Friday, December 31, 2010

TK and Baby Jesus

It's Christmas time, and 3.5-year-old TK -- the daughter of a lapsed-Lutheran, questioning-Unitarian mother; the granddaughter of two Lutheran ministers; the child, by birth, of a country that has embraced Christianity and Islam and animism in neighboring regions -- is trying to understand Jesus.

Jesus. That little baby born in oh little town of Bethlehem, away in the manger, no crib for a bed. Angels-we-have-heard-on-high sang to him, and we-three-kings brought him gold and oil. The cattle were lowing, and Rudolph won't you guide my sleight tonight? Where's Santa?

Jesus. TK scrunches up her face and studies the nativity scene at her nana's house: the tall slender figures carved out of a dark wood; they look African. She's heard the story; her mama's told her many times, from many different angles. But the shepherd with the long staff bothers her. "He's trying to poke the baby Jesus' eye!" she cries, and moves him to the far end of the table. She gathers the others close around Jesus in the manger. They seem to huddle there, as if guarding each other from the cold of the world outside their circle.

Jesus. In a small Lutheran church in a small Iowan town, TK studies a stained-glass window over her aunt's shoulder, and wants to know if that long-haired person in the white robe is Jesus' mommy. Her mama explains that no, it's Jesus; some people think he had long hair. TK whispers back, "That can't be Jesus. He had brown skin. Like ME." She scans the congregation -- all descended from Scandinavia and Germany.

Jesus. TK leaves a plate of lasagna out for Santa Claus on Christmas Eve, a mug of orange juice, a plate of cookies, and a drawing. "Do we leave something for Jesus, too?" She's not trying to cover her bases, to make sure she gets enough presents. She wants to take care of everyone, always. The lasagna is because she worried that Santa might eat too much unhealthy food in his travels across the world.

Jesus. Her mommy doesn't know, really. He might have just been a man, TK. What does "Immanuel" mean? "God is with us." Singing, "Christ the king was born today," she asks, "He was a king?" But her mommy isn't sure.

In the glowing light of the church on Christmas Eve, Grandpa Gerry, who is also Pastor Gerry, reads from John 1:5, "a light shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not overcome it." TK's eyes sparkle in the flickering candlelight. She has thrown herself into snow angels, she has wrapped her arms around family members, she has jumped and danced and leaped and skipped. She is a light in a too-dark world.

Her mommy tries to be, too.

Jesus. TK wants a story as she falls asleep on Christmas Eve, tired, finally, after listening for reindeer hooves on the roof. "Once, the world was dark. But then a baby was born. . ." The ancient Greeks told the story of Pandora and her box -- and of what remained after sickness and sorrow had screamed into the human world. "Hope -- the thing with feathers, that perches in the soul, and sings the tune without the words and never stops -- at all." Light.


Sunday, November 7, 2010

Whales Singing

I have been dreading this moment all day -- this moment when I have to tell TK that our 46-year-old friend and neighbor -- and a father figure for TK -- has died suddenly in a running accident. My own sadness weighs me down; waves of horror at the randomness -- the unfairness -- of it all pummel me again and again. I feel nauseated.

I'm distracted as she chatters about her day in the pre-K room at Gold Creek -- who she played with, a silly story about the playground. Always, she asks me about my day. Always, she asks some specific question, like an adult would do: "What did a student do that was funny, Mommy?" She skips beside me, listening as I talk.

I can't bring myself to tell her the awful news I am carrying.

Finally, I stop in the middle of the sidewalk. I get down at her level; I look her in the eyes. "I have something sad to tell you. . ." I begin. And when I have told her, her deep brown eyes widen and then she murmurs, "That IS sad." I watch her, waiting for the cry of grief and anger that gripped me when I heard the news. But instead, Mitike furrows her little brow and straightens her back, and pulls from Greek mythology: "Who will go to the Underworld to get him?"

I love her. I love that she is nearly four and can barely understand the difference between imaginative story and reality. I love that -- if it were possible to trace Orpheus' path -- TK would volunteer the two of us in a moment. I gather her into my arms and murmur something about mythology and how our friend is actually, really gone.

None of us can comprehend that. The grown-ups in TK's life wander blindly through their days, stunned. Someone healthy -- and that GOOD -- can just. . .die? Someone with two young children, someone who was working to conserve forests, someone who was a good and kind neighbor and friend and father to everyone he met? Gone?

On the second day after we hear the news, TK's questions turn to the literal: Where is his body? Who will bury his body? What will happen to his body? I find these questions painful to answer, and I don't understand why. I grieve.

On the third day, TK calls from her perch on the potty in a restaurant bathroom stall, "Mommy, is he with Jesus?" I have no idea where she's heard that idea, though she claims she heard it from Nana.

"Some people believe that," I say, nodding.

"Do YOU believe that?" she asks, wrapping toilet paper around and around her little hand.

