Monday, February 3, 2014

The High Cost of Music

A piece of writing made the rounds on my Facebook feed this morning which was written by a mom wondering why on earth she should pay someone the exorbitant rate of $60/hr to teach her musically mediocre children to play the piano.  It’s safe to say that this elicited some rather passionate reactions from my musician friends.  I’m not going to engage here in the argument for arts education (which is long, involved, has been covered better elsewhere) and will just focus on the economics of the issue here.  After all, perhaps there are parents out there who are wondering why they are paying so much money for their kids’ music lessons and financing the lifestyle of the rich and famous that most teaching musicians must live.  

The writer’s argument focuses primarily on the issue of hourly rate, and brings up the hourly rates of several other professions such as loggers and college physicists by comparison. Leaving aside for a moment factors like education and whether an employee is paid hourly or salaried from this odd collection, please show me the logger who spends time uncompensated by his employer researching trees, cutting and roping techniques, or attending tree-cutting conferences (his union might have a problem with him being asked to).  Please show me the college physicist who is responsible for paying out of pocket for all of their research materials and texts.  Please show me the hospital psychologist who has to front the cost for all of his or her own marketing in order to get clients.  

Those things?  Music teachers do all of those things on their own, uncompensated, out of their own pockets.  When we aren’t teaching Johnny to play chopsticks, we’re attending conferences with peers, thinking about, researching, and sometimes even purchasing repertoire for your child, getting our piano tuned, engaging in musical endeavors of our own that add to our knowledge, or doing countless other uncompensated things that directly affect how we teach.  My teacher in school came to my school performances and talked to me about them afterward, arranged recitals complete with accompanists all paid for by her, talked to me on the phone about my concerns for free, filled out my college recommendations and helped me research schools, and even had me over for lunch on occasion.  She also had an entire library of scores containing everything from show tunes to art songs to entire operas, and she would loan them out to me to look at any time I liked.  At an average cost of $15-$30 depending on the size of the score, that’s a pretty substantial investment.  That dollar-an-hour of hers just kept stretching and stretching.  So much for that “low overhead” the writer claims teachers have.

Here’s another reason we can’t make that mythical $120,000 a year teaching 40 hours: in spite of the assumption that we’re all out-of-work musicians, every teacher I know is also a performer.  There’s not some mythical divide between those who do and those who don’t and teach.  All of us combine teaching, performing, and other odd jobs to pay the bills.  Why, when we could just make bank teaching for a dollar an hour?  For one thing, there aren’t 40 students a week to teach, and those students who do want lessons usually have similar demands on their time like going to school until three in the afternoon and going to bed at a reasonable hour.  And remember that list up there in that other paragraph?  That list doesn’t just take money, it takes time.  Time we wouldn’t have if we had back-to-back students for seven hours a day, even if they were available.    

The writer concedes grudgingly that we do have educations to do what we do.  When it comes to the nebulous value of education, perhaps another hourly rate comparison would be easier here.  My husband is a lawyer.  Here’s the deal with being a lawyer: because he reports billable hours, he is compensated by fractions of hours for every single minute he spends working on your case.  Unless he voluntarily writes down your bill, if you have a phone conversation with him, ask him to attend your bail hearing, or call in the middle of the night for legal advice, that crap goes in the billing system and is sent to you to pay for.  He and I both have a four year degree from a prestigious school.  We also had to compete with other qualified people for admittance to graduate school, where we completed our education and received applied experience in our fields and a degree that reflected that accomplishment.  We both have substantial educational loans we’re still paying off for our degrees.  When he started working, the average hourly rate in our area was $150-200, higher for bigger firms.  That’s per hour he spends on your case, no outside time.  My per-hour rate of $45 (yes, it’s less than $60) keeps shrinking based on all the factors I mentioned above.  Same time spent in school, same financial commitment to our educations.  Let’s just say that one of us is more responsible for paying the bills than the other.

