All Aglitter: ZooLights at the National Zoo

My son’s eyes and mouth went wide when he spotted the blue tree. Festooned in lights, it was far from anything natural, but it was sure pretty. This past Sunday, we attended ZooLights, an annual month-long event at the National Zoo that turns it into a winter wonderland.

ZooLights1

Trudging up the big hill to the Zoo from the Metro station, I yelled, “The lights! We’re almost there!” We were greeted with a wall of sparkling blue, transforming into a melange of additional colors as we got closer. A sign proclaiming ZooLights featured a red panda wagging its tail, a likeness of the naughty animal that escaped the Zoo last year.

Anteater Zoolights

While most of the real animals were sleeping, a whole menagerie awaited us in lights. Hummingbirds flapped their wings, snakes swayed, lizards smacked flies with their tongues and an eagle joined its mate in a high-up nest. My favorites were the surreal ocean animals and the quirky naked mole rats. Sprout seemed to like the anteater slurping up ants as they came out of their hill, although he shied away from the snake.

Zoolights hummingbird

We did see one animal, although it was sleeping. We received a stuffed bison from my uncle for Christmas, so I wanted to show Sprout a real one. Unfortunately, as Sprout said, he was “a little scared” by its size. While he had nothing to be afraid of at the zoo, that will serve him well if he ever visits out West at least.

IMG_2630

But Sprout’s favorite part wasn’t even inside anyway – it was the model train display inside the main visitor’s center. Thomas and Friends, along with a Lego train, chugged by zoo animals, miniature town halls, storefronts, fishermen crabbing, and even chefs breaking down the seafood on the beach. Sprout could have stood there all night if we’d let him. Judging by the crowd of kids against the fence separating them from the trains, he wasn’t the only one.

The Visitor’s Center wasn’t the only busy place – the whole zoo was pretty full. While the event is normally very popular, the 60-plus degree weather really drew out the crowds. I’d imagine there were long lines to get food or go on the rides (like carousel or slide), but it was fine if you just wanted to see the lights. We only noticed it when there was a bottleneck.

We ended up seeing a little less and leaving a little earlier than expected because Sprout was falling asleep in his stroller. While he usually likes to get out and walk around a bit, he just responded with a sigh and “no” whenever we asked. His eyes were fluttering when we got back to the Visitor’s Center, where we planned to change him into pajamas in the hope he’d sleep on the train ride home. Of course, that was invigorating and he didn’t come even close to falling asleep until we put him in his crib.

However, his newfound energy did come in handy when he and Chris caught sight of “Panda Claus,” a person in a panda bear outfit with a Santa hat. Sprout thought high-fiving the panda was just fantastic and mentioned it several times on the way home. I suspect he was a bit disappointed when I showed him the actual, cute but kind of boring pandas on the Zoo’s PandaCam yesterday morning.

Besides the lights themselves, one of the things I like best about ZooLights is the price -free!  It’s easier on my wallet, which is nice, but it also opens it up to a lot of families who might not be able to participate. A lot of Christmas activities are astoundingly expensive – looking at you, Ice at the National Harbor – so it’s great that this is open to everyone.

While we don’t have too many Christmas traditions yet, visiting the ZooLights is very likely to become one of them. In fact, we’ve already promised Sprout that we’ll be back again next year.

Always Be Yourself. Unless You Can Be Santa; Then Be Santa

How can anyone dislike Santa Claus? However, my relationship with him as an adult is a bit ambiguous. While I hate lying, I’m a storyteller at heart. I hate the modern-day commercialism around Santa Claus, but love the magic of the toymaker myth. So I thought I was going to have a lot of heartache about how to treat Santa Claus when Sprout got old enough to understand him. But I think I’ve come upon an approach that makes sense – emphasizing the idea of Santa Claus as a character rather than an actual person.

Always Be Yourself. Unless You Can Be Santa; Then Be Santa-2

It certainly helps that Sprout is the most familiar with Santa as a character rather than a real person. We already read about Santa in books, from ones as simple as Biscuit’s Pet and Play Christmas to as weird as Lemony Snicket’s The Lump of Coal. The un-reality of Santa is emphasized even more by the fact that Santa isn’t even human in all of the books – in Pete the Cat Saves Christmas, he’s a cat, and Merry Christmas, Ollie! features Father Christmas Goose.

