Multiple Realities

When I woke up it was sunny. By the time I got breakfast on the table it was sprinkling and overcast. My son was apparently under the spell of the weather, transforming from happy and cooperative to feisty and unbearable within a 15 minute time frame. He exploded. I exploded. Words were exchanged. We muddled forward.

The walk to school was pensive and gray, filled with big, calmly presented questions designed for my son to analyze his outrageous behaviour. He tried a similar technique on me. I used my superior vocabulary, height and stature as parent to maintain the alpha order. He heard me. I listened to him, giving him room to express himself. Even though there were other people on the sidewalk, bike path, riding the tram or driving up the street, they were rendered background noise as we bobbed along in our own little bubble of recovery.

As we entered the school grounds, our bubble popped, and we were absorbed into a larger bubble–that churning chaos of child energy that crescendos moments before the bell rings. We pushed through the doors with the sea of children and parents around us. Even though the hallways in the school seem impossibly narrow and there is no order to speak of, we all worked our way through the maze, getting to the right classroom, hanging the jacket in the right section while little bodies maneuvered around us followed by their parents.

This press of bodies and jackets and lunch boxes and parents of all different colors and scents used to wear on me, making the morning drop-off seem like a major cultural undertaking. Now that sea of chaos has been tamed by familiarity; I have collected names to go with the faces and shared experiences with them–even if it is as simple as waiting for our children after school, or attending a school event. These daily acts have made some parents lose their exotic qualities. Others are not so easily tamed and remain illusive and foreign to me.

Shared Society
Walking home I became not a mother dropping off her naughty child, but a woman on her way to work. Each step took me further away from the 200 or so children filling the school of knowledge, wiggling in their seats, or passing notes to one another, and closer to the day of work ahead of me. I passed others in business attire on their way to their prospective positions in our shared society.

Once inside the church building, I was completely alone. The silence was both welcoming and startling. A few rays of sunlight shot through the floor-to-ceiling windows of the ground floor gathering hall before receding behind darkened clouds. I started the coffee, luxuriating in its powerful aroma. I walked through the building, checking that all was in order before unlocking the large wooden doors.

Shortly thereafter, students for the 9:30 course started wandering into the building. They slowly gathered around a table in the hall, chatting politely with one another. These are no ordinary students, but seniors between 70 and 80 daring enough to learn about the computer. Perhaps I’m imagining it, but these folks seem different from most senior citizens I meet. Maybe I’m making assumptions about their shared sense of adventure and a desire to learn, but it goes beyond assumption; they think differently about little things; I haven’t overheard a single complaint about the weather or ill-health; I have overheard people making jokes and talking about current issues. I wanted to figure out what the common thread was between these people-who-dare-to-learn so late in life and put it on a spool for my future.

Later, a friend dropped by with his toddler, who emitted another reality of energy into the church and my day. His laugh, his big eyes, the way buttons on machines, such as the dishwasher’s start button, intrigue him. I gave my friend the lowdown on the morning house explosion and he gave me some very wise parenting ideas.

I had a pause between clients and headed to the gym. The sun was out, but I kept my resolve to head indoors for a quick work out. I entered the modern gym. Music pumped through the overhead speakers. Fit people moved in rhythm to the beat. I changed into my work out clothes and before long I was powerwalking on the treadmill, my steps also in rhythm with the song blaring through the speakers: “I’m sexy and I know it.”

When I returned home from work, my husband and son were both in the living room.

“I’m sorry about this morning,” were the first words out of my son’s mouth when he saw me. I had given my husband the low down, and wondered who had been the first to bring up this morning’s emotional fireworks display. When little man tried out some tests (not coming to the table when asked, for example) to see if I was really the no-nonsense mom I seemed to have morphed into, I implemented tips given to me both by my friend who stopped by with his toddler, and my husband’s non violent communication tips. What does this translate to? No dessert as a consequence. Amazingly, the tips were effective, but met with a crying fit and lots of calming conversation.

