We Survive the Night by Candlelight

Once again I have trouble believing how fast it’s gone, the holidays all the more disarming in California for the arrant summer that asserts herself into months reserved for the cold. The year draws to a close, swift like winter night. Beneath the din, the festivities heighten the loneliness for many. It’s the dissonance between the merriment in the air and their private song; the expectations of the season that descend on their Christmas, their New Year’s in a great anticlimax. It’s what I grew up with.

The less you have, the greater the pressure you feel. To spend and to have loved ones to spend the holiday with in a special way. But these burdens are a luxury for people who’ll be grateful just to quiet the growling in their stomach. This time of year is especially hard on those bedridden in poverty. In last year’s New York Times article The Invisible Child, we see a bright girl named Dasani (now 12) struggling against forces beyond her control: “parents who cannot provide, agencies that fall short, a metropolis rived by inequality and indifference. Dasani’s circumstances are largely the outcome of parental dysfunction…her mother and father are unemployed, have a history of arrests and are battling drug addiction. 

The Auburn Family Residence [is] a decrepit city-run shelter for the homeless. Dasani [the last several years was] among 280 children at the shelter. Beyond its walls, she belong[ed] to a vast and invisible tribe of more than 22,000 homeless children in New York, the highest number since the Great Depression.

Sexual predators, spoiled food, filthy communal bathrooms, vermin, and exposure to asbestos and lead were the norm for Dasani and her six siblings. They would wait in line for their prepackaged food in the cafeteria before sliding into another impossible line for access to the two microwaves that hundreds of residents share.

What breaks my heart is that the children “are bystanders in this discourse, no more to blame for their homelessness than for their existence. To be homeless it to be powerless.

Dasani was on the cusp of becoming something more, something she could feel but not yet see, if only the right things happened and the right people came along. In the absence of a stable home or a reliable parent, public institutions have an outsize influence on the destiny of children like Dasani. Whether she can transcend her circumstances rests greatly on the role, however big or small, that society opts to play in her life. School [like hers] can also provide a bridge to the wider world…Few [kids] have both the depth of Dasani’s troubles and the height of her promise. There is not much [her principal] can do about life outside school. She knows this is a child who needs a sponsor, who ‘needs’ to see The Nutcracker, who ‘needs’ her own computer. There are many such children. One in five American children is now living in poverty, giving the United States the highest child poverty rate of any developed nation except for Romania.”

What of these kids caught between the rock of their parents’ failures and the hard place of walls adorned with graffiti and mold? The hand of angels can reach in.

Though we may not be able to rescue everyone from cold, hunger, sickness, or loneliness, we can make a profound difference in so many ways. I name the stories you are about to hear the Candlelight Series after Eleanor Roosevelt who sought “to light candles rather than curse the darkness.” We’ll catch a glimpse of the hands that have lit the way for those frozen in the dark. Of people who chose to see the suffering and meet it with love, who decided they would be the right person to come along. People like the teachers and principal Dasani so desperately needs. We pay homage to those who helped us survive the night by candlelight.

Money in My House

Math lesson: “Mom’s money is Mom’s money and Daddy’s money is Mom’s money.”

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Boy: Counting, recounting the money he earned folding laundry this month. Saving for a tablet. “$7.50. I have a long way to go to get to $200.”

Mom bites lip, looks up at ceiling. He doesn’t know she borrowed the $120 he made as a child study in a psychology program (last year).

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Tonight

Daddy: “Daddy’s sad because he lost his wallet.”
Boy: “Oh, that means will be poor now.”

Tiger Dad and Tiger Wife

Dinner one night, and Tiger Dad pushes wife about the schooling.

Husband: Does he know what nouns, prepositions, verbs are?
Wife: Honey, you know he’s been learning the definitions. He’ll understand better as he gets older.
He’s only seven.

*Pause*

Wife: Wait. Do YOU know what they are?
Funny look. PAUSE.
Husband: I know adverbs. They have -ly.

30 minutes later, 7:30 pm
Out all day on field trip and back from little man’s martial arts,
Mom walks in, puts on apron and gets to work on dinner.
Elbow-deep in dishes after the meal with one eye
on her Holistic Journey upstairs in the office:
“I’d better stop and get on the computer or I’m going to start resenting life.”

=======================
Another day

Wife: So you got the mold off the stall?
Husband: Yeah (hanging head like he’s about to break bad news) but I couldn’t get all of it. We’re gonna have to hire someone next time.
Wife: NO. *Snort* You just have to keep it from building, clean more often.

=======================
The other day

Dad asks son: Did you like Kung Fu Panda?
Wife: It was violent.
Dad: It’s KUNG FU.

