just pecking

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Oh we are winter souls. Tramp tramp. Stomp stomp. Scan skies for giant falling icicles. Dairy consumption in the apartment must be up by 50% because of all the hot chocolate (not hot, not all that chocolatey). I had my first ice fall. Naturally it was when I was all by myself, charging around like the young adult that I am not. I was walking to a movie…slip, smash on the bricks. It really hurt. And then I went to watch a movie about early-onset-alzheimer’s. Still Alice. Julianne Moore had the best clothes!

I’m not going to a movie again until this ballet documentary comes to town (check here to see your local listings). It looks so good. Justin Peck, a 27-year-old choreographer for the New York City Ballet. Man, is life good or what when you can go see a documentary about a ballet choreographer that just follows him around and lets you see what he sees? I love living in the future.

We have a fridge of bountiful groceries after going without for several days following my trip. The girls really didn’t give me a hard time about my leaving for two days, probably because they had such a nice time with Joe and our friend David, who came to help. Joan was so sweet the whole first day I was back. Then, that night, she woke up at least eight times, crying and screaming for me. It was a dark harkening back to the infant days.

It’s totally fair and appropriate for them to act out after I’ve been away, but I always forget that it might come when I’m least suspecting it.

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The girls are good. They seem louder than usual. I’m hearing this from other moms too. Is it just us, or is the weather finally setting in and turning them up a notch?

I am so sleepy today! We already went out for a walk/snow tramp early this morning, now I’m curled up with a blanket and tea on the couch and it feels so good. Ballet begins in an hour. Hmmmm I don’t know if I can get us there.

When you sign up for kiddo classes, naturally you do an equation wherein you divide the cost by the number of classes (rare is the brochure that does this simple arithmetic for you). This due diligence quickly goes to pot when you encounter freezing weather or blizzards or simple human fatigue. Note to self: do not sign-up for classes in late winter. It’s just too absurd getting there and back.

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I feel that it would be nice to tell you that now, at age 3.5+, Lux’s quiet time begins with a timed 35-minute session of ipad time. It always feels right to be upfront about any screen time with one’s audience. Her app options on there are good. She primarily plays Leo’s Pad. I set the timer on the ipad, it goes off, she closes it and puts it away (I’m not sure if she knows she could just press “ok” and keep playing, or if she’s just a very honest gal).

And, you know, even though this is roughly 30x more screen time than we used to allow, I think it’s working. I always evaluate these things on how she acts afterwards and she seems refreshed. She takes a longer quiet time overall, plays, and talks to herself afterward. She feels independent because she can pick which game she wants to play and puts it away herself. Afterwards she likes to tell me what she played and how it went. Usually there are a couple things on the game she didn’t solve that time.

Parenting in the future is complicated; but once again: I’m glad to be here.

 

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wildsam city guides

popsicles

I’m headed to San Francisco this afternoon for my sister Joanie’s bachelorette weekend. I’m so over-the-moon excited. It’s my first time to see the city. It’s supposed to rain all weekend. Doesn’t matter. Thank you thank you Joe!

The apartment is clean. The fridge is full. Lux and I made raspberry popsicles, a shared project that is turning into something of a ritual we do together before I go on trips.

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I’ve been wanting to buy a Wildsam city guide for awhile and I finally had an excuse to treat myself. They are so well done. I feel practically like a native, and I’m still waiting to take off from Boston! A brief city history told through historical documents, an easy to read map of the neighborhoods, ESSAYS (starry eyes here), and interviews with locals. Throw in the nearly-pocket size and a good-looking cover to seal the deal. Incidentally, if you are an East of Eden fan, the founder Taylor Bruce named the series after Samuel Hamilton. More starry eyes.

Ok, I’m off!

winter nonfiction

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I finished a French memoir from the ’60s over New Year’s. The Paper House, by Francoise Mallet-Joris (yours on Amazon for the price of one cent!)  It’s a memoir, but more of a catch-all journal of ruminations for this woman who was an intellectual force of her time. She recounts arguments with her housekeeper and tiffs with her husband over household tasks. She has something of an intellectual crush on her aged hairdresser. She smokes, drinks, types on her typewriter, makes dinner, conducts television interviews, attempts to get work done. Her household is populated with her partner, her three younger children, and an older son from a previous relationship, a son she gave birth to when she around 20, who she regards almost as a peer, if not a confident.