"I'm not sure," I answer.

"Is Jesus in the Underworld?" she asks.

On the fourth day, we discover our pet hamster has died. Normally, Katie and TK would be devastated; in context, the hamster seems even to them like a mere small animal -- and an old one, at that. I break the news to TK as we walk home from school, and she raises her arms to be lifted up. She's silent for a moment, gazing up at the mountains and the spruce and hemlock forests. "Mommy," she murmurs, "EVERYTHING dies." I hold her close, the tears rising in my eyes. "EVERYTHING. Even the trees."

Our friend worked to conserve trees. I've just written a poem about him in which I compared him to a rare yellow cedar tree. Tears begin to roll down my cheeks.

"Even the trees die, Mommy," TK murmurs again.

She doesn't ask more questions after that. She takes action, as only a nearly-four-year-old can take action. When our friend's 2-year-old son arrives in our house, TK wraps him in her small arms and good-naturedly vrooms his truck back and forth across the carpet with him, though she does not normally play with construction equipment. She works hard to make her little friend laugh, and when he announces -- out of nowhere -- his dad's name, Mitike nods encouragingly. She knows, somehow, how to listen -- and how to be gentle -- and how to love.

The morning after the memorial service, I am sitting alone on the couch in our living room, sipping coffee and remembering -- especially the moment I chose to share at the memorial, the moment about our friend's family and our family camping on Eagle Beach and listening to the humpback whales singing beneath the water's surface. I close my eyes. Often, I repeat to myself, "GONE." I still can't understand the word.

Mitike emerges from her bedroom, Purple Bear clutched close to her chest with one hand, and Horton the Elephant swinging from the other. She climbs onto the couch and cuddles close to me.

"What did you dream about, sweet girl?" I ask her.

"Whales," she says sleepily. "They were singing, remember, Mommy?"

No one is ever gone completely. That's why we hold our memories so tightly; that's why we tell stories, again and again. I do not know where our friend is -- but I believe in the human soul existing beyond our human bodies. Whales singing.

I know that we are not the only ones to have lost someone. I know he will not be the only one we lose. Already, in Mitike's little life, our friend is one among many who have died, including her birth mother -- he is just the first in her memory.

I am afraid of such a random, raw world. I am afraid of the finality of death. I am terrified to lose what I love.

TK cuddles closer, and I wrap my arms around her. "We just have to love each other and LOVE each other," she announces.

And so we do. Oh, we do.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Longings in a Fist-Sized Heart

On a sunny, perfect blue-sky day, Mitike and I are perched on the top of Gold Ridge, eating apple slices and “talking each other”, as TK would phrase it. We lean back on the pillows of our coats and stretch our feet toward a heather-covered precipice that would make TK’s nana nervous. The wind is warm on our faces, and we are both contentedly tired from the arduous hike up here (Mommy may be the most weary, since TK only walked about a third of the way).

And then, suddenly: “Mommy, I wish I grew in your tummy!” and she is sobbing. Great, heaving sobs – tears running down her face. I reach for her and pull her close, my own tears welling in my eyes.

“Oh, but TK, you grew in my heart!”

That used to work. Now, TK just cries harder and holds up her little fist: “But a heart is only THIS big! That’s not enough ROOM!” I immediately regret the science lesson of days ago.

Soon, I distract her with a lollipop I’d hidden in a pocket of my backpack, and she is on my lap, cuddled close. A juvenile eagle banks close to us, his broad brown wings spread in the wind, and TK points, laughing with joy. But my own fist-sized heart still hurts.

Days before, on the two-year anniversary of TK’s arrival home from Ethiopia, I swept her up in my arms and said, “Remember last year we had a party to celebrate your coming-home day? Everyone brought African food. Want to do it again?” And she burst into tears, sobbing, “I’ve ALWAYS been home! I’ve ALWAYS been here!”

We decided together not to have the party. It’s not about Ethiopia. TK’s proud to have been born in Ethiopia – she tells her friends about it often, and she loves to proclaim that Obama’s daddy was born “in the Kenya country next to Ethiopia”. She loves to read about Ethiopia, to practice the Amharic words we learned at Ethiopian Heritage Camp last summer in Wisconsin, to listen to Ethiopian music. But she wants simultaneously to have been with me every second of her life and to be from Ethiopia.

And I can’t give that to her (or to myself).

Know that, normally, my sweet child is the happiest, most spirited little girl imaginable. She is inquisitive and silly, serious and playful, empathetic and loving. She picks a blue and yellow “forgive-me-not” and runs to me, grinning, in love with a world that makes such perfect little flowers. She claps her hands with joy when “hand-sizer” (hand sanitizer) comes out in foam on her little hands. “Swing me higher!” she yells on the playground. “Mommy, Mommy, isn’t it GOOD to work time-part?” she asks me as we walk together in the woods on one of our new “stay-at-home” days. She laughs when her friend Nicky shows her a slimy stick on the beach. She swings her hips and claps her hands in time to her older sister Katie’s hiphop music.