If the writer still wants to shrug all of this off and take her kid to some stranger on the Red Line to teach them for $20/hr, that’s her perogative.  But keep this in mind.  You may know when your lawyer doesn’t win your case, or when your tree lands on your house, or when your kid’s college lab blows up and sucks her into a black hole because you hired someone to do the job who wasn’t properly trained.  You won’t know when your kid develops vocal nodes or repetitive stress injuries from how they get taught, and by the time you find out you’re going to be playing a lot more for physical therapy (I hope maybe she'll at least get someone qualified for that).  After all, I'm assuming there’s a reason she's are going to someone who cuts her hair for an arm and a leg instead of Great Clips, right?    

Look, maybe this writer genuinely experienced sticker shock when lesson shopping for her daughter.  The reality, though, is that the market will bear what people are willing to pay for something, and people in her area are obviously willing to pay $60 an hour for quality piano lessons.  Perhaps she might consider that parents see the value and sense of all the things I have mentioned above when making the decision about who should teach their children, instead of questioning the integrity and motivation of teaching musicians.  

And perhaps if she ever sees that mythical rich teacher park her Benz in the school parking lot, she can take a picture so that all the musicians I know can be insanely jealous.

Friday, December 14, 2012


"She was really upset," Caroline's teacher said, looking over my shoulder at the doll in my hands.  Caroline had brought her porcelain doll with her to school today, her "pottery doll" as she called her.  She'd come with her own little box that doubled as a wardrobe and a few old-fashioned and carefully crafted outfits.  Her delicately painted face now had a large crack hastily held together with a band-aid across her forehead.  In Caroline's clutched hands were more band-aids, presumably given to her to doctor her at home and to comfort her.

"She's broken, mommy," Caroline said sadly, her lip trembling.

There's so much broken right now, I wanted to respond.  But I just hugged her tight, and kissed her head and smelled her hair, reassured her that we would fix it, trying to not think about how I'd spent the last two hours crying.

On the way in I'd encountered another preschool mom, and something in the way she'd looked at me had made me ask if she was ok.

"No, not really," she said, and her face crumpled.  She had family in the town, nieces who went to ballet with the kids from the school that no one had heard about, a mom who taught grade school there for years.  She was just trying to hold it together for pickup, she said.

At eleven o'clock I'd prayed the rosary, the Sorrowful Mysteries.  Some other Catholic moms and I did it together virtually and in our own space, united for a small moment across miles through our burdened mother's prayers.  I grabbed the kids' rosary hanging above the desk; the large colorful wooden beads given to Caroline as a baptism gift seemed to fit today.  I don't normally say the words of the prayers out loud, preferring instead the staid properness of just slightly mouthing through them, like all the old ladies in church have done for forever.  But today, my sobs rang the words out loudly and brokenly.  I closed the shades so no one could see me.  When I got to announcing the first mystery, the Agony in the Garden, my heart turned toward the parents in the fire station, the ones who hadn't emerged trembling and thankful with their children.  The ones who stayed.  If there were a time for a person to fall to their knees, to beg God, to sweat blood, this would be it.

And that was when the cross fell off of my rosary.  It just thunked to the ground between my knees, as if the weight of the entire morning was too much for it, as if the Father and the Son and the Spirit and the Mother were also in pieces with us.  I paused, and stared at it, then picked it up and screwed it back on and kept going.

Just last night, I had a talk with Sam about the idea of us living in a broken world, how because of the way the world became corrupted bad things happen, how it's not what God wanted for us.  But how because of that, we can freely choose God.  How He didn't want us to be robots.  What I didn't tell him was that there are days I wish I was a robot, days I wish decisions were made for me for my own good, when I didn't have to keep choosing over and over again to love God in the face of brokenness.

I won't tell him either that after the first decade I suddenly forgot the words to the Hail Mary, a prayer I've said all my life, and had to look them up to keep going.  How I also forgot after that first mystery the extra prayer I always say at the end of a decade: "Jesus, forgive us our sins, save us from the fires of Hell, and lead all souls to heaven, especially those in most need of thy mercy."

