Thursday, September 11, 2014

Stories: Mean Bunny and The Rules of Good Behavior

I love to tell stories, which you probably could have figured out from the fact that I blog. I started telling stories to my daughter when she was about 18 months old. We alternate between real life stories of events in my daughter's life, retold fairy tales, and completely made up stories. The made up stories are just goofy little things featuring "pretend friends" interacting with my daughter in various adventures.

Some of those characters have taken on their own life in her imagination. Freddy Frog and Ronnie and Rachel Robot (twins, you know, Ronnie is short for Veronica) have become faithful companions for all sorts of imaginary jaunts, usually in a rocket ship. Their characteristics, ages, and characters have evolved somewhat over time. Freddy has shifted from a pond frog to a tree frog and he is much less hyper and annoying than he used to be. He has an ever changing number of siblings and multiple birthdays each year. Ronnie and Rachel Robot don't have as much personality, but they do live in a treehouse, are afraid of rain, and eat birthday cake for dinner. So they are fun to have around and nicely fill out the group.

Some characters I tried to introduce haven't made it into the canon. Francesca and her pet dragon, for example, made a brief appearance when my daughter was about two and then disappeared once again, although I rather liked them. Cinderella was a character for a while and my daughter would want to take an imaginary trip to Cinderella's house to help her with chores before going to the ball together. Then Cinderella would reciprocate by visiting our home and helping us out with our chores. Lately we haven't seen much of Cinderella, though. Other fairy tale characters have taken her place and stories about them tend to follow the book or movie plot more closely.

The way my husband and I use the stories has changed over time as well. At first our stories were purely for fun, something to entertain our daughter in the car or while snuggling before bed time. It didn't take long until we evolved them into gentle teaching tools. For example, the character of Mean Bunny appears to be here to stay for a while. Mean Bunny is usually a very poorly behaved character, which I suppose the name makes obvious. He hurts the other characters and gets into trouble and my daughter's character usually has to correct and teach him. The lesson she teaches him over and over are the "Rules of Good Behavior" which we came up with as a family. I think they are pretty handy in keeping small bunnies out of trouble.

The Rules of Good Behavior
No hurting other people. Keep your hands, feet, teeth and ears to yourself.
Speak kindly and respectfully to others.
Don't grab or take toys from other kids, bunnies, robots or frogs.
Share, take turns, and wait for your turn patiently.
When you are frustrated or mad walk away. Play with another toy, another kid or bunny, or ask an adult for help.

Of course, Mean Bunny never can remember the rules and gets into all kinds of trouble on the playground or over at our house for a play date. He gets consequences and feels terribly sad and then my daughter's character takes him aside and reminds him of the rules. Once Mean Bunny follows the rules he has much more fun and everything ends happily. On a few occasions recently my daughter has declared that Mean Bunny isn't mean anymore and that he's become Nice Bunny. Most of the time, though, she still wants to hear stories about Mean Bunny. I suppose it's nice to feel wise and mature and capable, no matter how old you are.
Mean Bunny by Rose Anne Karesh, 2014.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

The Pirate Fairy and Grace

...and I think to myself, what a wonderful world. from Flickr via Wylio
© 2010 Caleb Dorfman Photography, Flickr | CC-BY-ND | via Wylio
 I attended a church once that did an annual "G-D in the Movies" sermon series, usually in the autumn. The pastors and sometimes a member of the congregation would each choose a movie and use the themes and moments in the movie to illustrate a point about our relationship to G-D. I'm sorry to say I don't remember many of the specifics, but it always surprised me how many movies brought up these themes. The movies ranged from popular blockbusters to indie films to little known documentaries and each of them had something important to say. Which, now that I've written that and thought about it some more, isn't really so surprising after all.

