Monday, March 21, 2011

Sugar Snow

It's the day before spring - one more day left to make snowflakes!  Sugaring time is upon us - time to celebrate the warmer side of winter, and our first local crop.  It's the perfect season this year - cold at night, warm during the day so the sap flows, and there is still snow on the ground - as it should be when we make our anual trip to the sugar shack.

Some people consider fresh sap to be a tonic for the body, a spring-cleaner of sorts.  I would have loved to baptize myself in this bucket of sap, and drink away my sins.  Maybe another time...

but this time I had to settle for my last supper (or breakfast in this case) before my own personal lent.

I love this time of year.  The sun is waking up from its slumber, coaxing daffodils to poke their heads out of the snow.  Days are getting warmer, pussy willows bloom.  Last week the girls and I were outside digging tunnels in the snow.  Each hole we dug soon filled up with tiny bugs - snow fleas, we called them.  Life is creeping and crawling again.

Snow - we're still covered here,but w'ere slowing finding bare spots.
A perfect season for walks to the "water drop" for some sailing.

On a sunny day - the first day of spring - we hang our snowflakes to celebrate the last days of winter.

Low and behold, the next morning - sugar snow!

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Marching On

People who complain about winter annoy me.  I'll admit it.  In fact, I have admitted it, personally,  to many of my friends throughout the season.  And now I will say it to you of the blogosphere - get over it.  Go outside.  Sit inside.  Go to Florida.  Move to Florida.  Do anything but lament about the weather - it's so... unoriginal.  It's like bad elevator music playing in the background - so much snow, so cold, so long, can't wait, can't wait, can't wait...

Not that I have always loved winter.  I spent the first seventeen years of my life in Northern Vermont where winter is cold, dark, and long.  I hated it, but I had no choice, and when the time came for me to choose, I left.  I moved to the desert and worshiped the sun for five years before attempting to return.  And this "attempt" was just that.  I returned in May and was gone in December - down to the Florida and then out to California where I spent the rest of my twenties, basking in solar glory.

But now I'm back - less by choice then by a series of events that seem to have chosen me - but I'm back just the same.  This is the place I am supposed to be, and I'm happy to have finally found it.  And in finding it, I've discovered other gems that needed mining as well - such as - I never really hated winter, I just hated being a teenager.
I remember once, growing up, my mother told me her favorite month was February.  I thought she was completely out of her mind, and proceeded to blast - in true adolescent fashion - February, and all its ruinous traits.  But she went on to tell me that she saw it as a month of change - a month where she could begin to see the light coming back and begin to sense spring's arrival.  This coming from a woman who is lucky if "spring" makes it to her doorstep by the beginning of May.  At the time, I'm sure I snarled some barely discernible reply and returned to the infernal regions of my winter gloom, but now I can finally see the light - quite literally - of which she spoke.

And, frankly, isn't that a nicer place to be?  It is true that not all of us are given a choice concerning where we want to live - what with finances and familial obligations and the like...  But all of us have the choice of how we will perceive things - of how much we will enjoy our lives - and I find it really disheartening that so many people chose despondency over joy.  (Using poor old winter - or rain, or heat - as their excuse)

It's true that we must have moments of despair in our lives and that sometimes these come in the winter.  The worst winter in my recent memory was three years ago, when we had just moved to the valley.  We - Emerson especially - were all trying to adjust to everything being new and a bit foreign, we were all sick for two months straight, Matt was commuting two hours - one way - to work, and the time he wasn't working he was spending in and out of hospitals with his mother, who was dying of cancer. And then she moved onward... and we remained fixed in our anguish and sorrow.  It was a dark time.  Would it have been less dark in the summer?  I doubt it.  For us, it didn't just magically disappear when the sun came out and flowers started to bloom.  The only passageway was time. 

Can't wait, can't wait... And in our lives, when time is so precious, why are we always trying to rush through things so fast?  In Greek and Welsh myths, winter is caused by young maidens being kidnapped into the netherworld, and spring arrives as they are freed.  In these cultures, as in many, winter represents a moral weakness, an evil, a dark being that must be overcome, but in no culture is winter ignored.  There is no story that tells us to lie in our beds and whine.