Especially those in most need of thy mercy.  And I knew I'd forgotten it because it allowed me to not think about the perpetrator, to not be forced to pray for him.  I'm not a good enough Catholic to be able to offer up that prayer without it turning my stomach.  But I did it anyway.

After preschool pickup I took Caroline for a cupcake and to get her hair cut, forgetting for a few hours the speculation and rumors that passed for news that were being announced on the radio.  And a few hours later, I was at the school to pick up Sam.  My own kindergartener.

The car line was short.  The gathering of adults who had parked their cars and walked to the door was much larger.  His teacher didn't make an appearance as she usually does.  She's young, in her third teaching year.  I'd wanted to give her a hug, tell her we all loved her.  But I can't blame her for not being up for all that well-wishing.

I hugged Sam tight.  He comes up past my waist now, and his hair has lost that baby-fine texture and is starting to get rough and spiky.  But I buried my face in it anyway.

"Sam, I broke my pottery doll," Caroline said in greeting.

"Oh, I'm sorry, Caroline!" He patted her shoulder.  "Don't worry, we can fix it."

"I can glue the doll," I assured them.  "I'll do my best."

But I don't know how to glue everything else.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Lasts and Firsts

Sam and the enormous beyond.

Hoo, boy.  What a roller coaster of a day.

This morning, I dropped Caroline off at her new playgroup that she'll be in once a week this fall, and Sam and I headed out for our last morning together before he starts Kindergarten next week.  All this last year and some of this summer, he and I have had our Thursday morning date.  It usually involved a trip to Fresh Flours in Ballard for a latte for me and a shared pastry served up by our favorite barista, coincidentally also named Sam.  We'd sit in the window and people-dog-bird watch and chat, or read together a chapter book like Ramona or one of the Junie B. stories.  Then around 10:30, we'd amble over to the OAC for some time in the pool.  Sam is a fairly capable swimmer now, so we'd laugh and do laps together and occasionally I'd get creamed by a cannonball.  Then, we'd shower and get dressed and go to pick up Caroline.

This time, Sam wanted to do a bike ride.  We met a friend for coffee and a donut for fuel, then took our bikes on the Mothership to Gasworks Park.  We rode to the north edge of the U and on the way back stopped at an apple tree along the path, where Sam shimmied up the trunk and tossed down a few choice pieces of fruit.  We stuffed them in our pockets and washed them in the water fountain at the park, then climbed up Kite Hill while munching them.  Sam deemed his too sour and tossed it bites and all to the ambling geese, who greedily stabbed at it.  We both laughed hard when I tossed mine and it bounced unpredictably and hit a surprised goose in the butt, in the way things like that are only funny to a six-year-old and his mother.

I was on shaky ground by the time we got home after picking up Caroline and making a quick stop for lunch.  A few small, inconsequential chicken-peck type of annoyances sent me into a bit of an emotional swamp, so I turned on the TV to Curious George and hopped in the shower hoping to somehow gain some perspective while in there.  When it crossed my mind to contact a friend to pray for me, it occurred to me that I can pray for myself...I am actually allowed to do that.  So after getting dressed, TV still on and kids still occupied, I headed downstairs and grabbed my rosary.

Yes, the enormous kid rosary.

And the dam broke and the tears came.  Before the words of the Hail Mary were even out of my mouth, drops were dripping off the end of my nose.  As I traveled the beads, my mind was turned toward what had been playing around the edge all day:  Jesus' first miracle at the wedding at Cana, the nativity of his ministry, his reluctance to begin it ("Woman, it is not yet my time!") and Mary's gentle prompt ("Do whatever he tells you to do.").  If there was anyone who understood how hard it is to let go of a child and allow them to fulfill their destiny, no matter what it would hold or how wrenching it was for you, it was certainly her.

