Monthly Archives: February 2015

School Pictures

The calendar reminds me it’s time for school pictures this week.  I take a deep breath because our family has a bit of a history here.  With technology’s advances, photos are as ubiquitous as sunlight or, say, leggings on a college girl.   Selfie actually became a real word a couple of years ago in the Oxford English Dictionary.  But it wasn’t always so.

When I was in grade school, unless a parent or teacher had a camera in hand, with actual film in it that required developing and processing, we didn’t get many pictures of ourselves, and certainly not ones we could see immediately.  School picture day was a big event.  We dressed nicely, combed our hair, and tried to smile sweetly.

It would take weeks before our pictures came back, and when they did, it was as exciting as receiving a yearbook in high school.  Everyone compared head shots.  We carefully snipped the sheets of the 3×2 wallets and exchanged them with each other like baseball trading cards, writing a small note on the back of each one:  “To a Good Friend, Stay fun!”

Some of my childhood friends moved to different cities and the last memory I have of bon 4th grade 3them is their wallet-sized school picture, frozen in 4th grade forever.  Inevitably, every school year couldn’t be as cute as that one with the toothless grin in first grade.  In fourth grade, I conveniently broke out with a case of cold sores–all over my face.  Also, that was the day I wore the flattering bright yellow sundress my mother made me.  All my friends who moved away that year have that lovely image to remind them, forever, of me.

Then there was 7th grade, everyone’s most graceful and poised year of life.  Until then, I had fine, straight hair that hung limply around my face.  After months of begging my mom for a perm, I got one alright.  My rounded Afro frizzed around my head like an electricity experiment gone wrong.  bon 7th grade2Oh, and that was the year I got braces.  Mercifully, I thought to remove the humiliating headgear I had to wear with them before the picture was snapped.  Headgear apparently was a leftover of torture from the Middle Ages:  a metal bar that wrapped around your face, attached to your back teeth, and harnessed around the back of your neck by a velcro strap.  And, again with the mustard yellow color.  It wasn’t until the late 80’s that the Color Me Beautiful concept came around and I learned that yellow was not, and never would be, my color.  It made me look as if I were just getting over a nasty stomach bug.  Seventh grade was not my finest moment.

bob picMy husband had a classic school picture, too.  His was captured in 3rd grade, when he apparently was having a bit of a bad hair day.  There’s a note in his childhood scrapbook, written by his mom,  that reads, “didn’t think to tell mom we were having pictures made.”  That might explain the Lassie shirt and his seemingly stunned expression.

With our sad history of school pictures, I was determined to shepherd my children through the pitfalls of forever having such images represent themselves.  When my daughter turned 11, she deemed the day her long-awaited “Golden Birthday.”  sav tiaraNo idea where she came up with this, but apparently turning 11 on the 11th is somehow your life’s one magical date.  (I guess I missed the significance when I turned 14 on the 14th; no magic for me.)   Turns out, her magic day fell on picture day.  Imagine my surprise when the pictures finally came back and I realized she’d chosen to immortalize the moment forever by way of a tiara.  Future students leafing through the old school yearbooks will not be aware of her reasons and will just imagine she was 6th grade royalty.  Perhaps this was her plan all along.   Why didn’t I think of that in 7th grade?  Then again, the tiara would have been swallowed by my giant hair.

Sadly, my son’s Golden Birthday will not come until he turns 26, long after the school picture opportunity has passed.   He has never taken picture day seriously.  It has always BEN CLASS PIC3been a barrage of reminders to please comb your hair and try a decent smile.  In fifth grade, it wasn’t just his own self portrait that he decided to flub.  He managed to wait for just the right moment in the class picture to be a goof.   Yep, that’s him in the blue shirt looking like Bill the Cat from the Bloom County cartoon. The other parents, when they received this little gem, may have been startled by what appeared to be the child choking in the back row.

I was thinking the other day that, now that homeschooling is on the rise, many students will be able to escape the ignominy of school pictures.  And with all the digital technology available, at the very least, they could photo-shop out the weird kid in the back row of a group shot.

Despite the embarrassment at the time, I kind of like having the old school pictures available.  I can show my kids that I wasn’t always the specimen of beauty and coolness that they envy today.  Everyone is weird.  Everyone has been humbled, hated the way they looked, did something dumb, had a period of awkwardness.  It’s a universal path that all of us must walk.  The edited, filtered, photo-shopped selfies of today are just an illusion.  I love Colbie Callait’s song “Try” because she says it’s okay to be real, genuine, messy, and likable anyway.

