The curative power of little girls, ducks, and evening walks

DEARTH OF DUCKSI love working in a newsroom. I really do. The people who work there are generally quick-witted, articulate and intellectually curious, and when news big and small (and sometimes absurd) comes over the transom, the place pulses with a vibrant electricity. It’s a fun place to be.

But on days of national heartbreak – which have become too common lately, with the Newtown shootings in December, and the Boston Marathon explosions on Monday – it becomes a place where these same great people must work to do something productive with the harrowing news that we’re all receiving simultaneously. And while there’s something inspiring and impressive about this act, the consequence is that there’s no escaping the story, on our screens or in our minds, since we’re all constantly tuned in for updates and information.

So days like Monday are hard. You feel angry and frustrated, because even though the statistics still stand wildly in favor of your family’s safety, you can’t rid your mind of that infinitesimal possibility of sudden destruction and loss. (You reflexively want to gather your family in your basement and only occasionally come out for food.) Such thoughts consumed me when walking my little daughters to preschool three days after Newtown. And now I’ll feel this during my next run through our neighborhood, and my next 10K race.

Right now, people are pledging to run to honor today’s victims, wearing old race T-shirts, changing their profile pictures on Facebook, and giving (online) voice to a collective sense of sadness and fear – all of which reflects a populace struggling mightily to find a way to respond in a positive way to the violence.

And while the cynical part of me thinks these symbolic gestures will do nothing to prevent these tragedies from happening again, I have to remind myself that there’s really nothing substantive any of us can do – writing my Congressman with a request to “get Americans off the crazy-train of violence” doesn’t seem particularly useful or effective, either – and that these small acts aren’t necessarily about solving the problem, but about grieving the loss, honoring the victims and survivors, and reflecting on the value of life. And most of us would rather do something than nothing – so we run, we pull on a shirt, we update our status, we virtually rend garments.

Still, as the clock inched toward five o’clock on Monday, I locked up the house, as I do every day, and I walked down the sidewalk toward the girls’ preschool.

Once I got there, things were chaotic, as usual – Neve was crying and desperately pulling me toward the door that leads to the playground, while Lily was throwing every item from her cubby onto the ground and obsessing over some “bracelet” she said her teacher was supposed to put there – but as unpleasant as this push-and-pull phase of multi-child parenting can be, the girls’ micro-drama nonetheless forced me to focus solely on them, solve (or at least distract them from) their problems, and exist only in the exact time and place I was occupying.

That’s something you hear a lot about if you practice yoga – being present and all that – but there really is something to it. In yoga, it’s because if you’re not focused on what you’re trying to do, and how you’re approaching it, it won’t happen. You have to focus on various parts of your body and the teacher’s voice. And that’s one of the main things I’ve always loved about the practice: it gets me out of my neurotic little head for an hour here, an hour there, and then everything else that worries me doesn’t seem quite as tragic or awful. Continue reading

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When things fall through the cracks. Like shoes. And a seat belt.

toddlersneaksOur family outing to attend a Purim Carnival in Ann Arbor on Sunday didn’t begin well.

Why? Well, let’s see. Neve was late getting down for her nap, so we knew she’d only get about 40 minutes of sleep before we had to scoop her up, take her out into the winter cold, and buckle the infernal five-point harness on her.

Joe thought maybe, if we were lucky, we could get her into the car quickly and smoothly enough that she’d fall back asleep when we started driving. To that end, he went out to put the packed diaper bag in the back of his car, and Lily ran out after him. She climbed up into her car seat to wait, while the car warmed up, and I gathered the things I thought we should have that didn’t make it into the diaper bag – Neve’s hat and mittens, Lily’s hat and mittens, an extra snack “just in case” – and went outside to join Lily in the idling car.

Joe appeared on the sidewalk, speed-walking with Neve – who looked dazed, wrapped in two blankets – in his arms. He tried to figure out how to buckle her into her seat with minimal fuss, but the blankets were a logistic nightmare, and in the middle of dealing with them, he said, “Oy. Her feet are bare.”

“I’ll go get her some socks,” I said, unbuckling my seat belt and running back into the house. I grabbed a pair, came out and put them on her little pork chop feet, and watched her as we drove off. She didn’t fall back asleep, but instead, looked bored and vaguely disgruntled throughout the half hour trip.