Sam is no Jesus, and I am certainly no Mary (I'm not very good at the "pondering things silently her the heart" part - I'm more of a "tell everyone loudly how she's feeling and maybe make a joke about it" kind of girl).  Kindergarten isn't exactly turning water to wine.  But there is a hard truth to this time.  Sam has started his path away from me and toward his own purpose.  Truly, it started from the moment he was born.  But this, in a little way, is the first of many small Canas.  I am urging him onto a path that goes away from me.  For the first time, he will spend more waking hours during the week away from me than with.  He'll be finding out who he is apart from me, what decisions he makes, what people he likes, what activities thrill him.  I'll be there to support, but he'll mostly be on his own in the hours he's at school.

What will he find out?  What will I find out?  It's a mystery, just as it probably was to that holy woman almost 2000 years ago.

But we both certainly could appreciate at the time the enormity of the first step on the path, the hesitant movement towards an unknown destiny, for both mother and child.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

The Mirror

The best way I can describe the guy's face is that his expression was about a 80/20 mix.  80% was full of knowing sympathy, and 20% clearly read as "just smile and back away slowly from the crazy lady's car."

He had been in full earshot, courtesy of the Mothership's open sunroof, of me completely losing it.  I don't even remember what it was about, but something about Sam spilling his milk in my slippers (I'm still not sure why they were in the backseat of the car) and being distracted and then stuck in the middle of the intersection behind a stopped bus was the straw that broke the camel's back.  I snapped.  Somewhere in the middle of the tirade about how angry I was and what would happen if they did that ONE MORE TIME, I glanced over to the corner to see him standing there.  Before I could even react, the light changed and he was left in our dust.

But wait, I wanted to say.  You should have seen me before this happened!  I was so good!  So calm!  So patient!  For so long!  Really, mister, if you'd just been with me for the past three hours or so, you'd totally get it!  You wouldn't go home and tell your family about the insane woman who totally lost her snot on her kids on the corner of 46th and Fremont!

You see, I'd just spent two hours in the local tire center managing two small children during what was supposed to be no more than a one hour wait, and watched helplessly as it slowly stretched into two.  I'd come prepared with books, crayons, a fully charged iPhone.  I spent my time that first hour going from child to child, helping with a coloring suggestion, assisting with the filling of the free popcorn bag, taking small bladders on bathroom breaks, answering questions about the Mars rover, explaining the rules and regulations of Olympic volleyball.

All was well for the promised hour, and then...things started to go wrong.  As I gazed helplessly out the window at the Mothership, stripped of its tires and stranded on the lift, I felt like I was in an episode of the Twilight zone.  In slow motion, things fell apart.  Fights broke out over the toy desk.  Random displays of heavy, metal auto parts started to look more tempting than Angry Birds.  Tires presented for sale began to resemble excellent choices for practicing riding and roping skills.  The floor apparently needed dusting with a small dress worn by a person.  As most parents know, things with kids can go from "a-ok" to "on fire" in about two seconds flat.  We were going down in flames, and I was stuck.

Eventually, perhaps because they finally decided they needed to get us out of there and spare their waiting room, someone came out and popped the tires on in exactly two minutes flat, I paid, and we were gone.

And then, somewhere on the way home, I met my friend on the corner.

Is there anything else besides parenting that holds up such an unflinching mirror?  And not a mirror of how we strive to be, or what we are most of the time, but of what we really are.  Sometimes, it's ugly.  Sometimes it's hard to look.  Every time I hear something coming out of one of my children's mouths that I've said to them in frustration or anger, I feel like a failure.  If I'm honest, I spend more time than I'd like hoping and praying that my children remember and repeat more of the good stuff than the bad stuff, both to themselves and to others.  Because some days, there's a lot of bad stuff.

I was sufficiently humbled by my run-in with the sympathetic/fearful pedestrian that I have found myself incredibly softened to other parents recently, parents that I would have been quick to judge.  Maybe I needed a little slice of humble pie to remind myself that I'm human, too, and that I so often fall short of the ideal.  We all do.  Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

And then, there was this today.  Caroline, after I apologized for putting her leotard on wrong, looked at me and said, "It's ok, Mommy.  Sometimes people make mistakes."  And Sam, seeing a crying child at the park, ran over and got down on his level.  From across the playground, I saw his mouth move to say, "Are you ok?"

