Who Let the Feathers Out?

Jewish folklore tells of a man who had spread many malicious rumors, hurting many people. Eventually, though, his conscience got the better of him and he wanted to make amends. He appealed to the rabbi for advice.

“Tell me how I can undo what I have done,” he begged.

“Go home and get a pillow,” the rabbi said. “Take it to a hill, and cut the pillow open. Wave it in the air until it is empty. Then return to me.”

The man followed the instructions. “I have done what you said,” he told the rabbi. “What is next?”

“Return to the hill,” the rabbi said, “and retrieve all the feathers. Put them back in the pillow.”

“The feathers have blown all over the countryside by now,” the man objected. “It is impossible to retrieve them.”

“You are correct,” said the rabbi. “And neither can you retrieve words once they leave your mouth. You can apologize, but you can never fully make amends

. . . . . .

When I was in high school, two girls approached me in gym class, interrupting my watching of the clock.

“You don’t have to respond if you don’t want to . . .” they began, and went on to explain: a rumor was circulating about me. They didn’t think it sounded right, and they wanted to offer me the opportunity to clarify.

The rumor was one of those false ones, as many are. (I had no idea how or why it had started, but rumors are sneaky that way.) They believed me when I denied entanglement in the situation. Watching them stalk across the gym (twice) to set a couple people straight, I was touched by their indignation on my behalf and grateful for their willingness to retrieve a few feathers, even though they had not been the ones to unleash those feathers to the wind in the first place.

It’s still remarkable to me that these girls—who didn’t even know me well—were willing to place themselves in the awkward position of bringing the rumor to my attention. I’d like to think that I would have done the same thing, but then again I’d like to think a lot of things about myself that would be filed under “In your dreams, lady.” (Reality is funny that way.)

I’m not sure what summoned up this memory today.

Maybe it was overhearing Sonny and Ace define gossip at dinnertime.

Sonny: “It’s like that game of telephone when you whisper, ‘My teacher went to Meijer Gardens yesterday’ to the first person and by the time the message gets to the last guy, he hears, “Han Solo loves to eat cheese.”

Ace: “Gossip is like sickness.”

Maybe it’s because a few people whom I care about have been wounded by gossip lately. Needlessly—of course. Unfairly—of course. Because people prefer to believe that where there’s smoke there’s fire than to acknowledge that forest fires are set by small sparks—of course.

Maybe it’s because, even as these particular rumors infuriate me, I wonder what feathers I have released, what feathers I have accepted from the wind without so much as a question. In some cases I don’t have to wonder very hard.

Operation “Let the Feathers Remain in the Pillows” coming right up.

Who’s in?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Who Were Those Caped Boys?

A few years ago Sonny and Ace received superhero capes for Christmas. Red, blue, and yellow capes, one with an S and one with an A: Super Sonny and Super Ace. They zoomed around the house in them, a preschooler and a toddler, valiantly coming to the aid of stuffed animals, each other, frogs, their parents. Grapes. Pencils. They rescued anything that needed rescuing.

Cape-wearing waxed and waned at our house and then went dormant a time. But then Ace took up the A cape again. He wore it everywhere, usually with his trademark rain boots. Story Hour at church. The grocery store. The apple orchard. Relatives’ houses. Bed.

The bathtub.

Everywhere.

People notice capes, as it turns out. Observers often smiled or even commented, which seemed to mystify Ace a little. He didn’t wear it for attention; he wore it because it was his cape. It was part of him, like his hair. Of course he was wearing it; why wouldn’t he?

Two years ago Ace faced screening for Young 5s; he felt nervous about what this process would require of him. He did not want to go. He dragged his rain-booted feet. Finally (finally!) we were out the door, but then he turned and ran back in—only to reappear sporting the cape, which seemed to shore him up. Thank you, cape!

He continued to wear the cape to the grocery store, to relatives’ houses, to the apple orchard.

Everywhere.