She’s a happy girl – and a girl who carries sadness and longing deep in her little heart. What can I do, other than hold her close and remind her we’re together now? What can I do, other than stand with her on the mountaintop and be glad we’ve reached THIS place, hand in hand?

Monday, August 9, 2010

The Baby Duck and the Cat -- and Other Moments

Summer Glimpses of Mitike:

1. On a trip to Miss Effie's Flower Farm near my mom's Dewitt, Iowa, home, Mitike falls in love with a sweet little baby duck, which the flower farm owner is keeping as a sort of pet. Miss Effie has carefully extracted the baby duck -- whose name is Waldo -- from its cage and has let TK and I hold it, now she has carefully put the duck back where it will be safe from the farm's cats. My mom and I then happily wander into the flower gardens to begin filling our plastic milk jugs. Suddenly, we hear a panicked "MOMMY! MOMMY! MOMMY!" I drop my milk jug and shears and run -- I've never heard panic like that in my child's voice. When I round the corner of the shed, I behold my child, gripping her curls with her hands, her brown eyes wide and following the chaos at her feet: a sleek black farm cat chasing Waldo (the baby duck) with obviously evil intentions. Somehow, I catch the cat with one hand and the duck with the other, and then return the duck gently to its cage. I feel a small hand in mine. "Oh, Mommy," Mitike says solemnly. "That cat opened the cage! The cat opened the cage and the duck got out." Her eyes well with tears. I nod, understanding she already feels bad enough. "That is an amazing cat," I say. TK sighs, "Yes."

2. Ali and I are talking in the front seat of the parked car, sharing a quiet moment before we get out to unload the groceries. From the car seat in the back: "Mommy? Aye-Ay?" One of us holds up a hand to tell her we'll be with her in just a moment. Our conversation is the intimate, beloved talk of two people who have been away from each other too long. Again, from the car seat in the back: "Mommy and Aye-Ay? Are you talking?" We aren't anymore. My hand's on her arm; she leans toward me to kiss me. From the car seat in the back: "Mommy and Aye-Ay? Are you loving?"

3. ME: TK, I'm so glad you're my child.
TK: Mommy, I'm so glad you're my mommy.
ME: Almost two years ago, I traveled all the way to Ethiopia to bring you home.
TK: I'm hungry. Could I please have a go-gurt?

4. Mitike examines her belly-button. "What is this for?" she asks. I explain about babies that grow in wombs, about cords that connect those babies to their mothers, about how once Mitike was connected to her birthmother -- to Amarech. "But not to you?" Mitike wants to know. I shake my head, and then wait. "Mommy, you never had a baby grow in you." "No," I tell her, "I knew I wanted to be YOUR mommy, and you were in Ethiopia." "Okay, Mommy. Want to see me bounce on this ball?"

5. We're suddenly far from Iowa, after visiting for almost three weeks. We're far from Colorado, after visiting there for two weeks. Now -- today -- TK and I sit on the edge of a glacial river, gazing up at Herbert Glacier. The rest of our family is exploring the edges of the forest here at the end of the Herbert Glacier bike trail. The two of us are eating almonds and resting. "Mommy," TK says suddenly, "Nana and Gerry could be here. And Aunt Katie and Adam. And everyone!" What does she mean? That we could share huckleberry ice cream right here, that we could cuddle close and listen to Nana's reading voice right here, that we could hear Aunt Katie's laugh and watch Uncle Adam walk barefoot through this glacial mud right here, that we could ask Gram to identify the purple flower growing here, that Grandfather could name the bird that just flew over our heads? I feel full and empty, all at once. I glance down at my child. "Mommy, glaciers are blue," she says.

Friday, July 23, 2010

"Where are you from, anyway?"

TK and I are in Iowa. Every summer, we travel to Colorado and then to Iowa to visit family. Every summer, our travel gets me thinking about home -- about where I'm from and where TK is from. Tonight, I sit on the stairs of my mom's deck in Iowa's hot humidity after everyone has gone to bed, watching the blackened sky flash with lightning, and I write to understand.

I am from this place. Iowa. I am from purple coneflowers, black-eyed susans, queen anne's lace, tiger lilies. I am from acres of undulating green corn and neatly rowed soybeans. I am from red barns and grazing cows, from green tractors with their enormous black rubber wheels. I am from brown-water rivers, toads in the mud, climb-able oak trees. I am from "Come in for supper!" and basketball games. I am from thunderstorms, billowing clouds, tornado winds.

No matter where I live in my life, no matter what experiences I add to this self, I am from Iowa. I grew here, from this dark brown soil, from these expanses of sky.

