and women still only make 79.9%  when compared to male wage earners. According to CorpWatch, Target's " image is more upscale, more urban and sophisticated, sort of a wannabe Pottery Barn,” said Victoria Cervantes, a hospital administrator and documentary-maker in Chicago who regularly shops at Target. “I’m not sure if their customers really are more upscale. But that’s the image they’re going for. They have a very good PR campaign. "

CorpWatch goes on to say, "In contrast to this image, however, critics say that in terms of wages and benefits, working conditions, sweatshop-style foreign suppliers, and effects on local retail communities, big box Target stores are very much like Wal-Mart, just in a prettier package."

Listen, it took me years to get over Beatles songs on Visa commercials. . This just makes my heart  and my head hurt.  Oh, Marlo and the Ms. Foundation, tell me you didn't sell the song to Target.   In the album, all the songs had messages for children about gender stereotypes and how to avoid them. It had all the big stars singing songs about people's lives and how we can do anything we want regardless of sex.

Well, maybe that's the point of the commercial, eh?  Our own Supreme Court has ruled that corporations have the same free speech as humans. Tell me, how can that make a world better for children when companies have the same rights as a citizen?  Well, I want to use my own free speech while I still have it. I'm done with you ,Target. I won't spend another cent in your store.

Friday, July 9, 2010

I Love You More Than the Stars and the Sea

When my daughter was born, my son was just about to turn three years old. Randy was crazy about his baby sister until at one, she began to walk, talk, and demand her fair share of  attention from the world and from me. The sibling rivalry between them lasted until half way into their teens. (I take that back. It's still going on in a milder form.) For years neither one of them could walk past each other in a room without a comment, a jab, a waving of hands, a pretend tickle,  just enough to make the other scream, "Stop it. Mom, he/she is TEASING  me!"  They would demand that I take a side in all their fights.

If I wrote a little note in one lunchbox, I did the same with the other child.  At Christmas, I would stack all their presents into two piles on my bed, carefully counting and recounting how many they each would be opening so that it was even, so neither would feel slighted. I did the same with their Easter baskets...two Reese's peanut butter eggs, 1 rabbit Pez container, 3 yellow marshmallow peeps, blah, blah, blah. It is sad to say that all my scrupulousness was wasted.

Sibling rivalry is as old as Cain and Abel. I thought I was over the worst of it, but no. My two oldest grandchildren, Aiden 4 1/2 (my son's son)  and Rebecca 5 1/2 (my daughter's daughter), have begun the battle anew. We all went over to my son's to swim on Sunday. If I gave one of the kids a ride across the pool on their swim circle, the other asked for  three rides. I bought both of them new swim rings, one larger than the other because Rebecca is bigger. Well, she hated the one I bought her because it wasn't girly enough. It was red with flames, Aiden's blue with pink flowers. He relished the idea that Rebecca was coveting his. It made him love it all the more. 

I picked them both up from Castle Tales Camp yesterday at noon. The night before, I had carefully packed a picnic of homemade brownies, bought Capri Sun lemonades, cut off the crusts of the little peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and cubed fresh pineapple and blueberries. I was determined to have a day without competition. 

Rebecca brought her Barbie pink Boogie Board that I bought her for her 3rd Christmas to use in the pool. The other children, being Northern Californian kids, were enchanted and had never seen one before. They were all asking, "What is that? Is that really yours, Rebecca?"    Aiden was flummoxed.  They climbed into their respective car booster seats. Rebecca mentioned that Aiden's was really a "baby" seat. I said, "Listen up, gang. I don't want to hear the word baby anymore unless you are talking about your own baby sisters."  They both laughed. I knew it was headed south if I didn't intervene.

My own mother, even into her 80's, used to have certain things she would say to compliment myself or my three older sisters. Joanie was dubbed the "hard worker."   Lois was " so smart."  Sandy was  "so funny, so intelligent..."  I can't remember  what she said about me. But every time she started saying, "That Joan is such a hard worker," I 'd be arguing in my head, "Yeah, but I'm working full time and going to college full time and I am raising two children and...."   I believe I was 46 years old at the time.

You have different relationships with all your kids and grandkids. Some need a little of this and a lot of that. Aiden needs his confidence boosted. He always fights trying new things, then once he does it he loves it. I take him to the library and he loves tools.  Rebecca needs to relax more. She loves to curl up and have me read to her. She loves to make me laugh or to draw together. They are both so different. I've tried telling them I have enough love in my heart to love them  both "more than the stars and the sea."  (My daughter wrote that when she was 7 on my Mother's Day card). I barely got the words out of my mouth before they were talking about Rebecca's Boogie Board and by the way, "Um, Gramma, will you get me a Boogie Board, too?"

Yep, I promised him one for next Christmas. Just because I think he'll love it if I can get him into the ocean. I know I can't convince them that loving one doesn't take away from the other. It's time I stopped this nonsense of being so careful to be even handed, and yet I have no idea how to stop. Even as I write this, I can hear my son saying, "Do you remember anything I wrote as a kid?"

