Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Lock down

Of course it happened on the day that I was too busy to kiss my kids goodbye before they left for school.  The lockdown, that is.  The one that was not a drill but the real thing, the one that had my kindergartener closed in a coat closet with his classmates and teacher.

My final physical therapy appointment for the broken elbow was scheduled for the same time school starts, so my husband was taking the kids this morning.  By the time I got myself to the door to go, the kids were already in my husband's car. As I watched them drive off, I told myself that the lack of a proper send-off with the usual hugs and kisses was okay for one day since I'd be there at the school in a few hours for volunteering.  It was just a few hours.

I'd had a terrible night's sleep with worries about a work event scheduled for tonight, so I sat through the final talk with my physical therapist in a daze (even after two cups of coffee).  I arrived to work in a horrible mood, which did not bode well for a clean-up project we were working on.  I was grouchy and irritable and frustrated with things not going my way.  I wasn't very nice.

Late morning after I'd gotten back home, I got a notice through a parent-group for my kids' school on fb that the school was in lockdown due to a suspicious package being left near the school.  A parent had posted something from the twitter feed of a local news station.  It's hard to describe how I felt in that moment.  The best summation might just be: nausea.

I immediately felt the overwhelming urge to throw up.  My head started swimming.

I decided to call a couple of parents who are typically in the know about things related to the school, but neither of them had heard anything.  One lives in walking distance of the school, so she ran right over there and told me that "the school is crawling with police."

The first time I tried calling the school, an answering service said that the school was not available to take my call.  I wasn't sure whether to jump in my car and run over there or wait by the phone.  I called right back, and one of the secretaries answered that time.  The lockdown had just been cleared.  Kids were resuming a normal day.  The police were leaving.

As of now, there are no official reports of what was in the suspicious bag.  I heard a toy or stuffed animal.  Maybe a tightly and carefully wrapped school project.  Who knows?  It doesn't matter.

Here is what does matter:

My children are surrounded by men and women who would lay down their life for them in a heartbeat.  When the word came to my son's class about the lockdown, his teacher and the student teacher calmly had them leave their work and go with them into the coat closet.  She closed the window blinds and shut the closet door.  She told me that she had never talked so much in her life.  She was keeping them calm.

After five minutes, someone told them to move to another teacher's classroom since it was further away from the suspicious package that the police were investigating.  One of the girls in the class told the teacher at the end of the day that the reason she was covering her face with her hoodie during that walk is because she was so scared.  Her teacher commended her for being so brave, saying that she hadn't even noticed her doing that.  She was so proud of the girl for following directions in spite of her fear.

They waited in the other classroom for an hour.  They kept the lights off and just hung out.  They got permission to take it easy and just lay on the floor, which my son did.  He was tired today, so I can easily see him rolling around on the floor sucking his thumb.  Kindergarteners can get away with this.

My daughter was in music when word came about the lockdown.  Her teacher had them hide behind a wall in the auditorium, and eventually they just hung out for the whole hour.  She said she wasn't at all scared because "I knew we were safe."  I love this about her.

Once I heard from the secretary that they were out of lockdown, I relaxed.  I willed myself to think about other things and talked about my  morning with my husband.  But when I got to the school less than an hour later, I found myself hugging every staff member I could.  One of the first grade teachers, my daughter's reading group teacher, was standing on the playground when I arrived.  She is so professional that she has been accused of being cold.  I asked her how she was doing and thanked her for taking care of our kids.  I then hugged her hard, telling her through a tight throat and tears that I experienced a school shooting during my student teaching so am sometimes a little raw when it comes to these things.  She softened and looked at me with surprise.  Right then my son ran up to me for a kiss.  Her expression softened even more.  I put my hand on her arm, squeezed it, and told her thank you again.

In the office, I hugged both of the secretaries.  The younger one stood for hers, and when I walked towards the stereotypically surly older one, I said, "You can't get out of this no matter how hard you try" and I hugged her in her chair.  She smiled and laughed.  As I walked out of the office I told them, "We love y'all."

Walking down the hall, I hugged the assistant principal, the one my daughter idolizes.  I thanked her too for being there.  The head principal saw me coming, said 'hi' to me by name, and we high-fived.  I told him 'great job today'.

I hugged the teacher for the kids in my son's class with special needs.  I adore her and her sense of humor and warmth.  She is there for my kids just as much as anyone.  I didn't hug the school counselor who came in for a lesson while I was there because she was very busy teaching about using nice words.

It's strange to think that my kids were in no real danger today, yet it feels like we escaped something.  I guess we did.  These experiences can shake us out of our surliness, our bad moods, our irritability, our meanness, our apathy.  This is what I escaped today. 

