Home. 

I woke up this morning to the familiar rhythm of raindrops making their way through the trees, falling onto the dense blanket of pine needles and flattened grass. Drops rolling off the shingled overhang outside my childhood bedroom window. Wind and distant thunder. It will rain all day today, according to the weather app on my phone — a brief detour from days of sun and low humidity. I’ll take one day of this, the sound and smell of it immediately transporting me back 35 years to a rainy morning in 1980, lying in the same room, listening to the same sounds. 

I explainedthe notion of ‘returning home’ to The Who as we rolled over the state line into Massachusetts on Monday. “When you leave the place where you grew up, if your time there was good, you will always have a warm place in your heart for your home. I could see him smiling in the rear view mirror as I waxed nostalgic about red, white, and blue license plates and plentiful Dunkin Donuts drive-thrus. 

At The Who’s request, we spent the day in the city yesterday: the Public Garden, our favorite part. We took the train with my mother, meandered through the Common, rode the carousel, walked the perimeter of Frog Pond. We crossed Charles Street into the Public Garden, rode the swan boats, dropped dollars into the open guitar cases of musicians playing among the flowers, and called each one of the ducklings by name. 

And then Copley, because The Who wanted to see the finish line, a landmark he learned about for the first time just a few months ago as we watched our friend cross it via live stream on Marathon Monday. He asked about the placement of the bomb while we made our way down Boylston and we had a philosophical conversation about the death penalty, as the sentence had just been handed down. 

It was just the kind of day for our first full one here. The sun was plentiful and so was the shady respite. Today, though, it rains, which is just fine with me. 

  

Inside. 

We had seen the preview for Inside Out numerous times and we knew we wanted to go when it came out. The concept seemed like it might be a little difficult to grasp (personified emotions inside a kid) but it was poised to be Pixar’s big summer blockbuster, so it couldn’t be that obtuse, right?

Here’s where I warn you that if you haven’t seen it and you want to, maybe you should stop reading. It’s a kid movie and it’s certainly not a whodunit, but there will be some spoilers here. I will talk about all the major plot points. So, read on at your own risk. 

Ok. Now that that’s out of the way, let me say this: The Who was absolutely riveted throughout the whole thing. He leaned on my arm and he reached for his water bottle a few times, but he really didn’t take his eyes off the screen the entire time, which is pretty rare for him. I think Bears was the last movie that held his full attention for the duration and that was over a year ago.  He was definitely taking it all in. 

And, honestly, it was difficult for anyone not to be fully engaged. The story of Riley, the girl whose brain (Psyche? Spirit?) we inhabit through most of the movie, is compelling. She’s a cute baby. An endearing toddler. A spunky tween. We’re with her. She’s had joy, sadness, anger, fear, and disgust (the five) but overwhelmingly, she is happy and well-adjusted and we immediately relate to her. 

But there, of course, is where the story turns. When her family’s big move from Minnesota to San Francisco coincides with the relocation of the characters of Joy and Sadness, adults know what is going on. Kids do too, even if the nuance is a little bit lost on them. It’s treacherous there for Riley for a while. Everything that shaped her — all her memories — have been tinged with sadness and then all of a sudden, she’s just left with Anger, Fear, and Disgust. 

There is, of course, a happy ending. Because Disney. But not before Riley (and everyone in the audience) gets to careen from joy to despair and back again, pit-stopping for everything else in between on an 2-hour, non-stop amusement park ride of emotion. 

And so it was no wonder. 

When the lights came up and we all returned our recliners to the upright position, The Who, after having sat mostly stock-still the entire time, leapt from his chair and started body-checking his pal. Then they held hands and lurched toward the aisle. And they giggled, sort of maniacally. And then, almost as quickly, The Who started crying. And when I insisted he carry his water bottle up the three steps to the trash can so I could make a hand available to hold it for him, he dissolved. Then, thinking maybe his earlier silliness was from having to pee, I asked him to use the bathroom along with the rest of us and he threw a fit, whining about tired legs from sitting so long and needing to stand, but also wanting to sit more and again about how l made him carry his water bottle himself and it all just seemed so absurd. 

We got into the car, and he was still complaining and carrying on and I just sort of looked at him for a full minute. And then I feel like I actually saw a lightbulb illuminate above my head. 

“You’re feeling pretty sad and angry now, huh?” I suggested. 

“Yeah,” he grunted. 

“Kind of like what Riley was feeling in a lot of the movie. Did you feel sad or angry when she was?”

“No,” he replied flatly. 

