Sunday, November 7, 2010

The Medium of Instruction, or what was Media-free Week

Several people with whom I spoke about our media-free week assumed it was a top-down decree, that We the Parents, ordered it so. Allow me to clear that up by sharing what really went down:

On November 2nd, The Boy and I were pedaling our bikes like mad to find the church where I was to cast my votes on election day. Attempting some fancier version of bike riding than I aspire to, The Boy leapt up and then noted that his wrist was causing him some amount of pain. I asked if perhaps he'd like to take some time off from video games. He said that actually he'd been meaning to ask if we could have a media-free week. That's it, word for word. "Actually I've been meaning to ask if we could have a media-free week." He's ten. He doesn't go to school and he has no homework. He's not had an arbitrary media limit on his waking hours for years. He loves video games and anime and Legos. And sword battles with friends and basketball and fluorescent orange cheese-flavored crackers. He asked for a media-free week.

I reiterate that because one of the concerns I've heard expressed around radical unschooling is how a child will ever learn self control if they are allowed to eat/sleep/watch when they want, which goes along with the idea that if you let a child follow their interests they will go berserk (especially around media) and watch t.v./play video games 24 hours a day. I would point out that many of the folks expressing these concerns and fears are thinking about schooled kids. For many schooled kids, it may seem that they have an insatiable desire to play video games or watch t.v., but the desire's only insatiable because schooled children have so little time and so little control in which to meet their interests outside of school. Off my soapbox.

So, we began our media-free week Wednesday. The Esquire and I both knew we didn't have to go along with the week, that we could have continued to do our own things, and in a way, I did. I continued to check my e-mail, I simply made sure to do so when The Boy was sleeping so I could support his media-free journey. Wednesday was a fun day, full of drink concocting, Lego play, magic tricks, sword fighting and friends, among other things. Friday, I picked The Boy up after a sleepover with two other ten year old boys. Telling me about playing twenty minutes of Little Big Planet (a thoroughly brilliant game), he hit his head in frustration and guilt. I asked him to remember with me why he wanted to do the media-free week, that it was to allow his wrist to heal from the pain he was feeling, not to inspire feelings of guilt and inadequacy around an arbitrary rule. He decided he'd like to continue the break from video games, but wanted to resume television and movie media. Since then, he's played a bit on his X-box 360 today, but continues to keep an eye on how his wrist feels. It is a constant conversation around what works and doesn't.

What is really amazing to me is that he is a ten-year-old boy who is aware of his body, who notes its pain and takes steps to adjust for healing. I know many adults, sometimes myself included, that eat, work and go go go beyond what their bodies are telling them to do, who ignore fullness and pain until medical interventions are necessary. Just yesterday, his dad announced neck pain, which The Boy suggested was due to smartphone use and the constant looking down it requires. It made sense - and what made more sense is that we took his suggestion seriously because we have just as much to learn from him as he does from us and we all benefit from the lack of arbitrary rules, from the continuous conversation.

For my own media-free part, I laughed when one friend asked if I was having detox tremors and in a way, that first day, I was. I wanted to constantly check facebook. Media is far more an issue for me than for The Boy. It's something I allow myself to be distracted by when trying to meet my goals, say writing. It was a good break for me to reevaluate how I use media in my day-to-day and reflect on how my own interactions with media affect how I view The Boy's interactions. And now back to our regularly scheduled programming.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Confessions in Dreamland

In the last post, I wrote that I thought to give the boy a BMX bike for his birthday because he was enjoying practicing jumps on the ramps at the local skate park. I did not write that I knew one of the things he wanted most was a laptop, a netbook to be exact, nor that the reason that I wanted to offer the BMX was that I judged it healthier than a laptop. I didn't write those things because they didn't reflect who I want to be as a parent - even though they are who I sometimes am as a parent.

These past two months have found me in the midst of frequent darkness, even as I traverse the magnificent light of my daily life. This darkness has been seen most vividly in my dream life. You see, recently, Cutter, my son, went through about three weeks of what felt like intense sickness.

