The Love That I Have

My new blogging program tells me this is my two-hundredth post.  It was also the blog’s fifth anniversary about a week ago.  When I started writing here, I had a kindergartener and an almost eleven-month-old baby.  Now I have a kindergartener and an almost eleven-year-old boy.  Five years ago I was also deep in mourning for the loss of my academic career, though I tried not to write too much about it. I wouldn’t say I’m over that loss by any means, although it’s better certainly, especially now that I have a fledgling freelance career. Five years ago my father was alive and Beth’s was, too.  That pain has receded a little as well. Daily life pulls us along, away from the past and away from pain.  Having kids makes you live in the now, and that’s often a good thing, especially on a day as sweet as Valentine’s Day.

Valentine’s Day is not my favorite holiday but I do like it.  On the first day of February, I posted on Facebook, “Steph has put a heart-shaped eraser on her desk and now considers her Valentine’s Day decorating complete. This holiday does not capture her imagination quite like Halloween, though she does like the candy.”  June’s preparations were somewhat more elaborate.  She drew hearts on strips of paper and taped them to the exterior walls of the house, one on either side of the front door.  She started making valentines some time in early January, storing them in a Clementine box she decorated with more strips of paper on which she drew rows of hearts and flowers.  Two weekends before the big day, Beth took her to a valentine-making activity at the public library where they had construction paper and doilies and foam letters which allowed her to make fancier valentines than the ones she made at home with the paper, crayons and scissors with which we supplied her. Despite getting an early start there was a production rush at the end, as she lost interest in the project for a few weeks in the middle.  Her cards to my mom, stepfather and sister went into the mail the day before Valentine’s Day, too late to arrive on time, and she was making the last few for her classmates over the weekend.

Noah decided not to make cards for his classmates (or anyone) this year.  Last year he did but many of the kids in of his class didn’t, so I suspect this year might have been the last year for a lot of kids. His class had a party and he did bring home valentines, from about half the class, mostly girls.  What he also brought home was a large tower of candy he won for guessing how many pieces it contains.  He guessed 958 and it had 1,027 small pieces of candy (a mix of Tootsie Rolls, Sweet Tart hearts, M&Ms, and Hershey’s kisses). June’s haul, consisting of a paper bag of candy from classmates and a box of conversation hearts from her after-school yoga teacher (devoured on the walk home), was considerably smaller, but it did contain a box of Darth Vader gummy heads, from a classmate named Luke, no less.

While the kids did homework, I put the finishing touches on the second draft of one of the grants I’m writing and sent it off.  The kids and I ate a dinner of tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches I cut into heart shapes with cookie cutters while we waited for Beth to come home. June said her sandwich was so beautiful she didn’t want to eat it. The kids hadn’t eaten much of their candy, but they were wound up nonetheless because they knew there would be gifts when she got home. I’d called Beth at 5:45, partly to see how close to home she was (Union Station was the answer) and I was on the verge of calling her again when she walked in the door around 6:35.  I ushered her into the bedroom so she could sign the valentines I’d bought for the kids and she ate her dinner, and then the great exchange of chocolate began.  There were chocolate-covered dried strawberries (a gift from Noah to the family), a chocolate heart, filled with wrapped chocolates (a gift from June to the family).  The kids got more conversation hearts and plastic hearts filled with M&Ms and June got a little Snow White figurine with two outfits, made of rubber.  (You stretch them onto her. It’s very odd.) Beth got me sea salt soap and sea salt caramels (very yummy). I wrote in her card that I’d secured babysitting for Saturday afternoon and suggested we see The Artist.

Soon after we’d opened everything there was a knock on the door. I was expecting canvassers or proselytizing Adventists (we live near a big Adventist church so we get a lot of that) but instead it was Zoli (formerly known as the Bobcat) and her mom who had come to hand-deliver a valentine to June.  We tried to give them some of our chocolate, unsuccessfully. I suspect there might have been a lot at their house, too. It’s a day of bounty, and not just in terms of sugar. It’s been that way consistently for me for a long time, and for that I feel very lucky.

I got a lot more than candy yesterday.  I had the chance to do meaningful work in a quiet house, a walk home from June’s yoga class through woods filled with purple crocuses, the treat of listening to June proudly read the words I wrote in her valentine, almost unassisted (and she probably could have read them all if my handwriting were better).  I have a date with Beth to anticipate.  At bedtime I got a hug and an “I love you,” from Noah.  And here’s what June wrote in my valentine: “You are the Love that I have you are Love that I Love I Love you.” Does it get much better than that?

Fly Like an Eagle

I’ve been spending a lot of time in schools recently, two high schools, two middle schools and two elementary schools in the past nine days. I’m writing a grant for two D.C. public charter schools and I needed to visit their campuses to interview the principals. Then we got the news about Noah’s middle school applications: one thick envelope and one thin.  He got into the humanities magnet but not the math and science magnet, so that simplifies our choices. We attended a meeting for admitted students on Thursday evening.  And then as she does every Friday and Saturday, June had basketball practice at one elementary school and a game at her own school.  In between, we attended a girls’ high school basketball game, a field trip for the Purple Pandas.

Writing these grants has been a real learning experience, both in terms of re-learning how to write grants and in learning about charter schools.  (The grants not actually finished, but I’m waiting for feedback between drafts.)  I’m not an education specialist, but I have been impressed and moved by the dedication of the school officials with whom I spoke and with their sense of urgency about closing the achievement gap.  The middle school serves a majority low-income Latino population, with a high proportion of English language learners.  The high school is largely African-American and poor, too. They’ve made impressive gains in recent years in test scores and in the case of the high school, in college acceptance rates. They are applying for grants to pay stipends to the teachers who currently volunteer to stay after school to tutor kids and to increase the number of college campuses the high school students can visit.  I really want them to win, but I know they are up against many probably equally deserving schools and there’s only so much grant money to go around.

Both schools are part of the Chávez network, named for Cesar Chávez.  Their mascot is an eagle, an homage to the symbol of the United Farm Workers.  By a strange co-incidence, the mascot of Noah’s middle school is also an eagle. It was a strange thread tying these campuses together.  The cafeteria of the charter high school is called The Eagle Café; there were posters of eagles in a couple of the magnet middle school classrooms. Everywhere I went, I was seeing eagles.  Halfway through the tour of Noah’s new school, I started humming, “Fly Like an Eagle.”

Of course, there are significant differences between the schools.  The charter schools are open enrollment; that’s part of their mission.  The magnet Humanities program has a competitive admission process and an advanced curriculum.  There was some diversity among the admitted students at Noah’s school. I saw kids of all races, but it was definitely a majority white crowd.

Do I feel some white liberal guilt about this? Yeah, I do, because Noah’s school sounds like it will be such a wonderful place for him to learn and grow over the next three years.  At one point during the orientation, Beth leaned over and whispered to me, “I want to go here.” I knew what she meant.  In their English class at the beginning of sixth grade they will be reading Watership Down, The Hobbit, and Animal Farm (I lost track of the reading list after that). In seventh grade, they study and perform Shakespeare.  (There’s a stage built into the classroom for this express purpose.)  They learn to use a university library for research in the seventh grade. They design car bumpers and pretend to be a forensic unit investigating a food poisoning case in science class. They take a media class every year. One of the sixth-grade projects is to make an animated film of a Greek myth (using Garage Band, a favorite program of Noah’s) for the soundtrack.  In eighth grade, they take a five-day field trip to New York City for the purpose of making documentary films, which are shown at the end of the year at the American Film Institute in Silver Spring. Now tell the truth, don’t you want to go there, too?