I was thinking about this because I realize that I do the same thing with my daughter. Recently we were watching "The Pirate Fairy" which is part of the Disney line of Tinkerbell movies. There are five of them, I think, and they feature Tinkerbell and her friends solving various problems through cleverness and teamwork and caring. In one of the pivotal moments in "The Pirate Fairy" Tinkerbell and her friends give up a treasure they had worked very hard to retrieve from the pirates in order to save the pirate fairy, a renegade fairy who helped the pirates steal from and imprison the fairies. The pirate fairy asks Tinkerbell why they saved her, and Tinkerbell replies with a smile "We're showing you quarter." Earlier in the film the pirate fairy had refused to show quarter to Tinkerbell and her friends, but Tinkerbell pays back harm with kindness. The pirate fairy becomes an ally and of course the fairies defeat the pirates and recover their treasure.

Nor surprisingly, that particular scene generated a host of questions from my four year old.

"What's quarter?" she wanted me to explain. I told her that quarter meant mercy, or even grace.

"What's grace?" she wanted to know. Grace is when someone gives you something you don't deserve or earn, I told her. It's like G-D giving us his love and forgiving us, and it's like Mommy not making you take all of a time-out sometimes. It's something you receive as a gift.

I don't know how well my four year old understands all this. Hopefully repetition and ongoing illustration will help her take these ideas in. They're tough concepts even for grownups. This weekend during the pastor's sermon in church the pastor talked about how grace is hard for us to accept. He was speaking about G-D's grace being sufficient for us in all of the hardship and troubles we might face, and emphasized that grace is something unearned and undeserved by definition. Most of us don't do well with this idea, with accepting something we don't feel we deserve. It feels uncomfortable and insecure and dependent, which is anathema to Western 21st century adults. I believe grace is true though, and I find I can grasp and accept it best using metaphors.

Movies provide great metaphors; Tinkerbell saved the pirate fairy even though she didn't deserve it, because of who Tinkerbell is and because of Tinkerbell's character. My favorite metaphor though, the one I understand best, is that of parents and children. Fundamentally, I love and take care of my child not because of who she is but because of who I am and the relationship I have with her. I loved her when she was a tiny infant, when all she could do was cry and make a mess, just because she was my baby. I love her now when she is still making messes and also gets into trouble and frustrates me, because she is my child. Which is not to say that she isn't lovable or that she doesn't have wonderful qualities; she is and does. But that's not the basis for my love. It's not the reason I provide care for her. My love and care aren't contingent on her behavior or her characteristics, they exist because of who I am. She can't earn my love and care and she can't lose it. The word mother defines how I relate to my child, and my character tells me that a mother cares for and loves her child.

In the same way, G-D is our parent. His love and care are given to us based on his character and his relationship to us. We can't earn G-D's love and we can't lose it. His love is given to us as a gift. That's grace.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Shatter Me - Inspiration from Lindsay Stirling

I've become a fan of the song "Shatter Me" by Lindsay Stirling, featuring Lzzy Hale. I heard it on the radio and was grabbed by the electric energy of the violin contrasted with the delicate, tinkling music box background. As I listened I began to pick up the lyrics more clearly and was intrigued enough to want to watch the music video. I found it on YouTube while my daughter was sitting on my lap for an extended slow post-nap waking up snuggle. I enjoy cuddling my daughter but after about 15 minutes when she wasn't showing any signs of being ready to face the world again I decided it would be okay to look up the video and watch it with her.

If you haven't seen it, I highly recommend looking it up (here's a link). It's a striking and lovely piece of storytelling in which Lindsay Stirling plays a music box ballerina painfully setting herself free from her pretty prison and experiencing the grandeur of a wider, lovelier, riskier world. Her freedom creates freedom for the other character in the store, the mechanic maintaining her clockwork machinery, played by Lzzy Hale.

Of course, watching music videos with a four year old requires some discussion and explanation. Her question at the end was "Why did she break that glass?" Which left me trying to explain the concept of a metaphor to a four year old, that it was a pretend story that helps us understand something else. We talked about becoming free from fear so that we can be the people G-D created us to be. It's more than a little above her developmental level but she was able to connect it with our previous conversations about the movie Frozen and how Queen Elsa needed to be freed from fear in order to use her powers for good. So, hopefully some of those ideas are getting through and taking hold.