But what will my daughter say when someone asks, "Where are YOU from?" She was born in south-central Ethiopia, in the state of the SNNPR -- in a tukul shadowed by tall green false banana plants (enset). In her conscious memory, she is a southeast Alaskan girl from the temperate rainforest -- she dons her Xtra-Tuff rainboots and tromps through the forest searching for blueberries. In the summers, she is part Rocky Mountain girl, striding out up a rocky trail, collecting rose quartz, squatting to admire a paintbrush flower. She is also part Iowa girl, paddling at the front of a canoe on the Upper Iowa with a tiny paddle, munching on an immature ear of field corn, clapping at the "BOOM!" of thunder in a storm.

What other places will shape her? We may not always live in Juneau. Ali and I plan to teach abroad someday. In TK's heart, where will "home" be for her?

Last week, I stood in Gram's kitchen -- in Iowa -- stir-frying pork for dinner while TK perched on the counter beside me, concentrating hard on an avocado she was trying to chop with a butter knife. Mom and Gram sat in the next room in the rocking chairs, talking about the various homes in which they had lived when Mom was growing up. Suddenly my mom asked, "Sarah? What's your first response when you hear the question, 'Where is home for you?'" My emotions got tangled in my throat. I've been struggling to answer that question recently. All I could do -- in a true first response -- was gesture to Gram's kitchen. Here. Here is home.

But I didn't really mean that. If Gram sold her house today, it would be Gram who would still be "home" for me, just as it was my other grandmother -- not the farmhouse she traded for a condo -- who was "home" for me. My mother is "home", no matter what house -- or what city -- I need to go to find her. I'm from people, mostly -- more than places. I'm from Gram's full hugs, I'm from Grandma's sense of humor, I'm from Dad's observant eyes, I'm from Mom's listening ears.

I return from a walk along the cornfields' edge with my mom tonight, and TK (who had been playing with her grandpa Gerry) throws her arms around me in a sweet, full hug, "Mommy! You're home!" More than anything, I hope that is one way she answers when someone asks her adult self, "TK, where are you from, anyway?"

And maybe she will also say, "Ethiopia." Probably, she will also say, "Alaska." And maybe -- just maybe -- she will inhale and catch a whiff of Colorado sage; she will stretch her arms and sense the open promise of an Iowa sky.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Ethics 3.5

Mitike and I have come to the Juneau Arts and Humanities Center to watch her friend Carmen dance in the JDU dance recital. We settle ourselves excitedly into our seats, and we wait for the lights to dim and the show to begin. TK and Carmen are good friends in preschool; in her little hand, TK clutches a special toy she picked out to give Carmen after the show. But when it's time for Carmen's dance -- when all the little 4- and 5-year-old girls come twirling out in their black leotards and their blue clouds of tutus, my child begins to glower in the seat next to me. Anger rises from her like heat.

I lean over. "Are you okay?"

She mutters through clenched teeth: "Those blue dresses are UGLY!"

I'm so shocked I can't respond for a moment. My child never speaks this way. She's so empathetic, so kind, so loving. And the blue dresses are quite beautiful. I frown to myself, and then react with a stern whisper: "That is NOT okay, TK! That's your friend!"

TK tries to squirm out of her chair and begins to wail. I'm embarrassed. Why is she acting this way? I pull her firmly onto my lap, and prepare to mutter another stern whisper in her ear, when my Mama sense finally kicks in. On the stage, Carmen and the other little girls flutter around like blue butterflies.

"Sweet girl," I whisper to my daughter, "do you wish YOU had a blue dress like that? Do you wish YOU were on stage?"

And then she begins to sob -- great big tears rolling down her round little cheeks. "I want a beautiful blue dress!" she cries. "It's not FAIR that Carmen is four and I'm not!"

I hold her close, and we watch the show, and we even manage to congratulate Carmen at the end and hand her the toy. Carmen's mom and I quietly equalize everything by handing the girls identical frosted cupcakes, too, which fixes most problems. But I keep thinking about fairness -- about justice -- about ethics as my three-and-a-half-year-old struggles to understand them. . .

Like most preschoolers I know (and I know quite a few), TK believes everything in the world should be "fair". Out hiking in the woods, she wonders, "Mommy, wolves only eat bad rabbits, right?" On Memorial Day, when I try to explain all the U.S. flags on the veterans' graves in the cemetery, TK asks solemnly, "But they were all good guys, right?" When Easter rolls into our lives and TK wants to know why, I tell her the story of Jesus' death. "But that's not FAIR that they killed him!" she exclaims. "He was so GOOD!" (She is very satisfied by the justice of Jesus' resurrection). And one night at dinner, after listening as we discuss the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, TK asks, "Were the people who spilled the oil bad? Who did it? Will Obama put them in jail?"

Don't we all want glowing, absolute answers to those questions? Don't we all long for fairness -- for wars to be fought for just causes, for martyrs to die at the ends of truly evil people, for environmental disasters to happen because identifiable people committed identifiably heinous acts for which they can be punished?