As we left the school, Beth asked Noah, “Are you ready to be an eagle?”  He responded with the shriek of a bird of prey.  I suspect it was a yes.

The next night we were at the high school both kids will most likely attend. It’s our home school and both the math/science and humanities magnets are housed there, so no matter where their interests take them, they will probably end up there.  Mike, June’s basketball coach, had gotten the idea that seeing a basketball game might improve the girls’ game. (The Purple Pandas have lost all six of their games so far, but their morale remains high, thanks to Mike’s sensitive and positive coaching.) The Pandas wore their team shirts and sat together, watching the game pretty intently for five and six year olds.  At half time, they were invited down to the court to exchange high-fives with the home team.  This was the highlight of the game for a lot of them. They kept asking, “When will it be half time? When will we do the high fives?” There were cheerleaders at the game and Beth and I wondered if June would be more interested in their uniforms and routines than the game, especially when we saw the enormous bows that had in their hair for some reason. June definitely took notice, but as we walked back to the car, she was running up the sidewalk as fast as she could, darting to the left and weaving to the right, pretending to be a big girl, running across a basketball court, heading straight for the basket.

I want them to fly like eagles, all of them, on basketball courts and athletic fields, in classrooms and on stages and in science labs, the kids who enter middle school years beyond grade-level work and those who enter years behind and those who are smack dab in the middle. Is that so much to ask?

A New One Just Begun

And so this is Christmas
And what have you done
Another year over
And a new one just begun

From “Happy Christmas/War is Over” by John Lennon and Yoko Ono

The kids go back to school tomorrow.  We split their winter break in half so we had five days at Mom’s and five days at home. This was a very satisfactory arrangement. It felt like a substantial visit with the extended family and a nice block of time for nuclear family togetherness as well.  We didn’t do everything we considered—Beth decided against going into her office to straighten it up and do some filing, and we never got organized enough to go to see the U.S. Botanic Garden’s holiday exhibit, but we had a long outing and a short one, we had family friends over on New Year’s Eve Day, and Noah played with three school friends and June with two, and we (mostly Beth) did a lot of cleaning and straightening and hanging pictures and fixing things around the house, so I think our time was well spent.

Thursday: Sentimental Journey

There’s a Degas exhibit at the Phillips Collection that’s been there since October.  We tried organizing a three-ballerina expedition with Talia’s and Gabriella’s families in the fall but we could never find a date that worked so we decided to go and see it ourselves before it leaves town.  The Phillips is in Dupont Circle, the D.C. neighborhood of our childless (and Noah’s babyhood) days so it’s full of sentimental appeal.  We visited a few of our old stomping grounds, including Café Luna, where we ate lunch (pointing out to Noah the Thai restaurant next door where we ate dinner the night before he was born) and Kramerbooks a combination bookstore/restaurant where we had desert after the exhibit and bought books.  I got my next two book club books (Catch-22 and Les Miserables) and June picked out a couple of Dora books, including one in Spanish.  I find it satisfying to buy books in a store these days as bookstores are disappearing rapidly in our area (and probably yours too). I like to support them when I get the chance, in hopes they will not go completely extinct.

In between, we visited the museum.  June enjoyed the ballerina paintings (and looking at herself in the mirrored wall with a barre) but she went through the exhibit at her usual brisk pace, which meant we could not linger as long as the adults might have liked.  Noah liked the sculptures best and was also interested in the computer images of what lies under the visible layer of paint.  When we finished with Degas, we visited some other parts of the museum.  We went into the Rothko room, much to the alarm of the guards, who insisted that June’s hand be held at all times.  (The paintings in that room are not under glass.) June gave the guard an exasperated look when she heard this.  Clearly he did not know how well behaved she is and how many tiger paws she has (twenty-three, third place in her class- not that she’s keeping track).  For a while the kids played a game of Noah’s invention called “Guess the Medium,” in which he’d have June guess whether a piece of art was done in paint, chalk, water color, etc. I caught a glimpse of them spontaneously holding hands in front of a painting (though later Noah claimed he’d done no such thing).  It was a lovely, lovely day, just like old times, except completely different.

Friday and Saturday: New Year’s Eve

We didn’t do much on Friday. Noah went over to Sasha’s and the rest of us hung around the house and June played with new Christmas toys while Beth and I cleaned in anticipation of our New Year’s Eve Day guests.  Saturday morning we cleaned some more and made peanut butter cookies with Hershey’s kisses baked into them and I set out our spread of sparkling juice, fruit, crackers and fancy cheeses, cookies and candy.  Noah helped by making little labels for the cheeses, which he stuck into them with toothpicks. They looked like little flags.

Joyce, her husband Smitty and their nine-year-old daughter Gwen came for lunch.  Joyce and I once shared a tiny, windowless, computerless office–which we affectionately called The Shoebox–with five other adjuncts and teaching assistants at George Washington University, when she was a graduate student there and I was an adjunct, back before our kids were born. We reminisced about that and caught each other up on our current lives (she’s an English professor at Ball State University now) and we ate a lot of cheese while the kids made videos on the computer.  I always enjoy seeing Joyce, even though her visits are far between now that she lives in Indiana.

We listened to Christmas music all through the visit and into the evening.  After our guests left we watched our last Christmas movie Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town, before declaring ourselves done with Christmas (okay, we will finish the sweets). We didn’t stay up to welcome in the New Year.  Beth and I were in bed before ten p.m., but we had a very pleasant New Year’s Eve nonetheless.

Sunday: New Year’s Day

New Year’s Day was another quiet day, full of grocery shopping and little home improvement projects. Noah and Beth took turns showing me how to use various functions of my new iPod so now I can listen to music, the radio and podcasts, if I remember their instructions.  I made black-eyed peas for good luck in the coming year and I finally made good on a resolution to get June some play dates already. She hasn’t had one in months and she’s been asking for ages to have someone come play.  She and her friend played instruments and danced and played Chutes and Ladders and had an earnest conversation about how no one should make fun of Rapunzel because of her long hair.

Monday: The Last Hurrah

Monday was the last day of the kids’ break.  We drove all the way out to Bethesda to have breakfast at Cosi because Noah was in the mood for square bagels.  There’s a Barnes and Noble nearby and Noah was also wanting a couple more 39 Clues books he didn’t get for Christmas, so he bought them himself.  June picked up a discounted Bambi book for herself as well, also using saved allowance.  I was feeling positively virtuous for having patronized two bookstores in five days, even if one was a big chain.

I snuck in a short editing job while June watched television and after lunch, Beth went out for coffee with Lesley and the kids had a play date extravaganza.  June had another friend over and Noah’s twin friends came over, too.  The big kids played with hexbugs and huddled together on our bed playing a game on Noah’s iPod.  The little kids played Chutes and Ladders and staged a medieval lesbian wedding between two of the Playmobile castle women, witnessed by reindeer and snowmen figurines. Later they ran around in the back yard, jumped on the mini-trampoline, played the Cat in the Hat game and made masks from June’s mask kit.  Everyone played so well together I was able to read a longish Margaret Atwood story from The New Yorker in relative peace.

The whole five days felt relaxed and fun and productive at the same time.  The house looks better than usual, as Beth did some deep cleaning and I feel ready to return to work tomorrow (that is if the snow flurries we had this afternoon don’t turn into something serious enough to cancel school).