Friday, June 25, 2010

10 Ways to Nurture Your Child's Spiritual Life


     A teacher once told me that joy was the natural state of humans. He said in the beginning it's like our hearts are bright, shiny-clean mirrors. Then, once negative things in life happen, the mirror becomes covered by feelings of  worry, fear, anger, jealousy, etc.  There are some conditions in our environment that we can control that have the potential to continuously wipe the mirror clean for our children and ourselves. 
      Maybe you've watched as magical, happy small children you know turn into not-so-charming materialistic kids who have lost their spark of individuality and joyfulness. Wanting more and more stuff  stifles all the good qualities the child originally possessed.  Make no mistake, the cultural norms promote and take over a large part of your child's life. If you go to a really good church or temple, that can counteract some the cult of ownership, but I think mostly its  building a breathing space for your kids just to be. Materialism isn't the only cultural problem. Chronic rushing and busyness, loud music and TV, insane competitiveness, overfilled schedules, force kids to grow up too early, robbing them of their innate spirituality.
     My grandson, who is 4 1/2, has only been to two movies and has limited PBS Sprout exposure. On Saturday, Aiden went to see Toy Story 3. So yesterday I took him to Safeway where we walked the aisles. Little pictures of Woody, the cowboy, jumped out at him from every turn. Cereal boxes, cookies, videos, called out to him, making him want all of it. We bought a box of Rice Crispies with Woody's picture only because we were making marshmallow treats. Apparently there was supposed to be something Toy Story related in the box, but we never found it, leaving Aiden disappointed. As much as you try to keep children from being influenced by our cultural materialism, it's designed to strikes home.
     Here are some ideas to help you create a space that allows your child  to grow spiritually and develop a rich interior life.

1. Let them know there is something bigger than themselves, it can be called God, or it can be certain ideals your hold like Truth or Honesty. Something has to be bigger than them. You can use any word you like; Spirit, Creator, just don't let your child be the center of the universe.

2. Let them see you helping others in your community. Assisting neighbors when they are sick or in trouble, and showing kindness is great modeling. Especially let them see you giving without expecting anything back.

3. Give your children the time to dream. It's a gift to allow them periods of silence. Some quiet and solitude-don’t keep them constantly involved in competition, sports, TV, video games, etc. It robs them of their ability to think freely, to breathe, and to relax.  Contrary to the popular belief that being alone occasionally is problematic, it's important for them to learn how to think and dream. When I taught high school, the principal told the whole faculty, "Watch out for loners and report them to us."  I laughed out loud, thinking it was a joke. There has to be a middle way. Alone all the time bad, never alone, equally detrimental.

4. Show and teach gratitude- for everything from food on the table to a warm bed, beautiful flowers growing in the yard, to being grateful for a kindness from a stranger. You can say grace before dinner, use any words you like, but start saying it or ask the kids to say it.

5. Encourage their imagination in as many ways as possible. A chance to use their imagination-give them lots of art supplies, wood blocks to build, don’t tell them what to do, don’t praise the art or project, say instead, “Tell me about this.” They will.

6.Take them to Yosemite instead of Disneyland. Okay, you can take them to Disney a few times, but mostly take them out into nature and to appreciate beauty.  Have your kids seen the way stars look when you are in the mountains or the desert?  A full moon rise?  Appreciation for the miracles around them encourages wonder and awe in yourself and your kids. Get them outside, growing vegetables, go camping, look at plants, and point out the intricate beauty of frogs, bugs, and the flight of a hawk.

7. Exhibit peace and respect for others.Watch what you say and do in front of your kids-screaming at other drivers, calling people names are noticed. When you show respect, politeness to others, when you let people go ahead of you on the freeway and in the supermarket, your kids see it. Everything you say and do is noticed. If you don't want to hear it coming out of your 5 year old's mouth, don't say it.

8. Storytelling, books, and family ritual-Children learn from storytelling, both family and otherwise, borrow great books from the library, develop family rituals. This helps kids feel connected to you, their world, and the child's ancestors.  There isn't any culture in the world, except maybe ours, where the ancestors are not called upon to help them or remember them to bring them into community with their lives.  Family rituals can be as simple as praying together over meals or just setting healing intentions for others.

9. Be careful with movies, video games, etc. Children have their own inborn temperaments to be sure, but if they are exposed to scary or adult movies or games it harms them. Especially oversexualized or violent images have a terrible impact.

10. Be convinced of your child's innate sense of the sacred and their own spiritual centers. Children have moments of shocking awareness that are periods of grace.  Don't underestimate their intuitive, soulful knowledge.

     A few minutes ago, I went outside to clear my head and finish my coffee. Two small deer walked into the yard not 20 feet away from me. I could feel my heart jump a bit, lifting me up, cleaning the mirror again. I went to theology school, but I don't know everything about what we are doing here on this planet at this moment. I just know children's spiritual lives need nourishing and a sacred space to grow freely. It's the best gift you can give them.