Saturday, September 24, 2011

She Said It So Well

Tonight, after Sophia went to sleep, I sat down with Kevin and enumerated the many reasons I'm feeling totally stressed out at the moment (looming deadline for work, the untimely demise of my father's beloved budgies, gotta write the blog, anxiety about Sophie's inability to nap at Montessori, etc., etc.). When I was fiinally finished, he paused and offered, "Do you want me to guest blog for you this week? Would that help?"

"Really? You would do that for me?" I was more than mildly surprised. Sure, he edits my work every week (and always offers something that elevates the piece), but this was above and beyond.

He lifted his eyebrows in an expression I know by now conveys utter sincerity. And so, this week, with gratitude and pleasure, I'd like to present a guest blog by Sophie's dad, Kevin:

Sophie said it so very well.

I brought Melissa and Sophie down South to attend a family reunion. I had been looking forward to visiting my Georgia cousins who I rarely see. The occasion allowed Sophie to play with one of her only two first cousins. One year apart, they merrily chased each other. Tickles, giggles, and hugs abounded in a several hour spate.

Sophie was uncharacteristically quiet and serious when returning to our car. Sucking her thumb and looking forward in a distant stare, she seemed to be thinking very hard. She popped her thumb from her mouth and in a high-pitched, dreamy-tone shared, “We give our hearts away to other people and get new ones. That’s love.”

My own heart melted. I was awe-struck. With a tear in my eye, I made eye contact with Sophia who smiled slightly as she reinserted her thumb. I looked over to Melissa and we exchanged looks of parental wonderment and pride.

Sophie plays often and well with other children, so I wasn’t surprised when she had fun with her cousin. It didn’t matter that she hadn’t seen her cousin in a full year, which for a 3-year-old is almost the same as never having played together. What surprised me was she seemed to have a special emotional attachment to playing with this child, because he was her cousin. Moreover, she articulated this special emotional attachment in that pure, clear-vision of a child feeling something for the first time.

I have some warm memories of playing with my Georgia cousins when I was a child. Most of my life was lived elsewhere and I struggle with the odd experience of both loving and not really knowing my cousins. Love is generally talked about in the context of romantic love or familial love for one’s parents, siblings, and children. The kind of love I feel for my cousins is a connective love: a shared bloodline, cultural background, and longitudinal view of someone across their life span. Similar to a leap of faith, this kind of love requires me to find a way for my feelings to jump over the unknown. Staying in touch with them involves the risk that I may endure apathy and lack of reciprocation.

Luckily for me, the reunion was well-attend and I had dozens of happy conversations, including sharing memories of my deceased mother, learning about my family member’s lives now, and reminiscing about our playful childhoods. I enjoyed several heart-to-heart conversations with a beloved aunt. After the weekend, I feel rejuvenated in that unique way that visiting family can best remind you who you are and where you come from.

My precocious daughter distilled all of these complex and subtle feelings into a clarion two-liner. First, we give our hearts away by risking staying connected. Then, having risked, we receive the love of others and renew our self-love by acting in accordance to our values. These things are love.

Sophie said it so very well.

Thank you, Kevin.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Facing Race

We are in the bathroom of a gourmet pizza restaurant—the kind that has offerings like shrimp and goat cheese and whole wheat crusts—in Atlanta, GA. We’re here for a family reunion on Kevin’s side, and tonight we’re visiting with some of his cousins he hasn’t seen in years.

Towards the end of the meal, Sophie announces her panicked, “Bathroom!” which she does every night at some point during dinner. Then she says, “Mommy, come with me.”

Looks like I’m up.

On the way to the bathroom, we pass some live music, two teenagers, one on keyboards, singing, and the other accompanying him on the base. Sophie pauses to stick out her butt and shake it a little before I remind her of where we were so desperately headed.

