International Exchange

My girls from Botswana were so beautiful and so full of joy. The first of my 7 Rules of Living is Pile on the People.

Hosting two 17-year old girls from Southern Africa stay for a week brought us so much laughter. Hosting international students, in our case, amazing musicians, was meaningful on so many levels. We learned about their country, culture, school, and families. We learned about ourselves.

I fancy myself as someone who makes international friends easily. And when I was a kid, I dreamed of having a big, multi-racial, multi-ethnic family. It just feels so right to get to know and love people from other countries.

Growing up in suburban Chicago, we hosted Claudio, (I think he was from Brazil), for a couple of weeks. The Coudal kids (and mom) loved him like crazy. It’s amazing how quickly you can fall in love with people.

“Your kids are so great,” Lolo told me when we were all out to brunch yesterday. Yes, yes, I agree.

But she also said, as my kids were teasing me about my how bad my cooking is, “Girls, you are so mean to your mother. And your mother is so nice.” That made me feel good and bad. Good because, hey, she noticed how exceedingly nice I am, but bad, because my girls do put me down (as only teens and preteens can do). Do my kids tease me too much?

It’s a generational thing, I think — parents today, tolerate our children’s gentle jibing. We are not perfect and we know it and accept it. But throughout the day, I mulled this over. On the sidewalk, I bumped into my neighbor and confided my worry in him. He reported that his daughter puts her mother down too.

I have to think about this a little bit longer. I’ve already called a family meeting for tonite. On the agenda?

1. The kids were great international hosts. Let’s do it again!

2. Respect your mother.

3. Pile on the people!

Shabbat Dinner

We all need a healthy dinner and time to savor it. Family dinner time is a sacred space to sit down together, to chat, to chew, to lean back in your  chair, (even when you’re told not to).

Sure I say all this, but do we do it? Last night, I ordered pork fried rice, chicken with broccoli and spicy dumplings from the Cottage. I grabbed a few bites. Then I yelled, “Chinese food on the kitchen table,” over my shoulder.

I was running out the front door as my three kids ran in. I was going to my non-fiction class. The kids were coming home from math club, play practice and track team. My husband was working. That is how we roll — busy, busy, busy.

I believe in family dinner time. I really do. So we started a Friday night dinner ritual. We’re Christian, but our ritual is based on the Jewish tradition of Shabbat dinner. (Thanks to my friend, Joe Little, who suggested this as we sat on the sidelines of our girls’ Westside basketball league and to my upstairs neighbor Ran, who has invited us to many Friday night Shabbat dinners over the years.)

On Friday nights, we turn off the computer screens and phones, we meet in the kitchen and light a candle or two, we drink grape juice, and someone cracks open the Bible (we use the brilliant translation, The Message by Eugene Peterson).

We usually read one of the Psalms, because they’re poetic, dramatic and understandable. It takes all of ten minutes, but it’s an awesome way to decompress from the week and enter the weekend. And then we have dinner and just hang out.

Last week, after our Shabbat prayer and dinner, we played the card game, Spoons. Then we watched a movie. No biggie, just chilled and relaxed.

We should have Shabbat again tonite, but one of my girls has a statewide math competition, the other is going on a sleepover, and my husband has rehearsal. That just leaves me and my son. It’s fine that it’s just the two of us.

We’ll light a candle, read the Psalms, and savor some left-over Chinese food.

Girls Leadership Institute

Last weekend my twin daughters and I spent the weekend at Grace Church School in the Village for the awesome Girls Leadership Institute.

I was surprised to learn that girls’ friendships are their whole world. Hearing about the scenarios of the other girls reinforced this. In our role playing, there were many examples of small snubs that deeply, deeply hurt — like not being invited to a party. It is tough to be a kid!

One of my takeaways from the weekend was learning four steps to navigate a conflict.

1. Affirm the relationship

2. Use an “I statement”

3. Admit your contribution

4. Solve it together

I am pathologically nice and avoid conflict at all costs. So this was good for me. I realized that I skate over step #1. And #3 too. Somehow I never fail to notice and feel the wrongs done to me, but I may not always see or feel my contribution to a conflict. (Me? Perfect ole me?)

I have to acknowledge that, “In 99% of arguments, both sides somehow contributed to the conflict…” That blew my mind. Everyone is always quick to blame others. But realizing that we each have a role in the conflict may make the solution more accessible.

At times, I felt a little strained in the workshop, because I was the only parent there with twins. The twelve or so other mothers all had just one daughter to intensely talk with or role play with. I was trying, as I always do, to be fair and distribute my attention equally. The facilitators were supportive and sometimes worked with one of the girls one-on-one, but I don’t think they were used to twins with one parent.

