Category Archives: Childhood
Girl one came dancing the other day . . . an early birthday, present, Mom. I made it myself. You’ll love it! My sprayer had broken a few weeks earlier. Girl one was delighted that the nozzle can be removed and the honey cap reapplied to keep water from spilling.
She’s on a bit of a roll. Yesterday she passed me doing dishes to say that she had an especially good lesson planned for the school she runs. (She has been principal and main teacher of her own school for a few years now. She runs it for her sister or whatever younger children she can find at school. There are folders, plans, supplies . . . it is a very serious affair.) It’s on David and Goliath, she provided, but I didn’t pay much attention as she went by.
My husband pointed out a little later that Girl one’s student (Girl two) was currently with vigour, slinging rocks at a picture of Goliath.
“Impression, Sunrise,” by Claude Monet, 1873.
This time last year I was mustering the energy to make dinner and take the dog for a slow walk. I hated running into people because they always asked what I was doing. I don’t do anything, I told my husband, I just be. No one wants to hear that. Or maybe I don’t want to say it. Whatever it was, there was something to it. Learning how to be. To have only a little bit more than that to offer the world.
This year I can answer the question about what I am doing. But in between all that doing is an unsettledness. I believe in balance but I’ve lost hold of it.
(Which is why I wish someone would ask me for a sermon about it. The next best thing to doing something right yourself is telling someone else how to do it.)
I found a partridge brooding over two light brown speckled eggs the other day. She scared me half to death and then she thrilled me. I wanted to see if I could get show the kids the next day without disturbing her. She was hard to see, but she was there. I should have walked back delighted. Instead I felt frustrated. The lawn not mowed, the house not vacuumed, the floor not mopped. I was tired.
For the last little while I have fallen to bed exhausted and overwhelmed, having poured myself into the doing only to arrive at my pillow feeling further behind than when I awoke. I try harder the next day with the same results. The need to be has worked itself into a roar within my ears. And still I’m not sure. What about the list?
In high school, I sang hymns by the hour. I didn’t know about the physiological benefits of singing, I just knew I left the hymns different than I came to them. In a world where there was nothing I could do to affect change, I wanted to survive. The hymns were my early lesson in being. Along the way, they embedded themselves into the fabric of me. Dear friends, they come to me while I’m mowing, doing dishes, or wanting to kill my offspring, it really doesn’t matter. A line here, a line there.
My hope is built on nothing less – Oh Love, that wilt not let me go -Come Thou, fount of every blessing – Jesus calls us o’er the tumult of our life’s wild restless seas…
Drunk with doing, the ache from which I run remains. From the noise of May’s drive to accomplish, I begin to hear –
Be Thou my vision…
I sit with it and let it sing, and then another comes.
Be still my soul…
I stop. I breathe deep and I don’t sing it. The first line is enough.
be. still. my soul, mind and body.
Style is not my thing. I’ve got it, obviously. But I hide it. I think it’s my mother’s fault. Once upon a time, cheered on by friends convinced that fabric shapes brought one closer to God, she required me to wear skirts to school daily. This, from age 11 on. When it started, it was like shock therapy. It hurt. I hated it. I had to do it anyway. Her concession was gradual implementation. I started off one skirt per week in grade six (up from previous zero per year) and worked up to every day in time for grade eight. Surely without this, a more visible approach to style would have found me. My mother would roll her eyes at this, but I’ve got the floor.
The proof is in the pudding so to speak, and the pudding in question is my daughter and my younger self. My daughter was born knowing what she wanted to wear. By age two, if she didn’t like what I picked, she tore it off when I left and played naked.
Until recently, she begged for skirts and dresses for almost everything. I felt as mystified as my mother did when I came out standard equipped with distaste for hair combing and frills. I liked denim, corduroy, and navy blue. I deemed underwear an excess that extended getting dressed a few seconds too many. My mother was fit to be tied when she discovered I’d been to grade one many times without them. I was a bit relieved to see her in so much distress. It gave me a chance to back down for compassionate reasons – not just because the seams on those pants were so extremely uncomfortable. Anyway, if that kind of independent notion is not a start towards style, I don’t know what it is.