“When she was feeling sad about leaving her friends and going to a new class and taking a long trip and being away from what she knew and was feeling sad and scared, did you feel any of that too?”

He softened. “Well, maybe. A little.” 

“Yeah. Sounds actually a lot like what is going on in your life. Ending kindergarten. Going to camp next week. Going to Boston for a month. Leaving your friends. I would think you might be feeling sad and scared too. And I would bet it might be a lot for you to see Riley going through all of that and then as soon as it was over, to have me make you carry your bottle and go pee when you didn’t want to, that must have just felt like too much.”

“You’re right, Mama.”

“Yeah. No wonder you were so angry. I’m sorry I didn’t realize that sooner. But thanks for talking to me about it.”

“You’re welcome.”

And that was it. That was the end of it. He returned to his pleasant, agreeable self. And then we had a completely lovely and easy breezy evening and bedtime. Maybe tomorrow, he will talk more about it. Or maybe he will just notice the feelings in himself as they crop up. Or not. 

But, regardless, at least now we both know. That feeling stuff? Intense. And this movie? Intense. For adults, yes, but especially for kids. Kids who are experiencing it all right with Riley. Kids who are perhaps not so accustomed to being, for all intents and purposes, trapped inside a small room for two hours with all of their feelings and all of everyone else’s and absolutely no respite. It’s a lot to take in, especially for a little person. Even one as well-versed in expressing feelings as The Who generally is. 

Go see this movie. Definitely. We will probably see it at least one more time, if only to continue to process the emotions. But, yes, definitely, go. It’s funny and entertaining and poignant and sweet and beautiful. It’s worth the ten bucks. But when you do go, if it is with a child, take note. Shit might get really real. So arm yourself for some backlash and open up your heart for some aftercare. Even if it doesn’t seem like they’re affected or like they need any special attention, they do. I’m almost certain. 

As a side note, and something to bear in mind, the personifications of the feelings were also problematic. Sadness was a short, fat girl with glasses. Joy was a perky, thin girl with a cute pixie cut. Anger was a man. The Who and I will be talking about those things, too, once the rest of the movie sinks in. 

Five. 

  1. A clean room and a made bed make me so much happier than the opposite… 
  2. …but not happy enough, I guess, to maintain it. 
  3. A whole school year is so much shorter now that I’m the parent than it was when I was the kid. 
  4. The system in place to create children is the very system that can nearly destroy them every 28 days. (I consider every PMS that I don’t shake the baby to be a success.)
  5. Cold salmon is so much tastier than hot salmon. 

Shift. 

Wait, what? June? It’s June?

I don’t enjoy change. I like my schedule and my routine and when it changes, I get all bent out of shape. Mondays and Fridays he goes to PM kindergarten. Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, he is somewhere from 9-3:30. Saturdays are ballet. Sundays are Hebrew school. I teach on Tuesdays. Wednesday evening is piano lessons.  

Except not anymore. Saturday ballet is over and now we are expected at Thursday night recital rehearsals for three weeks in a row. And Hebrew school is over until September. And there are only two weeks left of piano before a 6-week hiatus. And there’s no school next Thursday and then just like that, on the following Tuesday, I’ll have a rising first-grader. 
The growing up part is fun. The part where he moves on and up and things end and begin anew — it’s fun. Theoretically. In practice, it just makes me feel like I have completely lost my grasp on the day-to-day. 

Six.

When I dropped The Who off at school and was telling the secretary (with The Who’s permission) about the tail end of this morning’s play date, she held up all the fingers on one hand and just one on the other and said, “They’re six.” And that’s the moment when I realized that perhaps I was expecting too much.

This play date started off easy breezy. One kid pulled out a game, the other busied himself with trucks, and The Who started building with MagnaTiles. After a few minutes, they all started playing together. I was actually a little self-congratulatory as I sat at the table, sorting the dried out markers from the good ones. This is the best play date they have had in a long time, I said to myself. They were negotiating things, making decisions together, and enjoying one another. And then — at some point, The Who said something in a tone of voice that I read as unkind. Maybe a little impatient. Maybe annoyed. It sounded, in fact, a lot like my own impatient, annoyed voice. I didn’t comment. I had made a decision during his last play date that I would try not to intervene as much as possible so that he could form his own relationships with his friends. If kids ended up not wanting to hang out with him because he was rude to them, then that was the natural consequence. Plus, most of his friends aren’t afraid to speak up on their own behalf.