All in all, it was a totally excellent weekend. We learned a lot and we are already implementing it around the house (although their big brother is a bit dismissive (maybe he’s a little jealous?)) I think I need to affirm that relationship with my son, maybe even use an ‘I statement,’ admit my contribution, and then we can solve it together. That will be fun.

Forgiving the Bad Apples

We had a class meeting the other night. One parent reported that a few bad apples have spoiled the whole class’s reputation. Several people nodded and one parent said something like, “Yes, if we were rid of those bad apples, everything would be fine.” Most of us nodded. (I didn’t even know the bad apples, but what she said made sense. Like the song goes, “One bad apple don’t spoil the whole bunch, girl.” Oh, wait, one doesn’t spoil the whole bunch! Good to know!)

One woman spoke up, “I think we’re too involved. Let’s let the kids work it out themselves.”

Jones Beach in winter

Another said, “Yes, we should teach our children to be forgiving. We hold our grudges for too long.”

Walking out with these new friends from the meeting, I said to the woman who advocated forgiveness, “What a powerful idea. I forget about forgiveness.”

“Some of my students’ parents still remember when their child was wronged in 1st grade and I teach 8th grade,” said a new friend, a teacher in another school. “We have to let go.”

I’ve thought about this conversation for several days. I wonder if I, like many people, define myself by NOT being one of the bad apples (and certainly none of MY children are rotten!). And I’m not sure I always forgive and forget.

I have always liked being a good apple. And have enjoyed the smug pride of my righteous, responsible and kind nature.

I actually despise bad apples. I detest overly negative people. (Especially since giving up gossip again this Lent!) And yet, I recognize the irony — I am extremely negative about negative people.

I wonder if I might try this new practice of forgiving the bad apples, the good apples, the negative people and even, myself.

Going Just A Little Bit Out of My Way

I am always shocked that my kids make it to the school bus on time. In the morning, I am the pit boss of the Indy 500 — fixing broken wheels and finding socks. So the fact that the kids get launched into the world every single morning — and have never missed the bus — shocks me.

It’s about the routine. To save me from the huffing and puffing and stress of the morning launch, I’m thinking we should tune up our morning and evening routines.

Grant's Tomb at dusk

I started thinking about how one small action can cause a new chain reaction last night, when I stood waiting at my usual bus stop for my usual M5 bus. I saw the golden light of sunset and realized I had not taken a photo for the day. So I walked towards the next bus stop.

And on the way to my new stop in the dusky light, the sunset was brighter, the Hudson more reflective and Grant’s Tomb more pinkish.

kids skateboard near Grant's Tomb

Walking to my new bus stop, I passed a bunch of kids skateboarding. And I thought, I’ve got to do this more often — find a new way. Because right next to my usual routine is something dazzling and brilliant.

I don’t know if one small tweak will help me with our morning and evening family routines, but I think it’s worth a shot. Chris, my husband, has been gone for nearly a month, directing a show in Florida, so I think the time is now to get into a good new habit before he comes home!

My Life as Superwoman

My days have been chock full. In no particular order, over the last couple of weeks:

  • I discovered I have more basal cell carcinoma (this time, on my hairline). Surgery is tomorrow.
  • I have taught creative writing at a public middle school.
  • I bought a sectional couch and rearranged the family room. (I believe the Raymour & Flanigan salesman gave me a nice discount because he admired my tenacity and good spirits as I furniture shopped with boisterous preteens and a teen.)
  • I have been solo-parenting while my husband Chris is in Florida for a month, directing Picasso at Lapin Agile.
  • I have met a challenge with teen boys’ behavior. Say no more.
  • I have had sick daughters (one with strep throat, the other with swimmer’s ear).
  • I have started an interim job as a writer for another faith-based organization, a women’s group.
  • I have received an email, first contact in 20 years, from my ex.
  • I have been taking a sketch class at the Art Students League. I have been painting, drawing, and collaging a lot. And even sold some art.
  • I have been taking a photo every day.
  • I have been journaling every day.
the fog in Riverside Park on one of my lunchtime walks

I could elaborate on any one one of these bullet points. Suffice it to say, I have felt like Superwoman, empowered and challenged. Being Superwoman is tiring.

I have felt, just recently, the need to slow down. Perhaps February can be a month for that.

All of my work — my art, writing, and teaching fills my soul and I intend to keep on keeping on. My husband suggested that when he comes back, I should go to a spa for a few days. I like that. Until then, I might just curl up on the new sofa with a good book.

Open to Surprise When Traveling

Storybook Dollhouse at the Thomas Hughes children's library

The best part of travel is always the experience that is unplanned. The thing that you think will be great is never the thing that is most memorable. (Like, it’s not the Leaning Tower of Pisa, but the pizza vendor near the tourist attraction!)

