It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

I’ve been thinking a lot about Mister Rogers lately, as I count the days for the release of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (three more sleeps!) and generally reflecting on his impact on my life. 

Mister Rogers was my first and best minister, my childhood neighbor and friend, my mentor and therapist. If I grab a thread of any of my deeply-held values and unravel it, I’m fairly certain I’d find Mister Rogers holding the ball of yarn. Probably wearing a cardigan and smiling patiently even though I’d just left a ball of yarn in a tangled heap on the floor.

In today’s meme culture, I’m afraid we sometimes reduce Mister Rogers to a caricature of his whole self. I’m afraid we reduce a lot of people to caricatures, for that matter. But in the case of Fred Rogers, we focus almost exclusively on his kindness. And no doubt, he was kind beyond measure. But we forget to tell the part about how he became kind, through a series of daily choices. We forget to talk about how he recognized that humans are, at the end of the day, the measure of their choices. That love, as he once famously said, is an active noun like struggle. He talked about feeling our anger, but also about choosing what to do with the mad we feel. Fred Rogers was no Pollyanna, and he knew we weren’t either. He also knew that we could choose to love one another anyway, in spite of some of our lesser impulses. And that out of that love might grow better impulses.

I am no Mister Rogers. I fall well short most days. I choose cynicism when I’m overwhelmed by our world. I find it hard to forgive adults who behave poorly. I have little patience for adults who make choices out of greed and fear, and even less patience for adults who are cruel or indifferent to children. 

If I’m honest (and Mister Rogers wants us to be very honest), my impatience with adults might be part of the reason I choose daily to be in the service of children. It’s an easy choice. The moment I open my eyes, I am greeted by my own kids, the ones entrusted to me to care for and love with unmatched ferocity and acceptance of their unique selves. From there, many days I am lucky to work in classrooms and libraries with children all over my town, and I try to see them all. Really see them. Listen to their stories. Ask them questions. Help them feel seen and appreciated exactly as they are. And on the days I’m not in the classroom, I’m working to craft stories for children, stories where they may find themselves on the page and know that they are not alone in the way they see the world, or in the way their hearts beat out fear and sadness and joy and laughter and everything in between. Other days still, I prioritize children in the places I volunteer and donate money. The truth is, while I find children to be wondrous and delightful, I also find them easier to love and forgive than adults. 

But I know Mister Rogers would remind me that adults were once children too. And I’m working on loving them the way I love children, even if it means failing daily, or publicly, or often, both. 

I guess I’m sharing all of this to say that I’m forty-one years old, and I’m still learning lessons from a children’s tv show host. And I wonder if maybe we all should. 

Either way, I’ll be the one in the front row with a box of tissues this weekend, paying tribute to my favorite neighbor. 

I hope it’s a beautiful day in your neighborhood, friend.

Knuffle Bunny, Worlds Expanding, and the Danger of the Single Story

If you have young children, know young children, or have ever been in the children’s section of a bookstore, it’s likely that you are familiar with the books of Mo Willems. Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus or Elephant and Piggie are basically household names. When my boys were young, they were obsessed with the Knuffle Bunny books. You might be familiar with them, but if you aren’t, they center on a character named Trixie (based on Mo’s daughter in real life) and her beloved green stuffed animal, Knuffle Bunny. The second book in this sweeping trilogy is called Knuffle Bunny Too, and it’s been on my mind this week.

In Knuffle Bunny Too, Trixie’s world is about to expand – she’s going to school for the first time. But when she brings her beloved Knuffle Bunny to school, she learns that he’s not the only Knuffle Bunny in the world. A fight ensues, a mix-up occurs, and a middle of the night rendezvous saves the day.

I pulled this book off the shelf as a mentor text for something I’m working on, but when I reread it, I saw this metaphor for something we are experiencing collectively on so many levels in this country. This week, our newsfeeds have been full of women (and some men) sharing their experiences with sexual assault, sexual harassment, and the smaller, insidious ways women walk through the world in de-escalation mode daily. In my small corner of the world, most of the conversation has been productive, but I’ve also seen a number of posts derailed by people chiming in to negate someone’s personal experience. These statements, in short, say “That’s not my experience, so therefore it’s not reality.” And this made me think of Trixie.

Trixie, like most young children, started off with a small world – her immediate family. Her world, like most children’s, grows as she gets older. It begins to encompass neighbors, friends, perhaps church, then school. As she grows older (spoiler alert!) it will even encompass foreign travel. This isn’t exactly revelatory stuff here – all our worlds expand as we age.

