September 2013


This morning I walk my daughter to the carpool meeting spot, an industrial zone where commuters and the T converge. She knows the shortest route, dodges through the yard of the nearby church rectory, bemoans the missed traffic light at Mass Ave, darts across the grass to the opposite side of a large traffic island, to a street of houses I don’t know, through a parking lot beside abandoned industrial buildings, aiming for a mystery spot, like Harry Potter aiming for the spot in the brick wall which reveals the Track 9 3/4 to the Hogwarts Express. Just as I say this aloud to my gal, she disappears through a hole in the fence. This time I follow, having told her as we crossed a worn place in the traffic island grass that people are like deer, worn place reminding me of deer paths in the woods I used to know in my own world of growing up. My girl lives in the city, and I follow her through these urban landscapes like a bunny, hopping along behind her through the fence, along the bike path towards the Alewife T, until I want to talk with her and she is so far ahead I lose my patience and tell her it feels rude that she won’t slow down, threaten to turn around and go home if she won’t let me catch up, and she tells me I walk too slow and that she will be late, which she might be, and I am, but it still hurts and when we say good-bye a few minutes later, she strapped into another mother’s mini van, me walking away to take a more leisurely route home along the Alewife Brook,  retracing steps from weekend walks on the new path there, I feel the hurt in her eyes and in my throat and all the way home until I find my computer here and write it down, all the way past a grungy backyard pool, a homeless guy with immaculate taste in woolen blankets sleeping on a bench, solar panels I will never have on the roof of someone who does, two swans tangling their necks into their bodies on the small pond near the T, thoughts of my beau and his day, of my life and his, some days separate as can be, some days like the swans, two feet apart, and of my gal, disappearing, like her brothers, one at school and with a friend overnight, the other on his way today to his college career fair, in the suit I mailed last Sunday, looking for a job. They grow up fast and it’s hard to impossible to keep up.

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Today I am feeling a bit quiet inside. The sky outside is gray and I’ve forfeited my day care spot this am in favor of walking my daughter to carpool and time at my desk. I am looking online for something to make me feel connected to the world, and sure enough, I find Mary Oliver there waiting, in the form of a poem about death and dying which feels new, as so often her poems are about bears or bees or the love of her life who is dead and gone. This time the poem is about a neighbor and the neighbor’s family circling round during the neighbor’s last days. It reminds me first of the story my widowed friend has shared about his wife’s dying. This in turn reminds me of the time of my dad’s illness and death, when we were circled round, and now as I write, it reminds me of another friend’s bout with cancer and his wish for circling round. It also reminded me of another friend’s mother, who has just received a dire diagnosis, and my sister, who is part of the circling.

This is life, all this circling. Parker Palmer uses the term “third thing” to describe how a poem or song or piece of art can act as that connection point between our lives and the lives of others, between our inner experience and that of the outside world, between unknowing and knowing. I can’t describe it exactly. I might need a poem. Enjoy today’s from Writers’ Almanac. I haven’t shared one for awhile. It’s been a bit of a hard week here, struggling myself with the need to do the circling and to be circled. Enclosed, held, found, surrounded, not lost, all things we can provide in our work with children which we adults also need. Time to wake the gal with a hug and tea and toast and a walk to carpool, a way of being her small circle, then to get down to business with the day care administration, a way of encircling not as pleasurable as the baby holding and toddler and preschool caring and conversations with parents and caregivers I might have ben doing downstairs, but restorative in its own way of a sense of calm and peace in my world.  As Mary Oliver says in her poem below, the desk work is part of “everything that can be fixed,” like the renovations my own parents did to our home when my dad was sick and the phone calls and visits and meals we each provide when things go terribly wrong. The caring comes on many, many levels. The challenge for me is to see it in all its forms.