Last spring he had an early soccer game. Too early for his liking. He wore his cape over his gold AYSO uniform in the car, having agreed to doff it when we reached the soccer field. But when it was time for the game to start, he didn’t want to play. He hunkered down on the tired grass and shut down, cloaked in red and blue felt. But his coach, who was a wise coach, knew that soccer games for five-year-olds are more about the five-year-olds than about soccer. He hunkered down in front of Ace, getting eye to eye.

“Don’t you want to play today?” he asked.

Ace shook his head.

“Will you play if you can wear your cape?” he asked.

Ace nodded.

“You can wear your cape,” he said, and glanced over at J and me. “He’s five,” he stated. “He can wear it if it helps.”

So Ace played, slightly out of uniform—or not, depending how you look at it..

He wore the cape the rest of the day.

And he continued to wear it, though less and less. Meanwhile, Sonny’s cape hung, untouched, next to the bathrobe on its hook in the bedroom.

This past winter, Ace hopped out of the vehicle onto the grocery store parking lot on Saturday morning and hesitated. He glanced around.

“Just a second,” he said. He tore off his cape and laid it on his booster seat before pulling the door shut.

There is probably a word for the thing my heart did then, but I’m not sure what it is.

After our shopping trip he put the cape back before buckling up for the drive home, and he wore it the rest of the day. And he continued to wear it, though less and less.

This spring Sonny and Ace’s school had superhero day. Sonny thought he might dress as Batman. Ace had a harder time deciding. He has a Laval costume, but evidently Chima are not superheroes, and apparently it was rather ridiculous of me to even suggest it. His ninja costume might work, he conceded; ninjas aren’t exactly superheroes, but they are close enough.

Then I suggested his A cape.

“No,” he said. “I don’t want to wear that cape anymore.”

There is probably a word for the thing my heart did then, but I’m not sure what it is.

He decided to wear the Spiderman costume from the bin in the basement.

The next morning Sonny reconsidered his Batman choice. “I’ve dressed as Batman enough times already. Maybe I’ll just wear my S cape instead,” he said, running upstairs to retrieve it. He came back down and stuffed it into his backpack between his lunch and his homework folder. “I love this cape,” he said. Ace nodded, understanding.

There is probably a word to describe where my heart went then. I’m not sure what it is, but I know my heart traveled there by cape.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Tale of Two Strangers

The other day I went to the post office, an errand that always reminds me of a day about four years ago.

Sonny and Ace, then 3 and 1, and I were in line to mail a package. As waited, a woman on her way out of the building glanced down at my sons and then at me and announced in a voice leaking scorn, “I sure don’t miss those days.” And on her way she went.

What? Sonny and Ace were just standing there quietly. They weren’t throwing fits, begging for snacks, running, or kicking the nice man in front of us. They were not having any sort of bathroom issue. They were in no way channeling Caillou. They were not robbing the stamp machine. They were not doing anything that could be construed as annoying, even to that demographic who tend to conveniently forget that they, too, were once children, and imperfect ones at that. They were just standing there. Quietly.

I did not understand what had motivated this drive-by show of contempt. But I refrained from asking Ms. Grouchy Pants what had crawled into her Cheerios and died that morning and simply ignored her—outwardly, that is. Inwardly I was rather miffed.

It doesn’t take much to diminish someone.

A few minutes later, our business completed, we headed back to the car. On the path we met another woman. Her wrinkles had settled in all the right places, mapping out decades of smiles. She looked down at my sons with fondness and then looked at me.

“Well,” she said. “Well. Aren’t you lucky!”

Yes! Yes, I was. My irritation vanished.

The woman smiled at each boy and at me, nodded in emphasis, and went on her way.

It doesn’t take much to encourage someone.

Thank you, Woman Number Two.

“Wherever there is a human being, there is an opportunity for a kindness.” –Seneca

Those Pesky Cats of Kilkenny

“There once were two cats of Kilkenny,
Each thought there was one cat too many,
So they fought and they fit,
And they scratched and they bit,
Till, excepting their nails
And the tips of their tails,
Instead of two cats, there weren’t any.”

