One day, back at the start of winter Col was heading outside jacketless, in sneakers. Six inches of fresh snow had just fallen. I stared at his snow boots in the hallway and immediately flashed ahead to his adulthood, where I saw him living in a cardboard shanty, still unable to match his clothing to the season.
No one likes unsolicited advice, so I practiced my childbirth breathing, still forming a response when Dan stepped in and said, “Col, I bet those sneaks are way more comfy than your boots.”
It was like someone pressed the decelerate button on my nervous system. Dan tossed out every other potential response (condemning, warning, advice-giving, ridiculing) to say, essentially, “I can understand that choice.” And then Col, having no position to defend, explained how last year’s hand-me-down boots rubbed his heels uncomfortably. And then we bought him new boots. And he’s worn them everyday since then.
I have approximately 647 blind spots when it comes to my children, all of which have to do with fear.
Our fears often come from stories we tell ourselves about how it should be, stories in which our agenda is in conflict with what is actually happening. This activates anxiety. Maybe we value resiliency and optimism, and when we hear our child express negativity we panic. Maybe we want a child who always tells the truth, but there was an incident where the truth didn’t feel safe to tell. If we can relax our agenda and look deeper, we can make room for understanding.
Understanding: The antidote to fear
Generating understanding can be a powerful antidote to our own fear, actually dismantling our anxiety in the moment. It is an act of love that shines light into the dark, cramped places where we stuff our scariest feelings. Receiving understanding, or empathy, is like putting down the pack full of rocks you’ve been toting around while being led to the sunny meadow of relief. (We’ve been studying empathy experientially in my nonviolent communication group for the past 6 weeks, and I swear, we all walk out of there purring).
I’ve noticed that there are many things we want for our children. We want them to be confident, responsible and to communicate clearly; we want them to resist peer pressure, to care for others, and to always start written sentences with a capital letter. We forget that their brains are still forming, that everyday is an opportunity for practice, that we can help plant seeds by modeling our values. When they receive understanding or empathy, their system floods with oxytocin, a neurochemical associated with care and connection. It is from this place that their frontal cortex, “the reasoning brain” can make decisions and act.
Sometimes, as I’m searching for the right words, I just start with, “I can understand that,” because it sends a quick signal to my brain to prioritize connection over being right. Sometimes it’s easy, like when Rose plops on the couch after eating 5 waffles, and says, “I want to do cartwheels but my belly is sooo full.”
And sometimes it’s harder, like when Col says something hurtful to Rose, something aimed to wound. If I can tamp down my Mama bear sirens, I can say, “Hey, are you angry at Rose? I can understand how sometimes when we don’t express our anger or disappointment or jealousy, it can fester and come out ugly.”
Examples from our own life: (most from today!)
I can understand that this math feels pointless. You’re not using much math yet in your day to day life.
I can understand that you want everything to be exactly fair between you and your brother. You feel left out when he gets something you don’t.
I can understand that you felt jealous at your friend’s birthday, watching her open so many presents was really hard. You’d like all those new, fun things.
I can understand that you don’t want to walk to shared school, it sounds much easier to drive.
I can understand that you don’t want your sister around when your friend comes over, it feels like she takes over and that’s not fun for you.
I can understand that it feels more enjoyable to read than respond when we’re asking you to help out. It’s normal to gravitate towards what feels good.
I can understand that you want some time to snuggle all alone with me without your sister. That feels really special.
- Understanding, or delivering empathy doesn’t mean looking for a solution. We still walked to shared school this morning. Col completed his “morning math.” We didn’t “fix” Rose’s jealousy by buying her something. Being understood is usually enough to soothe the painful feelings and move on.
Steps Towards Understanding
1. Deliver Self Empathy. This is like a rescue breath, or putting your own oxygen mask on first. This slows the spinning out into fearful story (see above: cardboard shanty). Self-empathy is simply recognizing what you’re feeling, without necessarily needing to act. Ex: I’m feeling anxious and triggered. I want to be assured that my kid can always make beneficial choices. This is really hard. Watch how this self empathy relaxes your nervous system in the moment.
2. Recognize your biases and labels. If you’re thinking in absolutes, this may be a sign you’re seeing something in a biased way. Ex: my child always…, or my child never…, or my child is unmotivated, rather than, my child didn’t complete this week’s homework assignment on time. Erich Heller said, “Be careful how you interpret the world; it is like that.”
3. Employ true observations and get curious. True observations are statements about what you have seen or heard, free of evaluation, judgement of blame. It’s like looking through the lens of a camera. Be specific and unemotional. Describe the sights and sounds you observe. “I noticed it’s 22F outside and you’re wearing a light jacket. What’s up?”
4. Prioritize connecting over being “right.” Your child will always benefit more from the lasting power of being understood than hearing your opinion or advice. In fact, all your excellent advice is indigestible until your child feels truly heard and understood. And then, in a “green light” moment, you can check in and see if your child is ready for information and suggestions.
To judge is human; to be understood is divine.
