Another day, another drama.

This morning the boys began fighting over a single Lego piece again before school and I nearly lost it.

I made them hand over all of the Legos. I took two large containers and one small one and placed them in a closet. I then informed them that I would be giving the Legos to a two-brother family such as “so and so” or “so and so” or “so and so” except I used their real names.

I chose three families who we know and care for who are also raising two young boys. I implied that these boys play nicely together and don’t fight every single elfin’ day about Legos. I suggested these other boys respect one another’s need for space and the concept of sharing. In fact, these boys are more deserving of the Legos than ours, I said.

Knowing well that these other boys can and probably do fight like brothers do, what I said was more or less a big fat lie but it was necessary.

Instantly huge crocodile tears flooded our living room. They begged me to give them “one more chance” and that they “would be nice now” and “would never fight again”. The older one cried because he truly believed I was about to give their Legos away to his friends. The younger one took  up the older one’s song and cried because it seemed like the most appropriate thing to do. I agreed to reconsider giving away their small plastic fucking bricks IF they could manage to attempt to be good as gold for the next two days.

Good. As. Gold.

Is that a clear message?

Sorry for the profanity, but it’s the holiday season.

I do not remember fighting with my sisters like this. The fun-style wrestling, both boys cracking up when suddenly it ends with one or the other poking one’s eye out or squeezing a bit too hard. Their unmitigated physicality and arrant need to touch, spar, and scoot closer and closer until one either laughs or yells or both is often overwhelming (for me) in a confined indoor area. Despite spending hours and hours outdoors at the park, in the swimming pool and on the soccer field, their need for tease and touch is bottomless.

I’m not totally against their need to play rough. That’s not it. Often their father and I chase our boys around and pretend that the loft is a lucha libre ring and they absolutely love it. They like being swung around like monkeys. For heaven’s sake, we had a small trampoline in our living room for months.

Often new bruises are revealed in the bathtub. The littlest bumps into chairs he doesn’t see because he walks around with a blanket over his head and pretends he is a ghost. I remember the first time I sent our oldest into daycare with a bruise. Seriously, it was the first blemish on his baby soft skin. He was around one and standing up in the tub. Slipping before I could catch him, he crashed into the water and bumped his head on the side of the tub. I remember earnestly explaining to the teacher what had happened, half convinced she would call CPS. Instead, she nodded and smiled. She’d seen a lot of bruises in the under-five crowd.

Evidently, our bruised and skinned knees boys aren’t that unique.

The other day I wrote about peace talk and weapon play. Today I consider the way boys play. There is a need for control and a healthy dose of competition in their games. What I want to be sure of is their ability to control the behavior. In taking away something, I’m practicing negative punishment.  B.F. Skinner, psychologist, says that negative punishment is most effective when:

  • It immediately follows a response
  • It is applied consistently

I actually think we’re doing pretty well here. But research shows that positive consequences are more powerful than negative consequences for improving behavior, and we incorporate praise, too, and lots and lots of hugs. My youngest told me tonight before bed that I’m a “kissy mama”. I asked if that was okay and he smacked me on the lips. Love.

After the Lego incident, I dropped the first grader at school and spent the morning with the 3.5 years old. He frequently impersonates a moody, charming adolescent, but he was in good spirits and conceded to good behavior. We had a lovely time as we walked a half mile by the river and checked out the boats as the fog lifted. After a few hours at the Oregon Museum of Science & Industry, we made a quick stop at a local running store where the clerks watched my boy run circles on the indoor track wearing a cute peach woman’s running hat. We left, went home, he refused to nap and an hour later we picked up his big brother.

The evening proceeded more or less normally, with a few barely veiled threats about Christmas, Legos and other incentives. We enjoyed unspicy Thai food and snuggles with the dog. A showing of the classic Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer made everyone happy. Not long afterward, our sweet, sensitive, smart, demanding, defiant boys fell asleep.

Let there be Peace on Earth, and let it begin with Me.

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Be brave!

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Last year I wrote about my son’s reflections on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Consider reading this post to learn about how the Reverend Dr. King made an impact on a kindergarten student who had just learned he was white.

A few days ago the presently bigger and wiser first grade child came home asking me the name of “the black president”.

You mean President Obama?

No, Mom. The other black president. The other really great one.