She reluctantly drags her feet toward the bathroom. Inside there is a full length mirror, and with the music loud enough to penetrate the door, Sophie breaks into a dance watching herself with delight. As she does, another little girl enters with her mother. She is slight—I take her to be newly three—with creamy coffee-colored skin, perfect tight, black braids, shining eyes, a purple tutu, and bejeweled, flashing sneakers. She sees Sophie, squeaks a greeting and immediately joins her. Sophie is charmed to have someone join her dance party and the two shake their tails and chatter away about the live music. The other mom and I exchange smiles, touched by the sight of our daughters dancing in the bathroom.

But, wary of an accident, I remind Sophie, once again, of the purpose of our trip. “Okay, okay, Mom,” she says. We are in the stall and Sophie announces, loud enough for the entire bathroom to hear, “That girl has brown skin, Mom!”

I wince, but say, “Yes, she does.” Pause, and then add matter-of-factly, “We all come in different colors.”

Of course, Sophie was just noting the difference. It was hardly a comment along the lines of, “Mommy, why is that woman’s stomach so big?” which she asked a couple weeks ago in the library, pointing to one of the librarians. I tried to hustle her out the door so I could talk to her in private about making comments about other people’s bodies, but thinking I hadn’t heard her she said it again only this time, MUCH LOUDER.

No, I was only embarrassed because I would have liked to respond to Sophie the way in which the other girl’s mother would want me to respond to Sophie, and I wasn’t sure what that was. There’s no playbook for this. No way to know if the other mother was annoyed that of all the observations my daughter could have made about hers (she’s friendly, a good dancer, adorable, had cool shoes), it had to be about skin color, and now she (and her child) were being subjected to a conversation about the color of their skin. Or, whether she appreciated what I had to say, and the casual tone with which I said it. Or was she in the other stall wondering about the expression my face wore, where the conversation would be headed, or how she would talk to her own daughter about this interaction.

Was it the first time that she was confronted by a comment made by a “white” child about her child, or the millionth? I note that I have never heard a black child say of Sophia, “Mommy, her skin is all pinky-orange!” and I wonder why not.

I was also taken a bit off guard by Sophia’s comment because she is frequently around people-of-color. It’s not like she’s never seen someone a different shade or hue. Her teacher is West Indian. My mother’s nursery school is very diverse. We have friends and, albeit a few, neighbors who are black. We have a bunch of books featuring characters of a variety of skin tones. And she’s frequently in Philly where we encounter people of all races.

I think perhaps she said it because I’ve tried to make race a part of the conversation. Early on I read a summary of the research on children and race in Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman’s Nurture Shock. One of the points the authors make is that white people who want their children to be raised without bias often make the mistake of not talking about race. They don’t want to draw attention to the difference, so they don’t mention the difference. This reticence has the effect of making it an uncomfortable topic. And, because children just tend to gravitate towards people who look similarly to themselves, children will start to divide themselves into subgroups by race very early on. What white parents should do, they posit, is talk to their children about the fact that people come in all different colors and that you can be friends with someone who is a different color from you as easily as someone who is the same color as you. So, though it has felt awkward to do it, I’ve talked about the color of her friends—hair, eyes and skin—and pointed out how mommy and daddy have friends of different colors too.

Hence the comment. Sophie was just doing what (I hope) I’ve made it okay to do. I realize that not everyone is going to react in the same way to her comments. As Kevin later said to me, part of why race is so hard to talk about is that when you don’t know someone, you don’t know what they do and don’t believe. A simple observation could be loaded with bias, or it could be just that, an innocent noticing of the difference. It is the thing that makes social space so charged.