Everyone above a certain age (possible three-and-a-half) knows: the world is not fair. Sometimes, you do have to wait until you're four so you can be in the dance class. Sometimes, deep-water oil rigs do break and millions of barrels of oil do spill out into the ocean.

But some of us believe the world IS capable of a little more fairness -- a little more justice. We fight for it, determined. I want to nurture that struggle within TK. I refuse to be the parent who merely shrugs and says, "Well, life isn't fair."

Last week, as Ali and I led a preschool storytelling class at Juneau's Fine Arts Camp, I attempted to narrate the story of "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer." Ali played the ostracized reindeer with the weird nose; the ten preschool-age girls were supposed to be playing the other reindeer. But while their peers happily turned their backs on poor Rudolph and refused to let him join in any reindeer games, TK and another little girl refused. They cheerfully sabotaged my story's plot, extended their little hands to Ali, and pulled her into the circle.

Now THAT'S fair.

I just hope my child would have included an ostracized reindeer wearing a blue-cloud tutu, too.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Empathy Girl

Mitike loves the Winnie the Pooh stories. She loves Piglet's timidity, she loves Tigger's unbridled energy, she loves Eyeore's wry humor, she loves Pooh's eternal optimism -- and she loves the way Kanga nurtures everyone. For all these reasons -- and because she loves to go to plays -- TK was excited to attend the high school's production of "Winnie the Pooh" last night. But as we watched, my daughter's brow became more and more furrowed. The high school actors had chosen to portray Pooh as depressed, Eyeore as bitter and -- worst of all -- Kanga as an aggressive, tough-love kind of mama who yelled to get others' attention. At one point in the play, Kanga actually hit Pooh over the head multiple times.

"Oh, Mommy," TK whispered in my ear, "that Kanga is so MEAN. The real Kanga doesn't do THAT!" She couldn't stop talking about it. On the walk home from the play, as her brother imitated Tigger's bounce and her sister talked excitedly about hugging the actress who played Piglet, TK kept asking why "the pretend Kanga" had been so mean. Finally, I scooped her up and hugged her close. "I love you, my sweet empathetic little girl," I whispered.

I think I used to think empathy could be taught. I think I imagined a parent -- or a teacher, or a pastor -- could model empathy for others and then guide children to emulate the model. But I did not teach my child to have this large of a heart. Even when she was barely talking -- just home from Ethiopia -- she sensed when others needed comfort. At a friend's house when TK was barely 2, the friend's voice caught as she told a difficult story, and TK climbed down from my lap onto hers. She knew.

At Gram's last year, TK's uncle Adam needed a nap after the 12-hour drive from Colorado, so he laid down in his room. He said he heard the pitter-patter of little feet, and opened his eyes just enough to see that TK had come into the room and settled in a chair next to his bed. She wasn't waiting for him to play (though she adores him); she just wanted to "keep him safe", she told me later.

Who is this child, who looks at me so lovingly sometimes that my heart catches in my throat? When we receive a wedding shower invitation for Aunt Katie and Uncle Adam in the mail, TK asks if she can take it into the kitchen. I follow her, wondering, and find that she is hard at work with her purple-handled scissors, cutting out the photo of Katie and Adam. She taped it to her wall in her room, "so they won't be lonely". When I show TK the photo of my mom's friend Lori, next to the news story of Lori helping build a playground for kids who didn't have one, TK rests her chin on her hands and gazes at Lori's picture for several minutes. "I'm so glad she's here, Mommy," she says finally.

At bedtime every night, TK pretends that her "friends" -- the stuffed animals with whom she sleeps -- are crying. Each night, she asks me to make up little stories about why the friends are sad, and then we work to help the friends resolve those problems. This is TK's favorite part of our bedtime ritual: she teaches Purple Bear that he has to share his toys with Dumbo; she explains gently to Monkey that it's okay that Sally's small, and that it's not okay to make fun of her; she asks Soft Bear to please let Purple have a turn sitting on her lap. Always, TK ends the little talk with each "friend" with a hug and a reminder that she loves them. I know I've modeled that for her, but I'm still amazed: how lucky are those stuffed animals!

She has an innate sense of justice, I think. I wondered why she was taking a different stuffed animal to preschool each day, curious about whether she felt a strong attachment to any of them. "Oh," she said seriously, "I want them to feel special, so I'm giving them turns."

Her empathy extends -- possibly most importantly, in these days of enormous discovery about herself -- to herself. TK has struggled lately as she's begun to realize that her skin color and hair are not like mine. She's especially begun to struggle with the dawning realization that she did not, in fact, grow in my womb, but in the womb of her birthmother in Ethiopia. We talk about it often, trying to understand. One night, TK sighed an enormous sigh and then said, "Mommy, I understand. But. . . I think I'm going to tell myself a stretcher and say I grew in your tummy."