Yesterday, the kids had the most fun of their lives sliding in their winter coats on some long wooden couch/bench at the Hilton Hotel lobby. (I did my usual thing of walking away from them, muttering, “Whose kids are those?”)

The sliding bench in the lobby was almost as fun at the dollhouse tucked into the children’s room at the Harold Washington Library.

We met my mother in the airy atrium on the top floor of the library and she took us on a tour. She could be a professional tour guide for the city of Chicago, unlocking secrets hidden in plain sight. She showed us site-specific

Continue reading “Open to Surprise When Traveling”

Married but Living Single

Christmas lights at Columbus Circle

There is a buoyancy when I have the kids to myself. I know I am not the only married person to feel this way. Lots of married friends tell me they love when their spouse travels for work. They can parent their own way — lay down the law or lighten the load.

But there’s even more relief when the chronically ill spouse is away for a few days. Around 11 pm, when I was unplugging our Christmas tree, my son asked, “Where’s Dad?” (He’d been gone since 7:30 in the morning.) “He’s playing Scrooge at a reading in a theater upstate. Will be back Monday.”

I felt guilty for feeling so happy to have my kids to myself. Mea culpa for not sugarcoating my situation and telling you that I love helping my husband pull on his shirt or tie his shoelaces.

Surely I could be more loving and patient. I am often in a rush, especially in the morning. Being married to someone with Parkinson’s Disease slows the caregiver down too. I need to shower. I need to launch myself and the kids into our day. I need to get to my desk at work with a focused mind. I would rather not remind someone to take their pills.

Last night the kids joined me at a Christmas party where we sang carols. We ate lasagna; they drank hot cider and I drank mulled wine. My burden was lightened — we were singing and sipping and chatting. And I chatted about deep things. My kids got bored. (I love when they get bored! I love giving them memories of hanging out at an adult’s party, eavesdropping and playing board games.)

My December goal — to throw and go to beaucoup des holiday parties is working out well.

getting through december

Last year I went cross country skiing at the Hildene estate in Manchester, Vermont. So fun. So pretty. The winter months don't have to be depressing.

It’s no wonder people find Christmas depressing. It’s a holiday in a dark month full of rabid consumerism and fake merriment.

Here’s how I’m going to power through the season:

1. I will be exceedingly good-natured, especially to crabby people. This is my passive-aggressive way — if I hold a door for you, a stranger, at the bank and you don’t say, Thank you, I will shout exuberantly, You’re welcome and have a beautiful holiday season!

2. Seriously, I will try to maintain a sunny attitude, even while facing layoffs, long lines, and disappointing gifts from my children.

3. I will give and go to a lot of holiday parties and have conversations with family and friends that are so deep and meaningful they cannot be summarized in a tweet. (But follow me any way on Twitter @MaryBethC — Self promotion? Not gonna stop!)

4. Delve into some childhood memories and try to make some damn good memories for my kids — but NOT memories of things like iPhones, but memories of experiences, like hanging out with cousins, eating fondue or looking at the Rockefeller tree. (We live in NYC and we never do any of the touristy, Christmas crap.)

5. Do some Christmas-y NYC things:

  • see the Renaissance angels at the Met
  • see the origami tree at the Museum of Natural History
  • see the windows on 5th Avenue
  • listen to Handel’s Messiah
  • eat Scandinavian food

6. Write a lot.

7. Travel a lot (to Chicago and the Adirondacks).

8. Drink a lot (of egg nog).

This was last winter’s post from my visit to Hildene.

What We Value

Our family values the arts and to have dinner together and we also like to support each other in our ventures for example if one of us Jonesys wants to go hiking the next day we will have climbed mountains and we will complain and sulk and kick but we will have climbed the mountain and we will rise on top undefeated. Joneseys:1 Mountain: 0.

This morning, these words were open in my daughter’s binder. This was Cat’s answer to the question, “What are your values?” If you can get beyond the lack of punctuation and the run-on quality of the sentence, and I can, I think it’s a wonderful and inspiring piece of writing. (I know, I know, I’m not unbiased).

On top of Owl's Head, near Lake Placid, goofing around

I love the struggle and the victory over that struggle to climb the mountain.

The other day Cat asked me, “Why do we climb so many mountains?” I don’t know. The view is so beautiful from on top. The air is clear. We are all off our hand-held devices.

Why do we struggle? Why do we take on more struggle? Why am I doing NaNoWriMo this month? Why do I blog, plan parties, work my full time job, parent, cook, clean, care for my kids (two of them have been on antibiotics this week), be supportive of my husband (despite the reality that, due to his Parkinson’s, he drives me totally crazy), teach one night and take a non-fiction writing class another? Why do all that?

I guess I do it so that the next day I can say I did it. I have climbed a mountain. I have risen on top undefeated. MaryBeth: 1 Mountain: 0.