Thursday, December 1, 2011

She's a survivor

I recently read a blog post by Heather Von St. James, a survivor of mesothelioma cancer, and it literally gave me chills. What an inspiration she is! I can just imagine the kind of poised, intelligent, and empathetic little girl her six-year old Lily must be to have Heather as her champion mom. Take a minute and be inspired yourself--you can find her story at:

We often have to dig deep to find our best selves in the midst of every day challenges and disappointments. Yet Heather's story shows a level of courage, due to how she's decided to live out her own story, that makes you sit at attention and want to get on board of this adventure called life! Thanks for sharing, Heather. God bless you, your health, and your family.

Friday, October 28, 2011

My Halloween Story

I didn't want to write about Halloween.

This year, I thought I had made it. For the first time since Angelica was born, our fourth October together, I thought I had finally gotten through an October without being questioned several times what she would be for Halloween, without having an answer. This year, I would try to ignore the 'mama fea' (ugly mama, as she calls it) witch that comes out each fall to rise and fall with the autumn wind from a neighbor's tree not far from us, even though it would yet again ignite her imagination, provoke questions, and harass her dreams. I would politely decline invitations to children's parties, and I would simply not take her to school on the day of THE party. I would smile at all the other children's costumes--which I honestly do think are adorable-- on the babies and young ones. I would patiently endure the songs, stories, and projects done with holiday ferver the weeks leading up to the day at school, at the library, etc. I would remind myself that it's all done in good fun, and there's no harm in that, right? I thought I was coasting. Don't make waves. Don't make a big deal out of it.

You see, for years while I was growing up, we truly didn't make a big deal out of it. We didn't 'keep' Halloween. We didn't keep a lot of holidays, within the church where I grew up, and I was pretty used to getting called out of school on the days of parties of what we considered, pagan holidays. Plural. I would often fantasize about what holiday I would choose to 'keep' if I could...Christmas for the pretty lights and all the presents? Easter for the candy and easter egg hunts? Halloween for its candy and getting all dressed up? Round and round it would go in my head, but I never really came to a good conclusion. I guess I did feel pretty bummed each Halloween to not get the loot of candy that my peers did. And for not being able to get dressed up and go to the party. But I got used to what we did do, instead.

My mom, my dad, my older brother and I would sneak upstairs when it got dark on the last night of October. Back then, we had filmstrips. We'd turn off the lights, and sit back and enjoy the colorful images that would appear very large on the walls. We wouldn't even have to be quiet, since we were far away from the main door and therefore, no one would know we would home! Those silly trick-or-treaters would have to go on to the next door and be for candy. It was a splendid game of hide and seek, and we weren't to be found. We also made sure to keep our black cat indoors and safe from mischief. Looking back, it became a fond family tradition. I marvel at the fact that in each place I've lived as an adult, I've never had a trick or treater come to my door (Mexico, apartments, now our condo). If I knew they were coming now, what would I do? Would I face them with a half-hearted spirit and a bag of mini snicker bars? Or would I turn off the lights and hide again?

I was so close this year to sailing through, but the last week caught me by surprise in my angst. As it got closer and closer to the date, I felt myself starting to free fall again, into my fears of dealing with it all. Without even being conscious of it, I suddenly realized that this year I continue my childhood tradition by taking Angelica out of school the day of her party. I also chose not to take her to the big library party, which pained me. My husband and I rationalize--his being from Mexico means that Halloween means nothing to him, except a creepy kind of celebration--since she's three, this is probably the last year we can get away with it. Before she begs to go. Before she insists on being there. Before she realizes that she's missing out, like I did all those years before. I relish this one last year, where she's content to go and do as mommy says.