When in our much younger years my sisters and I would fight/argue/vehemently discuss, my parents took up the habit of reciting this poem to us. It was their defense against hearing about whose right it was to invade someone else’s bedroom, for example, or who hadn’t done her share in cleaning the fish tank, or who poked whom and whether this was done on purpose. Eventually they decided to save some of their breath and began abbreviating their point by simply announcing into the air, “Oh, look, it’s the cats of Kilkenny.”

Cats of Kilkenny

Any success with shushing us with this method was due not to the fact that we internalized their warnings of destroying each other. It was because we didn’t want to listen to cat poetry when we were trying to determine which unlucky sister’s turn it was to sit in the middle seat of the car or exactly what qualified as hogging the bathroom. Meanwhile, I mentally added “say ‘Cats of Kilkenny’ at them” to the list of the hardships I vowed never to deliver to my own children someday, along with “force them to make their beds when they’re just going to sleep in them again anyway” and “refuse to serve sugary cereal for breakfast.”

Fast forward until last week. Sonny and Ace were engaging in constant and noisy disagreement over . . . well, almost anything. Whose turn it was to set the table. Who was hoarding the green marker for no reason. Whether the word pool could be said to rhyme with itself.

And then it happened. As I wandered past a heated discussion about who had neglected to close the door of the couch cushion fort, the immortal words of “Cats of Kilkenny” poured from my mouth as though with a life of their own.

Did they stop fighting? No.
Had I really expected them to? No.
Then why did I do it? I don’t know.

Fighting. It sets my teeth on edge. But sometimes amidst their howling onslaught, Sonny and Ace reach resolution. Sometimes they do eventually listen to each other. So maybe if they keep it up, they will become expert resolvers and listeners, cutting out the middleman that is their fighting.

Or maybe not. But this article  claims that sibling rivalry will eventually pay off with skills related to problem solving, regulating emotions, increased maturity and self-control.

Will this really happen? I don’t know.
If so, how long will it take before these new abilities kick in? I don’t know.

Just in case, though, next time Sonny and Ace fight, I might do something different. Perhaps instead of reciting “Cats of Kilkenny,” I will cheer them on: “Keep on practicing, boys. Try to keep it down, though, okay?”

Or maybe I’ll just claw my ears out. We shall see.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go compel my children to make their beds.

Clutter and Peace

Clutter. It’s the bane of my desk. And kitchen. And hall. And minivan. And purse.

School papers, receipts, bits of modeling clay, socks (mateless and otherwise), wrappers, notes, crackers, colorful pipe cleaners, jars, oatmeal canisters, coupons. This morning I even found a banana in my purse.

You get the idea.

Occasionally something (such as a banana in my purse) tells me that the clutter is a tad out of control, and in a burst of optimism (or denial; you decide) I determine that it would take but a  little effort to eradicate it. My attempts look something like this:

I carefully sort through the pile of junk mail, keeping a couple flyers and recycling the rest.  Sonny and Ace follow my instructions to transfer any clothes that are lying around to the laundry room.

Next up: recycling. Out go the notes, receipts, most of the junk mail, and oatmeal canister. Out goes the months-old cardstock “armor of God” craft from VBS.

Ahhh, looks better already.

J comes in with the mail. He starts a new pile of flyers.

I schlepp a large shopping bag through the house, filling it with various and sundry items. A broken robot.  Mateless socks. The infernal Superman book that I can’t stand to read even one more time. An outgrown  shirt. The monkey puzzle with a missing piece. I park the bag in the mudroom and, recognizing that anything destined for Goodwill is automatically pronounced a cherished favorite, cleverly conceal it with an old blue pillowcase.

Sonny comes inside and carefully sheds his wet socks, leaving them under the bench in the hall.

I collect a pile of magazines, make a mental note to bring them to the preschool, and stack them by the back door.

“Here comes suuuuuuuuuuuuper dinosaur rescuer guy!” Ace zooms past, sporting a cape fashioned from an old blue pillowcase. Meanwhile, burrowing noises from the mudroom. It’s Sonny: “Hey, this is my favorite shirt! And my favorite robot! And my favorite puzzle! Why is all this stuff in here? Can we read the Superman book?”

I read the Superman book through gritted teeth and follow the trail of puzzle pieces to The Bag, stuffing the rejects back into it.

