Friday, November 17, 2017

Words we Live by

While touring my son Truman’s classroom the other day, I came across this self-portrait he had created entirely out of words which describe the way he sees himself or which hold significance for him. 

Upon close inspection, I notice that the words the saxophone and family outline his frontal lobe. He uses artistic and bookish to form his left ear. I see Beloit College in the right ear and am reminded how much he wants to hear from his big sister. He includes Wisconsin, where his sister now lives, London, where his dad and I met, and Muir Woods, the beautiful old growth forest, a sacred place where his dad proposed to me four years later. 

Disneyland, Universal Studios, and amusement parks receive honorable mention. The boy spends a lot of time thinking about happy family adventures and planning our next trips. 

At first, I can’t make out one word until I recognize that he has misspelled Morocco. He was thinking of Casablanca, a film we saw as a family in the theater last summer. I had wondered if it would hold his interest. He loved it! 

He uses books, reading, and poetry, all of which make me proud. Roald Dahl appears as a favorite author, each of his novels read and reread.

His inclusion of brave and True makes me tear up. His use of history, hilarious, and understanding make me smile. Creative, inventive, and music warm my heart.

Interestingly, he places communicative on the left side of his head, over his left brain, the side that controls language, a fact he has not yet learned. I think about the importance of that word, as communication dominates much of our family’s focus and energy; his brother has no use of verbal language. And yet words are big in our home as we express ourselves creatively through writing, public speaking, and performing. I often feel struck by the special poignancy of two writers creating two more writers and one wordless son, and the ways in which the silent boy teaches us. It’s no wonder that compassionate appears in Truman’s reflection. Perhaps this is my favorite word of all.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Strength in Compassion

Today when I picked up Truman from school, his 5th grade teacher met me at the door with an exacerbated expression and a long exhale. "Uh oh," I said, replacing my typical greeting — I wasn't sure I wanted to hear what came next.

I should back up. This week Truman takes his turn as the "Fabulous Face" in the classroom, which means he presents a visual display of his biography and personality in a large poster collage. On Friday, he will bring to school important artifacts which represent that which makes him him, and then he will stand before the class with a magic wand, pointing out the significance of each photo and item, after which the other students will interview him. Watching Truman create this project, I was struck by the bravery kids muster and the vulnerability they share when revealing cherished parts of themselves in such assignments. We adults rarely open ourselves up in this way, standing before a room full of peers, saying, here is my face, here is everything important to me: this is who I am. Kids are brave.

Anyone who knows Truman knows that he put a lot of thought and planning into selecting his photographs. Among others, he included shots of himself playing the saxophone, staring up at Mt. Rushmore, and jumping on the trampoline. One picture showed all of us traveling on our Massive Road Trip last summer, and another represented the wide smile and beautiful face of his brother Jukie.

This is where Truman’s teacher returns to the story. She described an incident where a student walked up to Truman's poster, pointed to the photo of Jukie, and made some disparaging comments, the details of which I won’t repeat here. To say that the teacher was angry would be an understatement; she was livid. In the moment that she explained to me what had happened, I felt more a familiar sadness than anger. Truman and I locked our sad eyes with one another, and I knew we were both dying to get off the school grounds so we could debrief.

Because of Jukie’s differences – his unusual behavior and facial features that are typical for children with Smith-Lemli-Opitz Syndrome – my family has occasionally encountered this kind of bullying and cruelty over the years, although rarely in our progressive and inclusive college town. For the most part, schoolchildren in Davis show love and respect toward kids who seem different. Seen often on adventures with members of his family, Jukie is known and loved here. So every time something like this happens, we feel betrayed and a bit stunned.

As we walked away from his classroom, Truman described how he handled the situation, and as his mom, I felt proud. Truman told me that he was in line a couple children behind the boy who had cruelly disparaged his brother, and that he had heard the whole thing. He said to me, "Well, I WANTED to punch him in the face...and I nearly did!" "What stopped you?" I asked. "I knew I had better options." He opted to talk to his teachers, finding support from adults who, in their measured ways, focused on the restorative justice that is made possible by an apology (in this case, both written and presented verbally).