August

by Mary Oliver

Our neighbor, tall and blonde and vigorous, the mother
of many children, is sick. We did not know she was sick,
but she has come to the fence, walking like a woman
who is balancing a sword inside of her body, and besides
that her long hair is gone, it is short and, suddenly, gray.
I don’t recognize her. It even occurs to me that it might
be her mother. But it’s her own laughter-edged voice,
we have heard it for years over the hedges.

All summer the children, grown now and some of them
with children of their own, come to visit. They swim,
they go for long walks at the harbor, they make
dinner for twelve, for fifteen, for twenty. In the early
morning two daughters come to the garden and slowly
go through the precise and silent gestures of T’ai Chi.

They all smile. Their father smiles too, and builds
castles on the shore with the children, and drives back to
the city, and drives back to the country. A carpenter is
hired—a roof repaired, a porch rebuilt. Everything that
can be fixed.

June, July, August. Every day, we hear their laughter. I
think of the painting by van Gogh, the man in the chair.
Everything wrong, and nowhere to go. His hands over
his eyes.

“August” by Mary Oliver, from New and Selected Poems: Volume Two. © Beacon Press, 2007. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

I’m in a big shift from working last year with young ones through teens and adults to working this year with mostly toddlers, twos, an infant, and a few older preschoolers and school-agers. What is striking to me is how much the shift is in orientation towards physicality. Yesterday some of my most satisfying moments hardly involved words. I carried a young guy who’s been having a hard time. He rode on my back in a backpack I’ve kept in the basement for years, used last for my own daughter when she was an infant and toddler. The gentle resting of his hand on my arm, the pressure of his feet against the frame of the pack, his small voice singing and talking near my ear, the calm I felt as his body shifted from wiggly to still, and the moment when I realized he had fallen asleep in the midst of a transition were all quite sweet. Later in the day, a new two woke from her nap with a difficult cry, waking her friend in the crib and another on a nearby mat. We sat together on the futon, girl in my arms, and gradually she calmed. My words didn’t help nearly as much as my embrace. My cheek against her forehead seemed to have particular power to settle her down. Then, after her crying shifted to calm, she stayed there, wrapped in her special blanket, thumb in mouth, beany bear tucked under her arm, for many more minutes, a rare time of calm in a very busy day.

Other moments involve feeding, changing, toileting, washing dishes, vacuuming, tidying up toys, pushing a wagon loaded with kids and sand toys and diapers and first aid supplies to and from the park with the backpack and boy on my back, putting out mats, moving about along with the kids, sitting on a sofa with children beside me or in my lap, resting beside children as they settle for a nap.

I knew when I began work at Sudbury Valley last year that I was missing something physical in my days there, where I sometimes worked in the kitchen baking or washing up, spent days organizing the art room and supplies, sometimes spent time working with pastels or beading or weaving or knitting or sewing or dying or printing, but mostly it was talk, which I enjoy very much, the meetings, the conversations, the sorting out of how things work, the listening, sometimes over a meal, a cup of tea, a board game, other times for very serious business. I miss that talk a lot, don’t get me wrong. I’m a talker. I talk in the day care, too, checking in with families when they arrive to drop off and pick up their children, over the phone or computer via text or e-mail, with the other teachers in our day care and at the park, with the children, at whatever level they converse, even with the baby, who the kids remind me does not talk, but still, of course, we talk with him. For the first time, he arrived on Tuesday seeming happy to see me, smiled and brightened when his mother brought him to the kitchen to greet me, where I was preparing food for our meals. He reeled me in, so that I took him in my lap, held him on the couch a long while, allowed his strengthening legs to stiffen to a stand, where he beamed, even laughed. Later in the day, when I returned from a trip to the dentist, Alice shared her experience of enjoying the baby’s laughter, a good, strong belly laugh is how she described it, from a three month old baby. We all felt pleased and proud. Such a baby.

