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Archive for the ‘Quirky Parenting’ Category

(This was the first place Mother’s Day essay contest winner in Austin Parent Wise Magazine, May 2010). http://www.parentwiseaustin.com/Archive/2010-05/Geisha

I am having a bad morning after an even worse night.

My daughter, whom I care for alone and drive to daycare alone every day, is having a tantrum and screaming so loudly the neighbors can hear. The neighbors I never invite over, because I don’t want them to see how empty my house is, how I can’t afford to buy a steamer and paint to cover the ugly wallpaper my daughter compulsively rips off, how collection agents call me every few hours and leave angry-sounding messages on my machine. I am alone in this chaotic mess my life has become, because I am a single, alone mom of a restless four-year-old, working overtime to keep us alive.

I am ashamed. Of all these secrets. 



But let’s put all that aside for a moment—because I am going to work.

When I drop off my daughter at daycare, I return to the car and drive the 20 minutes back to my job at a local spa, where I work as a front desk receptionist. When I step out of the car, I am a different person. I have applied a coat of fairy dust to my ruffled feathers. I have put on my smile. I have perfectly tied my imaginary kimono and tucked my obi into place. I am ready to serve. 



Everything is clean, pristine here. The lighting is perfect. I am suddenly someone else. Someone who is happy all the time, who is gracious and fluid, who creates beauty.



When I answer the phone, I say, “How may I serve you?” When asked how my day is going, I smile and say “Excellent, and yours?” When a plumpish 60-year-old guest comes out of her facial appointment, I look at her as if she were the only person alive on earth—as if she is my best friend. “Wow,” I tell her. “You’re glowing!” And she is. 



The skincare therapist is busy cleaning her station, so I offer to do the guest’s makeup—that’s part of my job. Slightly nervous, as I’m still new at this, I assess her face and pray to God, Krishna, the Virgin Mary, all the Muses and Kevin Aucoin: please let me show her she’s beautiful. And she is.

She is a talker, so it’s a little tricky to work on her. Her fine lines (which I will never in a million years refer to) pose a challenge as well: makeup tends to collect in them if not applied carefully. I explain to her what the primer does and how it is enriched with seaweed extract that will hydrate her skin, create a base for the orchid-extract-fortified foundation to adhere to. I ask her what look she usually likes. Peachy, sun-kissed; shiny lip gloss, no foundation, bronzer. I can see that she’s outgrown this look. I don’t tell her this. I’m thinking she could do something a little more glam, more regal. I ask her if she’s with me on that. And she is.

I am going to give her a new look today. Her face, only more stunning. I can see that her dark eyes have a wonderful Egyptian look. I explain to her after applying powder and concealer, that I’m going to use this gold eyeshadow with a little olive green in the corners, to make her eyes stand out and look glamorous. I use lash-lengthening mascara, smoky umber smudge pencil along her lids, and a very subtle cream blush in a bronze hue. I finish that up with a subtle look on the lips: I want her eyes to do all the talking. Just a little lip gloss in a sheer rusty hue is all she needs. The shimmery colors help add a glow that smooths fine lines, but the colors are stately and do not pretend to be teenaged and foolish. She is curious about every step as we go—what is this for? Can you write it down for me? She tells me about her granddaughter’s soccer tournament, her renovations on her deck, and I listen and comment approvingly. It is easy to win people over when you listen and care. It helps make sales as well, but it’s not about selling to me anymore. Sure, I need to make more than the pathetic $8 an hour I’m making here. Sure, I need your commissions. But I am not fishing. I am acting. I am forgetting my pain by creating joy in others. And I am believing. When I show the woman the mirror, I ask if she is happy. And she is.



I know I will go home tonight to an empty house, an empty refrigerator, a crying child who is ready to finally unleash her pent-up aggression on me and only me. I will hear the phone ring and know it’s about a bill. I won’t answer it. I will drive to Taco Bell and sit in front of the cold blue flourescent light of the drive-thru, and order some .89 cent bean burritos fresco-style, because I’m worried we’re not getting enough vegetables anymore. I will sleep alone on the couch or put my daughter in bed with my ex in the middle of the night, and take over her bed—which is already drowning in Care Bears. I will sit in front of my computer because I’m too tired to clean the mess in front of me, and dream. Converse. Plead. Write poetry. Bleed. Try to remember what it is like to have real flesh-and-blood friends around me, to be held, to be talked to with a live human voice. To live in a house where I feel myself spread out like butter, that I am proud to inhabit and maintain. To live in beauty, feeling my power and my tribe of friends encircle me snugly like a hug. To give gifts freely in abundance, and feel that the ground under my feet is my own.



But until then, I struggle. I know I will get to this place of peace—one scraped handful of bricks at a time. Until then, I have this discipline, this practice to help me imagine. For the space of today’s work, I am creating luxury and graciousness. And as easy as it’s become to put aside my problems in the morning, it seems to get harder and harder to put away that grace at the end of the day. Sometimes I find my kimono is still tied, my obi still fastened, my hair still lacquered into place as I set down my daughter’s homely Taco Bell burrito on a plate, discussing the nutritional benefits of beans and tomato salsa.

And I wonder if this practice can become a calling. If somehow, this mood of service is sinking into my bones. If I am learning that through pleasing others, through transforming them and helping them see their own inner beauty through new eyes, I am doing the same somehow to myself.

And I am.