Now as I sit in relative silence once again, the only sounds an occasional tram or the tapping of my fingers spilling my day into the computer, I realize that over the pond people are celebrating America’s Independence. Perhaps I should have claimed this day as a holiday on the grounds of being American. Oh well. It’s illegal to shoot off fireworks any other day but New Years over here. At least I got one fireworks show today, and a whole stream of multiple realities.


Fancy* Nancy

Mom. I love so much, there’s not even words for it. So how do I write a post about how important you are to me? I suppose the easiest thing is to make a list of things you do that have positively shaped me and informed who I am.

First, you have a crazy sense of humor. You can tell a joke that’s not even funny, but your full rolls of laughter that follow the punch line make us all laugh so hard that our eyes water. Further, you say flippant things, followed by that gut busting laugh, and suddenly a world that seemed serious and foreboding is shot through the middle, rendered wobbly and no longer able to take itself so seriously.

Second, you love nature, animals, living in the country. Because of you, I grew up loving trees and tall grass. After having two boys, you were so happy to finally have a girl. You got your girl, but one that loved, not surprisingly, trees and tall grass. You tried so hard to put ribbons in my hair, send me to modeling class, get me interested in dolls and hair brushes and dresses. It paid off in the long run. I have a dress section in my closet and I do brush my hair once in a while. I gave my Hotwheels and G.I. Joe’s away at least a few years ago now. Because of you and dad, I love nature, being still, listening to night descending upon the countryside.

Third, you are the illustrated dictionary example of Hope Springs Eternal. You never give up on people close to you (or on animals or plants). You ALWAYS try to see the good side in situations, even when things are rough. Yes, this can have a down side. But, whether its the Pollyanna Principle or positive thinking, it has played a positive role in my life.

Fourth, you can call it for what it is. I remember one break up with a very handsome boyfriend. I was heartbroken. You listened to me for a good half hour and then you asked what seemed the obvious.
“Well, why don’t you give him another chance?”
“Because he broke up with me!” I responded forlornly.
“Oh! Well, then. what’s the problem? Forget about him. If he can’t see how precious you are, he’s not worth another tear!” That was almost 15 years ago now, and I don’t know if I got the words exactly right, but the message was clear; I am absolutely valuable, and if this guy doesn’t get that, then he’s not worth it. I wanted to argue, but there was no arguing. Why would I ever want to be with someone who didn’t appreciate me? Her simple words seemed to break the spell that was keeping my heart bound to a place it didn’t belong.

Fifth, you value stories and you pay attention. As a retired librarian, you know how important stories are. You told us stories throughout our childhood, emblazoning a love for stories both real and imagined. You created a biography about your father. You developed a family tree and are working on your own biography. Further, you clip articles out of the paper and send them to us, wherever we may be, to let us know what is going on with our long-lost high school friends, former teachers and home town characters.

Sixth, you make an awesome cheesecake.

Seven, you are my mom and my friend. The list goes on of course, but for now, this is my message to you, mom! I love you!

*Even though you gave up the big city years ago to go live in the countryside, you still have a fancy side to you; the part that grew up playing violin, going to balls in fancy gowns, spending your Saturdays in the library devouring knowledge.

The Currency of Hugs

Sometimes when my son speaks to me, I feel like I am the grasshopper and he the master. It is not for the clarity of his statements that I feel this way, but for the oxymoronic riddles he weaves. For example, he was sad that he only had two Father’s Day presents for Arie Jan.

“I only got two presents on Mother’s Day,” I offered, suggesting that two is a reasonable sum.

“No. You had a third present. I gave you a hug,” he recalled in all seriousness. This is a child who knows how partial I am to his hugs. Armed with this knowledge, he has even tried to bribe me for more iPad time or a second helping of dessert with the currency of hugs.

