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Archive for November, 2009

the dread crew

When my copy of Kate Inglis’ The Dread Crew: Pirates of the Backwoods arrived in my mailbox the other day, I was so thrilled to not only have won it in her “stories that stick” giveaway but genuinely excited to read the book. As I batted my grabby children away (they’re like some kind of postal vulture species), delirious with anticipation, I did wonder for a moment, what if the book isn’t as fabulous as I assumed it would be?

Well. I’m happy to report that was one of the foolishest thoughts I’ve had in quite a while. The book was STUNNING. I’m not going to go into the plot in much detail here, since I’m sure you’ve all either read or ordered your own copy already, but I will say that Kate has a solid grip on good storytelling and a direct line to the inexhaustible worlds that, usually, only a child’s imagination can construct and populate.

A tangle of mouldering landscapes peppered with deliciously absurd characters, sort of in the vein of Roald Dahl only more sophisticatedly, outrageously so, the Dread Crew is a tale of gruesomeness and delight, wildness and wonder. A band of crass and crude pirates crash and smash their way through the deep forests of Nova Scotia, terrorizing and scandalizing and dirtifying the local inhabitants out of their wits, yet one eccentric and avuncular man with the help of a couple of brave and heart-true kids turn the whole kaboodle on its festering ear.

It’s important to note than even though the book is filled with enough goop and slush and maggot-infested nastiness to satisfy every child to their very unwashed toes, there’s a thread of goodness and grace woven throughout that will please adults as well. I’m in awe of Kate’s gift for balancing play with thoughtfulness, stinky sludgy curmudgeons with straight-arrow steadfastness, and heart-thumping bravery with hilarious hooliganism.

Now go read it already, ye lily-livered landlubbers, afore ye’er scuppered!

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a floating balance

None of us are perfectly symmetrical. Our strengths are unilateral, our weaknesses uneven. Nowhere is this more apparent than in my yoga class, where we shift and readjust and progressively hitch ourselves, body and soul, towards balance. Perhaps because it is so new for me that when my body shows me, again and again, where it is not strong, the feelings come: a betrayal of self-perception, a cringing failure, an accusing lack.

Only a minute into downward dog my shoulders and upper arms and wrists are first screaming with outrage, then trembling with strain, then collapsing. “Push through,” the teacher gently encourages, and I rise up again, determined to hold my body in submission through sheer will alone. Nausea comes in a bitter flood, a chemical messenger of what my mind, this time, refuses to acknowledge: I can’t.

I hold and hold and hold, more and longer, one long fiery rubber band, stretching into the impossible, burning. The metaphor crashes into me: I’m always holding something, everything, it’s always too much, I want to just put it down. Let me put it down. Tears come.

We move through and up into the next sequence. Finding my inner geometry, I reach through three equal points into triangle pose, feet a wide hypotenuse, one arm following, one flailed upwards, cranky hips protesting loudly as I gaze at the floor, breathing through resistance, vibrating with effort. I watch the sinews in my foot undulate as it struggles, almost independently of my mind, to stabilize the perilous isosceles I’ve become. More tears. I can’t find balance in my life. I’m so disconnected.

Switch sides. Suddenly I’m fluid, reaching impossibly, balanced, open, hips happily aligned, thighs strong, hamstrings warm with stretch. It’s the same pose, just a different side. A simple flip undoes all the panic and strain into a near-pleasure, a sense of power, strength. Just a different side. Right, left, pain, possibility. Perspective.

Down into pigeon, a huddled twist, one leg extended backwards and foot held with opposite hand, more a pretzel than poultry. I creak and crack and shuffle, trying to find the midpoint, glutes burning with the effort to keep them slightly airborne. People flopping around, limbs coming untethered and uncooperatively slapping the mats, but somehow, I hold. I’m doing this.

Inversions next. My first headstand since childhood. Wanting the teacher’s elegance of a slow, controlled elevation but settling for a spastic froglike kick up and against the wall. Tentatively pushing out and away, toes orbiting and wavering in the search for center. Collapsing gracelessly in a heap, laughing. Keep trying.