But what I’m seeing right now, what I’m struggling with, is how many of us seem stuck in a childlike mindset, unable to accept something as real because it hasn’t entered our personal world yet. Trixie assumed her Knuffle Bunny was the only one in the world because she hadn’t seen another one, but when her world expanded, she was able to accept that it did, in fact, exist. But so many of us don’t want to see the other Knuffle Bunny. When someone says, let me share my experience with you, if it doesn’t match what we have already experienced ourselves, we are rejecting it as fake. Instead of accepting that perhaps our own reality is limited, and being open to listening, we’d rather maintain our bubble.

From a psychological perspective, this is the height of narcissism. The insistence that the world’s objective reality matches our small existence couldn’t be more self-centered. And while it’s natural for young, growing children to have a self-centered view of the world until they go through the stages of development that expand their thinking, it’s not okay behavior for adults. It’s harmful, it’s shallow thinking, it displays a desire to remain ignorant, it lacks empathy and imagination.

I know we can do better. We can be better listeners. We can take baby steps in this direction by resisting the urge to insert ourselves into someone else’s narrative. If a friend tells a personal story online, and we can simply listen without responding. If the story doesn’t match our own experiences in the world, instead of writing it off as false, perhaps we can try expanding our worldview to include it as part of a bigger story.

I’m going to leave you with this TED Talk that I share at least once a year because I believe it is that important. I believe in the power of story to connect us, but we have to be willing to listen.

Rules of Play

 

Playing games with Ronan while many months pregnant with Liam.   Also, see that Blues Clues notebook?  I cannot count how many hours of my life were spent hiding blue paw prints around my house.

“Mama, I’m a little sick,” moaned Ronan as he bent over the toilet, pantomiming vomit. It was his best attempt at empathy, and just shy of two years old, a pretty good one. He had, after all, spent the last month of his toddler life following me to the bathroom as morning sickness dictated my every move. I briefly worried that I was damaging him for life, constantly vomiting in front of him, then worried that my worry was damaging the baby growing inside of me and decided to shelve all the worrying for the time being.

Please continue reading this piece over at 28 Days of Play

Refugees Welcome


We’d been on the road for an hour.  I’m not even sure it qualified as a road actually, it was more of a bumpy, dirt-trodden path, and with every twist and turn I felt the familiar lurch of motion sickness and silently wondered when we would stop.  I held back my request to move to the front seat.  I was here to learn, to volunteer.  I was among the privileged and was embarrassed by my own trivial concerns.  Surely I could stomach a little nausea.  I looked back out the window like they always say to do.


We pulled up to the small, isolated fishing village thirty minutes later, our backpacks stuffed with trinkets for the kids and our arms full with heavy bags of rice and beans.  

“Maybe you could help out this mama,” someone suggested as we approached one of the huts. “She has a two week old baby and is struggling to nurse him.” 

Walking in the front door, I mentally prepared myself to go through the lactation counselor motions, check the latch, the suck, the tongue for a tongue-tie.  Ask about wet and soiled diapers and nursing patterns.  I was new to the field, but had already amassed a naive confidence in the ability of the breastfeeding mama to overcome most obstacles in her path.  

Until I met her.   

I watched her put her tiny, newborn baby to her breast, perfectly latched, desperately sucking.  Their combined weight could not have been more than a hundred pounds.  In her kitchen area was a hanging basket with a tomato and an onion.  It was the last available food in her house.  The beans and rice we brought would last her until next weekend.   

She didn’t have a breastfeeding problem.  She had a hunger problem.  I was completely impotent in the face of her struggle.  There was no amount of on-demand feeding or finger training that would turn this around.  I said a prayer of thanks for the formula that was in the van, held her hand and told her that her baby was beautiful.  He was, beautiful.   

I didn’t share this story with many people when I returned home, but was met by a similar response each time that I did.  “Didn’t you just want to take that baby with you?”  

No.

I wanted to take the mama with me.  I wanted to find a way bring her and her child to a place that could offer more than a bag of rice and beans, more than the economic opportunities of a washed-out fishing village, an hour and a half outside of the drug cartel violence of the border town many of the village’s members had already fled.  I flew home to my own beautiful baby boy, abundantly fed and privileged to have been born on the soil of a country only a hundred miles away from this other world, where homes were built on landfills.  Where a few years after my visit, 72 bodies of drug cartel victims would be found in those landfills.  