The respect she displays for her children and their opinions reminds me of Shirley Jackson’s Life Among the Savages. A book (this one from the ’50s) by another female novelist who also seemed to regard her young children as fellow thinkers that happen to live alongside her.

Francoise spends many, many pages baffled at her household’s constant state of chaos. She describes sitting in her bath with a cigarette to get a moment’s peace. Then her housekeeper plops down with her in the bathroom, also to get a moment’s peace. All of Francoise’s children and her housekeeper’s child troop in shortly thereafter. Every organizational task seems to elude her. She personifies the curtains that never seem to exist–she hopes they will come to visit her someday, she hopes they will settle with her family at some point.

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She relays wonderful conversations with her children about religion (she’s roman catholic). She sets out to stay the party line, to tell the doctrinal truth, but is quickly confused and trapped into agreeing to strange things by the way her children phrase their questions. Most of the dialogue she shares depicts her bravely arguing a point only to get talked out of it. Exactly how I imagine my discussions with the girls going someday.

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I don’t really have a clean-clasped way to tell you why you might like to read it, except that you might.

And now I’m reading the journals of Lucy Maud Montgomery, the lady writer of the Anne of Green Gables series. They are quite a different thing. She struggled deeply and lonelily with depression, with isolation and with the terrifically cold and dark winters of Prince Edward Island. She is as wonderful as you’d imagine, but haunted in many ways. I’ll write about them when I finish them, but Francoise handed me off to Lucy in some way. Women. Thinkers. Rejoicers and puzzlers, unedited for the most part and mulling over life.

It is a gift to one’s conscious to read things, honest boring brilliant passing things, like this. Particularly in the winter? They can be metronome, a tick tick of real households to balance your world against.

 

photos from New Year’s Eve, with one by my friend Elizabeth Mclellan. Because they felt wintery. 

fears

For awhile now Lux has told us of her fears. They weren’t there, and suddenly–snap–there they are. Or they were there, but she couldn’t articulate them quite as clearly as “That is scary to me.” They were initially almost comical in their tiny, specific scope: the sound of the water pipes in the bathroom, dried seaweed at the beach, tree roots that look oddly alive in the grass. They seem to pass over the weeks like overcast skies, never staying for long, just acknowledged, frowned at, and then quickly forgotten.

And yet they are sobering for me to hear from her, in the depth of consciousness they signify—the murky underlayer I will never truly know or predict or control. It reminds me of when I began to worry with my mom-friends if our infants were capable of having nightmares. Is it possible? we said to ourselves, when one of them had woken up crying furiously.

Lux continues to be mildly obsessed with skeletons in any form, mostly dinosaurs and human ones. (Hence the gift of a package of x-rays for her 3rd birthday.) And I’m all about those bones too. But she happened to fall in love with an idea that people take and twist. They pop-up randomly as we adventure around town: over-the-top halloween junk, a poster for a moody band, a book meant for twelve-year-olds not preschoolers, sci-fi magazines at the drug store. Gory, creepy, scary skeletons.

She likes the friendly ones and I get possessive when we encounter the scary ones, their articulation altered ever-so-slightly to ruin them. It was OUR skeleton and YOU PERSON ruined it. It WAS innocent and awesome, and YOU MARKETING OBSESSED NINJA blew it.

On top of her minor passing fears, there’s the ever-present concern not to transmit fears of mine to her.

I’m sure at one point in human history this was an important aspect of maternal education—watch out for cougar tracks as they will eat you. But these modern days it seems more important not to mention my personal fears. They will only slow her down. A girl afraid of snakes? Do we really need another one of those? I squashed a brown scaly spider crawling near Joan and went to scoop it up with a tissue. Lux said she wanted to do it. I was impressed, but also wanted to intervene–did she get the pinch-n-dump maneuver this situation was calling for? Did she see how crawly and weirdly dried up this thing was? I remained totally nonchalant and stepped back. “Sorry Mr. Spider, you can’t crawl near Joan” she said, and dropped him into the bin. She walked away and never mentioned it again.

I think the appearance of fear really shakes parents because when do you grow out of fears, really? They stick with you; greasy fingerprints of something that passed by once. Your own subconscious murmur, representing the unpredictable things that got through to you. Later in life they help you empathize with others, they are one of the quickly-built bridges that can connect two strangers almost instantly. “Oh, I was afraid of those too!” goes the refrain.

