Sunday, December 3, 2017

Truman Walks his Path

"No one saves us but ourselves. No one can and no one may. 
We ourselves must walk the path."  
~ Gautama Buddha

Truman is a kid who sets his hopes high and feels passionately about everything he does. Before leaving for a week of outdoor education at Walker Creek, he ranked his expectations of the adventure as “up there with Star Wars: The Last Jedi, and Christmas.” In a letter he sent home, he described his cabin arrangements, bunking with his best buddies, and the photos he had taken. He ended it, “I want to tell you how happy I am here.” I knew he’d love it at Walker Creek, but it still felt great reading that. And at the end of the week, I could not wait to throw my arms around Truman and hear all of his stories. 

When I arrived early to pick him up, I had time to explore the bucolic setting. At first, I saw no children, just a family of deer watching the parents assemble, as parents must do every week, anxiously awaiting reunions with their happy campers. Then a group of kids slowly began gathering in the outdoor amphitheater. I scanned the crowd looking for Truman’s face, silently reminding myself for his sake not to make a showy scene of affection whenever I did spot him. A dad approached me and introduced himself as the father of a girl in Truman’s class. “We’re hearing a lot about Truman at home this year,” he told me with a smile. Ah, I’ll file away this girl’s name, and causally ask about her later, I thought. As we stood there watching a sea of excited parents and kids hugging and talking, we looked for our kids and swapped stories of the week with the “babies” of our families away. “We went out to eat a lot,” he confessed. So had we — every night! We laughed. And then I noticed that nearly every bench seat was filled, but still no Truman...until I turned my head and saw a familiar red jacket in the distance, running directly at me, waving and calling to me. And I forgot all my composure and ran toward my boy. With our arms still around each other, he said, “Mommy, I missed you SO MUCH — how’s Dilly?” Then he talked a mile a minute. “I got to try new and exciting foods I’ve never eaten before. Like tater tots!” How has he never had exciting tater tots, I wondered. He raved about the food. “The dining hall did smell really good, but our kitchen just has a special Mommy smell.” Even without tater tots, I thought.

Truman described his cabin group’s teamwork, and was particularly impressed with the group’s behavior toward a boy who is a wheelchair user. “I love how compassionate and understanding my friends are,” he said as he relayed tales of taking turns pushing his wheelchair and brainstorming ways to include everyone in every activity. Truman was struck by how such a wheelchair user must trust those who push him up and down steep hills. I agreed and thought about this for the rest of the day. As Truman took his seat for the closing ceremony, I noticed his rosy, sun-kissed cheeks. And had he actually grown an inch or two, or was it my imagination? Perhaps he was standing a bit taller.

The Walker Creek principal had explained in the opening ceremony that the week’s theme was “connection.” And now I noticed evidence of connection everywhere I looked. Kids had their arms around each other’s shoulders, talking excitedly to new friends that had met that week. Truman told me later that kids had bonded with each other and their cabin leaders, the naturalists who lead their outdoor adventures, and their teachers from home. The students stood and shared during the ceremony how they had been changed by their week. Many described a new-found connection to nature and to each other. They expressed gratitude for the week, for the food, and for help when they needed it. They talked about what they had learned, about nature, botany, and wild animals. One child said, “I learned I like poetry.” Thinking about his group’s day-long hike to the top of Walker Peak, Truman offered, “I learned I can accomplish anything I put my mind to.” Reflecting on his solo nature hike, he said, “I felt scared in a good way, and independent in a good way.”

And then the ceremony concluded with guitars and bongos and everyone singing the Bill Withers song Lean on Me. Glancing around at other adults nearby, I saw plenty of parents wiping tears, and was glad I wasn’t the only one. From my experience with Geneva’s Walker Creek adventure eight years earlier, I knew that this week changes lives. Geneva still calls her time at Walker Creek a highlight of her childhood. Kids learn to push themselves beyond limits, and out of comfort zones. Many hadn’t ever spent a day hiking or a night away from family until then. They discover strength and independence. And apparently tater tots.

I left the music off on our drive home, and my four boy passengers filled the space with tales of creeks and wet socks, deer and foxes, and girls peering into the boy cabin windows. They talked endlessly about the food, raving about its quality, “...and you could get seconds and thirds!” a boy yelled. My favorite cabin story: one (high school aged) cabin leader brought his ukulele, and softly played it each night at lights out as the kids fell asleep. The kids named him UkeDude. 