© Sarah Noack 2007

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for Jeni

After a day like today
of wrestling with your curls,
washing paint from your shirt
and dirt from your hair

After a day like today:
a two-bath day of noise,
tears and no, muffin crumbs,
a nap truncated by the runs—

is the perfect day
to remember you just so:
standing on a hearth,
belting “My Funny Valentine”

in toddler lisp
as a party crowd smiled
in hushed bliss

or the way you dance
like your body is wind,
and smile like your face
is a broken urn
spilling sunlight

little miracle
of braids and curls
and storms and tantrums:
little girl—

the way you pick
at cake like an epicure,
commenting on each crumb
and ripple;
or search for the moon
behind a cloud

or sob at the thought
of hurting a cow,
or at your face in the mirror,
“I look like a mask!”
black-markered
after an experiment
in self-adornment—

the way you sigh
and enfold each bear
in its own tiny womb;
“Shhh, they’re tired,”
and sleep with no blanket
at the foot of the bed

or croon
Charlotte Gainsbourg
in the back seat of the car,
“I’m dead,
and I’m perfectly content,”
in the cheeriest
of copped French accents—

little worry,
little love
I cannot always find
the place in me
that speaks to you
as the soul you are—

that understands all
you bring
that knows you are wealth,
you are starlight

little teacher, you are patient
and I am old.
We chose each other:
let’s stay this way.

On a day like today,
let me hold you
and smell your dusty hair,
remembering the day
you came into this world:

small as a star,
fragile as pink dawn—
universes breathing
from the orb of your open lips.

© Sarah Noack 2007

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I still can’t figure out why anyone would prefer to live in the suburbs… when they could live in a NEIGHBORHOOD.

I still can’t figure out why anyone would prefer to spend every moment of their spare time in national chain stores, when they could shop at NEIGHBORHOOD STORES.

And I definitely can’t figure out why people want to have virtual lives, when they can have REAL ONES… with the people that they meet each day.

I had today off from work, and so I picked Jeni up from school at 2:30 instead of sending her to the afterschool program. This is a novelty for us each week that may soon end as I add more hours to my working life—so we take advantage of it.

While I waited, I talked to my new friend K. We are often the only parents who arrive early to drop off and pick up our children, who are in adjacent kindergarten classes. She is tough, very gritty, very Irish, and full of intense opinions. She doesn’t like to advertise how intelligent or educated she is, or how eccentric a lot of her ideas are within our small neighborhood. I liked her from the first day I met her on registration day, mouthing off to the complacent staff who couldn’t explain why, after four hours in a hot hallway, water wasn’t provided to the listless five-year-old children. Eight months pregnant with pre-eclampsia, she also demanded a chair—and an apology when a school administrator referred to her husband as “your baby’s daddy” and told her to use her public assistance information in order to register her child for school, because she didn’t have a cell phone bill. She was not on public assistance, and had just decided to live without a cell phone. She was like a blonde, freckled Statue of Liberty, holding up the weight of the world with her sturdy arms.

I talk to all the mothers who wait, at least all the ones who speak English (which limits the selection by about 2/3). But with K., I can be a squeaky wheel in good company. I can bitch about the school system with someone who actually cares enough to bitch about it, and then think of ways we can work around its flaws. I can talk about everything from kombucha to erotic fiction with her without getting looks. She is as open-minded as she is opinionated. I keep thinking something I’ll say will shock or offend her, but it never does. Nothing seems to offend her except complacency and laziness. She has a warrior spirit, and understands my artist’s one.

There are so many people I pass each day. As Jeni walks with me down the main street, we pass an old man wearing black pants imprinted with many colored dollar signs. I vaguely remember this same man standing on the corner, listening to K. and I talk, but pretending to be waiting for a bus. It doesn’t creep me out that this may be the same man; there are some people like that on the main drag who just are fixtures, extensions of the park benches and streets. They are harmless and ancient; part of the fabric of the city.

Jeni and I go into the Moroccan market to buy some dates. There is a boy who works there who speaks no English. I buy some water and Medjool dates. I think he overcharges for the dates, but I’d rather buy them here than at the large grocery store down the hill. When I ask him for a straw, he points questioningly at the box of straws nearby, and I nod yes.

We head into the small Italian market that proclaims to have “The Best Mozzarella in All Jersey City.” I buy some frozen, homemade ravioli while Jeni is busy talking to the owner’s child—a girl Jeni’s age. The girl, who is wearing a paper crown, invites Jeni to draw hearts on a piece of paper with her on the floor. Jeni is thrilled, and obliges as I spend time looking through the vats of sundried tomatoes, bocconcini and assorted marinated salads. The owner doesn’t understand what I’m asking when I say I want some mozzarella, so I correct my pronounciation, eliminating the “a” at the end and stressing the first syllable. She smiles and understands. I’ve learned that in this town, people (Italian and not) take their mozzarella very seriously. You don’t NEED to qualify it by asking for “fresh” because no one would dream of stocking anything less.

We head into the local kid’s clothes shop to buy Jeni a uniform sweater and socks. I’ve been feeling guilty about sending her to school in a burgundy uniform paired with exotic multicolored socks, so I’ve ponied up today to get what she needs to look appropriately conformist. This was our real reason for heading over to the main street today, and we’re done with it quickly.

“Mom,” Jeni says, skipping erratically as we leave, “I want to go somewhere FUN. Someplace SPECIAL.”

I ask her if the Italian store wasn’t special enough, if the date store wasn’t special enough. “No,” she said. “Someplace really, really fun and special.”

Today would have to be the day we entered the Birthday Store, as Jeni called it. On the nights when I pick her up from the sitter, we always pass an ice-cream cake store. I could never figure out if it looked creepy or inviting to me, with its chipping styrofoam cakes and faded mylar balloons in the window, and its pastel lemon-yellow tile walls that reminded me of a 1950’s fondant cake. Everything about the place felt so retro, even from afar. I was hesitant to explore it… the aesthetic was so old-school I didn’t know what to make of it.