Sara asked me over Christmas if I’m happy and I gave her a mixed report, but on consideration, I think I really am a lot happier than I was a year ago when I could see June’s preschool years drawing to a close but I had no idea what that would mean for me (see my 1/9/11 post).  Even though Noah will start middle school in 2012 and it’s bound to be an interesting year politically, I feel that the big changes for me have already happened with my transition from stay-at-home mom to part-time work-at-home mom.  The New Year’s just begun– we’re two days in and I’m ready to see what the rest of it holds.

The Six-Year Nap

This morning I got a call from the principal of June’s school informing me that June had fallen off the monkey bars at recess, gotten the wind knocked out of her and bruised her back. The principal seemed to want me to bring her home, even though she didn’t come out and say it in so many words. Eventually, she put June on the phone and when I asked her how she was, the first word out of her mouth was “Fine.” It didn’t really seem to me like she needed to come home. I think the principal was nervous because the nurse was not at school and they had no one with any medical training there to examine June, also nowhere to put her because the health center was closed. June had been hanging out in the principal’s office with a friend, the girl who led her inside when she fell. Finally we decided June would go to lunch and then we’d assess how she was after that.

On the one hand, I felt a little guilty for not immediately saying of course I’d come get her. I had no pressing work, no work at all in fact because Sara’s needed to cut back on my hours for financial reasons and the editing job I was going to do for another client fell through and I haven’t been working more than several hours a week for the past few weeks. One of the benefits of me being home should be my availability for the kids, for things expected or unexpected. I have the time. I was even disappointed last week when Noah turned down my offer to bake his traditional half-birthday cupcakes instead of buying them at a bakery as we usually do. (He had his heart set on Cake Love so that’s what he got.)

But on the other hand, June did sound fine on the phone, I know she bounces back quickly from injuries and if I came to get her, she’d have to walk home, a twenty-minute walk, which could be harder on a sore back than staying at school.

Just to be safe, I called the school back about twenty minutes after the end of the kindergarten lunch period to get an update on her. The nurse was in the building by that point and she went to June’s class to check on her and ask if she wanted to come home and June said no, she wanted to stay at school. So she stayed and I went on with my day. I read a couple chapters in the book I’m reading for my book club (Daniel Martin, straightened up the house a little, did laundry, exercised, raked some leaves, the sort of things I do when left to my own devices.

Some time last winter I read Meg Wollitzer’s novel, The Ten-Year Nap. It’s about several upper class women, all stay-at-home moms, three out of four with ten-year old sons at the same elite private boys’ school in New York, all thinking about re-entering the work force. You can see why such a book might appeal. I have a ten-year-old son, it’s been six years since I worked full time, and most of that time I have been wondering if and when I should resume working, not to mention what kind of work I ought to do. And while our lives are not nearly as upper crust as those of the characters in the book, it isn’t strictly speaking an economic necessity for our family for me to work. We could use the money, certainly, as Noah gets older and college looms, and as we’ve been embarking on a lot of long-delayed home improvement projects (we got a new fence, a new roof, repairs done to the eaves of the house and a paint job for the trim of the house all in the past six months and that’s just the start of the list of things we could do). But we can keep the roof over our heads and food on the table without my income, have been doing so in fact for quite some time, so I do have some of the same luxury of indecision that the characters have.

I resisted reading the book for a long time, though. I was quite put off by the title for one thing. The Ten-Year Nap? Really? I thought. Staying at home with kids didn’t seem like a multi-year nap so much as something that would leave one in need of a multi-year nap in my experience. But the moms in the book are for the most part years beyond the parenting-intensive infant/toddler/preschool years from which I have just emerged.
As someone who has dithered with the question of work for years, I ended up finding myself alternately empathizing with the characters (one of whom is, like me, an academic whose career failed to launch) and getting impatient with them. Just decide, I wanted to tell them. Give me a blueprint. They didn’t really. Oh they all made decisions eventually, different ones, of course; I expected the book the split the difference here. But the section of the book where they are paralyzed with malaise is quite long in comparison to the one in which those who end up working find their work. I would have liked more inspirational detail about that process.

I want to work more, so I’ve been putting out tentative feelers. Last week I applied for a half-dozen short-term freelance writing, editing, proofreading and translating jobs I saw advertised on a web site for freelance writers. I talked to a friend who works for an organization that promotes public charter schools about writing grants for schools. (I used to be a grant writer for a non-profit for a few years in my mid-twenties.) I browsed the shelf of books about job searches at the public library the last time I was there to return books, though I didn’t find anything I wanted to bring home. None of this has resulted in any concrete results so far, but I hope I’m moving from the part of my story where I bore myself and other people with my irresolution, to the part where I wake up from the nap, get out of bed and get on with things.

Y aquel barquito navegó

Había una vez un barquito chiquitito,
Había una vez un barquito chiquitito,
que no sabia, que no podía, que no podía navegar
pasaron un, dos, tres,
cuatro , cinco, seis semanas,
pasaron un, dos, tres,
cuatro, cinco, seis semanas,
y aquel barquito y aquel barquito
y aquel barquito navegó.

From “El barquito chiquito,” Spanish children’s song

A little over a week ago the kids had off school on Rosh Hashannah and June and I went to the library for Spanish Circle Time. We hadn’t been in several weeks and I found myself hoping the leader would play “El barquito chiquitito.” It’s one of my favorites in her rotation. The lyrics go something like this, without the repetition: Once upon a time there was a little boat that didn’t know how, that couldn’t sail. One, two, three, four, five, six weeks passed and that little boat sailed.

When they sing it the kids pair off and sit on the floor facing each other with the soles of their shoes touching. They hold hands and lean forward and back, mimicking the motion of rowing a boat. Whenever Maggie was at the library she and June used to row the boat together. It’s adorable to watch, really, but that isn’t why I like the song. I find the simplicity of this little tale of mastery moving. Occasionally I would even tear up, watching June and one of her best friends pretending to row and I’d think about how much of childhood consists of this: you don’t know how to do it, time passes and then you do.

The Spanish immersion program is like that. Noah walked into his kindergarten classroom knowing about ten words of Spanish he’d learned from Sesame Street and a couple months later he was chattering away in Spanish, not like a native speaker, but comfortably and fluidly. Because June is more of a perfectionist I thought she might appreciate a little more preparation so I taught her the numbers up to twenty and most of her colors over the summer, but that and a few phrases like “Buenos dias” was all she knew when school started.

It’s been six weeks and she knows a lot more than that now. She doesn’t speak in Spanish yet, but she sings the songs they are learning every day at home. And believe me, she really can put a lot of dramatic flair into “La araña pequeñita” (“The Itsy Bitsty Spider”). She’s learned to roll her Rs and she’s always announcing, apropos of nothing, “I know the Spanish word for watermelon,” or something like that.

“What is it?” is the proper response.

La sandía,” she will tell you, triumphantly.

This was a big week at school for two reasons. June was star of the day on Monday and Tuesday and Señora T started assigning homework. Star of the day is a rotating position that involves being interviewed by classmates on the first day and being drawn by everyone in the class on the second day. The pictures are collated together into a book that goes on the class bookshelf.

On Monday, as she does every Monday, June wore an outfit I’d chosen for her to school. (We call it “Mommy day.”) This week it was olive green cargo pants and an orange sweatshirt, both hand-me-downs from Noah. “I am so glad no one is going to draw me in these clothes,” she exclaimed and told us that tomorrow she would wear something that was “not boring.” Not boring turned out to be pink tights, a pink, blue and yellow plaid skirt, a white turtleneck and over it a tie-dyed red, pink and white t-shirt with a heart made of jewel-like beads at the center. She complained a little that evening that some of her classmates had paid insufficient attention to the design of the skirt, “One of them just drew Xs!” but overall, she seemed satisfied with the experience.