He developed a cough that went into double ear and eye infections as well as some pretty wicked lung congestion. This came at the tail end of a couple months of busy-ness and travel the likes of which we don't often experience at our house. He developed a high fever and became sluggish. His breathing became quite rapid and I became quite concerned. We spent a few days on homeopathic and herbal remedies before we landed at the pediatrician's and antibiotics. I morphed into mainstream (albeit creative) mom. I designed menus full of healthy, vegetarian menus from which he could order. I pushed outside time. I pushed a BMX bike instead of a laptop. I started having bad dreams. About Isaiah. Our son who died 3 1/2 years ago from complex congenital defects.

You see, I know what life-threatening illness looks like. I know how fast, and for how long, a heart can manage to beat and still sustain a life. I know what the last slow breaths, the last slow beats, sound like. I listened to them. And so, when I dreamed of being unable to "play" with friends at the health club because Isaiah was sick, when I dreamt of refusing to visit Isaiah in the hospital while he was sick, well, I listened to that, too. And when I found myself freaking out because my husband fed our still sick son, Cutter, a plain bagel, I listened to that, too.

And what I heard was fear. Irrational, yes, but real fear nonetheless. I could see and know the fear was irrational, know that by trying to control my loved ones in their eating and their actions, I was not only expressing my fear, but hurting our relationships (refer back to The Hidden Child.) But I also needed to honor that mourning Isaiah and hurting from that loss is not a one-shot deal. Sure, I did a year of counseling with an amazing woman. Sure, I live an amazing life full of love and adventure and growth. But I still suffer. I still want to hold my son to my chest. And I sure as hell don't want to lose my other son. There, I said it.

Enter a good friend. One versed in dream work and Jungian psychology. A friend I went to with one of my latest dreams. The first dream found me in an art class that I'd enrolled in to "find myself." The professor gave us our first assignment: go home and draw your house. Don't focus on details. Just get the basic shapes down. How easy, I thought. At home, I tried to get the basic shapes of home down and found I couldn't. I could sketch the corner of the couch, the curve of the curtain, the dirty spoon on the sink's edge, but the whole escaped me. I returned to the class the next day, abashed in front of the professor, in tears explaining that I could not find my home.

To me, this dream represented part of my darkest self, the self caught up in trying to control minute details, the plain bagels and the day of video games, rather than being able to see the whole of where my life is, the whole of who my amazing child is. My friend offered something else, something more hopeful in the dark - that my psyche, through the dream, is letting me know that part of me knows that the whole is there, is visible, when I am ready, even if it means I have to go through all the details first.

Dream two, two nights ago, after I again attempted to assert control over my loved ones. During a moment that I was writing a book review on my laptop, my dh was watching a t.v. show and Cutter was playing a game on his laptop, I heard one click too many and said, "O.K., this is all wrong. Let's all shut down our media and talk about our day." I forced it. It was ugly. Cutter cried. Joe looked at me in bemusement. I don't like writing this - I'm often looked at as someone for whom this parenting is easy, but it's sometimes hard as hell, folks, and sometimes I am ugly. It's ironic - even as I forced it, I remembered a time in my youth when my siblings and I were forced to watch a t.v. show, for family time, for reasons I will never know, but which surely felt as powerful to my father. As a child, I hated it. And I hated it two nights ago. I apologized to Cutter, to Joe, to myself. I allowed that it was actually the noise that put me over the edge and not the fact that my family members were engaged in activities they loved. Since, I have made sure to have the space I need to write, to avoid noise when needed.

But the dream that night - I dreamt that Cutter was engaged in several activities that parents frequently dread. Sex, drugs, alcohol, stealing. I dreamt that he was engaged in a lot of ugliness, and still, I knew that I loved him, that he was deserving of love. And to think, the most I've been so hyped up about is food and video games. One day, my dh was kind enough to ask, "You know, if he sat on the couch all day reading books, would you be as concerned?" You see, I know, in my deepest heart, that my son is well, that he is rounded and healthy. He rides horses, he plays video games, he eats a variety of foods, he cooks sushi, he plays pretend, he builds dioramas, he swims, he does so much - and I know this and I love him. I just sometimes forget that I am fearful, fearful of loss, fearful of illness and death, and instead of allowing that, allowing it to open me up, make me vulnerable, well, I forget and I let it shut me down, shut my son down, shut my husband down, shut life down.