Through these stories, we can talk about whatever parts of Santa we want to, instead of the dominant cultural version. We’ll emphasize the idea of Santa as a generous toy giver who brings gifts because he loves people, just as we give each other gifts because we love each other. (And to tie to the actual religious part of Christmas, because people loved Jesus and brought gifts to him.) We won’t touch the “good girls and boys” nonsense with a ten foot pole because I’m already ideologically opposed to using toys as rewards.

Now, distinguishing between a character and a real person sounds terribly naive when talking to a two-year-old. But while little kids have difficulty distinguishing between fantasy and reality, it doesn’t mean that they’re incapable of it. Contrary to 1960s British “moral campaigner” Mary Whitehouse’s position, kids back then did not actually believe that Tom Baker (then playing the Doctor in Doctor Who) was actually drowning for the entire week between a cliffhanger and resolution. Even Sprout, who is only two, knows that characters in books are not “real.”

So when it comes time for him to find out that Santa isn’t a “real” person, I hope that this approach allows us to acknowledge the fundamental fiction of Santa while maintaining the magic and spirit. An excellent book for doing this, which is also had the most heart-breaking first chapter of anything I’ve ever read, is The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus, by Julie Lane. (There’s a couple of other books of that name, but this is the best, obviously.) The beautiful part of it is that it roots Santa Claus and the traditions associated with him in tragic, beautiful, real world (albeit still fictional) circumstances while maintaining a little of the mystery.

Besides “Santa as story,” I think it’s also important when the time comes to provide some explanation as to why we’ve been pretending to be Santa this whole time. Fortunately, even that’s rooted in an idea that Sprout understands – cosplay! Because of our foray into costuming for Baltimore Comic Con, he already understands that sometimes adults wear costumes and pretend to be characters because it’s fun. Clearly, people dress as Santa because everyone wants to be him. People dressed as Batman or Groot aren’t actually Batman or Groot, but it’s fun to pretend we are. And who wouldn’t want to be Santa? He gets to give out presents, eat cookies, ride on a sled pulled by flying reindeer, and only works for a month a year (I assume production at the North Pole starts in late November).

No matter how we get there, I want to teach Sprout that we are all Santa for each other. While there’s no single jolly old man in red dropping off presents, we can act in that spirit by giving each other gifts and reaching out to those in need. Instead of Christmas becoming an orgy of consumer receiving, we want to frame it as a gentle season of generosity. And if I can teach him that, the magic of Santa will always be in his life.

A Time of Giving Thanks

Thanksgiving is a love or hate it holiday, largely depending on how you feel about your family. While I disagree with my extended family about many, many things – shockingly, not everyone shares my very liberal views on politics or theology – I both love and genuinely like them. So having most of my extended family together on my mom’s side this Thanksgiving was pretty awesome.

Both of my parents are from northern New Jersey, land of traffic and Wawas. While they high-tailed it for upstate New York, many of my relatives stuck around. When I was a kid, we’d always make the three hour trek down to my Aunt Linda’s house for Thanksgiving, bringing my mom’s signature dishes of mushroom dip and cranberry mold.

Thanksgiving at my aunt’s was the host for a variety of “coming-of-age” experiences. In my late teens, I realized I was seeing my extended family get seriously tipsy for the first time. They were drinking port and playing a movie trivia game when my conservative uncle imitated the bit in Ace Ventura when Jim Carrey talks out of his butt. Although I couldn’t drink, it felt like I was getting initiated into an odd, vaguely uncomfortable club. Similarly, a visit a few years ago revealed how big the gap between my viewpoint and others were when a simple conversation about my job steered into a comment about young-earth creationism in literally one sentence.

Since then, Chris and I haven’t been back up there often. It was difficult to leave the D.C. area between his work schedule and a new baby, and when we did, we’d go up to our hometown. But since Chris’s parents were visiting his sister this year and we didn’t to drive between 6 and 10 hours to Albany for a long weekend, New Jersey made a lot of sense.

In some ways, it wasn’t all that different from when I was a kid. The trip was about the same length and I sat in the backseat. However, instead of reading quietly, I was throwing random entertainment sources in front of Sprout. At various times, I sang at least ten verses of Old McDonald, drew random letters on his knock-off Magna-Doodle, discussed the intricacies of Elmo, and switched between reading Kakfa and the Little People Let’s Go to the Farm book.

