Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Sick Days

"When I was sick and lay abed
I had two pillows at my head
And all my toys beside me lay
To keep me happy all the day."
from "The Land of Counterpane" - R.L. Stevenson

It's an absolutely beautiful Indian summer day here on the coast of Maine but Blueberry and Buttercup are sneezing, sniffling and coughing, poor babies. Buttercup officially has caught her first cold. There is something so heartrending about the sight of glassy eyes trying to smile up at you from the depths of the pillow-strewn couch, of seeing little bodies trapped inside while a freshening sea breeze and sunny expanse of lawn urges them to come out and play. The empty swings dangle idly, the sandbox's discarded toys are haphazardly still. There is no one to pluck the petals off the late September black-eyed Susan's and so they seem to stand at attention, waiting. There is no one to gather the mounds of grass left by the lawn mower to make nests or fairy houses.

I know, it's only a cold. In the midst of me feeling sad for my sweet girls, a wee bit sorry for myself imagining the lack of sleep ahead, I must think of the people who have truly ill children. The children who cannot swing or run, slide, climb, jump and flit around their yards with fairy wings strapped to their backs. The children who spend beautiful days strapped to oxygen tanks instead. Or hospital beds. How awful. Thinking of how this is my Buttercup's first brush with illness makes me remember how harsh the world is. How unfair it is for the little innocents to experience that harshness. Or so it seems to us.

Stevenson's poem is written from his experience with being repeatedly sick, perhaps with tuberculosis, as a child. His discovery of the "land of counterpane," reminds me of how inventive children are, how optimistic in the face of adversity. Children accept where they are. It is what it is. My observation of my own children leads me to believe that because they live so "in the moment," they have an uncanny ability to make that moment everything. And usually beautiful.

"I was the giant great and still
That sits upon the pillow-hill
And sees before him, dale and plain,
The pleasant land of counterpane."

Today Blueberry leaned her head against the windowpane, staring out at the sunlight hitting the waters of the cove. I asked her what she was thinking; she looked as wistful as I felt about the dichotomy between a beautiful day and illness. "Oh, just about mermaids. And fairies. I don't need to go out to play with them, they know that I'm here and I'm watching over them still." She was so earnest and sweet and not at all unhappy. That wistfulness was an adult projection. I think that adults oversentimentalize things. I've noticed that many things just are but we instead make them cute or sad or funny. A baby pig is just a baby pig. It doesn't have to be cute. A sick child is just a child having an experience. It doesn't have to be sad. Perception is oh-so-powerful. Blueberry says, "I'm not sick, though," as her nose drips like a faucet. She doesn't see herself as sick. She sees herself as well. So, quickly, she gets well.

I've seen this power of the mind at work before. My grandmother, well into her nineties, has dementia. She believes that she is in her twenties. (She also believes she's married to Tom Selleck, but that's neither here nor there). So, last winter, when she got sick with bronchitis, the doctors were worried that she wouldn't make it through. But, she just bounced right back from it. In her mind, she's young and healthy and has a family to care for, so she didn't have time to succumb to a simple lung infection. A woman in her twenties wouldn't die from bronchitis. A woman in her nineties might. Something to ponder.

(my grandmother's "mind-age")

For now, I will rock my babies extra, tuck them in more gently, throw thoughts of sleeping schedules out the window, let them into my bed if needs be, make noodle soup, sing a lot, sit with them in sunny patches, take warm baths with them, make chocolate honey biscuits, dole out honey by the spoonful (well, to Blueberry), break out my rusty guitar and violin skills, play with paper dolls, make lots of silly faces when administering medicines, and try to enjoy how much they need me. I won't worry how fiercely the sun shines or how the beach, woods, and river beckon. For now we'll stay in the pleasant land of counterpane.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Good Queen Buttercup

"Her angels face
As the great eye of heaven, shyned bright,
And made a sunshine in the shady place."
Edmund Spenser from "The Faerie Queene" Book i, canto iii, st. 4