That’s why, towards the end of my kids’ school years, my favorite pictures have turned out to be the ones where their silliness and fun outweigh their outfits or hair or smiles.  It’s why, when I pulled out my 7th grade picture and warned my son to shield his eyes and not look at it directly, we both shared a laugh at just how awful it was.   We’re just keepin’ it real, people.

Objects in Mirror

Time is marching on and I’m feeling that familiar pressure to forcefully cram lovingly impart all my Wisdom to my son before he’s on his own.   A week has gone by and I have made exactly none of the healthy, good-for-you recipes from Pinterest I vowed to try.  The bathroom scale mocks me each morning as I step out of the shower.  It’s the middle of February and the fragile optimism I held so gently in my hands at the start of the year has started gasping for air as I realize several of my goals for 2015 have yet to see progress.

objects in mirrorGary Larson has a classic Far Side cartoon that illustrates how I’m feeling.   When I’m focused on meeting all the expectations, trying to keep my eyes on the 16 different balls I’m juggling, all of a sudden there’s a startling eyeball coming up on my right.  Objects in mirror are closer than they appear?  Yikes!

When my kids were young, this eyeball was all the stuff I wasn’t doing, catching up to me.  The day would start out with such promise and I had so many things I’d want to accomplish, but it could (and usually did) turn on a dime.  All my best intentions forgotten,  I’d be struggling through the grocery store with frozen food piled on top of my daughter in the basket while my son gummed handfuls of crackers into a soggy mess down the front of his shirt.

Inevitably, some random sweet older woman would give me that look in the checkout line, and I’d think, “Uh-oh, here it comes.”

“Look at your sweet angels.  You should treasure each moment, honey.  It all goes by in a flash.  They’re only like this for the blink of an eye.”

“Really?” I’d think, “because last night when I was changing wet sheets at 2 a.m. it seemed like an eternity.”

The same thing would happen when I was in the middle of the daily exorcism that was my life with a teenage girl.  Women who’d been through it with their own offspring would tell me it was just a phase and all but pat me on the head.   Oh, a phase?  You mean like werewolves go through when they shape-shift?  Cool.

What I needed, what I think all moms really need at the core, instead of a wise wink and platitudes that this, too, shall pass and pass quickly, is acknowledgement that what I was doing was hard.  The hardest.  Physically exhausting, emotionally draining, repetitive, often unrewarded work.  I would have preferred a thumbs up, a conspiratorial nod, like they understood that I was doing my best, despite the screaming and tears (from me, not my toddlers or teens).

I was in the mall food court the other day with my teenage son, and it was so crowded we shared half a table with a young mom and her three little ones.  The oldest, maybe 4, was up and down after each bite of lunch, kneeling, squirming, and twirling in his seat.  It was just a matter of time before he slipped and fell–and I automatically caught him, hands smeared in ketchup, before he hit the ground.  His mom was so apologetic.  She’d been tending to her baby on her other side when he fell.

“It’s ok,” I said and gestured to my man-child son across from me.  She gave me the most grateful look and said, “Yes, so you know.  Except he’s big now!”    We shared a laugh and I helped her clean up the ketchup all over the table.  I didn’t tell her that her kids would not be little like that for long.

Because it’s universal:  all moms want is someone to tell us we are doing ok even when it looks like it’s all falling apart.  There is no reminder that can guilt her any more than she’s already guilting herself.  There is no criticism you can speak that she hasn’t already spoken a hundred times.  She’s constantly second-guessing and blundering her way through parenting the best she can, having moments she’s not proud of and moments that she’d never thought she’d be strong enough to endure.

She’ll figure out on her own that the days are long, but the years are short.  Those thousand things that seem to be bearing down on you inevitably change into a sense of time passing too quickly.  

Objects in the mirror are closer than they appear.

They creep up on you and take your breath in surprise.  I look in the rear-view expecting to see my toddler son and suddenly there he is all biceps and big feet, the sweet voice that used to sing Itsy Bitsy Spider now cracking as it strains towards a new sort of bass sound.  I call my daughter some days imagining her twirling and skipping and am blown away by her independence and self-assurance.