========================

After his fourth serving
Tiger Mom: No, Tennyson. No more. You’re literally eating into your lesson time.
You’re gonna have to stop.
Cub: But I’m still hungry. Please. PLEEASE, I BeG you.

Report Card

STUDENT

Art AApronLove2
Geography A
History A
Latin A
First Lunch A+
Math A
Music A+
Phys Ed A
Second Lunch A+
Public Speaking A –
Reading B
Science A
Writing B+

 

TEACHER

Beautician C (Can pull off a B when she crams)
Dr. Mom A-
Homemaker C
Homeschooler A-
Nutritionist A
Tired, crazy woman A+
Wife C

Genius

Two years and 11 months

Two years and 11 months

According to Malcolm Gladwell, behind the genius of high-achievers that leaves us awestruck is really just 10,000 hours of practice.

Let’s see what this might look like for you as a drummer, Tennyson:

You’ve put in at least 500 hours thus far.

1 hour of practice a day, 35 free days in a year –>
330 hours
the next 5 years –>
1650 hours plus the 500 = 2150 hours by the age of 12

The next 12 years, double the daily hour –>
660 hours every year, a total of 7920 hours
plus the ones from the first 12 years = 10,070 hours by the age of 24

Unless an earthquake brings this house down or you find yourself with a single parent, you will continue to have every opportunity to play. And even in the tightest straits we will sell the furniture before we touch your drums. Every hour on the set you’ll get to exchange for more options as an adult musician. Every hour brings your dreams that much closer within reach. You easily played for an hour-and-a-half when you were five. It is up to you whether you want to hit your 10,000 sooner or later than 24. But a good idea to develop your art as deeply as you can, find its place in our world before you settle down? Keep those two hours a day sacred and you will learn self-mastery, excellence, and your happier self. We know the more we love our music, the more we love it, right? Play your joy and never make excuses. I don’t want you to end up looking on as Joe blows smoke out of his set, saying “I could’ve done that.” He just practiced longer than you.

Your biggest fan,
Mom

Ten Lessons In Case I Die

1. Don’t marry someone like your mother. Choose a woman who wakes smiling.

2. Use your strength for those who’re weak.

3. People don’t care if you’re right, especially when it means they’re wrong.

4. Try it again. Better or differently.

5. Keep singing.

6. Whatever you do, leave your signature on it. And I don’t mean sign it.

7. Follow your gut.

8. Give without expecting.

9. Move on when people let you down. There is so much more to live for.

10. Things can be worse. Remember that you’ve had a mother who’s loved you beyond her ability.

It’s Always My Fault

Every time I drive by the church where it happened, I still look away. I drown the memory in a parade of new thoughts and have managed to take Hidden Valley with the casualness I run through any other road. That evening six years ago, I was leaving the church with my toddler in my arms and didn’t realize I was about to step off a curb as we neared the parking lot. I thought I was on level ground. When the pavement gave way under my foot, we didn’t just fall. We crashed straight like a tree, Tennyson’s forehead bearing the full weight of my body in the sickening clap with concrete. I can hear him scream.

I am finding this the hardest thing I have written on this blog. The tears aside, my heart pounds with fresh pain and I am clammy with sweat, replaying the tape. My boy was okay (by medical standards, though I knew cells and neurons had their work cut out for them). And as I walked through a doorway the next day wearing him on my back, I didn’t know he was sticking his head out to the side. BAM went his head against the wall along the threshold. Yes, on the same spot.

I was beside myself when I called my husband. Rather than blame me for my incompetence and idiocy, the amazing man expressed compassion. He had only to imagine what I was going through to feel terrible for me. I will never forgive myself the injuries my son suffered that week. And I will shut off the comments if you try to encourage me out of it. Finger on the trigger.

I peer at myself as I would a lab specimen. I am not one of those people who goes around saying sorry. I don’t wring my hands, gush to please and – as much as I pity them – don’t cry for cats that are run over. I am also well versed in the theology of forgiveness and grace, my surety and the cornerstone of my faith. But when I dissect the narratives in my head, I discover so many threads of quiet self-condemnation it’s as though I’m built out of it. The bruises of masochistic abuse remain well hidden. They are more like innocent white noise of the subtext that plays out in my day.