When we entered in the door, bells tinkled and color hit our eyes. It was pastel, it was bright, it smelled of many flavors of ice cream all in one cloud of sweetness. Signs everywhere indicated “We Have Soft Serve,” and “Wednesdays: Sundae Dinners are Buy One Get One Free!” I didn’t even realize, until entering the place, that you could just go there to buy ice cream and even soda fountain drinks. I’d thought it was just cakes.

We each ordered a sundae, and ate it standing up. They were really good—much better than I’d expected. The lack of chairs was my only complaint about this otherwise amazing place. My eyes kept darting around between the immaculately ancient signage populated by star-kissed words and dancing ice cream beverages, and the pastel lemon tiled walls, and the ornate tin molding on the ceilings. And then I noticed… they sell clocks! Themed clocks! You could buy a hunter-themed clock, or a cuckoo or an old comic-theme clock, at an ice-cream cake store! I KNEW we’d be back.

When I moved to New Jersey, I knew I liked it here—otherwise I wouldn’t have moved. But it was new to me. I had lived in NYC for six years in my early adulthood. So when I imagined moving to NJ, it was, to a huge extent, to be close to “The City.” I think a lot of newcomers do that… the Jersey suburbs of NYC are much cheaper than any other area I contemplated living in (even Richmond, VA, which I had toyed with calling home), but there’s such an easy access to the Big Apple. And you don’t need a car here.

But I’ve found that, to me, I’m really very content these days just staying in my neighborhood. I don’t venture out that often. I like the cozy routines of my job (which I walk to), Jeni’s school (which I live across from), and shopping at the local stores and supermarkets. I have almost everything I need right here, and don’t like dealing with (or paying for) transportation of any kind. I haven’t even lived here for a month, and I have Neighbors. Something I didn’t have after living for four years in Virginia. I have people whom I can wave to when I pass them by their houses. I have people I can talk to at the playground… today I had a great conversation with a mom whose husband is a writer. I am starting to know the store owners, the diner waitresses, the strange people who hang out on the street corners here, and the cool eccentric artists, freaks and warriors who stick out like sore thumbs in this cozy blue-collar world.

Sometimes I’m struck by this irony… I had to move to the outskirts of one of the world’s biggest cities, in order to become provincial.

As Jeni and I round the bend to come up to our house, she comments on her favorite sign (for a Spanish internet cafe). The man with the dollar sign pants is still there, but strangely, he has changed park benches so he’s facing the other way. I wonder if I’m the only person who notices this.

“Mommy, we have to go up to our new apartment now,” Jeni says, tugging my hand. “It misses us!”

I laugh as I climb up the steps, into an apartment that has been uninhabited for 20 years.

It is ours now. I turn my key in the lock.

© Sarah Noack 2008

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Kaleidescope

 

Your world is a kaleidescope. You need nothing to be happy; sometimes only the air moving makes you laugh. It’s tomorrow, and you’re still talking about yesterday—how full it was of colors and sights and voices. You remember jumping in the moon-walk plastered seductively with inflatable ice cream cones and candies, and I remember how the attendant had to crawl in and pull you out long after your group’s turn had ended. You remember watching the boats on the marina with me, pointing out each airplane and boat and building. You want to know what is going on inside each one. You are fascinated with each roll of the waves as you stand on the floating dock; I don’t even need to buy a ferry ticket to entertain you. 

 

You remember drawing on napkins at the diner and watching a booth of rainbow suncatchers twirling in the spring breeze. You remember riding on my shoulders, being fed slushes, brownies and popcorn by so many loving hands. “What did you say?” you asked anxiously after each offer, as if checking to make sure that you heard correctly. You, who are always so demurely oblique about hinting what you want. “I see something cold,” you note coyly as an ice-cream stand comes into view. I make you tell me what you really want. I don’t allow you to get what you want unless you ask directly. I want you to understand that the universe functions by asking and sometimes even taking, when no one seems to allows you to realize your dreams. I never learned this, growing up. I was always told to wait, be polite, ask indirectly. I want you to know that the world is yours. 

 

When I see you on your hands and knees later on the rubber tarmac of the park, crawling behind park benches to stalk pigeons with the most serious hunter’s expression, I need nothing more than you in this moment. When I see you try to reach up to an airplane from the highest rung of the jungle gym, I cringe—unlike you, I have always been terrified of heights—but I love you even more as I call out to you from the bottom to hold on. When I watch you ferociously riding the metal-spring powered dummy cars as if you were taming a wild stallion, I live in your screeches of unchained bliss. You are never afraid to go too high on the swings, to get too dirty, to try something new. You would rather walk all day until your feet are sore and you collapse limply in the bed, than to stay in bed watching cartoons. You would rather count the letter “M”‘s on D.C. Metro trains for hours, than to shake Goofy’s costumed hand.

 

Why do parents think that it costs so much to entertain and educate children? I have never taken you to Disneyland and never plan to. I never take you to Chuck E. Cheese, to amusement parks (unless I am getting paid to mystery shop them), or enroll you in fancy classes. I don’t buy you educational CD’s (unless I get them at yard sales), and don’t even have a functioning TV.  While you were in the womb, you heard the sounds of customers in the health food store where I worked, and pneumatic drills in the subway stop where we waited each day for my train. You did not hear Shakespeare read to you through special speakers. Yet there is no denying that you are a walking poem… my best and most important one ever. And, like all my best poems, the ones I’ve let go of and allowed to fully awaken—you are not actually mine at all. I have only borrowed you, tweaked you, nourished you into ripeness. You belong to yourself, and to the sun itself. I knew this from the day we met. 