I used to sing a Hans Christian Andersen song as a lullaby to my children every night.

Inchworm, inchworm,

Measuring the marigolds.

You and your arithmetic will probably go far.

Inchworm, inchworm,

Measuring the marigolds,

Seems to me you’d stop and see how beautiful they are.  

(2 and 2 are 4, 4 and 4 are 8, 8 and 8 are 16, 16 and 16 are 32)

inchwormIt was a good daily reminder, after the grocery stores and the arguing, to stop a minute and really look at my kids, drink them in with all their gifts and strengths and failures and faults.

Of course the women were right–we should all treasure the moments.  But if we aren’t carpe-ing each diem with zest and glee, it doesn’t mean we have failed.  If we stood in awe and amazement during all the moments of every day, we wouldn’t really be honestly living those moments.  Instead, we’d be standing around goggling at the beauty and sweetness and letting some important work slide.   It’s only in hindsight, no matter how many reminders you get from the well-meaners, that you see the golden field of marigolds you’ve tended.

As Solomon observed, there’s a time and season for everything.  A time for tantrums and a time for lullabies, a time for hissy fits and a time for shared confidences.  A time for savoring and a time for soldiering, eyeballs and inchworms.










Can You Hear Me Now?

Back when my children were toddlers underfoot, there were many days when I heard a constant stream of alternating chatter, screaming, laughing, whining, crying, and singing. Back then, Barney and Dora played incessantly as the soundtrack of my life.  I fielded endless “whys” from sunup to sundown.  Why I hafta go sleep?  Why did Hiccup the hamster die?  Why is Dora’s head so big? (That one will have to remain one of the universe’s mysteries.)

Some evenings, after failed attempts at playing “Quiet as a Mouse,” I just had to blurt, “Mommy’s ears are really tired!  Can we give them a little rest for a few minutes?”  Back then, I would have paid big bucks for five minutes of quiet alone in the bathroom, and nap times were manna from heaven.  I mainlined the quiet and stillness like a heroin addict.

Now that one of the children is off to college and the other is completely independent and often doing homework or in his own world wearing headphones at a computer screen, the quiet I longed for has arrived.  And it brought along its friends, anxiety and restlessness.   The silence prods me:  is there something you should be doing?  Someone you should be looking after?  Where’s that list of To-Do’s and action items?

While I don’t mind the quiet, I’m not very good at it.   I come by it honestly.   I’m pretty sure I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve seen my father sit down and just relax.  I’m not sure he gets the concept, really.  He’ll go on vacation to visit one of his kids and end up patching our drywall, repairing a privacy fence, or installing a ceiling fan.  He doesn’t stay in one place for very long.  After a couple of days, he’s ready to get back on the road.  Things to do, places to go.   You know these people.  Often they are our mothers or grandmothers, who slaved over holiday feasts only to be bobbing up and down from the table like the Whack-a-Mole game, their own dinners untouched and cold.

A few years ago, I learned of a piece of music composed by John Cage in 1952.  It’s called 4’33”, and it consists of three movements entirely of rests.  The performer appears on stage, sits at the piano to begin while the audience waits in anticipation, and then nothing.  Four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence.  The pianist counts all the measures of rests as the audience squirms.  What is going on?  Did he forget the music?  Does he have stage fright?  People look at one another nervously.

Four minutes and thirty-three seconds is a long time to be quiet.  Just ask a toddler playing “Quiet as a Mouse.” Eventually, you start to listen, not to the music, but to the absence of it:  the creaking of the seat cushions, a cough, someone’s whisper, the rustle of a program.  You’re forced to settle in, get past the initial discomfort, and hear a different sort of music in your surroundings.  Even the sound of your own breath becomes a choir of its own, filling the empty air with notes of spontaneous melody.

There is a beauty that arises from stillness, from silence, that we often disregard because it’s not as urgent or demanding as noise.  It’s like the well-behaved child reading by herself who gets no attention because the rowdy cousins are swinging from the drapes in the other room.  The dearest of friends are those who can sit still with you in the hospital waiting room, those who don’t have to keep up a barrage of chatter lest the room grow uncomfortably quiet.  There are tense silences (when you’ve just laid the baby down and are tiptoeing soundlessly out of the nursery like a ninja) and easy, comfortable ones (when you’ve turned in for the night with your spouse and you’re both reading in bed companionably, conversation optional).