Later in the morning, he was giving Arie Jan a hug on Father’s Day after the presents were already opened.

“He’s giving you another present,” I wisely informed Arie Jan. “A hug.”

“No,” corrected Ezra. “A hug isn’t a present. A present is something that lasts, that you can continue to do something with.” I tried to process his double-standard change-of-heart over the value of a hug. But then it hit me; he thinks there are different exchange rates at play in the currency of hugs: mom goes all weak-kneed and teary eyed when he hugs her, whereas dad quietly takes it in stride.

Arie Jan added his two cents into the equation, making the Oh Grasshopper lesson twist further into itself.

“Well, in that manner of thinking, would the candies you just gave me really be a present? They were here one moment and eaten up the next.”

“Hmm. Well, yeah. They’re still a present,” Ezra decided.

“Yes, and hugs may last a moment, but they stay with you in your heart. They may not be there any longer, but their presence lingers.”

My interpretive filter kicked in once again; whereas I smother my husband and child with kisses and hugs like a good American, Arie Jan has a more Dutch approach to affection. He is not one to loosely scatter I-love-yous throughout conversations, or randomly kiss and hug his family members. Earlier on in our relationship, I mistook this sparseness as a difference in how we felt about each other. But I couldn’t have been more wrong; his love for me was deep and real and his love for his son is profound.

Unlike me, Ezra has never misinterpreted his father’s level of affection; he can feel its immensity. But just as a teacher who is as sparse with his compliments as Hemingway was with adjectives, Arie Jan has taught Ezra the value of quality over quantity.

This is a lesson I cannot learn. I will continue to hug and kiss my men whenever given the chance. They may roll their eyes and look at me like I’m goofy, but I’m going with the premise that they would be both concerned and disappointed if I acted any other way.

Six boys

My husband and I were both excited and fearful as our son’s 6th birthday approached. We were excited because our little guy was turning six and his exuberant energy was contagious. We were riddled with fear and anxiety as memories of last year’s birthday party played through our minds accompanied by the mantra of “never again.”

Last year’s “celebration” provided a rather harsh lesson; despite our university degrees and five years of parenting experience, we had absolutely no idea how to entertain and supervise ten little children for  3 1/2 hours. Unfortunately, Ezra had invited one young imp who possessed a sixth sense for knowing when adults don’t have the situation completely under control, and exactly how to make the situation worse. Here is just a partial list of the chaos that ensued: fights, throwing of food, crying, screaming and hitting from the boys; quiet, steadfast politeness and bouts of crying from the girls. The girls, several dressed in princess gowns, looked at us forlornly with their large doe eyes as boys ran screaming around them. The boys, inspired by aforementioned imp-child, ran in multiple directions, disregarding all of the house rules that had been laid out to them.  Due to short attention spans and division of interests, games for which we had budgeted 15 to 20 minutes were over in three to five. Thirty-seven minutes into the party, our list of fun children’s activities was all used up and we were at a loss of how we were going to make it to the other side. It took us three hours to clean up and a week to recover.

This year, we prepared for his party as one might prepare for battle: review of past mistakes, strategic planning, ally recruitment, flexibility in the field and a stockpile of munitions. First off, we didn’t invite any imps. Second, we smartly took the advice of my sister-in-law Tinca from the previous year; invite no more guests than the age of your child.  Regardless of the much more manageable ratio of one adult to three children, we enlisted the help of Jaana, who had two sons coming to the party, resulting in an empowering ratio of one adult to every two children! Ezra also showed compassion toward his female friends by not inviting them.

We came up with an extended play list of activities that ensured we would never be empty-handed, created a healthy food table with full access and then opened our doors.

I’ll admit that my detailed agenda didn’t go exactly as planned, but the party was an absolute success, void of almost all of the problems we had encountered the previous year.