 

Your eyes contain so many ways of seeing. Kaleidescope, mirror, prism, window. Sometimes you reflect and observe, sometimes you process and analyze, and sometimes you simply react in pure emotion. I watch you run along the rolling park by the cliff’s edge, where the Palisades begin their journey out of the rock. I wonder how this ancient schism in the earth once emerged, and watch you, still gushing with excitement about the glass floor mosaics on the walkway from the free elevator that leads you to the top of this “mountain,” and know you are made of the forces of tidal waves, of thunder, the forces that split rocks and form new continents. You were born during a thunderstorm, and your appearance heralded the last clap of electricity, the last hour of night. The sun rose, and there you were. I knew your nature instantly from that night, and felt as awed to be entrusted the burden of your care as if I had been given a baby wolf. 

 

It isn’t always easy, being your mother. You are so easy to love, and so hard to tame. I have given up on this task. You tame yourself when you are ready, but insist on your childhood with a force that thrusts me in my place. I have learned to follow as much as I lead, to learn as much as I teach with you. You are not the sort of child who requires a lot of rules and material things, but you require all of my patience, all of my intelligence, all of my respect and honor of your selfhood. You learn best by conscience and instinct, so I have learned to teach in ways other than punishment. You are so powerful, and so self-contained. You have learned to live on so little of me. And on days like this, I see what I wish I could give you every day. You are so much already on your own. And yet so much more when I am able to be there for you like I am today. 

 

We are headed on an adventure together, little friend. We are moving soon and starting a new life. You will be starting kindergarten; I will be starting a new job out of my field, and going back to art school to audit classes so I can eventually be able to support you on my own without help. I can no longer tolerate poverty. I have never been good at being poor, and as a parent, poverty is even more intolerable to me. I need to be the house on the block people go to for support and a hot meal, not the other way around. So whatever it takes, I will have to make this change. And I feel good about it. We will not be alone. We will be loved and supported. You are embraced, wherever we go. 

 

There will be a lot of adjustments. We will live without a car and go back to apartment living in one of the world’s biggest cities. I moved here once when I was 18 and lived here for six years, so it’s not new to me. But I am much older now, and so sometimes I wonder if I am crazy to be doing this. But I have you, and I know your spirit will carry me along. Each day is an adventure for you, and this is going to be a big one. I know you have handled others, and you will handle this one too. I don’t know if everything will work out as we planned it, but I know that I’m ready to carry you with me on this wave. I know you, too, are ready for a change. I know that you can be happy anywhere, but that you thrived these last few days. You blossomed. I saw a new side of you wake up, one that has been forgotten since we moved out of East Boston. We are city people, you and I. We thrive on these gritty, secret urban havens ripe with playgrounds, struggles, street art and magic. We are only half alive here in our prefabricated subdivision full of SUV’s, where weekends are composed of lawn maintenance and the nights are as quiet as a shut-off TV. I don’t want to have a lawn. I would rather play in a park. I don’t want an SUV. I would rather ride the bus and get a chance to meet other members of the human race. As a single parent of an only child, I am always happy to find ways to expand my universe. 

 

It is only at the very end of the day after walking nearly 40 blocks, that you ask to be carried. A few drops of water spew from the overcast sky like the curved rays of spittle emerging from a fountain of birds on the waterfront. You shiver at the sudden chill. Still, you want to look at the birds, to run your hand through the stream. “Noodles of water,” you laugh, and for a moment, you are no longer tired. 

 

And when I put you into bed at last, after an Annie’s burrito and a quick rerun of Clifford (just to ground yourself back into the ordinary), your eyes are still working. You notice the colors of the sky as you lay in bed: pink, orange, yellow. Gold. “And don’t forget blue,” you remind me, in the most serious voice. You are a little human kaleidescope, taking the pieces of your day and twisting them into a mosaic. I hope I am doing the right thing for you. I hope that I have helped you add to your colors today, and the next day, and the next. I hope that this adventure will nourish our spirits. 

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Everything about you grows too fast. Your teeth are all falling out at once. A shoe that fit you last week, is the cause of a tiny lavender bruise on your instep today. As you stand on the couch (something you’re not allowed to do, unless you need to look in the mirror… which you are doing right now), you smile disarmingly at yourself. You always do this—it is obvious how much you love you. Sometimes, when everyone approaches me with concerns about you, trying to engage me in their place of worry… I have to step back and take a good look at you. Because when I do, I can’t share in their fears. 

It is not you I worry about. It is what you will do to the world once you learn to muster your forces. You are so powerful, so alive, so determined. You have my sensitivity and intense focus on details, combined with your father’s dogged will and pride. Your teacher worries because you are afraid of the talking elephant on the computer. For three months, she’s tried to get you to overcome this fear and use the computer. If I were teaching you, I would have just found another way around the situation. So you’re afraid of an elephant? Let’s use bunnies. But this is public school, and curriculum modifications for you are not an option unless they come with a letter from a psychiatric evaluation board with a stamp that says ‘AUTISM.’ And until we receive that, my little one, you will have to deal with elephants.

I have given you a picture of me today to put on the computer, and written a letter for you. The picture is of you as a small toddler, getting your feet wet near a lake. I am holding you and teaching you about the water, which you are cautious about. ‘You are great,’ I say in the letter, which I know you can read yourself. ‘I am always here with you, helping you learn.’ 

