Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The Anti-Romantic Child: A Memoir of Unexpected Joy

I remember being pregnant with Bria, my first child, and having all kinds of notions about how it was going to be to have my own baby. I wondered what she would be like: I hoped she would have my love of reading and learning and her father's musical abilities. I wanted her to be brilliant, of course, and kind and sweet and wonderful and perfect.

Of course she is all of those things--just not quite how I had imagined it.  She loves to read and learn all right, but it surprises me that she chooses to read fantasy books (not my favorite genre) over Nancy Drew.  And it really surprises me that she has an obsessive interest in spiders, reptiles, amphibians and other creepy crawlies.  Whenever we go to the library, she always comes home with at least one book about tarantulas or lizards or something.  Not quite what I expected my daughter to want to learn about!  I had hoped she would love school, but she doesn't really.  She does indeed have her father's musical abilities, but she really hates to perform in front of people.  But she is brilliant in her own way, and kind and sweet and wonderful and perfect.

And all mine.

It's just she isn't really mine, because she is 100% her own person.  And as her mother, I have had to learn to understand that person.  It's a journey and a process and can be incredibly frustrating and incredibly joyful.

And it's a journey that all mothers take, though some mothers have to alter their expectations much more drastically than others.

Such was the case with Priscilla Gilman, a literature professor at Yale who specializes in Wordsworth.  Pregnant with her first child, and having had a wonderfully imaginative and rich childhood of her own, she had all kinds of romantic aspirations for her unborn baby, just as most mothers do.  Except, when Benj was born, he didn't turn out to be anything like what Priscilla and her husband expected.

As time passed, they discovered he had something called hyperlexia, which is the opposite of dyslexia.  This book is a lovely memoir of Priscilla's journey through Benj's childhood.  Advocating, understanding, weeping, rejoicing--and always keeping the words of Wordsworth close by as her personal touchstone.

Other than a few of his poems, I am not super familiar with Wordsworth (let's face it, unless I've sung a setting of a poem, I probably am not familiar with it at all, but after reading this book I am very interested to find settings of Wordsworth to sing), but I absolutely loved Gilman's sprinkling of his verses throughout the memoir.  They were always poignant and perfectly mirrored the emotions and experiences she was having at that point in her journey.

I must say, I absolutely loved this book.  An author who understands the beauty of the English language draws me in every time, and Gilman most certainly has that gift.  She weaves a beautiful tale of unrealized expectations and finding joy in the unexpected.  While I don't have a child that has special needs per se, I could easily relate with so much of her experience.  In other words, you don't need to have a child with special needs in order to love this book, I think there is something in it for everyone.

I respect Priscilla Gilman a great deal for the way she strives not to label her son, and to accept him for exactly who he is and what he brings to her life.  I struggle with the labels we are so anxious to slap on our children.  Autistic, ADD, gifted, etc.  While I certainly appreciate the ways the label allows for needed interventions, I worry that it puts the child into a tidy little box and we forget that there is much more to her than that label.  I loved Priscilla's attitude about this--that though Benj may be on the spectrum, she has not tested him to be sure. She knows his quirks and his needs and she advocates for him as a whole person.  It made me want to get to know my own children better, as it seemed to me Priscilla has dedicated her life to knowing and understanding Benj and his younger brother.

I am recommending this book to my book club next week when we meet to choose books for the year.  I really hope the other ladies will vote it in, it is definitely one of the most lovely books I've read in a while.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

(Insert something clever about trees and fences)

I thought about titling this "I Think That I Shall Never See, a Poem as Lovely as a Tree," but just right now I am done seeing trees at all, and I'm not so sure I even think they're lovely.

"Good Fences Make Good Neighbors" was another option.  But since we don't have much of a fence left over, and our neighbors have actually been super great about the whole thing, I threw that idea out, too.

"Good Things Come in Threes--Even Trees!"  Except, I don't know that I would say this whole saga has been exactly good, and I'm not sure if bad things come in threes (do they?).

Or maybe even "Revenge of the Maple Gods."  That might be the most appropriate one yet.


Suffice it to say, I just couldn't think of the right title for this epic post.  And I say epic, because there are going to be lots of pictures, and a story that even I am still not sure I believe.

So, where to start?  The beginning, I suppose.

