Where the children play

One of the joys of childhood is the freedom to swing high enough to touch the sky. I wonder, though, just how often kids are allowed this kind of freedom when I see articles about Helicopter parents who have traumatized their now college-age children.  Do we let children risk a fall and deny them this joy, or do we keep them safe, and provide only sanitized experiences?

When I read a short story called “Creature Features” with my summer school class last week, I was reminded of the freedom, and inherent risks, of my own childhood.  The story, a lovely gem by John McNally, in his collection Ghosts of Chicago, is told by an 8-year old boy, who loves the old Channel 9 TV show, Creature Features, and whose mom is having a baby.  The boy rides around the city on his bike, unsupervised, and collects large slabs of chalk thrown to him by railroad engineers from the many trains passing overhead on the viaducts that he climbs. He is left alone overnight by his parents when they are called away to help a neighbor, and he frequently stays up late watching the show, while his parents call it a night. His life is joyous, exuberant, and filled with adventure.

My students laughed, reacted with ohs and ahs, and clearly enjoyed this story, but as we talked, they expressed concern and amazement.  How could an 8 year old be left alone? How could he navigate his neighborhood alone on his bike? How could he take his dog for a walk alone each day? These are not things that have happened in their lives.

I’m nostalgic for this freedom, and McNally’s description reminded me of my own  childhood filled with freedom to explore, and the risk to get hurt.  Perhaps I was a little older than this protagonist, but I vividly recall building (or at least claiming)  a “fort” between the back-to-back billboards that overlooked the Cicero Avenue Bridge.  We climbed dizzying heights, and somehow populated the fort with old scraps of carpet, and various discarded junk that we found near the tracks below.

My sister often claims that all of us should have been far more injured than we were — and the cliche, of course, is prevalent among my generation that we survived against the odds. But as my 8-year-olds, GG and MM,  experience risk, embrace adventure, and play with the full tilt and dizzying joy of childhood, I hope I can ignore my protective instincts enough to allow them to take steps toward independence. I will try to keep the lung-filling joy of swinging high in mind when my impulse to protect limits not only their opportunity for joy, but also the small bruises that will teach them much about healing.

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Waiting on the Big Green Soup Pot

IMG_0499We’ve moved into a house from our condo, and it’s been a fairly exciting adventure, although it’s also been fraught with a few challenges. Despite the challenges, we’re slowly making headway on unpacking and organizing our lives in a new, more spacious, home, and we’re enjoying our tree-house like existence. Our home is in an old Chicago neighborhood, that in the words of my sister, “might as well be the suburbs.”  I have to disagree a little; it’s still not the ‘burbs, but ancient trees (or at least really, really old ones) adorn our front lawn and shade our back porch.

IMG_0498One of the things I’m anticipating is digging out my big green soup pot to make pho for our big Tet celebration, which does not happen until winter, so I’ll have to imagine the smells of the anise, cilantro, ginger, garlic and other spices simmering away for hours, and wait for that heady aroma to fill this new space with the chatter of friends and family. In the midst of the hottest day so far this summer, I am not sure why cooking soup comes to mind, but as we gradually unpack and unearth our boxed possessions, and as our home begins to feel more like us, I am eager to share it with others. I suppose soup can do that — bring us together to share in our good fortune.

Perhaps it is also the green of the trees that I enjoy everyday from various vantage points in the house that makes me consider the green of my big soup pot.  No matter the reason, though, I am waiting on the green soup pot to share the beauty of this place with friends and family who’ve not already visited.



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Lessons from the “boot”


Five weeks ago, I had surgery to repair a torn peroneal tendon and to fix a long-standing stress fracture in my left metatarsal. Running and my unique physiology have contributed to the damage, and I had similar (though less significant) surgery five years ago on the right tendon. It’s been, and continues to be, a longer road to recovery than I anticipated, and that I remembered from the former surgery. It’s got me thinking about what it means to need help, and to have to rely upon others for assistance, and to be patient as I wait for my body to heal.

I missed one week of school for the surgery, and was ordered to two weeks of no weight-bearing. Upon my return to school, I was on crutches, and the kindness of one of the school principals (a former fellow in surgery to the ankle) granted me a scooter, with which I “rode” around the hallways and my classroom. My students, 7th graders nearing the end of the school year, were remarkably helpful, patient, and kind as I returned to teaching.  They picked up some of the pieces, helping me move computers around the room, writing the homework on the board, and transcribing my daily writing prompts that guide our class. I was grateful for their help, but also realized that it was good for them to have some level of responsibility, to take on some of the work that keeps our class moving forward.