I remember as a kid being deeply afraid that my parents didn’t have any money. I would tell myself that they way we had lived that day was a farce, and tomorrow they would tell us it was all over. These thoughts always occurred to me at night when I was falling asleep. My mom would come in and reassure me that it wasn’t the case. Looking back, I can see that this might have been an early predictor of my habit to get the “big picture” or step back from situations and see what I can solve before everyone else. I thought I knew more than everyone else around me about what was happening around us. I still often think that.

Lux is turning out to be a brave soul, Tolkien style. Mighty little, mighty ambitious. She seems to seek out frightening things until she understands them. “Mom, I like scary things,” she tells me constantly, as we read of Carabosse, the evil fairy in Sleeping Beauty, for the 30th time. As we read and re-read, different elements seem to step into her mental spotlight. They are examined, pivoted, and then they step away and something new steps in. I’ve always had a soft spot for writers who laud the value of fairy tales–Einstein, L’Engle, Chesterton, Neil Gaimon. I couldn’t do the true Grimm tales because of the incredibly unique violence they introduce (or just yet, at least? I do respect their place in the canon). But the wisdom of encountering malicious forces coming head-to-head with the common girl, that rings true.

Perhaps I am old-fashioned but I think it is particularly important to encounter these tales in their written form. That way your imagination can only take you as far as you’re ready. For me as a kid, all of Disney’s enemies were just a bit too much. A few treads too far on the sinister track.

Lately I’m more grateful to hear what Lux is afraid of. Now that I’ve seen the fears wave up and subside, I don’t have that panic of it’s my fault! I should never have…They give me glimpses of the odd discomforts that stuck in her brain, and they give me a chance to talk over something that might have happened too quickly. They are windows into what she is still thinking about from the days that seem to fly by us.

#momlife

fort

joe: Wow, such a cool fort. Did the girls just sit in it and play all day?

rachael: Um no, they ignored it and laid blankets in another part of the room and pretended they were at the beach.

on the plus side, I discovered an awesome reuse for these copper wire lights I originally bought for our Christmas tree. They are so lightweight you can suspend them anywhere without needing support, perfect for forts (loved or ignored).

Ballerina on parade

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Here’s a day from December we are still talking about. My mom was in town to visit us and see the holiday lights. Before she arrived I reserved tickets for the Sugar Plum Fairy Tea at the Ritz Carlton in Boston (they sell out every year about two weeks ahead of time). After the tea Lux and I took the train to Cambridge to see the Jose Mateo Nutcracker with friends of ours.

US Angels had recently sent Lux a ballerina dress. We saved it for the occasion and she wore it proudly and grandly all day. The dress is such a beauty–it has two tiers of tulle, a line of cloth-covered buttons down the back and comes with a ribbon belt for cinching.

Of course one bunny was invited to come along as well.

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There are a few holiday teas around Boston for families looking for festive occasions–the Ritz Carlton tea was beautifully done. The Nutcracker theme was a total dream come true for Lux; at this point I think we’ve played the Nutcracker orchestra performance on our tape player over 100 times, easily. There was even a young ballerina performer from the Boston Ballet Nutcracker there for photos. Lux watched her with awe and went up for a photo three times (contrast that with her Santa experience where she wouldn’t get within ten feet of the guy).

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The food was so charming and elegant: things like cucumber sandwiches made to look like Christmas trees, tiny circles of salmon on toast, peanut butter and jellies carefully sliced and stacked, and (my favorite) tomato, mozzerella, and pesto ciabattas. A bowl of marshmallows sat ready for scooping next to the hot chocolate alongside chocolate-covered-strawberries, red velvet cupcakes and trays of scones. They had stacks of gingerbread cookies for the kids to decorate, plastic tiaras and crowns ready for pretend play and glass containers full of pink and purple glittering star wands for the taking.

You can imagine why Lux is still asking if we are going again next year!

The Ritz had also three craft opportunities set-up for kids to make ornaments for local shelter’s holiday trees in partnership with the organization Catching Joy. I loved the moment when Lux realized she was not keeping the crafts. She stopped and looked dismayed, then looked around and saw everyone crafting away anyway, and jumped back in.