And I have to remind myself, have to acknowledge, that they heard these things from me, too.


Tuesday, July 3, 2012

A Pilgrimage

Here's one of the things I love about being a Leen.  On Sunday late morning, I was a bit tired after a long brick workout and the kids and Mark were feeling a bit cooped up, having spent all morning at home waiting for me.  I have the summer off from my Sunday morning church gig, which meant that we had most of the day to do something fun together.

"How about a pilgrimage?" suggested Mark.

Ever since we saw the movie "The Way" last year, we've been fascinated with the idea of completing a pilgrimage.  However, we both realize that right now for many reasons the biggies of the Camino and Fatima or Lourdes are out of the question.  Not only could we not swing it financially, but packing up two small kids and flying them over to France and then hiking 200+ kilometers would require more than a Xanax prescription and would probably counteract any graces received.  It brings to mind Erasmus' criticism of pilgrims of his time who neglected their duties to complete a long, expensive journey to the Holy Land.  The purpose of a pilgrimage is to draw closer to God, not to go into debt and be driven to drink.

So, we've been thinking of ways we could achieve something like this on a smaller scale.  Presented with a free day, we decided to take a pilgrimage down to Olympia to visit the Shrine of Our Lady of Perpetual Help at the parish of St. George Byzantine Catholic Church.  Here's their website.

The Byzantine Church, although a separate entity from the Roman Church, is in union with the Pope and the Roman Church.  Although a smaller and less vocal presence in American life than the Roman Catholic Church (I'd imagine in part due to immigration patterns over the last few hundred years), Roman Catholics are allowed to partake of any of the sacraments available in the Byzantine Church, along with several other "brother" churches.  Need a chart?  I did.

Anyway, we hopped in the car with some snacks, said a prayer together for a successful trip, and took off down I-5.  An hour and a half's worth of driving later, we pulled into a gravel parking lot of the church itself.

Little Byzantine House on the Prairie

The modest building seemed out of place in the middle of Lacey farmland, with its gold spires and bright paint.  I wasn't sure what to expect when we walked inside, but I don't think my hopes were high.  Maybe I expected when I walked through the doors I'd be greeted by the typical modest but neat small parish church, a few statues and some drop ceiling tiles with a few charmingly missing pieces.  Here's what we got instead:

It's bigger on the inside.

There is no way this blurry picture does this justice but trust me when I say these people take beauty seriously.

Father Lee, seen in the above picture talking to Mark, is the delightful and accommodating administrator of the parish, and happily walked us through the church and all the icons with some wonderful and detailed explanations.  I'll include a few here, as well as what details I can remember from our chat.  If you want more information, a helpful page about icons can be found here.

Standing in the middle of the church and looking straight up, one is greeted by a ring of icons depicting the four authors of the Gospels and looking down on us, Jesus holding the Gospel.  This is the Icon of Christ.  One of its features is a Christ with larger ears and a smaller mouth, signifying that He hears all but speaks only holy words.  Handy reminder.  More information about this particular icon can be found here.

Every Byzantine Church has a wall and doors in front of the later and tabernacle, and it is traditional to have a depiction of the Annunciation on the main doors.  In the foreground is a small table with an icon on display.  I didn't get a chance to ask much about what was here, but I'm assuming that the particular icon has something to do with the readings for the particular feast being celebrated.

On the walls on either side of the Annunciation are other icons of saints, including this Madonna and Child:

I love this.  His arm is around her shoulder and his cheek is pressed against hers, as He looks up towards His Father and clings to her robe.  She looks directly at us as she gestures to Him.

Ringing the walls of the church are icons hung at even intervals.  At first, being Roman, I assumed that they were the Stations of the Cross, but when I asked I was told by Father Lee that the Byzantine tradition doesn't include the stations.  Instead, these were all traditional icons from their rich tradition.

Here are a few of my favorites with some explanations provided by Father Lee.