Like any 11-year-old negotiating the social structures of the elementary school playground or classroom, Truman is concerned about his peers’ opinions of him. So walking through this world with an unusual brother has given him many more opportunities to display his bravery, to stand up for his principles. Truman impresses me the most, however, when he shows the sort of patience, kindness, and maturity that having a brother like Jukie has taught him. Truman’s kind-heartedness has helped him recognize the quiet (and sometimes noisy) dignity and value in every person, often because of our differences, not in spite of them. More children, and the adults they aspire to emulate, would benefit from time spent reflecting on the strength and bravery that can result from a commitment to genuine compassion.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

A Letter from Our President

At the end of this week, the United States will enter dark and uncertain times. Like millions of our fellow Americans, my 11-year-old son Truman and I are handling this time of governmental transition with a palpable sense of trepidation and foreboding.

We each have developed strategies to get through these days. Drawn to my favorite 60's folk music, I fill the house with its soothing sounds. We watch documentaries together, feeling inspired by the words and lives of our heroes. We make plans to attend the Women's March in Sacramento this Saturday. Truman can't wait to ride the train there. Knowing the power of gatherings of like-minded peaceful protests, I'm eager for him to discover this feeling too.

Still, Truman has been having trouble sleeping, and I'm at a loss as to how best to help him. Because I know he's worried enough on his own, I make a point not to discuss with my him my greatest concerns with the new administration and especially with the disastrous president-elect. Instead, I summon all of the positivity I can muster and focus on every encouraging aspect of our political lives that I can think of: we're Californians who are lucky to live in a state where our governor, senators, and representative reject the bigotry, discrimination, and lies we have heard spouted from PEOTUS. I remind him that nearly 3,000,000 more citizens voted as we did. We talk about the fight going forward and the ways we will continue to work to elect leaders who reflect our values.

Last night, as I tucked him into bed, my boy stunned me with this question: "Mommy, is there a place in Davis where we can hide out if there's an attack?" Instead of worrying about his math homework or something inconsequential and appropriate for a fifth grader, my kid was wondering if bomb shelters exist in our college town, and if his mom knows where they might be located. Truman fears that our president-elect's unstable actions could launch us into a global nuclear war. Unprepared and unequipped to field this surprise query, I attempted to allay his fears by telling him "you don't need to worry about that, honey — we're safe." But even I didn't find my response all that reassuring. His radar finely tuned to his mom's reactions, Truman didn't quite buy it either, asking, "ARE we safe? You're sure?" Sitting on the edge of his bed, I realized that he had entered a new developmental stage, the one where kids realize that their parents don't actually know everything, that they're wrong sometimes, or that sometimes they paint too hopeful a picture of the world.

And then today, just like that, hope and inspiration arrived in our mailbox in the form of a large envelope with Truman's name on it and the return address: The White House, Washington D.C. Truman had received a response to a letter he had written to President Obama the day after the election. Truman’s letter lamented the results, and reached out a hand of friendship, concern, and support to our 44th President of the United States. President Obama’s response was full of hope and encouragement, and the four included photos showed the smiling faces of some of his favorite famous people: President Obama, First Lady Michelle, and their daughters Sasha and Malia.

While Truman joins most Americans in bemoaning the recent course of events, he nevertheless has had his faith in humanity strengthened by this package sent from the White House. "The White House...I still can't believe it!" he said tonignt as I tucked him into bed. I’m sure many of his tween peers join him in his resolve to work to bring a role model back to the White House, someone to admire and, in 2024, to vote for to make sure that she or he can inspire us all with talk of hope and justice, just as his childhood hero Barack Obama did.

And tomorrow, we will head downtown to purchase some frames for his new photographs, and his letter, from our President of the United States.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

A Personal Forest

I’m posting a ray of sunshine this morning: the sparkle in my boy's eyes, his hope for the Obamas and that all of us can move forward.

As I neared Truman's room early this morning, I heard faint piano sounds, and soon recognized Truman haltingly approximate a song on an iPad piano app. He was playing “The Star-Spangled Banner.” I stood outside his door not wanting to disturb him, and needing to hear his rendition, listening to him work out his grief alone in his room, reaching for comfort in our national anthem.

Like so many of us still reeling from the shock of this calamitous election, Truman is struggling to come to terms with the thought of the Obama family moving out of the White House to make room for its new occupant. President Obama is the only president our 11-year-old has ever known.