Denial? Maybe. But I think the real Kanga would agree that everyone needs a little comfort sometimes -- especially those special people who spend so much energy comforting everyone else.


TK got her first "big girl" bike today. . . She biked all the way from home to library and back -- exactly one mile!

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

In the Grumpy TK's Brain

TK: "Mommy, I missed you when I was being grumpy."

ME: "I missed you! Where WAS the nice TK?"

TK: "Oh, she was hiding in Grumpy TK's brain."

ME: "Why?"

TK: "She was kind of tired. But -- she's back now!"

Saturday, March 27, 2010


Who is this beautiful, wonderful child? How did I stumble upon a life in which this amazing little person slips her hand into mine and yells "Yay! It's a beautiful day!" She's weird and silly, serious and attentive, observant and absolutely given to the world of imagination.

She is a poet. She tells her her hands are kissing each other in her sweatshirt pocket. She gazes up at the kite we are flying and tells me the birds will be happier now. She cups my face in her two hands and gazes lovingly into my eyes -- with a grown-up kind of wisdom -- and says, "I love you, my mommy. I DO."

Her imagination is a whole world. I bask in the innocence of it, the intensity of it. She tests out ideas: "Maybe, when we catch the leprechaun," (her older brother and sister were making a leprechaun trap the night before St. Patrick's Day), "we can cut him up and eat him?" She consoles herself: when Ali shows up at the dentist, where TK is trembling in the chair because the dentist holds a drill and is talking about getting rid of the brown spot on TK's teeth, TK lets herself fall entirely into Ali's story that this dentist appointment is actually for Purple (TK's beloved little stuffed creature, who has just two prominent and very yellow teeth). In an attempt to make Purple feel better, TK agrees to let the dentist drill. Ali dutifully pretends to drill Purple's tooth.

For a sensible, rule-following little girl, TK's imagination knows few boundaries. She asks sometimes, "But is it REAL?", but she whole-heartedly believes in fairies, in gods and goddesses, in monsters, in the ability of her stuffed animals to talk and feel and listen, in magic. I revel in her widened eyes. I love to tell her stories at night -- I love the way she follows the narrative (better than many of my middle schoolers, better than some adults), the way she wants to talk about it afterwards. One night, I told her a story about a magic door that let us into my grandma's house, where TK got to meet my grandma (who died several years ago). The next morning, TK asked, "When the magic door opens again, we could have a cookie, right?"

Each morning, we talk to the "friends" -- the crowd of stuffed animals TK gathers close to her at night, carries out with her when she wakes in the morning, puts to bed at night. Each night, a different friend has a sorrow -- we are doctor and assistant, interviewing the small stuffed animal, delving into his/her issues (I do all the voices). When we go out during the day -- to school, or for a walk, or to the store -- TK tells me what the friends are doing -- why they can't come, too. Today, they were watching a movie; sometimes they are at the pool.

I'm not capturing her essence in these words. My words fail me. She laughs, and I think I have never heard a sweeter sound. She tells rambling, random stories -- attempting the narrative structure of her older siblings and of her two mothers -- and I love every silly word. "We are full of sillinesses!" she proclaims, and I want to just hug her close and love her and be amazed forever. She reminds me to imagine more, to laugh more, to spread my arms more to the world and proclaim its beauty.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Learning to Love the Skin We're In

My daughter is beautiful. Her black hair sproings and curls from her head, wildly chaotic beneath her purple headband. Her chocolate-brown skin makes any color she wears look lovely. Her round dark brown eyes are twin pools, sparkling with her inner light of playfulness and empathy with every part of the world. When she laughs, she crinkles her nose and throws open her mouth and lets the laugh shake her whole body. Her tiny fingers shape "I love you" for me when I leave for work; she squints her eyes in that loving look I love. I am amazed at her beauty.

So why were Ali and I holding our sobbing three-year-old close one night after story-time, listening to her cry, "I'm not beautiful! I'm not beautiful!" over and over? We glanced at each other with fear. Isn't this too early? Ali's seven-year-old, Katie, has begun to compare herself to other girls, to try to define what is beautiful and what is not about her sweet little body -- but at THREE? We held Mitike closer, murmuring into the perfect whorls of her ears, "You're beautiful, we love you."

Moments before, we had finished reading the last book -- a book about bunnies -- and TK had snuggled close to us, happy. She held her hand against Ali's arm. "Aye-Ay," she pronounced, "you have light brown skin." Ali nodded. Then TK turned to me and held her little arm alongside mine. "And we both have dark brown skin, right, Mommy?"

I wanted to lie. This was the moment of her discovery, and I wanted to lie and prolong her blindness a little more. The research I've read says children begin to notice skin color differences far later than they notice differences such as body size or hair length -- at about the age of 4. My friend John, who spent his early childhood in Africa, recalls that his first memory of difference was not that he was the only pale-skinned child among his playmates, but that some of his playmates had outie bellybuttons. It was only later that he began to realize his uniqueness of skin color; he'd felt like he fit in with his innie.