Meanwhile, I’m stunted. When we’re late to school every day, we pass a lady getting her kids on the bus. Last week she was wearing a short flowered skirt with black pants underneath. She looked odd, but that didn’t separate her from most things I’m told are fashionable. Her combo being new to me only meant that it hadn’t been the style for longer than three or four years. The rest of the drive, I tried picturing myself in the outfit. I don’t wear short skirts normally on account of my vice presidency in the Covered Skin Sisterhood (I’m one of only three non-Muslim members so there’s pressure to do my part). . . but she was covered! Maybe this was my chance to look like everyone else?
Before I could decide, she pattered out in 3/4 length camouflage pants and a frilly blouse. I can’t describe how terrible it was because I never know the words that describe clothes. I wouldn’t have cared what she was wearing except for her almost making me wear something terrible. I am resolved again now to be me, my style nicely tucked in my pocket.
I have always liked math. In my younger days, I did well. In grade 11, I ended up in Calculus class with Mr. Riley.
Mr. Riley taught computers and senior math. He enjoyed talking about the stock market. On his head, he sported a carefully maintained comb over. He was in his fifties, I think. The problem was that my interest in math only went so far. I liked Algebra, Geometry and Trigonometry. I liked parts of Calculus, but some parts I did not. Discussions of imaginary numbers did not interest me even a little bit. I like imagination in my words, but not my numbers. What I like about numbers is how unimaginative they are.
My math teacher before Mr. Riley (not the top of the line for role models and appropriate conversationalists, but a decent math teacher) thought I was something great. My plans to become a social worker he dismissed as a ridiculous waste. Teachers talk. I think Mr. Riley saw me coming and thought I was someone I was not. At least that is my best guess at our troubles.
That and I was not that into school the year Calculus rolled around. My heart was heavy and my head was elsewhere. My lack of fascination for numbers real and imagined can’t really be blamed on Mr. Riley. A few weeks in and Mr. Riley was annoyed. A few months in and I was a source of great irritation. He seemed less than blessed by my, “yeah, so what’s the actual point,” approach to Calculus. One day in exasperation, Mr. Riley attempted a prophecy.
Jones, he said, so I looked up. You know what you’re going to be when you grow up? I was all over rhetorical questions, so I waited. I can just see it now. You’re going to be one of those women that live in a trailer park. That answers the door at 3:00 in the afternoon. Soap operas blaring in the background. Can of beer in your hand. Kids screaming in the background behind you.
I laughed. But part of me wasn’t laughing, it was staring through him thinking, wait and see, buddy. You don’t know a thing about me. Driving down the road the other day, I thought of Mr. Riley. Instead of a “Just you wait, Henry Higgins,” moment, an entirely new conversation occurred to me. As a result, I’m organizing an all points bulletin to all the nursing homes in America until I find him. I’ve got some questions that need answers, like where?
Where, Mr. Riley? Where is that trailer park? If the soaps fail to suit, might I read instead? Iced tea perhaps for my hand. Does the bathrobe come with the trailer, and if so, in what colors is it available? I’m finally getting the vision and the sooner I get there the better.
My troubles started when I was six. Our family had spent the summer in Colorado that year. Before that, my mother said, I was happy go lucky and lighthearted. After that, things were not the same. It was a mystery to her the heavy quietness that was now me.
That fall, the bold and brave self that had eagerly trundled off to kindergarten, was afraid to leave my mother for too long. I would get to school and dissolve, unable to stop crying with how much I missed her. A few times I was sent home. Other times, I stayed, crying. I can remember the teacher shaking her head, while I buried my head on my desk and sobbed. I remember the desperate aching of needing my mother.
I banged my head and ran all the way across town from a birthday party to get home to my mother. I left a sleepover at a friend’s and refused to return. Nothing was wrong, except I missed my mother so desperately, I had to be home. My mother was embarrassed, but I was immovable. Calling the neighbors was one thing. Quitting school was another.