There were three large maple trees just off our property line that have been destroying our roof for the past 50 years.  We were eager to have them removed when we got in, but then we learned that they weren't on our property.  The small strip of land on which they grow belongs to the city.  And the city doesn't really care about that land, nor does it care much about our roof.  So, all of our appeals to them to remove the trees fell upon deaf ears.

But, last summer, the power company needed to remove one of the three maples because it was causing problems with the power lines.  Hooray!  Except, it wasn't the one that was causing our roof the most problems.  We finally decided to take care of the problem ourselves (after all, the city didn't seem to care much) and called a tree service shortly after that. He quoted us a good price and then never actually showed up to take down the tree.  We are still not sure what happened there, but we were deep into the opera so we didn't call him back, and then we took a vacation.  By the time we got back, we realized the tree removal would have to wait anyway.

So, a week or so ago we called the guy back, he came, gave us the same quote and on May 16, he returned and took that behemoth down.  It was GIGANTIC, one of the bigger maples in the neighborhood, and our neighborhood is basically the maple woods.
These guys were super careful with this tree felling, and it took them nearly all day to do it. (Puccini couldn't tear herself away from that window, she was so fascinated.) They cut off the branches, piece by piece, until finally, the whole tree was down.

There was, however, a slight miscommunication with the whole process.  Joel had said he wanted to keep the wood, and to leave it in pieces on the ground, but I guess the tree guys thought that meant ALL the wood.  And leaves.  So, now instead of a gigantic tree hanging over our roof, we had a gigantic tree in pieces on our lawn.  Oops.
Can you see my tiny children in all of that mess? Well, as much as I didn't enjoy having it all in the yard, the girls did have quite a lot of fun with it, so I guess that was okay. Meanwhile, Joel and I hemmed and hawed a little bit about what we would do with all of it.  Would we take all summer and clean it up ourselves?  Would we have a tree cleanup party (not unlike a barn raising of old) and invite everyone we knew to bring their chainsaws and wood splitters?  Or would we just pay the guy to come back and haul off all the branches?

Well, a few days went by, and we were still thinking about it, but definitely leaning towards just opening the wallet and not having to do all that work ourselves.  On May 24 (yes, we thought about it for a week), we came home from the library.  It was a windy evening (we even had a tornado watch!) and I was out in the front with the puppy, trying to get her to go potty.

I was looking at the tree mess, and then I started noticing a few things.  Like, some of the leaves are green again.  The pile of branches looks even bigger (was that possible?) than before.  And, some of those leaves I'm seeing aren't even maple leaves!

Now our neighbors had been having some dead branches cut off of all their trees that day, and the first thought that came to mind was, "Those tree guys just put all the branches on top of my mess!"  In fact, their tree guy (not the same as my tree guy) actually knocked on my door earlier that day and asked if I wanted him to take care of the branch mess.  I asked him how much, and since it was more than double what our tree guy would do it for, declined.   In my runaway thoughts, then, as I was looking at the new stuff that had suddenly appeared, I was sure he was mad at me and made my problem worse.  I have such faith in human kind, don't I?

Well, that's when Joel came running out of the house, "What the heck happened?"  What I couldn't see, was that these new branches were right up against the windows and weren't just branches, but almost an entire tree! Two trees actually. The big maple that fell took a smaller poplar with it.
I didn't get the world's best photo of it from this angle, but we were so lucky that it didn't break any windows or do other damage to the house. Remember our tornado watch and windy weather? Well, this tree just snapped right in half and fell onto our house. I'm glad we weren't home when it happened, because that would have been a little scary. The neighbors were home, though, and they were freaked out and very willing to pay for any damage since it was their tree.

The only damage was to our fence in the back, and that was pretty minimal, all things considered.
Joel and Shane (neighbor) took a chain saw to the thing to get the weight of it off of the windows and the fence the next morning.  (Yeah, I need to clean my kitchen windows, don't I?)  Really, it just amounted to a bit more wood for the tree guy to haul away, and an easily fixed fence.  No biggie.

Still, our neighbors were freaked out enough that they decided to have their tree guy come back and take down the rest of the tree that toppled, as well as two others.  They definitely needed to be taken down, I'll give them that.  So many of the maple trees in our neighborhood are not in good shape and they are just so huge!  Having one fall like that was a definite wake-up call.