Right before she started getting homework assignments, a big pile of schoolwork came home with June. I was glad to see what she’d been doing since she often focuses more on the social aspect of her day when I ask her about it. I do like hearing that, but I also wanted to know what she’s learning. There was a lot of coloring, and tracing and handwriting exercises, connect-the-dots, matching capital letters to lowercase ones and copying words.

One sheet was a coloring page of animals they had been given oral instructions on how to color. She’d accidentally colored the duck red and orange instead of yellow and she was distressed to see an X and the word “amarillo” (“yellow”) next to it, even though there was a smiley face on the top of the page. (They all have smiley faces.) She explained to me that they were supposed to color the bird red and she didn’t see the bird at first and thought the duck was the bird and by the time she realized her mistake and tried to color over it she was so flustered she picked up the orange crayon. The blow-by-blow retelling of this error was full of emotion and drama, even though I doubt the teacher made any fuss at all. June does not like to make mistakes. I worry a little about how that will play out for her later in life.

The homework assignments she got this week were similar. On Monday she had to color all the items on the page that could be purple. On Tuesday, she had to count items in a row and circle the correct number. Wednesday she had to write out several lines of capital and lower case Is. Thursday she had to circle the largest animal in each row and drawn an X through the smallest one. Another advantage of the immersion program, aside from the big one of learning another language, is that it provides a constant challenge when the kindergarten curriculum is not as rigorous as June could handle. I remember appreciating that with Noah, too. Even though it’s on the easy side, or perhaps because of it, June loves doing her homework. In fact, she was inventing imaginary homework for herself before Señora T started assigning any. Now she races to the dining room table as soon as she gets home from school and gets right down to it. It never takes more than fifteen minutes.

On Tuesday, June brought home a golden tiger paw. Now this will require a little explanation. The tiger is the mascot of June’s school and tiger paws (little paper outlines of a paw print) are awarded as recognition of good behavior. Individual students get them and the class as whole can get them, too. June’s very well behaved in public settings, so she’s been racking up the tiger paws. (The mother of one of her classmates confided in me that her son was jealously keeping track of how many she has.) The golden tiger paw marks her tenth tiger paw. When she gets to twenty, she can pick a prize from a collection of small toys. I honestly wish there was not so much emphasis on rewarding behavior that comes easily to her but it is making her happy. She was pleased as punch about the golden tiger paw.

Wednesday was Walk to School Day. You are supposed to wear red, walk to a playground near June’s school and then from there, the kids form a little parade, with signs promoting walking and they proceed to school. When I first described the event to June last week she was uninterested. Then I remembered to mention there are snacks and she was all over it. She doesn’t actually have a lot of red clothes, but we found hand-me-down long-sleeve t-shirt that’s mostly white with red and blue sleeves and she paired it with a denim skirt and red socks and decided it was red enough. We walked with a first-grade girl from her bus stop and her mother, down the wooded path by the creek. June wondered if we’d see any of her preschool friends there. And sure enough, soon after we arrived we saw Maggie and her older brother. She and June greeted each other from afar and were headed to each other when at the exact same moment they each caught sight of other friends, from their own classes. There was just a moment’s hesitation and they both pivoted to their new friends. “But you’ve know each other since you were two!” I wanted to say. “Don’t throw each other over for some Janie-come-lately.” But at least it was mutual and there were no hurt feelings.

While June’s been at school counting and coloring and soaking up Spanish vocabulary, I’ve been home, trying to learn how to work again. This has been harder than I anticipated. The first week I found it really difficult to concentrate for more than a couple hours at a time and I wondered if my attention span had fallen victim to six years of staying home with kids, during which I rarely had even that much time to focus on any one thing. That got better by the second week, but what I really seem to have lost are my time management skills. I’m working ten to twelve hours a week for Sara, on average, and a little more for other clients and most weeks it seems to be all I can manage. If there are no holidays or half-days (and we’ve had two of the former and one of the latter already), I’m kid-free from 8:30 to 3:10, five days a week. That’s thirty-three hours and twenty minutes. Where is it all going? I am riding the exercise bike more than I used to, and keeping the house marginally cleaner, and reading more, too. But it still doesn’t add up. I think I failed to account for the fact that things I used to do with June around (dishes, laundry, errands) still have to happen so it’s not really thirty-three extra hours a week. And because I don’t drive, simple errands can take a long time. I suddenly feel differently about a trip to the post office or the bank taking up a big chunk of the morning because instead of wanting to kill time, I want to save it. Still, I try to walk rather than take the bus when I can, because I am no longer walking June to and from school and I can use the exercise. I’m hoping I will get more efficient eventually because I have a new client for whom I’m going to edit a series of short articles in October and November and perhaps beyond, so I’m hoping to be able to fit in more working hours.

At least I’m not alone. There are two other parents (one mom and one dad) who wait at June’s bus stop and who are also back to work part-time after years of staying home and they seem to be having similar issues. There’s bound to be period of adjustment. Overall, though, it’s good to be working. I like the quiet house, the time to write and think, the challenge of learning new things and new ways to communicate them.

June’s and my boats have launched. We couldn’t, we didn’t know how to sail. Now we do.

The Eighth of January

I am finding myself somewhat out of sorts with the new year. As I was walking June home from preschool on Thursday I noticed a few students wandering around the small college near our house. That campus has been deserted since the middle of December, so I’m assuming their new semester starts soon. Seeing those young people, I was seized with an unexpectedly strong desire to be teaching the Winter Term class on Literature of the Americas I taught twice at the University of Maryland or to be busily prepping for a new semester of the horror class I taught for six spring semesters at George Washington University. I wrote on Facebook that I wished I was starting something as “exciting as fresh, new semester,” but that was not precisely true. I didn’t want something like a new semester, I wanted a new semester.

And that’s my problem. I’ve been out of the classroom now for five and half years and I can’t stop looking back. This makes it hard to look forward and it’s time I was doing that. This year, 2011, is the year June will start kindergarten. It’s the year I could, and should start working more than the few hours a week I work now. We could certainly use the money, and I could use the mental stimulation and sense of purpose and identity work would give me. But when I consider my options, I just go around in circles. I can’t think of anything I really want to do. So if you’re reading this and you know me and you have an idea of something I might be good at, please leave me a comment. Sometimes I think I need some opinions from outside my own head. Because my own head keeps whining about things it simply can’t have. It gets annoying.

The year did get off to a good start in some respects. June slept through the night nine times in row. And our friends Jim and Kevin came over on New Year’s Day for a buffet of fancy cheese, fruit, crudités and vegetarian Hoppin’ John (’_John). I’m not from the South, but I have appropriated this New Year’s tradition of eating black-eyed peas on January 1st for good luck in the coming year. I figure we can all use all the luck we can get. It was really lovely to see Jim, who is one of my oldest friends and whom I hadn’t seen in almost two years. He sent me a hand-written thank you in the mail, which was also delightful. I can’t remember the last time someone did that.