I personally am famous for botching these commercial holidays with my own angsty over-analyzation of food coloring and crappy candy and paper waste and obligatory spending. Which is where you could say something gentle and loving to me like, “hey, look how excited Rosie is to deliver her handmade cards!” And truly, it was so sweet watching Col and Rose create their own Valentines Day cards for their classmates, like good little American kids who didn’t actually have roadkill gumbo in their lunch thermoses.
I’ve been noticing lately how much my kids want to be normal. They love the cauliflower pizza crust I make, but they desperately want to pretend it doesn’t have cauliflower in it. (It has become an issue we skirt around; apparently we can openly discuss politics, religion and sex, but not cauliflower). Rose walked in the door with a friend recently and sighed when she saw Dan at the table carving up a roadkill deer, as if the night before she hadn’t been a baby bird squawking, open-mouthed, for that very same animal’s grilled backstrap. She is concerned with having a Daddy who might at any point smell like deer brains.
As Col and Rose get older, they’ve become a little more heartbreakingly self-conscious. There’s no more cross-dressing and parading around the house. The backyard is no longer a nudist colony for small, ecstatic people. They believe there are “boy colors” and “girl colors.” It’s a little heartbreaking (and seems at least partially due to the 2 days/week they go to the fishbowl of self-comparing that public school can be), but also, I realize, a normal part of growing up.
I console myself with the knowledge that Dan was a toe-the-line jock for much of his school days, and now he’s looking for any opportunity to dance around wearing elk hoof-rattles on his ankles while singing one of his self-composed hunting chants.
I think I know how this works. Kids need to explore what shimmers unfamiliarly on the horizon (which in Rose’s case are the single-serve, peel-top, key lime pie yogurts while a half-gallon of homemade yogurt appears wholesomely and routinely in our fridge every week.) Col and Rose will bob out into new territory while an invisible, symbolic tether anchors them always to home, to family. They will voyage out seeking normalcy, and we will lovingly wave from our unconventional home, while elk and deer bones simmer on the stove. And they will circle back around, eventually.
These truffles are safe for Valentines Day; they’re completely normal by anyone’s standards. No masquerading kale bits, or bone broth-soaked walnuts. They are insanely delicious: nutty and date-sweetened on the inside, with rich, silky chocolate on the outside.
Ingredients (makes about 16 truffles; takes approx 30 minutes to make)
For the filling:
1 1/2 cups pitted dates
1 cup walnuts
1/2 cup shredded coconut
1-2 TBSP melted coconut oil (butter would probably be OK)
For the chocolate coating:
1/2 cup cocoa powder
1/4 – 1/2 cup cream or half and half (add slowly).
1/4 cup sugar
4 TBSP butter (or coconut oil)
pinch of salt
OR you can melt a chocolate bar
Blend walnuts, dates and coconut flakes in food processor until it becomes a uniform paste-like consistency. Roll into firm, small balls and place on cookie sheet covered with wax paper. Next, gently heat the butter, cocoa powder, sugar, cream and salt, whisking as it melts. Remove from heat and dip each walnut-date ball into the chocolate, using a spoon. When balls are coated with chocolate, place on wax paper. Place truffles in fridge for one hour. Store truffles in fridge.
Last Saturday at 7:30 am Rose and I hopped in our truck to rescue Dan. He was about five miles from our house watching elk and deer emerge from the dark, early morning when his car battery died. I hadn’t been in the truck for awhile and noticed a few things. In the front seat were two game bags to optimize spontaneous roadkill opportunities. Perched on the dashboard was a milkweed pod, its hundreds of tiny, feathery seeds the perfect device to illuminate wind direction, determining if your scent is moving towards or away from the animals. You know, basic emergency tools.
It’s so great to just be your weird, unconventional self; to love what you love without apology, explanation or a need for approval; to know what brings you meaning and to follow it like a bloodhound. How lucky it is to have passions, to be called to investigate the endless mysteries of life, to have a reason to get up before the sun rises. It’s like taking out an insurance policy against boredom, depression, restlessness. It doesn’t matter what you love – honeybees, cast iron cookware, the thrill of the opening notes of a concert, spotting antlers in the forest newly cast from an elk’s head. It only matters that you’re here, loving it.
Some Dan quotes I’ve been collecting:
:: “I feel so decadent to have a new compost bucket!”
:: “Doesn’t this snow make you feel so rich? It’s like filling the bank account for a green summer.”
:: “I was hiking uphill and I noticed my sweat smelled just like when you open up a deer: like musk and juniper berries and a little minty.”
:: Dan: “John and Sue’s dog was a little standoffish until he smelled me. Then he became verrrry interested.”
Me: “What did he smell?”
Dan: “Oh, brains, deer head, hide, antler marrow, turkey feathers and sinew tidbits.”