So I wanted to lie, but I didn't. Mitike is smart, and I saw in her beautiful eyes that she already understood, that she knew -- and feared -- what I was about to say. "No, sweetie, I have light brown skin," I murmured. "You have dark brown skin."

"But Mommy," she frowned, her brow furrowing, "I want light brown skin like you."

"TK, your skin is beautiful!" I exclaimed, kissing her little hands. She wrenched them away and buried her face in them.

"I'm NOT beautiful! I don't LIKE my dark brown skin!"

My heart lurched. Both Ali and I wrapped our arms around our beautiful little fragile child. I murmured a litany of all the many similarities TK and I have: two eyes (both brown!), a nose, two ears, two hands, ten fingers!, two feet. She sobbed, inconsolable. We both need to control everything, I reminded her, we both love to dance in the kitchen, we both love to read books, we -- I paused. Ali jumped in to describe a Sesame Street conversation she saw once between Elmo and Whoopie Goldberg about loving the skin you're in. TK quieted and listened. She loves Elmo. I worried that she'd start crying that she doesn't have red fur, but she didn't. She calmed down and let Ali kiss her goodnight; she cuddled close to me in the darkness.

I told her a bedtime story about Purple Bear (one of her beloved stuffed friends) and his mommy, Green Bear -- about how sad Purple Bear felt to realize he was not green like his mommy, but how he began to realize how beautiful he was as a purple bear. TK only half-listened; she began to cry again when I ended the story. Her last words before she fell asleep: "I'm not beautiful." I responded fiercely: "You are beautiful, you are. I love you, little TK. I love you, love you."

This morning, she seemed sad -- she needed to take more special toys to school than usual. Already, I hate taking her to daycare -- I want to be a stay-at-home mom -- but this morning's drop-off felt unbearable. What if some child at preschool is telling her she's not beautiful because of her skin color? I keyed her teachers into my concerns and then drove to work feeling nauseated. All day, I watched my students of color -- especially the ones with healthy self identities. Do they like themselves because they look like their mothers, or because their parents have guided them to love themselves? What am I supposed to DO?

I rushed into preschool prepared to scoop up a sobbing, melancholy child -- and found my happy, beautiful TK sticking glitter and purple hearts onto contact paper. "Look, Mommy!" She held up her creation, grinning. We played all afternoon and all evening, and then we snuggled into bed again -- tonight, to read "The Colors of Us," "I'm Unique" and "Amazing Grace," all three familiar books shouting the theme that every person should love who she is, no matter her skin color. In the middle of "Amazing Grace," TK looked up at me and grinned, "Mommy, I LOVE myself. Do you want to hold Froggie?"

I hugged her close and shouted, "YAY!" to make her laugh; we finished reading. Tonight's bedtime story was a silly one, with no rhetorical purpose other than to entertain my sweet child. She fell asleep smiling, Purple Bear, Puppy, and Froggie held tightly as usual in her little arms.

I watched her sleep for awhile, her face peaceful, her mouth slightly open. I'm afraid. This is the beginning of her search for her own identity in a world in which her mother and, for as long as we live in Juneau, the majority of the people around her do not look like her -- and I will be a flawed guide. But I will love that beautiful little girl with all my heart, and with all my strength. I'm going to have faith that that will count for something.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

So. . . Sometimes We BREAK Rules?

When I pick up TK from preschool the day after Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, one of her teachers crosses the room (with TK, who always deserts whatever toy with which she was playing to sprint pell-mell into my open arms) to give me the daily report. Usually, I hear a funny story -- TK pretending to drive a bus for her preschool friends, TK chasing a "dinosaur" across the playground. The teacher, Ms. A___, who is African American and wears her hair (as TK has observed) in the same beautiful "sproings" that TK does, begins to laugh. "I've got to tell you about how TK responded to the Rosa Parks story we read today," she says.

Now that I've heard the story, I can imagine the scene perfectly. I know my daughter. I imagine Ms. N____ perched on the edge of the rocking chair, holding a children's book about the Civil Rights Movement out for the small crowd of preschoolers to see. Ms. N___ reaches the story of Rosa Parks and explains she was a lady who would not get up from her seat on the bus -- and TK stands up, her brow furrowed in serious concern. "That's not okay!" she calls out. Ms. N___ tries to explain that people like Rosa Parks were actually prevented from sitting where they wanted to by an unfair law, but TK is still standing, her little legs apart, her brow still furrowed. "She was SUPPOSED to get up, right Ms. N___?" Ms. N___ sighs, smiling a little, and then continues to read, explaining to the children that Ms. Rosa Parks was then sent to jail. "Oh!" interjects my rule-following child, "That's good."