In spite of reading serious truths and beautiful reflection on the life and death of Nelson Mandela since he died on December 5, his name didn’t cross my mind during our conversation. I was so focused on African-American leadership in the United States that I completely forgot about the rest of the world – temporarily. Miles couldn’t remember his name and I was no help at all.

Last night, however, he announced triumphantly at dinner that his name is Nelson Mandela!

Ohhhhh. Yes, have you been talking about President Mandela at school?

Yes. And he went on to tell his dad and me the story of Mr. Mandela in words that went like this:

So the white people and the black people weren’t living together because the white people, well, most of them, you know, were not sharing or anything and they were Boss. And so Nelson Mandela had a vision and then he got thrown in jail.

For Twenty Seven Years, Mom!

For like 27 years Nelson Mandela was not free and the white people were free all that time. And then he got out and the black people were free and the white people had to go away. 

Me: Go away?

Well, until they knew they could be together and everyone could just be free. In South Africa. It’s a whole different country but Nelson Mandela was the first black president. 

His message was how we prove to the world and being nice and doing nice things like changing the world like first the black people are free and then the white people could be free, too. Changing the world means that like having things different and having things fair. 

Since he is learning to tell time, he emphasized the fact that Mr. Mandela was imprisoned for 27 years several times. It sounds like – and was, in some respects – a lifetime onto itself. He also sang the chorus of a song about Mandela’s vision that they’ve been singing at school.

I am pleased that his teacher and the school environment are approaching and discussing some of the tough issues that embed themselves in our life journeys. Like his grandfather, he enjoys history. Like his dad, his preference for books is non fiction. As the days and nights turn into seasons and years, he wants to know more and more.

While he is genuinely excited to talk about “peace” and “harmony”, my oldest also repeatedly asks me for a gigantic Nerf-n-Strike Blaster to launch high power assaults around the house. While brushing his teeth this morning, he informed me that he and his friends made up a new game called “war” at recess during which they pretend to be spies and choose sides in order to blast one another out of time. The battles kind of fly in the face of the whole Nelson Mandela message of tolerance talk.

Mr. Mandela said,

If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner.

Both of my children are fascinated with “good guys” and “bad guys”. Highlighting Santa’s “nice” vs “naughty” list has probably only helped perpetuate their fascination, but threatening to take them off the “nice” list is effective in controlling at least some of their fighting. Because they do fight. Mostly they squabble over a single Lego piece or a random tool – say, Dad’s measuring tape or a new magnet on the fridge. They’ve also been to known to fight over an empty cardboard box.

It makes me crazy.

On the other hand, it seems normal. We live in a world where it’s close to impossible to shield our children from expressions of violence. Although we don’t watch news on the television, I turn the sound down low on NPR if I listen at all with the boys in the car because they pick up the word “bomb” or “gun” or “war” with the sense of a common bat (bats have extraordinary senses of hearing) or even better, its enemy prey – the greater wax moth. The moth’s motivation to avoid being eaten by a bat has evolved into its having the best hearing in the entire mammalian population.

Besides my kids, that is.

My youngest child can hear a bag of chips opening from deep within the play tent in the basement. His vision’s pretty good, too. The Christmas presence of chocolate and candy canes was overwhelming at first, but fortunately now they’ve faded into the living room scene and I don’t have to hide them anymore in fear of sudden meltdown attack on the mama.

I believe we can thank our ancestors for (many) boys’ natural inclination toward weapon play. I no longer think it’s the worst thing ever about parenting boys, and in fact, I can appreciate the Hunger Games-esque bow and arrow set my oldest boy learned to use with ease. I like that he loves fishing and feels bad about the fish at the same time — he’s told us next season he’s strictly going with catch and release. But it doesn’t mean I have to like it — the war games, the blasting off of one’s heads in the bedroom. I just need to try to explore it more patiently and avoid sending messages that just don’t make sense to young boys — guns are wrong, guns are dangerous (no matter if one thinks those messages are true). What I’m finding works better is for us to have a conversation about the play and figure out rules together that work — i.e. no pointing pretend guns at someone’s head and keeping things to a low roar when inside.

Let’s return to the experience of Mr. Mandela. I turned to his words for guidance, and he said many things that resonate. Among them, he said,

We owe our children – the most vulnerable citizens in any society – a life free from violence and fear. 