Along with the letter that Truman sent to our president this week, he attached this drawing of a home he imagined, with each room designed with the Obama family's interests or needs in mind. Knowing that Moby Dick is "one of President Obama's top four favorite books," Truman designated a Moby Dick room. In addition to a room devoted entirely to Star Wars, the family will have their own Hall of Fame. Each of the girls, and the dogs Sunny and Bo, all have rooms of their own, as well as a Soccer Field. Barack can play on the Basketball Court while Michelle tends the Balcony Garden. The family will enjoy a Theater and a Movie Theater, a Pie Room and an Ice Cream Room, a Library and a Book Storage Room, a Personal Museum and a Personal Art Museum. I'm envious of the Restaurant Serving Anything room, and of the Ballroom. My hands-down favorite room is the Personal Forest; what I wouldn't give to have my own forest at home (well, I guess I do, as his brother Jukie's middle name is Forest).

So many of these sweet and silly rooms speak to our need for security, peace, and reflection during this despairing time, and during the difficult transition that awaits all of us when the Obamas leave The White House. The Obamas will be downsizing to a smaller home, just as so many of us will feel tempted to downsize our dreams for the country. Truman joins me in hoping that each of you can spend some peaceful time in your personal forest.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Dear President Obama

As the shock of yesterday's election results wears off, an intense sadness takes over. Walking the streets of my hometown, I sense melancholy permeating the air. Facial expressions range from flat to crestfallen. The people I see, like me, are fighting tears. When the like-it-was-any-other-day cheery Starbucks barista greeted me with, "how ARE ya?" I couldn't manage the usual, "great, you?" No sound came out with my response. Instead, tears came. The woman behind me offered a comforting arm rub. We didn't exchange words. We could hardly exchange eye contact. We shared only silence.

I can barely manage my own devastation during this uncertain time. Yet, like many parents across this country, I must also struggle to comfort my children, who are frightened by the prospect of a President Trump. As much as I tried to shield my kids from the hate-filled rhetoric of his campaign, they absorbed enough to be terrified. The first question my 11-year-old son Truman asked me this morning as he recalled the late night election returns was this: "are we still safe?" His dad and I have few words of reassurance to offer. "How did this happen?" the boy asks. "Will Trump lock up Hillary Clinton?" he worries. "Do you think we should cancel Christmas?" he wonders. "Are you SURE we will be safe?" And I know that he reads my face, which says I don't know. I do not know that we will be safe.

His brother Jukie was the lucky one last night. Blissfully unaware, he turned in early and slept like a baby. Truman cried himself to sleep. Big sister Geneva and I texted late into the middle of her Wisconsin night. Her college blue state turned red, and we shared our disbelief. "Everyone is freaking out here!" she said. "Here too," I told her. Andy and I finally fell asleep, entwined like pretzels with my arm contorting so that I could sleep with my hand on his heart. Its steady beat said: We are still here. We will go forward.

I had a hard time separating from my kids today. But I had to go to work, and they had to go to school. We needed to keep calm and carry on. School pick up couldn't come soon enough; I needed to see my boys. On the ride home from school, Truman described his day. His teacher addressed the election first thing, giving the children a chance to share their feelings and reactions. He said that he chose not to speak today. "I couldn't bring myself," he said. I told him that I knew the feeling. But he had an idea: he would write to President Obama. Even if the president were never to see the letter, Truman said that feeling as if he were to talk to the man he so admires might just make him feel a little bit better. Here is his letter:

Dear President Obama,

I know it is somewhat unlikely you will ever see this, but I have hope this will reach you. My name is Truman Banjo Jones Duren. I live in Davis, California (west of Sacramento), and I am a fifth grader at Patwin Elementary. I am not writing this to tell you about myself. I am writing to say that on the 8th of November, I got more upset than I have ever been in my life. I am still very sad, but it would help me so insanely much if you end up responding to this. I think it might make us both feel better about the aftermath of this election.

On an unrelated topic, I just want to say you are the best president since Franklin Roosevelt. Probably the best period. I wrote a report on you when I was in fourth grade, and my teacher said it was the best.


Truman J. Duren

P.S. If you can, please write back.

I'm grateful that Truman will have memories of a president that he could admire.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Love Liberates

Today my firstborn babe turns 19. Nine. Teen.

Even when thousands of miles separate us, our hearts are always together.