It frustrates me that your report card said that you have difficulty with the concept of rhyming, when our fridge is decorated with your beautiful first poems. My favorite:

‘Some love
in my heart
helps me start
my day.
Okay!’

It frustrates me that, while you are able to read fluently and write anything on your own these days, teachers discuss holding you back a grade if you do not learn to use a computer. 

I didn’t learn to use a computer until I was ten years old, and I worked extensively on them. Some people never learn, and while they to some degree (like her father) are very limited, they can still get around. And I totally reject the concept of computers as being essential to the lives of 5-year-olds. At that age, I want you to be learning to learn, developing an excitement for the process. I don’t even care if you read and write or not yet, although I am happy it makes you so happy and I am proud of you.

It frustrates me that caregivers and teachers are frustrated by you, and talk in front of you about their frustrations. I understand their good intentions for you, but all I want to do when I hear them talking is to cover your ears and give you a hug. There is a disconnect in you that happens whenever anyone doesn’t honor your unique way of being and doing. I’ve noticed this. It’s a self-protective mechanism of sorts, and I love it even when it irritates me. When anyone around you lapses into less than conscious ways of educating and parenting you, you just ignore them. Teachers want to call you a high-functioning autistic. New Agers might call you an ‘indigo child’ (I thought the Indigo Girls weren’t breeders?) or some other such term. But rather than label you as anything, I just want you to be you. And I will fight for the nurturance of your spirit.

When I gave you the picture of us today, your teacher gave me a letter to say you used the computer today. She gave you a gold star. If you get seven gold stars in a row, you can pick out a movie. Fourteen, and you will go on a boat ride with me (you are so fascinated with the ferries on the Hudson). When I pick you up from school, I ask if the picture helped. ‘Yes, Mommy,’ you say, ‘but I wish you had given it to me earlier. I was tired of borrowing Naomi’s picture.’

I feel bad. I am not always aware. I, too, have disconnects in my brain. When you remind me too much of all the ways I am not able to deliver for you, I shut down and become distant. Sometimes I escape into my fantasy world, my poetry, romance, the intricate personal dramas of my friends on and offline. I try not to do this, but sometimes confronting you directly is a kind of yoga. It’s not easy. In you, I see all my flaws and incomplete work. Your teacher had told me, and I had forgotten, that your friend Naomi was also afraid of the computer, and a photo of her mother had helped her. And, I am ashamed to admit, the teacher had told me to bring one in of me. And I’d completely forgotten. I kept thinking, as I often do, that the problem would solve itself in time; that the teacher was doing her job and that you’d come around; that the child study team would provide the right interventions for you. And in that space of forgetting, you were borrowing another mom’s picture to ease yourfears of a talking elephant on a computer screen. I was heartbroken to awaken to this. 

Now I realize, I can’t depend on anyone. It is my job to raise you. If you are at school from 8 to 6 every day (longer than I spend at work), the least I can do is give you signs of me. I write love letters to you on paper towels and stick them in your lunch box each day. I know this makes you happy and that you proudly show them off to your friends and teachers. I live right across the street from your school. Some days, I bring your lunch late in the day, right before you go into the cafeteria. I love knowing that when I do this, you know that when your teacher brings your lunch to you, I was right in the building a minute ago. I wonder if this makes you feel my presence and love. 

As I watch you wiggling your teeth in the mirror, I see flashes of you as an adult and I like what I see. I see not only a beautiful, graceful and poised young woman, but one who is intelligent, discerning, proud. Who will not accept ugliness or cruelty from anyone, who will not make excuses, who is fair and honest—who knows that she is, like the Jill Scott song she loves to sing along to, golden. I see a woman who will not take no for an answer, who quietly calculates her plans and executes them without much ado. I see a woman who keeps to herself in her private life, and yet has a very magnetic and charming persona for the public. I always imagined, even when you were a baby, that you would do something involving the performing arts or at least involving a lot of public speaking, but these are your choices to make. I am not a stage mom and you are not my unfinished business. 

When I look at you and see these flashes of Jeni, the young woman, and even sometimes Jeni the older woman—I fall in love with your spirit. I understand that we are more than just a mother and daughter—we have been friends forever in some way. You have not always been my daughter. I believe you have been my grandmother once, actually. Your spirit hovers over me like an ancient African ancestor from a myth, not like a child. I always felt that you were playing as my child, and that in the grand scheme of souls, you are meant to be my teacher. Sometimes the role reversal annoys you and makes you defiant, more defiant than most children. You already know and understand so many things. You are so wise and innocent. You are so accepting of the flow of life. When your father stopped contacting you, you disconnected from him. Most children would cry or develop low self-esteem. You simply withdrew and focused on other things. When I try to condition you in ways that are less than advanced,you challenge me or ignore me. Once, completely frustrated, I spanked you. ‘Mommy,’ you said, indignant, ‘Hitting is WRONG! Don’t ever do it to me again!’ I have since learned that the best way to get you to cooperate, is to talk to you. You repeat your mistakes a lot, but you eventually get it once compassion sinks in. I don’t ever want you to be afraid of anything except your own conscience.

When I look at you in the mirror, I see strength. I see beauty. I see impatience. I see leadership. I know you will never allow anyone to boss you around, no matter how much you love to please. When I see you as a grown woman, I see someone I want as a friend. Whether or not you are my child. I just love YOU.