It struck me, as we talked, how often I talk to my daughter about fear and love and courage, about being the person G-D wants you to be. I write about these ideas pretty often as well. I think all these conversations come about because this is my own growth point right now. I am slowly coming to realize how many of my own choices are fear driven and how many times I'm not true to the person G-D created me to be. It is a process, and I'm not sure how it's working out will unfold or even what the next steps should be. My theme seems to be moving towards uncertainty, vulnerability and discomfort so that I am open to peace, love and joy. So far all I can really say is that growth isn't easy, and can at times feel shattering, but I am hanging on to faith in the idea that challenge and change are vital in many sense of the word.

We just celebrated my daughter's fourth birthday this weekend, and as she does her own growing I realize that she is watching how I live my life. I hear more and more echoes of myself in her voice. Little phrases and jokes that I'm not even aware I say regularly she reflects back to me with uncanny accuracy. I'm relieved that one of her phrases recently is "Oh, I sure can!" Apparently that's one of my favorites. It's not so bad, but it tugs on a string in my heart, telling me that this little girl is watching me. She will live her life the way I live mine. I can talk all I want about love and courage. If I want her to be courageous and loving, I have to live it. Her freedom will in many ways be linked to mine. Which means I can't live my life in a safe music box globe either.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Bug Spray, Summer Camp, Self-Denial

My brain is scattered tonight, a thought here, an image there, an idea somewhere else. Coming back from vacation is like this. It's hard to readjust, even after just a week, to alarm clocks and routines and focusing on work. It's hard to move to someone else's tempo instead of my own.

The only thing I didn't like about my vacation was the mosquitos. I came back with about twelve bites on each leg and for some reason I am really, really reactive to mosquitos this year. All of the bites turned bright red and have been very itchy for days. I've been having to use topical diphenhydramine and then take oral allergy medicine on top of it. Mosquitos seem to like me better than anyone else in my family, too. My husband and daughter don't have mosquito bites at all. It's not a great way to be popular, honestly.

I don't usually use bug spray. I worry that maybe it's not so good for me, that it's poisonous. But I don't want any more mosquito bites for a while, and it's kind of hot to wear long pants. So this week when we go out for evening walks as a family I've been spraying on the bug spray. Bug spray smells like summer camp, I have realized. I mentioned this to my husband and he responded instantly "yes!" so it's not just me. Such an odd thing, for two of us to be thrown back across a quarter century of time to humid Virginia nights in the woods with a bunch of other self-conscious awkward adolescents.

Our daughter is already asking if she can go to sleep away camp. I am not sure how this came up, although I suppose my husband and I were telling stories at some point and she overheard us. She's only four, so I tell her yes, but not until you're older. I wonder what she'll think of it when she goes. I remember being lonely and missing my mom, but my daughter is pretty calm about being separated from us. Of course, she's only ever spent the night with grandparents. Summer camp is a whole different ball game. I have to remember though, that she's herself and not me.

One way we're alike is that we don't like self-denial. We were getting ready to walk tonight and everyone was ready to go; shoes on, bug spray applied, bathroom stops taken care of. Our daughter was tired and asked to ride in her stroller. Mostly she's outgrown this but she did have a very active day and my husband and I wanted to really walk, so the stroller suited everyone's agenda. We retrieved it from the garage and opened up and then the requests began.

"I want a blanket."

In the past we have tucked blankets around her in late fall and early spring. It's too hot for blankets today, plus I don't want to go back in the house. It's already close to bedtime and I really want to get a walk in.

"No, it's too hot for blankets."

She climbs in the stroller and then announces "I want goldfish."

In the past we have given her a small snack in the stroller. We justified it to ourselves saying that she often doesn't eat much, she tends to be a little underweight, and it gets a few more calories into her. It also keeps her happy and quiet for at least a while so that we can enjoy our walk, which is probably the more honest reason for the treat. Tonight though, she ate a good dinner. And I still don't want to go back in the house and lose time from my walk.

I tell her "No, it's time to practice self-denial."

She immediately lets out a wail and announces "I don't like self-denial!"

Me too, sweetie. Me too. But we still went for a walk.

