Sunday, March 29, 2009

Mitike the Reader

What makes someone a reader? I watch the struggling readers in my 7th/8th grade English classes, and I wonder what earlier interventions would have helped them become lovers of books. More books surrounding them when they were young? More patient parent voices in their ears, sounding out words, connecting picture to letter? Less access to video game and television, iPhone and internet?

Or -- and I think my 93-year-old grandmother, who reads the New Yorker weekly, and the newspaper and a wide variety of books daily, would agree wholeheartedly with this -- is a love of reading innate, flowing in certain people's bloodstreams, regardless?

Whatever the answer, my daughter's a reader. At home, she mimicks her brother's immersion in a book at lunchtime, trying to hold her "ABC" board book open with one little hand while she holds her spoon with the other. At Gram's house in Iowa last week, she settled herself in the tiny rocking chair and "read" books to the rest of us in front of the kitchen fire. This morning, when I sleepily told her 6:30 was too early to wake up, she nodded solemnly and asked, "Read books, Mommy?" and then proceeded to quietly flip through books while I dozed for a half hour more. In my half-sleep, I heard her pretend to read "Goodnight Moon": "Goodnight, goodnight," she said at every page.

It's true that TK's two mamas are lovers of words, that her brother would rather read than eat, that her nana makes sense of the world for others with words, that her great-grandmother (Gram) holds writers in the highest esteem. And maybe, since TK's early life in Ethiopia contained no books at all, she appreciates them as treasure even more. But I also think she LOVES books -- though she's only 2, she claps her hands to discover a new wonderful story, to hear a silly turn of phrase in Dr. Suess, to discover a character she likes (her favorite is Peter in Ezra Jack Keats' "Whistle for Willie" right now).

I'm not sure this kind of love can be taught -- but, like a mother who recognizes her child loves art and so puts paintbrushes in her hands, I'll keep introducing TK's wide-open eyes to new books. Nothing is sweeter than the sound of her little voice "reading", than the way she claps her hands at the last page and decrees, "The End! New book, Mommy!"

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Re-defining "Break": a Letter to TK

Dear Mitike,

In my past life -- which was still happening just last year -- "spring break" meant, as Oxford's second definition for the noun "break" explains, "a short rest or pause from work". I traveled -- Colorado, San Francisco, Minnesota. I read, widely. I cooked. I journaled. I napped. I took long walks; I trekked into the woods on snowshoes; I skied.

This spring break -- my first as a mother -- the two of us were suddenly in Iowa, at Nana's house, and a "short rest" was re-defined: I did the dishes as you and Nana searched for a blanket downstairs; I stole a walk along the field edges as you napped; I typed rushed words at 11:30 at night when everyone was sleeping; I gingerly turned pages of the New Yorker on the airplane, hoping you'd continue to sleep on my lap.

You are two, which means I need to be somewhere near you at all times -- to watch your somersault, to guide you down the long slide in the park, to wipe your bum or your nose, to help you reach a doorknob, to dry your tears, to listen to Bunny sing Abba's "Mama Mia". This is everything I miss, now, working, and it's beautiful to be immersed in you again every day, every hour. But this spring break is no break -- or at least this is no "short rest or pause from work". Your English major mommy needs to turn back to Oxford for other definitions.

The first alternative definition to "short rest" is "an interruption, pause, or gap". Much better. In Iowa for a week, we interrupt Alaskan rain and cold to play barefoot in a sandy playground, to pick purple Glory-in-the-Snow in Gram's backyard, to throw sticks into the river with Nana. We put our frenetic lives of Mama's work and TK's school on pause; we escape to those halcyon days when the two of us got to spend every minute together.

Or Oxford offers this other definition: "a sudden rush or dash", as in "a break for it". Here we are in the Seattle airport on a six-hour layover, sprinting full-speed through the atrium -- not because we are late for a plane, but because we are running away from the terrifying eight-foot-tall stuffed killer whale that stands outside the outdoor gear store. Or we are pretending to be airplanes ourselves, zooming along the edge of the enormous windows where the real airplanes wait for their passengers. We dash from table to table, our arms outspread, both of us laughing. I thought I would miss the long hours of reading magazines and writing in my journal that I had once, before you -- but I will choose the rush and dash of your break-for-it joy over and over and over.

Or -- my always moving little daughter -- let's examine the verb form of "break". As in "to separate into pieces" -- the way you eat your fruit roll-ups on the airplane, picking tiny pieces off and then naming the shapes: "Little triangle, Mommy!" -- the way you like you use your knife and fork all by yourself to cut up the lasagna Nana made you -- the way you love to use little scissors now (you turn the comics section of Gram's Des Moines register into tens of tiny colorful pieces). Or "to break" as in "to change suddenly", which you are doing too fast -- your face becoming less babyish, your body lengthening, your language developing into more and more "real" words and constructions. Or "to break" as in "to surpass" -- the truth of you surpassing every dream of you I had. Did I imagine I would enjoy your company so much that 20 hours of flying, through four airports, would feel like a gift?

I will give up the "short rest" spring break used to offer. Now I will love the interruption, the pause, the dash, the rush, the little pieces, the change, the surpassing of all understanding -- laughing, tumbling on every soft carpet square we find, our arms outspread. Now, on these breaks from work, I will drink in every minute with you, simply and fully glad to be your mama, to watch you re-define my entire world with your beautiful self.


Thursday, March 12, 2009

Duh DUH duh duh DUH!

TK [as she watches Katie skip down the sidewalk toward Rosie's house]: Mommy, where's Katie going?

ME: She's going iceskating with 'osie.

TK: Duh DUH duh duh DUH?

ME: What?

TK [grabbing my hand and imitating our usual silly ballroom dance when we pretend to ice skate on frozen puddles]: Duh DUH duh duh DUH!

ME: Oh! [And we sing together -- what's that song called, anyway? -- dancing around the living room, laughing.]