Saturday, July 26, 2008

First Times

There's something magical about firsts. Your first kiss. Your first apartment. Your first plane trip. Your first child. I'm still convinced that the anticipation and fear of doing something for the first time is as important as actually doing it. There is a wonder, an excitement and an air of mystery that precedes those turning points in our lives. But more than that, it is a state of being--of naiveté--that is ultimately lost through those very experiences; a stage that we later look back on with feelings of nostalgia, those sweet days of youth and the process of 'becoming.' For, of all of the experiences that will shape us into who we will become, aren't these the most memorable?

This weekend, we had our first overnight camping trip as a family. Laugh if you like, but it was surprisingly moving for me, for a few reasons. First of all, I am not an outdoor person by any means, and truly believe I was a house cat in a former life. A book, a bed, a cup of coffee and some music are all I need to make me happy, none of which is found in the wild. I despise bugs, am always cold (even indoors) and humidity makes my hair frizz. Truly, in the raising of children, nature is my husband's department. Secondly, I know my son Ben well and was convinced that he would not sleep all night. He moves around constantly in bed at home, is a very light sleeper and, when overtired, has to cry himself to sleep. For these reasons alone, a four-person tent in the woods overnight did not sound like my idea of a good time.

So I spent the day emotionally preparing myself. I asked my neighbors to walk the dog for us while we were gone, and I did minimal work to wean myself from my computer, so I wouldn't stress over being away from it for 18 hours. I packed a book and a reading light. I brought my iced coffee. The cub scout pack was going to provide food and games, and the boys were excited, so I crossed my fingers and hoped for the best.

One scavenger hunt, one barbecue, one snapping turtle sighting, two caught fish, one Indian ceremony, three latrine visits and one campfire later, it was 10:15pm. After Jacob conked out and Ben cried himself to sleep next to me, I laid on the hard ground looking up at the full moon wondering how *I* was going to sleep. But the next thing I knew, it was 6:15am, and Ben was saying to my face, "Mom, did you know that dying is worse than throwing up?" and then launching into a well-thought out explanation of why.

Sugared cereal for breakfast--that we never get at home--and all the other cub scouts ready to play 'hunters and horses' and climb on the rocks made the morning even more memorable. The car was packed and ready to go by 8:00, but no one wanted to leave.

Years ago, I would have worried over whether we should take the boys camping at this age, or whether it would be too hard on them to be up so late, too much work, too cold, too scary, too something. But I have learned that, like every other first experience, it's going to happen sometime. First times are part of the growing process. As long as we know we are ready for them, and have planned well, the memories they create will be greater than any misgivings that may precede them. And that nervous anticipation? Embrace it--it's all part of the journey.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Let It Flow

Five-year-old Ben is becoming quite an entertaining fellow. His sense of humor is coming through more and more often, and his talent for making his father and me laugh out loud is growing daily. Comments like, "Dad, this isn't a Butterfinger ice cream, because I haven't dropped it" shows me that his brain is in constant motion.

One of my favorite things to do is give my kids a riddle, math problem or pun and then sit back and watch them. I can almost see the wheels working inside, and the best part is always the light in their eyes and the smiles on their faces when they figure out the answer or get the joke.

In this world where kids are spending more than 20 hours a week watching television or playing video games, and the cases of obesity, diabetes and high cholesterol levels in children are rising, one thing all of the experts are saying is, "let them be kids." This new generation--offspring of overworked parents--is under-rested, over-stimulated and over-scheduled. I'd be interested in seeing a study of how many kids lie in the grass on a regular basis and figure out what shapes the clouds are making in the blue summer sky above their heads.

As time-pressed parents become pulled in more and more directions, of course we are going to seek out entertaining ways for our kids to spend time and enjoy themselves. But maybe instead of cutting corners on the type of activities we offer them, we should be cutting out some of the things that demand so much of our time be spent away from them.

The other day, as we were riding in the car, it got quiet in the back seat. I figured both boys were reading, until I looked in the rear view mirror and saw Ben just sort of staring off into space.

"Mom? I have a question."

"Yes, Ben?"

"How come, when we're just relaxing, our brain keeps thinking about all different kinds of things?"

I was blown away, and told him what an excellent question that was. I explained that our brains are always working, whether we're reading, working in school, playing a game or even sleeping (that's where dreams come from). And that got me thinking about how very important it is to make sure our kids HAVE the time to 'just relax', to let their minds wander off to unknown places and follow a thought to another thought and another. This unstructured freedom is the spring from which our imagination flows, and how children make sense of their world. It's the kind of thing they won't learn in a textbook, and I'm pretty sure they haven't invented a video game of it either.