A moment later, The Who said something unkind again — something very not becoming of a host. Again, I held my tongue. But, the third time, I overheard his friend say, “Well, the next time my mom asks me if I want to come here, I’m going to say no.”

The Who, I think starting to feel the burn of his poor choices, said, “Why won’t you come back? It won’t be fun for you if you don’t come back.”

They went back and forth a little, with the friend insisting that he’d rather go to his grandmother’s house than have to come here and be subjected to this play date tyranny and The Who insisting that it would be different the next time, so he might as well come here to play. This time, I decided to say something and I called The Who upstairs.

“You’re the host,” I reminded him in a quiet voice. “If one of your friends that you invited over is not having a good time, it’s your job to find out how you can help him have more fun.” The Who tried to defend himself by insisting that he couldn’t stop playing Legos to see what his friend would rather do. And then by trying to convince me that his friend was being rude by interrupting him. But, I had heard the exchange and it hadn’t gone down like that. I didn’t engage in his argument. “It’s your job as the host to stop what it is you are doing and kindly try to see what would make it more fun for your guest.” I insisted that he go do that and, to his credit, he did. The annoyance in his voice was ever-so-slight that probably only I heard it.

There were several minutes after that of parallel playing at the Lego table and then I started to count down to clean-up time. The Who jumped into bossy mode again, insisting that his friends clean up in a certain way and within a certain time frame. I warned him again about his tone, this time not so privately. In fact, not privately at all. “Speak. Kindly. To. Your. Friends,” I said. Full voice.

As the two friends continued clean-up and The Who ate his lunch, there were a few more snotty exchanges, after which I nearly completely lost my shit. Fortunately, I was able to stop myself before saying, “Stop acting like such a dick!” which is what actually came into my head. I was pissed. I was pissed that he was so clearly missing the message I thought I had been so clearly conveying all morning (and many times before this day; the Golden Rule is something we talk about often.) And I was pissed that I was somehow totally fucking up as a parent. How is it that this kid, who so obviously has the capacity to empathize and does so all the time, couldn’t stop himself from speaking so rudely and being so selfish? What was I doing wrong?

Then he started crying. “They got more play time than I did!” (It’s true. He had missed out on a few minutes earlier on because I had sent him to his bedroom after he hit his friend on the head with the waggly end of a long Hot Wheels track.  “It’s not fair,” he complained. “They got more play time!” I contradicted him. “It’s completely fair. You made a choice to behave in a way that ended in a time out and you lost that time. That’s what happens when you make those choices.” He kept crying. Meanwhile, it was past the time we should have left for school and although he was physically ready, he was in no way emotionally ready. I sat with him for a minute. Took a deep breath. Held him. Let him fall apart on my lap. Kissed his head and said, “You are a very kind boy. You make kind and sweet choices all the time. I hear you talk kindly all the time.” And I asked him what he was feeling that was making him speak the way he was speaking.

I don’t know how to better impress the importance of kindness onto him, except to be more kind myself. Model more patience and more empathy myself. (While I’m not perfect, I do think I do a pretty damn good job of this already.) And I’m torn between making him toe a hard line sometimes and really trying to pinpoint the feelings that are the catalysts for his behavior. I mean, just because you’re hurt or frustrated doesn’t mean you can just act like an asshole. This is Human Interaction 101, right?

But, as the school secretary reminded me, they’re six. He’s six. I probably can’t expect him to have mastered a life skill that some adults are still working on (his parents, to name two.) So, while he continues to work on kindness, I’ll continue to work on remembering that even though he reads like an 8-year-old, does math like a second-grader, and has a more vast vocabulary than some of my students, he is still only six. All the fingers on one hand and just one on the other.

 

Poems.

I’ve called myself the only English teacher who hates poetry (which isn’t actually true; I just don’t get it most of the time) so it’s ironic that one of my favorite books from childhood is a poetry book. (Is it ironic? I might also be the only English teacher who doesn’t have a firm grasp on the concept of irony.)

I had always thought that Charlotte’s Web was my favorite childhood book. I had read it many times, had seen the movie, and I even sang the bass part of the barbershop quartet arrangement of “Zuckerman’s Famous Pig” in my college a capella group. I sure did (and still do) love that book. But it was not, as it turns out, my favorite. My favorite, I only recently remembered, is Poems to Read to the Very Young, an antiquated, oversized hardcover published in 1961 and now out of print.