The best weapon in our arsenal was flexibility. Our first planned activity was birthday 2013 011a snowball fight outside, but the boys lingered around the building blocks and found it much more entertaining to walk up the stairs to Ezra’s room, check out his toys and then head back down. Sometimes kids like repetitive actions. Or perhaps they like to explore the territory and see what sort of boundaries are set in place. Boundaries established, the boys were finally ready to proceed with the planned fun.

Sjoelen was certainly to be a hit. We had access to four Sjoelen boards in the basement of the church and we pictured a thrilling competition. In this traditional Dutch game, a player receives thirty wooden pucks, which he slides down a polished wooden game board, attempting to get them through one of the four slots at the end of the board, thus collecting points. He has two more turns to get the remainder of the pieces through. Usually, you’d have to wait your turn, but with four boards and six boys, it was a dream set up. Yet this old Dutch favorite didn’t hold their attention for more than 10 minutes.

I wanted to do the Monster Game next, something I plucked from my imagination involving my husband being attacked by six little boys at once, but for some reason, Arie Jan wanted to postpone this one for a bit.

Thus we tried a traditional game for which we’d budgeted no more than 10birthday 2013 018birthday 2013 027 minutes: throwing soft balls at stacked tin cans. Surprisingly, this lasted a good 30 minutes. Boys love the crashing sound of the tin cans clanging to the ground after they’ve demolished them with their forceful throws. And, they love to do better than the next little guy, thus they kept on lining up, wiggling impatiently for their turn.

And finally, the monster game. I’m afraid it was a much too dangerous environment for my camera. But if you ever need a method in which to entertain five little boys (the sixth guest hadn’t arrived yet), this was a hit. First, tell all of the boys that a monster is going to come into the room (point suspiciously at the father of your child). Let them know they will each get three soft balls to throw at the monster and a blanket to help hide. The monster will have five handkerchiefs hanging from his belt. If you hit him with a ball, he has to freeze for three seconds. That’s your chance to grab one handkerchief. But when he wakes up, he can also throw a ball at you and knock you temporarily out of the game. The boy who collects the most handkerchiefs wins.

When the boys heard the monster banging at the door, they were absolutely still. As he made his way into the room growling, they hesitated in their hiding places. But as if by some sort of internal clue, they suddenly attacked. Balls were flying everywhere and the monster was besieged by six little soldiers, all suddenly amazingly accurate in their throws. They all had collective amnesia on the rule about them also getting timed out if hit with a ball, and the poor monster was bombarded. When all the handkerchiefs had been collected, my husband had tears in his eyes from laughter and a grin large enough to compete with those on every little boy’s face.

When we changed pace and came back upstairs for cake and presents, the boys plopped down on the ground within close proximity to one another and worked on building blocks, forgetting all about the cake.

One of the best presents my son received for his birthday arrived the day before his birthday 2013 062party–three to four inches of snow. Thus the last official activity of the day, which was supposed to be the first, was a good old-fashioned snowball fight, in which everyone but the birthday boy himself participated.

Last year when parents arrived to pick up their children, they saw two shell-shocked adults who couldn’t push the guests out the door fast enough. This year when parents arrived, they found tranquil little boys sitting around the living room drinking hot chocolate, with tranquil hosts overseeing. Parents lingered for another half hour at the offer of hot chocolate and chatted pleasantly as the boys played quietly together.

This just goes to show; we can learn from our past mistakes and not only move forward, but do so gloriously.

Can adults truly embrace Spontaneity?

I grew up with the belief that spontaneity is an important element in a life well lived. It was part of my family’s impulsive sense of humor; it played itself out in the creative bedtime stories my mom wove during long summer nights, and it seemed to be the only guiding factor in our summer vacations in the countryside, where each day would slowly unwind with the promise of a new adventure under the California sun.

Yet spontaneity was a seasonal fruit, bountiful only in the summer months when my entire family was free. As mid August hit, it felt like the lazy afternoons were being reeled in on a spool of educational thread, binding us once again to the world of structure. When September arrived, not only did we kids have to go back to school, but our parents as well, one of whom was an elementary school librarian and the other a teacher.