Here's to opening up again, to dreaming new dreams, come what may.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

The hidden boy

The one on the right, in the red shirt, is my son, Cutter, recently turned ten.

He doesn't like his photo taken, so I don't often see him on film, though I do "see" him, and saw him, and myself, quite clearly on the morning of his birthday. This was the first year Cutter chose to have a party which we put together as a family, as opposed to a package deal somewhere like Craig's Cruisers or Chuck E. Cheese. The day before, he and I traveled to the grocery store to pick up the supplies needed to decorate a park picnic area, to make dozens of miniature angel food cakes, to have an all-out Nerf gun capture the flag battle. That was when I first noticed something was slightly off. As I muttered aloud to myself and Cutter about ingredients we needed, or decorations I couldn't find, he said quietly, "I hope this is going to be fun." I asked if anything in particular was making it seem as though his party wouldn't be fun, and even as I asked, I had an inkling it was me.

I have never particularly enjoyed my own birthdays. They have always been very high stress for me, a day built up to be everything I'd ever dreamed of, a sheer 24 hours of perfection: just right gifts, absolute happiness, world peace.

So you might imagine my surprise in that grocery store when I realized that that was exactly what I was trying to give my son - and he was feeling it, not in a good way. From that moment, I told myself I would relax - and the change allowed us both to let go of expectation, to get silly in the candy aisle, to admire the newest Nerf items in the toy aisle, to pick all black balloons in the party department.

On to his birthday morning, where I continued to try and give Cutter exactly what I had never wanted. He'd recently expressed an interest in BMX biking, jumping off of ramps, doing wheelies; a somewhat difficult task on his mountain bike. So I thought, let's offer to get him a BMX bike for his birthday. The second the words were out of my mouth, it was like looking into a mirror, seeing a place I'd been many times before. His face shut down, even as he tried to reassure us that that was what he wanted.

Joe, my dh, and I instantly let Cutter know that we could get something else for his birthday, that the bike was just an idea. The more we tried to reassure, the more he cried and insisted that was what he wanted. We agreed to stop talking about the gift for a bit and we went our separate ways.

Growing up, I had been (perhaps am even now) considered "difficult to buy for" among the family. At the same, I did not want to hurt anyone's feelings by saying I did not like whatever gift had been presented. Not a winning combo on a day declared to be about absolute happiness. This was the mirror I saw in Cutter's face, the recognition of those conflicted emotions. Shortly after walking away, I walked back and sat down. I told him about my experiences with gifts, and explained that those experiences are what led me to a place of not enjoying gifts, of asking his dad to stop giving me gifts. I let him know that my love for him was in no way bound up to any gift offered and that we should get him something he was truly excited about. I asked him if he felt bad saying he didn't want the BMX bike. He said, "Yes, some," and that he still wanted to get the bike sometime. I wanted to force the issue, to say, No, we never have to get the stupid bike, but that would have been denying a part of Cutter, that part that doesn't want to hurt someone he loves. So I said, "O.K.," and the day carried on. We discovered what it was that he would really love for his birthday and we had a fun day with friends at the park. There was no perfection, there was no implication that he was "difficult" and there was a whole lotta laughter and love.

And then just two weeks later, my birthday rolled up. In years past, I have dreaded it. The pressure of trying to figure out just the right thing to do on my day, the fear that I would be disappointed in any gifts given, the ignoring of internet and phone because I didn't want to have to be "up" because that is what was expected of me on my birthday.