The other mother emerged from the stall with her daughter, smiling. If she was offended, I could not read it on her face. We waved goodbye and headed back to our table. A moment later Sophie saw them moving towards the table next to ours, “Look, Mom, it’s my new friend. Can I go over and talk to her?” I wasn’t sure that it would be welcome, and I was aware that I agreed, in part, because I was overcompensating. I didn’t want the other mom to think ill of Sophie’s comment (or my response). So I followed her over to the table, where the girl was drawing. They had a happy reunion, exchanging names and ages. Sophie complimented her on her coloring. We returned to our table and moments later, Sophie’s friend appeared, her picture in hand. “It’s for you,” she said to Sophie, handing her a picture of a star and her name written in a colorful mix of capital and lower case letters. Sophie took the sheet of paper and beamed as if she had just been given one of the greatest gifts she had ever received.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Death-defying Dreams

The other night, I woke from a nightmare. It was so vivid, so real, I had to write it down to purge myself of it so that I could return to sleep:

I was doing therapy in an old, sprawling, Victorian house with a woman going through a divorce. Initially, she was there to share some concerns about her child, but she wound up talking about herself. I had the sense that walking would put her at ease, so we wandering from room to room, still talking.

In the kitchen we encountered her ex-husband. After a brief exchange, he left. The woman and I stayed and talked a bit, until I noticed her ex-husband’s outline through a frosted glass door and realized he was eavesdropping. I was reluctant to leave the space, thinking to myself, "there's something so intimate about kitchens.” But, I wanted to protect her confidentiality, so we walked on. Suddenly, Sophie was in my arms in that inexplicable dream-like way. I carried her as we walked through an area that had a high, slanted, leaded glass ceiling. Golden, fiery balls were falling from the sky, crashing through the roof, shattering the glass all around us, setting the ground aflame. "Oh." I thought, "it's the golden balls of hail," as if recalling a weather report or a prophecy I had previously heard. I shielded Sophie with my body, as I tried to find my way out of the room. Sophie was fascinated by the balls, staring up at them, pointing to one that was aglow with several different colors. I, on the other hand, was terrified. Everywhere there was splintering glass. I had to run, holding Sophie while looking up to avoid being hit. One golden ball of hail grazed her back. I panicked. We, Sophie, my client, and I, headed outside, quickly determining it was safer than being in the glass-ceiling room. Seeking shelter, we headed back towards the front door of the building, dodging the hail as we went. We could hear the screams of other people in the street, wounded, dying. Just as we finally reached the front door, the hail let up. We had made it through. A woman lay on the steps, moaning. There were bits of blood and what looked like brains on the ground. "What happened?" I cried stupidly, alarmed. "She's been hit." said my client, trying to comfort the woman in her last moments. I couldn't shield Sophie from this awful sight. And then, I woke up.

Since the recent earthquake and floods, my dreams have been morbid. Full of death and destruction. Apocalyptic. Now, more than ever, I am acutely aware that my time on this Earth is limited.

Just days later, three-year-old Sophia shared this dream with me:

“I was in grandma’s kitchen, saving a piece of my pizza crust. I leaned back in my chair and fell down. It made a big hole in the floor. Blood came out of my head. It felt like it had wood chunks inside. Grandma put me in bed in my room. Blood came out on the pillow. I sat up. And grandma put a Band-Aid on it. I felt better.” Which is, presumably, when I walked into the room and found her sitting up in bed, bewildered, but calm.

As she recounted the events of her dream, what I found most remarkable about it was how completely unperturbed she was. I listened, hoping my face didn’t betray my shock that this was the stuff of her dreams—violent and sanguinary as my own.

Sophie talks a lot about death, now. Just today, we were looking at a photograph of her classmates from her first year in nursery school. “They’re not dead,” she remarked. “I just don’t see them any more.” Again, I tried not to miss a beat. “That’s right,” I said, “they’re not dead. They’re in kindergarten.”

She’s working on the concept. Trying to make sense of what becomes of the dead. Her first encounter with death occurred a year ago. It was in a field, while we were picking raspberries. A rat lay lifeless on the ground. She stood over it, wondering at his still form. “It’s not alive anymore,” I told her, avoiding the word dead. My explanation seemed to satisfy her. She enjoyed recalling the story, of finding the rat that was no longer alive.

About a month ago, the grandfather of one of her friends died. She caught me off guard with the inevitable question, “What does it mean to be dead?”

“Well,” I replied slowly, “it’s like the rat. His body is no longer alive. He’s not with us anymore. His body stopped working. But even after a person is dead you can keep him alive in your mind, by thinking about him.”