Arriving there, we experienced an outpouring of hugs and kisses from the relatives, to which Sprout responded with shock. While he knows my parents, being in a new place with a lot of new people dazed him. He wasn’t upset, but whenever anyone asked him a question, he’d just stare.

That all changed by the time Thanksgiving dinner rolled around the next day. Having everyone around was obviously far more exciting than eating turkey or carrots. He chattered away, keeping a running tab on dinner. My mom exacerbated the situation by giving him a serving of cranberry mold right off, which is mostly sugar with a little bit of cranberry. Although he did ask for it, once he had a bite, there was no hope of getting real food into him. (No grilled cheese, but this comic rang true to me.)

The excitement extended far beyond dinner. During dessert, my cousin, his wife, and their kids came over, who Sprout has never met. At 9, 7, and 1 1/2, they meshed well despite the age gap. Sprout delighted the older ones by repeating anything they asked him to (“Holy Moley Spicy Guacamole!” was a favorite). He didn’t get along quite as well with the little one – he was surprisingly jealous about his books and there was a shoving incident over a kids’ couch – but it was about as good as we could expect with toddlers. Everyone cracked up as we shared family tongue-twisters like Stella-Ella-Bella-Henusky-Steina-Schawba, supposedly the name of my great-grandfather’s girlfriend (presumably before he married my great-grandmother). My mom added onto it by telling the older kids to say, “One smart fellow he felt smart,” which was simultaneously horrifying and hilarious for the 9 year old boy. (Say it out loud.) I’m sure his mom was thrilled.

In addition to the second cousins, we had the rare opportunity to see both of my grandmothers on the trip. While Sprout had met them both before, he was too little to remember. One of them, who lives in Florida, has been at my aunt’s for the past several months recovering from a paralyzing case of the shingles. Although Sprout cried last time he met her, this time, he smiled and even kissed her several times. She worried that her oxygen tube would scare him, but he took pride in helping move her tube under the couch so that people wouldn’t step on it.

While my other grandmother is possibly in better physical condition, she has severe Alzheimer’s and lives in an assisted living facility. My dad, Sprout and I visited her there, where she was already sitting in their spacious, well-lit common room. Already a bit nervous, I was further disoriented by the fact that even my dad didn’t recognize her at first. While she was gaunt, it was the empty look in the eyes of a once vibrant woman that made her appear so unrecognizable. But once we introduced ourselves, she focused and we started to see her past self a little. Conversation with her was forced, of course – we needed to constantly remind her of who we were and details of our lives. It wasn’t as disorienting as I thought it would be, but it was still sad. Nonetheless, I’m still glad we went – even if she didn’t remember it, she clearly appreciated us being there in the moment. Fortunately, Sprout didn’t catch on to the underlying sadness – he was too distracted by the TV playing the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade and the residents playing Bingo with candy corn. It’s always a relief to me when his joy brings light in difficult situations.

From the youngest to the oldest, being with our family members was truly a cause for thanks.

Songs to Grow Up With: Alice’s Restaurant

Many people have favorite Christmas songs, but few have favorite Thanksgiving songs. But there’s one song that has been part of my Thanksgiving since I was very little: Arlo Guthrie’s Alice’s Restaurant. This sprawling protest song no doubt influenced my current-day activism as much as 50 Simple Things Kids Can Do to Save the Earth or actual politics. So of course, it will inevitably be part of my son’s childhood as well.

alices-restaurant

For those unfamiliar with it, Alice’s Restaurant is a 2 part, 18 minute saga supposedly based on truth, but leavened with a heavy dose of absurdity. The live version is the definitive one, where Arlo invites the audience to sing along and then berates them for not harmonizing correctly.

The story begins in the small town of Stockbridge, MA, which is so small that “they got three stop signs, two police officers, and one police car.” Before Thanksgiving dinner at his friend Alice’s house, Arlo and his friends decide to help her out by taking care of her garbage. But when they discover the dump is closed on Thanksgiving (one suspects there was some pre-meal non-food indulging), they take the logical step of throwing it over a cliff, to accompany somebody else’s garbage that’s already there. The next day, they get arrested and thrown in jail for littering, “the biggest crime of the last fifty years” in sleepy western Massachusetts. Despite the over-enthusiasm of the cops with their “twenty-seven 8 x 10 colored glossy photographs with circles and arrows and a paragraph on the back of each one,” the judge merely fines them $50 and makes them pick up the garbage.