Ace is dumpster diving. “Mom! You can’t throw away Sonny’s breastplate of righteousness!” (Well, no, not when you put it that way.) “And I can make an invention with this oatmeal box!” He marches into the kitchen, possessively clutching the oatmeal canister, and dumps it in the vicinity of the other craft materials.

Meanwhile, I reconsider getting rid of those magazines. I haven’t even read all of them yet . . .

It’s not tidying up; it’s Whac-a-Mole. Evidently I lose at decluttering.

So it also goes in my head. Last Sunday began the week of Advent that focuses on peace. I determined that it would take but a little effort to shed any mental clutter that obstructs peace.  But then:

I check an acquaintance’s CarePage, and the news is bleak.

The recently-cleaned house is suddenly not clean. At all.

I hear an ambulance stop nearby.

Why is he having stomach aches again?

I am worried about a friend.

Why is the dryer making that noise?

Did I say the wrong thing? Yes, I’m pretty sure I did.

I miss my grandpa.

I can’t sleep lately, so I am tired, so I am crabby.

My Christmas to-list is nagging at me.

And so on.

Some of these are not insignificant matters, but many are. And despite my resolve to shed this mental clutter, I can’t seem to do so. Even when one piece is quelled, another pops up.

Evidently I lose at achieving peace.

J turns on Handel’s Messiah. “And His name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, the mighty God, the everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.”

I may lose at achieving peace, but that’s okay, because it’s not up to me.

May you find peace this season—clutter and all.

Do I Hear School Bells?

It’s 8:30 in the morning.

Sonny is grumbly because his brother keeps calling him Howard, because I haven’t let him watch TV in about seventeen years, and because his hawk paper airplane has a bent nose.

Ace is grumbly because I keep forgetting to address him as Diego, because I hung up the phone before he had a chance to talk to my parents (despite declining the opportunity before I hung up), and because he has to do everything around here.

The toxic combination of boredom and back-to-school jitters is compelling Sonny and Ace to trot out torments that only siblings can deliver well: copying each other (“He’s copying me, Mom!” “He’s coppppying me, Mommm!”), pretending to drink from the other’s cup,  and . . . wait for it . . . pointing at each other.  Darkly threatening to send each other to jail, to JAIL! Feigning ignorance (and innocence) over the whereabouts of his brother’s lost toy.

Constantly.

School starts on Tuesday, and that’s none too soon. We are sipping at the dregs of summer vacation, and these people need somewhere to go.

Sonny will be starting kindergarten. Over the last few weeks he’s dwelt on various concerns: the possibility of bullies, not knowing everyone in his class, wishing he didn’t have to be away from home all day. But yesterday he told a cashier that his new teacher smiles all the time, and he ended last night’s bedtime prayer with “and thank you that school starts soon.” Ahhh, he’s ready. Good.

Ace will be starting preschool. He is concerned because he likes alone time, which is scarce at preschool. He is nervous because he doesn’t know many of the other kids. But he also remembers being sad when he was two years old and went along to drop Sonny off at preschool. He’d wanted to stay, too. “When is it going to be my turn, Mommy?” he’d ask. And now, finally, it is his turn. Today he donned his new monkey backpack and marched proudly around the house. “Let’s pretend that I’m in preschool, Mommy,” he said. “Because . . . I AM in preschool!”  Ahhh, he’s ready. Good.

Am I ready? Ready for some solitude? Who, me? Sometimes the idea of completing a task, or a thought, without interruption has me almost salivating. Nobody lamenting that he accidentally bit his own hand while eating cheese, nobody knocking frantically on the bathroom door to report a cricket floating in the goldfish bowl, nobody arguing over whether to dig to China or build a fort, nobody boycotting the only pair of socks left in his drawer.

The other day Sonny and Ace spent a few hours at the neighbors’ house, and I amazed myself with how much I could accomplish when left to my own devices. I even seamlessly completed a phone conversation. The silence was golden.