Before that trip, in my previous work I got to meet the families who left, who found a way out of economic despair, or a political crisis, or in some cases, violence that threatened their cities and lives.  Most of these families were considered immigrants, though a few qualified as refugees.  It is important to make that distinction because while we also have a migrant crisis, international law says that countries have a specific responsibility to protect refugees.  I saw first-hand how there is sometimes a fine line between the two, how the difference between fleeing a violent drug cartel and fleeing a war results in different opportunities, and, in this country at least, a different reception.  I wonder if our long and complicated history with immigration informs our attitudes towards to refugees, anesthetizing us to their plight, stripping us of our shared humanity.

Fortunately, in our line of work, the distinctions didn’t matter.  The families welcomed me into their homes and lives, feeding me and sharing their struggles and victories in acclimating to their new home.  There were times when I wondered what they must have left behind to come and live packed into one bedroom apartments with extended families, in communities that were not always welcoming, overcoming language barriers and bureaucratic obstacles to create a new life.  I would go home and hold my newborn baby and wonder what kind of conditions it would take for me to leave everything I had ever known, strap my baby to my back and cross a dangerous river, or get on that boat, or climb in that truck and run.  Extreme hunger?  A war?  A community overrun by violence?  

Yes.  To all of those things.  I would flee for my child.  And likely you would too. 

“no one leaves home unless 
home is the mouth of a shark 
you only run for the border 
when you see the whole city running as well

your neighbors running faster than you
breath bloody in their throats
the boy you went to school with
who kissed you dizzy behind the old tin factory
is holding a gun bigger than his body
you only leave home
when home won’t let you stay.”
– Warsan Shire, continued here…


You only leave home when home won’t let you stay.

I thought of that little baby boy yesterday when I read the stories about Aylan.  When I shared in the collective weeping over his image, and read his dad’s heartbreaking words.  I wondered where he is now.  I wonder if they too fled.  I wonder if he and his mama made it.  I wonder where it even is.  

I watched the news pour in yesterday and I did what I always do when I am overcome by sadness.  I looked for the helpers (and there are so many helpers) and then I took the small steps I could to become one.  I made donations, I shared on my tiny platform, I followed up with the local refugee agency I’ll be volunteering with this year.

It never feels like enough.  

It’s not enough.  

The response to this crisis has to come from us all.  We have to find the courage to turn our collective tears into collective action.  


And sometimes, standing on this privileged soil, this soil I was simply lucky to be born on, that can feel impossible.  While citizens of Iceland and Germany push back at their governments, offering up their homes to refugees if their leaders will allow more people to come, we listen to presidential candidates yell about who can build a bigger wall around our country and what type of weaponry will flank that wall.  While others around the world attempt to use their collective force for good, we are on social media talking about Force Friday, using our collective wealth to purchase more toys we don’t need.  We, a nation of immigrants and refugees, make the argument with each new generation that America is done growing now, that it’s time to close up shop.  That it’s essentially time to remove the famous plaque from inside the Statue of Liberty.  That this generation constitutes the real America.  No more room at the inn.

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” 

I’ve said before that I don’t have a single political or militaristic solution to the crisis in Syria or the threat of ISIS.  I still don’t.

But I’m going to keep talking about refugees and immigrants.  I’m going to keep asking that you join me in this conversation.  I’m going to keep asking that you take one small step today to help.  Make a donation to one of the many organizations with people on the ground trying to bring food, resources, medical supplies and support to refugee camps.  Call your representatives and ask them to raise the quota on Syrian refugees from 8,000 to something higher, something that makes a dent in the three million Syrian refugees that exist today.  Contact your local agencies for immigrants and refugees and find out how you can help those already here.  

I’ll include links at the bottom of this post.  

Please join me.  

Five Practical Ways to Help

The United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR)


Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) International, or Doctors Without Borders

International Rescue Committee (IRC)

Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS)

Refugees Welcome


Refugee Legislation

St. Louis local?  Check out these resources:

Immigrant & Refugee Women’s Program

International Institute

 

My Marriage is a Teenager

Last week, I traveled with my husband, our two boys, and my brother to a small town in Indiana to celebrate and memorialize the life of my grandmother Gigi who passed away last November.  It was a bittersweet weekend, as family gatherings around funerals tend to be.  We lamented the fact that we only gather under the saddest of circumstances, but there was joy in the gathering nonetheless.  We told stories of Gigi’s long life, we visited the family farm, slid down the banister of our collective childhood memories and we wandered the town’s museum which displays our family’s history alongside the history of all the other families who built the small farming community.