Even now it takes effort to switch off the autopilot on the self-blame when Tennyson comes down with a cold. Why didn’t I dress him more warmly yesterday? I shouldn’t have given him dairy. My mind reels back through the previous few days to puzzle where I’d gone wrong, what I ought to have done to keep him well. I live with the sense of failure for not keeping my home tidier. Tennyson’s math workbook disappeared recently. But I just organized! I marveled. For days I scoured the car, the learning room, the laundry room, family room, office, and then looped back wondering how I could be so inept at the housekeeping so as to lose lesson books. I asked the little man again if he’d seen it. Then when I presented him with the next book in the series I’d resigned to fast-forwarding him to, my sweet child exclaimed, “Oh, I know where it is!” slipping the magic find out of a crevice behind a poster.

Disbelief. He had hidden it so he wouldn’t have to do his math. My son, who’s made no habit of lying.

I swallow guilt every morning I start him with the book while (and so that) I can get back to readers. I should sit with him more. My conscience reminds me that I have yet to teach him piano and the Korean alphabet. What will I do with myself when I come through? Ah, fortunately for me the Holistic Fault Factory runs a tireless operation. Can’t disappoint Korean management. I’ve spoken of the ongoing struggle it is for me as an artist, caught between my writing and the life outside it. A friend shared a bit of wisdom she picked up in regard to time that I have to digest: receive the gift of your limitations.

Well, wouldn’t you know it? Even when freed up to blog, I’ve felt bad for shooting out more than one post in a day, though a new rhythm is something I’ve had to deal with in the fall school year; I’ve hated to bother you. I refrained from writing about myself in any depth for a full year, not wanting to waste your time with stories of my past. I will sometimes disable the likes, feeling bad for getting “too many”. Simply unable to keep up, I’ve grudgingly learned to fall behind on all the blogs to visit back. I’m tapping into followers and visitors from January – not that anyone’s waiting. So trying to make heads and tails out of this strange creature in the mirror, I’ve a suspicion guilt is something we experience in and between relationships. I feel its weight as wife and mother, and even as blogger.

I grapple with it in connection with my body, eating guilt when I don’t do enough vegetables. As a teenager, I didn’t salt my food. I felt guilty for the flavor. Then there’s the chagrin when I ease up on the work-outs in order to write. And the resentment, those other days, in not being able to open the windows of my mind, let my words out, is actually the sorrow of being untrue to myself. I’m crazy. Annoyed every time my mother cries about all the ways she (says that she) wronged me in my younger years, I think people derive a certain pleasure in the self-incrimination. It is possible – God makes it possible – for us to live free from our failings and remorse. Why are we afraid to let these go? Why do we resist grace?

The Color of Make-Believe

What color is make-believe, you ask?
It is the color of time that never runs out,
the sun streaming over a land where
children are kings and queens,
It is the heart of Middle-earth

The color of Cinderella’s tears,
the color of beauty who loved the beast
Pinocchio’s lies and the virtue of knights,
the spell of witches and hope in the
Wizard of Oz, a magic carpet ride

It is the color of your cape.

What color is make-believe, you ask?
It is the color of Mom’s laughter unbridled
with burden, the color of ache
she buries in loving memory,
It is her morning song

It is the color of her wildest
dreams come true.

Words Between Mom and Boy, Part 2

At Six
First bite into food. Mmmmmm. Life is good.

At Six-and-a-half
How many odd numbers are there? Are there more odd than even?

Mom, how many people are there in the world?

Mom, how old is Count Dooku? Yoda? Darth Vader?

What is three minus four? What is 13-15? What is negative zero?

Mommy, I know what 1000 minus 300 is. 700.
“HOW did you figure that out??”
By thinking. I thought hard.

“Tennyson, you’re talking back to Mom.”
No, I’m not.
*30 minutes later*
“Tennyson, you’re talking back to Mom.”
No, I’m not. OH — Yes, I am.

It was one of those days. He was just one bottomless appetite. I told him not to eat the boiled egg we were experimenting with for science.
The egg vanished.
He came over and whispered in my ear: Mom, I ate my homework.

At Seven
Umma, how much is 100%?
“All of it. No leftovers.”
How much is 300%?
*
How to explain??*

Vocalizing his pleasure over the meal at the restaurant (yums and groans and all): Umma, I’m an expert at eating.

Umma, What makes God laugh?

Mom, is anything bigger than God? How many suns fit inside Him?

Aug 4, A barrage of questions ~
What colors do you mix to get white?

What color is make-believe?

Is there make-believe in outerspace?

Daddy: “Yeah, it’s called Star Wars.”

Aug 19
Boy: When you walked away [after yelling at me] my face got red as raspberries and I wanted to scare you [when you came back out of the room].
Mom: Oh, you wanted to startle me when I’ve asked you not to do that.
Boy: (Nod) Uh huh. I wanted to put my white sheet over my head and scare you like a ghost.