I want to say this: trust your passions. Follow them with the open mind of a child. Don’t worry about making money off them, or what society says, notice the joy that pays off like maturing dividends. Maybe you’re obsessed with knitting, or running, or educating your children, or finding delicious ways to eat vegan. No matter the topic, it belongs to you. Dive in, and enjoy
I don’t really know how to set the stage here. Ok, lets try this: if you’re interested in atomic weapons, or high-secrecy, high-cost, highly-destructive government projects funded by your tax dollars, or the insider scoop on abysmal conditions in WWII Japanese POW camps, or starving dust bowl farmers making their way to California in the 1930’s in ragged jalopies, I have some book recommendations for you! *also, one bonus, feel-good, book, too.
The kids and I are cocooned in words surrounding the historical time period of 1930-1945. Admittedly, it all started with Rose’s American Girl Doll, Kit, who, according to the brilliant and slightly sinister Mattel marketers, “lives” during the Great Depression. And then, in December, we took a trip to Los Alamos, New Mexico (site of the conceptualizing and manufacturing of the first atomic bomb), where even now upon entering the city, your car will be stopped and a serious looking man in uniform will ask the car’s driver if they can vouch for the people in the backseat (i.e. the two small people in back buried in crumbs and flotsam).
I’ve been cleared for reading, concussion-wise, which I’ve been abusing like the drug it is for me, finishing approximately one book every 2-3 days. Otherwise, healing continues to be non-linear and unpredictable. I’m functioning at half capacity, and operating under the very un-American goal to do less than I think I should every day. If I overdo it, I get extremely tired or grumpy. Yesterday I blew up at the entire family and Col said gently, “it sounds like you’re a little angry and maybe looking for someone to blame.” Damn emotionally-aware kid.
Ok, the books:
This book, 109 East Palace, is an enthralling, suspenseful account of the Manhattan Project, which was so secret, that wives didn’t know what their scientist husbands were doing 50 hours a week. And yet, somehow a city of 3000 of the brightest minds, average age 25, sprung up in the high desert of New Mexico to work together on a horrible project that also appears morally defensible. At the helm was Robert Oppenheimer, a pacifist who quoted from the Hindu spiritual text, The Bagavad Gita, after watching the first test bomb detonate. I now see that if our government wants to achieve a goal, they will funnel unbelievable amounts of time, money and brainpower into the project, which leads me to think there’s hope for renewable energy, ending income-inequality, and slowing climate change…if we want it bad enough.
Six years after publication, Unbroken is still so popular, that even in our small town all five copies were checked out of the library and I had to read the one “large print” book available. (Also, holy moly: 26,000 five-star reviews on Amazon). This book is about an Italian-American delinquent, Louie Zamperini, who marshals his defiance into running, and then becomes a bombardier in WWII. Zamperini’s airplane goes down in the Pacific, and he and two crewmates float for 47 days, during which Zamperini reaches deep into a well of resolve, cunning and a mix of acceptance and hope, which literally keeps him alive. Although things go from bad to worse (sharks! enemy aircraft! malnutrition! abusive POW conditions!), Zamperini remains “unbroken,” filled with compassion and enough of his defiant, youthful rebellion to get him through numerous trials. (Plus, bonus: Col and I now gawk together at photos of B-29s, and he’ll rummage through his collection of books to show me exactly where Zamperini, the bombardier, crouched on a B-24 liberator).
The Grapes of Wrath, which I read to Col and Rose, is about a large, extended, share-cropping family from Oklahoma who loses everything during the Great Depression and moves to California, where they believe work and fertile land will be abundant (spoiler: not so much). Although the Joad family faces one hardship after another, they remain dignified, generous and upright. The writing is simple, beautiful and funny, and John Steinbeck truly exemplifies the writing advice to “show not tell” by revealing entire notions of financial inequality through dialogue. Plus, it was the kids’ first experience of a non-happy ending (over which they almost rioted), which is sort of a poignant and sad manifestation of their own growing up.
Ok, one more (mostly upbeat):
I found Love is a Mix Tape at our library, and after reading it felt a little shocked that this book had likely been sitting quietly on our library’s shelves for nine years, and then fate brought us together and now my life is a little different in the best way. This book, as the title says, is about “love and loss, one song at a time.” If you’ve ever made a mix tape, fallen in love, danced and sung your way through 1990’s, are curious about how to rebuild your life after widowhood, you’ll probably love this book written by a Rolling Stone writer who knows music is holy.
We are now open for babysitting:
Also, 2 more books, both about adoption, both written by celebrities, and both funny and light with just the right side of heavy:
Two weeks ago I got a concussion after losing my footing at the ice rink and falling on my head. I know. Highly cautious middle-aged mothers are not the typical profile for concussions. (And, not the first concussion in our fam). I’m still a little baffled, but there’s a small slice of time that has been blotted from my memory files.
The EMT who rode with me in the ambulance reported: “that young girl – was that your daughter? – gave us a very detailed account of what happened.” I can already see that since Dan’s memory is skewed towards events like “5 elk seen at Columbine wallow in 2009” and Col’s towards “WWII airplane design,” that Rose may turn out to be the family historian.
