Sometimes, as a writer, you have to let go of certain pieces—that is, the ones that keep getting rejected. I wrote this about a year ago, in response to a call for submissions that focused on a particular theme. It got rejected. In fact, it got rejected a few more places after that. I need to let go of this piece, not because my confidence in it is faltering (though it is), but because the girl that I wrote about here, she’s different now. Braver and less risk averse. I want to honor that transformation. When I write about her, I want to be in the present. To do that, I need to let go of this tiny snapshot of the past.
What are you doing?” I asked her.
Her eyes were closed. Her empty hand was in a fist. Above it, she inhaled through her nose and exhaled through her sweet pink lips.
“Smelling my flower, and then blowing out my birthday candle to make a wish,” she replied, infused with that faint hint of “duh, Mama!” that five and a half year olds seem to suddenly pick up from the older kids at the playground.
My wrinkled eyebrow revealed that I didn’t understand.
“Miss Lara told me to do that when I was afraid of the dark clouds on the playground today,” she explained.
Ah, now I see. There must have been thunderstorms on the distant horizon during outdoor playtime. I can only imagine the look of fear that she must have had, likely clinging to the leg of the nearest adult. She had been in a stage where even the remotest of thunderstorm possibilities triggered palpable, visible fear. For the greater part of a year, this was but one thing that induced a perplexing state of anxiety for her, our sensitive worrier. These were covert breathing exercises aimed at getting her to relax.
But what threw me was the off-the-cuff brilliance of that twenty-something teacher’s aide. It far outshined the (very expensive) textbook advice that my anxious young daughter had received from her highly decorated post-doc therapist just nine months prior. It was so obvious and elegantly simple: if you want to reach a child, speak to them in their own magical language. Why do we adults so frequently forget this? Flowers and wishes? Yes, these she could understand. This she could use.
Our worrier was becoming a warrior. She was breathing again.
All it took was a pair of cheap plastic goggles. Not the supportive praise of her Dad offered from a poolside bench over sixteen humid Sundays at the Y. Not my kind words of encouragement before she left for her lessons, or the high fives for the small achievements when she returned. By all accounts she loved swimming in the pool. Yet despite our efforts, our young daughter was seemingly destined to remain a pike, with eel becoming increasingly elusive so long as she refused to immerse her head.
The reason? Wet eyes. She did not trust her breath if she had to keep her eyes closed too. Like me, she is someone who needs to see what is around her. Getting water in those bright blue eyes was the roadblock standing in the way of above and below.
Ultimately, it was not our measured reassurances and coaxing that gave her the confidence to go under. It was not our ability as loving, supportive parents. No, it was the bubblegum pink goggles found in the last aisle of a dusty bargain bin store, purchased in a last ditch effort to help her move forward. I hated them at first, overwhelming in their plastic stench and insulting in their $1.99 price tag. The likely conditions under which they were manufactured crawled under my skin. I thought about the environmental ramifications of my purchase as I reluctantly handed the clerk my five dollar bill.
But how could I ignore the instant transformation that this elegantly simple solution ultimately induced? This time, it seemed, her comfort and confidence were clearly Made in China.
Our little mermaid went deeper in the water and also within herself. She learned how to hold her breath.
The dichotomy of what my anxious little one learned in the span of just one year was nothing short of life saving, maybe for all of us. We are not living at the outer edge of raw exasperation. She can take in more of what life has to offer.
Breathe in, breathe out. Take a gulp of air, and hold it. To trust in these polar opposites is to reveal one’s own inner strength and bravery. She is freer now because she knows how to breathe, and when not to.
Copyright (c) 2014 Kristen M. Ploetz
Dear Lovely Little Valentine,
Though you are just barely halfway between six and seven years old, you’ve taught me so much about love, both what it is and what it isn’t. It’s been clear to me for a very long time, that you are also keenly aware of what it means to love and be loved.
And in this present moment, what I adore most about you is that you already know that love takes so many forms. Love can be big and it can be small. It is the faintest of pinks and the juiciest of reds. It can be boldly public or solely within our hearts. You know that all of these forms of love are wonderful. I hope your heart is always so open and wide, in the love you see in the world, the love you give and the love you receive.
Already you know that love is the starry-eyed affection you have for your teacher and drawing her pictures for her “love book”. It’s you reminding us “to be neighborly” and waddling over in snowpants with your little red shovel to help clear the neighbors’ driveway while one of them recovers from surgery, even though I know you’d much rather play. It’s telling me, without pause or prejudice, “how cute” the lesbian couple was that you just met. You know that love is writing thank you notes and taking time to call someone on the phone just to say hello. Tossing the birds a few crusts of bread and filling the bird bath or tending to our garden; that is love too. It’s also stopping for a moment to find the cardinal (our favorite bird) that is singing his sweet song to us.
You’ve seen that love is a friend getting out of line in the morning at school to come stand with you when you were having a rough start to the day. You’ve returned love to another friend by doing the same and giving her hugs throughout the day too. You know that occasionally your young friends just might be having a bad day (or five!) and not always so kind to each other or you, but you (and they) are quick to forgive and forget, almost always within minutes, certainly by lunchtime.
You feel a deep love for your younger cousin, and often wonder aloud “I wonder what O is up to right now.” It’s reminding us that it’s been “too many weeks” since you last saw your other cousins too. It’s you thinking to send your distant family Valentine’s Day cards, even though you don’t see or talk to them nearly as much as the others that live closer. You know that love is your closest family members always taking into consideration your staunch and exclusive favoritism for only two desserts: vanilla ice cream and vanilla cupcakes.