On Friday, I co-oped at June’s school for the first time since November. (The school was closed when the boiler broke on the only day I was scheduled to co-op in December.) It was nice to be back in the classroom. It was my turn to make snack so I brought crackers along with celery, peanut butter, cream cheese and raisins in hopes the kids would make ants on a log out of them, though mostly they ate the component parts separately. And when snack was over, I joined the music class where they were listening to Carnival of the Animals ( and pretending to be different animals and I played with the kids inside and outside. There’s a big skeleton floor puzzle that’s new or newly brought out of storage and I had fun helping some of them put it together. I also got to see the kids’ newly invented playground game, 1-2-3 Split. Someone says this and they all go running off in various directions screaming. There is some murky narrative to it, involving screaming babies (always played by June and the Toad) menaced by the Robin and protected by the Black Bear. Unfortunately, things got out of hand at one point and the Toad got the worst of it when one kid pushed another and a few of them went over like dominoes. June was in the middle of the pack that went down and her skull crashed into the poor Toad’s cheekbone. Despite the mishap, June was very excited to have me at school; I think she missed having me there.

On Saturday morning we had a little snow and the kids got to go sledding in the yard before it melted later in the day. I have to admit I was a bit grumpy about the snow. It was coming down pretty hard for a while and after last winter’s record-breaking storms, any snow at all makes me skittish. I see snowflakes and I imagine there will be three feet of snow again and will be school cancelled for two weeks and we’ll all go completely stir-crazy. Beth reminded me it was only supposed to be an inch and that is was a Saturday morning, just about the best time for snow, from a school-closing perspective. I know I should be more supportive of the snow-positive members of my family, but I just don’t seem to have it in me.

Beth spent most of Saturday afternoon talking to prospective parents at an Open House at June’s school. When she got home, I made pancakes with an apple-pear compote for dinner. As I prepared the sauce, I listened to NPR. The top story, of course, was the shooting of Representative Giffords, which made me feel sad for the world, its confusion, its anger and its violence. Next up was A Prairie Home Companion ( There was some fiddle music on the show, which put me in mind of how much I miss Saturday evenings at the now defunct Savory Café, where we used to go see Takoma Zone play blue-grass and old-time music. I was now thoroughly melancholy, wishing we could go there after dinner, when almost as soon as I had wished it, “The Eighth of January” (, one of Takoma Zone’s signature tunes was playing on the radio. And even if a comfy chair and a latte and a live band didn’t suddenly appear in the kitchen, it was as if a little of what I had wished for had magically been granted to me.

Maybe it will be like that eight months from now, when I need a job; maybe it will just come to me. I would like that, even if what comes is only a fraction of what I want in my heart of hearts.

Later in the evening, we all listened to a downloaded copy of “Rebel, Rebel” together, in lieu of our nightly poetry reading. The reason for this is Noah’s new left-handers desk calendar. Each page has a quote or facts about a famous southpaw. It turns out January 8th is David Bowie’s birthday. Noah had never heard of him and wanted to hear one of his songs. (In some ways we have sadly neglected the children’s musical education.) So he found a photo of Bowie online and printed it out for us to look at while we listened. The song was Beth’s choice. I think I might have chosen one that didn’t contain the line “Hot tramp! I love you so” but Noah didn’t ask any uncomfortable questions. All through the song I was struggling to remember the lyrics that were coming up and wondering just how inappropriate they’d be. Despite this, it was also fun. We rarely listen to music that’s not kids’ music anymore. When I have the radio on it’s usually news and I most often listen to music when the kids are out of the house and I can pick my own CD without having to consult anyone else. I think the kids are missing out because of this, though. I have such fond memories of the records my parents played when I was young and the music that was on the radio. It’s something I almost don’t realize I’m missing.

And maybe finding a job or piecing together a part-time freelance career could be like that, too, scary and fun at the same time, and in the end, just what I didn’t realize I should be doing until I do it. I don’t know, but I hope I can be open enough to the possibilities to find out.

The Birthday Girl

I entered my mid-forties yesterday on a cold, drizzly Tuesday. It was Beth’s day to co-op at June’s school, which is my very favorite kind of weekday. I’m on my own from the time Noah’s bus comes at 8:20 until around noon when Beth and June return, and then Beth usually works from home in the afternoon. There was work I could have done, but it was my birthday so I decided to read instead. A couple years ago I asked Beth to look for a social history of the beach for some gift-giving occasion and she bought me The Beach: A History of Paradise on Earth ( It looked really interesting and I never read it. While it’s definitely popular history and not an academic tome, it’s still a bit denser than what I usually read these days (causing me to fret about what has happened to my mind in my five years as a stay-at-home mom). But more importantly, the chapters are discouragingly long. I can read the longest books—twelve hundred page novels don’t faze me—but only if the chapters are short. I like to feel confident I’m going be able to finish a chapter before I’m willing to start one. So anyway, with the end of June’s school year rapidly approaching, I thought I should seize the day and the book. I started reading on the porch, decided it was too cold and moved to the bed, decided I should really be getting some exercise if I was going to read inside and moved to the exercise bike. I spent over two hours reading and went from less than a quarter of the way through the book to almost halfway done. The book is full of interesting tidbits (I liked learning more about Victorian bathing machines— but spending over two hours reading about the beach did cause me to wonder why it was again I was not there right then.

After lunch and June’s nap, we all headed over to Noah’s school for our meeting with Señor S because a parent-teacher meeting is what every middle-aged mom wants to do on her birthday. No, really we did it because Beth was home for the afternoon and it was convenient. It was a challenging meeting because time was short and what Señor S wanted to talk about was not exactly what we wanted to talk about, but we did learn some valuable things. First, that he’s not as strict about the papers on the desk as Noah thought he was. He said he only discards student work if he finds it on the floor with no name and then he said Noah’s been better about turning in his papers this week. Of course, Noah has his focused days and his unfocused days—like everyone, but more so—so I wasn’t sure a few days of remembering meant much. Anyway, he didn’t seem as concerned as we thought he would be, so we were able to tell Noah later it was important to keep trying to remember to turn in his work, but not to be anxious about it if he didn’t. I suggested taping a checklist to Noah’s desk to remind him of what he needed to do, but Señor S seemed to think it would make Noah feel singled out, so I don’t know if he’ll do it. When we turned the conversation to the aggressive behavior we found out he did mean Noah bumping into people and stepping on their feet. I tried to explain he probably didn’t mean to do it, but I’m not sure Señor S believed me. I’m not sure I’d believe myself in his shoes—I thought I sounded like one of those parents who think their kids can do no wrong. But we did suggest that pointing his behavior out to him, “You are leaning on So-and-So,” or “You have stepped on So-and-So’s feet,” and asking him to apologize might help make him more aware of his impact on others and help him become more considerate of their feelings. Señor S agreed to try it.

What Señor S mostly wanted to talk about is how brilliant Noah is. I think he used that word at least three times. We learned Noah actually figured out the formula for the area of a right triangle all by himself last week, which Noah failed to mention when he was telling us about it, and that now he’s eager to learn how to calculate the area of a cylinder. Now any parent would like to bask in these kinds of anecdotes, and I will admit they were nice to hear, but knowing our son, we know that being smart won’t necessarily help him to act in socially acceptable ways and remember to turn in his schoolwork. I think I was more satisfied with the meeting than Beth was, but in any event we did get some take-home messages for Noah on both issues and I felt that was important.