As Ms. A___ relates all this to me, she's shaking with laughter, and so is Ms. N___, who has joined us. TK looks up at the three of us and decides to laugh, too, though she doesn't know why. I laugh because my child is so good that she can't imagine a time when the rules are supposed to be broken, but I'm also aware of the strangeness of this moment. Ms. A___ and Ms. N___ (who is Hispanic) are both women of color; both hear the Rosa Parks story through far different lenses than I do. More: someday, Mitike will hear the Rosa Parks story through one of those other lenses, too; someday, Mitike will ask me why our nation -- in its recent history -- would have allowed such racism to be inscribed in law; someday, Mitike will realize that, had she and I boarded that bus, I would have gotten to sit wherever I pleased, and she would have had to choose to sit in the back or to break the law as Ms. Parks and her fellow demonstrators did.

Outside the preschool door, TK and I race each other down the long hallway to the door. At the door, I say, "TK, you know that story about Rosa Parks, the lady on the bus?"

She nods sagely and says, "The lady who wouldn't get up!"

"That's right," I tell her. "She was trying to change a rule that wasn't fair. Some people made a rule that she and other people like her could only sit in the back of the bus, but everyone else could sit where they wanted to." I am not brave enough to talk about skin color. TK hasn't started categorizing people like that yet (the researchers say that kicks in around age 4 or 5); I am "light brown" or "coffee with lots of milk" and she is "dark brown" or "chocolate".

But TK gets it. "It was good she wouldn't get up."

"She wanted to change that unfair rule, so all of us can sit wherever we want to on the bus." Someday, I'll talk about bathrooms and restaurants, cafe stools, schools and universities. Someday, I'll tell her about a man who dreamt of people being judged by the content of their character and not by the color of their skin. Someday, I'll tell her about promissory notes and freedom ringing. Today, we'll just talk about bus seats.


I look down at her, so small beside me in her purple coat and her purple stocking cap. She holds my hand and gazes down to the stream that flows beneath the bridge we are walking across. I watch her for a moment, and then answer, "Yes, sweetie?"

"Mommy, at the store, can we please buy yogurt and make it purple and pour in maple seri-up?"

I laugh and sweep her up into my arms, just as the city bus trundles by on the road. I glimpse the people lit blue-white inside, some standing, some slumped wearily into their seats. Mitike and I are walking home today, but if we wanted to take that bus, we could both sit in every single seat in the bus if we wanted to. And we can thank Rosa Parks -- and King, and all those other brave activists -- for knowing they had to break rules to create newer, fair ones. I know: teaching a three-year-old that lesson seems akin to the lessons about rebellion and revolution I'm currently teaching my middle school history students: knowing about necessary rule-breaking is not useful to them yet, since acting upon it will only get them in trouble with the grown-ups in their lives. But someday -- someday -- they'll need this knowledge like ammunition, like fuel, like bread, like a candle that shimmers in darkness. And someday, when my daughter sees someone break a rule because it's unfair, I hope she breaks it, too, as her heart beats wildly to the cadence of "That's not okay, that's not okay, that's not okay."

Monday, January 11, 2010

How Purple Came Into the World

For Christmas, I wrote TK a little story entitled "How Purple Came Into the World". One of my 7th grade students illustrated it, and we gave it to TK together. In the story, the Creator (a feminine deity) saves the color purple for herself. . . until a little girl named Mitike tells her mommy she is sure something is missing from the world. Mitike's observation and her desire to see purple move the Creator to share the color.

TK loves the story. When we finish reading it each time, she sighs a little and then says, "I had to tell her purple was missing, right, Mommy?" She's utterly convinced of the story's truth and -- frankly -- so am I. I didn't notice purple the way I notice it now that Mitike is in my life; I didn't see so many things. For example, I shopped at Fred Meyers and walked right past the sofa arrangements, thinking they were just there to entice buyers. I never realized one could play "Living Room" for an hour and a half on those sofas (TK: "Now, why do all these PEOPLE live in our house?" ME: "I know! And why did we buy all these suitcases?")

I never thought to love tiny boxes of raisins or little cups. I never looked at a large cardboard box and thought, "That is a castle." I never ran out into newly fallen snow, stopped to look at my footprints, and then ate handfuls of the white flakes just because. I never realized stuffed frogs and puppies must be able to see the pictures in a book, too. I never thought about how funny toothpaste is, or about how good it feels to put on shorts on a winter day and run as fast as possible through the kitchen. I never thought to stop mid-run and yell, "DANCE PARTY!" I never stemmed my sadness with a phone call to President Obama on a toy purple phone.

I never thought to notice purple this much. Or maybe I did, once, and then I forgot when I grew up. Maybe being a mom is a second chance to see this way again. I drink in the perspective, thirstily. I'm so thankful for all that TK notices is missing from our world. Price-tagged sofas become a living room; a box of raisins becomes the day's best surprise.

I love my child.