The is the Nativity.  In a departure from Roman tradition, Mary has given birth to Jesus in a cave instead of a manger.  One can see the familiar cast of characters surrounding her, but underneath her are a few additions.  On the lower left is Joseph, with a worried expression as Satan in disguise as an old man tells him that the child is not his.  On the right midwives who attended the birth are bathing the Christ Child.  Midwives in the Nativity FTW!

In Byzantine tradition, one of the Sundays following Easter is devoted to the Myrrh Bearers - the women who brought the myrrh to the tomb on Sunday morning and were greeted by the Angel.  You can see the tears falling from their eyes and the grief in their bowed heads, and the angel gesturing to the empty tomb and shroud.

The Baptism of the Lord.  I especially loved the depictions of John, in his camel hair shirt and with his wild appearance.  In all the versions of him I saw, he seemed to have an unusually long neck.  I wonder if this is a nod to his eventual fate?  And look at the early church fathers in the river riding fish!

...and probably my favorite, The Dormition of the Theotokos (God-bearer).  Although Roman Catholic and Byzantine traditions both believe that Mary exists bodily in heaven, reunited with her soul as we all will be after the last judgement, how she got there is a point of difference.  We believe that at the Assumption she was assumed bodily to heaven.  My understanding is that the Byzantine Church believes that Mary "fell asleep in the Lord" and her soul was taken to heaven, and then after three days she was raised bodily.  This feast day in the Eastern rite is preceded by 14 days of fasting.

In the icon, you can see the apostles present around her.  Tradition states that they had been scattered around the world doing the work of the new Church, and were miraculously transported to her bedside to be present at her death.  Except for Thomas, strangely.  Tradition states that he shows up on a cloud right as Mary is being assumed and she hands him her mantle.  I feel like there's a skit in there somewhere where Thomas arrives late like, "Hey, guys, what'd I miss?" and asks for proof, and all the apostles roll their eyes and say, "See??  That's why we never invite you to anything!"

In the center is Jesus, holding what appears to be a small child.  It is the soul of Mary itself, held in His arms in a paradoxical reversal of the typical Madonna and Child scene.  It is a touching and effective reminder that while Mary may be the Queen of Heaven, she only is so because her own son redeemed her as well as the rest of humanity.  She rests in his hands like a child, just as he once rested in hers.

After a while in the church with the attendant kid antics, we made our way outside to the Shrine.  Caroline led the procession with her Mary.

Caroline and Tiny Mary
Our Lady of Perpetual Help is one of the oldest existing icons in the Eastern tradition.  It took me a minute to figure out that that doesn't mean the object itself - it means the particular arrangement of the figures and items in the icon.  Eastern tradition states that the icon was originally drawn by St. Luke himself while Mary was still alive, and she saw and approved of it.  More information about the history of the icon can be found here.

And here she is:

The Christ Child rests in His mother's arms, looking over His shoulder with a worried expression at the two angels Michael and Gabriel, who hold two symbols of the crucifixion.  He has run to his mother for comfort, and in His haste has lost a sandal.  His hand rests on hers, seeking comfort.  While Christ is preoccupied with this, Mary is looking at us, inviting us to look to her son.

We sat for a while in the shrine while the kids ran around the field and dug for worms.  We said some special prayers for our family, for our Church, and for the world.  We each gave each other some alone time while we took turns with the kids.

I reflected a bit on the icons that I'd seen.  In so many of them, things are happening simultaneously - old church fathers appear with the apostles, midwives wash the Christ Child at the same moment he was born.  They capture moments of eternity, moments when time is no longer linear.  The timeline is broken, and all of heaven and earth exists in a single point of time captured in the images.  In a way, this is what we experience when we attend a liturgy.  Old, ancient words unite with people light-years away, and during the sanctus we hear the echoes of heaven itself in the "Holy, Holy"as a rift opens and we experience a small piece of heaven here on earth in the form of the Eucharist.  It's a form of time-travel, uniquely available to us here on earth during our time on it.