Winter is a time of action, albeit subtle action.  It's a time of going through the challenges that must be faced; of digging deep into the wells of our character and seeing what we find.  It's not a time for the weak, or for the empty.  It is a time of great change - although this change is often invisible - of great undercurrents that carry us into spring as different creatures than we were before winter started.  The light of spring can only hold meaning if it has its dark counterpart.  We can't awaken if we never slept...

Or as the 13th century Persian poet Sa'di wrote, "The true morning will not come, until the Yalda night is gone."

Anyway...  If I am complaining about complainers, I need to put myself squarely in my own fire.  I complain about winter too - but on the other end of the spectrum. No snow until after Christmas!  A few weeks of very cold weather and a month of snow! You call that winter?  And then we move to February and already the snow has turned to rain and slush, the days are getting lighter and warmer, and somehow I feel that winter has passed me by again.   

So now it's time for me to accept that winter is coming to an end, and I didn't get the chance to do a lot of the things I wanted to.  We never made a snowman.  We never went snow-shoeing, or cut out paper snowflakes to hang in the windows.  Emerson and I waited in line at the ski sale for two hours to buy skis we never used. 

But winter gave us many unexpected gifts as well.  Hours and hours and days and days spent sledding.  (We don't really have a usable sledding hill in our yard because of all the trees, but because of the enormous snowbanks, we were able to have a starting point from which to create a long and winding trail through the woods that gave us thrills we never thought possible!)  Winter walks and ice-skating, and many hours of shoveling - which was great exercise and meditation for me.  A chilly weekend at the beach, where the kids - dressed in wool pants and winter boots - saw no reason not to go wading in a tide-pool up to their wastes.
 Just as the people who complain about cold and snow need to reconcile with winter, so must I.  Winter comes and goes as it pleases, and I need to roll with the ebb and flow of the seasons just like everyone else.  And as I - or we - try to configure reality with our expectations, the kids just keep on playing - treating each day as a new gift to be opened with glee.  The slushy rain that washes my snow away is a river on which to sail a boat.
When we - finally - made the plan to go skiing and woke up to forty-four degrees and raining (on the mountain) Emerson was upset at first... but she is always game for Plan B.

Skiing is OK, but nothing beats hot chocolate and a Zamboni...

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The Red Queen and Mr. Cranky Pants

Emerson recently had her "first grade readiness" assessment at school to see if she would move into the first grade next year.  At her school (as in all Waldorf schools) academics begin in the first grade and are completely absent in kindergarten, so the jump from "Early Childhood" to "The Grades" is a big one.  Also, Emerson will stay with the same teacher and the same group of children (with the exception of children leaving the school or joining the school) from first through eighth grade.  Because of the cohesive nature of the class community, children are not "held back," so the teachers want to be sure that each child moving into first grade is in the right place.  They look at all applicants, but pay careful attention to the youngest children - those with summer birthdays - like my Emerson.

So in February, Emerson and a classmate went to visit the "Red Queen," (the assessment is a game, full of little chores, in which the children try and help a queen find water for her parched queendom) and a few weeks later, Matty and I met with her teacher to take stock of our five-year-old.  I've known this was coming for a long time, and I've always told myself that I didn't care what the outcome was, as long as Emerson was in the right place.  She's young for her class, and she is - in many ways - very innocent for her age, and I would trust that these people - her beloved teacher included - would make a careful and true conclusion about where she belongs.  I was excited on the day of the conference.  The wondering was over.  The day had finally come for me to know - with certainty - where my child was headed.

 At least I thought so.  But this is the lesson I need to be reminded of over and over (and over and over and over and over) again.  The one about certainties...

I'll spare you the details of the conference.  I think I was in shock for the entire first half after hearing "Emerson tested young!..." so I may have missed most of them myself.  Even after preparing myself for over a year to hear this possibility,  it stung.  What is wrong with my child?  My rational side knew the test was not pass/fail.  It's not about ability or who is the best; it is about finding the right place for a child.  Yet I couldn't keep these feelings that my child had, in some way, failed out of my head long enough to concentrate on a word her teacher was saying.  Needless to say, it was not what I had expected to hear.  (At our first conference in the fall, Emerson's teacher said she would be very surprised if Emerson didn't move on)  But here is another lesson I need reminding of often.  The one about expectations...