The healing has been slow, steady, and completely non-linear. The hardest part has been when the kids are both needing something different but simultaneously, and it requires all my mental skills to chip away at the avalanche of words and emotions and get to the heart of their request. Okay, so you’re offended, Col, because Rose has been blowing her nose in the top bunk? And Rose, you love pears, but Daddy ruined the oatmeal by adding pear sauce? I mean, it’s mind-bending enough without a bruised brain. Sometimes I walk into the already-brewing chaos and ask, “How can I help?” and Dan says, “Go hide in our room.”
On a really challenging day, nauseated, dizzy, and weak, Dan called the ER nurse who asked if I had been playing any contact sports. “Just parenting,” he answered.
Of course the kids have also been my greatest medicine. Our friends have generously stepped in to invite the kids on playdates, and having just one kid at home is like having Mother Theresa come by with art supplies and comfort. Because I haven’t been able to homeschool, nag, worry, evaluate, or any of my usual parenting activities, I’m kind of like a friendly, slightly confused, noise-sensitive auntie who’s moved in. I join the family for meals, smiling benevolently at the children, even if I’m sometimes sitting at the table with my eyes closed and my hands over my ears.
With Mother Theresa (Col) I invent Pokemon characters and he draws them.
Also, if your mom is in bed, you don’t need to check with her first before receiving a haircut from a friend!
Because complete brain rest is crucial for healing, reading is sadly forbidden (my mom even texted me at one point to say: “no thinking!”), so I began listening to podcasts. For many days I stayed mostly in bed listening to podcasts from the live radio show The Moth (in which incredible storytellers tell mesmerizing stories) while the kids drifted in and out of my room.
(Recommended: Anything by her. This one about a free ride service for the GLBT community in Oakland, CA. Also this one about an exorcism for depression caused by evil spirits in rural Africa. Masterful storytelling about a wedding toast gone awry by Malcolm Gladwell.)
(Note: beloved local writer/performer Sarah Syverson is bringing The Raven Narratives, a live storytelling show—like The Moth but with Southwest flair—to Durango. More here).
I really don’t understand exactly what happens to the brain during a concussion, but it seems like some mental armor that leans towards busyness and self-protection gets stripped away. It was like some intellectual part of my brain checked out, exposing something more primitive. What was left was raw emotion, heightened physical sensation, and a bewildering appetite for food and, well, my hot husband.
So, for days, I laid in bed listening to The Moth Live Radio podcasts, crying and laughing and falling in love with all the storytellers. And then I’d ambush Dan, who may have just been innocently checking on me, though always willing to oblige. After it seemed that a pattern was being established, Dan mused in his grateful but unattached way, “I guess this must be part of your healing.”
Col’s lego narwhal, which in my highly emotional state, had me convinced it was OK that he doesn’t always start written sentences with capital letters. If he can build a lego narwhal from scratch, he can do anything!
Last night, upon my mom’s recommendation, we put on Mozart, for its brain-organizing benefits, while playing Ticket to Ride (our current collective favorite board game). Between my turns, I tended dinner; Col whistled and tapped the table; Rose smuggled the rat to the table via her hair and then shrieked when the rat scratched her neck. Which is to say, it was ordinary family life, requiring highest brain function and tolerance; and it all felt reassuringly normal.
Every morning I sit at the kitchen table with an alarming level of gratitude for coffee, while gazing out at the two crab apple trees we planted when Col was just a wobbly ride-along. These trees are the very definition of dynamic. In spring they erupt into a pink riot of petaled fluff. Next, a prolific hatch of shiny green leaves fool me into believing in permanence. In fall, the trees flare with color. And now, in January, they’re bare, slicked with snow.
The children are like this, too, their own mysterious seasons spiraling them out into ever-new incarnations, parts of them continually blooming and withering before our widened eyes.
Col burrowed in bed with me a few days ago, and I blurted that I loved not only his ten year old self right this minute, but all the versions of boy he had ever been.
He became interested in these variants on the theme of himself, each now as unimaginable as a herd of fanciful extinct animals galloping across the page of a children’s book.
There was the two year old Col who pilfered bottles of his grandma’s forbidden vitamins, tearing through the house shouting, “Uh oh! UH OH!” much like the criminal who turns himself in preemptively, just for, you know, the fun of it.
Or, the five year old Col who’d rise regularly at 5am, gaze outside and announce wistfully, “That’s morning star. I’m in love with her.”
I like to think of all these renditions smoldering inside the internal compost pile of our selves. Into the pile goes the mischievous toddler, the poetic five year old, and the seven year old who regularly searched for snakes in a patch of backyard soapwort, recording pertinent scientific data: “no snaks faund.” I will never glimpse each self so clearly again, and yet they all still exist in some essential, molecular way.