My own children have also been forced to pick up some of the pieces. My kids are eight, and they rely much upon me to fetch things for them, cook, make lunches, help get them ready for bed, among the many tasks that fall to moms. I enjoy taking care of them, but because EE has also been out of town this week, I’ve had to ask Monkey Man and Gorilla Girl to take on some of the work of making lunches, getting clothes ready for school, and cleaning up the kitchen. Gorilla Girl has done the lion’s share of this “helping” and she seems genuinely proud of what she is able to do independently. The other side of the story is Monkey Man’s lament, “I can’t wait for you to be normal again, Mommy.” This balance between doing for one-self, and having done for one is tricky; for eight year olds, it might be confusing. In they eyes of a child, the parent is the care giver, the one who is supposed to be strong and protective, so a wounded parent must be frightening at worst, and disorienting at least. I wonder, too, how much I was doing as an eight-year old.  Are my children more catered to than I was, than earlier generations were? Is my incapacity, even though temporary,  a blessing in disguise, one that allows them to stretch themselves a bit more independently?

Despite the blessings that the “boot” has provided, and the offers of help from friends and family who have borne the brunt of taking care of me, my kids, and our house move over the past couple of weeks, I do still feel the desire to jump back into action, to take care of all the things that are normally so easily accomplished.  However, I will have to exercise patience and humble myself before the will of my body as it heals and returns me to full mobility.

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Prom, 1984

In 1984, I was a senior in high school, and prom was looming on the horizon.  Yes, I was planning to go to college (at least until my mom suggested in frustration that I stay home, marry Terry, and have babies, but that is a story for another day), and I was working hard in school.  But, prom was prom.

I am one of those people who now shakes her head, and makes tsk noises when the cost of prom dresses and transportation becomes part of the conversation.  I am admittedly judgmental about the trappings of such an outmoded, clearly patriarchal establishment; and yet when it was my turn, and when I was 17, I bought wholesale into the rhetoric and hoopla.

With chagrin, I admit that I attended three proms my senior year; however, in an act of thriftiness, I did wear the same dress to all three proms.  Why not make the most of the outrageous cost of the dress?

I do remember shopping for the coveted prom dress with my mom at J. C. Penny in Ford City Shopping Mall.  My mom and I scoured the racks.  She was the one who selected the black taffeta dress with the pink rosette trim. When I think of it now, it seems ridiculous. How on earth could such a thing be attractive?

I remember trying on some dresses — rejecting the entirely pink dresses — and finally settling on this one.  It seemed a victory; the dress was something my mom and I agreed upon, a rarity in the days leading to my high school graduation. It was also on sale! I remember that some girlfriends bought prom dresses at bridal shops, and they paid much more dearly than I for the swath of taffeta adorning their frames.

The prom dress, for me, symbolizes the contradictions of youth.  I was fiercely independent as a high school student, obnoxious in my rebellion, certain of my righteousness–a firm believer in ERA, a fighter for women’s rights.  Yet, in this moment of narrowly defined entrance into womanhood, I was like crusader, galloping to my certain doom, assured in my heart of the adventure that lay ahead.  I participated in the activities of prom as if they were normal.  I acquiesced to the rituals of teenage romantic notions.

I am not blaming myself, nor my mother, but rather am reminded of the story  and meaning behind my dress. The connection to my mom,  in those hours of searching, brought us into a union that was not easily achieved for most of my senior year. We were on the same page for once.  We wanted a bargain, a dress that could withstand a few wearings, something lasting, something that we would remember.

Too bad I no longer have the dress — it would be vintage by now.


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Personal Art: Patti Smith’s Just Kids

booksI finished Patti Smith’s Just Kids late last night.  For a poet, Smith’s prose was decidedly banal, and though I admire her premise — a coming of age/muse and artist/love and friendship story — the memoir read more like a who’s who of rock n’ roll, art high society, and fashion than a heartfelt and inspiring tale of following one’s dreams.  I admire Smith and her work, and though I don’t know much about Robert Mapplethorpe (and oddly, feel that I still don’t, even after reading Smith’s memoir of her relationship with him), but wonder if Smith could have infused her memoir with more of what makes her tick.