However, he also commented on when violence may be necessary.

Gandhi himself never ruled out violence absolutely and unreservedly. He conceded the necessity of arms in certain situations. He said, “Where choice is set between cowardice and violence, I would advise violence… I prefer to use arms in defense of honor rather than remain the vile witness of dishonor …”

And I very much like these words:

A good head and a good heart are always a formidable combination.

Tonight I give thanks for brave, true leaders like Mr. Mandela, and for the teachers who are helping me to raise my boys with good heads and good hearts. May he rest in peace, and the rest of us keep his memory close and his legacy respected.

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And one more I cannot resist sharing:

Be brave! I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.

what went right

Today’s prompt comes from Reverb 13What went right in 2013?

Maybe you didn’t quit smoking or lose those pounds or go to Paris, but something did work, did happen, and/or was realized. What was it?

I’m not quite ready to reflect on the entire-yet-presently-happening year. The end of the calendar year is, well, still on the calendar. In my commitment to living in the now, I can’t – or won’t – go too deep into what went on during the past eleven-plus months.

But it’s pleasant to think about the good stuff when I tend to focus on the bad stuff. After all, I’m a recovering optimist.

This year’s highlights (or lowlights) include a move-that-was-not-to-be-resulting-in-extra-clean-home, initiation into homework, entertaining spring and fall (kid) soccer matches, fantastic local (adult) soccer matches, tremendous learning through independent contracting work, the blessed end-of-diapers-forever, and navigating the evolution of the three-and-six-year-old boys with whom I share a home.

I guess a lot went right this year. There have been some challenges, some of them ongoing, but I am still up for the holiday season and the red, green and sparkle it brings.  This morning’s task was to clean the living room and move furniture around to make space for the tree.

The Tree.

The Christmas Tree.

On a side note, yesterday I was telling our oldest about how Christmas is the birthday party for Baby Jesus, a sweet innocent born long ago in a manger who grew up to do good works and make meaningful change. This was discussed in the context of how not everyone celebrates Christmas, and that’s ok, and some people celebrate Hanukkuh, and that’s ok, too.

The baby’s full name was Jesus Christ, I explained.

Mom! That’s a bad word!

Yeah. So, then I explained about how Jesus was a real guy whose name is special and we don’t say it when we’re angry or upset, because then it makes it a bad word.

Okay, moving on. It’s been a very full year. Full of hard stuff. Full of real. Full of wonder as I watch my kids grow and learn and move and be.

Following every dark night there is a moment of brightness. We sleep in a room with pitch dark black-out curtains. I adore them and the darkness they provide. I cannot imagine living (or sleeping) in a place where the sun doesn’t slip out of view for several hours every day. Yet as day breaks, slivers of light make their way into the bedroom, flirting with us and tempting us to shake off sleep and move.

Every day breaks anew. We wake refreshed, exhausted, or somewhere in between. Many times of late I’ve woken on the latter part of that equation. What I love is that daily we’re given the chance to start over. It gives me the opportunity to experience a morning like today. In the chilly sunshine, we loved being a family, selecting a tree and coming home together.

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the heart speaks

It’s that time of year again. Bells ring as I make my way into the grocery store after locating a parking spot furthest away from the door. The kids are back at school today. Our nine-day turkey break was mostly good.

A few challenges with the littlest guy made their way into every day (hour), but he also made some strides in using his words and being active appropriately. He ran two “races” – one turkey themed and one candy cane themed. He loves mint, and a candy cane is an excellent incentive for good behavior. While speaking to him in a reasonable and yet stern tone about why he could not have another candy cane before dinner, he stamped his tiny foot, but accepted the decision without totally freaking out. I consider this progress.

Observing the situation, my eldest commented, You handled that really well, Mom.

Thank you, oh six-year-old-of-my-heart.

Reverb13 is a reflection writing challenge that began in December 2009. I participated to a degree last year and only just decided to do so this month. The more I write, the more I find the words a bit easier to find. It’s good practice. Sometimes blogging doesn’t feel like “real” writing, but what is writing but the language of the heart? We all speak our own dialect. It comes out in bits and drabs on the paper or sometimes vomits itself across the screen. I write, scribble, delete, pause, cringe, shake my head.