After frolicking, snacking and several hot chocolate refills, we gave one last longing look at the professional ballerina, and we headed to the T to meet our friends Johanna and her daughter, Haruka.

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The Jose Mateo ballet program is housed in a beautiful church just outside of Harvard Square. Their theatre is the old sanctuary of the church, an intimate and friendly space. To my eye there is no bad seat in the house. For the 2pm performance that Saturday the whole place was full of children! Both my friend Johanna and I had brought silent snacks for placating the girls if they got antsy, but as soon as I saw all the kids, I realized we didn’t need to worry. Even so it was silent audience for most of the performance. It was such a treat to sit through the whole thing, and really nice to have it be more affordable. Some day I would like to take Lux to the Boston Ballet performance, but for now it’s perfect to see it on a slightly smaller scale.

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All in all, it was a day I want to do every year (and next year, Joan will be invited…I think!). Certainly it ran more expensive than what we’d spend on kiddo-fun in a typical month, much less one day! But still, it was the perfect time of year to take advantage of such fun opportunities.

 

review: the smartest kids in the world

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My friend Ashley lent me The Smartest Kids in the World by Amanda Ripley before Christmas and I ate it up as we traveled. It compares education in South Korea, Finland, Poland, and the US by following exchange students from Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, and Minnesota. Along the way she discusses international testing, interviews teachers and students, and gives a sense of what it’s like to be a kid learning in each of these countries.

Before I read it, when I thought about education and my little family, I imagined us focusing on reading together and verbal comprehension stuff before formal schooling began. Reading together is probably one of the activities that comes to me the easiest in child-care. Joe has mentioned to me before that it might be nice if I started doing math with Lux, and perhaps science experiments, once in awhile. I told him I thought those things came in time. Maybe intuitively? Maybe when they were six? It was all vague and far away. Perhaps I wouldn’t even be the one to introduce them to math at all, I thought to myself. Suffice to say, it wasn’t on my priority list.

Now I know through Ripley’s book that this is a specifically American view: that one learns math through story problems and osmosis, certainly not through worksheets, repetition, or emphasis. I had heard rumors that the US tested miserably on most fronts in comparison to other developed nations. Now I recognize that in the context of math, we don’t seem to take it seriously, we don’t think it’s an applicable life skill, and we’d rather our kid took an easy test and did well than get a bad score and feel bad about themselves.

Which led me to wonder how I could help my kids be as good at math as they were at reading. How to be as casually conversant in equations as explaining a new vocabulary word. How to value rote memorization and convey its value. How to make numbers as familiar and intriguing as a new library book.

This is all on my mind right now because after Lux hit 3.5 years, she’s able to focus a bit more and has really got that sponge quality to her. I can actually imagine us sitting down to work on something for a bit, or learning and reviewing something over a couple of days. We’ve recently done a couple science experiments, things like vinegar + baking soda + balloon, and they were really fun.

Anyway, it’s a fascinating read and helped me correct my sights a bit on education. Since reading is a given for us, I’m going to be more aggressive with integrating math and science into our days. To start, I ordered this simple workbook to do with Lux for twenty minutes or so, when Joan is napping. I’m hoping it will help me familiarize myself how she approaches these things and give us a shared language.

 

golden holiday

My friend Anna came over yesterday to take some photos of our family. It was a last-minute thing and turned out to be such a beautiful evening. Joan was feeling sick but she had just had a good long nap, and Lux was game for the adventure. We walked down from our apartment, through the Garden, all the way to Copley Square, and then finished with margaritas (and hot chocolates!) at the Oak Bar.

When Anna first texted me that she was available, I immediately wanted to hop in the car and head to Walden Pond, or a field & forest somewhere. The exotic always occurs to you at these times. But of course it made the most sense simply to walk around this little city, the spots we’re always walking. What a treat to celebrate and document them for an afternoon.

I feel so lucky to have these, thank you Anna!

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all photos by Anna Burns

your tradition

brilliant

Last year around this time I went to mom’s group that was run by older moms. They were so much older that most of them were already grandmothers. On this date a year ago, instead of the typical morning talk, they set up a roundtable and discussed their favorite holiday traditions. They each had called their adult children and put the question to them: what do you remember of our family holidays as a kid?