Monday, August 18, 2014

The Answer I Have (#icebucketchallenge)

I was invited by my friend to participate in the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. The deal is, once nominated, you either pour a bucket of ice water over your head within 24 hours or you make a donation to the ALS Association ( to help fund their research to fight Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (also known as Lou Gherig's disease or ALS). If you didn't already know, ALS is a progressive and currently incurable neurologic disease that leaves its victims immobile and helpless before it kills them.

Early in the evening, while trying to catch up on my journal, I wrote this:

Terrible world events lately, A young man named Michael Brown was shot and killed by police - he was unarmed and running away and still the police officer shot him to death. That makes 4 unarmed black men this month killed by police officers which is so sickening. Then the police turned on the protestors who were supporting Mr. Brown's family. Tear gas and rubber bullets and tanks in the streets; it's insane. Isn't this America? Lots of talk about racism which is so real still. I hope something good comes out of it, like maybe people recognizing that racism is actually still a problem right along with misogyny and homophobia and abuse. ISIS (Islamic State Iraq and Syria) is murdering people in Iraq, executing Christians and the Yazidi people - the news had stories about crucifixions and beheadings. The U.S. is bombing Iraq again. Israel and Hamas are bombing each other. Robin Williams, the actor who played the Genie in Aladdin and many other amazing roles including the teacher in Dead Poet Society which climaxed in a teen suicide, killed himself. The Ukraine is completely unstable with war going on between rebels probably backed by Russia and the Ukrainian government. A plane was shot down over the Ukraine that was carrying scientists and researchers to a conference on AIDS - I think that the target was random, an act of terrorism, but so much more bitter to have people killed whose life work was curing others. There is an Ebola outbreak in West Africa. There are still thousands of immigrant children coming over the southern border of the US without parents because of danger and unrest in Central America. I don't even know what else. All the same old problems of poverty and hunger and climate change and violence and cruelty and disease. Lord, have mercy on us. Help us, please help us. 

Last week I had a conversation with a patient, which is a conversation that I've had with many people over the years. How do you stand the pain? When the world is so bad, when people suffer so much, how can you stand it? I don't really have a good answer to that question, just like I don't have good answers for all of the problems above. I wish I had a magic, perfect answer to that question. I wish I could take away all the pain, because, really, I think that is the subtext of that particular conversation. We all wish for the pain to be dealt with, for the world to be made perfect for all of us. And oh, how I long for that. But it is not what I can offer.

The answer I have is this. You can't make it not hurt. There is just no way to block out the pain, and when you try all that happens is you block out the good stuff like love and fun and joy and then you are lonely and stuck and you are in pain anyway. Trying to make things not hurt is a losing battle, a rigged game. So, I just let it hurt. I cry, I scream, I write, I yell at G-D and then I pray for help and mercy. I let the pain come and then I let it go. Not gone, more like waves that wash over me and recede. Pain is a fact of life, so another wave is always coming. Sometimes thick and fast in a storm and sometimes at long, slow intervals when all is peaceful, but every wave that comes will eventually go. And when the wave of pain has dropped back enough I get busy.

I work. I give. I write. I pray. I fight the battles that I can fight and I hope that each person I help and touch will be able to help a few more people who will then go on to help a few more people; a chain reaction of love and goodness. And then I rest. I'm on vacation this week with my family. We are spending a week together and it is wonderful. There is a part of me that spoke up as I wrote that sentence saying "you should feel bad, writing that, having fun when so much in the world is so broken and painful, when so many people are suffering. How dare you?" And then a wiser part of me spoke up and said "No. If you are sad and exhausted, how does that help lessen anyone else's suffering? Your misery won't alleviate the world's pain, but your joy might. Stay strong so you can stay on the front lines of your particular battles."

Which brings me back to my friend's invitation. I went ahead and donated to the ALS Association this evening, to help them fight the battle they have chosen. I'll keep on fighting on my part of the line too, giving and praying and working and writing as well as I can. And tomorrow I might see if I can scrounge up a bucket of ice water to dump on my head. I know the silliness of me soaking myself on purpose would delight my daughter and make my family laugh. A little joy in the name of a good cause seems like the right idea.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Lopsided Bunny

I finished my daughter’s birthday present last night. She loves bunnies. Her two favorite stuffed animals are bunnies and she regularly pretends to be a bunny in a warren. Bunnies feature prominently in the various made up stories our family tells at bedtime. I wanted to give her a hand knit toy for her birthday, and so a bunny seemed like the natural choice. I found a pattern from my favorite toy designer and knitting hero Susan Anderson and got to work.

