Three cats and a bunny, plus the best thing I ever did on Facebook

Three cats










And a bunny.

Last winter, I posted a quick reflection on parenthood on my Facebook page in the form of a 30 second poem.  I asked friends to post their own short poems.  To my delight, a good handful did post poems.  It was really cool!  First, because, in my experience, most people just do not ordinarily write poems.  I loved that my friends were willing to jump into some spontaneous poetry-writing.  Second, there was an immediate sense of connection in what was written, common threads linking my friends from Massachusetts to Alaska.  And the poems were really good.

We had an easy and low-key Thanksgiving.  The weather was spectacular, too, which made it easy to be appreciative.  Over the long weekend, as I contemplated November’s end, I remembered last winter’s 30 second poems.  What the poems show and remind me is that there is sweetness in life — even in the trying, tiring times, even in the mundane moments of routine.  Sometimes the sweetness is bittersweet; sometimes it’s tinged with half-demented hilarity, sometimes it’s a small sweetness that seems overshadowed by other things.  But it’s there.

Here’s what we wrote, beginning with the one I posted.  Write one and post it, if you want, quick and simple.

Morning (30 second poem)

I wake up early
make coffee
cat wrangle
while the family sleeps
warm the house
keep the peace.

before the light
sneaking moments
quiet hum of respiration.

It’s another day in paradise
knowing the woman of my dreams
is here taking great care of us all,
and that my kids are well and happy.

One at school
One to enjoy for the day
Two bright lights

espresso bubbling on the wood stove
wakes me from a fitful night with a sick child
rocking by the fire, and
reading to soothe the flu
winter arrives with a fury

Balancing the guilt of being too strict,
I take him out of school for half the day
and we play.

Eyes open to the dark within the dark
first denial and then acceptance
wake the sweet dreamers to enter
their salty start to the day,
madness begins

crack o’ dawn,
mouth crusty,
back rusty,
I rise and yawn

Sometimes I wish
I could stop
Setting limits
Enforcing rules
Playing cop
cooking cleaning
dressing encouraging
buckling in
Sometimes I wish
I could break all the rules
watch action movies
have pizza and root beer
play video games
all day long
with my son
Sometime I wish
I could be a dad.

Nice, huh?


Putting out fires

Sometimes helping the kids navigate their school work feels like putting out dozens of tiny forest fires; as soon as you stamp one out, another one pops up a few feet away.  I feel good about Zander agreeing to let me check his math homework and being willing to correct problems that are wrong, but then both kids forget to bring home the book they need to study for a test.  I see improvement in spelling grades, but then one child or the other gets an F on an assignment in a class that wasn’t even on my radar to help them with.  The work packets that come home at the end of each week are a schizophrenic mix of marks, ranging from 100s to failing grades.  This week I was especially disheartened when I saw that Alexander had gotten a score of 25 (!) on a reading assignment — reading!  Say it ain’t so!  Not only was the assignment, which asked him to describe the main points of a book he had read, clearly incomplete (two sentences written on what should have been a full page), but the hand-writing was so horrendous, it was almost impossible to read.  Ugh!

I wish I could say I’m not personally invested in their performance or that these grades don’t really matter.  But the message I’m getting is that it does matter and that I do need to be involved and invested.  Notes from the teachers warning parents of bad grades coming home in the work packets, and reminders that a few low scores on assignments will significantly impact the final grade for the quarter, send a clear signal that the kids need to be on their game for each and every assignment.  Also, we were instructed at the beginning of the year to keep an eye on when the kids had tests (which is supposed to be written by them in their “planners”, but isn’t always) and to help them study.

Furthermore (and this is the tricky piece that makes me scratch my head and sigh in frustration), based on my children’s overall abilities (high standardized test scores, advanced reading levels), they should be more than capable of doing well on daily assignments and in-class tests.  So what’s the missing piece?  Is it lack of motivation?  Are they hurrying?  Do they still need to learn basic study skills and the concept of checking their work?  Are they just not trying?  And what, if anything, can I do to help?

I look into the future and see a long dark tunnel of struggling with school work, night after night, week after week.  For eight more years.  “Noooo….!!!”  my soul screams soundlessly.  Then, from time to time, I hear encouraging tales:  the child who was recalcitrant, disorganized, disengaged, angry (fill in the adjective) about school work suddenly turns it around and starts to cruise through the academic world like nobody’s business.  I know some of these kids and their parents well, so I know these are not just urban myths of Amazing-Child-Transformations.  I’ve heard about the bad grades and homework frustrations and meetings with teachers.  I’ve observed the different reactions and attitudes of the parents, too — from thinking their child might have a learning disability to railing against the teachers for giving too much homework.  I know parents who have encouraged their kids to not give a damn about school requirements that they feel are meaningless and those who have anxiously bent over backwards to arrange extra help for their children.  And all these kids are doing fine now — better than fine — in performance, attitude and spirit.  These stories give me hope.  But, still, it is a hard row to hoe (for me, at least), trying to walk the line of providing just the right amount of support and involvement in my children’s academic world.  And sometimes I am jealous of parents with kids to whom things seem to come more easily.  And sometimes I worry, what if things never turn around?  But what can you do as a parent but hang in there and do your best to help your kids navigate their world?  Appreciate the good and try not to get too freaked out by the not-so-good is my motto for now.