You could feel some of the anxiety in the room. Many of us were moms to very young children. Making a sandwich was a struggle, much less a fleet of reindeer cookies. The idea of creating new traditions for the next generation to carry on, traditions somehow built among the remains of the dusty shredded kleenex and fishy cracker crumbs we’d left behind on the floor that morning, well, it sounded almost impossible.

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Some of the women said they’d cried on the phone, because asking their adult children about this reminded them how often their young working husbands had been gone during that time, or how tired the women had been, or what high expectations they’d had for themselves.

There was one surprising revelation from the phone calls: the things their kids loved and remembered were usually not the ones the mothers had intended. Not the three-tiered cookie tray that showed up on the right day, but the fact that the kids got to pick the food coloring colors for the frosting. Not the getting of the tree at the charming corner store, but the bag of chips they were allowed to pick out for the ride home. Not the deluxe Christmas meal, but how many candles she managed to light around the room each year. Not the gifts, but the fact that their dad built a fire every Christmas eve.

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The talk instantly reminded me of how my mom let us have donuts and orchard cider with cheese and crackers for dinner on the night we decorated the tree. In any order we wished: crackers, then donuts. Donuts, then cheese. Hands down it is one of my favorite memories of annual traditions. I vaguely remember that she sent out tins upon tins of cookies each year, vaguely recall the Advent calendar that was different and creative every year, have a fleeting image of all the lovely hearth decorations, but the thing I remember most: cheese and crackers.

I wonder if it was the thrill of a snack for dinner, or the way dinner formality bowed to decorating hubbub, or just the fact that I could tell my mom was happy not to worry about dinner for the night. It doesn’t really matter, anyway. I love that memory.

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To sum, they told us, you do the best you can and they end up remembering the oddest things anyway. Which I think we should take as, do what sounds wonderful and rewarding to you, and skip the rest.

It sounded really really nice to follow up on a promise to Lux and go to cvs and buy candy, so much candy, and then make a little graham cracker house that looked just like the one in Martha Stewart’s kids craft book. And it was.

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p.s: the dough in that top photo is the weelicious graham cracker recipe. It’s delicious and easy. It makes cookies for munching, not housebuilding. I found it in this fantastic cookbook.

Full cart

I’m very pleased with my new-found maternal energy for decorating and all things Christmas-y. Truly when I say to you that last year the extent of our decorating was a bare branch, hung delicately around a bare lightbulb, with six ornaments hanging on it, believe me that whatever dwr sickly-modern image comes to your mind is exactly what it looked like. At the time that seemed perfectly apt to what we needed, given that we travel over the holidays and arrive home in January. And yet, this year I believe I’m following, at the very least, two people on Pinterest who have entire boards devoted solely to twinkly lights. This makes me very happy. I have already informally polled most of my city friends about where they buy their Christmas trees. While I was away in Florida, Joe even bravely attempted a melted-peppermints-into-ornaments DIY. It didn’t turn out whatsoever but we are not deterred.

However, I seem to be one accurate Amazon order away from the reality of all my seasonal daydreams. I don’t like to pull the trigger on Amazon orders too quickly, so I often just pile my cart full of things I definitely need, add one or two things I’m not quite sure about, then mull over the lot of it for a week or two. Each day it sadly occurs to me that the very thing I need is waiting for me in my Amazon cart.

For example, right now we have only one child size spoon even though both girls like using child size spoons. We had three or four at one point in my recent memory, and I can only hope they’ve made their way to a good home because they are with us no longer. Every day I think about the pack of six bamboo spoons I have waiting in my cart. Then, as the presiding arbiter in the household who makes decisions based on complete whimsy and then sticks to them like honey on the bottom of a cabinet, I dole one spoon out to one girl and hand the other girl a fork. After weeks of this, they now eye each other’s utensil closely and then examine their own with some suspicion. It’s not always evident who got the better deal (is pasta better with a spoon or a fork?), and isn’t that just like life, my young grasshoppers? Keep your eyes on your own bowl and you’ll be much more content.

Speaking of other people’s bowls, Boston has yet to be added to these cities where Amazon is hiring butlers to run things to your car or small children to pull red wagons with deliveries or whatever else they are promising to young people in San Francisco who only order iPhone cases and bulk packages of green tea anyway. Between chatting with my brother in NYC and my brother in SF, things seem to be dramatically more efficient for them there, but in a mystifying way. Which is to say that even if I could ask someone to bring over those spoons right away, I’m sure I’d still find something to hem about.