 I was yanked out of the illusion that I can count on having at my disposal the next few hours of my life.  I will never again let my children leave the house without a kiss from me.

If you see anyone who works with children tomorrow, hug them.

I went back to work tonight with an openness that I was lacking this morning.  I was more generous with people.  I smiled more.  I was very tired but did the hard work of preparing for a big work party with energy that was missing earlier.  As I filled shopping carts with food for the party to honor our volunteers, I felt the fatigue of sleep deprivation and a stressful day, but this weakness in my body somehow made me appreciate the task I was working on. 

The community room was quickly filled with staff and volunteers, people who mentor African refugee youth and give up their Saturday mornings to teach young refugee mothers.  Four of my own program's volunteers were there, one of whom I had the joy of honoring with a rather expensive "Volunteer of the Year" plaque for his desk.  My children came, and I was filled with pride as I watched them scoop injera and doro wot, then listen quietly during speeches and later belly laugh with two habesha college graduates who made up an imaginary friend named Steve, whom my daughter ate.

We stayed past their bedtime.  I didn't rush home, despite it being a school night. It's best not to disrupt belly laughter.

You wouldn't believe the sunset on the way home.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013


When I'm an old lady, I hope I get to live in a quiet wing of one of my kids' houses.  I want to have the hub-bub of an active house available but then also have my wing to retreat to.

Today was one of those days in which I hardly sat down.  The whole thing was a flurry.  My Portland bff texted at 8am to say "good morning sunshine, I miss you" which I replied to by explaining how much I hate mornings and that I had just screamed at the top of my lungs at an idiot driver barreling down my block.  I taught my kids on the way to school that it's okay to say "idiot" in reference to someone driving so fast down a residential street that they could kill someone.  I also told them that if I'd had a brick in my hand, I might have thrown it at the car.

There was a full work day (I am lucky enough to truly deeply love my job) and an evening of homework oversight, dinner, trying on a new Michael Jackson costume, and pop-in visits from neighbors.  It was so much activity.  If I were an old lady, I'd have retreated to my wing.

On my way home from work, I stopped in to check on my rapidly-aging father-in-law (who lives three blocks from my office).  I found him sitting quietly in his quiet apartment, not reading, not listening to music, not watching TV.  He was just sitting there in the quiet.  He agreed to come home with me for dinner, and he spent the next couple hours planted on our couch. We made him strong Irish tea, the same kind we drank together on our trip to the west coast of Ireland, his place of origin.  He was disappointed that we didn't put honey in it.

He ate a big dinner on the couch and read a book to our son as part of his homework.  It was a story about a girl with the biggest feet in the world.  I think she ended up saving her friends during a blizzard by being able to walk on top of snow drifts. Something like that.  He read the book very slowly, stopping once to sing to my son "When you wish upon a star," including strongly the message about it making no difference who you are.

I drove him back home while our kids worked on their cardboard box playhouse/rocket ship with two of the neighbor kids.  Earlier in the day, he'd cried when telling me about the conversation he'd had recently with his sister (18 months his junior) in which she said that she was too tired to even go to mass, that she would really rather just go.  He's not doing crossword puzzles or reading, two of his favorite activities, and I wonder if he wishes he had his own quiet wing of our house.

He called me over the weekend to read me a quote from Parade magazine about how "complicated" it is to be sandwiched by family.  He said, "I'm a loner!"  I kept thinking about that when I watched him read a book to our son.  Yes, a loner.  So am I.  He can give up his crossword puzzles, but I'm so thankful he's not yet giving up his family.

Monday, May 27, 2013

The Wiz

One of my graduate school professors had a theory that any average, mainstream American will encounter at least one reference to The Wizard of Oz per day, so he kept a little spiral notebook in his back pocket at all times to tally each one he encountered.  This weekend, we led our kids down the yellow brick road.

We had already shown them clips from the movie and The Wiz, which our son was excited about since Michael Jackson is the Scarecrow.  Friday night, we found The Wiz on netflix and watched the whole thing.  I saw it when I was maybe five or six and found parts of it to be pretty scary.  Our kids seemed to be fine with it.

Since it was rainy today, we went to my husband's studio around lunch-time to let our kids watch from start to finish The Wizard of Oz.  Our daughter cried when Dorothy saw Auntie Em calling out for her in the crystal ball.  I hope it wasn't a mistake to show these two movies to our kids.  One of the funnest things about them getting to the age they are is the chance to introduce cultural icons to them.

All afternoon and evening, they sang "Ding dong the witch is dead," spreading the tune to a friend down the street who also sang it during her dinner. 