So, their tree guy came back on Saturday.  (May 26, for those of you keeping track of dates.) The first tree that came down kind of scared us a bit, because it barely missed crushing our entire fence, but we breathed a sigh of relief, and then Joel went to run some errands.

I was just in my office checking my email when I heard a pretty horrible sound.  I ran to the window, and this is what I saw.
Um. Are you kidding me? I immediately called Joel, and was so upset that he couldn't understand what I was telling him until the third time I repeated myself. Then I went outside and began to take pictures to text to him. I couldn't talk to the guy at all because I was so angry, so I just kind of walked around and took pictures with my phone.
Five minutes later, Beth (neighbor) was at my front door swearing like a sailor. I was kind of glad she was cussing, because I certainly wanted to!
Do you see that little square of garden amongst all the crappy ground cover stuff? Well, our big summer project was to pull all the ground cover and get some garden planted there. We cleared that bit THE NIGHT BEFORE and planted my herbs in there. Sure it looks fine now, but I have lots more pictures to go.
Because, splat! That fence piece came down, too. (And dude up the hill there is on his phone ordering fence parts--he better be!) Still hasn't hurt the garden yet, but these guys aren't finished!
Let's just chop that tree and plop the huge pieces right on top of my tender baby marjoram and chives, shall we?  I'm pretty sure that Murphy and his law are somehow at work in this ordeal, but I don't like to think about it.
At first I thought that the play set might have also been crushed--it was a bit hard to tell underneath all those branches! Thankfully, it is fine. Puccini escaped while I was taking pictures, which is normally no biggie since we have a fenced backyard and all. And that's when I realized that she is going to have to be leashed for the next little while. Bummer. She's just getting to the point where she is potty trained, rings her bells and goes out all by herself. Now I will have to still leash her up and go out with her and wait for her to do her business. Just another little inconvenience.
Joel finally came home and surveyed the damage. He talked to the boss, and we are assured that the fence will be repaired by next week. They are paying for it, as they should, and all will be well soon enough.
wood  web
Now to get rid of all the wood, which is WAY more than we bargained for when we first chopped down our tree two weeks ago! (This is just what's in back...we have double the amount in front.)(Also please ignore my weed jungle...we were going to do yard work that day, and, well, the trees took care of that plan for us!)

All said, we can look at the whole saga as something of a blessing. The fence will be fixed (at no cost to us OR the neighbors), the trees are gone (we'll have a lot less raking to do come fall), and we have a ton more sunlight in our backyard (maybe now I can grow more than just herbs!). Also, these tree guys ended up dealing with all of our branches for us, so we don't have to pay anybody to do it, nor do we have to spend all summer doing it ourselves.

So perhaps I should have titled this post "All's Well That Ends Well."  The problem is, it hasn't quite ended yet. The tree guys are still out back as I write this, finishing what they started.  I'll let you know how it goes...

Monday, May 21, 2012


There are only a few mirrors that I see my reflection in often: my bathroom mirror (which is really only my face as it's on a small-ish medicine cabinet), the mirror over my dresser, the full-length mirror in my bedroom, and the mirror in the room I teach in on campus.

I really like the mirror on campus. I don't know if it's the way that it's hung, or if it's a bit warped, or what, but looking in that mirror is nice, because my first thought isn't about how overweight I currently am. I think that mirror shaves a good 30-40 pounds off of me, and I'm not even kidding. Even my students mention it--well, only the female students actually do. But the guys have to be thinking it, right?

Conversely, I try to avoid the full-length mirror in my bedroom, because I am positive it adds another 10-20 pounds on my already too-thick waistline. I even put Puccini's crate in front of it so I don't have to see my fat thighs every time I walk by.

I'm not in love with the mirror over my dresser, but I don't hate it either. In fact, of all the mirrors I see myself in on a daily basis, I'm pretty sure this is the one that gives the most accurate picture of how I really look. And actually, sometimes I think I look pretty good in that mirror, depending on the jeans I pulled out of the drawer.

This is the mirror in my studio on campus.  I like this mirror (so do my students!) because it thinnifies me, a lot. 