It’s so crazy, this time passing. Even eight year old Rose, on New Year’s Eve, said, “2015 just went by so fast.” I don’t tell her what it’s like for parents, watching kids shed layers like snakes, blithely leaving behind their latest, cast-off skin, the one that contained Rose’s concern that if she put a box elder bug outside in the cold snow it would become isolated. (Ice-o-lated?) If I could, I’d make the kids sign a binding agreement stating that they’ll always love playing at parks, snuggling with parents, and will forever go to bed at the same time in their bunkbeds, so I can kiss them, flip off the light and know that everything that matters is in that room, safe and accessible.
But really, what can we do but love all the iterations of our children, and then meet them on the path of today, because that is where we all reside. Time ticks forward despite our devotion to the past, or our beliefs that any particular stage was best, easiest, most fun. Snow falls, then melts, all the way to the next flush of May blooms in the crab apple. There is no better way to appreciate these growing children, no matter the age, than to be here noticing and celebrating this particular curve in the ever-widening spiral.
Happy birthday to my 11-year old boy.
Col, at his 11th birthday party, held in the air by his Uncle Ben of the ohana* variety.
- Part of Hawaiian culture, ʻohana means family in an extended sense of the term, including blood-related, adoptive or intentional. (This is one of our family’s greatest treasures).
Dan, after opening the Christmas gift of irish cream that *he* bought and we wrapped and gave to him. I know, not exactly the spirit of Christmas, but he’s a good sport.
Besides having to wean ourselves off the holiday sugar our bodies now think is normal, our Christmas break has been absolutely lovely in that uncomplicated way of, I don’t know, binge watching Beatles videos on Youtube, all of us discussing which Beatles are still alive, which aren’t; evaluating their earlier musical periods versus the later psychedelic stuff (Rose likes the early stuff, I like the later stuff, Col’s neutral, and Dan’s busy doing something productive); the kids leaning into the monument of me on the couch, laptop balanced on my knees, all of us singing, loudly:
He got joo joo eyeballs
He one holy rollers
He got hair down to his knee
Got to be a joker
He just do what he please
And me, thinking: I really like these people.
Also, we haven’t been much into leaving the house, which keeps the stakes comfortingly low. (My friend Gretchen confessed to changing out of pajamas in the evening only to put on a new pair of pajamas, which is exactly how it’s been around here, except lower standards of hygiene). Everything has been simplified: elastic waistbands, fleece, library books and leftovers. It has been cold and snowy, cinching us further together. When the sun crests its far southern entry point on the horizon and beams into our windows, we cheer. The chickens, though deeply offended by the snow, have been laying enough eggs for breakfast and eggnog, and it doesn’t get much better than that. The biggest stress of the past two weeks has been the post-bedtime Mitten Summit, in which Dan and I discuss how many mittens need to be lost before the kids start buying their own. (Conclusion: one more pair each).
Yes, we did get a roadkill deer for Christmas.
When we’re done watching Beatles videos, we talk about the Cold War, or the last grizzly bear seen (and killed) in Colorado, and then we all go our separate ways for awhile. Dan will go tidy up the snow or work on a new knife. I’ll read (just finished this novel, which I loved but thought was too unrealistically sad and then read an interview with the author and learned it was entirely autobiographical. Oy) The kids will play, play, play. Then, we’ll gather to read a little Grapes of Wrath, which isn’t exactly Harry Potteresque in terms of action, but the kids have been picking up a few new swear words plus the understanding that there was a time when kids were valued more for their usefulness than for simply being precious.
A side effect of all this home time is that the kids have become indispensable to each other. They go, together, from Legos to Pokemon to dolls and Dan and I shake our heads, uttering “they’ve been such good buddies lately,” and then look around quickly for wood to knock on. I just want to hold us here together a little longer. I’d glue us in place like a family in a diorama, just so we could stay awhile, savoring these times. I realize there’s no growth and change in that, but maybe I’d trade in all that overrated evolving for more days like these.
A poem on the start of the new year for you:
There is no controlling life.
Try corralling a lightning bolt,
containing a tornado. Dam a
stream and it will create a new
channel. Resist, and the tide
will sweep you off your feet.
Allow, and grace will carry
you to higher ground. The only
safety lies in letting it all in –
the wild and the weak; fear,
fantasies, failures and success.
When loss rips off the doors of
the heart, or sadness veils your
vision with despair, practice
becomes simply bearing the truth.
In the choice to let go of your
known way of being, the whole
world is revealed to your new eyes.
Happy New Year and All Good Wishes,
It is five days before Christmas and we’ve just returned from dinner at a friend’s house. We’re all full of pasta and friendship and Christmas lights twinkling across our windows. The cold darkness outside transforms our 800 sf into a holy haven every night. “It’s so good to be home!” I’m likely to say after a full 1.86 hours out of the house. Rose grabs her rat and we settle down on the couch to read a little about the Manhattan Project.
“Mama?” Rose interjects just as we’re getting to the first atomic bomb test, so suspenseful it reads like a Stephen King novel.
“I’m feeling jealous about not having a lot of presents under our tree. It’s not like at some people’s houses where they have SO MANY presents. They can just write a list to Santa and then their parents have to get them everything on the list!”
