The First Thing

The First Thing

About five years ago I was invited to lead a drawing workshop for a group of teenage boys recently arrived to this country as refugees. I had never taught anybody anything and knew nothing about classroom management. I understood the workshop would be an education for all of us, but some of the lessons of that day have only recently become clear.

The boys were attentive and engaged with the workshop. By the end of the class, they had filled the pages of the sketchbooks I’d brought with drawings of trees and garden statues. As their confidence grew, some of them began to sketch their lives as refugees.

Those very personal drawings often depicted experiences no human, especially no child, should ever have to endure. When I got beyond my outrage at the thought of a child having to hide from people with machine guns, however, I wondered if the resilience of these boys was the most valuable lesson I would take home, but my education was only beginning.

A few years later, I began working with students with complex trauma. Many of the students came to us through the juvenile justice or foster care systems after experiencing years of assault or extreme neglect at the hands of parents or trusted caregivers. Some students tiptoed into the program, scanning every room they entered for threats and jumping at the sound of a torn piece of paper. Other students raged against their lives with profanity and destruction.

These kids take months and years to navigate far enough around their trauma to be able to build their futures. Some never get around it, and, when I first started this work, I wondered how the boys from the workshop who had survived war circumnavigated those memories, seemingly, so much more quickly.

When Thing1 was born, I morphed, in the space of 36 hours, from an ambitious, tech-driven programmer to a bowl of pudding that wanted nothing more than to hold my child until he no longer wanted to be held. At the time, the Ferber method was still very popular, but something felt very wrong about not picking up my child when he was crying. I asked a social worker friend if I should just have Thing1 ‘tough it out.’

My friend put her hand on my arm and said, “Rachel, the first year is about establishing basic trust.”

I never forgot that. Establishing and keeping trust with Thing1 and Thing2 became my parenting touchstone.

Studying education, I read Erik Erikson, the psychologist who promulgated the stages of psychosocial development starting with that first year or so of basic trust. It was bias confirmation, but, as I met more children healing from trauma, I wondered if the loss of trust reset those stages of development. 

Last year I drafted my family into a 5K to raise money for charity. The race, an hour away from our house, gave me a chance to talk a family member and child psychiatrist about the different trajectories I was seeing.  I asked him if the breaking of trust by a parent or trusted individual such as a teacher or police officer cause a more profound or permanent trauma than experiencing atrocities by people who make no secret of their bad intentions.

He didn’t a quick answer for that question. He didn’t have easy answers to the more difficult question of how we help people recover from that trauma. I still suspect there are no easy answers to either question.

Working with children who have been betrayed by people they should be able to trust has brought the lessons from the workshop full circle, showing me that rebuilding a life is begins by addressing the first thing all humans need– the ability to trust.

Leading with Love

Leading with Love

Every morning when we bring out the checks, Katie follows us. She watches and whines, urging us to be careful as we move the growing babies from indoor enclosure to box to the chicken tractor outside. She trails the Big Guy from room to outdoors and hovers as he releases the checks into the tractor.

When the chicks are settled in their outdoor home, she’ll sniff on all four sides, inspect the sky to see if any predators are selling above, and then give a pointed look at Jim-Bob, as if to say, “Don’t mess with my chicks”.

most mornings she’ll lie down next to the coop, watching the chicks scratch and argue over who gets this would chip in that white fluffy flower. To be sure, Katie has her explorations in the woods. From the moment the chicks are in the tractor, however, until the moment we begin moving them back into the house, she lets us and them –and even the cats – know that she is there to protect and serve.

She never growls or bares her teeth at anyone. when she sees Princess Jane get too close to the coop, she will physically move herself between the chicks and arrow little gray huntress, but there are no snarls or parks. When it counts, she firm but always as loving with Princess Jane as she is with the chicks.

No one will ever mistake Katie for a huntress or vicious guard dog, but as a vigilant and caring protector, she’s becoming quite good at keeping the peace.

Tree Noise

Tree Noise

We may be the only house in Vermont where you can’t actually see a mountain. We carved our plot out of the middle of a hill, leaving as many trees as possible. The result is that we can see outlines of mountains through the branches in the winter, but most of our view is defined by the vertical lines of the tree trunks and the blur of green that covers them in the summer. It’s not a vista or a monument. It’s not white noise, it’s visual tree noise. 