Eventually I write some more. Delete. Write. Delete. Is a writer ever completely satisfied?

There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.   - Ernest Hemingway

Today’s Reverb13 prompt was to listen to my heart.

This morning a glint of light on a piece of broken glass in the driveway gave me pause. It threatened harm to bare feet and bicycle tires, but the subtle-simple shine was so pretty. In listening to my heart today, I would admit that sadness blinds. My eyes have not consistently been open to what is available to me.

Sunshine. Friendship. Love. Life.

Running turkeys

I fell off the daily blogging wagon, but November isn’t quite over yet. The pull toward Christmas is strong, but I’m focused on Thanksgiving prep. During breakfast I asked my oldest (age 6.5) to tell me what Thanksgiving means.

It means to be thankful for the things that you have and for others. You have a big feast and you say your gratitudes. Autumn season is that everybody starts to get their feast out and they have a lot to do and after they say their gratitudes they have a really, really, really big feast. Some people even have seafood. Maybe that’s what I will do for mine if I’m close to water with my cousins.

I thought that was a pretty solid response.

What does Thanksgiving mean? I asked my youngest (age 3.5) and he replied:

On Thanksgiving you run! That’s it! You just run! and turkeys walk.

His brother followed up:

Actually, farm turkeys walk. Wild turkeys run and fly because they don’t eat that much. They just flap their feathers around. They lift their wings up like this and put their neck up and go like this (demonstration of wild turkey ensues).

We are running as a family in a Turkey Trot tomorrow morning and he is ready to earn his medal.

These short people who live in our house are watching and listening even when I think they aren’t paying attention. Yesterday Max and I were on our way to pick up his brother from Forest Ninja Camp and he asked me a few times about my phone and how to find Miles. I wasn’t tracking until he finally asked, How can you find my brother without using your phone? I considered the implication that I rely on GPS mapping a wee bit too much. I am grateful for the person who developed mapping software.

Public school is closed the entire week of Thanksgiving, so we are spending a lot of time together. This morning is best described as cozy and lazy, the kids in Pj’s watching public television, drawing and writing, and talking about turkeys. I’ve prepared 10 lbs of potatoes and fresh cranberry sauce which should really be called cranberry sugar. Remaining dishes to prepare include the classics: dressing, greens and obviously – the bird. But first, our dog is nudging me to go outside. Walk me! Run me! Get me a ball!

So out we went on this beautiful, chilly, sunny day before Thanksgiving. We have much for which to be thankful. Here are a few photos of my running turkeys.

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Still.

As I begin this post I apologize to my parents and any one else who will be deeply affected, impacted, offended or otherwise.

It’s just that…shit.

Sometimes it hits me hard, the truth that I have a sister whom I loved and who loved me probably more than I loved her (impossible to know) and then I lost her and she is gone and so is the person-sister who I discovered as a young adult was an incredible person and one whom I’d won the lottery by having her born into my life.

We were never enemies.

We were sisters and sister-friends. Not quite three years apart, I don’t remember never having a sibling with whom I shared a room for at least the first five + years of my life.

Childhood, check. Adolescence, check. Early adulthood (adulthood?!), check… ongoing.. or maybe I’m in Serious. Adulthood. Now.

I loved my twenties, although entering them, I had some problems. My late college experience was rough, and I was incredibly relieved when I graduated and could enter a new phase of life surrounded by (mostly) people who did not know me. Post-college, I immediately landed a job, an apartment and a boyfriend. Life was good.

A few years later, the boyfriend relationship disintegrated and I joined the Peace Corps, where I met some of the best friends of my life, and among them, my husband. I cannot capture those two years in words today. Many of the men and women I met I do not see regularly because we returned to homes all across the map. Regardless, they each hold an incredibly special place in my heart.

I was 31 years old and a newlywed when my sister was killed by a truck while riding her bike to work. The accident took place on a day that was completely ordinary, busy and pleasant. While checking e-mail in a comfortable office in an affluent suburb outside our Nation’s Capitol, my father called. My coffee grew cold…and I disappeared from the world where once upon a time everything was ok.

I’m not sure what triggered this tonight. I miss her. I often think of my sister. And yet.

I am deeply sad that she is gone tonight. I feel extremely frustrated that I can’t pick up my mobile or text her or email her about a run that I am planning to do or a situation for which I would welcome her guidance.