Smith notes often the hunger, real and symbolic,  she and Mapplethorpe felt, the odd jobs that kept them going, two young kids newly arrived in New York City, desirous only of making art–being true to their work. Smith held many odd jobs to support herself and Mapplethorpe, but her move from bookstore shop girl to rock n’ roll band leader seemed quick, even without effort.  I am sure that Smith’s gradual coming in to her own, her creation of her poetry, and her development of her musical side, took time, but it seemed to happen almost overnight in the memoir.  Perhaps the rise did seem to Smith instantaneous, or miraculous, and thus her rendition that made the climb seem insignificant. Smith and Mapplethorpe shared an intense and profound love, and  a mutual support of one another’s artistic development, but without the poignant ending of the book, I might not have fully appreciated that relationship.  As Smith recounts Mapplethorpe’s death, she narrates a tragic story of loss for a generation of young men who succumbed to the horrors of AIDS. It is then that she seems to reveal more about her profound connection to Mapplethorpe.

My belief in artists, whether they are photographers, painters, poets, or musicians (or all of the above), to help the rest of us be centered, connected, and rooted in what is meaningful,  might be unrealistic.  I wanted not Smith’s list of who she saw and talked to each time she entered The Chelsea Hotel or Max’s Restaurant, but the story of the relationships and struggles that brought her to the poetry, the story of the inspiration from other artists.  To her credit, she does note that Jimi Hendrix inspired her, and that she recorded her first album in his studio, but beyond Hendrix as cultural icon, I was uncertain that Smith had much more relationship to him that I have — that is to say, not much. I suppose if I wanted to read her poetry, I should buy her collections of poems.  I wanted more of her creativity in the memoir than was offered.  What I got was name dropping, as JY noted, and a meticulously detailed description of what she and Mapplethorpe wore.  What relevance this had to her life, or to the story she wanted to tell, is debatable.

When I finished the book, I was dismayed that Smith did not live up to my expectations, and maybe that is not her fault, but rather my mistake.  Maybe I am guilty of the very trap that I warn my students about when we study history.  Our heroes and role models, the people we look to for inspiration, are only human, after all, and we have to see them for who they are as three dimensional people, not who we hope them to be.  Perhaps the banality of Smith’s story shows some of the mundane aspects of her life in New York as a young artist seeking meaning–the daily trek to work, the grind of city living.  The trouble, even with this interpretation, is that what she seems to be looking for is the right connection with the right famous person, the open door, that will allow her to express her work to a larger audience.  Even though what artists like Smith seem to express is not about commercial success, she and Mapplethorpe were seemingly drawn to the “right places” with the right people.

pattismithSmith does mention a few times that she was often misread — directors thought she was a lesbian and drug user and she was neither.  Because she dressed androgynously, she was misunderstood.  Perhaps Smith’s focus on her wardrobe illustrates how all of us perform various roles — we express our gender and sexuality by our choices about dress.  Maybe Smith’s focus on what she was wearing acknowledges this performance — that all aspects of how we present ourselves to others is performance.  Just as Mapplethorpe pushed the boundaries of art with images that crossed dangerous sexually demarcated lines, Smith was on the path to question other divisions of life in the 70s, and maybe dress was part of her performance.

What I do appreciate about Smith’s narrative is the insight into the world of the late 60s and early 70s music and art scene in New York, the intensity of the creative moment there, and the response to world events.  What I struggled with was the purported commitment to making art, but sometimes without the connection to its purpose in the world.  In this time of great protest and cultural shifts, Smith barely seems to acknowledge that as an impetus for creative output. Art, perhaps for her, is much more personal than political.

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The face of determination

Monkey Man heads to kindergarten in the fall, a year behind his sister and his chronological mates.  It was a decision that seemed right given his physical challenges.  In some ways, though, it does seems strange to hold him back from first grade, as EE says, “He can read, but he can’t pull up his own pants, so he has to stay in kindergarten.”  It is true that Monkey Man was an early reader, and he has become even more able.  It isn’t that he reads War and Peace or anything — more like Mutant Ninja Turtle comic books and The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales — but he is reading. 

Despite the physical challenge of pulling up his pants with one working arm, Monkey Man often amazes me when it comes to facing obstacles with undaunted courage.  In particular, Monkey Man has become interested in running, something that he does quite slowly and a bit awkwardly.  However, he does not stop.  On the track with his dad, Monkey Man runs four laps, or a mile, staying in his lane.

Monkey Man imitated “running” on the treadmill recently at his physical therapy session.