The song then fast forwards to several years later, when Arlo has been called up for the draft in Vietnam. In a “building down in New York City called Whitehall Street … you walk in, you get injected, inspected, detected, infected, neglected and selected!” Because of his “criminal record,” he gets assigned to the Group W Bench, which he shares with all kinds of “mean, nasty, ugly-lookin’ people.” When he points out that the army is asking him if he’s moral enough to “burn women, kids, houses and villages after being a litterbug,” they tell him “We don’t like your kind! We’re going to send your fingerprints off to Washington!”

Needless to say, none of this is fare meant for little kids. But despite that, my family listened to it every year driving to my aunt and uncle’s house in New Jersey. We usually tried to catch it on Q104.3, the New York City rock station that always plays it at noon. If we were delayed, we’d put in the battered Best Of cassette and also listen to The Motorcycle Song (which manages to be much, much sillier). It became part of my Thanksgiving tradition as much as turkey and my mom’s mushroom dip.

Obviously, I didn’t understand the song at all at first. I just liked singing along to the catchy chorus. But as I got older, it was one of my first introductions to anti-war messages. I think it was particularly effective because the messages are embedded in a funny, specific story and so become universal. Rather than critiquing the injustice of the Vietnam War specifically, it frames war itself and our approach to it as fundamentally absurd, as ridiculous as taking aerial photography for prosecuting littering. That combination allowed it to transcend its very 1970s context to appeal to me, a girl growing up in the pre-War on Terror 1990s.

And appeal it did. As I grew older, my interest in politics intensified, to the point where I was actively interested in educating others on it in high school. Singing along at Thanksgiving became an act of rebellion, not against my parents, but a corrupt political system that hadn’t changed all that much since the song was released. As the phrase “The personal is political” began to resonate, I realize now it was one of the first things I was exposed to where a personal story (albeit an exaggerated one) was used to make a political point. In the modern day of Tumblr where everyone has a personal/political story to tell, Alice’s Restaurant stands out as a great example of how to do it right.

I think it also shaped my opinions on how political change can and must happen. There’s a great line in the comic book Phonogram (which is all about the power of music) that “the only way for a revolution to succeed is to be more fun than the alternative.” While it comes from a morally ambiguous character, I agree with her. Activism can be exhausting and depressing, something that doesn’t really inspire people. To get people to want to change requires painting a picture of a future that’s better than the current one – more attractive and ideally, more fun. It’s very clear in the song that the hippies are the ones having a hell of a lot more fun than the stuffy, authoritarian police officers and draft recruitment staff. Similarly, it showed me how art can be political. While I got a crash course in using theater to do activism when I participated in the “Stop Shopping chorus” singing Anti-Corporate Christmas Carols in grad school, Alice’s Restaurant was my original introduction to the concept.

Needless to say, this song was one of the touchstones of my life, especially my activism. Although I hope it can be for Sprout as well, I don’t want to force it. We’ll just play it on Thanksgiving and leave it to him to figure out significance it will have in his life. While Arlo sings, “You can get anything you want at Alice’s Restaurant,” I know that I already have.

A Rockville Community Halloween: Croyden Creep and Thomas Farm Community Center

I have always preferred the children’s version of Halloween to the typical “adult” one. Dressing up as actual characters or at least creative one instead of a “sexy fill-in-the-blank.” Parades instead of overpriced bars. Stuffing your face with candy instead of TPing yards. At its best, this more innocent version is one communities can embrace and support, creating the atmosphere for a fun and fanciful holiday. Fortunately, our town has found a variety of ways for families to enjoy Halloween together.

Rising moon above orange autumn trees

For us, Halloween started a full week ahead of time with the Croydon Creep at the town’s Nature Center. Arriving there, we drove past a huge line of cars parked on the side of the road, spilling out from the center’s teeny parking lot. We soon discovered its popularity was justified. From a spinning prize wheel to coloring Halloween treat bags, the Center had a ton to do, for the reasonable price of $5 a kid and accompanying adults free.

