Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Teaspoon of Calm

          Easily on my Top Five Columbus Places So Far List is the Audubon park down by the Scioto River.  I learned about the park about two months after our arrival here.  It was right around the time Hot Shot (our seven-year-old) became convinced her school was a nightmare, and we, upon spending a little time there with her, could only agree.  She spent her after-school hours writhing in angst about the bus ride, and the whining kids, and the yelling teachers.  “Why did you take me to this place?” she would hurl at us.  She was sure our decision to leave Maine--to leave her best friend, her school, her grandparents, her cousins--was about the most hateful thing we have ever done to her aside from making her brush her teeth every night.
          And maybe it was.
          But then we found the Audubon.
          I understand from local amateur historians that this nature preserve was quite recently the opposite--a police impound lot--and that no one believed it would happen but they actually turned it into a restored wetland with walking trails, a beautiful education facility, funky playground, and impressive climbing wall structure.  All free to the public.  I wouldn’t have believed it myself except that back in October we could see the neighboring lots still piled high with crusty old cars.  Now those lots are empty.  The next phase of the transformation is apparently underway.
         This Spring has been populated by long stints of cold, wet days, punctuated by a few warm sunny afternoons you really have to watch for or you might miss.  I warned Hot Shot (who’s not so hot about abrupt schedule changes) that when such a warm and sunny afternoon comes around, she shouldn’t expect us to go straight home after school.  We’ll be spending some time out in our new world.  Last Wednesday was one of those days, and so we headed from school to the Audubon.
             The first time we went to the Audubon, back in October, I didn’t know there were two parking lots: one up on higher ground, near the education center; the other down in the lowlands, close to the playground.  I only found the first lot, so we parked up there where you can look down as if perched on the great Google Earth shelf in the sky and see the paths through the wetlands down across the boardwalk, over to the climbing wall and playground--all of it back-dropped by the cityscape of downtown Columbus, only a ten-minute walk away.  Hot Shot lead our pack instinctively, running ahead down the hill and out onto the bridge, balancing boldly on the low rail over the shallow water.  She’s not typically prone to self-initiated aerobic exertion, but I think she was inspired by the view: the ability to see her destination, perhaps a half mile away, growing closer with every step.
          But once begun, she and our two tag-along toddlers found their gaze strayed easily from the distant play structures and noticed delight dancing ‘round their little feet.  Grasshoppers that gave us a startle with their abrupt manners, toads to pursue if you kept your eye out, and an expanse of intentionally reconstructed tall grasses and wild flowers which filled the air with such sweetness I had to wonder if someone had found a way to scrub and powder it.
          “Can you smell that?” I asked my little gang.  “It smells so sweet!”
          “It smells like Maine,” said Hot Shot, not even stopping for a second. 
          This little girl whose heart I’d broken, I could not have loved her more.
          Part of me wanted to talk her out of it, to tell her it was not Maine; it was beautiful Ohio.  And this was not salt water, it was fresh, and we could learn to love that too in time.  I wanted to convince her she could enjoy something from here instead of only paying heed because it smelled like there.  But she was right.  It smelled like Maine.
          In fact I kept feeling like we were walking the paths of the Fore River Sanctuary back in Portland.  I used to take Moon Boy and Ankle Biter there.  I’m not actually much of a hiker, though I was raised to be.  Raised in the outdoors, raised to love it, raised to enjoy hiking up it.  I took it for granted until I became a stay-at-home parent and found my introverted self recoiling from the social scene of playgrounds, seeking a home in the woods.  There I was free to feel the breeze and see the brilliance of the leaves.  Free to crouch down and watch my toddling sons delight in a stick or an ant hill or a fern.  Back at the playground my attention was crowded with overheard discussions of restaurants I could never afford.  Here I could do nothing but witness my children’s discoveries.
          I made a plan to park up top forever after.