You know that love is being able to safely vent and voice frustration at home, even to the recently added tune of a slammed bedroom door and yelling that you “want to be alone right now!“, and knowing that we will be here and ready to hug you when the moment has passed, and that we will not yell back. You know that love is letting someone find their voice and test it out without repercussion. You know that even despite feeling disappointed in how a day or evening shakes out, especially if you were let down by something we might have done (or not done), love is another day that will start anew with fresh promise, and unconditionally so.
You know that love is just snuggling on the couch for the last few moments before we begin our day in earnest. You know that it is snuggling at the end when we’re all spent and tired.
Love is the “one more book” once in a while. Love is the sanctioned sneaking of an extra Junior Mint (or two). You show love by never letting me forget to bring something home for Daddy when you and I make a surprise stop at the bakery. You know that your having first dibs on the leftover pizza the next day is the equivalent of love too. I think you understand that love is also being given just “a few more minutes” to watch the woodpecker even though my toes were already freezing and ready for the fireplace half an hour ago. Our shared excitement to “Quick! Come see the pink clouds!” that happens at sunset (especially this winter!), yes, this too is just another expression of love, even though it is oh so fleeting.
Love is unexpectedly dashing out to the store at 5pm to see what we can find to cobble together a princess costume when dinner plans should really be underway instead. And love is returning home empty handed when we couldn’t find what we were looking for, but knowing we will find another way to do it, together.
You now know that sometimes I am going to just let you cry for a while, especially when it’s clear that no matter what I say or do has any possible way of making whatever has you upset feel better. Instead, the tissues and hugs I give you at the end of it all are the only symbols of love I can apparently offer right now, which hopefully makes it a bit more bearable. You seem to know that all forms of tears are just tangible proof of love, in one fashion or another, whether it be from music that makes our heart swell or a temporarily broken heart that needs fixing.
You know that love is letting someone (yes, me) sleep in on the weekends or through a crushing migraine. But you have also seen that it is scrapping those plans when someone else’s need for love and attention is greater that morning than the need for sleep. Love is talking quietly together, as a family, over candlelit dinners and your request to “do it again next week” before the meal is even finished. It is the tiny pieces of paper scattered all over the house and even in closets with hearts or rainbows or smiling stick figures with three fingers to a hand. Love literally sticks to my skin when you give me one of your coveted My Little Pony stickers that someone else just sent you for Valentine’s Day.
I know there are so many more Valentine’s Days yet ahead of us, and that each year you (and I) will refine our take on what constitutes love. I think this is a good thing and, ultimately, inevitable as you make the years long passage from young girl to woman. But at base, you firmly know that true love brings joy, happiness and a warm heart, no matter how bold or understated it may be, no matter the present circumstances. You are aware that love is inherently a good thing, and that you just know it when you see it. This, I hope, is what you always carry with you.
Happy Valentine’s Day, bug.
Copyright (c) 2014 Kristen M. Ploetz
Our house is teeming with ponytail holders. Some days they are EVERYWHERE. Other days, I can’t find even one. They’re shifty creatures, those things.
And lately, M has taken to doing this to all of them:
These double loops clutter every nook and cranny of her room. She calls it her “neat trick”, one that is accomplished with some sleight of hand that starts with a ponytail holder on each wrist and ends in what might be the gateway to the notorious Rainbow Loom that I keep hearing about (but have thankfully been able to avoid).
But on this dreary day, where she’s (finally) back at school after a winter break that was protracted with two snow days at the end, I don’t mind stumbling upon the color it brings. It reminds me that she will be home in just a few more hours, likely making more.
This year, we purchased a new advent calendar to count down the days to Christmas. The one we had been using in the past few years was a total flop. This could be related to the fact that we forgot to fill it with treasures. Ahem. Maybe. But this one is foolproof because it already comes with all of the treasures waiting to be discovered. And M is in love with it. Each morning she comes down the stairs, the first place she goes is to the advent calendar to open the day’s door and reveal the animal inside. Perhaps not surprisingly, it turns out she has been assembling a little school of animals on the front porch.
Today we head up to Storyland in New Hampshire to meet up with family and friends, as we have done for these last several Junes. This is our fifth time going in four years (we went an additional time in September during the first year). We already have several traditions that have formed and which are at the center of this much beloved trip. We are never certain whether this will be the last time we go, not for a lack of love for the place, but because summers are so short already, and as she gets older and soon to be encumbered by a school year calendar, we begin to get tempted by other destinations. Her being an only child also lends itself to a different dynamic as the siblings of family and friends we travel with gel in their own way. We will see. But today . . . today we are packing and I can tell M is yet again excited based on how little she’s eaten today. It dawned on me this afternoon as I rounded up her things for the trip just how much differently the packing becomes when they are closer to 6 than to 2, which is where we started. No play pens, outlet covers, potty or seat covers, gates, bed rails or high chairs. Just clothes, books and a few toys. Easygoing fun. Soundtrack: M’s dad feverishly mowing the lawn so the neighbors won’t get annoyed while we’re away, M playing underfoot and asking many (MANY!) times when we are leaving, the sound of the sprinkler water hitting the fence where I rushed to plant some tomatoes last night, and sound of my stomach grumbling as I put off eating just so I can “get it all done” by our departure time, which, hopefully, will be well in advance of Boston rush hour.
Copyright (c) 2013 Kristen M. Ploetz
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