I hope that someday you’ll read this, as you’ll read all the other poems and pieces I’ve written about you. I hope that you’ll forgive me for all the things I’ve done wrong, for all the other parents you sometimes had to borrow when the things I did weren’t always perfect for your soul or I’ve forgotten something. I’m trying. I’m learning. I mean well. I love you. And I want you to succeed on your own terms. I think that no matter where I go wrong, that’s the best gift I can give you. I want you to be you. I want to help you find and be all that makes YOU happy. 

I hope that someday when you’re older, you’ll still be close to me. That you always feel you can talk to me and not just be a daughter, but a friend. That you trust me to help you raise your children (if you decide to have them) and that you come to me sometimes for advice. I know I am close to my own mother, but sometimes it isn’t easy. With parents and children, there is always karma. But with you, I really want it to be easy. I don’t want to be an obstacle in your life. I want to be the wind in your kite.

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The Ice Breaker

about my daughter, diagnosed with ADHD and Asperger’s

 

 Jeni doesn’t like to hold my hand. She always wants to run free, and never looks back to see if I’m waiting for her. Sometimes I have to scream after her… not just yell, but scream, once she’s run a whole block or turned a corner out of sight. But when I try to hold her hand to keep her close, she cries. “Mommy,” she says, “it hurts. It feels like this.” She squeezes my hand hard to demonstrate. “I want to be free.” 

 

A trip like this to the grocery store can easily expend the same amount of emotional energy I used to spend in an entire pre-Jeni day. I have tried so many times to enforce the rule of hand-holding at night. We live in a city, and at that, not the most entirely safe neighborhood in the world. I try my best, but it is so hard for her to not run, move, interact with her surroundings by touching with every part of her body. She touches a tree. She tries to touch the ground until I warn her that a dog could have pooped on it. I have to repeat warnings and safety reminders so often with her; they don’t stick in her mind. She runs back and forth in a zigzag pattern on the sidewalk; I am used to this and slow down every time I see her starting it, so I won’t run into her and trip her. But I worry that someone less familiar with her quirks will hurt her by accident. I yell at her repeatedly… “slow down. Jeni. Jeni. JENI!!!! Stop walking in front of me. Hold my hand. Come back. Don’t touch that…” Sometimes I wonder what people are thinking as they pass us on the street. Do they think I’m overbearing, impatient, cruel to her? Do they think she is atrociously behaved, undisciplined? Do they think I don’t make rules for her, that I let her manipulate me? Do I care? I guess I used to. Now, I don’t much anymore. 

 

Sometimes I’ll ride the train with her—something I’ve learned to avoid whenever possible, since it’s so overstimulating. We’ve had incidents, public tantrums of every color imaginable. We’ve had times where I had to leave checkout lines, put groceries back on any old shelf and just get the hell out of the place. I’ve had to pry her off shelves she was trying to climb (she can’t see anything vertical and not climb it). I’ve been kicked out of stores with her because she was touching everything (she’s so tactile and obsessed with textures, it’s hard to keep her completely away from things). She absolutely has to interact physically with her environment and everything in it, including people (which she kind of seems to see as toys, characters in her own personal movie for her entertainment—meant to act in ways she determines and controls… albeit in a charming, cute way). 

 

I remember one day I was riding the train with her during rush hour (big mistake). She was tired and really counted on getting a seat (although sometimes she prefers to stand and twirl around the pole). I had warned her that there may not be one, but she really had her mind fixed on it (as she often does with things). Well, there was no seat in the train. She had, in the middle of a jam-packed subway car, a drop-on-the-floor screeching and wailing fit that had everyone staring… at me. But no one offered a seat to her. I stared at them right back and tried to comfort Jeni. Finally a woman in a coat made out of some kind of multitude of dead animals, gave Jeni her seat. I was so shaken after the tantrum that I forgot to tell Jeni to thank her; I thanked her myself. Now, Jeni is usually impeccable to the point of being almost ridiculous about manners. She is so polite. She says please, thank you, and will spend entire meals painstakingly dissecting the finer points of etiquette and then quizzing me on them. But this lady tapped at Jeni and stared sternly at her. “Aren’t you going to thank me?” she asked Jeni. I told Jeni to thank her, and Jeni stared silently out the opposite window with a blank expression, not acknowledging us. She had gone into another world, as she often did when her inner pinball machine went into TILT mode. The woman took it as a sign of rudeness. Jeni was simply overloaded and couldn’t process anything else.

 

I said to the lady, “She has a really low frustration tolerance and gets overstimulated easily. Just accept my thanks and please let her be.”  Woman Who Wears Animal Corpses  looked at me like I was the worst mom in the world, or had just made up some fancy new-age psychobabble to explain away my shitty parenting. She continued to stare at us disapprovingly, along with everyone else in the whole car, as Jeni tried to turn around to look out the window. You just can’t do that during rush hour in NYC; her feet were hitting someone’s leg, and I made her turn around. She had another screaming fit; the man next to her glared at us and held his ears. It was like that the whole way.

 

There have been times when I’ve internalized the censure of these critics I run into every day. It’s hard not to. But I try so hard not to, even before I found out that there was anything different about Jeni. I just know she is mine, and that I am being the best parent possible to her. And I always feel like we’re a two-lady team; she just happens to be a very little lady right now. I have struggled with so many of the same things; I wonder if I too have Aspergers, and just learned to control it. 