Again, she seemed satisfied. I followed the psychological guideline of discussing difficult subjects…sex…divorce…death…with young ones: when they stop asking, stop offering.

Still, she continues to grapple with the concept of mortality. In Beauty and the Beast, Gaston gives the war whoop, “Kill the beast!” And later, the beast lies dying in Belle’s arms, only to be resurrected by her love. Sophia recycles this storyline over and over again in her play. As if through the enactment, she will gain some mastery over it. “Daddy, you be the beast,” she instructs. “But be a nice beast.” When Kevin treads on delicate ground, baring his teeth and growling at her, she squeals, half fearful/half delighted, “No! Don’t kill me! Be a nice beast!”

Sophie, with her egocentric orientation to the world, is the boss of death.

For me, the impetus to reflect on my mortality (outside of all of the natural disasters of late), is this no-mans-land of middle age. The recognition that my life may, in fact, be half over. Time is now measured in what I have left, not what I have ahead of me. Suddenly it feels short, time borrowed. I am at death’s mercy:

Death is the boss of me.

Last night, I was having dinner with my family at a soda shop that caters to kids. I took a bite of my salad, swallowed, and felt something hard lodge in my chest. I suddenly lost the ability to breathe. Panicked and choking, I stood. A cranberry shot out of me, from somewhere deep within my trachea. I felt it scratch the raw interior of my airway as a cough propelled it out of my body. As I sat back down all I could think was: what if that had been it? In front of my daughter. My husband. And my mother, who had joined us for dinner.

Life is that tenuous. Or at least it seems so to me. My existence is not special. I have an exaggerated sense of self-importance, but I could be taken down by a cranberry. In a soda shop. In front of my kid.

Our dreams can offer us the illusion of control. In my case, not only can I dodge death, but I can shield my daughter from it. In Sophie’s case, she can confront it and emerge the victor. Graceful, but futile attempts at either end of the spectrum to extend our limited time together.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Poopy Eyeball

My plan to engage in toilet talk along side my daughter, thus eliminating the taboo and decreasing the desire to engage in it has TOTALLY BACKFIRED.

When I was in my junior year of high school, I went to Ohio to check out Oberlin College. We stayed with my father’s twin brother, his wife, and their three little girls. Two of them were in or around preschool age. Giggly, curly-haired, silly little girls, they loved toilet-talk as much as the next three-year-old. What stands out in my mind about this visit is that they had invented a truly unique expletive that sent them into peals of laughter every time it was uttered:

Poopy eyeball.

There was something particularly irreverent about the combination of naughty word “poop” with the inherently goofy word “eyeball” that made the phrase worth repeating over and over and over again.

Needless to say, it left an impression. And twenty-five years later, I found myself uttering it in a moment of playful toilet banter with Sophie. Mind you, it’s not something I said more than once or twice, but Sophie immediately found it to have lexical appeal.

“Poopy eyeball?” she said grinning broadly, her own eyes rolling in her head with excitement.

I rue the moment it passed my lips. Sophie manages to work it into every conversation we have. Apparently, it’s a noun, a verb, an adjective, and an exclamation. As in, “Poopy eyeball! I poopy eyeball on my poopy eyeball. It’s very poopy eyeball.”

Despite my determination not to “limit” her toilet talk and to kill it with permissiveness, I’ve had to enact the rule: no toilet talk while we’re eating. It’s really annoying to dine with someone who feels compelled to repeatedly drop the phrase “poopy eyeball,” the way teenagers pepper their sentences with, “like.” My rule has been poorly observed.

Thus, I’ve resorted to more desperate measures. I tried super-saturating her in the car one afternoon, saying “poopy eyeball” in response to everything she said.

She thought it was hilarious.

Today, for the first time, I saw signs of her weakening. After her nap, in a moment of extreme crankiness, I responded to her request to watch Mary Poppins with, “Poopy Eyeball.”


Oh yeah. Take that. In your eyeball, baby.