Even so, I know it's futile. I think we're doing a pretty good job at ignoring it, pretending it's not really there, while at the same time, she's really taking it all in, in her extremely perceptive, child way. She tells her beloved storytime librarian, after singing Halloween themed songs and listening to Halloween stories midway through the month, "My mommy and daddy don't like Halloween". Ten days away, we go to see a puppet show, the classic Hansel and Gretel. I'm delighted as she is completely engrossed in the story, until a quiet dread comes upon me. There is a witch in this story. And not even a fun, friendly one that smiles and sings. No, a wicked one that is scary-looking and fully intends to harm children. My worst fears for her, to be exposed to the dark side of this holiday, are all culminating in front of my eyes and there is nothing that I can do, but wait. How will she react? What will she say?

She says nothing, but sits wide-eyed and completely wrapped up in the story. After the show, she insists on going behind the scenes to see the puppets. She loves Gretel, and strokes her long braids. The witch is offered to her, but she ignores her. I think that all is well, she has learned to ignore it like her mother.

However, not even hours later, the questions start. "Why, Mama? Why is the witch so ugly? Why is she there?"

What can I tell her? It is a question I cannot answer myself. It symbolizes my entire childhood dilema. Why is it there, in front of me? I can do nothing about it but wish I could have some of its--in this case--tempting gingerbread house that not even Hansel could not resist...

I don't like Halloween because for me it's too real. Witches are wicked to me, ghosts are scary. I can't make them playful or fun.

So at 3:00 in the morning after seeing the show, she cries out for me because she's had a nightmare. She insists on going to the bathroom, so as she sits on the toilet, she asks me again. "Why, mama? Why is there a witch?"

I have nothing; I look into her big, probing eyes. God, I say, inwardly. Give me an answer, because I don't have anything. Before I know where it's coming from, it comes pouring out.

"Well, sweetie..." I begin, "remember Gretel? And how good she was?"


"And how her brother Hansel made a mistake? He ate the candy from the witch's house, because he couldn't help himself. He didn't mean to. We all make mistakes, like Hansel. But Gretel loved him anyway, and protected him. Like you protect your little brother, Adrian."

She nods in agreement.

"Gretel loved him no matter what, like God...Jesus. You know?"

"Sometimes bad things happen to us, like when we're scared in the dark after a bad dream, or when we get sick. Those things happen, we can think of them like the witch. We don't like the witch, she's bad. But remember what happened to the witch?" I hesitate, am I really going to say it? It's what she saw already in the show, I rationalize.

"Gretel threw her in the oven. Do you know what that means?"

She's completely tracking with me now. Thank you, Jesus, I think. I can get through this.

"It means that no matter what, Jesus--like Gretel--is going to beat the bad, the witch. The witch was all gone at the end, right?"

"Yes, mommy! The witch was gone, but what about the mama fea? What about that witch?"

I pause. What can we do with the neighborhood witch that has harassed her by its mere proximity to her safe, beloved home base each October? The mother lioness comes out in me: "Well, we can throw her in the oven, too!"

I'm relieved to think that she doesn't have the same mental imagery of throwing someone into an oven as I do. And I'm grateful that the explanation seemed to seal a well of uncertainty and fear that was creeping up into her heart. I know that we'll probably always struggle as a family with what to do with Halloween. Yet that late-night conclusion--we'll throw 'er in the oven--gave me new strength to forge on, and realize that it's okay for us to not 'keep' Halloween like everyone else. I may let her go to the parties, dress up, and pig out on candy in the future, who knows. I may let her find her own path in all of this, and not force my ways on her.

But I will do it as openly and honestly as I know how. She deserves to know my reasons, my story. I will tell her my story, and I hope that we'll keep slaying witches and throwing them in oven as we muddle through each October together.

3 more days, and it will be over once again!

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Learning to let it fall down

There is no good time to read student evaluations of your teaching.