It sucks.

Eight years plus and counting.

I know — I know — it’s been a long time. Lots of reason to get over it.

But I miss her. I love her.

Still.

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Converting the converted

I attended a book reading a few days ago with my father at a local bookstore. The author is a professor at a Portland university and I hadn’t heard of him until my dad read about him in a free paper the other day. The book he discussed is a guide on how to convert people of faith to atheism. It wasn’t really a book reading; it turned out to be more of a lecture.

The guy was arrogant. He made a few excellent points about the lack of historical (or other) evidence many different religions fail to recognize, but he came across as rather brusque and know-it-all. He claimed that those seeking to convert believers into non-believers should always be respectful and kind in their approach, but his demeanor suggested otherwise. At the conclusion of his talk, he asked if there was anyone of faith in the audience.

Perhaps fifty people were listening. Silently, a single young woman raised her hand.

After asking her permission, the professor proceeded to bring her up in front of the group. Although visibly nervous, the girl was steady in her responses, often pausing before she answered his questions about why it is she believes what she does. Eventually, he got her to admit that she may not believe “100%” in her particular brand of religion if she were to be presented with evidence stating that it was not right, true or accurate.

Everyone clapped and smiled at the brave young girl as she left the podium.

Having explored some spaces and questions of faith in my past, I would have liked to have gotten to know her a little better. One cannot realize completely from where one comes in knowing their view of faith in ten minutes, although the professor had attempted to do so. It seemed that she had been born into a household of a particular religion and pretty much identified with it as the “true” religion. This initiation into one’s church or place of faith is typical with what takes place in most of the world. It isn’t unusual not to question the views and values that one’s parents or other influential people teach and model. What is unusual was the professor’s desire to “unmake” those views and values, regardless of whether they bring comfort to the believer and cause no harm.

Then again, I suspect he is of the belief that all religious views and values do cause harm. I do not practice the religion in which I was raised, but I do not think it is wrong. I identify culturally as Catholic, and I agree with many of its teachings as well as admire some of its less conservative leaders. In September I found comfort in attending Mass with my family. It may sound hypocritical, but I think one can be of and of not faith at the same time. I think this can even happen in the very same day!

Were it not for the circumstances of our birth, where would each of us be today? Is it not completely arbitrary that I was born a female in America to middle income Roman Catholic parents who loved and raised me to hold education, health, kindness and respect for all humans paramount?

Had I been born in places I have known… say… a Carribean island located a mere ninety miles south of Miami, or in its impoverished neighbor to the east, how might I be different? Had I been born a Haitian child raised with minimal opportunities for learning, surrounded by intense religious and spiritual teachings, would I not believe differently? And most likely believe that my religion was the “right” one?

We are all converts, one way or another. Converts to our elders’ way of thinking or converts to a new way – be that another brand of God or a way of living that is whole and human but not God-believing or perhaps we fall in somewhere in between.

I once spent time in a beautiful Mexican church where pine needles, fresh eggs, burning candles and bottles of Coca Cola decorated the floor. Petite men and women in indigenous dress tended these tiny altars. Glowing with candle light and surrounded by mumbled prayer, the altars were bizarre and magnificent. I was a stranger to both the practice and the prayer. Out of respect and humility, I left quietly after a very brief stay in their sacred space.

If I had only been born to a woman of the village of this particular church, would I not believe as they did? Do as they do?

Although I agreed with much of the “reason” behind the professor’s speech, I also believe that believers do and say and believe as they do as much due to their life beginnings and experience as anything else.

We trust the people who convert us to a particular way of thinking. This goes beyond religion. Beyond faith. Evidence or no evidence, our place in the world is shaped by a myriad of people, practices and images that continually evolve and turn around the sun.

Unless they are doing and/or saying something that is hurtful to another and they do so based on their brand of religion – which may or may not be different from their faith – I don’t have a problem with them. Organized religion is one thing. One’s personal faith is quite another.

Who are we to judge? said our new Pope. I say “our” because as we belong to the world, the leaders among us also belong to us, regardless of where along the faith spectrum we fall. I only wish that we could belong to each other as well – to help, and not hinder, one’s journey toward bringing out our best selves and in the practice of self care and care for others. Our differences set up apart, but our humanity can bring us together.

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