I remember reading research about the way in which fetal cells migrate into the mother during pregnancy. Some of the cells of our baby's DNA stay with us and become part of our body. It is no wonder that we moms struggle so mightily with separation; our children are literally part of us.

And yet, my task this year has been to let her go, and more than that, to encourage her to fly far away. Mission accomplished. She has launched with my full blessing and support. And while I have grieved the distance between us, this sadness is tempered by my thrill at seeing her settling into her new life of young adulthood, and doing so well. When I complimented her impressive "adulting" during my visit to Wisconsin last month, she smiled and said, "it's easier to be an adult without you and Daddy around." Wonderful. That's the idea.

Of course, we all want our children to grow strong and happy, to earn their independence. In his book The Art of Happiness, the Dalai Lama said “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.” Even though the process may wound us, sometimes we show the greatest love and compassion by loosening the physical binds with the ones we cherish.

To me, Maya Angelou makes this point about unconditional love best: 

"You see, love liberates. It doesn't bind. Love says, 'I love you. I love you if you're in China. I love you if you're across town. I love you if you're in Harlem. I love you. I would like to be near you. I would like to have your arms around me. I would like to have your voice in my ear. But that's not possible now — I love you, so go.' Love liberates. It doesn't hold."

I wish I could be near my girl to help her celebrate her birthday today; I would love to wrap my arms around her. But I know that she's right where she should be, learning about compassion, discovery, and all the other adventures that await a 19-year-old woman.

Happy birthday, Boonie!

Friday, September 30, 2016

Jukie's Surprise

I never look forward to IEP meetings. I don’t know any parent who does. IEPs are the annual meetings where we review our child’s Individualized Education Program at school. The entire school team of teachers, counselors, and specialists convenes to discuss a child's progress, to set goals, and to craft a plan to provide services. These IEP meetings can be tough for all sorts of reasons, partly because they remind us how different our children are from what is considered typical. The reviews, the assessments, and the test scores don't often fill parents with cheer. The meetings always run long with a lot of discussion, and they can become contentious when parents and school districts disagree about the best standard of care and support for a child with a disability. Many parents walk out of such meetings feeling weary, dark, and even bleak. That said, Jukie has always loved school. And the folks at his school have always loved and supported Jukie. We have confidence in his educational team and enjoy hearing sweet and silly anecdotes about our boy.

When we walked into Jukie’s IEP meeting yesterday, the smiles of his team filled the room. As soon as we sat down, his teacher began raving about Jukie’s progress at school. When we heard that Jukie works independently so well now that he needs little direction or supervision with his school work, I shot Andy a look, and he knew I was thinking: “our Jukie?” We titled our book about our boy Where’s Jukie? in part because we needed to know his location at all times. We liked to track him the way a meteorologist tracks a hurricane. For many years in our house, his only “independent work” was destructive.

We were pleased to learn that not only did our maturing boy meet most of his previous year’s goals, but he actually exceeded them. At one point, his occupational therapist casually mentioned, “…and his handwriting is improving.” I shot Andy another look, and as the room was noticing this silent exchange, I had to share: “I’m sorry, his HANDWRITING? Andy and I are having trouble believing that.” Jukie doesn’t write or draw or color or anything like that as far as we had ever seen. “Would you like to see a video?” she asked.

Yes. Yes, we would love to see a video of Jukie’s “handwriting” in action. The OT handed Andy her iPad, and we watched as Jukie stood before a large dry erase board and slowly wrote the letters j-u-k-i-e. Our boy Jukie wrote his name. We were stunned. You can imagine what happened next. I began mildly sobbing. Then Andy teared up. The principal ran to the next room for a box of Kleenex, and almost everyone in the room needed a tissue.

I looked across the room at Jukie smiling broadly. As we communicate intuitively, almost telepathically, I sent him my thoughts: you can write your name! What else can you do? What else do you know?

After the meeting, Jukie took us on a tour of the new playground equipment at his school. I took a photo so that I will always remember the day we learned that Jukie can write his name. And as I write this, I'm left to wonder what messages our boy may be preparing to share.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Goodbyes are Hard

Goodbyes are hard. Rituals and transitions can stir an intense and broad range of emotions. Such was the case when I dropped my firstborn off for her first year of college. I found myself simultaneously feeling elation, hesitation, sadness, excitement, fear, and grief.