So, we’re shifting. That’s what we do. Life shifts and we shift with it. I’m curious what this new life of physicality might bring. In many ways it’s grounding, calming, centering, connecting in this way, whether putting a baby to sleep in a carrier, settling a toddler on a mat with a hand on her back, holding a crying two in a lap when she wakes up sad or has a struggle with a friend, washing dishes, putting out mats, vacuuming the dry noodles and sand at the end of the day. Its a way of living in the moment. Words can travel in time, physical gestures and work live in the present.

Time now to wake my own two kids, a twelve and sixteen, for our morning of physicality, showers, dressing, breakfast, packing lunch, driving carpool to school, then back home for quiet morning of words on the computer, on paper, on the phone, before returning to the world of the very young for the afternoon, arriving in the day care as lunch ends and nap begins, to reign in the potential chaos and to restore and experience the calm of a room of sleeping children. Not a bad life for a forty something single mom.

This year we lost many of our older children to kindergarten and preschool and in their places we are caring for many more toddlers than we have in years, and an infant, which we haven’t done in over ten years, nearly since my own gal was born. It’s a huge shift for caregivers in our forties, fifties, and sixties, who have worked with children our whole lives, another reminder of how much there is to learn, even when one continues in the same field for a lifetime.

The toddlers are fast and we are slowing down. They are social as can be, while we have become observant and reflective. They engage with the world in the most physical of ways, while we often live in the world of words and ideas. They are full of emotion, from tears to rage to anger to joy to crankiness and they trigger physical responses in us. Just now as I was clearing up from lunch, feeling a sort of panic in my chest, I realized, and was able to say to Liana, which calmed me a bit, that I am responding to the energy of the toddlers, who finish their meal all at once and want to be instantly in their beds, covered in soup from head to toe, table full of cups of milk, dirty dishes, and leftover food a trap I’ve set for myself which must be cleaned up before the toddlers toss or overturn it all when I release them or they clamber down from their chairs.

One two and a half asked me at breakfast, asked me, I repeat, if she could splash her cereal,  as she soaked her shredded wheat in milk and dropped them from as high as she could, kneeling on her chair, onto the surface of the table. No, I replied, quite clearly. What if I splash them into my bowl? she suggested, demonstrating the shorter drop into the pool of milk waiting there to add to the splash. No, I said, not that either. Why not? she queries. It seems a bit messy, I reply, noticing again how I live in the world of the loony, also the rational. What is —- doing? asks a neighboring one. Doing experiments, I reply. Figuring out how the day care works. And the world. Probably this was not an answer for the one, but a reminder to myself.

Now the trial is how to get a bunch of little wigglers to settle at nap and to write a thoughtful observation of the day, one that doesn’t reflect too much exhaustion or exasperation, shows enough wonder and appreciation. Some are still as can be. Only one or two wiggling, talking, protesting nap is enough to derail my concentration, to keep the much needed hour and a half of peace from happening. Now the toddler is experimenting by tossing his lovey and his pacifier in turn onto the mats of the other kids. First Liana snags the pacifier and stows it near me on the couch. The I stow the lovey beside it. Now the challenge is calling out why in echo one to the other. My stern voice only goes so far. I have friends whose stern voices might be all that’s needed. That’s not me. Another young family child care colleague whose program is similarly loaded with toddlers this year, a young mother of a toddler herself, was near tears last week, refers to our experience as we say good-bye at the park fence on our way home, my wagon as loaded with toddlers as she’s ever seen it, Toddler Hell. We say this with light hearts, knowing this is the work we will continue to do, loving each one of the kids and expecting each of them to grow into a reasonable, lovable, creative human being whose words will charm and enhance our lives, world of wonder, drops of divinity also part of the work, mixed-ages, and long term care arrangements allowing us to anticipate the days of leisure ahead when the toddlers are trained, socialized as all our kids eventually have been, not to dump the milk, to pick up the toys they’ve taken out, to play long extended games with one another that go on seamlessly for hours, days, weeks, months, and years, to make friends, to come back eventually to tell us about their lives, sometimes to be our helpers.