We got home and I opened my presents—a gift card to Border’s, a t-shirt and a book, a new backpack and metal water bottle, a promise to get my Birkenstocks resoled, candy and a framed picture of June frowning (she selected the photo herself). My sister’s presents came in a box addressed to The Birthday Girl, which I found amusing because her business —Word Girl—has the same name as the PBS cartoon ( and The Birthday Girl is a character on the show, but I don’t think Sara actually knows this. Or I hope not, because the Birthday Girl is one of the villains. She insists every day is her birthday and expects to get her way all the time because of this. When she’s crossed, she turns green and grows as big as a house and starts trashing things. In one of my favorite Birthday Girl episodes she is upset about having to share her so-called birthday with the Earth on Earth Day and starts uprooting trees. Sometimes when the children are being too insistent on getting their own way or refusing to share, I tell them not to be like The Birthday Girl. Here’s a clip from the show if you want to see her in action. It’s five minutes long, but the first scene, the one in the park, is all you really need to watch–

After presents, I got Noah started on his homework. My aunt Peggy, my mother’s youngest sister, had a conference in D.C. and we were meeting her for dinner at America ( in Union Station. This meant leaving the house at 5:00 and it was 3:20. Noah managed to read the last three chapters of The Westing Game, play “It’s Raining, It’s Pouring” on the recorder five times and do three long division problems in an hour and five minutes. I was impressed and relieved he was so quick. There would have been more math, he said, but the copier was broken. Normally, I feel for the teachers who have been struggling with this balky copier for years, but for once I thought it was just as well. Noah was able to have a little downtime—he watched Word Girl—and we left.

I don’t know if it was because we skipped the kids’ normal outside playtime so Noah could finish his homework early or what, but both kids were really badly behaved just before we left. They were fighting over a toy and when we hustled them into the car they were both sobbing. I wondered how long they would keep it up but the answer was not long. We passed a graveyard on the drive over and June wanted to know what it was, which led Beth and Noah into a long conversation about burial versus cremation. I almost put in that Grandpa Steve was cremated, but then I decided against it, not sure I wanted to deal with the inevitable follow up questions.

At the restaurant, the kids were both a bit antsy and needed to be taken away from the table for walks twice, but we had time to eat—I got baked macaroni and cheese with some steamed vegetables to dip in the sauce—and time to chat with my aunt and for her to update us on her daughter Emily, son Blake and grandson Josiah. She said June and Josiah could be siblings, they looked so much alike. We hadn’t seen Peggy in a couple of years so it was nice to catch up.

At home we had cake and ice cream and put the kids to bed. When we went to bed, Beth asked me if I had a good birthday. I said yes, but I was also a little sad because I’d moved on, gotten a year older, and my Dad never will. I thought about this on the kids’ birthdays, too, but their excitement about turning four and nine pretty much swept me along and overrode any melancholy. I guess forty-three is not as thrilling.

So, I’m still sad today, but I’m not planning to rage against the universe, demand special treatment or uproot any trees. Yesterday I had some time to myself, a good book, a good meal, time with family including a visit with a member of my far-flung extended family. Life goes on; we all get older. That’s how it should be. It’s better than the alternative anyway.

Unexpected Gifts

“How old am I?” June wanted to know on Saturday morning.

“Three,” Beth answered.

“How old am I?” Noah chimed in.

“Eight,” Beth said.

“No, I’m 13.8 billion!” he said triumphantly. He and Beth had just been discussing the Big Bang and how all matter in the universe has been present since then.

I turned forty-two yesterday. Or maybe it was 13.8 billion. It feels that way sometimes.

We had a busy weekend before my birthday. The annual Garden Party at June’s school was Saturday afternoon and Noah had a play date with Sasha later in the afternoon and Elias’s birthday party Sunday afternoon. And then there was Mother’s Day.

We were invited to a Mom’s Night Out Mother’s Day Eve party thrown by the Stag Beetle’s moms. We almost never accept invitations for social events in the evenings. By the time the kids are in bed I am usually ready to collapse myself. Recently, though, I’ve found myself staying up a little later, most nights until ten or even beyond. I’m not sure if I’m better rested or just more in need of me-time, but I suspect it’s the latter. So anyway, after going back and forth in my mind about whether or not to go to the party by the time I finally decided to go for it I’d waited too long to find a sitter. I only had time to contact one (Elias’s older sister) and she wasn’t free. So we stayed home.

Possibly it was just as well because we were running around a lot as it was. Noah surprised us by coming home from school on Friday without Mother’s Day gifts for us. He has brought gifts home from school or daycare every year since he was two so we had no backup plan. (What’s up, Montgomery County Public Schools?) Add two Mother’s Day gifts to my birthday present and Elias’s birthday present and that’s a lot of shopping for one indecisive and easily distracted eight year old to accomplish in one weekend.

With only one gift to facilitate, I got off relatively easy. I took both kids to the Safeway on Saturday morning. June knew what she wanted to buy as soon as we crossed the threshold of the store. “Yellow flower balloon!” she began chanting. I wasn’t even planning on getting Beth something from June, because she’d brought home a very nice card with a water color on the front she made at school and the words “They play hide and seek with me. They climb trees with me” printed on rice paper inside. (This was a quote from June, but more a reflection of wishful thinking than reality, at least when it comes to tree-climbing.) Plus June had colored a Mother’s Day page we printed from the Ladybug website ( so I thought she was covered. She did not see it that way, however. “Yellow flower balloon!” she cried, becoming more insistent. I grabbed the balloon from the display and guided Noah over to the gift cards. After much deliberation, he selected a Starbucks card. It would have been a better present for me, since I’m the Starbucks fiend in the family, so I tried to steer him to Cold Stone (Beth loves ice cream) or iTunes, but he stuck to his decision. It wasn’t ideal but it wasn’t a completely inappropriate gift either, as I would come to appreciate later in the weekend.

Shortly after we returned, Beth left for yoga. The kids and I had lunch, then June and I napped while Noah did homework. Beth came back and picked him up to take him shopping again while June and I were still sequestered in the bedroom. I didn’t find out the details of this trip until later, but when they met us at the Garden Party, quite a bit later than expected, Beth seemed frazzled. She also reported that they didn’t have a gift for Elias yet so they would have to go out again the next day.

Meanwhile, June and I socialized and played on the Purple School playground and admired the children’s artwork hanging on the fence. June presented Andrea with a finger painting she’d made. I’d taped a paper onto the back that said:

Steph: What do you like about Andrea?
June: She paints with me.

It was for Teacher Appreciation Week, which had ended the day before, but Andrea was gracious and enthusiastic about the belated tribute.

Beth and Noah made a brief appearance at the party, long enough to say hello to a few people, enjoy some snacks and ooh and ahh over June’s collage of spring grass. Then we all piled into the car and took Noah to Sasha’s.

On Sunday morning, the Mother’s Day gifts came out. June had let the cat out of the bag regarding the balloon the day before, but Beth acted surprised anyway when Noah pulled it out of my closet. Beth had asked me the day before if it was okay if my gift from Noah was “not a very good gift.” Sure, I said, giving gifts is a learned skill; he’s still getting the hang of it, etc. Still, I was surprised and I will admit a little dismayed when he presented me with a pile of papers, crookedly stapled together with a cover sheet that said, “1,000 Page Book Report.” Noah himself has to read books totaling one thousand pages in the last six weeks of the school year and fill out a sheet about each one he reads. He replicated the assignment for me. Noah likes to do this, make homework for us and it’s usually based on his own homework. Generally, we play along, but nonetheless, one does not expect a homework assignment for a Mother’s Day present. For all my selfless sentiments about learning to give gifts, I secretly hoped he’d do better for my birthday the following day.