Out of the blue, I was picked up from school one day and taken on a date with my mother. Just us. To a real restaurant. I had a hamburger and a milkshake. My mother watched me eat. That’s all I remember. Eating my hamburger and sipping my milkshake, talking to my mother while she watched me.
Things improved. In grade two, I had an angel of a teacher. We moved the summer before grade three and I fell apart again. My mother walked me to the outside of my new school. We said goodbye, I walked into the school and down the hallway. A little later I ran out the door and all the way home. I couldn’t do it. I needed to be home. My mother decided it was date time again.
Maybe her dates with me didn’t fix the broken things, but those minutes of being all that mattered helped. (My mother was still swearing by them, recommending them to other bewildered parents when I was an adult.) I took Girl one out of school two weeks ago. Chicken fingers. Coconut Cream pie. Then back to school. I try to keep an eye on all of them, not for anything big, just to see who needs it. Eventually, I get them all whether they need it or not, then I start again. They love it, and I do too.
It was a good thing my mother taught me. I’ve decided it doesn’t apply to just kids or crisis. Everybody needs to feel seen and heard. Here’s my prayer for today:
Dear Lord, may I see my neighbor’s brokenness and be willing to watch and listen – with hamburgers and milkshakes of a sort. May I not turn away because I cannot fix it. May I whose tears were not forgotten, faithfully remember the tears of others.
When my mother got cancer, I was very matter of fact. All was well until the tests said otherwise. I listened to poor prognosis and small chances of treatment. I was very careful with my hope then. I treated it like oil, where there’s a limited supply, everybody wants it, and the price keeps going up. I didn’t want to use too much.
My mother was the opposite. She worried most at the beginning. Once cancer paraded out of the closet with tests and labels, she was ferocious in hope. Doctors had no right to say she might die. She would not until she was good and ready. She painted her toenails red and wrote a poem about how if she died, she’d go out with ten little flags waving: this one did not go willingly. Don’t worry, she would tell me. I can feel it. I’m going to get better.
She didn’t. At least not how she was expecting.
I was told last week that I probably have Raynaud’s phenomenon. It is generally harmless, involves very cold feet, hands, and nose, and is caused by spastic contractions of blood vessels. When it does cause complications, it is treated with blood pressure medication.
Seems unlikely, I said when the doctor suggested it. No one in my family has it. I doubt I have it. (The apple did not fall far from my mother’s tree.) Then I went home and read about it. Honestly, the information is not that troubling. Except that I was troubled. This last year of fussing to get my iron and hemoglobin levels up, now a “phenomenon.” Really? Phenomenon sounds ridiculous. Can’t it just be a disease, a disorder, even an affliction? But no, I’ve got a phenomenon. And not just one of them.
The other phenomenon is what happens when you inherit, “damn the torpedo,” genes from your mother and paranoid, “don’t count on health or life,” genes from your paternal grandmother. She died at ninety, but even at fifty, it seemed as though the threat of the Lord’s call to home hung like a knife in the air above her head. Maybe I didn’t see it, but she sure could.
I used to laugh at her, but now I don’t. I get it. Paranoia feels logical and crazy both. Low iron, Raynaud’s phenomenon . . . they’re not fatal. But underneath it all, I’m afraid of dying. Since my mother died, part of me is looking over my shoulder trying to figure out when to duck. Healthy living and optimism do not save you or she’d be here painting toenails with my girls. But neither does anything else. Life and death arrive on their own terms with or without our permission.
I’d give up the ghost, but I see it as plain as writing on the wall right now: the details of unknown are messy, but the goodness of the plan is guaranteed. My fear vs. my lack of control unnerves me, but it’s ok. It really, really is. I fear. I doubt. Yet Love. Always and forever, abides.
Hawk’s View: The personally crafted paradise of Boy two and Girl two. So named, I am told, because when you are in it (4 or 5 feet off the ground) you see what a hawk sees.