I've been thinking a lot about those mirrors and what they do to my perception of my body. And I've come to the conclusion that I'm kind of glad I have all of them. Because, if I just had the wonderful thinnifying mirror on campus, I might think I'm something I'm most definitely not: skinny. I used to be very skinny, but now, nobody is ever likely to use that word to describe me. And while that sometimes makes me sad, I know that I can't pretend to be something I'm not. And if I ever want to be skinny again, I'll have to keep up with the exercise and the eating right and figuring out the thyroid issues (more on all of that in another blog post)(maybe).

And what if I only had the fat mirror! I would be so depressed all the time. Maybe I would work harder to lose weight, but I think with the mirror being as inaccurate as it is, I would also give up pretty easily. Even Chloe, who is so skinny it's impossible to find pants that fit her, thinks she looks fat in the fat mirror. Totally depressing.

But then there is the accurate mirror. It brings me back to center, and while I can still see my many flaws, I am also able to see many of the nice things about the reflection staring back at me. And in that mirror I can actually tell that I've lost a little bit of weight in the last couple months. It doesn't lie like the other mirrors. I can trust what I see.

And there are other kinds of mirrors. The ones that live in your head. On many days I only ever look in the fat mirror as I go about my life, and the narrative of "you're not good enough" "you can't do that" "nobody likes you" "you are a terrible mother" runs on an endless loop through my mind.

Sure, sometimes that skinny mirror is there, too. When it is, I am INVINCIBLE!, not invisible. I am AWESOME!, not loathsome. But, unfortunately, that mirror never stays around for long. The fat mirror always comes back and reminds me just how not awesome I really am.

The problem with both of these mirrors is that you never feel you can change. When you're only seeing your flaws, you feel like you aren't capable of change and when you're only seeing your strengths, you don't need to change.

Which is why I'm really working on seeing myself through the accurate lens. The mirror that always tells the truth. The one that tells me I look good in these jeans but not those. It tells me that I am a good mother, but maybe I need to work on being more present with my children. That I do sing well, but need to work on my practice ethic. That I really can do whatever I put my mind to, I just need to put my mind to it.

Because that is when real change happens: when we can see clearly what needs changing and what doesn't. And that's also when we begin to see that all reflections are beautiful, especially the imperfect ones.

Sunset Reflection

Thursday, May 10, 2012

It's May?

Don't get me wrong.

I'm thrilled that my calendar finally says May.  THRILLED.  Not that the weather cooperated much until today, but still.  May means June is around the corner, and June means summer, and summer means warmth and sunshine and fun.


Because right now I am so tired of the school routine.  These last few weeks just take it out of me.  Dragging the kids out of bed is becoming more and more difficult--mostly because it is still light until nearly 10 pm now (yes, I know) and who wants to go to bed while the sun is still shining?  Not my children, that's who.  So the morning grumpiness is pretty epic lately.

Even Bria, who has diligently gotten up around 6:00 every morning to practice her violin for an hour has become progressively harder to drag out of bed...and sometimes I'm not sure she even makes it down before 6:45.

Since April, I've been heading to the gym at 6:00 every morning to meet a friend (because we all know that the buddy system is pretty much the only way to go to the gym consistently)(unless you're super self-motivated)(and I am not), so I call Bria on her cell phone as I am backing out of the driveway.  She usually answers with a "hmpldgaholmph" and I wish her a chipper good morning and tell her to come on down and practice.

And she does. Eventually. I think.

And I get home from the gym to make lunches and take the dog out and supervise teeth brushing and hair brushing and make sure everyone looks like they have a mother and walk everyone to the bus stop and I just can't wait until I don't have to do all that anymore.

But am I ready to have all the girls home all day?  Good question.  At least we can sleep in.

The other thing about May is that there is just so much STUFF happening.  We just got back from the elementary school arts night.  Last night was a girl scout final party and the night before that was Bria's middle school choir concert.  There's more stuff next week, and probably every week until the last day of school.

Just holding on for the ride until June 8.


Okay, so I'm sneaking this in here, because so many of you ask for videos of me singing.  So, here is one.  This was last weekend at our OPERAtion Imagination! workshop.  You get to hear me explain to the kids and their families what the piece (Trio from Die Fledermaus) is about, and then we sing.  Joel took this video on his it's, you know, phone quality.  Enjoy (or not).