We went through our normal Sunday routines with the addition of more gift shopping and Elias’s party. The party was at a duckpin bowling ( alley and it was a bit of a hike from Takoma, so Beth decided to stay in the general vicinity and hang out in Starbucks and use her gift card there. I don’t know why but I imagined her reading or otherwise enjoying herself there. This made it easier to accept that I’d have to miss my Sunday afternoon swim at Piney Branch Pool ( This is a new tradition I’ve had some trouble getting established. In fact I’ve only done it once, the weekend after Easter. Since then we’ve had other priorities most Sunday afternoons. The one other time I tried to go, I forgot my wallet with the $3.50 I’d need to get in and by the time I got home it was too late to set out again. So, when Beth brought Noah home and I saw her carrying her laptop out of the car I was disappointed. Not only did I miss my swim, but Beth had been working while I was not swimming.

I feel like we haven’t really gotten the hang of Mother’s Day despite eight years of practice. The first one we didn’t expect to celebrate as mothers because Noah arrived three weeks before his late May due date. We were so overwhelmed with new motherhood we agreed to just let the day go uncelebrated. There have been years when we went out for a meal or arranged to each give the other a scheduled break, time to read or leave the house unaccompanied or take an uninterrupted bath, but other years we just seem too busy to work it in. This year was like that. While my Facebook friends were posting upbeat Mother’s Day messages I posted a cranky one about how lesbian moms and straight single moms should be issued a “Dad for the Day” to co-ordinate a day of rest for them.

The next day was my birthday. We’d agreed to do presents in the evening, but Noah gave me a homemade card in the morning. It read: “Happy 42nd Birthday! You’re 42!! Whooooo! You’re 42! Dooooo! You’re 42! 42 is Awesome.” You can’t complain that the boy lacks enthusiasm.

June and I passed a pretty normal Monday. We watched Sesame Street. I did a couple loads of laundry and as we are experimenting with potty training this week, I spent much of the day encouraging June to sit on the potty, stripping off her wet training pants and saying, “It’s okay to have accidents. Everybody has accidents when they are learning to use to the potty” over and over and over.

Here are some presents I didn’t get: June peeing on the potty even once. Noah finishing his homework in a timely fashion so we’d all be ready to go out to dinner when Beth got home.

Here are some presents I did get: Two flowers on the iris that has not bloomed in several years and took me by surprise by putting out buds on Saturday. Beth coming home an hour early, as promised. A nice dinner at Macaroni Grill ( The exact red velvet strawberry ice cream cake I wanted. Some really fun looking books: ( and ( Socks. Tea. An Umbrella. A Beach Mat with a pillow attached. A gift card from Borders. Some of these things I asked for; some were surprises. Here was the most surprising one: A card from Beth that read: “The bearer of this card is entitled to one DAY OFF of her choosing.” I felt a bit churlish for complaining to the 
Internet about my Mother’s Day and for my unexpressed grumpiness about Noah’s first gift. He got me the haunted house book “to read on your day off!” and he seemed genuinely excited about it. (Beth later told me she’d put quite a lot of effort into getting him to select a fitting book and that his original plan was more homework. So, thanks, Beth!)

I have the day off all planned out. Tuesday of next week I will leave the house shortly after breakfast, get a coffee (exactly where depends on the weather) and spend the morning reading (at Savory if it’s raining, somewhere outside if it’s sunny). I’ll return to the house for lunch and a nap, then leave again and go swimming, then return for dinner. This extended break was the most unexpected gift of our back-to-back mid-May celebrations and most definitely the best.

Dandelions Gold

We should not mind so small a flower—
Except it quiet bring
Our little garden that we lost
Back to the lawn again.

So spicy her carnations nod—
So drunken reel her Bees—
So silver steal a hundred flutes
From out a hundred trees—

That whoso sees this little flower
By Faith may clear behold
The Bobolinks around the throne
And Dandelions Gold.

By Emily Dickinson

“holy mother, now you smile on your love, your world is born anew, children run naked in the field spotted with dandelions”

From “Kaddish,” by Allen Ginsburg

Spring is losing its tentative edge. We’ve had a lot of rain recently and finally some warmer temperatures. The dogwood in our front yard is blooming and the neighbor’s azaleas are just starting to show some pink. The sunflowers and zinnias we planted in pots two weeks ago and brought in on cold nights are sending leaves up through the dirt. The cucumbers and beans are not doing as well. Beth thinks I didn’t aerate the soil well enough when I planted them, but the good news is we started so early there’s time to start over with new seeds. Beth just put lettuce and spinach in the ground today and she’s been industrious about tearing down and uprooting the vines that tend to take over the edge of our back yard.

In addition to things we’ve planted on purpose and the weeds we are trying to eradicate, we have our volunteers, plants we didn’t plant but which aren’t exactly unwelcome either. There’s a stand of daffodils that’s come up in the back yard two years running and is now finished blooming. I suspect a squirrel transplanted the bulbs from someone else’s yard. Last year I meant to move them to the front yard where more people can see them but I forgot to mark the spot and lost track of where they’d been after the greens had been mowed down. This year we have a yellow fish on a stick to let us know where the daffodils are, once it’s safe to dig up the bulbs. And of course, we have dandelions. Their little golden heads are popping up all over. We have a dandelion-neutral gardening policy. We don’t plant them, of course, but we don’t try to get rid of them either and I’ve been known to let the kids blow the seeds across the yard. I think that’s a basic childhood right.

As I walked to Noah’s school yesterday morning, I noticed the trees along the creek are all covered with their new, delicate leaves. They look like tall women in pale green dresses. I am not tutoring on Friday mornings any more. I gave it up as a lost cause after no one came to three sessions in a row. I decided my time would be better spent in Noah’s classroom, so I asked Señora C if she could use a hand and she said come on over. When I arrived at the classroom at 9:30, she looked frustrated. She’d been planning to have me make a lot of photocopies, she told me, but the copier was broken again. This reminded me that Noah’s afternoon teacher had mentioned the photocopier is constantly breaking down and I’d promised her I’d email the principal about it and express my concern but I had not yet done so. I filed that thought away for later. Señora C set me to work punching holes in handouts and putting them in a binder. She told the students who were finished their work to turn it and go to play in centers and she told everyone else to keep working. About a quarter of the class, including Noah, stayed seated or lying on the carpet filling out worksheets and the rest of them wandered over to play different math and science games with each other.

Señora C asked if I could tackle an organization project. There were piles of handouts all over a long table against the wall and half-filled cardboard boxes on and under the table. I tried to grasp the system but as I went through the contents of each box I couldn’t figure out the theme and what else what might go in the boxes. I was afraid of making it harder rather than easier for her to find what she wanted so after a while, I begged off.

She handed me an instruction sheet for the children’s science homework for the weekend and asked me to go to the office and see if they would let me use the administrative copier. I took it downstairs and asked. The answer was no, but the secretary said the machine was being repaired right then and should be working in an hour or so. I brought the message back. Señora C glanced at the clock. It was 9:50. I was leaving at 11:00. It didn’t look good. She vented a little about how frustrating the copier problem is. I completely understand how she feels. If I’d had this problem when I was teaching it would have driven me crazy, never knowing when I could give homework. I noticed the computer on the table and asked if she had access to a printer and she said yes. Then handout was pretty short so I offered to type it for her. Her version of Word was so old I needed to ask how to do the accents and tildes, but it didn’t take me long. She instructed me to send enough copies for her morning class to the printer in the library. I had no idea we might be doing anything illicit until I returned and she asked if anyone saw me take the copies from the printer. I said no one seemed to notice. She grinned and said, “Send the rest,” so I did.