It’s definitely not perfect. I’ve seen Susan Anderson’s model bunny toy in person, when I’ve taken classes from her, and I’m not even close. To my knitter’s eye, the increases and decreases I used in shaping the toy are more visible than I would like. I didn’t have quite enough of the white yarn and so I had to modify the legs from the original pattern quite a bit, resulting in short stubby legs instead of the more elegant dangling legs in the design. The placement of the arms, legs and ears is a little more lopsided than I was hoping for and the head is quite wobbly. I embroidered the face about three different times before I finally got something I thought was okay, and I still feel like it’s missing something.

I could fix all of that. A friend once told me she took a knitting class and she didn’t like it, because they wouldn’t teach her how to fix mistakes. I thought that was strange because fixing mistakes in knitting is really easy. You just unravel all your work down to the point of the mistake and start over from there. Of course, it’s also pretty discouraging to undo all your hard work, especially if you didn’t notice the mistake until you had progressed quite a bit further in your knitting. My mother-in-law views it as bonus knitting; you knitted it twice and therefore obtained more knitting pleasure from the yarn. I like her attitude but I’m not planning to unravel and redo my daughter’s present.

First of all, I just don’t have time to undo and completely re-knit and re-sew all the components before her birthday. I’d rather have an imperfect toy to give her than no toy at all. Second of all, I would have to buy more yarn and since I bought this particular skein on a trip to Seattle last year I am not sure I could match it easily. Thirdly, I am trying really hard not to be a perfectionist. There are some knitting mistakes that I will rip back for because they make a big difference in the final project, but other mistakes are acceptable. The mistakes in this toy fall into the acceptable category. My daughter’s gift looks like a bunny, so she will love it. It’s sturdy enough to stand up to preschool handling and the little flaws give it character and personality. Fourth and finally, I am ready to move on to another project. It’s time to get started on holiday gifts and new patterns are calling me.

I love knitting. I love the feel and look of yarn; the color and the softness and the sensual, tactile delight of beautiful material. I love the process of making something new, of seeing it unfold stitch by stitch. I love feeling clever and creative and accomplished. Beyond my love of it though, I think knitting is good for me. It reminds me to lighten up, to accept imperfection, and to play.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Holy Ground

On 9:27 in the morning on a Saturday the Northern Virginia Warehouse of the Capital Area Food Bank became holy ground. In an echoing space with scuffed concrete floors, dented industrial metal shelving, and rippled metal sheet siding fifteen men and women with fifteen different shades of skin tone packed five hundred and eighty bags of food and loaded them into twenty-nine large boxes.

Old and young they worked together, quietly organizing themselves into a smoothly flowing assembly line. No one person seemed to be in charge but everyone knew what needed to be done and contributed according to their talents. The young woman with a gift for opening stubborn plastic bags started the process. Then two older women doubled the bags so the heavy food items would not break through and whispered quiet prayers for the recipients. A middle-aged man added a box of applesauce and a dose of humor, and then passed the bag to the men with the cereal bars. They added their contribution and then on down the line the bag went, gaining collard greens, baked beans, spaghetti, pasta sauce and raisins before being tied off at the end and placed gently into a box. Up and down the line people talked, joked, encouraged each other, asked for breaks and pauses and shared snippets of their lives. A teenage boy and an old man walked up and down the line, removing trash and breaking down emptied containers. In less than an hour the boxes were full and the group disbanded as simply and peacefully as it had come together, with handshakes and smiles all around.

The boxes waited in the warehouse to be picked up by agencies who would deliver the food to elderly people in need, people who don’t have quite enough money each month to keep from being hungry. Each bag is designed to feed a person for a weekend, enough food to get through until another check comes in. And perhaps those bags might also deliver a dose of kindness along with the knowledge that the recipient is not alone, that many people cared enough to give the food, pack the boxes and deliver the bags on a hot and humid August day.