 

I remember having meltdowns well into the ages when kids normally outgrow them. I would be obsessed with things like geography (I memorized all the capitals, flags and facts about each country in the world when I was about 8 or 9), aviaries, or the works of Paul Klee. I would memorize entire encyclopedia pages, even though I didn’t always understand anything I was reading. I just was obsessed with collecting information and memorizing details. I had definite social handicaps; I had friends, but found it really hard to understand give and take in a conversation. I honestly wasn’t interested in what other people had to say (and to some extent, still am not, although I try so hard to control this tendency) and could talk for hours about myself if given the chance. It’s not because I am selfish or rude; it’s just how I’m wired. I also remember being so sensitive to textures, sounds, and colors. At parades, I had to wear earphones. The one time I went on a carnival ride I almost lost my mind and was shaking for the rest of the day. The first time my parents put me on beach sand, I cried to feel the strangeness of sand on my toes. And even the of a large abstract expressionist painting at a museum once made me hide my face in terror. I used to be so shy in preschool that I would hide in the corner and cover my face in my hands, and I refused to use any bathrooms other than my own until I had started kindergarten (I didn’t want to miss school, so I forced myself to learn). I had a hard time developing certain motor skills, like tying my shoes or learning to ride a bike. I was clumsy and often tripped, and would get easily distracted. Once at a kickball game in school, the ball was coming at me—and I decided to pick up a pretty rock and examine it instead. The ball hit my face. 

 

It is painful sometimes to watch her at the playground because I am so much like her. It is painful sometimes for me to parent her as well, because I am struggling with so many of the same issues. I feel like my adult self is just a cleverly disguised mess held together with duct tape and chewing gum. For her sake, I have to be something other than I am: structured. I have to have routines. I have to keep the house spotless… it really matters a lot to her, and I notice it affects her behavior and listening. And I really am a clean, neat person. I want to be, at least. I loathe dirt and messes. But I am so easily distracted. Focusing is such a challenge for me… I spend the entire day trying so hard to appear normal, to listen and follow instructions and focus. At the end of the day, I just want to spread myself out and explode into chaos. I have come to accept my cycles of order and disorder (some of which become extreme) as part of who I am. Maintaining any constancy of routines and order, for me, is completely impossible. But for Jeni’s sake, I have to try even harder. And I am doing this alone. Or rather, we are. She is my teacher as much as I am hers. She has a father, she has caregivers and friends, she has a grandmother and teachers and many people who love her. But I am, always will be, her primary source of instruction and support. I hear stories of other parents with Aspergers’ kids, and they say things like “it seems like she’s on another planet, far away.” I never feel that way with Jeni. I feel she is distant sometimes when she closes herself off, but it’s never alien to me. I feel more like the two of us live on the same planet, and we are both equally misunderstood and beautiful.

 

Jeni and I are a team. The two of us are both eccentric in our own ways and always have been. We are a couple of friends who have been many things to each other in many lives. In this one, she happens to be my daughter. She doesn’t always like this… she has been my grandmother, my teacher, my older sister before. It is exhausting to her to be a child; she is such an old soul, she has seen this all so many times before and just wants to get on with the business of living. And yet, at the same time, she is petulant and painfully innocent. She is still, in so many ways, a baby. I am lucky for this; people are charmed by her childish cuteness, they want to protect and take care of her. Her eccentricities and precocious quirks are indulged; she is loved so much. But she is still so young. I worry about how things will be for her if she gets older and hasn’t learned appropriate social boundaries. It’s cute when a five-year-old approaches a stranger on the street and says, “I love you,” and wants to give them a hug. A seven-year-old? Not so cute anymore. Now, her friends put up with her freak-outs and meltdowns. They comfort her and ask what’s wrong. Her friends don’t seem to notice that it’s odd the way she memorizes and recites entire film scripts or books, and just keeps repeating and repeating the same lines over and over to herself. They humor her. 

 

Later on, they will just exclude her once their own innocence wears off. Already, it’s starting to happen. I picked Jeni up from the afterschool program the other day. Her friends in the cafeteria immediately asked me some questions. “Why is Jeni always staring at me? It’s weird; tell her to stop,” they said. Another friend sweetly asked as they played with a stamp pad, and Jeni began to hoard things and become dictatorial: “Jeni, why don’t you ever want to share and play together? It’s better that way… come on, let’s take turns.” It made me feel so sad. She is a good person but often doesn’t understand the difference between reality and fantasy in her interactions with people; between self and other; between creating a beautiful vision of her choosing, and being a control freak who can’t deal with life unless it goes her way. One of her neighbor friends laughed, “she’s a real piece of work,” after one of her tantrums. He was joking and meant no harm, but he had no idea how much that statement hurt. And I couldn’t show it… he was just a child, probably repeating the things he’d heard others say about her. And they will. 

 

I need to protect her from this any way I can. And yet, at the same time, I have to teach her to stand up for herself and learn to be a part of the human race… just as I had to learn. I am lucky people understand her set of behaviors better now. When I was a child, no one did. I was just an eccentric, clumsy geek who read too much.

 

Jeni runs ahead, stepping on every chunk of ice she sees on the sidewalk. “I’m the ice crusher,” she says, making sure to walk on every piece of ice she sees. If she misses one, she has to go back and step on it. If I try to hold her back or warn her that she could slip and fall, doesn’t hear me. I am nonexistent, as long as she has the ice—or whatever it is at the moment that she’s obsessively focused on. Just as I feared, she slips. She doesn’t seem to notice. She gets right back up, and passionately scans the area for new ice flats to claim. 

 

She isn’t afraid of anything except the irrational, or sensory overloading. Bugs. Electric fans. The sound of the blender or smoke detector. When I moved into my apartment I had to install window grates right away, because she would climb and stare out the window, sometimes standing upright against it… this terrified me, of course. She notices so many little things, like the dust between her toes or the fact that a light in a sign is out. She learns so much about different subjects that she becomes almost bossy about them. 