“Oh honey – did you notice some houses full of presents recently?”
“Yeah. And we don’t have that many.”
I scroll through all my possible responses, the explanations, the reassurances, the advice-giving, none of which actually say: I hear your pain. (And sure, we can minimize children’s pain when it comes in the form of jealousy for stuff, but I can remember having dinner at a friend’s beautiful, spacious house this summer and coming home to my bitty kitchen and feeling distinctly envious).
Rose is listing off the houses where presents surround trees like a moat. And admittedly, there is a part of me that has a slight agenda for both of my children to be the next Dalai Lama. So, when I see the humanness of their greed, jealousy, competitiveness and anger, I can feel fearful, or disappointed that their Bodhisattva training is not quite complete. And yet, could you imagine if in your pain, a friend reminded you of how un-saintlike your thinking was?
I have no idea what’s happening here.
An empathetic response:
I choose to respond to Rose with pure empathy, knowing that just being understood helps us move through challenging emotions. Empathizing doesn’t mean you agree, just that you can see someone’s position and want them to know they’re heard, which can create just a little bit of space between ourselves and the feeling.
“Oh Rosie, can I hug you? It must be hard to see houses where Christmas is a really big holiday, where so many presents surround the tree. You can imagine all those cool things wrapped up that you might like to receive.”
I reach for her and she stiffens.
(Col realizes that book-reading is temporarily on hold, grumbles and gets up, but he gets the message that in this family, there is always time to work with difficult feelings, even at…sigh, bedtime, as often is the case. My hope is that as Col and Rose get older they will always make the time to work with their own difficult feelings rather than turn to all the numbing/distracting/pleasurable things that American media suggests instead).
“Why can’t we just do Santa?” Rose asks.
“That’s not a tradition that felt right to me and Daddy. But I can see how it sounds like such fun to write a list of what you want and just have it appear. Does that sound so awesome?”
“And, do you like the idea of watching those presents build under the tree?
“You feel like you’re missing out.”
“I can understand that, honey.”
I can tell Rose is starting to feel better because her muscles relax and she sinks into me. I squeeze her and ask if she wants to talk about solutions. We generate some potential solutions for next year, none of which involve buying more things. Ideas: wrap everything hyper-individually (each colored pencil? Oy!) so there are more presents under the tree; save some Hanukkah gifts for Christmas; wrap some utilitarian things that we have bought for them anyway (socks, mittens) so there are more presents under the tree. Rose seems satisfied, and not really that attached to any solution, but pleased to know that we’re willing to brainstorm. We go back to reading. She leans into me and I can feel her nervous system return to balance.
What you don’t see: that Rose has been improv-singing nonstop for forty minutes at the lego pile. If Col joins a monastery someday in which monks take a vow of silence, no one will be surprised.
Here are all the responses that are not empathy:
Advice giving: Being grateful for what you have will bring you true happiness.
Reassurance: You’ll probably really love some of those presents under the tree.
Minimization: Honey, this isn’t a real problem. Some kids don’t get any presents for Christmas.
Denial of Feelings: But you love Christmas!
Avoidance/Distraction: Hey, this book is getting really good, let’s keep reading!
Fixing: Just wait – you might find some more presents under the tree in time!
Judgment: Being jealous is only going to make you feel worse.
Explanation: You got Hanukkah presents, most other kids didn’t.
Diagnosis: Your problem is that you always want what others have.
We like this sort of weather situation, here.
Why this is all I want for Christmas:
I realize later that although jealousy is an emotion that we often feel shame in expressing, Rose’s ability to just say how she felt avoids the sort of meltdowns that come from repressing feelings due to shame, or the meltdowns that come from feeling icky inside but being unable to name or acknowledge the actual emotion present. (I mean really, I thanked her the next morning for just sharing her feelings! Jealousy? No problem, we can work with that!) All I want for Christmas is clear expression of feelings and needs! It is so much easier to deliver empathy directly where it’s needed, than to wade through all the murky confusion of a meltdown.
Bringing an emotion into the light and surrounding it with care, understanding and support can actually transform it very quickly. And all the wonderful adult advice we have for our children cannot be processed when they’re gripped by an intense feeling. If there is information to be shared (such as: we put much of our gift-giving into Hanukkah) this can be heard when the child returns to a “green light” (calm, receptive) state, usually after empathy floods their system with oxytocin, a neurochemical associated with care and connection.
How do you encourage this clear expression of feelings?
Start naming your children’s emotions for them. “I see you felt really disappointed when the plans changed.” “You want that toy and you don’t want to wait, sounds like you feel impatient!” “When you see that kids at school have cookies in their lunches, you feel jealous. You want that, too.” The more children hear this feeling language, the more they will internalize and adopt it themselves.
Allow all feelings. If all feelings have space to be heard, children can share where they’re at, even if at 15 they’re crushed because that boy didn’t text them back (and it is my great hope that my children can share this with me—or someone!–at 15). Children will learn, through being heard and validated, that it is the very nature of human emotion to swamp you like a hurricane, twist you up, and then clear out, leaving chirping birds in the sunny sky of your mind.