We gathered at a small church outside of town to learn that 88 years ago on that very day, my great-grandparents were married in that same spot.  My Granddad and Gigi were married there as well, a couple of decades later, and remained one another’s most important person for nearly 64 years, until death parted them, as vowed.  I stood on that sacred spot to speak, sharing memories of Gigi as a grandmother and great-grandmother to my kids, but I also shared the legacy she placed most firmly on my heart — that of her devoted marriage. 

My grandparent’s marriage was not a fairy tale.  They didn’t make it 64 years because they had it easier than others, or somehow avoided all of life’s stumbles and falls.  They raised four kids together (three of them born within 13 months of one another) while my granddad traveled around the world for his job, leaving Gigi on her own with the often rambunctious (and that might be a generous word choice) kids for long periods of times.  They faced all the normal frustrations and heartaches of parenting and life, but they faced them together.  They spoke every day when they were apart, and as the kids grew, Gigi traveled with Granddad when he left.  He never worked a single anniversary of their entire marriage.  They compromised for one another, shared in each other’s interests and hobbies and I witnessed them let the other be right on numerous occasions.  Those are only the small pieces I’m privileged to know.  Like all marriages, theirs surely contained all the highs and lows and arguments and redemption that are theirs alone.   But through it all, they knew that at the end of the day, they wanted to share their journey more than they wanted anything else.   On the morning that Gigi passed away, Granddad shared his loss with the family, calling Gigi his “sweetheart, lover, love of my life, travel companion, roommate, mother of my children, and wife.”  We don’t need fairy tales when we have a real-life love story like that.


Our marriage isn’t a fairy tale either.  Sometimes it’s described a little rose-colored by friends and family on the outside, and I understand that perception.  I know that none of us truly knows the whole heart of another human being, yet alone another couple’s marriage.  There are pieces of our marriage we share with others, just as there are pieces we will take to our graves, those parts that are ours alone to have and to hold, to cherish, to forgive, to celebrate and to honor.   But I want to be absolutely clear that we work hard for our marriage.  We make daily and monthly and yearly choices to serve one another, to communicate well, to resolve issues, to celebrate small victories, to lean into one another at every bump in the road rather then turn away.  I often quote a Ben Folds song when I speak of my husband, saying that, “I know I am the luckiest,” but I also know it’s more than luck.  We’re lucky not because some stars aligned and our souls were woven together before we were born; we’re lucky because we both keep choosing to intertwine them every day.

Jason and I married relatively young, at 22 and 23 years of age.  Last year, we celebrated our 13th wedding anniversary and in some of our social circles, we’re the old married couple.  While I would be remiss to imply that 13 years of marriage is short, or easy, or not long enough to celebrate, last week,  I saw the length of our marriage through new eyes.  I realized that our marriage is just a teenager. 

Anyone who has raised kids to their teenage years (or remembers being a teenager well) knows that this is an important feat in and of itself.  A lot changes in the first 13 years of life, as it did in our first 13 years of marriage.   We were together several years before we married, lived out a long-distance relationship, studied and traveled abroad together, and set up our first adult home, complete with cockroaches the size of mice and leaking ceilings.  We married right out of college while serving in AmeriCorps, living on a tiny income in Austin, Texas.  We’ve lived in two additional states since then, had several career changes, birthed two children, gone back to school, adopted and lost pets, traveled, created art and theater and music, ran races and faced illnesses, heartaches and loss side by side.  We have this binder of the love letters we wrote during our early years together, volumes of verbose prose (some of which I can’t read without blushing), but more than 13 years later, we now speak a language through our eyes and actions that is clearer than any words we’ve ever written one another.  We’ve remained each other’s biggest fan and most important person in all the changes of 13 years.

But 13 years pitted against the span of a lifetime makes our marriage but a brand new teenager.  And how exciting is that?  Because teenagers?   They’re kind of amazing.  Teenagers are perched on the brink of becoming, full of optimism and possibility, yet rebellious enough to question all the conventions and write their own life’s journey.  They can still envision so many possible futures, while living deeply entrenched in the present.  They sneak out of windows to be together and make out with reckless abandon and stare up at the night stars hand in hand as if time stops in that moment.  Yes, please.  To all of that.  And if we are so lucky to live to see our 64th anniversary, that means we have more than 50 years still ahead of us.  That’s a lifetime together yet to be written.  That’s humbling and thrilling to me. 

I don’t know all the stories we’ll write but if I had to put money on it, I’d bet on at least one more move, a couple of new jobs, and another pet or two.  I’d also bet on times of sickness and health, loss and celebration, and the unexpected at every other turn.  

But I’ve never been much of a betting woman.  I’d rather just slip my hand into Jason’s, choose a path and keep on walking, together. 