This year, though, was different. This year I decided to focus on my joy at being alive in this world, to give thanks for the gift of this life, gift enough for a thousand birthdays. I wrote notes to loved ones, I held others in my thoughts, I bought two vegan/vegetarian cookbooks, I went roller-skating, I downloaded a beautiful video game and I ate some delicious Mexican food. The day was not extravagant, nor was it truly outside the realm of what would happen on any other day in my life. But it was transformative and I am thankful.

Saturday, July 17, 2010


Why would he do that? It is a question Cutter, almost 10, asks me while we are debriefing about the previous night spent with friends. There was much fun and laughter, swimming and ice cream, and there were also some difficult interactions among the kids. In particular, Cutter and our young friend, age 5, were having struggles. I imagine the younger boy was trying to figure out how to play with the older kids and not quite getting it right. So instead of that, he threw plastic cups and spit at Cutter. I discovered the tension as I rounded the corner of the house and found Cutter throwing a plastic cup back as he burst into tears. There were no innocents in the cup throwing department. I made sure they were both physically okay and then I apologized to Cutter.

I apologized because part of my role as a parent is to act as a buffer when necessary, as protection, as a guide in social situations that can so easily spiral out of control. I apologized because two kids were clearly very upset and on the verge of physically hurting one another and I did not make it clear that I was available, I did not make myself available enough. There is surely a line of thought, of parenting, that goes something like: "Parents don't always have to be with their children, kids need these difficult interactions; they're a "normal" part of childhood." In response, I'm reminded of the words I read recently while writing a speech about play, "The ego is implicitly nurtured by the absence of failure." It's very powerful, this idea of being nurtured by the absence of failure. I don't believe Cutter is learning anything about healthy relationships when I leave him to hash it out on his own, to throw cups and get spit upon; I don't believe a joyful adulthood arrives through such interactions. And so I apologized. And the next day, we debriefed. I asked why he didn't come to let me know they were having problems, as he usually does. He shared that his young friend, while spitting and throwing, had said, "Don't tell my dad. He hits us."

And then Cutter very seriously asked the question I cannot fully answer, for which there is no simple answer, "Why would he do that?" It is the second time in two weeks that someone we love has been revealed as someone who also hits and/or spanks his children. The first revelation came as friends were filling out paperwork for foster care certification and the dad lamented the "no spanking" rule. His example: If my child runs into the road, I'm not going to let them get hurt. I'm going to give them a good spanking so they don't do it again.

I try to explain the logic, or rather lack of logic, of this to Cutter. That parents are afraid their children will get hurt and so they hurt them believing this is the only way to keep them safe. I try, but I cannot truly explain. Explain how we come with deep hurts that we choose to heal or not; how those who hit, don't hit with their love and their strength and their wisdom, but with their past and their anger and their weakness; how embarrassment from buying into society that judges a parent based on the age-appropriate activities of a child can keep us from showing love and kindness, keep us from conversation; how I believe that the unexamined life can be easier and more damaging; how I learned, through our life with Isaiah, that I cannot prevent harm nor "create" a perfect dream child, but can merely question my own reasons for living, for acting, heal my own pain and in doing so, help Cutter find his own path, ask his own questions; how I'm so sorry that he lives in a world where it's okay to hit kids, to poison the ocean, to imprison the weak. How I love him, in his anger and his tears, his joy and his pain, just as I love our friends in their strength and their weakness. How I'm always trying to learn how to forgive, how to grow, how to question, how to love.

No, I cannot fully explain everything, and so we turn to play, to DragonQuest IX, battling next to each other on the couch, and I try to live the questions, because I know I don't have all the answers.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Be Imperfect.

Make mistakes.
Fall down.
Don't know the answer.
Don't even pretend to know the answer.
Do this all in full sight of children.

I imagine that many of us, when we become parents, think, I am going to teach this child how to be in the world, how to live right and be successful. I doubt many of us think, I am going to show this child of mine what it looks like to fall down, to apologize, to make a mistake. Yet, I am discovering that this second aspect of living, the falling down, is just as important, if not more so, to a child trying to make their way in the world. Watching Cutter, I see that he has no difficulty doing what he loves, celebrating his successes, be that rollerskating or swimming or video games. It is in his struggles, his challenges, where I see space for my living to offer guidance.