I’ve thought about this book off and on over the years, remembering bits of poems from it, and had even done a cursory Google search for it once or twice, but it never showed up. Most of the time, it’s not on my radar. But then, last week, The Who had a “Poetry Cafe” at school, where he and his classmates (and the entire rest of the school at various times during the week) sat up on stools in the library and “slammed” a poem in front of invited parents. The audience even snapped instead of clapped. Chatting with the librarian afterwards, I recalled my own “poetry slam” experience as a kid, standing up at the local public library’s talent show, reciting from memory two poems from my slim, spring green, hardback poetry book.

Beatnik.

Beatnik.

“There was a little girl…” I started. “And she wore a little curl!” The Who’s school librarian chimed in. “Right in the middle of her forehead!” we sang in unison. And all of a sudden, more than anything, I wanted a copy of my beloved poetry book. Of course, by the time I got home, I got caught up in the swirl of daily life and forgot to set out looking for it again.

A few days later, a friend posted a photo on Facebook of her two kids pretending to be caged in under a couple of wire clothes hampers and I remembered — again — another poem from my book. I searched and searched for the poem online, remembering only that it was about a lion and a bear. You can imagine how fruitful that search was. I kept stringing words together in the search box, but kept coming up empty.

Until! Until finally, some magic combination of keywords led to me the illustrator’s name, which then led me to a picture of the cover of the book in a Google image search and then finally — I found a used copy on Amazon!

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I ordered it. It arrived today. It’s exactly as used as my own childhood copy was — softened, worn corners, pages that smell like 1978. Every poem is a memory. I have never spent a better 13 dollars and 98 cents.

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Hard.

Tonight, after a typically trying pre-shower routine, The Who said to me, while I rinsed his hair, “When I’m a daddy, I think I will know how to be gentle when I wash my kid’s hair because I will remember how it felt to be a kid getting his hair washed and how I always wanted it to be gentle.”

“That makes a lot of sense,” I told him.

“What do you mean?” he asked (as it is his habit to ask questions to which he knows the answer, only to have it validated.)

“It makes a lot of sense,” I told him, “that you would remember your own experience and recall it later in your life.”

“Yeah,” he said.

I kept rinsing, maybe a little gentler than I had been.

“Am I gentle enough with your hair?” I asked him, squinting against an answer I didn’t know if I wanted to hear.

“Yes,” he said. “You are.” And then he smiled against the warm water raining down over his long, wet hair.

A moment later, after the business of showering was done and he was in his bathrobe, wiping down  the glass shower doors, he said thoughtfully, “I’m going to marry a woman who wants to have children.”

“Because you want to be a daddy?” I asked. (Maybe I am in the habit of asking questions to which I know the answer, also.)

“Yeah,” he said. And then he stopped and looked up at me. “Is it hard to be parent?” he asked.

The answer that immediately came to mind was, “Are you fucking kidding me? It’s practically impossible.” I flashed back to just moments earlier when I had said, “you have until the count of three to stop whining or there will be no storytime,” (which, of course, had only made him whine more.) He had been standing on the lidded toilet, stark naked, crying about the possibility that the grocery store might not have the exact same frosted cupcake the next time we went in. Moments before that, he had thrown himself dramatically on his bed after having been asked to put the new tube of toothpaste anywhere else but on the floor in the middle of the hallway.

“Yes,” I said evenly. “It can be really hard.” He glanced up at me and I continued. “It can be really hard because, when you’re a parent, you need to sometimes not do the things you want to do because you have to make your kid your first priority.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, like if you really want to go out to dinner, but your baby is sick, you have to stay home and take care of your baby and not go out to dinner. Or, if you really want to watch a movie, but your kid is hungry, you have to make dinner instead.”

The gravity of this conversation was striking. The inception of this line of questioning was when he felt the gentleness of my touch, washing his hair. He was asking about being parented and about parenting his own future children. Maybe he remembered the harsh words we had exchanged just moments before that and wondered how a parent could be angry and frustrated and then, almost at once, nurturing and careful.

“Did it ever get easier?” he asked. “Like, was there a time when it was harder and then I got bigger and it got easier?”

“It did,” I told him. “It did get easier. And it still does. And, even if it didn’t, I would still make the same choice to have you all over again. Like, if someone asked me if, now, knowing how hard it is to be a parent, would I still choose to have a kid, I would always say yes. Because it’s hard, but I can;t imagine not being your parent. You add so much joy to my life. And just because something’s really hard, doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing. Don’t we always say that?”

“Yeah.” He nodded thoughtfully. “Yeah, I know what you mean, Mama,” he said and then he climbed into his bed and slid under the covers for storytime.