The beauty of the short term goal…

Things have been a bit crazy lately.  The craziness includes being ceaselessly and unusually busy at work, undergoing some unpleasant medical procedures, applying — and waiting to hear if we had been approved for — a new line of credit, helping my mother with doctor’s appointments, and trying to find time to develop our business website, along with the usual ups and downs with the kids and other minor mishaps and inconveniences (losing my debit card, being called for jury duty during a very demanding week at work, having our furnace break), yada yada yada…  My exercise routine has completely disintegrated; I’m feeling guilty about not keeping up with my blog or writing poetry; and last week I dreamed that I was trying to drive a car through a snow storm and I couldn’t reach the gas or brake pedals because I was sitting in the back seat.  Hmm…  But throughout it all, I can at least say that I am accomplishing two modest goals that I set for myself in mid-October.  These goals are a bit trivial, and I’m almost embarrassed to mention them here, much less make a big deal about them.  However, working on these projects has been a small island of efficacy in a sea of stress and chaos over the past month, so I must give credit where credit is due and embrace the short-term goal!

I started thinking about goals when I read a blog post from my friend writing coach Rochelle Melander entitled, “Why Write-A-Thon? Hard Goals Transform Your Life!” discussing research on how achieving specific goals impacts all areas of our lives.  “When we work hard to master a single project, we work our “self-efficacy” muscle, our belief in our ability to accomplish our goals. When we accomplish one hard goal, it has a ripple effect on our life, and it becomes easier to accomplish the other things we want to do.”

I didn’t actually feel up to accomplishing a HARD goal, but I liked the idea of obtaining a sense of mastery by completing a tangible project with clear-cut benefits.  To up the ante, I introduced the idea at a family meeting and suggested that we all come up with a goal that we could accomplish in a month or so.  We would report back on our progress each week.  Amazingly, everyone went for it.

Alexander’s goal was to learn how to clean his fish tank by himself.  He and Dirk talked about the various steps involved in cleaning the tank and what Dirk would teach him first.  Dirk’s goal was to finish building Zoe a loft bed, which we had promised her for her birthday in July.  We set time frames for when different parts of the project would be completed with a target date for installation.  Zoe said she wanted to work on earning money to buy Christmas presents.  My goals were to do all my Christmas shopping (or making of presents) by the end of November AND to finish Zoe and Alexander’s scrapbooks in the same time frame.

For some reason, maybe because I had stated my intentions “in public” to the family, I felt as though completing my goals was non-negotiable.  As they say, failure was not an option.

Both goals were appealing, mainly for the peace of mind they would buy me.  By planning and completing my Christmas tasks early, I could be more intentional and would avoid engaging in a consumerist flurry of guilt-provoking spending.  I would be able to kick back with great satisfaction when December rolled around and I could relax and revel in the magic of the season (and I actually do love that magic) with no pesky Christmas shopping chores hanging over my head.

As for the scrapbooks, they represent just one of a long list of chores and projects I aspire to complete, but which often remain untouched for months, if not years — things like organizing photos, clearing out the attic, writing letters (yes, I actually hold onto the illusion that I will send letters to friends and relatives some day).   As the principles of feng shui hold, clutter drains your energy and immobilizes you.  Unfinished projects create not only physical clutter, but psychic clutter, generating distraction, unease and even anxiety.  Well, at least for people like me.

Working on the kids’ scrapbooks was a great opportunity to do something tangible and satisfying that also had a definite endpoint.  It involved sorting through a wild collection of memorabilia I had thrown into a bin over the past several years, putting things in chronological order, choosing which items would be included, and then placing everything in the books, along with added embellishments to make them interesting and cool looking.

And so, I set about my tasks in a manner probably more plodding and methodical than inspired.  Yet, I felt my momentum growing and my pleasure in my accomplishments becoming more tangible with each passing week.  For me, the time frame was perfect; one to two months was enough time to do quite a bit without feeling overwhelmed or losing sight of an endpoint.  Now, less than two weeks from the end of November, I’m certain I will finish my projects and, crazy as it may sound, I’m pretty excited about it.  In fact, it might be only a slight overstatement to say it brings me great joy to have done what I set out to do, and I envision unlimited vistas of accomplishment ahead — not only the completion of mundane goals, but expanding into the arena of loftier achievements.  Who knows?  Maybe I’ve found a formula for personal accomplishment that will work for my parenting life.