For now those days come in small glimpses. Riding to the park today, five toddlers beaming out of their seats in the sunshine, a passerby in a car asked me if they were all mine, a classic question I’ve gotten any year I’ve had a load of toddlers. No, I replied. I would be in the papers if they were. One two and a half leans over shortly after to stroke the side of the head of a one, gently running her finger over the girl’s hair, outlining her ear, looking to me to see if it’s ok. I smile back and she takes the girl’s hand, says aloud, We’re holding hands, she’s says to me. We’re really holding hands. I stop to take a picture, and sure enough, the two girls are in a tight grip, third girl beside them, and I wonder if at three and four and five and maybe six, if these girls will have playdates and storylines and favorite dress-up clothes or styles of building which we’ll come to recognize and love. My hope is they will be with us that long.

Earlier in the morning many toddlers were going to the park, going to the zoo, getting baskets and babies and scarves from the shelves and parading around. They all wanted to be involved. Later I offered music to one whose baby was not a doll but an instrument, and when he said yes, the others followed, one asked me to hold her basket and began to bounce as soon as the music was on, soon joined by many others in playing music and dancing and just being amidst a party crowd. We’re on our way, I remember thinking. These kids are lucky. Soon they’ll have a whole group of friends, boys and girls growing up together with shared history and space to which they fully belong.

Shortly after it was “clean up time” which no longer feels like that at all..more like prevent total chaos time! Which we do, but only with our very best efforts. Liana comes to tell me while I’m writing, most of the toddlers still awake after an hour of rearranging mats, speaking sternly, helping kids to the toilet, quiet music, covering with blankets, retrieving and returning pacifiers, that she feels she is running all day long. I noticed earlier how much my heart was racing, and figured I’m working on an adrenaline rush half the time.

Was too hard to write a chronological observation today. I took photos. I’ll share those and this and hope the narrative of the morning begins to emerge with more coherence soon and that I’ll find the peace during nap time to recall it. Some of the eyelids are droopy. Only one guy is still chattering. Maybe in the end they’ll all sleep, as they did yesterday, even the baby, who I meant to write about here, the guy we thought would challenge us most, who is in fact relatively easy, other than needing one on one holding and feeding. He doesn’t grab toys, doesn’t walk around and chat loudly at nap time, doesn’t dump toys or milk or fight with his friends. If he’s lucky, when he’s a toddler there will be one or two like him in a mix of older kids, our usual family day care dynamic, shifted this year due to a collision of circumstances beyond our control. We love our toddlers. We love our mixed ages more, and threw an infant in for good measure this year, to balance out the toddler energy, to keep us all intrigued with the range of development, which is not lost on the toddlers at all. The theme of the morning, carrying babies to the zoo and park, is all about our baby, the center of care taking, even as our toddlers are our babies, in relation to the baby, they feel very grown up.

Now three of six toddlers are asleep in one room, three are awake in the other. One five is playing happily in the back room. Two school agers and a four are on their way for the later afternoon. Liana is in the kitchen washing dishes. I’ve got photos to edit and post. Seems likely all will sleep, that there will be a few minutes of quiet before the business of late afternoon, toileting, snack, time in the yard, going home, then on for me to the dentist and to celebrate a friend’s birthday in Harvard Square, to pick up my gal at her dad’s just before bed, to tuck in my near teen and hit the sack myself. All in a busy day with toddlers through teens, keeps me young, I hope.

This morning I woke to a poem in my dream, fully formed, as though I were reading it from Writer’s Almanac, but it was there, waiting for me, full of images that were all mine, created to a level of complexity I hadn’t believed I possessed, when it comes to poems. I wanted to remember it, to write it in the slim, smooth brown journal with the image of the silhoeutted girl, blindfolded with a bird flying out of her head, but the only words I could recall were Stevie Nicks, whose song Landslide, took me out of one life and into another four and a half years ago.