Thank you Granddad and Gigi for letting us bear witness to your love.






Holding Onto Magic

My youngest son Liam is currently obsessed with Harry Potter.  This is not surprising, given that my husband, my oldest son Ronan and myself are also in love with the wizarding world that J.K. Rowling created, and encourage the frequent reading and re-reading of the novels in our home.  Liam just finished the seventh and final book last week, and spends his free time casting spells in our backyard with anyone who will play along.

About a month ago, Liam had a friend sleepover and we were watching one of the Harry Potter movies before bed.  His friend asked, “We’re all half-bloods, right?” to which I responded, “No, unfortunately, we are all muggles.”  Liam interjected, “Well, actually, I’m not sure yet.  I might be a wizard.” 

Today is Liam’s eighth birthday.  I know that he was referring to the fact that he’s not yet eleven years old, which is the year that you find out for sure if you are a wizard in the world of Harry Potter.  But I also know that my sweet boy is eight years old and he still believes in the possibility of that which we cannot see or know.  He still believes in magic.

Most of us start to lose our sense of wonder sometime between the ages of eight and eighty.  We start to define the world by the things we can be absolutely sure of, the things we can weigh or measure, see and touch, test and peer review.  We forget that much of what we now know was only recently unknown, and that the future still holds discoveries about the universe that are beyond our capacity to conceive in our wildest dreams.  

If I could give my son anything for his eighth birthday, it would be the ability to hold onto wonder.  I’d tuck it away in the recesses of his heart, and cast a protective charm over it so he could retrieve it in the depths of his adulthood, when wonder is slipping through his fingers in the face of adult burdens and world weariness.  I’d encase it in a golden snitch so he could open it at the close, or anytime in between, when he needed to be reminded that this world is so vast and we know but a tiny fraction of its magic.

I can’t do that though.  I can offer a whisper of “lumos” to light his path, but ultimately, he’ll have to find a way to hold onto magic on his own.  And I have reason to believe that he just might.

“Mom, no adult should ever really say that magic doesn’t exist.”

“Why is that Liam?”

“Because love is magic.  We help other people when we love them like wizards help other people with magic.  So as long as there is love left in this world, there is magic.”

Liam, we don’t need to wait for your eleventh birthday or an owl delivering a letter from Hogwarts.  That you know this precious truth is all the proof we need.

You are a wizard Liam. 

Absolute Mayhem

Absolute Mayhem
Written and Illustrated by Kelly Suellentrop
Publisher: Striped Socks Publishing
IPN: 9780692311011
Category: Picture Book

Our culture is awash with declarations of love for weekends.  From the old TGIF catchphrase to the 80’s classic “Everybody’s Working for the Weekend” there is little doubt that those 48 hours hold a very special place in our collective hearts.  They represent a respite from work and school, a chance to engage in the things we want to do with the people we love most, or even just an opportunity to sleep in.  And for Lulu and Milo, they mean absolute mayhem.

In Absolute Mayhem, we meet Lulu and Milo, two siblings who work hard all week to follow the rules, complete their schoolwork and eat their vegetables all in an effort to arrive at Friday where the rules go out the window and absolute mayhem ensues.  If you can imagine what your home would look like if weekends were a free-for-all, that gives you some idea of what you will find in the pages of this book.  What starts as innocent, imaginative fun quickly gets out of control and much like many a family feels at the end of summer vacation, everyone seems a little ready for routine again come Monday.  The illustrations range from black and white during the weekdays to increasingly colorful as the mayhem starts to spin out of control and are a great complement to the story.  My kids spent quite a while going back through the book after our initial reading to “explore the drawings” in more detail.  They were delighted when they did because they discovered new things as well as a hidden friend on all of the pages we missed the first time around.  

I’m particularly excited to share this book because it is self-published by a  first-time local author Kelly Suellentrop.  She shared more about the process behind the writing of this book in the Idea Chasers series.  One of the things she shared was that the idea for Absolute Mayhem came from her own children, and that to this day, when the whole family is home on Friday, someone yells out “absolute mayhem” and the fun begins.  Not long after reading this book I heard an interview with Jamie Oliver on NPR about his new cookbook, Jamie Oliver’s Comfort Food: The Ultimate Weekend Cookbook, in which he confesses to eating primarily comfort foods on the weekends after a week of clean eating and I immediately thought of Absolute Mayhem and wondered if both he and Kelly weren’t onto something that I am absolutely missing.  Now I’m counting the minutes to this weekend and dreaming up my own version of absolute mayhem.