Until it wasn’t. It became almost creepy. True, nobody was fighting. But also true: nobody was summoning me to the window to watch a deer or turkey. Nobody was calling me “Mommy-Tommy.” Nobody was painting pictures of volcanoes to hang on the fridge. Nobody was making his brother laugh helplessly, and nobody was playing pet store together. Nobody was issuing tickets for walking on the wrong side of the stairs.

Then Sonny and Ace returned home. They had enjoyed their time with the neighbors, and they were content . . . for about a minute, until one of them started pointing at the other. “He’s pointing at me, Mom!” (“He’s pooointing at me, Mom!”)

And so it went.

Am I ready for my kids to start school? Oh yes.

Will I miss them while they’re gone?

Absolutely.

Enjoy the school year, everyone.

Why I Read to My Kids

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I recently had a conversation with a friend about whether it’s possible to read to one’s kids too much. Is reading several (sometimes many) books to them per day too indulgent? Is this too neglectful of, for example, the laundry festering in piles in the basement or the weeds in the garden?

Everyone knows the advantages of reading to children. Reading promotes a larger vocabulary. Reading encourages listening skills. Reading expands knowledge. Reading raises academic performance. And these are all reasons that I read to Sonny and Ace. But academic benefits aren’t the only reasons for my doing this (if they were, I’d give equal times to math games, which is decidedly not the case).

My friend mentioned that she reads to her four kids so often because it’s guaranteed to get them to stop talking all at once and all the time. Brilliant. This started me thinking about why I read to my kids.

  • It’s built-in cuddling time. Both Sonny and Ace like to snuggle (as do I), at least occasionally, so why not do so while reading? Curling up together on the couch with a book is cozy and preferable to trying to snuggle while I’m ironing or putting groceries away. (I know because my kids have attempted this.)
  • Kids’ books aren’t just for kids.  As C.S. Lewis observed, “A children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story in the slightest.” The Little House books. The Hello Goodbye Window. When I Was Young in the Mountains. Poppleton. Frog and Toad. One Morning in Maine. Chicken Sunday. We All Went on Safari. Charlotte’s Web. What’s not to like?                                                        (Conversely, some children’s books are in fact only enjoyed by children. Really, why does the world need SpongeBob books?  And why do my kids know precisely which library shelf houses these? And am I the only parent who sometimes surreptitiously slides these into the book return slot on the way out of the building, moments after we checked them out?)
  • When the three of us are sitting on the couch reading, nobody is trashing the house. (My husband is a neat freak, so no worries there.)
  • Sometimes it’s irresistibly convenient to hold up book characters as role models. Not often enough to be annoying (I hope), but sometimes it just slips out: “Almanzo stayed outside all day, and it was 40 degrees colder than this, and his mittens weren’t even waterproof like yours! So it’s really not so bad out here, is it? ”
  • My kids are learning that reading is a pleasure, not a chore, and that someone who likes to read should never be bored. Reading definitely soothes them. The other day Sonny said, “I’m feeling nervous about school starting. Can we read?”
  • Books give kids vocabulary to express their emotions and questions. Familiar with Have You Filled a Bucket Today, Sonny and Ace often discuss filling or emptying people’s invisible buckets. (“She said I was getting big. That filled my bucket!” “He yelled at her. I think that emptied her bucket.”) And when we read Badger’s Parting Gifts before their grandpa’s funeral, Ace asked softly, “Is Badger coming back?” (It broke my heart to say no, because I knew what he was really asking.)
  • Reading gives the kids more folks to relate to. Wemberly worried about starting school, too.  Wilbur doesn’t want to go to the dentist, either. When I commented to Ace about his love of drawing, he nodded and explained, “I am like Tommy.”
  • If I read to my kids, then I did something right that day. Maybe the kids watched a little too much TV. Maybe my to-do list (written with such optimism . . . two days ago) remains untouched. That three-hour chunk of time when I was going accomplish something was eaten up by a car emergency. Maybe I pretty much feel like a failure today. Well, I’m going to read to my kids now, so take that, unproductive Thursday.

I just asked my kids why they like to read together. Sonny: “I like to learn more about soccer and hear what Henry and Mudge are doing, because they are funny.” Ace: “When we read it is quiet in the house.”

That’s good enough for me.