After I distributed the homework papers, I circulated through the classroom watching the kids at the various centers. There was a grocery store where children bought empty food boxes with play money. The clerk had to make change. Two boys and a girl were playing a game with multiplication and division problems on flashcards. They were all lightning fast, especially Noah’s friend Sean. They were giving their answers in English and I asked if they were supposed to be doing this in Spanish. They switched over and it didn’t seem to slow them down at all. Noah was over at a table full of test tubes filled with different colored liquids. One child held a sheet of paper that said what each was. She had to make a pair that were similar in some way then the others had to guess both what the liquids were and why there were similar. The kids kept joking and laughing between guesses but every now and then the hilarity would get out of control. While I was over there I had to break up some roughhousing between Noah and Sasha twice (and Señora C did it once while I wasn’t there). As I made my way through the classroom I watched and praised, asked how the games were played, made suggestions about how to use the fraction flashcards, reminded kids to speak in Spanish, and opined that surely Señora C must have a rule against telling classmates to “shut up.”

“We say it all the time,” the girl responded.

“Well, only the girls,” said another.

It was an enlightening morning. I’m sorry Señora C (and all the teachers) have to deal with the balky copier, but overall the kids seemed engaged and happy. I didn’t know they were so likely to lapse into English, but I suppose that’s natural during the more unstructured center time. I told Señora C I’d be back in two weeks. As I left I touched Noah on the shoulder and said, “Me voy” (ìI’m leaving.î)

“Awww,” he said. That alone would have made it worth coming.

This morning we were all out in the back yard. Beth was weeding, I was mowing and the kids were playing with the hose and sprinkler. Or rather, Noah was. June was so busy getting adults to change her into her bathing suit and then back into her clothes that there really wasn’t much time for water play. I think what Noah was doing looked like fun to her, but when she’d actually try it she’d get cold and want back into her dry clothes. So back and forth she went. One of the times I was indulging her, she brought me her suit and a swim diaper. I sat down on the grass next to the mower and helped her undress. For a moment I looked at her little naked body, winter-pale in the strong sunshine, and I thought of that line from “Kaddish”: “children run naked in fields spotted with dandelions.” It’s a beautiful image in an otherwise bleak poem.

Maybe I’m like the volunteer daffodils in the back yard. I just needed to transplant myself to a different place where I could be of more use. Or maybe I’m like a dandelion, a bit of gold that bloomed where it fell and watches the children dashing wildly around it.

Everything’s Work

I miss work. I miss all kinds of thing about it: the sense of purpose and identity it gave me; the knowledge I was making a contribution to our living expenses, the kids’ college education and our retirement; the opportunity to speak to adults on a regular basis. Not to mention the work itself. When I was an English professor I was paid to think about words and ideas and stories all day. Some days I felt as if I couldn’t believe my luck. But as I have explained earlier, my luck ran out about four years ago. I won’t go into the reasons here. (If you really want to know– my May 11, 2007 entry has some background.)

Since then I haven’t worked much, if you use the most restrictive definition of work: tasks performed for money. I’ve cast about in various directions, taking on short-term projects such as tutoring a graduate student in writing, scoring the written portion of the SAT, doing the occasional freelance editing job. The majority of the money I’ve earned in the past year a half has come from the research, writing and editing I do for my sister, a freelance writer specializing in issues of nutrition and natural foods, and that work comes to less than five hours a week most weeks.

This is the part of the post where I think I’m supposed to make a passionate argument about how I’m not really only working five hours a week, that staying home with kids is work, that every mother is a working mother, etc. I do believe all that, but it’s been said so many times I’m not really sure anyone needs to hear me say it here, so can you just imagine an eloquent defense of stay-at-home moms’ work here? Okay. Thanks for pitching in — now we’ll move on.

I do find myself wondering sometimes what parts of what I do at home count as work. Is cuddling in bed and reading to a sick preschooler or watching episodes of Max and Ruby with her work? Surely napping with her isn’t, but what about the night of broken sleep that led me to need a nap in the first place? If I’m stapling, labeling and alphabetizing the printouts of online health newsletter articles I clip for Sara while June sits on my lap am I multitasking? Eating breakfast isn’t work, is it? But can it be the equivalent of eating lunch at your office desk if in the time it takes you to finish a bowl of cereal you get up to change a diaper, settle a property dispute and get more food for a child? And what about volunteering? Once every four weeks I spend a morning at June’s school. It’s a co-operative school so these shifts are not precisely voluntary but we did choose the school knowing we’d spend a lot of time playing with other people’s kids, helping them use the bathroom, preparing their morning snack and wiping down doorknobs and toilet seats with bleach. And once every two weeks I go to Noah’s school and tutor adults with limited English. This is probably something I’d be more likely to put on a resume than co-oping at June’s school, but is it really work if my students only show up about half the time and when they don’t I end up sitting alone in a room reading a book?

Noah wanted to know what this blog entry was about and I told him it was about what’s work and what’s not and how it can be hard to tell the difference. “Everything’s work,” he said. It seemed wise, though I’m not sure I should trust a boy who watches online software tutorials for fun.

On Saturday afternoon, Beth took June on some errands, Noah was playing on the computer and I found myself with some unexpected free time. As always when this happens my mind flooded with possible projects. Should I corral Noah and help him clean his room? Try to get caught up on newsletter clipping? Fold laundry? Read the article on an antioxidant supplement for athletes I might be editing and come up with a bid for the job? Make scones? I didn’t divide these activities into work and not work in my mind. They were all just things I needed to do. (Okay, I didn’t need to make lemon-poppy seed scones—I just wanted to. And as it turned out, that was one of the things I didn’t end up doing.)

It has felt particularly hard to get work, domestic or paid, done the past few days. June’s been sick and cranky since Saturday morning (though she seems to be on the mend) and Noah was out of school yesterday for a teacher grading and planning day. But here are some things we did do yesterday and today: I did three loads of laundry. I took both kids to the playground and June to the library. We played in our backyard sandbox– all the more fun now that it has recently had its sand replenished. We collected mushrooms from the yard, arranged the caps on a piece of white paper, left them overnight and observed how the spores fell into the pattern of the gills. I read to both kids. We had an after school picnic on a sunny afternoon. I made breakfast, lunch and dinner twice. Tonight I even tried a new recipe, the Korean dish bibimbpap ( It was good, but not as good as at Mark’s Kitchen ( I also submitted the antioxidant bid and printed a handful of newsletter articles for Sara. I still haven’t made those scones.

At 6:50, shortly after dinner tonight, June took both of my hands in hers and said, “I want you to play with me.” I thought about the unfolded laundry in the dryer, the articles I’d selected during her nap, which I had not yet printed because the printer is too loud to use while she’s sleeping. I told her I had a lot to do. “What do you have to do?” she asked. It didn’t sound quite as important when I said it out loud as when I’d been thinking about it. So we went to the living room and played with blocks. We built a schoolroom for Monster Baby and then I fashioned a backpack for the little plastic Shrek baby out of play dough.

After ten minutes Noah wandered in wanting something to do and I successfully palmed June off on him by suggesting he make a marble run for her out of duplos. I asked Beth how long she thought it would be until the screaming started (the kids fight all the time these days) and she said “Five to seven minutes.” And although Noah did get frustrated with the duplos, the children didn’t end up fighting with each other. June got bored and wandered away before Noah finished, but when he had completed the run, she came back and watched him run the marbles through it. They laughed as they watched the marbles bounce on the rug as they came barreling out of the track. All in all it was a successful project. I even got the last load of laundry folded, averting a potential pajama crisis.

Some days I feel like my life is out of balance and I need more time away from the kids to pursue other projects and yes, to make money. Other days I just go with the flow, like a marble running swiftly down a track and tumbling out on to the rug to rest at the end of the day.