Who would have known? Well, I could have told you the fomer back during the first year I was teaching and held that treacherous pile of critiques in its manila envelope. The truth that really surprised me was not the truth itself, but rather who spoke it. I was running late... as teach my afternoon classes when I ran into a colleague I hadn't seen in some time. She and I had always been friendly, but to be perfectly honest, she's intimidating. She is a balance of confidence and grace. Intellect and poice, humor and selflessness. Admitedly I took my time getting out of my car to face her in the parking lot, secretly hoping she'd just offer a smile and a wave--being what I would do to get out of almost any conversation that might make me slightly uncomfortable--and be on her merry way, so that I could skirt off to my office before class. But, no. She waited as I fumbled for my Mcdonald's bag of trash from the morning's coffee to throw away and my stack of books. Animatedly, we talked about school, classes, taking care of ourselves in the meantime (quick, hide that bag!) a little about our lives. And then, the comment: "There is absolutely no good time to read your student evaluations."

I am intimidated easily, and especially with my colleages at the university, most of whom hold degrees higher than I do (which is a huge deal in Academia). Yet the fact that someone who I see as so confident, so incredibly smart, and so...together... would speak that truth, my truth was truly liberating. You see, even when we put on a good front and act like things don't matter, sometimes they do. I am secretly scared silly to open that envelope, semester after semester, year after year, just waiting for the one comment that will be seared in my brain to prove that I'm Not. Good. Enough.

Ironically enough, that comment generally comes from a disgruntled individual who probably missed two weeks of classes or had a predisposition to hate the subject I teach from the time he or she relunctantly was advised to add my course to his or her schedule.

Or maybe it doesn't. Perhaps it comes from someone who really loved learning languages until they took my class. And something about the way I taught it turned them away and soured them on the subject for life. But, really, who cares?

The point is still the same: I can be leveled to feeling inadequate in mere seconds by a comment written by a person whose intent was to learn from me. The student is not greater than the master. Why should I let the student have such a hold on me? Or on my colleague? And perhaps, on dozens and dozens of instructors, or any other workers, mentors who are judged and evaluated by those who work for them..?

We want to be liked. We want approval. We act like it doesn't matter, but it does. But when we realize that those whom we hold in such esteem also feel what we do, well...again, it levels things in a whole new way.

It makes me remember that intimidation is just another wall for me to hide behind, and that just one single moment of open honesty was enough to make me feel emboldened today. And also humbled. The student may not be greater than the teacher, but I learn a whole lot from him or her when I let me guard down. When I stop trying so hard to be liked and approved of, but rather to just share and give what I have. And also to be open to listen to the other points of view that my students may have to say on a matter, or to do a brainstorming activity, or however else to show them that they also have intelligent imput.

It's good to be liked, but it's even better to just be me. At the end of the day I can show by example that intimidation is a wall of smoke that keeps us isolated from others when we--or they--may have something to give that will enrich because it is so, completely real.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Self-Pity Pool

We were drowning in twins plus Doug. It sounded like the name of a new family reality TV show, but I laughed when my friend described one of her first vacations when she and her husband had to juggle the toddler boys and her older stepson without any help on a city bus. The mental picture made me laugh, but really only out of recognition. My version lately is that I'm drowning in late summer bedtimes (of my three-year old) and teething troubles (the baby, of course). I'm gasping for air and desperate for someone to throw me an arm floatee or something these days.

I guess we're all drowning in our own pools of sleep deprivation, or anxiety, or hopelessness, or ....whatever.... at times.

I touch base briefly when another friend, a mother of a three-year old friend of my little girl's this afternoon. We are living in different places now, with different challenges, but instantly we are able to connect at the heart of the matter for us both: life has become a sacrifice. Words are coming out that I didn't plan, but I do recognize the truth that they hold. I'm telling her that I have to be thankful for my beautiful family, my healthy kids, the joy that they all bring. When I lose hold of that I fall into a hole of self-pity and forget the amazing blessings that I have. Life is a sacrifice, so many times. I recognize it and then demand my own way again in the next breath. It's like that verse of looking in a mirror, and then instantly forgetting what you've seen.

I forget. I forget. I dive into my pool of self-pity and then I'm gasping again and again for air.