Icons, like the objects of liturgy, are holy because of the power God grants them to become something more, to transport us to a time we don't have the capability of understanding right now.  Now I see through a glass darkly, but then face-to face.  It's the reason the way in which Jesus is transported body, soul, blood and divinity into the Eucharist is a mystery, the reason Jesus was able to redeem his own mother before she was born is strange.  It's out of our time, it's God's time.  But we get a glimpse of it when we view an icon, when we are present at the Mass.

We packed up our things, said goodbye to the little church and drove back to I-5.  Pilgrims of old believed that it was not just the destination that was holy, but the journey itself that would draw us closer to God.  It might not have been a trip across the world, but a pilgrimage in our own backyard proved to be a fine way to spend a Sunday afternoon.

End note:  The Shrine has a yearly organized pilgrimage weekend that is coming up August 10-11.  Individuals and families form around the area and from further afield will gather and camp out for a night in the field around the Shrine, engaging in food, confession, processions, games, and prayer.  If you live in the area, it sounds like an intriguing weekend!

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Journey to weaning

Rather, I have stilled my soul, 
     hushed it like a weaned child. 
Like a weaned child on it's mother's lap, 
     so is my soul within me. 
             Psalm 131 vs. 2

About three weeks ago, Caroline greeted me at the top of the stairs. "I'm ready to wean, Mommy!"

I was a little taken aback, and responded with a non-committal "Well, ok." After all, she and I had been chatting about weaning for a few weeks and she hadn't shown a lot of interest in stopping. I admit I didn't really take her seriously.

But she was serious.

The next day, she bumped her head and crawled on my lap, asking to nurse. I asked if she was sure, since she'd told me the day before she'd wanted to wean. "Oh, yeah!" she said, and hopped off my lap to go about her business.

And that was it. She was weaned.

My perspective on weaning with this second child was of course colored by my experience with the first. When I found out I was pregnant with Caroline, I took a wait-and-see approach with Sam. I'd just follow his lead, and if I felt like I could still fulfill what felt like still a real need for him, I would. If that changed, we'd revisit. One thing I've learned with parenting is that nothing is forever, whether you want it to be or earnestly wish it would go away as soon as possible.

So, Sam nursed throughout my pregnancy. He nursed after Caroline was born. When it became apparent that I'd be tandem nursing, I told myself that I could commit to this for a year, and after that if he needed some nudging I'd provide it.

A year passed. He needed nudging.

That nudging was provided in the form of a weaning party, and a "big boy present" - a new bike. We talked a lot about how when you outgrow things, you also grow into things - new responsibilities and privileges. This took root with him, and we celebrated his "Big Boy Day" about a month later. We invited some friends who were in on the reason for the party, and had a grand time a Chuck E. Cheese.

Which brings me to the girl at the top of the stairs. Maybe you understand now why I was so taken aback. No back-and-forth, no carrot-dangling, just a discussion about weaning and a decision, completely on her own and in her own time, to stop.

And three weeks later, she is totally at peace with her decision. She sits on my lap, no stray hand wandering to its former place of comfort, no whining or pulling at my shirt. She is just completely content.

Two very different kids, two very different paths to weaning. And they both reflect each kid so perfectly. Restless, high-need Sam who always needs me so much more than I think I'm willing or able to give. Sweetly stubborn Caroline who, although thoughtful and careful, makes her mind up about something and sticks with it.

I can't say I have no regrets about how things played out with each kid. With Sam, I think upon reflection that I could have let him lead a bit more. With Caroline, I wish I had more solid memories of the last time I nursed her, since I didn't have any warning.

But that's just the way it is. We don't always get an engraved invitation to "lasts." We don't always see the complete path before us when we begin. That's only for God to know. I won't get warnings about these things in the future either, which I will be wise to remember.

And here I am, for the first time in seven years completely unattached bodily to a child. The hormones have certainly been a real kick - laughing one minute, weepy the next. This is a big change for me, too. But old needs are replaced by new ones. They might not need to nurse anymore, but they still have needs that are fulfilled solely by me. They'll continue to have those as long as we are both still on this earth. And it will be my job as long as I'm around to continually balance those needs with everyone else's and my own.