(Queen Buttercup)

I know. You all are hoping this post is going to be riddled with references to The Princess Bride. As much as I adore the film (and book), I'm thinking today about a different queen. It may be really weird to compare one's children to historical figures, but I've noticed lately how regal and calm my baby daughter has become. Yes. She reminds me of Queen Elizabeth, the first Queen Elizabeth of England. Ok, not that I knew her personally or anything, much as I wish I did, but if you do even two minutes of research, you start to get a picture. "Moderate," "temperate," "tolerant," "loyal," "serene," "of good council." I know. It might be a stretch, but bear with me. I mean, look at this face.

(Doesn't she look judicious and wise of rule?)

One of the best quotes about Elizabeth I as a princess comes from her first "Lady Mistress," Lady Bryant: "as toward a child and as gentle of conditions as ever I knew any in my life." It may seem rather obvious to say that a child is "toward a child," but this line struck me as incredibly apt. There are some children who aren't child-like. My child, sweet Buttercup, is so innocently child-like. She has none of the mischievousness of her older sister. There's no cheeky in her grin. Buttercup is also very "gentle of conditions." Even as a baby, I sense how she holds herself gently in this world. She is strong, curious, and bright, but soft, tender. An affable, sweet, and tractable child. There is something to be said for a queen-like child. And the "Virgin Queen" at that.

I feel this strange connection to Queen E, I'll admit. I played her once on "stage." I hold the word loosely because it was the stage in the loft of our barn when I was about 13 years old. In terms of obscure references I'll post on this blog, this might be it. We (my sisters and I) had just watched The Sea Hawk (1940) and were so roused by it, that I wrote a theatrical version of the movie for us to perform. (a, we had no television, b, we were homeschooled.) I mean, this is a classic. Errol Flynn as "Captain Thorpe," a character loosely based on Sir Francis Drake, swashbuckling his way through glorious the black and white court of the queen and the jungles of Panama made us (ok, mostly me) quite swoony. However, his feeble love interest was not the most coveted role in our homeschoolers performance. Queen Elizabeth, played by the consummately talented but oh-so-unattractive Flora Robson, captured out hearts with her strength, wit, and grace.

(Not pretty, but pretty amazing.)

I got to be the Queen. I was the oldest and had written the play. 'Nuff said. I got to wear the huge paper collar and give the rousing speech about going to war with Spain when the Armada attacked (offstage, left). I got to inhabit this place of such power for a short time. I could actually imagine calling out the order to go to war or to stay a beheading. It interests me still that we girls all gravitated to this character. The queen, both in the movie and all the books I've read about her, was great at handling things. Queenship was thrust at Elizabeth at a tender age and she rose to the occasion with incredible grace. She never married. She was beloved of her people. She reigned for 60 years and that time was considered a golden age. She herself was a poet of some talent. She shows her education off in her writing. In many ways she was a "Renaissance Man," but importantly a woman light years ahead of her time. In her speech to the troops at Tilbury, she says, "I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king." Nothing ordinary about her.

I know that all seems divergent from where I started in this post. I am a bit of a history nerd but even if I were not, I could see the connection between this extraordinary woman who lived many hundreds of years ago across the sea and my baby girl. It's amazing to think of the potential wrapped up in this gorgeously chubby twenty pounds of sweet baby flesh. There is power despite her current state of helplessness, there is wisdom despite her inability to speak. Perhaps there is a bit of Good Queen Bess in all baby girls.

I swear there is just something there. Down to the strawberry blond hair that is starting to crown her little head. She certainly already has some very loyal subjects.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Sea Quest

"I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying."

- John Masefield

I love living on the coast of Maine. Especially once summer wanes and the summer people fade away, disperse, opening roadways, the sidewalks and shops in our little town, and especially, clearing the beaches. Ah, the sweet expanse of white sand stretching out, naked of people, waiting for us rubber booted and fleece clad year-rounders to come brave the chill.