Choose a goal that can be completed in one to two months.  Name the goal.  Tell other people.  Break the goal into parts.  Journal your progress (yes, I did that).  Stick to it.  Voila.  

Death comes for Nagini

“Death comes for Nagini.”  Those were the words Zoe intoned the day after her blueberry dwarf hamster died.  Zoe was, in fact, Death — her Halloween costume this year — and she was preparing a burial for Nagini.  She had “mummified” the little furry body (in toilet paper) the day before, placed her in a closed box with plenty of fresh bedding, some food, and a small sealed container of water, following the ancient Egyptian practice of sending the dead to the afterlife with all that they would need to live a happy and luxurious life.  The burial had been delayed a day because of snow on the morning of Nagini’s death, but by the next day (Sunday), Zoe was ready.  All of these preparations were done calmly and peacefully, but the days leading up to the death had been full of intense emotion.  Now, almost a week after Nagini initially became sick (or, more accurately, we noticed that she was sick), I’m still trying to understand why the death of this tiny creature was such a traumatic and emotional experience, not just for Zoe, but for me.

This past week has been a doozy — in large part because of the hamster.  Zoe got her long-awaited pet on October 12 (my birthday!).  We set her up in a spiffy little cage in Zoe’s room, and she was named Nagini, after Voldemort’s snake in Harry Potter (makes perfect sense, right?).  Immediately, we were all smitten.  Nagini was much more fun and endearing than I had expected her to be.  She was lively and bright-eyed, but also surprisingly well-behaved.  She didn’t seem to mind being handled, didn’t bite us, didn’t scurry quickly away when placed on the floor, but moved with an adorable waddle, inquisitively exploring her surroundings.  The kids set up block mazes for her to play in and carried her around the house.  Her fur was incredibly soft.  She was about two and a half inches long.

Then last Wednesday night, we realized something was wrong.  When Zoe got Nagini out of her cage, her eyes were almost closed and the fur around her face looked oily and matted.  I searched for solutions on the internet (focusing on the eye issue) and wiped her eyes with warm water on a soft cloth.  This did seem to perk her up a bit.  We called the emergency vet, but they did not treat super-small pets and referred me to another vet (which is actually the one we go to for our cats).  The next morning, after dropping the kids off at school, I took Nagini to the vet.  I brought her in the same little box we had been given to transport her from the pet store (which is also the box she was buried in).  We waited a long time, and I took Nagini out to hold her.  She looked pitiful, but not so terrible that I thought she couldn’t be helped.  However, the vet quickly broke the news to me that Nagini was very weak and dehydrated and that there was a good chance she would not live.  She might have some sort of bacterial infection, but it would be hard to treat because antibiotics were tough on hamsters’ systems and, in any case, she probably did not have the strength to rally.  Nagini was given an injection of hydration and a solution with an antibiotic in it for her to drink at home.  I left with a heavy heart, but still uncertain about the outcome, as there was some ambiguity in the way the situation was described by the vet.

The next two days were very difficult.  We watched little Nagini in her cage as she continued to decline.  We held her and loved her and tried to give her water with an eye dropper and tempt her with special foods.  Each time I gave her water (even though it didn’t seem as though very much of it was actually going into her minute mouth), she would open her eyes and appear just a tiny bit revived.  But when I put her back in her cage, she still would not eat or drink.

On Friday night, Zoe and I were both in a terrible funk.  I felt sad, anxious, and unsettled.  We fought about Zoe not picking up an art project from the living room floor.  Then we talked about Nagini and cried.  At first Zoe was very despondent and negative, but as we continued to talk, I saw her move to a place that was more contemplative and accepting.  She was able to discuss the possibility of getting another hamster at some point in the future, rather than angrily rejecting this idea.  She was able to speak fondly of Nagini without despair.  She was to accept the comfort I had to give her and let go of the conflict and strife between us.  The next morning, Zoe was standing at my bedside with Nagini.  She had been alive when Zoe woke up, and she had taken her out of the cage and held her for a few minutes.  Then Nagini curled up in the palm of Zoe’s hand and died.

During the days when the saga was unfolding, I posted about it several times on Facebook.  I was blown away by the incredible outpouring of care and comfort from my friends and acquaintances.  Yet I felt almost guilty, as though I was making too big a deal out of it, as if I was milking a well of compassion that I should save for something more serious — for a real tragedy.  Crazy, right? — to think of compassion as a limited commodity?  Where did I ever learn that?!

I’m still not sure why this experience was so painful and intense.  But I’m appreciative of the learning that took place and the communication that occurred between me and Zoe.  Not sure yet if we will get another hamster.  Once again, we are back to being three cats and a bunny.  And some fish.