Don't you carry nothing that will be a load. You got to ease on down, ease on down the road.

Mama's boy

All I remember about the circumstances surrounding this small moment is that there was a lot of activity.  There were kids running around, coming in and out of our house, and I think it was a Saturday.

My son was wearing his favorite white tank-top with a race car on the front, the one his best friend has a matching one of and that they wear together sometimes.  He ran into the house, approached me, stuck his thumb in his mouth.  The second I picked him up, he became my baby again.

He wrapped his legs around my waist, rested his head on my right shoulder and wrapped his arms around my shoulders to where his favorite thumb could make its way into his mouth.  He immediately began humming "go to sleep, go to sleep, go to sleep little baby..."

My husband looked at us and said, "He knows who mama is." For me, it was a completely delicious moment.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Happy Monday

We're not sure if it's spring fever or the student teacher having run of the class, but our son's behavior took a turn for the worse a couple weeks ago.  He was getting his name on the board every day, sometimes with checks.  It's mostly been for squirreliness, such as playing in line, then falling on the floor, and rather than getting up and walking, deciding it would be hilarious and fun to crawl down the hallway.  That sort of thing. The driving force in our son's life is fun, and he looks for it in all circumstances.

Every time he came home with a bad report from school, we've given him a special job at home such as cleaning the stairs, scrubbing the tub, or windexing the windows.  To help him at school, we've reminded him that the best way of staying out of trouble is to, "Keep hands to yourself and look at the teacher." 

Something good happened today.  It started with my asking him to leave his sweater on all day, the sweater he doesn't like.  I never spend more than $5 on hooded fleeces for him because he inevitably loses them.  The latest, his favorite that I got for $1 from a consignment store last summer, got lost last week; hence, the sweater today that he doesn't like.

When he came out of school at 3pm, two things happened at once: his teacher gave me a thumbs-up for the day he'd had, and he still had his sweater on, even though the afternoon had become warm.  It felt like such a relief that he could follow directions, something that needed to be rewarded.

His sister was off to play at a friend's house, so he and I started by stopping by his old preschool to pick up something I'd won in a raffle and to visit with his old teacher.  It was so fun to watch him reminisce as we made our way into the classroom.  He kept pointing out all the things he remembered, and he acted so grown-up and shy around his old teacher.  He did give the perfect answer to his hippie-dippy granola teacher when asked what he's learning in school: "How to take care of the earth."  She was thrilled.

From there we went to a very old-school (and not very good) bakery his preschool did a tour of last year.  He picked a chocolate cupcake with a Tom&Jerry plastic ring on the top and never ate a bite of it, saying to me, "Mom, I like it so much I don't want to eat it."  He put on the ring and put the cupcake in a box to take home.  It's still in our fridge. 

We then stopped by the grocery store for a couple things, and he carried the basket for me until it got too heavy with popcorn and cans of evaporated milk. 

I love my kid so much and felt so proud of who he is becoming.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Future Leader

My daughter's teacher is leaving the school after just one year there.  It took me until almost the end of the year to realize how special she has become to our daughter.  It seemed that a lot of the school year, at least through the first few months, was spent handling discipline issues with other kids.  My daughter came home most days upset with how the day had gone, frustrated that her classmates wouldn't pay attention and that privileges got taken away from the whole class so much.  It frustrated me that our first grader already didn't like school.  I loved school at that age.

Then some change happened.  I'm not sure of the details, but it seems that our well-behaved, rule-following girl started getting special treatment in class.  She started hanging with her teacher during recess, the two of them creating their own games and language with each other.  Around this same time, our daughter took it upon herself to be a cafeteria helper, standing near the compost and trash at clean-up time to help the cafeteria workers.  Every Friday, they gave her a pencil for her help.  No one asked her to do this.  It's just a thing she started.

She also attached herself to the new assistant principal so much that she got the nickname "mini-me."  She'd see the assistant principal and grab her around the middle in a hug. 

Last night the school had a special event to celebrate cultures around the world, and while there, I found out that even more how close our daughter has gotten with her teacher.  They act like buddies who've always known each other.  There is a familiar ease between them.  It suddenly made me really sad that the year is ending, that our daughter will have to say goodbye to this special friend.

 One of the second grade teachers brings her puppy to school every day and lets the kids play with her during recess.  I found out yesterday that our daughter is the only one who has gotten to take her out for walks by herself.  It's another special privilege that has come with good behavior and helpfulness.  It was a huge secret so as not to make the other kids jealous.