(Blueberry as a "sea child")

It turned out to be glorious on Sunday. I had contemplated staying in bed all day as a result of sweet Buttercup's teething-nursing all night (the subject of a future post, I'm sure); The Man took the girlies and let me sleep in. But sunshine prevailed in the afternoon. I have a hearty dose of what my friend MommyK8 calls "the Mainer Sunshine Guilt." She breaks it down better than I could: "Basically it’s so crappy for most of the year, that when it’s nice enough to go outside, one feels extremely guilty if they are not outside." Exactly.

So I gather Blueberry and Buttercup, a giant magnifying glass and a bucket and shovel, leave The Man to nap blissfully on the couch and set out to the deserted beach to look for what Dylan Thomas brilliantly calls "news of the little world."

(Somewhere there is an armless crab this belongs to)

We find the nearly-empty expanse of sand marred only by huge piles of seaweed left from the last storm and Blueberry begins her search "for clues." She felt rather bad for the crabby fellow whose unlucky appendage we discovered, pictured above, but kept merrily scouring the sand and tide pools, "accidentally" getting wet.


"The little world" presented itself to us in the form of mussel shells left cracked open by hungry gulls, the tracks of scurrying sandpipers, ancient-looking patterns made by black seaweed swirled eloquently by the tide upon white sand; we discovered that seaweed takes on many colors and forms, including a nearly reptilian one that Blueberry found fascinating.

(the "seaweed snake")

The best part about heading to your local beach in the off-season, besides that no one charges you to get in, that you don't have to hunt, shark-like, for a parking spot near the bathrooms or that you don't have to listen to well-oiled tourists fighting over beach umbrellas, is that you sometimes find the unexpected. Today the local fire department was having a gathering here, complete with a huge firepit cooking up a mess of lobsters, crabs and clams, smothered in seaweed. The smell wafted out to us and we could hear snatches of the joyful shouts of firemen and their families playing volleyball. It was as if the beach itself was on vacation.

. . .

The sea was surprisingly calm but the rhythmic sound of waves tumbling upon themselves never ceases and this was the first time I noticed Buttercup really watching and listening to the sea. She was transfixed by the crash of the waves, entranced by the interplay of light and water. It was amazing to watch her see, really see, this beauty, to feel her solid little body leaning out of the front pack, oceanside. I discovered her discovery.


She was really serious and contemplative about watching the waves. Ok, she was sleepy too, but the sea transfixed her in a way I think it would us all if we let it. We should all let ourselves be carried out of ourselves by its repetition of sound and movement.

(The Man will be disappointed in my videography, but you get the idea)

It reminds me of a Sandburg poem from my college days:

The sea-wash never ends.
The sea-wash repeats, repeats.
Only old songs? Is that all the sea knows?
Only the old strong songs?
Is that all?
The sea-wash repeats, repeats.

We leave the beach, sandy, wet, tired, full of little world treasures, a bit dazzled by the light, our heads ringing with those old strong songs.

Repeat. Repeat.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Hold the Noise (and a bit o' soapboxin')

Oh, sweet child! My oldest daughter, my little Blueberry, is very "plugged in." She loves to listen to music on "her" iPod, watch television and movies, play on the computer, play games on the Wii and The Man's smartphone. Without understanding or even realizing the impact this might have on her, I/we encouraged this for a while. Ever since she was 18 months or so, we had her watching "Baby Einstein" videos, baby sign language videos, anything that was touted to promote "brain development" or "early literacy," blah blah blah. Yes. Sense the tone. In the past year I've come to realize how unnecessary and even unhealthy all this media is. She had watched a couple of old Disney movies, and The Wizard of Oz and seemed to love them. In fact, she would act out scenes from the movies and repeat the lines much to our amusement. Then she started having nightmares. Acting out. Nothing dramatic, stuff we thought was normal 3-4 year old behavior. It took me a little while to put two and two together. When I was growing up, as a homeschooler, there was a time, a good long stretch, when we had no television in the house. I don't remember suffering from the lack of it, either. In fact, I remember playing outside with my animals, running in the woods, playing dress up, reading long novels, helping my mother bake and clean the house, playing with my younger siblings, riding my bike, hiking... and going to bed and sleeping, deep and long. The sleep of sunshine on my face, bug bites, scratches and poison ivy on my legs, calluses on my bare feet and good, wholesome food in my belly. This is not to say that my Blueberry doesn't have all these things. She loves the outdoors, loves flowers and plants and animals and the beach and has the insatiable four year old curiosity about the world outside our door.