More quirky things from the kids, or a few things the fly on the wall observed lately:
Intense voices followed by absolute silent and a lot of clicking. Then a voice would yell that the time was up, followed by more intensity. Some cheering, some shouting. What in heaven’s name, I wanted to know, were they doing? Boy one held up a calculator.
I am so good at this, you would not believe, he said. It’s a game. You add one as fast as you can and try to see how high you can get before the time is up.
We do it all the time, said Boy two. It’s great.
I have not been tempted to try the game.
Girl one returned from walking grandma’s dog with the following sentiment:
Walking Jasmine is so nice. I can sing the whole time and work on my songs. The bad part is that she can’t tell me how good it is, but the really great thing is that she can never say she hates it.
And on nice quirky, one of Girl two’s bedtime prayers:
I pray for Syria . . .and what’s that other country?
Sudan. And I pray for Mom’s friend . . . what’s her name again?
Her name is Stephanie, but I don’t really know her.
Yeah. I pray for Stephanie . . . but mostly I’m going to call her your friend because I can’t remember her name . . . Please help the people with their big rain and help all the people in the world that have bad bathrooms to get good ones . . . I think that’s a good prayer, do you think that’s a good prayer? I think everyone should have good bathrooms.
My childhood was the age of records and tape cassettes. We didn’t listen to the radio, so popular music was only vaguely known to me. I loved whatever we had, the Carpenters, Roger Miller, and the Gaither trio. I almost wore out our Keith Green cassette. Green was killed in a plane crash at age 28. This gave his music an added mysticism to my young mind. The tragedy fascinated me and tugged at my own sorrows both. There was something untamed in his gravelly voice that I loved. I sang all the songs on the tape, but my favorite was Rushing Wind.
Rushing wind, blow through this temple, Blowing out the dust within;
Come and breath your breath upon me: For I’ve been born again
I must never have actually read the words. For the last 30 years, I’ve been singing, “Rushing wind, Lord,” (instead of “Rushing wind, blow . . . “) Close enough. Rushing Wind sang in me when I was happy, depressed, angry, hopeless, excited, worried, wondering, sad, and inconsolable. It was the kind of thing to sing when the tears were all spent or worse when I couldn’t find them. I fumbled for something in the heavy dark of empty. I mouthed the words, my voice would crack, and I would sing until I found my voice again. It was a prayer and an anthem both.
A plea for help.
Please, I’m not ok. Let me feel something. Anything. Tell me it won’t always be like this. Don’t leave me here alone.
And a declaration.
I accept. By circumstances I would not choose, I will allow myself to be altered, the dust of me blown out, and another breath breathing into my own.
I have a picture of an afternoon, my teenage body leaning against a tree, knees tucked up against my chest, the wind tearing madly around me. I had gone to the woods hoping that I would be able to cry, or to feel ok again. My sad was accustomed to strict exterior management. When I wanted to give it voice, it often remained silent, and I was left with numb. Then and now, I would take tears to the vastness of nothing any day. But tears were not to be. Neither did joy find me. In the bombastic wind my song came and so I sang. Rushing wind, Lord through this temple . . .
Hope found me in the wind, that day and on countless others. I still ache for wind when I don’t know which way to turn. I picture myself on a hill, the barren trees wild with wind. And the wind still calls forth my song. Spring agrees. The cry for new life never does grow old.
Rushing wind, Lord through this temple, Blowing out the dust within;
Come and breath your breath upon me: For I’ve been born again
A Young Scholar, painted by Jean-Honore Fragonard. 1778.
I like to remember brave deeds. Grade six friends who forgot their bus notes could count on me to pen their permissions and sign their parent’s names. When the burly book keepers from a Jello Wrestling fundraiser tried to fudge the numbers, my 17 year old self was more than happy to take them to task while our math intimidated adult supervisor fretted. I am comfortable questioning immigration officials, security personnel, and government employees.