It’s a delight and a wonder to have my boy back home. The night of his return, he and I cooked a big celebratory meal and decorated our Christmas tree. Truman has thrown himself into his annual tradition of making every family member stacks of gifts, like our own family elf. Grateful for every cinematic tradition, we know that The Last Jedi is right around the corner!

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

A Week at Walker Creek

Today I dropped Truman off for a week-long outdoor education adventure 80 miles from home. One would think that by my third kid, I’d approach this task like a pro, give him a big kiss, and send him on his way. That’s mostly what happened...except that I gave him about 10 kisses and one extra-long squeeze, trying not to make a scene. I hope that I projected an outward sense of calm, masking my inner twitchiness that comes with the title of “mom.”

“Walker Creek,” as this week is affectionately known around town, has become legendary on Davis school playgrounds. Students from just about every sixth-grade class in town spend a week there. Nearly every kid returns feeling triumphant and independent, sharing stories of solo hikes, astronomy lessons, skits, and campfires. They rave about the food and discuss life in the cabins with 11 other classmates and a few brave high schoolers, returning to relive their experiences of Walker Creek, this time as cabin leaders. The kids look forward to the day-long hike to Walker Peak, which ends with views of Tomales Bay, Mount St Helena, and the Pacific Ocean. And on the final night at Walker Creek, everyone gets down at Barnyard Boogie, the highly anticipated barn dance celebrating the end of an epic week.

Parents who drove in the caravan transporting kids today were invited to stay for the welcome ceremony and for the first hike. Our group took Turkey Vulture Canyon Trail. Soon after we began, and as if on cue, a giant turkey vulture landed on top of a nearby tree. Our hike-leading naturalist, Paws, took the opportunity to teach the kids the “Quiet Coyote” hand sign, signaling all to silence themselves and focus their attention, in this case, on the huge buzzard after whom our trail was named.

During the hike I watched the wildlife, but also watched my boy. Apart from sleepovers with buddies and grandparents, Truman has never spent a night away from home without one or both of his parents, so this is a big step for him. We all have eagerly anticipated this long experiment in independence. In typical Truman fashion, our boy began packing and preparing weeks ago. As I told him, “This is a week you’ll always remember – you’ll have the time of your life.” To record his adventures, Truman brought a new journal and a disposable camera. I demonstrated how cameras worked before digital photography: winding film and charging the flash for those evening cabin photos. While I talked our ambitious reader down to bringing just five novels to read this week, he obviously plans to mix some writing in with his reading. His stamps and envelopes indicated his intention to write home “because I know how much you’re going to miss me.” I’m sure the missing goes both directions this week.

Last night, just before loading Truman’s suitcase into the car, and as I hid a note for him to find later, I noticed that he had packed a small, framed family photo, placing it on top of his clothes. I smiled as I imagined his face reading my message:

Dear Coolie,

I couldn’t resist sneaking a letter into your suitcase for you to discover after your arrival at Walker Creek (you’ll receive a couple more from Daddy and me at mail time). As I write, you are downstairs busily checking that you have everything ready for tomorrow. And I’m upstairs listening to music that you and I both love and thinking about how lucky I am to be your mom.

I’ll miss hearing your saxophone melodies fill our home this week. I’ll miss your coming to my bedside each morning to check if I’m awake. I’ll miss playing badminton with you after school. And I’ll miss your laugh and your hugs. But for every moment that I miss, I’ll feel thrilled thinking about you having a grand adventure in such a gorgeous area of California. I can’t wait to see you at the end of the week and hear all of your stories. I hope you know how proud I am of you. Have a GREAT time, my sweet boy! I couldn’t possibly love you more.

Love, Mommy

I do miss him already. Whereas my car on the way there had been filled with the noise of four excited boys, my drive home was peaceful and quiet. I took in the beauty of the countryside with its rolling hills, its canyons, and its valleys. I thought about how it seems just a moment ago that I dropped Truman off for his first day of nursery school. How quickly it all passes! I wondered if he’ll be warm enough during night hikes or if he’ll have trouble falling asleep. I wondered what nature name he might choose for himself this week, something that might complement his sister and brother’s names, for they have Moon and Forest on their birth certificates. But mostly I smiled, thinking about the exciting adventure that awaits my boy.

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.