Then shoulder stands. Everyone is vertical but me. Too bottom-heavy, too weak in the core, too something, I can’t get my legs up higher than a pathetic forty-five degrees. The teacher gently yoinks me up so legs are stacked over torso. Feeling it, learning it, I let myself fall back down. Haplessly I push again, kicking both legs at a time, then separately, waving like lobster antennae at an approaching net: No. Squeeze my belly, roll it up, inch my hands under and up my back, slowly. A human winch. I’m up, still a wiggly jumble, but up. Baby steps.

A laughing, crying, uncontrolled mess, I come back into closure, grateful for being given the space to try, for giving myself a chance to push through difficulty, for, a moment, the mind and feelings of a child, the raw hurt and delight opening my heart. I begin to understand that my body’s limitations are just as easily transcended as my mind’s, with a little work , perseverance, and compassion. Even as my inner cynic creeps back to me now, here at my desk, it says, snidely, gawd that was so New Age. And then, acknowledges, but kind of cool all the same.

Namaste.

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softens in a moment

They say all our cells are replaced within a seven year period, which, if it’s true, means my daughter is now a completely different person than the squalling infant who arrived in my life seven years ago today. Of course, in some ways, this is obvious: the wiry and strong and fiercely opinionated girl of today, shrieking gleefully from the top of the monkey bars or peering distractedly from behind a riveting book or fretting mournfully over her brother’s larger portion (so unfair!) is not the dewy babe of yesteryear, gazing at me with damp, ointment-smeared eyes while curling and uncurling her long fingers and toes like the tendrils of a strange, alien fern.

Yet in other ways, she is that baby, all wide-eyed discovery and gobbling neediness with a direct line to my heart, a cry that can unravel my best intentions and a rosy warmth that melts glaciers. She wants cuddles before bed, my hand when we’re out walking, her daddy’s famous “up high” shoulder rides. She needs stories and kisses and funny little notes in her lunchbox. Lullabies and blankets and a light in the dark.

Her fussiness as a baby is still visible now, morphed into social sensitivity, restlessness, and a desire for order, routine, rules. Her curiosity now, as it did then, propels her forward into the world, touching, tasting, asking why and how and what if. Her delight in learning and engaging and taking it all on is still present, if sometimes muted by the newness or strangeness of things. She warms up slowly, but when she does, she is white hot and glowing, life’s own filament of incandescence.

And as she grows into personhood, shedding colic and diapers and sippy cups in favor of chapterbooks and cheeseburgers, I think about the tiny bundle of cells she once was and how, even at the beginning, she was recognizable as herself. I feed and water and love and nurture her, of course, but something, some core spark, is essentially her, and has always been her. I see now, with the distance of growth sharpening my focus like a series of optometrist’s lenses, as she becomes less of me and more from me, more her own.

Flesh of my flesh, blood of my blood… those elements have long since physically reconfigured into new atomic arrangements. What binds us now is the memory, the pattern of our DNA, yes, but more importantly, this knowing — of who we are, what we mean to each other, the contract of relationship, of expectations and promises and hereness, of love.

Happy birthday, sweetie pea. Baby and big girl, I love everything and all you are.

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still a hold upon us

I remember the ultrasound when I found out my youngest child was a boy. Mixed in with the joy of seeing his tiny feet, the quick birdlike heartbeat, the tender curve of skull and comically unmistakable flagpole, was worry. Worry that I wouldn’t know what to do with a boy, how to connect with him. I’d grown up with a sister, and even though we spent our days in “tomboyish” pursuits, climbing trees and building forts, boys still remained inhabitants of that strange land of belching contests, football, and standing up to pee.

Of course, when he was born I was immediately and absolutely smitten, the worry fading away like milk stains in the wash. That I doubted my own capacity to connect with my child seemed absurd, laughable. Even managing his, uh, equipment seemed as natural as being the caretaker of my daughter’s. He grew, and my love and delight grew with him. As it does.