(Blueberry in the wilds of our front yard)

She adores her new sister too. Little Buttercup has opened up a whole new world to Blueberry - she now sees what it is to love something smaller and more helpless than she is. She helps me take care of her and I can't wait to see them really play together. She also craves fresh vegetables and whole foods (pretty proud of how much she loves chard), loves trying new things, loves drawing, painting, being read to, playing music, dancing. But, back to my original point. I see a definite change in her behavior when she's had too much "screen time." She seems more fidgety, restless, even hyper. She will repeat silly lines and songs from shows that have no usefulness or rhythmic quality - she is regurgitating drivel. Is that what we want for our children? I am unsurprised by the study that came out last week, tying fast-paced cartoons to impaired attention spans in children.

I know from experience how easy it is to unintentionally bombard children with media. There is so much out there that is marketed to them. But it's all noise, really. Blueberry actually asked me this week what the difference between music and noise was and I had to look it up. (Ok, I had to Google it. Yes, here The Man would say, "See? Technology is essential and useful!") The difference is harmony, according to what I've read, (ok, skimmed.) "Real music is polytonic; a mixture of different frequencies played together in a manner that sounds harmonious." (Thank you to The Physics Hypertextbook - I feel smarter.) Harmony. I like that. That's what I want to promote in my home. Part of the whole reason I'm planning to homeschool is to hold the noise and espouse the harmony. There's so much noisy garbage out there - why let it into my home? Why let it into my child's psyche? Reading this eye-opening blog post on Moon Child by Sarah Baldwin of Bella Luna Toys, really helped solidify my decision to turn it off. Baldwin, a Waldorf educator and former homeschooling mom, does not recommend children under the age of nine go see Toy Story 3. Yup, nine years old. Read it to find out why. I was really enlightened and inspired by this post. It "clicked" with me and I can see a lot of what Baldwin describes played out in front of my eyes by my sweet four year old.

I now have a great desire to sweep my home of toys or books that have a media tie-in (do I really want my child marketed to?), anything plastic, anything cheap. It's not from snobbishness or a sense that my children are entitled to something "better," it's that learning to live with less garbage, less noise, just less is something that I want my children to learn. I'd rather then have one good quality, hand crafted toy than a thousand different plastic ones made overseas. I want my children surrounded by objects that promote their imagination to fill in the gaps. How many times have we as parents watched our children play with a stick or a cardboard box or keep a rock as a pet? I have had a "d'oh!" moment about excessive toys, media, "stuff" in general. It adds to the "noise." It detracts from peace, I'd go so far to say. But, Mama E, won't your kids be bored out of their minds without TV to watch, computer games to play, loads of Disney-Pixar-tie-in toys to play with? No, trust me. Boredom shall have no place in our home because my children won't be sitting around waiting to be entertained. Instead of watching a show, let's draw. Let's read a story. Let's go for a walk. Instead of five million plastic tub toys, how about one wooden boat? Blueberry has an imagination that is extensive enough to fill her bathtub with pirates, mermaids, fairies that swim (yes, really!), fish that fly and sailors who catch fish big enough to feed a whole village. She doesn't need to watch The Little Mermaid. She doesn't need an "Ariel" toy. She makes her own music.

(Blueberry designed and made this skirt. Sweetie.)