It made me so happy.  I was the same kid, especially in middle school and high school.  There were a few administrators and teachers who took me under their wing and let me do things other kids didn't get to do.  They would pull me aside and say that I was 'special' or a 'leader' and then give me some task the others didn't get to do, one that came with responsibility.  It was incredibly formative for me to be trusted by a trusted adult at school, and I am thrilled that our daughter has already had this experience this year at school.

Her teacher sent me last night a photo of our daughter as she took the coveted puppy out for a run.  I am so thankful for teachers who bring puppies to school and for ones who trust my daughter with them.

Monday, May 13, 2013

I like you

This afternoon at school pick-up, I saw a familiar face standing against the fence waiting for her son's class.  My daughter is in the same class, and I felt happy to see here there since she's a neighbor I know decently well.  We've hung out, watched each others' kids and get along.  It's comfortable to stand next to her.  I like her.

As I walked her direction, another face came into view, this one less familiar.  I know her but not even marginally as well.  She smiled at me.  I smiled back.  We nodded and had this odd moment of not being sure if we were going to stop to talk or not.  We said a brief "hey" and in a split second, I decided to stop myself from going to the comfortable place by the fence with my comfortable neighbor.  I turned towards the less familiar face, something that does not come easily for this introvert.

She asked how I was, so I answered honestly. 

"I woke up pissy today, and at work someone had stolen all my desk candy over the weekend and someone else was smacking gum close by, so my pissyness just got worse."

She laughed and ended up talking about her own work anxiety and how it expresses herself.  I said, "Well, I don't know you very well, but there's ways of helping with anxiety..."

She thought I was talking about booze when actually I was talking about anti-anxiety meds.  And other things, which I shall keep secret.  The point is that it ended up being this really great conversation, and tonight right after I'd put the kids in bed, I got a text from her starting with, "I like you!"

 How often do we adults actually hear those words from another adult, I mean, unless you ever met Fred Rogers?  I found it to be utterly endearing and wonderful.  And it only happened because I managed to make myself uncomfortable by talking to a less familiar person.  For an introvert, this can be painful, almost literally so. On the inside, I'm feeling a pull in my stomach, an anxiousness saying "Aw man! Do I really have to talk to this person? It hurts my head to do it! Don't make me!  My stomach hurts too! Can I just go stand over there by that fence?"

Glad that today I didn't.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Mother's Day

On Friday, the first grade had a special program for mothers.  There were talents on display, poems read, songs sung.  As each group of kids stood up, I noticed each one craning their neck to find their own mother.  My own daughter did the same as her class sang a short song about mothers.  The song itself I don't remember.  What I do remember was the feeling I had when they sat down.  I watched my daughter turn to look at me, to check in that I'd been watching her, to smile at me. 

My thoughts immediately turned to her first mother, the one on this earth no more, the one our shared daughter has blurry memories of, all good ones.  I sat there in the warm auditorium and cried, not for long, but there was no holding it back.

Can she see me?  Can she see us?  How did it happen that "my" daughter looks to me for approval and support?  How can I possibly manage to honor the first mother, the one who carried the little one on her back and taught her to make injera and how to grind freshly roasted coffee beans with a mortar and pestle?  The one who planted the seed in our daughter's heart for love?

Tonight we had a group of folks over for a potluck dinner and ended up talking a lot about parenting.  I explained that we want very much to hold to the Ethiopian manner of parenting, that of the values of hard work, respect, tenderness with the young and elderly, humility.  A married couple with children in high school listened but said, "Isn't that too heavy of a burden to carry?  I mean, these are your kids now."

I don't fault them for their question.  It came out of concern for us, not wanting us to set ourselves up too much for failure.  But what I know in my gut is that we can't lower the bar.  We want our children to stand tall in their Ethiopian identity, beyond the realm of knowing the music, food, and snippets of language.  For the sake of their first families, we long for them to carry within them the pride of their roots: tenderness, hard work, responsibility, community, and hospitality. 

We carry this burden with joy in our hearts.  My children made me a mother.  By God's grace, I will honor their first families if it's the last thing on earth that I do.

Thursday, May 9, 2013


The first was a guy in line at a 'fast food health food' place I was at for work.  When I see him on the playground at my kids' school, I always think it's Tim Robbins.  I went to him in line and found out he heads up some fancy masters program at the city college and bikes the thirty (or so) blocks to get this food.  His students have a display at a local museum about civil protest/vandalism being works of art.  Or something.  Though we were on a tour of local galleries, we skipped this one at the end of our day in favor of having ice cream by a fountain.

The second was the lady scooping ice cream.  It took me a second, but I quickly made the connection that we see her sometimes at our favorite dog park (on the other side of town!).  She's probably fifty, and I assume owns the place.  As the group of nine African elders made their order, I introduced myself again.  It felt like a small town.