Along the way, a few things did give me pause, like the complete lack of boy outfits without giant appliquéd footballs or trains on them, or his early obsession with anything wheeled, or that whole standing up to pee situation. And even though I’d been careful to provide my daughter with trucks alongside her teacups, and a baby doll as well as Bob the Builder for my son, they both clearly exhibited the classic gendered predilections most kids do.

(I realize I’ve got stereotypes knocking around like ninepins here, and you’ll have to forgive me, but they seem unfortunately germane to even the most earnest and high-minded discussions of gender, probably because the issue of gender behavior is still so hotly debated we tiptoe around it with clumsy, politically correct generalizations and disclaimers. Strike!)

(Anyway, I am going somewhere with all this, so bear with me a minute more.)

Even his recent and sudden fascination with all things, uh, fundamental (gas, toileting, sounds, smells — you get the picture) was tolerable, predictable, even amusing, in its way, though his sister had never been held in such thrall. Long, ghastly tootlings followed by “the pumpkin did it!” are not without their innocent charms.

But the newest infatuation has me utterly thrown for a loop: guns. (And here I go running headlong into another pit of gnashing stereotypes, so let me just preface it with a stated respect for our nation’s tradition of bearing arms, how guns have figured in protection and peacekeeping, recognition of the role they play in hunting for food, and the fact that many gun owners are responsible, reasonable and upstanding members of society. That said, I have a hard time with a three year old playing “gun” when he doesn’t have the cognitive skills to really understand what they can do, the finality of them, the violence, the cruel intent with which they are too often used.)

So when he came home from preschool making that little pshew pshew sound, finger and thumb cocked as he took aim first at his sister, then at me, a little part of my parental confidence came unhinged. “Imma shoot the bad guys,” he said, in his wee, squeaky voice, blinking his long-lashed, angelic eyes in all seriousness. “You be bad guy, Mama, and I shoot you.”

“No,” I said, summoning my utmost breezy calm and nonchalance so as not to immediately set off his OOOOH NOT ALLOWED MUST COVET alarm, “we don’t shoot people.”

And thus it began.

I remember my friends with older boys lamenting the gun thing, my relief at not having to deal with it yet, as they agonized over household items turned into pistols, lunches sculpted into revolvers. Surrender to the “it’s what boys just do” meme, or stand firm. No guns in the house? Toy guns? Water pistols? Nerf armories? No pointing at people? Animals? Stuffed animals?

There are lines to be drawn, the question is where. At what point is gun play acceptable, even healthy, and at what point is it damaging or merely inappropriate? At what age should a child be made to understand what a gun really is, what it can do? Should my distaste and even horror be obvious, or squashed down so my disapproval doesn’t make guns even more alluring?

To me, 3 years is simply too young. But I can’t control what he learns from his friends (whose preferences manage to filter through the preschool’s no-fighting, no-superheroes, no-guns, pinko peacenik guidelines) or what he imagines or dreams about. I can only teach him to be responsible in his play, find movies and books and activities that are non-shootout related, and hope this fascination will eventually be replaced with something less fraught. Maybe card counting.

For now, I muddle through. I feign boredom at the mere idea of a gun, remind not to shoot at people or animals, uphold the ban on toy guns. I say guns hurt people, we don’t want to hurt anybody. I listen to my son’s assertions that he will protect me, and reply we protect ourselves with words, with smarts, with peace.

I agonize and lament and read the child psychologists. I wring my hands and wish it weren’t this way. I watch him play, shooting wrong and right into the nebulous, grey world around him, attempting to make sense of things, to find order and control in the uncertainty.

But I never wish he was someone else, a tea-swilling, tutu-rocking girl. I think back to those first ultrasound images, and that initial worry. Here is my first major disconnect, and I realize I am grateful to see now that it in no way compromises my love for him, my fierce adoration, that unbreakable cord. The gun compulsion may be somewhat opaque to me, but the boy, he is not. I’ll hang my hat on that certainty, and the hope that this, like all things, shall pass.

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