 

These days, it’s nutrition. As we arrive at the grocery store, she’s my personal nutritionist, having memorized the entire food pyramid. She advises me that spinach will make our blood nice and red because it has iron. She may not actually eat the spinach, but she loves to talk about its nutritional properties. “And I won’t want to buy princess cookies, because I shouldn’t care what picture is on the box,” she says, “only what is in the ingredients.” It sounds crazy for a five-year-old to be talking like this, but I was the same way at her age. And although I am definitely a nutrition nut myself, half the stuff she learned, was from other sources… her grandmother, school, books she’s read. 

 

“Mommy, that belongs to the fats, oils and sweets group, and oils are bad for you. Put that back,” she says, pointing her finger assertively as I select olive oil. 

 

“Your teacher doesn’t know everything,” I said, putting the oil into my cart. She looks confused. Right now, her teacher is God, Funshine Bear and Mary Poppins all rolled into one. I explain to her that some fats are good and some are bad. It is hard for her to understand these nuances of subtle difference, or exceptions in general to any rule. She gets very anxious, for example, if she has no homework at night. “But I have to have homework every night! The teacher said!” she’ll say frantically, and then make me invent homework assignments for her. 

 

What can I say? Jeni isn’t just different, or special. She is truly amazing. She is, to me, an angel… some kind of cheery amabassador from a galaxy where everyone says what they mean all the time, only knows love, and are as innocent as the day they were born. And I am just the person to be the perfect parent for her. I know we chose each other. I am always there to understand her when no one else does, to be patient, to sit down and explain the concepts that seem so obvious to other people. They never were to me, either. 

 

I am glad that I can teach her the ways of this strange planet that baffles the both of us. And I love her so much. I wish I could design the world to be her personal playground and familiar home, but I can’t. 

 

Still, she always has me. I am glad for that. 

 

 

 © Sarah Noack 2008

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White Currants

My grandmother in Germany (whom we just knew as Omama) had the most amazing garden. The garden was her entire raison d’être, her life. The garden was a reflection of her soul, actually. I remember even the way it smelled now — a very German, slightly herbal smell that mingled with the fragrant aromas of dense rye vollkornbröt, country butter and wursts (which even to this day as a veg, I find “fragrant” and nostalgic) coming from the house.

The garden had a lot of red and black currants (johannesbeeren), and several sauerkirsch (sour cherry) trees yielded a lot of fruit in summertime. Omama’s most important summer task each year was always making the annual preserves. I was too young to remember her actually making them (or I was never around at the right time), but I remember how proud she was of them. So was our grandfather, whom we called Papoi. He used to take us into the basement to see the impressive, museum-like array of various types and vintages of these preserves. He would do it every time we came, with just as much excitement…. totally forgetting that we had seen the whole thing already before. Nevertheless, it was still fun… the basement had a clay-like, pleasantly musty smell that was totally foreign to me. I don’t know why everything over there smells so different… it’s only Europe, but that’s how it was.

I remember playing on the white-painted grille by the sliding back doors. My sister and I liked to look down the grille, into the basement where all these jams and preserves were stored. We weren’t sure anyone else knew about this view; it was our secret.

About 10 years before she passed away, Omama had a stroke that paralyzed half of her body. I am convinced that she would have not stayed alive if they had not found a way to bring her home and stay in a special bed that faced the garden all day long. Every now and then, her children would bring her bed outside so she could enjoy it from close up. They all did the gardening for her while she watched, and I imagine, mentally lived through their experience. The hardest part though was that no one knew how to make her amazing preserves, nor had the time and patience. So they were rationed, and kept way beyond the normal expiration date. We would break out the preserves on special occasions, and get emotional about it. It was like a sacrament… just this simple eating a slice of bread with some jelly, slightly chunky from age, but otherwise still delicious. Although Omama had to eat a mashed diet, she would try some on a spoon at those times, and behind her glasses, a tear would often form in her one working eye.

I just remembered this one moment recently of going out in the garden when I was about 11. We had just returned from Karstadt (the German version of Target) and I had bought some very exotic-looking peppermint candies that I wanted to eat. I was so excited to eat them that I didn’t want anyone else to find me and ask for any (since some of my cousins were there), so I hid in the garden. While I was there, I found this bush that had the most unusual berries on them. I recognized them to be currants, but they were totally transparent… you could see the seeds right through them. I thought that was so cool. I knew they were currants by the way they looked, but tasted one to be sure (I had no doubts about their identity, and figured, one taste won’t hurt me). Indeed, they were sweet and had that subtle “currant” taste, although they were less sour than red currants and less “curranty” tasting than black currants. They were the sweetest currants I ever had.

I ran into the house, bringing a bunch of these currants with me to Omama and asking her if they were white currants. I was so excited and said “I’ve never seen such a thing before.” She looked at me with such pride, I can’t even describe it. I had always had a hard time connecting with her because not only didn’t she speak English, but she couldn’t talk at all without really working at it. “You found them,” she said in German. My aunt translated what she was telling me: this was a secret little patch of white currants she had found when she bought the house years ago, that she never used for jam (who wants clear jam?), but just kept as a little secret in the garden — one of its mysteries, I guess. No one had noticed them, or at least no one had cared about them before now. I had got excited about them, I understood there was something special about these almost completely concealed clear berries… and from then on, Omama and I were down. Sure, we still relied a lot on boring translations about “how are you doing in school” and other things I could care less about, from relatives — but now when she asked me those questions, I could see in that one eye, in her half a grin, that she understood me a little better.

Just from those little white currants. 

 

 © Sarah Noack 2006

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