Ben's recent jokes, comments and games show me that he is letting his thoughts flow freely, just as I did during the summers when I was a kid. As far as I'm concerned, my most important job as a parent is not to make sure I have enough money to buy my kids everything they want. It is to keep the pace of our lives slow enough that they can have these moments of relaxation, and the satisfaction that imagination and reflection brings, without ever running out of time.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

The Artist in All of Us

I learned today that there are certain portions of my brain that are just plain mush. I never use them, so trying to get them up and running is like spending 40 years lying non-stop in bed, and then trying to jump up and go jogging. Ouch.

One would think that I have the capacity to do what was asked of me: my 8-year-old asked me to play LEGOs with him. One would be wrong. Jacob has about 9,000 of these bricks, and is forever playing with them, building ships, planes, guns, forts, you name it. The other day he built a LEGO version of the robot Wall-E that we had just seen in the movie, and it was a really good representation. My son explained to me how he does it. He gets an idea for something, pictures it in his head, and then sets out to recreate it in a drawing or painting or, more often, with these little blocks. He's 8. How hard could it be for me to do some similar creating?

Pretty hard, as it turned out. What's funny is, it sounded remarkably like what I do with words. I am a builder, I figured, I just use words as my bricks. I'll take an idea, play with it, write it out, mold it, shape it and usually end up with a pretty fine piece of writing when I'm done. I can even hear a song in my head and recreate the melody on the piano. But words and music require a different lobe than paints or bricks. LEGOs are all about visual relationships and spacial coordination; indeed, there is an art to it.

What I learned is that, if I envision a place or an object, building it out of little plastic pieces is just not going to happen in a way of which I'll be proud. I gave it a go today, building something small in a very rough and clumsy manner, and I was happy that no one was watching but my son (who offered tips on how to make it better).

But what I also realized is that, regardless of the process or medium, I love these moments of learning from my children. It's not just about seeing their strengths shine through though; it's about their willingness to bring me into their world and teach me what they know, with love and patience. I may not be very good at building things out of LEGO bricks, but hopefully I'm doing an OK job of building some fine young men.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

It's Always Something

Remember being five? I remember loving being five. I had soft leather Mary Janes that were a deep maroon and I wore them everywhere. I taught myself how to read and tie my shoes (and surprised mom). Kindergarten rocked and I was friends with everyone.

The biggest thing I remember about being five is NOT being at all conscious of my body. It was all about experience, learning and socializing, as it should be.

This is key because I am trying to help my five-year-old this week as he has lost this magical ability to have out-of-body experiences. Two weeks ago, Ben had allergies and was congested. The congestion was followed by an ear infection (as it so often is with him). This led to a course of yucky tasting antibiotics which, after a week, was thankfully gone with the ear infection. But two days later, he started getting itchy and upon closer inspection I found him to be covered with hives. When I say covered, I mean they were just all over his little body.

Lo and behold, a Sunday morning doctor visit (because don't these things always show up in the middle of the night on Saturday?) revealed that he is not only allergic to penicillin (which we knew) but now allergic to cefdinir as well. Oatmeal baths; Benadryl; cool cloths; give it a week. Right.

Clearly the doctor has forgotten what it is to be five. This week, Ben has been the most physically challenged as he has ever been in his short life. He can't sleep. He's constantly itching. His eyes are swollen. He hates the medicine. He hates the baths. And through it all, his parents, big brother, grandparents and counselors keep telling him, "don't scratch." Are you freaking kidding me?

I am not lying when I say Ben has been a model and truly inspirational example of self-control. He isn't whining, he's really trying not to scratch, and is grudgingly taking his medicine every four hours. And I'm repeatedly telling him what a great job he's doing.

But as amazing as he is, I am still sad, because this week I have been missing his smile. When I picked him up from camp yesterday, he sat in the back seat wide-eyed, brow slightly furrowed, mouth set in a straight line and just looked at me. He wasn't scratching, he wasn't talking. He looked a bit sleepy, but said nothing. For Ben to be saying nothing, especially after the first day of camp, speaks volumes. He may be dealing with his lot in life right now, but it's changing him.

I can only hope that by being supportive and encouraging, helping to ease the symptoms and giving him lots of hugs that I am helping him. Maybe, if he ends up on the therapist's couch in 20 years, this will be one traumatic life event that he won't attribute to me. But more than anything, I hope this whole thing passes quickly, and isn't followed by some OTHER ailment. I hope within a few days, Ben will be once more out of his body and smiling, a happy five-year-old again.