With all my love and wishes for peace in your life,
p.s. Rose woke the next morning and never mentioned jealousy over presents again.
It is early morning and two exciting things are happening. First, it’s snowing. It’s like someone flicked the winter switch to “on,” and big, fluffy flakes are swallowing the yard whole. Little birds flock to the feeders. The blackness of crows are tossed against the white sky like dice.
Second, the kids are on the floor of their room, Col drawing Depression-era Christmas portraits of Rose’s dolls. Just last night, they were so angry at each other, each so expertly escalating the power-hungry vitriol of their one person nation, it would have put the Cold War leaders to shame.
The dolls have not been left out of Christmas. See tree behind Col.
We’ve been studying The Great Depression (soon to lead into The Manhattan Project for our Los Alamos trip), and the kids are fascinated by the cardboard-constructed Hoovervilles, nickel movies, and the black blizzards of dust that swept through the Great Plains. I tell Col that people probably saved their pennies for very special Christmas portraits in those times. (I’ve also been explaining that kids in Great Depression were happy to eat any food available, just for, you know, historical perspective).
I decide to make crepes for breakfast and recruit Rose from where she’s hawking over Col’s drawing, giving him approximately 2.126 inches of personal space.
Go passive solar heat!
Spending time with Rose is like a high level meditation retreat, requiring that you shake loose any miscellanea rattling around your mind. She will scour your mental arena of flotsam with the scrub brush of her questions. She forces you to relinquish your trivial musings, like: “next career move” or “dinner ingredients” because there are always more pressing matters, such as, “Mama, is that a hair growing out of your mole?”
Rose awakes with her mind jammed with questions. “What are we doing today? What’s for breakfast? Did Col already come snuggle you?” Before I can answer, the yarn of her inquiries fully unravel, lassoing my brain to hers.
“It’s wonderful that she’s so curious,” my mom says in that magnanimous, slightly removed way of grandparents who aren’t awoken at 6am with questions unspooling into the darkness of morning.
And it is wonderful, even if it’s like mental athletics, watching my own thoughts bloom and get knocked off course by the next flurry of questions. She regularly busts me furiously scribbling her own quotes in my notebook, trying to capture it all, while she’s trying to ask me the next important thing! I recognize the tiniest bit of irony in this frenzy to record The Now while it’s being served, warm and fresh from the daughter right in front of me.
Rose is mixing ingredients while I warm the cast iron pans. There is a small pause in the kitchen action, and Rose’s mind is clicking open different files, each one flagged with urgency.
“Can you taste the pear sauce in these?”
“In the crepes? Maybe a little.”
“Are you going to put pear sauce in everything?”
“Lots of things!”
“What do the chickens think of the snow?”
“Probably not too thrilled.”
“What do you think when you hear nails on the chalkboard? When I hear it, it makes my bones shiver.”
“I like that image – of bones shivering.”
“Mama, is your hair longer than mine?”
“What do you think Nana’s doing right now?”
“Reading the paper and eating oat groats in a very quiet house.”
“You think our house is too noisy!”
For Rose, questions are her passport to this world. Information is a like a wide, swirling storm; if you don’t stand outside with your mouth open in receiving mode, you’re sure to miss something crucial. Rose wakes up every morning and slides an empty tray under the door of my consciousness, expecting it returned brimming with answers.
Between pouring batter and flipping crepes, Rose investigates our cabinets, turning on her microscopic lens. Nothing is safe, particularly not my poor old face, which she examines closely during early morning snuggles, probing my skin with her small fingers. And yet, Rose knows where everything is: the missing sunglasses, the toothbrush I use to scrub the sink faucet, the newly spouted chin hair.
“Why does this spatula have a hole in it?”
“Hmmm, good question.”
“Look, you have all these wooden spoons and spatulas – are they part of a set?”
(She is cheered by this news, being attracted to items that deliberately match.)
This is Rose’s list of people she wants to buy Christmas gifts for, gifts which, incidentally, are chocolate-based. Notice, she has put herself (“me”) on the list. As my friend Sue says, this is great self care.
Recently, walking one of Rose’s dog clients, she was musing about whether to bring her dolls on our trip to New Mexico.
Then she looked up at me and said, “Now, you ask me a question.”
“Why do you want me to ask you a question?”
“Because it’s like receiving a present,” she answered, her hand swinging in mine.
~makes approx 8-10
These are so very delicious. Very eggy, light and flexible. We like them with fruit sauce and yogurt. Grain-free baking does include a lot of eggs, but seems like a good swap for white flour.
1 cup tapioca flour (What is tapioca? It’s a starch from the Cassava root. Found in most natural food stores)
1/2 cup almond meal
1 cup milk
1 mashed banana (or 3/4 cup pear butter, or apple sauce)
4 TBSP melted butter or coconut oil
1 TBSP vanilla extract
1 -2 tsp spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, ginger etc…
1 tsp salt
Mix everything together. Warm 2 cast iron pans to medium, or until a drop of water sizzles. Your pan may need a little melted oil/butter for priming the first crepe. After that, hopefully, no sticking. Flip crepes when sides start to brown up, approx 4 minutes per side.