Sitting among fellow parents gathered in Eaton Chapel to hear an address given by Scott Bierman, the president of Beloit College, I glanced around, looking for clues on the faces of the other parents. Were they having as much trouble keeping it together? The afternoon's speakers heightened our emotional intensity, reflecting poignantly about this time of transition for all the families who had gathered together. President Bierman described dropping his own daughters off at college. Then the Dean of Students Christina Klawitter asked the incoming first-year students to consider their parents' perspective, to let their parents baby them on that day, just one last time, "if your parents want to make up your bed for you today, let them. If they want to fold and put away your clothes, let them." Half an hour earlier, I had made up Geneva's bed and filled her dresser drawers for her. She had let me.

Judging from the anxious questions posed on the Facebook group for parents of Beloit student class of 2020, I had not been alone in my obsessive focus on making sure my daughter had everything she needed for college. One parent asked, "will my child need to bring an ironing board, or will those be provided?" My favorite response to that was, "my daughter has never ironed??" One could just imagine the college presenting each incoming student with an ironing board, along with a poodle skirt and, for the young men, some Beloit cufflinks.

Someone else wanted to know if her student should bring a landline phone. I believe every child arrived at college with several devices to access the internet and/or make phone calls. Come to think of it, do millennials even make phone calls? Maybe that same mom could have responded, "my daughter has never made a phone call??" I laughed at some of these posts by the other eager parents of freshmen, but I know that I also got carried away with “Operation Have Everything Ready and Perfect to Launch Boonie.” The night before dropping her off, I stayed up late doing laundry so that she would arrive with no dirty clothes. Was that necessary? No, but it felt good to me, and I was having trouble sleeping anyway.

The day began with Geneva tiptoeing into my bedroom. "Are you excited?!" she whispered. I don't know too many days in life more exciting than the day one leaves home and starts a new life. When Truman came out of his room, he was dressed in black pants, a white shirt, and a tie. He felt the occasion called for formal dress. I wasn’t aware that he had even packed a tie.

Living in the idyllic college town of Davis, California, I've experienced the arrival of incoming freshmen students for years. Even if I didn't have a professor husband, I couldn't escape the impact of arriving students each fall. In Davis, they make themselves known by their unsure and unsafe bicycle riding. Once while I was circling a bicycle round-about, a student cut right through the center while looking straight at me and yelling his warning to "look out! I don't know where I'm going!" I was annoyed at the time of the collision, but now I can't help but see these students as I see my own daughter. Like the students at Beloit College, the UC Davis freshmen seem so much younger than they once did. As Andy says, the students get younger every year.

After the president's welcome, Beloit hosted a dessert reception on the quad. The welcoming committee of students lead the dancing and frisbee-playing, and we sampled the tasty treats, enough to feed a small army. Beloit administrators were using sweets to soften the sting of our goodbyes. Looking around the crowd, I saw such a mixture of reactions. Some students (including mine) were dancing with their parents. Geneva yelled, "Mommy! It's that song you love!" I smiled thinking three thoughts: dancing is joy; It's hard to feel sad when you're dancing, and families dancing together are my favorite to watch. Alongside the musical merriment were more subdued parents and students looking overwhelmed and anxious, quietly talking or staring at the grass, some already crying. I understood that reaction too.

We parents had been given our gentle orders: after dessert, it was time for hugs and kisses and teary goodbyes so that our "children" could leave us to have their first dinner together in the dining hall. I thought back to the first day of kindergarten when we had surely all gone through a similar process, kissing our fresh-faced, sweet-smelling sweetie pies goodbye and turning them over to teachers with sympathetic smiles who knew that parents needed as much encouragement on that first day as the kinders, sometimes more. If we pulled off goodbye then, we could manage today, too.

I think that Geneva may have been the last to enter the dining hall that evening. She left us walking backward, waving non-stop until she reached the steps. Then she turned and disappeared into the hall and into her new life.

As we make our drive back west, each passing mile takes us farther from our girl, and reinforces the new distance between us. And although I'm feeling predictably sad, I'm surprised with my overall sense of contentment and resolution. With the goodbyes behind us, we shift our focus forward, as always. This time of transition, of beginnings and new directions, reminds me of my own first days in college. I survived, and so will she. We left Beloit ready to trust her professors and other college leaders. I eagerly anticipate texts and photos and even sometimes a phone call from my millennial. I can't wait to hear all about her adventures.