I just had a birthday last week. I am now the age that it is believed that Jesus was when he died, 33. I've heard other people say this before, but now it's my own reality and I am shocked. Sacrifice. My savior paid the ultimate sacrifice in willingly ending his life to ensure a spot for me in heaven. A thought comes into my mind that this sacrifice that I make each day for these precious children is how he is teaching me to be like him. I marvel, because the thought does not come from me. I know he is placing it on my heart, and I am humbled. My sacrifice--lost sleep, frustration that I cannot always do what I want or even need exactly when I want to--well, it sounds like a child throwing a selfish tantrum as I think about the sacrifice of life offered to me in the form of loss of life, and so much suffering, by him.

Thank you, Jesus, for showing me again that it's not all about my drowning. And for gently reminding me of what the sacrifice is all about, which is in learning to be a little more like you. In comparison my suffering is so miniscule that I glimpse again into the nature how deep and how wide is your love.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Emanuel's Teacher

There is a picture of me in a classroom, surrounded by bright and smiling children's faces. One boy has a plastic fireman's hat on and is clutching a stuffed lion. A girl with a ponytail and dark, straight bangs that fall in her eyes a bit sits beside him, smiling shyly. A small, mischevious boy named Arturo stils in my lap with a rather sarcastic smile, squeezing in next to a classmate who looks bemused and is clutching a bag to her chest. One boy stands behind where the jackets are hanging. He has a drawing of a dog displayed proudly in his mouth, but he is not misbehaving, only showing off his work to the camara. Emanuel sits at a bit of distance from the rest, but close enough to me that he is able to hold my hand. His expression is pensive; his glance displaying emotion that seems way beyond his years. He is four years old. His fingers are interlaced with mine, his teacher.

I taught them English that year, at least that was my job title. I was the English teacher of two groups of preschool children at an American school in Mexico. The only credentials that I brought with me were a bacherlor's degree in Psychology (and Spanish, not English; and especially not Pedagogy) and my native language. I spent weeks and weeks trying to stumble my way through lesson plans and classroom discipline, two areas I knew virtually nothing about, in a language that did not get my pupils' attention when I most needed it. I relied on my assistant, Sharon, to lay down the law and the routine of our shared classroom. If it had not been for Sharon, I would have packed my bags at the end of Week 1 and never turned back.

These were the privledged children of the community. There were sons and daughters of political figures and professional soccer players, and they were all entrusted to me for their early instruction and foundation in the English language. Now that I have a preschool-aged daughter myself, I marvel at the responsibility I had in my hands. If any of those parents had a clue of how unprepared and unschooled I was for the position, what would they have thought?

In pretty much all ways--except for speaking English with a perfect accent--I have always felt that I failed as a teacher that year. I met my future husband, who was a P.E. teacher at the same school that year and confessed as much to him that last week of school while filling out my student "evaluations".

Yet, as I look back at my 22-year old self, putting on a cheerful front for the camara in that picture, my heart aches.

For Emanuel. I remember his simple trust in me, his teacher; his overt signs of love and affection. He could have been reprimanded (for the upteenth time) for small acts of agression against a classmate, or for not listening, again, to instructions to get in line or sit down and work. In fact, he was one of my most undisciplined students. Yet, paradoxically I loved him the most. He could be unabashed in his antics, but he was also uninhibited in his love. Why did he choose me to love? Why not his Spanish teacher, who he spent the other half day with? Didn't he see how unfit I was to be his teacher?

It didn't matter to Emanuel. He loved me just the same, and I, unashamedly, favored him right back. Today Emanuel would be turning 15. Might he possibly remember his preschool English teacher?

I am still a teacher, and now also a parent. My Angelica loved her first teachers--Miss Natalie and Miss June very much this past school year. That love set her up for a trust in the institution, a love of school and of learning. If Emanuel felt that with me, then I am astonished.