In a way, nursing and weaning provided the training ground for this life-long balancing act, and I'm grateful for it. Ideally, they will always be able to count on me as a lap to sit on, both literally and figuratively, where they can be content, stilled and hushed.

Weaning is just the beginning.

Saturday, March 31, 2012


A few mornings ago, Sam and I were hanging out in one of our favorite coffee shops when we ran into a family friend, the grandmother of several of Sam and Caroline's classmates. She's a sweet lady who lives in the senior housing across the street from us and she helps take care of her grandkids while their mom, a good friend of mine, is at work. We waved to her as she entered and we chatted a bit, more than we usually get to at preschool pickup and drop-off.

During the conversation, she offhandedly asked if my parents were in the area. I told her without really thinking about it that my dad lives in Portland, and that my mom died about two and a half years ago. She gasped and put her hand to her chest and expressed her condolences, and apologized for bringing it up. I found myself comforting her as I thanked her for her sympathies, and assured her that it was ok for me to talk about it, that we talk about Grammy a lot in our house.

Before this encounter, I found myself this last week reading a few of my older posts about my grief right after my mom died, and in the year afterward. The rawness of my emotions is so apparent. My grief was worn on my sleeve and woven like a thread through everything I did, saw, and thought. Each stitch drew blood.

That's changed. The fabric has mostly been sewn, and I live with it now. It's not that I don't miss her or don't think about her. In fact, just a few weeks ago I observed grandparents at story time playing with their obviously beloved granddaughter, and I suddenly had to turn away as unexpected tears stung my eyes. But mostly it's not so immediate and ever-present anymore. It's just a part of my life. In fact, I was rather surprised listening to myself talk to my friend at the coffee shop by my dispassionate accounting of the facts, especially in contrast to her shocked and visceral reaction.

And with that observation came an uncomfortable realization, one that I've had many times over the last two years. My mom didn't really seem present to me, and she hadn't for a long time. One always hears stories about how dead loved ones are somehow "with" the people they left behind. They visit in dreams, or they intervene in some obvious way. And I felt a little angry and cheated that I hadn't had that. She just seemed....not there.

The conversation with my friend continued, and it turned out that she herself had lost her own mother when she was 28, and that day was the anniversary of her death. Even all these years later, the loss obviously still stung. Then, she gave me her phone number and told me she was just across the street, and if I ever needed emergency help with the kids to call her.

And suddenly, I realized how often this sort of thing had been happening.

Earlier this week, I got to talking with the lady who does story time at the same place I observed the grandparents and their granddaughter. She's also older, and she's taken a special interest in Sam over the years we've known her, and especially in the last few months. In talking with her this week we realized that she went to my college many years ago, and we had a much deeper conversation than usual, reliving old memories of the place we both loved. And then, she told me that I ought to bring Sam by her house this summer so she can work on reading with him.

And for the last few months, there has been an older couple who without fail have brought with them to Mass a matchbox car every week from their extensive collection left over from their own kids and given it to Sam with a hug and a chat. When I thank them, they just smile and grasp my hand.

The more I think about it, the more the list of people who have just fallen into my path and want to be involved with my kids and my family grows.

And suddenly I knew. I saw.

Asserting herself wasn't really Mom's style. She almost never talked about herself, instead preferring to listen to other people. If my mom were intervening, it would have been so unlike her to just show up in a dream and announce "Here I am! I'm taking care of you!" What would have been her? To quietly work behind the scenes to make sure that the people she loved were taken care of, and she would never have wanted to take any credit for it.

I was looking completely in the wrong direction. There she was, in the helping hands of neighbors, in the conversations of friends, in the interest of others. And she'd been there for a long time before I'd noticed.

Now I obviously can't prove that. And I'm not really in the business of proof here. I can say for now that this just feels like her.

Someday, though, I'll be able to ask her when I see her face to face. I can almost picture her smiling and coyly answering just as she did in life, "I have my ways."