          And so that’s what I did last Wednesday: parked up top.  Only that day, it was me, and not Hot Shot, who needed the sweet-smelling walk.  A year and a half into fulltime mom-hood I’m loosing my steam, my creativity, my confidence.  I watch my sons, two and three years old, and wonder when I went wrong:  how had my attentive care created two pinching, shoving, biting, out-of-control maniacs?  And the truth is, I’m not interested in researching the answer.  Don’t care to spend the precious moments their bodies are at rest reading up on how I can undo all the damage I caused.  I’ve come to believe that my work for the next year must be more delicate and practical; I must wean myself from stay-at-home momming without feeling like a complete failure.  And it had been a hard pinching, hitting, biting kind of day.
          So I was happy for the expanse.  And the sweet air.  For the teaspoon of calm.
          We had our neighbors along with us as we made way down our path: two boys, nine and ten.  No after school program that day, so they were looking for occupation.  The older boys love to play with my two little ones.  They are younger siblings themselves and seem enamored with the opportunity to tell someone littler what they aren’t supposed to do.  Still they are sweet to my guys, who adore them right back, even though they sometimes express it by shoving and scratching. 
          I worry a bit that the neighbor boys take interest in my boys because they’re appalled at their behavior.  I wonder if they feel obliged to tend to them because they don’t see me responding quickly enough when Ankle Biter sprints ahead across the boardwalk, turning narrow corners at high speed, inches from water that is not alarmingly deep, but would certainly be deep enough.
          The rock climbing structure, as we approached it, looks like something that would rise up out of Zion National Park.  It’s about three stories high and maybe 200 feet in circumference. As we neared it, the older boys are interested in giving it a try.  We’ve typically stayed away from the structure.  It’s intimidating to a little kid I guess, and usually well populated by adults (young adults with no children to keep an eye on), and near enough to the really cool playground that my kids haven’t shown it much interest.  They stop to watch the climbers on their way by, but have never begged to give it a try.
          But last Wednesday the dynamic was a little different with the big boys along for the journey.  They were interested in climbing as we passed and made a few attempts.  They got up on top of one of the fake boulders (taller than my head) and Hot Shot followed suit.  My little Moon Boy, with only a moment of help from me, got up on top as well, and I felt the simplicity of the walk through the tall wet grasses to the funky playground slip away from me forever.  Now there would be this to deal with at one of my favorite places so far in Columbus.  Dangerous would-be rocks placed here for the enjoyment of the adventurous young Buckeye, forever more appealing to my underage climbers.
          But the interest waned and they headed over to the playground soon after.  The big boys chased the little boys--or was it the other way around?--and Hot Shot, a little out of her big sister element, tried a few tricks and then wandered away from the playground.  My heart broke a little for her, fearing that the shift in her brothers’ attention might have left her lonely.  But then I saw she was headed back to the climbing wall.  Not the boulder, but the actual pretend cliff. 
          I was torn for a moment.  Not wanting to take my eyes off my boys, whose clumsiness would certainly be exacerbated by their lack of naps, but wanting to let Hot Shot take a turn on the wall.  And then I remembered one of my other recent additions to the Top Five Favorite Places list: my boys’ Montessori pre-school.  They started there in March, and I’ve been so glad for the reprieve it took me a few weeks to realize how much there was for me to learn, right there.  No research.  No books telling me what I’m doing wrong.  Just a quiet parenting reframe.  And four calm, kind, practiced role models in the form of their teachers.
          I’ve always been passively in favor of the Montessori approach without really knowing anything about it.  The same way I’m in favor of things like windmills and the Mideast Peace Process.  Intuition says they’re probably a good idea.  But now, now that I know a tiny bit more, now that I see those calm, peaceful, organized rooms of toddlers: now I support Montessori with the fervor of a convert.  Like I was crawling across the dessert looking for water, and fell in a river.  Like I was standing on a ledge looking for a reason to live, and found God.  Like I was kneeling on the floor prying Moon Boy’s fingers out of Ankle Biter’s eyes only to find his ungrateful teeth sinking into my calf, and found … Oh, right.  I was.