The first time this really came to my attention is after I told my Gramma that I'd illustrate a children's story she'd written for all of her grandchildren. I've always loved drawing, but hadn't really given it any space in my life for a long time, not since high school. I recall thinking that if what came out of my brain through my pencil wasn't automatically perfect, well then, I was not meant to draw. So it was with excitement and a tinge of doubt that I found myself at the kitchen table post-holidays with a veritable treasure trove spread before me: drawing books, a new sketchpad, charcoals, pens. As I began drawing, Cutter pulled out his own treasures: How to Draw Aliens and Monsters, a #2 pencil, tracing paper. He watched as I bit my lip, drew a line, erased, occasionally cursed, made notes of what needed to be different. I asked his opinion frequently. When he said a particular drawing looked like an alien, I drew antennae on the man's head and we laughed at the strange being I had created. And we both kept drawing.

After this time, I remembered back to Cutter's first (and only) time trying to snowboard. He stood on the board, fell off and announced it was much harder than he thought it would be and that he couldn't do it. I recall that we continued with sledding and had a fun time, but I also remember having thought to myself that he should try harder, that of course it wasn't easy and of course he didn't start out perfect. After our time drawing, I remembered back to that time on the snowy hill, and recognized myself in Cutter. I think sometimes it can be scary to go out on a limb and try something again at which you fear you aren't "good enough." Especially, I think, for children, who see adults everywhere seemingly competent in everything, from hair brushing (I actually realized a few months ago that I needed to ask Cutter if he knew how to brush his hair; he didn't) to cooking to reading, to claiming to know everything, to ruling the world.

The latest adventure that we've embarked upon has been roller skating. Cutter chose to learn roller skating from his own body's movements, without instruction from anyone. He has his own unique way of moving around the floor and in the past two months, he has become a skilled skater. My body has slowly recalled the ways of its youth, how to cross over on the curves, how to pick up one leg to avoid a downed skater, but there are many aspects of skating at which I am currently unskilled; jumping with both feet, for one; skating backwards, for another. So I throw self-consciousness to the wind and I try. I ask kids to show me their moves. I practice and I bump into walls. I fall down. Through it all, Cutter is doing his own thing, but he is also watching me: watching me laugh, watching me ask for help, watching me enjoy the entire process.

Just last week, we were skating and I fell down on one knee. Later, I said to Cutter that I had fallen. He said, "Yeah, I know, I saw you." I told him that I yelled when I fell. He said, "Yeah, I know. I heard you, too." I'm learning to not be bashful about looking foolish, imperfect, ever learning; I am indeed all those things, and every time I fall down, I can't help but think that my child learns something about how to get back up again.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

The never empty world

"There can never be nothing... there's always something."

We were kneeling in the snow after a wrestling match and Cutter had paused in eating his snow snack in order to make this observation. He seemed truly fascinated by this thought.

It led me to talk about why I meditate, because there is always something, it's true, but that we don't always have to be drawn away from where we are by what else there is. I asked if he recognized that look in my eyes when we play, that look which tells him that I've started thinking of something else. He said yes, as I knew he would. I've been practicing for years to not drift away from where I am and when I do, I try to point it out to him, offer my apology. He's learning as well, especially when he's reading or playing a video game, to say, I can't give you my attention right now, but when I reach this point, I can.

So, there we sat in the snow, and I tried to explain meditation. We tried to make our minds blank and he said maybe white was blank. I began talking through a small meditation on where we were... I close my eyes, I breathe deeply, I hear the quiet and the cars and the wind in the trees, I feel the cold in my cheeks and the snow under my legs... I snuck a peek at him and his eyes were closed, his body still, head tilted up toward the sun... then he laughed and jumped up, throwing a snowball at me on his way past. I am thankful that the world is never empty, that there is space to sit and to jump, room for laughter and quiet, time for presence and joy.