In hindsight, I now realize those spontaneous summer days unconstrained by responsibility were a gift from my parents. While we were out playing Cowboys and Indians, they made sure there was food on the table and clean clothes in our closets, that the irrigation system was working correctly, that the checkbook was balanced and the summer budget on track. They drove us to the library or the beach when we wanted to go, and created all the routines that kept our household humming along while we children played.

Regardless of this adult realization, I still highly value the richness spontaneity brings to life. And that is the type of wealth I would like to instill in my child. But how do you teach spontaneity? Always, always in hindsight. Any other attempt is simply controlled spontaneity, which defies the very definition of the word.

And to plagiarise from the free online dictionary (; Spontaneous: Happening or arising without apparent external cause; self-generated.

1. Arising from a natural inclination or impulse and not from external incitement or constraint. 2. Unconstrained and unstudied in manner or behavior.  3. Growing without cultivation or human labor.

If you read this definition as a parent, who does it characterize more? You, or your child? I’m guessing your child. Or an earlier, carefree version of yourself you tend to both admonish and admire. Sure, spontaneity can get you into trouble if embraced in the wrong way: giddily jumping off a cliff into a lake for example, going on impulse to bed with a total stranger, or suddenly telling your boss exactly what you think about him or her. But on the other hand, spontaneity connects you to the joy of life; choosing to embrace what you want right in this moment, as a child might do.

And this comes back to answering my own proposed question; my son takes the cake when it comes to spontaneity in every definition of the word. He has an idea and he embraces it. He feels happy and he expresses it through dance, spontaneous song, or silly antics. He wants to build the Eiffel tower and he builds it, molding whatever materials on hand into his desired outcome.

A family art project painfully elucidated an area in which I’ve lost my spontaneity. My son painted a train speeding happily over a bridge, water streaming beneath as the sun shone in the sky. His loose, broad swaths of paint seemed like strokes of genius next to my rigid tree with its evenly spaced fiery leaves. I’d like to think of myself as spontaneous in some way. I certainly give into impulse on occasion. But nothing too daring or scandalous. And there’s the question; Can we, as adults truly embrace spontaneity and also be responsible?

Sure. Within reason. An adventurous friend who I’ll simply call P is a school teacher here in the Hague, is happily married and has two children. She is meticulously responsible and goes above and beyond at work and in the home front. Yet, she admits that she has a fantasy of living the carefree life of her college days with just enough money in her pocket to buy Bruce Springsteen tickets and follow him around the world on tour. In other words, she longs to live life in an unconstrained manner, free of responsibility or worries–be in the moment.

But P doesn’t just admit to the fantasy; she lives it. Every chance she gets, she buys concert tickets and follows Bruce on his European tours, coming home with wrist bands, hip t-shirts, groupie photos, and most importantly, an impish glint of satisfaction in her eyes.

But I was surprised by her words the other day at coffee. To paraphrase, she knows she’s living a lie, but this fantasy gives her the freedom she needs to be at ease in her own life. Is this a form of contrived spontaneity? Living freely without responsibility pressing you down? Being both the benefactor and the beneficiary of your fantasy well lived? I find her solution, contrived or not, an act of brilliance that gives her character peculiar depth.

The number one guru in the art of spontaneity continues to be the almost six-year-old son who is offering wisdom laden lessons on a daily basis. Now if I could only set my adult blinders aside more often to take in his wisdom. On those occasions when I do, he not only connects me with the “I can do anything” mentality of my youth, but encourages me to allow myself that same vision in my adulthood.

Go! Do something spontaneous. And going out for a spontaneous latte grande is not what I’m talking about folks! If you do embrace your spontaneous nature, I’d love to hear about it!*

*(As long as it doesn’t involve shoplifting, stalking, or any gerbil-like weirdness.)