We - at least I - left the meeting in a blur of confusion, trying to piece together all we had heard.  She walks on her tiptoes, her startle reflex is not integrated, she has trouble with her mid-line, her dominance is not completely formed.  But the conference ended with things like "this is the drawing of a first-grader!" and "if she were really having problems with her mid-line, she wouldn't have been able to draw this figure eight so effortlessly..."  I asked the teacher twice - directly - if Emerson would go on to first grade, and she said, the first time, "put in the application for the first grade," and the second, "she will be in the group moving on."  I'm sure that she went over many other ways in which Emerson was competent enough to move into the first grade, but my brain was still in its regressive state of fright or flight.  What is wrong with my child? What is wrong with my child? What is wrong with my child?

It got worse when we got home.  Was Emerson ready for first grade?  I started looking at her in a new light.  All of her idiosyncrasies, that before were - to me - just Emerson, were now clues into her development.  And all the while my mind was reeling: Is she too young for first grade?  Are her feet still firmly planted in childhood?  Will she struggle next year?  Is she ready? Will she move on?  I was expecting finality and what I got was limbo.  No, not limbo - purgatory.

And in the middle of this purgatory, we went to the beach to meet someone for the first time who - no doubt in my mind - is little! Say hello to "Mr. Cranky Pants!" (Although this term of endearment could not be more ill fitting.  He is really a mellow little guy...)

There was a surge of new babies born around us lately, but little Eddie is the first one we've seen up close thus far, and I was excited to see how the girls were with him.  Ophelia is - always has been - bonkers about babies, and I was sure she would maul him to no end, but I wasn't so sure about Emerson.  Emerson has never really been a little girl who loved babies.  She didn't take to dolls as a baby or toddler - she favored her stuffed animals - and only started playing with them because other children at school did.  I thought she would be moderately interested in the baby.

Wrong again.  (Expectations...remember?)

The novelty of a baby was interesting to Ophelia for a few minutes,

but she spent most of her weekend pursuing the dog (or big Eddie).  Emerson, on the other had, was hooked.

She was next to him every minute we were there, taking cues from his mom, making sure his needs were met, making sure he was OK.

I would love to say that after seeing her so attune to another human's vulnerability, I had a grand revelation and realized, right then and there, she was ready for the first grade - but that didn't happen.  It was amazing to witness though.  Her response to the baby was more than "he's a cute little toy and I want to hold him."  She demonstrated true empathy, selflessness, and love.

Later that day she participated in her bi-yearly television experience and laughed hysterically at Pingu - a show recommended for toddlers.  (I have to admit, I laughed too).

And then we got home and she took care of her own baby, right after she put on her cat suit...

Is Emerson ready for first grade?  We may never really know.  I was at a party recently and a woman told me she had agonized about the same decision for her - now forty-year-old - son.  I thought the point of her story would be that it really doesn't matter in the long run, but no - she is still wondering if she made the right choice.  (The "son" is question is a well adjusted father of three... although he does have a penchant for racing cars...)

And that brings me to another lesson: the one about figuring out things for myself - not waiting for someone else to give me the answer...

And as an anecdote:

Last year, I put in a kindergarten application to a desirable charter school.  To clarify, it was desirable to everyone except us.  When Matty asked me why I put in an application to a school we weren't interested in, I told him it would give us options.  What I didn't tell him, was that there was a little voice in the back of my head screaming how can everyone else be wrong? What I also didn't tell him, was that it was a cop-out.  It was a way for me to say "we tried, but we didn't get in."  I was side-stepping the choice - and any regret that might have surrounded it later on - completely.

And, of course, out of the nearly 100 people coveting a spot in kindergarten, Emerson's name was pulled in the lottery.  It was like a big thunder clap sent down from the heavens - DECIDE!

But the decision was easy - we know where we wanted Emerson to be the whole time, and it wasn't at the charter school.  I have no idea how we are going to afford the school we are at forever (the charter school is free!) but I have absolutely no regrets.

Will Emerson go to the first grade next year?  As Matty says, "you be the one to tell her she's not going to the first grade..."  As for me, I stopped thinking about it after a week's time.  Emerson is going to see the Red Queen again in May, and this time I'm really excited to hear what her teacher has to say.  I'm happy that we have chosen a school where they feel the need to really know our child - all of her.  I'm happy we have chosen a school that is prepared to meet her individual needs as she moves through the stages of childhood.  I'll take the information that is given to me and make whatever decision feels right. The choice, like her development, is still flowering.

It can wait.  There's no rush.