For those of you who are interested, David Elkind's book, The Hurried Child is an amazing read. It describes the influence of media (as well as well-meaning parents and teachers) over children and how it leads to children being "hurried" through their childhood. I highly highly recommend it. In fact, I'll definitely ponder blogging about it.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Fruits of Others' Labors

Today was one of those perfect September days on the coast of Maine. Blue sky, puffy white cumulus clouds, bug-clearing breeze out of the northeast, I do believe. No. I'm not a weatherman or a fisherman or a sailor. I'll just say it was gorgeous. Just the type of day invented for apple-picking. I'll get to the Robert Frost, don't worry.

(Blueberry and The Man start out enthusiastically)

It's amazing how quickly one little family can pick 15 pounds of apples and still want to keep picking.

(Buttercup and I stop picking for a quick smooch)

(Yes. This is the cutest thing ever.)

Our bags fill almost too quickly as we pick and cheerily discuss what we are to make with these sweet-fleshed beauties. I am imagining a free-form apple galette ala Alice Waters, The Man his own famous butter-laden apple cake, Blueberry a "sweet apple stew" or a "pie with blueberries and apples. You know, mixed together all crazy." We certainly don't feel any Frostian lethargy:

Magnified apples appear and disappear,

Stem end and blossom end,

And every fleck of russet showing clear.

My instep arch not only keeps the ache,

It keeps the pressure of a ladder-round.

I feel the ladder sway as the boughs bend.

And I keep hearing from the cellar bin
The rumbling sound
Of load on load of apples coming in.
For I have had too much
Of apple-picking: I am overtired
Of the great harvest I myself desired.
(from "After Apple-Picking")

When I was young and lived in the mountains of New Hampshire, my sisters and I used to go to a very large apple orchard. It was so large they hired migrant fruit pickers to come help harvest the apples. I remember watching a kaleidoscope variety of humanity up on those ladders, bags slung over their white, brown, black, male or female, young or old shoulders, picking quickly and efficiently, laughing or singing to speed the work. They must have felt like Frost describes - I always imagined that when they shut their eyes they must see only apples, that their clothes would smell sweet and fermented, like cider, that their hands would ache with gripping sphere after sphere so that they would only know how to hold round things and anything else would slip from their grasps. Today we cheerily hauled our paltry 15 pounds of apples away from the orchard and I felt the full burden of our privilege. To be able to walk in and walk out, gathering, literally, the fruit of others' labors, to come, take what we wanted and leave, was almost Edenic.

I'm in a dreamy mood on this chilly night. "Essence of winter sleep is on the night, / The scent of apples: I am drowsing off." Though we did not yet make Blueberry's "sweet apple stew" or "crazy mixed pie," my belly is full of free-form apple tart and The Man's all-good-intention-destroying apple cake. We harvested just enough. We had no need to harvest more, lucky us.

Big Girl Hair

(sweet Blueberry after her new cut)

Not sure how this is for a beginning. Not particularly auspicious. But, I know you other mamas will relate. My dearest Blueberry cut her own hair this week. Yes. My sweet four year old with her long Little-House-my-mama's-a-hippie braids with the pretty baby curly ends took a pair of (safety!) scissors and chopped those curls right off. It could have been worse, I suppose, as in she could have cut the whole braid off... or a finger. Safety scissors, blast you! So much for trying to take a nap with the little four month old Buttercup and assuming that "quiet = good." (I should know better by now). So, like a good mama, I made an appointment with my favorite hairdresser and had it evened out. It's big girl hair. In fact, it looks a lot like mine. People say she's my clone now. Nice to know I had something to do with that beautiful brilliant girl. But it's bittersweet - children grow up and away from you. The assertion of independence is wonderful and heart-stomping. The will and curiosity to take a pair of scissors to your own hair, mother be damned, to see what happens, at once delights and horrifies me. My heart is a bit trampled this week, but I shall recover. After all, she gave me a delighted hug and exclaimed, "I love my new mommy hair!"