I’ve always been grateful for that tree noise. After a stressful day, it brings me back to earth. It soothes and then inspires. Even when I was working at home, however, I didn’t understand its full potential. 

Normally, just a few days of being home gives me a co-morbid case of cabin fever and wanderlust. Pneumonia initiated my quarantine back in March, well ahead of the state lockdown. It’s still kicks my butt each day, but yesterday I realized that illness is not the only thing that, for the first time in my life, has turned me into a happier homebody.

Thing1 wanted to test drive his car after replacing the cooling system and invited the Big Guy and Thing2 along for a joyride. It was a perfect spring day in the Green Mountain state, so, of course, they said yes. Wiped out from sitting in the garden and mulching the onions (thank you Strawbale Gardening), I opted for a nap in the lawn chair.

The seasonal streams and wind sang through the trees, supported by their supporting chorus of songbirds and crows. I opened my eyes every so often to absorb the visual tree noise. Recently turned green after a last blast of snow, it took center stage again.

I’ve viewed most of our world lately from my fuzzy blue office chair. The tree noise has consisted mostly of branches and mud and snow, but whether highlighted by puffy clouds and a crystal sky or muted against a backdrop of purple and mud, the effect has been the same.  

The patterns and colors wipe away concerns and replace them with ideas and creativity. “Do I have the right shoes for that?” and “What’s my next career move?” become an hour of writing and reading. Paintings conceived replace wish lists made up of things that create happiness for the few minutes after they’re bought.

As those wish lists disappear, so does the cabin fever. We still order the things we need — groceries, essentials. I think, however, my days of trying to wander away from my worries or to purchase happiness and serenity may be over.

Wasting Not

Wasting Not

When I was a kid, my parents moved to Peru for a couple years. My father researched infant nutrition and worked with a clinic there that served malnourished children. There was a glut under-nourished children there, and, while my parents were never wasteful before, experience left our family, especially my father, with a strong aversion to wasting even the smallest amount of food. I’ve been thinking about that experience a lot this week each time I survey my larder.

Ever since hurricane Irene, I’ve made it a point to have cabinets full of shelf stable food just in case. The canned goods and even the stuff in our freezers rarely goes unused, but just because it finds its way into a recipe, doesn’t mean that it doesn’t get wasted. I’m not proud to say that every few months a refrigerator clean out yields fur-covered meat or green spaghetti and meatballs that end up being tossed, and I can imagine my dad’s disappointed face every single time.

When the big guy and I were first married, we didn’t have enough money to throw away food. We’d buy a whole chicken for Sunday night near Boston’s famous Haymarket and have a traditional dinner with stuffing, veggies and potatoes. Monday night we’d make a peasant soup from the leftovers, stretching it out through much of the week.

Back then thrift was more about the benefit to our budget and less about being mindful of our blessings. These days, when I see whole chickens on sale, nostalgia prods me to buy one or two for the deep freeze for a future family Sunday dinner.

Sunday a last blast of winter was on the way, and I decided to dig a chicken out of the freezer for a comfort food meal. The boys tend to make short work of roast chicken, but, in recent years, I’ve gotten away from extracting every last meal from those leftovers.

As social isolation becomes more of a way of life, the Big Guy and I have both become more determined to not throw away food. Sunday as I thought about the blessing of simply having the chicken on hand, then of my dad, and then of the need to ration our larder for the short term, I filled up stock pot to make a peasant stew from whatever would be left.

When dinner was over, I was happy to see enough meat on the bird to make a good soup base. As good as it felt to make that one bird last through several dinners, however, chopping onions for my stew on Monday became an unexpected gift.

I sautéed the onions and celery, thinking how much this reminded me of the first year or two of our marriage. The smell of the spices in that plain old chicken-noodle soup transported me back to our tiny, cozy basement apartment in the city and to the start of a family tradition that started before we even thought about having a family.

It was as if being mindful of the things we have and the importance of not wasting them made it easier to be mindful of the moments in life that have brought and will continue to bring true joy and, ultimately, strength.