Upon getting to Ann Arbor, we were running a little late, so Joe inched forward at an intersection to turn right, not seeing an elderly man on his bike in the crosswalk. I yelled for Joe to stop, he stomped on the brake, and I suddenly felt and heard Lily’s body press against the back of my seat.

Oh, no. Continue reading

Why leaving the room while two kids weep is sometimes the best thing you can do

Lily, Joe and Neve (and Barbie?) in a more peaceful moment…

On Wednesday, I had the kind of experience every parent fears when (s)he’s on the verge of having a second child: you’re on your own, and both kids are crying and miserable. But I lived to tell the tale, which goes like this:

I got the kids home from preschool a bit earlier than usual, and Lily asked if she might apply her 30 minutes of TV time to watching “The Little Princess.” I agreed, so I played with Neve on the floor while Lily settled into an armchair, focusing intently on the Shirley Temple movie that I also ate up as a kid.

When her time was up, she asked me to read the new books that arrived that day through her school’s book order. Neve pulled on me – wanting my attention, too – and of course, she won’t just sit and listen to the books that Lily likes at this point. So I was stuck.

“Please, Mommy,” Lily kept begging. “Please just try.” So I tried. Neve kept reaching out and grabbing the book to close it, and when I pulled it out of her reach, she screamed and cried. So I tried to find things to distract her while reading loudly from a book I held high up in the air.

Less than ideal reading conditions.

Somehow, we got through the first book, and Lily pulled the next one off the top of the small pile. “Sweetie, I can’t. I wish I could. You know I love reading to you, and I know you’re excited about your new books. But Neve isn’t old enough to enjoy these kind of books, and she’s pretty unhappy.”

“No, no, Mom, I’ll hold up the book. Like this.” Lily proceeds to turn to the first page and hold the book high in the air, as I had done.

So I tried. And Neve got frustrated again, reaching to close the book, and cried and yelled in my ear. After a few pages of this, I told Lily I couldn’t do any more.

“I’ve got to take care of both you and Nevie by myself until Daddy gets home, and Nevie’s really unhappy. So I’ll read every one of these books later, but right now isn’t a good time, sweetie.”

“But I want you to read to me,” she said, a plea I almost never reject – and she knows it. “Please, Mommy. Please!”

At this point, I stood up to physically untangle myself from the situation; Lily had flung herself across the armchair, screaming, the very picture of child-grief; and Neve sat on the floor, red-faced and crying, holding a half-empty milk cup.

So I did what any self-respecting parent would do: I called my spouse and pressed the “speaker phone” button. Continue reading

Vacation, all I ever wanted…

In late August, after a summer spent looking (jealously, longingly) at other people’s glamorous vacation photos on Facebook, the Grekin-McKee family finally got to venture up north for our own annual vacation, up at Camp Michigania, near Pestoskey. (Yes, Joe and I had to take an entire day off of work while the kids were in daycare to prepare and pack – good Lord, does packing for a trip with young kids take forever – but we finally got on the road the following morning.)

For those unfamiliar, Michigania is a family camp (affiliated with the University of Michigan Alumni Association) that’s set up to provide fun, scheduled activities (or, in the case of babies and toddlers, cheerful supervision) for kids a few hours each day, thereby giving the parents a chance to do things they don’t often get to do. Like sleep.

This was our third year at Michigania, and in most ways, it was the best so far. We’d gone the first available week, in mid-June, in the past two years, when the weather was a bit rainy and chilly. This year, we grabbed at one of the last remaining available spots during the camp’s last week of operation, at the end of August. And other than a little rain on the afternoon of first full day, we had gorgeous weather throughout.

Things from the start were promising, since we were blissfully vomit-free (poor Lily had gotten carsick near the end of the trip each of the previous two years). Admittedly, I was watching her like a hawk – at one point, when she covered her mouth with her hand, I insisted we pull over, get her out of the car, and walk her around a bit – but we did it. Lily even said, when we got out of the car to check in, “I didn’t have any throw ups, Mommy! Just burps.” Indeed. Continue reading