Looking at that picture tonight, it occurs to me that perhaps I didn't fail that year after all.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Between yours and mine

I live between your needs and mine. Your needs are limitless and intense and always. I, ever the introvert, cannot step away from them and clear my head at times. This is why I believe that I can feel so low. I am not myself in those moments, not the loving, nurturing mother that I want to be and create an image in my head that I should be. I love you both so much, but I hurt and I despair in those moments because I can't pull myself together and be me for you. I see people walking around so incredibly normal when I do get away to step into work mode. All of these students walking around on campus, consumed with their lives. Talking on cell phones, buying a coffee, talking loudly about school assignments or work or their social lives. Everything seems so normal. But I don't feel normal in that environment. I wonder if the fact that I brushed my teeth and hair in a matter or seconds and put eye shadow in the car, just to arrive breathless minutes before teaching my class each afternoon is written all over my face. Not really a true transition between all day long at the park, or at the library or at home with you both to becoming The Teacher in the afternoon, but it has to do. This is how we do it, Mommy during the day and Daddy "at night". We do it for you. Sometimes I feel that this is the hardest thing I've ever done, and I'm not even truly sure what "this" is. Is it staying home with you? Is it leaving you in the afternoons when I really want all of us to spend our evenings together? Is it the grading, and preparing and "extras" of teaching that I must fit in here and there? What is so hard, after all? I love you and I wouldn't have it any other way because I get to be with you, and even in those few hours each day that I'm not, I rest easily in the fact that the person who takes my place is just as special and important to you as I am. He's your daddy and he loves to be with you. What could be better? I am between your needs and mine. There are unresolved passions and desires in my heart of hearts to pursue. I wrestle with my ego. I want to live for me, like those (God love them) blisslessly unaware 20-somethings I see each afternoon. I want to be them somedays. I remember my own days of free-spirited travel and living to follow my dreams. I wonder, am I content to just be who I am where I am? Some days I am, and I rejoice. I am at peace, and I rest in between in that tiny sweet spot between your needs and mine. You give me great joy and I love you so much. I am completely surrendered this time and space in my life, and I realize that you are the pearl of greatest price. I must not break it, I must do whatever it takes to perserve its immense value and worth but just being there for you, moment by moment. I need to just keep moving and do the next thing, even as my back is hurting and my hair needs done and could I just get an uninterrupted shower for crying out loud? I do need to go to work this afternoon....and really, do you have to get me up at night because of a bad dream or a late-night feeding again? And every night? And then, I'd like a weekend for myself, and maybe a month to travel, and on and on it goes. My mind just follows that well-traveled path over and over and over again. The hard part is just that--putting aside my needs when yours are greater. Sometimes I cry, sometimes I feel so incredibly angry, and sometimes I feel like I'm going to break. But I never quite do. Someone greater than me is lifting me up and carrying me through, even though I only seem to notice in retrospect. That's why I'm still here, living between your needs and mine. Every day.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

An Ode to Adrian

I am hushed over the computer with my eyes practially bugging out--miracle of miracles-- both my newborn and toddler are actually asleep at the same time! So here is my opportunity to put some thoughts together, which has not been an easy thing to do since Baby Adrian was born six weeks ago.

Baby Adrian. My snuggle puppy (yep, that's a Sandra Boyton title) and my unexpected little boy. I was quite vocal during my pregnancy about wanting another girl and when asked about the possibility of she being a HE--since we chose not to find out at the ultrasound--I would crinkle up my nose and sigh. "I have no idea what to do with a boy" followed by a slight shudder. The other person might smile and say wisely "The same thing you would do with a girl" but I wasn't really listening. I was convinced I was a Girl Only Mommy.