          So what have I learned?  Too many things to impart when I’m really trying to tell you how much I love the Audubon.  But for one, I’ve learned about “work.”  I’ve learned that when a kid picks up an object that I would previously have called a “toy,” it becomes his work.  And it’s his work until he’s done with it.  Until he’s explored everything about it that he wants to explore.  Until he’s finished the cycle of his thought.  Until he puts it away.  It’s not my job to make him share it just because his big brother can see how much fun he’s having and therefore wants it right away.  It’s not my job to police turn taking.  It’s not my job to worry I’m neglecting him because he’s so easily engaged with an inanimate object.  It is my job to give him space for his work, and to help his big brother find other engaging work, or--wait for it--to engage his big brother with some in-it-to-win-it, no-holds-barred, roll-on-the-floor, one-on-one time with Mom. 
          And when I remember all this, suddenly everyone is happy.  Even me.
          So last Wednesday afternoon I was able to let the big boys chase around the little boys, because they wanted to.  It was joyfully consuming their nine and ten year old brains.  It was their work.  They weren’t finished.  They had not put it away.  And I was able to let Moon Boy and Ankle Biter chase around the big boys, because the happiness dripped out of them like watermelon juice off an elbow.  And if I was close enough to hear the river of their giggles, how neglectful can that really be?
          So I stood in the warmth and looked up at my daughter as she climbed the rock wall.  She didn’t need a boost.  She didn’t need a stream of “good jobs!”  But she could feel the sun and my eyes on her back.  She worked with her body.  Learned a bit about its balance: how keeping it close to the wall gives her more leverage; how she can reach farther, pull harder, than she had thought.  She jumped down a few times.  To rest her muscles.  To get a broader view of the task at hand.  And then she was back at it.  Higher than my head.  Higher than my hands could reach if she had needed them.  Probably higher than a responsible parent should let her kid climb without a harness.  But I was drunk on sun and watching my children at work.
          I hated to end it.  But eventuality our collective hunger and thirst outlasted my provisions.
          So I called Hot Shot down and we all started the walk back.  Hot Shot stopped at the little kiosk, as she always does, to get a Google map of the park, so she can track her sojourn across the wetland, and up the hill to the car. 
          “Look!” she called out to the rest of us.  “Look we’re right here!  Right here where the trail splits off and we start over the bridge!  See?”
          So then Moon Boy and the big boys had to run back to get maps for themselves, while Ankle Biter chased a cardinal.  And they did map work until we got to the part of the boardwalk where you can step down onto a lower level and get closer to the water.  And then they all laid down on their bellies and did look-at-the-floaty-water-bugs work.  And then I couldn’t help but notice there were two turtles sunning themselves on a rock on the opposite side of the walkway, and as soon as I announced their presence, and saw my five charges take their eyes off the bugs and look franticly for the turtles, I realized what I had done.  The turtles weren’t going anywhere.  I could have waited. 
          But I gave myself a pass, and squatted down beside Moon Boy who was now entranced by the turtles.
          “I’m gonna swim out there and look at it,” he told me.
          “You are?”  I asked, looking deep into the warm browns of his enormous, beautiful eyes.
          They smiled back at me, delighting in hyperbole.
           “If I was a turtle I could swim over and look at it,” he amended, eyes dancing along like the sun on the water beside us.
          So we watched the turtles.  And we walked back to the car.  Some at their own pace.  Some holding hands with each other.  In the sunlight, I could see independence as their strength, and not my neglect.  And it left me free to think of other things.  Like how much I love them, and how cool it is that my three-year-old can employ the conditional tense.


  1. I love your understanding explanation of Montessori. And though you are, in some ways, still squatting in this Buckeye Nation I am glad your family is here. (I always seem to write some version of that don't I?)

  2. No problem Anne. You can right that as many times as you want. :)

  3. Liz, I love this! Not sure what else to say or how to write something as eloquently as you did. Your writing allows me to be with you at the Audobon and I especially love your thoughts about all of them becoming more independent and, as a result, you too!