I don’t remember many instances where people described me as fearful. I remember more the feeling of being jostled forward with, “send Michelle, she’s not afraid,” in my ears. The day I grabbed my brother and kept him firmly between me and the growling dog, no one was there to see. But No-Criticism-Lent (Reduced-Criticism Lent might be more accurate) isn’t lying. I am afraid.
I went into Lent thinking I needed it because I walked around with inappropriate levels of grumpiness about other people’s foibles. Considering fear in the equation is like realizing I’ve been navigating the kitchen with a paper bag on my head. My eyes are adjusting to the super bright. I’m still taking in the increased definition in shapes and the nuances of color.
It is amazing to me how the patterns we develop as children shape our adult responses. Sometimes when I think I am keeping my own children safe, I am really assuring the child I once was that she is safe. The insight doesn’t give me a pass on criticizing, it gives me the chance to do something about the fear that’s behind it.
Which is scary.
“Naked revelation,” I wrote yesterday, “I criticize because I am afraid. . . If no one messes up, everything will be ok, nothing will fall apart, and no one will get hurt.” The statement implies that my criticism does not actually save me from what I am afraid of. In other words, I realized that fear drives me, and then I realized my go-to coping mechanism is useless. My footing would be more sure on the melting ice floating around on our pond right now. I guess the best thing about having grey hair, is that you can feel all that slipping and wait it out. Wet boots, cold feet, soggy pants maybe, but you make it to something solid and go on in to get warm.
I’m afraid of things falling apart. I don’t have the power to make myself and everybody else do it right (so that bad things never happen). But it’s ok. The fear of the child who was me can be gently diffused. The future is uncertain and uncontrollable. Instead of tearing down the metaphorical neighbors who walk on my yard, I can lean into loving them. It will be a work in progress, but if the world starts crumbling on account of it, maybe we can face it together.
Young Girl Wearing a White Muslin Dress. By John Singer Sargent, 1885.
I picked Girl one up from school in tears. What was wrong? I asked.
“I like to sing. None of my friends like it when I sing. I hum a lot when I work. My friends tell me to stop. I like to sing but Boy two hates it. He tells me to stop any time he hears me. Even the teachers are telling me to stop.
I love to sing, but now I have to stop doing it.”
The words came with intermittent sobs and much sniffling.
“I just don’t want to stop singing,” she whispered through more tears.
Whatever the facts from the others involved, Girl one was in pain. What to say, I wondered. I believe in the importance of voices. Finding them, using them, celebrating them. I also like to work in silence. No sound (unless it is happening live in nature) is my idea of perfect working space.
When Girl one was two and three she would talk non-stop, especially in the car, no audience required. If she wasn’t talking, she was singing, making up ballads that told all kinds of stories. Now that she is older, she writes some of her songs down. On scraps of paper. In torn up notebooks. We don’t have them all collected. If I could find one, I’d count it a triumph, but I’ve seen a few. Little verses with chorus. At eight, Girl one has a beautiful voice. Other people have noticed it too.
What to do?
I told Girl one about my working habits. How, unlike Daddy, I NEVER listen to music if I writing, or thinking, even though I really, really love music. And how her friends might be like that too. Being asked to be quiet, I suggested, is not the same thing as people hating your voice. Whatever the answer is, it is not to stop singing. The answer is to know when to sing.
We like to read together, what if we start looking for times to sing together? Learn new songs? I have a few minutes right now if you’re interested, I said.
Girl one’s eyebrows touched the top of her head and pulled the rest of her up on tiptoes. I thought she might pirouette. “I would love that,” she managed. We went to the piano and got out my music. We sang one she knew and worked on two others. I sang the verses with her but let her have the choruses to herself. She poured on her vibrato whenever possible. Fifteen minutes later, I had to get back to dinner. She walked away with little spins. Her toothless smile began at the torn out- earring- redesigned ear, and didn’t seem quite finished when it hit the other side. “Thanks a lot, Mom,” she said coming back for a hug.