A certain 10-year old can’t quite resist feeding the rat parts of our meals, for as he says, “She’s part of our family! She deserves good food.” Please don’t tell anyone in a 3rd world country.
Chickens, on snow: “Thanks, but no thanks.”
Happy cooking and extreme questioning,
Deer-fat candles, Dan’s latest experiment. Friends and relatives: coming to a gift box near you!
Rose is balanced on a chair, placing candles in our family’s menorah, while I am hitting the household “hot spots” (couch clutter, table crumbs from breakfast, bathroom sink) before our Hanukkah guests arrive. Rose is wondering about “tardition,” as in, “is it tardition to place the candles from right to left?”
Rose takes a break to twist wire onto a small zoo of clay teddy bear ornaments, which she hangs merrily (merrily, being code for so earnestly enthusiastic we need to remind her to breathe) on our Christmas tree. She twists wire, hangs bears, and sings, “Hang your ornaments on your tree, but it doesn’t have to be a treeeee!”
Indeed. Last Sunday, the kids cut a few pine, spruce and fir boughs, which are now bundled together, strung with lights, stuck in water and sitting festively on our living room floor like many others that have come before.
Why yes, that is our treeish.
I’ve realized that all the Christmasy things we opt out of no longer put me in a neurotic tailspin of over-analyzation. The kids are getting more comfortable with being different, which is something I hope they can draw from as teenagers, that we never did anything just because everyone else was doing it.
Every night, after kissing the kids and crossing my fingers that I won’t see them again before 6:00am, I step back into our darkened living room, glowing with strung lights; our little tree trinket-ed and cheery; and I feel a pang of gratitude for the sweet traditions that invigorate this cold, dark time. And really, tradition is just that pot that’s been bubbling on the stove long before we were around, brightened and carried forward by what we add to it now.
Rose is back to the menorah, changing out the candle colors to better reflect her mood. “Light one thousand lights!” She sings. Col squints from the couch.”Do you know how many one thousand actually is?” he counters, being the head buzz-killer of the pragmatists society.
Rose, singing and candle-arranging, and chocolate coin-dreaming.
Although our freezer is brimming with meat, Dan has been Robin Hooding around, picking up roadkill deer and bringing, er, deer legs to the people! He keeps the hide, brains, backstraps and that little red gumdrop of a heart (one currently winking at me suggestively from a bowl every time I open the fridge, saying perhaps, “Yes, you are the kind of person who frequently eats roadkill deer heart.”) Our friend, Sam, who teaches lego robotics classes, was so jazzed to get a set of deer legs to butcher, he gave the kids some prized legos from his collection. He said, “You’ve got a lot of one thing. I’ve got a lot of another thing – this is great! No money needs to change hands.”
Grilled deer heart, about which Dan aptly says, “It’s the sausage that the deer made itself.”
Every morning, Rose asks, “Can we open a Hanukkah present now?” And I explain about the tradition of lighting the candles at sunset, bringing light and warmth to the house, and how only after that do we open a present. If this falls short, I invoke my grandfather, Jack Turiel, who was an orthodox Jew and knew something about tradition.
Rose nods, goes back to Legos, and tries again the next morning.
Holy Hanukkah bonanza: Let there be light! And Legos! (Thanks, Sam!) And eggnog!
The morning’s coffee has included eggnog from the first blink of December, upon which Dan announced, “I feel an eggnog binge coming on.” This is our go-to eggnog recipe.
Col’s friend, Seneca, (who often wanders through our kitchen peering into bubbling pots on the stove) helped me on a recent sleepover to make this gifty spice mix: (don’t you love that paprika color at the bottom?)
paprika, rosemary, garlic powder, thyme, cumin, fennel, chili powder
We are now accepting applications from dogs who need home care. They must, like Chica, who came to stay with us over Thanksgiving, be “good” dogs, as Rose says, which means: they lick your face, don’t mind being carried around, come with outfits, respond to various nicknames, get along with rats, and accept small table scraps, which they shouldn’t take, but which the people under ten can’t resist offering.
For Hanukkah, we gave the kids the opportunity to help plan a short, winter trip to Northern New Mexico. They can use maps, internet, and experts in the field to make their decision. Is this a thinly veiled plan to insert some homeschooling into the holidays…well, maybe. Col has chosen Los Alamos, to go to the science museum and Bandelier National Monument, and Rose has chosen, no joke, to be completely in charge of our meals for one full day.
The whole jiggy: lighting the menorah, singing the prayer, Dan’s sinew strands lurking, and deer fat candles burning,
Last night, after a menorah/hair-burning incident followed by wrapping paper accidentally flung into the lit menorah, Dan sang, “Hanukkah, it’s a phenomena, lets not burn our house down.”