What this new-found quiet at my house has taught me is that I haven’t practiced it very much.  Silence and I haven’t spent much quality time together.   My day is usually full of conversations, phone calls, TV, traffic, the car radio, podcasts, itunes, even a running commentary in my own head, much like those from my kids that used to make my ears so tired.  Even if I’m sitting quietly, I’m occupied with a book or my phone.

I know I’m not alone in this.  Aside from the technology addiction that many of us have (admitting you have a problem is the first step to recovery, people!), we don’t know how to sit still in the quiet and just be.  We demand constant entertainment, distraction, busyness, and noise, which is why the 4’33” concert piece so unnerves audiences.  I have to wonder what we are so afraid of?  What do we think will fill the quiet if we let it happen?  If we turn off the car radio while we’re running errands, what rushes in?  If we sit quietly for a few minutes without scrolling through Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, or YouTube, what thoughts arise?

Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline elaborates on the practice of silence as a spiritual discipline.  As with most things spiritual, if you empty yourself of one thing, something else takes its place.  Empty yourself of noise and silence settles upon you, often bringing its own kind of disquiet. What thoughts are there, lurking beneath the noise?  I’ve been practicing being quiet, enjoying the silence, hearing what’s already there instead of injecting my own noise into the universe.

All the noise is exhausting, and we don’t even realize it until it’s absent and we breathe deeper and our shoulders relax.  Without the car radio on, once I run through my own stream of consciousness thoughts, the quiet often leads me to prayer.  “Well, I pray,” you say.  “I’m so disciplined I even have a quiet time every morning, just me in the quiet before the day starts.”   Awesome.  You’re way ahead of me.   But prayer is a conversation, not just you phoning in your thoughts or requests.  Often we just yak away and forget that there’s a second act.  Being still and knowing.  Listening in the quiet.  If you don’t think that there might be an answer, then why waste your time in prayer?   No telling what might bubble up from the quiet and surprise you.  The still, small voice is awfully hard to hear when you drown it out.

In the movie Get Smart, one of the coolest gadgets was the Cone of Silence.  Once under it, cone of silenceall noise completely stopped, like inside a vacuum.   Being a silence rookie, I wish I had one of these convenient devices that I could activate whenever I need a “moment of silence.”  (There I go, dependent on technology again.)

I still appreciate some noise in my days.  I like a good car jam as well as anyone (celebration is also a spiritual discipline, by the way)!  But I’m learning through my circumstances and newly quiet house to appreciate the silence and the lessons it teaches.

Space Coast

These cold February days have me day dreaming about my Floridian childhood.  Most of my formative years were spent on Florida’s Space Coast, the stomping ground of Major Nelson and Jeannie from the 1970’s I Dream of Jeannie show.

We lived just a few blocks from the ocean, although we rarely went.  Hard to believe now that we actually schedule family vacations for that very purpose, but familiarity breeds contempt, I suppose.  Our beach was rocky and full of seaweed and many times was a minefield full of clumps of sticky tar that was impossible to scrub from your feet.  Still, we would sometimes be lucky enough to spot a loggerhead turtle laying her eggs, scooping sand with her flippers to cover the nest before heading back out to sea.

Our zip code designated our address as Satellite Beach, about an hour south of Orlando and central Florida’s tourist Mecca.  We had Florida resident and military discounts to Disney and Sea World, so I lost count of how many times we were there.  Once I got older, my friends and I got dropped off at the gate a few times by our parents, kind of like the mall hangout for today’s crowd, except instead of Hollister and the Cookie Store, we got Mickey and Shamu.  Space Mountain’s roller coaster in the dark was our version of living on the edge.

The Magic Kingdom wasn’t the only magical aspect of my childhood.  Where the Indian and Banana Rivers converged in south Merritt Island,

dragon point, "Annie"; from Florida Today
dragon point, “Annie”; from Florida Today

there was a huge mansion at the island’s tip.  There used to be a 20-ton statue of a dragon (named Annie) that jutted out into the water, as if she were scooping up minnows from the shallows.  Every time we passed that dragon, I’d dream up stories about her life and what she did there.  I heard just recently that the mansion is being repaired and the dragon restored–hurray!