With that last momentous push with all of my heart, soul and being, I heard the doctor say triumphantly "It's a boy!" and that was that. I knew it! I thought. For as much as I had resisted, by the end of my pregnancy I found myself referring to "it" as "he" and wondering why my belly was hanging so dang low--so different than my first pregnancy with Angelica. My subconscious had been warning me, trying to get me ready ahead of time. My baby was then whisked away to be cleaned and checked, and I just sat back in the bed, without much urgency to get right in there. Finally my husband walked over to sneak a peek. "What's he look like?" I asked tentatively. "He....has big, big eyes" (A little later in the recovery room we would laugh and say that the baby was a slightly feito, a "little" ugly in Spanish, but luckily I now chalk up that observation to the fact that he was still pretty squished and spotty from being born). Big eyes? I was curious. "Bring him over, I want to hold him." He was then placed on my chest and I was checking him out. He really looked like a he, no doubt about that, smack dab in his facial features. But there was still something endearing about him...

And that was the beginning of this love story.

A love story that took a few days to figure out the perfect name. We came to the hospital without one, and the options we pulled out of our "just in case" file weren't working. Alan? Nope. Elian? (Nope, that one was out when I tried it out on the delivery room nurse who pronounced it as "Alien"). Julian? The nurse wheeling me to the recovery room raved about how much she liked it, but still something didn't feel right. Then I remembered "Adrian". And my heart skipped a beat--he looked like an "Adrian". I then remembered my mom's comment to that name when I tried it out during pregnancy: "Aren't there more girl Adriennes?" and recalled that that had been why I had thrown out the idea at the time.

Skip ahead to the next day at the hospital. One of the pediatricians on-staff at the hospital walks in cheerfully and introduces herself and her assistant, Adrian. Adrian??? I can't see the other person yet. Is it a he Adrian or a she Adrienne? A tall and handsome he Adrian walks briskly behind the doctor. I smile. "Your name is Adrian? Do you like your name?" He replies that yes, in fact he does and always has. And then laughs about the Rocky association: "Adrieeeennnnne" (which does not deter me). I consider this my sign. I tell my husband. We agree on Emilio as a middle name, in honor of Rufino's paternal grandfather.

He has a name, and my heart opens even more to him. The days and nights pass slowly. He cries so much. He sleeps all day and we barely see his open eyes when it's not 12:30 AM. or 3:00. Or 5:30. I cry with sleep deprviation. My patience goes south with my sweet Angelica, and I feel torn in two different directions with two sets of Very Big Needs of my children. He wakes up and needs to be fed; she wakes up and needs my attention. Shortly afterward, he starts to fuss and then all out cry without consolation because he's tired. She watches me try to soothe him and then promptly loses it. Theres only so much a two year old can take when her mommy is loving on someone else. She melts down completely and demands to be held, crocodile tears streaming down her face. He screams, she screams. (We all scream--me inwardly--but not for ice cream). Eventually the storm clouds pass and he's sound asleep and she's playing in the living room, singing to herself, but not soon enough. Then there are the nights when deep down I know that I don't really like him very much. I resent that he and I are the only two people awake, together, again. But then out of the blue he lets me sleep a little longer, maybe 3 hours in a row, and I wake up completely enamored with him. Head over heels. He smiles at me--finally-- and I feel the shift. I open up a little more, and let him in. Adrian. My boy, wonder of wonders. What will I ever do with you?

I will love you. Patiently will I wait to get to know you. I will try not to lose my way as we maneuver down this path together, even as day by day I may feel stretched to the limit and sometimes like I'm letting you down. I'm not holding you enough, or singing or talking to you enough because I'm tired or Angelica needs me or quite frankly, sometimes I'm just not sure what to say to you. That guilt does grip me fiercely at times, Adrian. I can't give you all of me all of the time, and that hurts. But I promise that I will still be here, imperfectly, trying to scoot along and meet your needs as best as I can as we slowly come to get to know each other more and more. I'll be here. For you. You can bet on that.

And you, baby boy, may teach me things I never would known had you been born a girl. God love you for that.

Epilogue: The doorbell rings. Angelica startles awake and yells from her room. Baby wakes up and cries. In one split second chaos returns, and my moment of sweet reflection is shattered...but alas, these thoughts have remarkably still been pulled together and recorded! YAY!!!!!!