Monkey Man’s most challenging run was at the Tryon Farms 50K/10K/5K and kids race.  He gamely set off with the other kids, hopping over giant weeds, negotiating forest and prairie trails. I was working the finish line for the race, and when the adult who led the kids off on the 3/4 mile run came back, with most of the other kids, but without Monkey Man, I began to worry.  Could he be down in the field?  Did he get lost on the trail, which was, to say the least, not well-marked.  I followed the course backwards to see if I could intercept him, and when I finally found him about a quarter of a mile away, he was tromping through tall prairie grasses that reached over his head.  I asked him if he needed help, and if I should stay with him.  His answer, “No, Mommy, I can do it by myself.”   Monkey Man finished the race on his own.  When he came across the line, to much cheering and shouting of the spectating crowd, I had tears in my eyes.  For a kid with the physical challenges he faces, including poor eyesight, his was the face of determination and fortitude grinning with pride across that finish line.

Since I did not manage to get a picture of the finish line, I found one instead of Monkey Man, using two hands on his mower, helping his dad. Another of his favorite physical activities.


When Monkey Man attended his first PE class late in the spring (as a trial run with the other nursery kids soon to be kindergarten kids), he responded, “PE is easy; you just have to listen to the teacher and then do what she says.”   His teachers had worried about how Monkey Man would navigate the challenge of PE next year, so this was a good sign.  Even Gorilla Girl noted that PE might be hard for Monkey Man since he has only one working arm, and sometimes they have to do things, like push ups, with two.  After watching with awe as Monkey Man finished the Tryon kids race, I know he will find his way.

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Reflection on one year of yoga

Just about a year ago, I attended my first yoga class.  I did not really know what to expect, but as a long time runner and cyclist, felt like I could handle whatever challenge was thrown at me.  I did not realize, or even expect, that yoga would not only stretch me physically, but also emotionally and spiritually. Maybe that sounds corny, but it is certainly true that while yoga has changed me, its benefits sometimes seem less sustained that I would hope.  This must be an indication that I need to focus on the practice more consistently while also bringing the lessons of the mat to my life.

meditation-poseMy first yoga class was in Three Oaks, at the  Yoga Glow Studio. I did my best to follow the instructions of the teacher who was attentive and patient with me, a new student.  I learned fairly quickly  to respond to the physical cues, and as someone who has some experience with physical demands, I was able to at least be in tune with my body in order to move it in subtle ways. However, the emotional, spiritual, and mental aspect of yoga pushed my boundaries and expectations. Yoga has challenged me to quiet the self-doubt, the noise of every day demands, and the stress of daily life.

I remember a class several months ago that brought me to tears, not because of the physical demands, but rather because the meditation at the end of class forced me to contemplate loss — but from a new perspective.  I thought about how my own experience of loss seems so infinitesimal in the scheme of the universe.  I wondered how I could not be incredibly thankful for the gifts I have been given, for the the opportunity to feel such loss must, in its essence, mean that I have experienced abundance.  Making peace with the present and the now has been my dedication at many classes.  Often, I offer my experience to my family, to seeking confidence, patience, and charity.

In my life away from yoga, I wonder, though, how my dedication works out in the real world of demands — work, family, children.  While I am sitting on my mat, in meditation, dedicating the practice, I feel confident that I will carry that feeling with me all day, and all week, even. However, I know that I fail to bring that with me too many times.  Yoga is making me aware of the distance I have to travel to carry that feeling of peace beyond the mat. I can hope that the work on the mat gives me more reserves for the moments in life  that challenge me.  I know I have a long way to go — that yoga is a process or a road to be on, rather than a destination.

I have also had a couple of months this year when I was not practicing yoga regularly.  I did notice that I was less patient, less resilient, less giving.  I suppose a part of me has always been aware of the connection between the physical and the mental, and my time as a runner has reinforced the positive benefits of exercise.  Yoga is more than just physical exercise, however. The community of practitioners are committed to the philosophy behind the practice, and the conversations I’ve had after class indicate a kinship that exists among those who support each other’s goals both on and off the mat.

Practicing yoga means taking action, but it also means accepting, and letting go — of the negative energy that clouds authentic relationships.  I am trying to work on letting go of that negative force, and I know from reading about those who spend a lifetime in practice that I have much to learn, much to develop.  Yoga has given me a road with many pathways to explore.  I have to be sure to keep focused on putting one foot in front of the other on the road, being patient, being open to the gradual transformation that yoga promises, especially in the moments of letting go.

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