While waiting for ice cream, one of my son's best friends came in with his huge smile, his dad, and his grandmother.  The charming grandmother complimented my hair.  We stood in the sunshine as the streetcar went by, and my son's friend, as always, said little but smiled at me nonstop.  He's one of my favorites.

Three people I didn't expect to see, I saw on the opposite end of the city.

Tonight we sat at a friend's house on our end of the city with several other people.  One was a doctor.  One was a barista who had funny things to say about frappucino happy hour.  Another was a seminary graduate who had a lot to say about raccoons.  One was a physician's assistant.  Another was a nurse who sat quietly in the corner and told me quietly at one point how much she likes Captain Crunch cereal, like it's a big secret.  There were others there too.  And within the group was a former prostitute with a lengthy criminal record and another who admitted to a years-long separation after physically abusing his wife.  We told our stories and talked about what it means to "love stronger because family matters."

I'm not sure what my point is besides laying out the day I just experienced.  It's good to be out there experiencing this world.  It's good to walk up to the person you recognize in line for a health food fix.  It's good to take photos of African elders standing in front of a city fountain, the Eritrean couple holding hands in a rare show of affection.  It's good to be family in the community of God, to confess our hidden secrets, the things that weigh us down, to accept forgiveness, to make ourselves vulnerable, to make mistakes in front of family because we know it's all covered in grace.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Warm nights

It's unseasonably warm right now, so last night at 9pm, long enough for my husband and I to settle ourselves deep into conversation on the front porch with a bottle of chilled wine, one child came downstairs and stuck her head out the window followed by the other five minutes later.  They claimed to be too hot to sleep.  Both had stripped down to underwear and made room for each other to sit knees up next to each other in one of the windows. 

I sat on the porch swing in the dark, my husband in the rocking chair, both kids in the window.  It had just gotten completely dark and bugs were starting to swarm.  They stayed for fifteen minutes or so listening quietly to the night, stolen moments on a school night.

This morning when I woke them up, the first thing my daughter said was, "Mom...Dad didn't go..." and she made arms-swinging-back-and-forth motion.  She was disappointed that she hadn't been woken up for an early morning run.  She might be the only seven-year-old I've known who is sad about not getting to exercise before sunrise. 

Our son took much longer to get out of bed (as usual).  His reaction to my raised voice (after ten minutes) was, "Me dreaming about at-at walkers! Can't get up!" 

This last month of school is not going to be easy.

Sunday, May 5, 2013


It's the kind of evening as a parent that leaves you wrung-out with one kid telling a lie and another in tears because some neighbor girls down the street were running, towels in hand, to a pool party at 8pm on a school night.

So I try to put it behind me and remember things like how beautiful and warm it was today, that feeling during church this morning as the group of four black women and one mismatched white man sang about how the hold of God is stronger than we dare to hope or dream.

I'll think about how happy I am that my sinus infection has moved to my chest on its way out of my body.  How I don't mind the coughing at night as long as I can breathe through my nose. 

And that moment last night when at bedtime my daughter wanted to kiss me even though she was running the risk of catching my germs.  She kissed me and then said, "If I get your cold, does that mean you don't have it anymore? Cause I want to take it from you."  And she would.  If it worked that way, she would.  I was left crushed by this generosity.

I'll enjoy my clean floors, the first time I've done them myself since the big elbow break.  Our windows are wide open in this warm spell, and I have also open a very European-looking bottle of rose wine, the looks of which give me that itch to set sail again somewhere but knowing that in this period, I can't.  I look at that bottle and imagine beautiful architecture, unusual flavors, and the sloping reach of an indecipherable language.

Tomorrow morning it's a new week.  Today I stocked the kitchen and sharpened the pencils.  Here I am.  I understand most everything, and for now, this is good.

Thursday, May 2, 2013


A trip to the rural east coast with spotty internet connection.  A monstrous head cold brought back to fuel the sleep deprivation that started with five nights of camping.

So I have not written.

The first night back in our house, having walked in the door at 1am, my daughter in her bed quietly told me that she was scared.  She didn't know how to explain it, but I knew.  Our routine had flown into the winds of airports, sleeping in pop-up campers with no official bedtime, missed school, haphazard meals caught here and there eaten on a grassy hillside or in a rainstorm, tumbling around on huge lawns with just-met cousins as blues or bluegrass played. 

It was fun, but for a girl who's still not even in this country for two years, disconcerting...scary.  Extra hug, caress on the forehead and a "it'll feel normal again tomorrow."  She closed her eyes and went back to sleep.