I’ve been waiting for this moment, wondering what it would take for me to write a poem, had considered taking classes, studying more poetry, joining a writers’ group, studiously teaching myself to write a poem, had bought books of poems, read Writer’s Almanac these last four and a half years, planned my new year’s work schedule with time off in hopes that poems, or something, might come into the space. I had not anticipated the poem would come to me in a dream. Nor had I anticipated the pleasure I would feel in caring for the littlest baby we have cared for in years, who was with me through the licensing visit yesterday, in my arms or in a baby carrier strapped to my chest, a small warm body to comfort and feed and love come back after many years of raising my own, oldest now in his second year of college, youngest on her way to being a teen.

The poem isn’t written. It was only in my head, did not come fully formed from the dream as I had hoped when I emerged into consciousness this morning. The existence of it there, though, fully formed in my dream, gave me hope. The licensing visit I had anticipated so long now past, the new baby we’ve been wondering about now arrived, the house full of toddlers now fully present, one even biting as expected, others pushing and trashing the house and creating general chaos, all of us learning and smiling through it, my first Monday off to drive the carpool and spend time with my new guy, the long walk in Callahan State Park I had dreamed when sending my first son to Sudbury Valley five years ago this fall, finally walked with my beau, the passing of all those milestones, and the waking up alone in the house, no children, no beau, has left me with the hope of a poem.

This, I have to remind myself, is how life happens, part struggle, part everyday, part grand scheme, part unknown, part dream. We busted our butts to get this day care ready for the new children arriving this fall, for the licensing visit which marks the end of a very tumultuous three year period, divorce, charter school, SVS, college visits and freshman year, dating, the building of our tree house. My training hours were out of whack, my cpr certificate hid between Alice’s CPR and First Aid ones, we could do a few small things differently, the rules on indoor climbers have changed, but overall, we did just fine, all will be well. Now I’m hoping for poems, for what next, for love, for peace, for longterm happiness. We can all hope.

To my surprise, I’m feeling a little bereft already that today is not a baby day. I hadn’t expected the sweetness to be so lovely. I had known I would love the smell and feel of a small head in a carrier on my chest just below my chin, so I could dip down and give the small thing  kiss. I had forgotten about cradling the small bum and the bounce a baby wishes for that my own body then provides, the resonance and security that connecting in this basic physical way engenders, the deep satisfaction that connection provides.

My daughter told me the other day that she finds herself using the word satisfying a lot these days. I do, too, but hadn’t expected my twelve-year-old girl to share the experience and to point it out to me. These small people we raise and love give back so quickly. As Danny Greenberg reminded me in a meeting we had which helped me decide to leave SVS, not only to focus more on the day care and my personal life and kids, but also to follow a spiritual path, possibly involving poetry and writing, the little people are evidence of the divine. Work with them brings us closer to those moments of heaven that let us know life matters, that allow us to experience grace, transcendence, belonging, in ways so pure we sometimes wonder if we are allowed.

Now to shower and start the day, chores from the end of day yesterday left for today, alarm gone off at 7 reminding me to get on task. This evening my children will return after two evenings with their dad. Friday night I’m off to spend the weekend with my beau. Tuesday nights and many Monday nights look like my nights on my own this year. I can only hope some Tuesday or Wednesday morning soon I’ll wake up to another poem fully formed, catch it, and write it down. We’ll see. The allure of the unknown is what keeps us going, as the woman who inspired me with her term “possibilist”, Frances Lappe, reminded me several years ago. Off I go into the world of possibility, me, Liana, and a whole crowd of ones and twos, with a four and five thrown in for fun this morning, another four, an eight and a nine this afternoon, then my twelve and sixteen in time for dinner. Life is rich and good and tough and hard. All those are real. Holding them at once is what makes midlife such a ride.

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Today we had a house full of toddlers. Every where we turned they were dumping collections of objects. We followed, culling excess, musical instruments, scarves, toy doctor equipment, after weeks of culling and culling and culling. Still, after breakfast, when peace reigned, to our great surprise, kids playing quietly, I washing dishes, Liana going to the front hall to retrieve a bag of name tags, our intrepid nearly two surprised us again, unfurling a roll of easel paper left thoughtlessly, in a loose pile on the project room floor, much as a child would unfurl a roll of toilet paper.