We had no seasons:   shorts and flip flops at Christmas, shorter shorts and bare feet in the summer.  Palm trees stayed the same all year.  The only way you knew the holidays were approaching was the change in inventory at the stores. The first winter after moving away, my freshman English teacher stopped class to let me go outside in the snow that was drifting down.  I’d never seen snow that I remembered, and she thought it was high time.  Summer must be over because school would start up again, and people wouldn’t run the sprinklers in their yards as often.  This was a good thing since we were constantly outside sprinting through our neighbors’ yards, and you never knew when their timers would be set to come on, soaking you with smelly sulfur water in the middle of a good game of tag.

Periodically, NASA would announce a rocket launch, and we’d hurry through dinner so we could sit on the picnic table in the backyard and watch it light up the sky, a vertical plume of flame and smoke trailing from its tail as it sped towards its orbit.  For really important ones, we’d head to the beach and sit on the sand, listening in the dark for the familiar bass rumble.  It was better than a fireworks show.  On their way back from Japan after I was born, my parents had watched on the airport TV screens as the Apollo 11 astronauts took their first steps on the moon.  About 13 years later, one afternoon when I was in gym class, we looked up to see the Shuttle Columbia and its escort jets flying home to Kennedy Space Center after its recent landing in California.  It flew so low I could make out the windows on its side, and we all cheered and waved.

In January of my senior year, I was in Tennessee home from school for a snow day watching TV as the Challenger exploded in mid-launch.  We felt it personally, having watched it launch several times from our backyard.  One of my sisters worked at Cape Canaveral, where the loss was traumatic and the effects were felt for years afterward.

When we weren’t peering up at the night sky, we were running barefoot in the sunshine.  For a time, my family had a boat that we’d take out onto the Indian River.  We’d motor under the drawbridges and through the canals, winding our way to the many islands that dotted the river’s landscape.  I loved to putter alongside a gently floating school of manatees, their gray backs breaching the surface like ancient whales.   Occasionally we’d hand-feed them heads of iceberg lettuce, their whiskery faces peering at us while they munched.

my brother & me, an afternoon on the water
my brother & me, an afternoon on the water

We would anchor at one of these outcroppings and pile out with the day’s lunch and our portable grill.  We learned how to dig in the wet sand at the water’s edge with our toes, finding clams that we’d toss on the grill until they popped open, revealing their salty, slightly gritty meat.

I learned to love seafood.  My grandfather owned a charter deep sea fishing boat in Panama City, and we’d regularly stock up on fresh-caught grouper and snapper.  My parents would go out at night with friends and throw nets from the bridges, hauling in all-you-could-eat shrimp.  My dad had a tour of duty assignment in the Grand Turk islands, and he would bring back coolers of conch and lobster, packed on ice.  It wasn’t until I was much older that I realized, sadly, that lobster wasn’t an every-day menu item.

One of my friends had a small two-man sailboat.   We were not yet old enough for a driver’s license, but she could pilot the little craft around the canals, through the watery backyards of the neighborhood.  That was all the freedom we needed, sans wheels.

My father was anxious to leave.  Being raised in Wisconsin and Maryland, he couldn’t stand the summer heat.  He constantly muttered about the cars, our bikes, and his tools rusting because of the salt air from the ocean breeze.  We had to time our exits from the house so as to open the door the minimum amount of time possible, edging through in the briefest of seconds or else he’d yell, “Shut the door!”  Obviously we were trying to air condition the entire neighborhood!  We were also not allowed to turn on the oven for this reason.  The a/c ran constantly, turning him into a miser who constantly monitored the thermostat.   But kids don’t see the adult reasoning behind all that frustration. My Florida was an oasis of warmth and ocean breezes, punctuated by the occasional hurricane.  We rode our bikes for miles over the flat terrain:  to and from school, the library, the movies, friends’ houses.  It was a freer time then, before kids were monitored every second through scheduled play dates and after-school activities.  We had to be back to our neighborhood before the street lights came on and close enough to hear my father’s whistle for dinner time.

Three of my siblings still call Florida home, so I can easily visit.  I have the best of both worlds, with the occasional snowfall and hardwood trees that turn glorious in the fall here and a means to answer the Siren’s call of the ocean whenever I feel the pull.  Like, for example, on gray February days like these.