As I rolled the paper back on it’s roll and searched for a high up place to put it until I could think of something permanent, I was grateful for all the motivators and inspirations in my life right now reminding me to pare down, the toddlers, the fleas of last month infesting my home upstairs, the teenagers who seem to manage with a book bag of personal possessions, depending mostly on a change of clothes, a toothbrush, deodorant, a laptop, a cell phone, pen and paper, and sometimes a book.

Our house has been full of toys and games, building materials, art supplies, dress ups, books, from basement storage to first floor day care space to second floor still holding materials from life with after school and my own children, to third floor, full of outgrown dollhouses, playmobil worlds, and the boys’ abandoned childhood room. Even further into the gills are stuffed the remnants of my life as a teacher, math manipulatives and games, school age books, even handwriting papers and book group guides.

Gradually, we are letting it all go. Yesterday at the park, my friend Michael showed me a photo of his weekend’s work, a handmade buffet table up against a handpainted wall, in what used to be a cluttered back hall of their family day care home, a place I once admired for it’s well-stocked shelves and stores of educational materials. Over the eighteen years I’ve run a family child care program and known Michael and his wife Macky, we’ve all come to realize children need less stuff from us, not more. To see Michael’s home turning into a space of tranquility and beauty, to watch a formerly cluttered back hall become what Michael called a “staging space for backyard entertaining” was inspiring. What areas of my home full of stuff could be transformed this way? What stage of life awaits me and my kids when the toys are gone from our upstairs home? What freedom will we caregivers and kids feel when we’ve lightened our load downstairs? What will happen to the basement space as the stuff stashed there leaves and is not replaced? What will happen to my dreams now I’ve let go the idea of being part of a school again?

Making space allows space for new things to enter. That is something not new to me or you. Still, the process of unloading feels fresh and real. I’m only hoping the inspiration and motivation continue. As Liana said today, the little guy unfurling the paper is our greatest teacher.

This evening is the start of Rosh Hashanah. Tomorrow my daughter will babysit for a child she’s waited to babysit for years, while her teacher parents work at their schools, a college and a high school, and the child’s school is closed for the Jewish New Year holiday. Yesterday was the first day of our new day care year. My children start their new school year on Monday. We are due to be visited by our day care licensor on Tuesday as part of our tri-annual relicensing process.

We’ve been building towards these changes a long while. I interviewed the new families arriving this week and next throughout the last school year. One of our new children is a sibling whose arrival we anticipated even longer. Each time we complete one relicensing process, I begin my awareness of what will need to happen in preparation for the next. We’ve said good-bye to bigger kids and are welcoming littler ones, noticing all the things the big kids did to help us out, as well as all the things the young ones are going to learn but have not yet. We’re also letting go of whole people who’ve been in our lives, kids and parents, and welcoming new ones we hope to know as well.

My kids, fortunately, cannot wait to return to school. My son went back to college while I was on vacation in California, called to let me know he was happy and settled in. Friday a former classmate of my boys, son of a longtime friend of mine, was arrested. Yesterday, instead of starting the first day of his junior year of high school, he was arraigned, and returned to jail for at least another week. So the transition is marred for me this year by that. The loss of the future we all held for that son is palpable as the new school year begins.

Time to shower, begin the day as I have so many others, welcome the new and returning children and families in the day care two stories down from where I sleep. I’ve been dreaming about Sudbury Valley School at night, more so than WFDC, not as in I want to go back, but probably, now I think of it, as in, another piece of letting go. This year I’ll be a carpool driver for my kids and their school mates, not a staff member or a member of SVS School Meeting. My world this year is smaller, less divided, I hope, and more manageable in it’s way, though we never, ever know what lies ahead, a lesson I learn again and again and again, as we adapt to all life throws our way.