A man in a squirrel costume at the

My favorite activity was the “spooky trail,” which started with a campfire and each child receiving a mini-flashlight. Along the path, adults dressed as a squirrel, spider, firefly, and bat each shared a few facts about their biology and gave the children a treat appropriate to their animal: sunflower seeds, a sticky spider, a glow necklace and vampire fangs. I even learned a few things, like the fact that black squirrels and gray squirrels are variants of the same species. Of course, Sprout’s favorite part was flickering the mini-flashlight on and off, blinding me.

The night ended with a magic show, where Sprout sat up front with the other kids and we were consigned to the seats in the back. It was the first time Sprout sat by himself in a separate section. I kept straining to get a glimpse and nudging Chris for status updates, hoping he wasn’t disrupting anyone or wandering away. But he was the perfect little audience member, staying seated and clapping when he was supposed to. As is often true, he wasn’t nearly as nervous as his mama. Instead, the entire way home, he talked about how the magician “turned a bunny into a balloon.” While it was turning a balloon into a real, live bunny rabbit (he has a bit of difficulty with chronological order), it was an impressive trick even if you aren’t two.

The next Saturday, we had a full schedule for Halloween proper. Unfortunately, we were missing a key element of Sprout’s costume – the ears. He was reprising his part as Rocket Raccoon, making the most out of the costume I made him for Baltimore Comic Con. While we had his orange pajamas, rocket backpack/armor, and tail, the ears were missing. Ripping apart the house and the car, we looked in the stroller, under the seats, in the couch, under the beds, and in all of his toy boxes. I suspect they’re somewhere in the Baltimore Convention Center. Instead, we made do with a pair of bear ears my mom made for his Teddy Bear Picnic themed birthday party.

Walls of the

Our first stop was a party at one of our town’s community centers, with snacks, crafts, games, and even a magic show (non-coincidentally, the same magician). It also had the most low key “haunted house” I’ve ever seen, with a clever use of black-light paint and a baffling but not actually frightening anti-gambling climax. While we worked on the craft, I enjoyed making a little girl’s day. She was clearly dressed as Gamora and I commented, “Nice Gamora costume.” With a big smile, she responded, “Finally! Someone knows who I am!” It felt like when the kid at Comic Con told Sprout, “Your mom is the best. She can kick the butt of anyone in the universe.”

A giant bunny snuggled up against two black teacup pigs

But both the best and least Halloweeny activity was the petting zoo. Along with alpacas – which Sprout has seen online but never in person – they had a giant rabbit with teacup pigs, making for one of the cutest combinations of animals I’ve ever seen.

A person in a Godzilla costume

There were some great costumes at both events. At the nature center, there was a woman with a baby in a carrier going as Cookie Monster – with the baby as the cookie! A whole family went as characters from Monsters Inc, with the dad as Sully and the little girl as Boo. Two twin toddlers had matching Wonder Woman outfits. At the community center, one family went the House of El with Jor-El and Kara in white lab coats following a crawling toddler Superman. Another infant was the most adorable little Supergirl I ever saw. An adult dressed as Godzilla was impressive enough that Sprout gave him a wide berth.

Following on that barrage of children was our adjacent neighborhood’s Halloween parade. Unfortunately, logistics got the best of us. Between underestimating how long it would take to get ready at the house and the lengthy process of Chris putting on his costume once we got there, the parade was long gone. In fact, most of the families had already made their way around the block and back to the starting point. Shrugging our shoulders, we stood in line to go through their “haunted house” for candy, which had far too many loud, sudden “screaming” decorations for Sprout to handle. I made my way through while they stood at the exit. Despite our absence from the parade, Chris got a number of accolades for his costume. When we went to vote on Tuesday, some of the volunteers recognized him from the parade and were asking him questions about it.

We wrapped up the night trick-or-treating, while Sprout still had any energy left. He continued to be credulous at the concept of trick-or-treating, repeating, “Knock on doors and neighbors give you candy?” At every door, we coached him to say “trick-or-treat.” While he repeated it dutifully while the door was closed, he promptly forgot it as soon as the candy was in sight. However, he did say “thank you,” which was a major win in and of itself. The only thing that was disappointing was how few of our neighbors participated. They’re usually community-oriented – our yearly block party gets a good crowd – but 4/5 of the houses on our block had the lights out. It was a little heartbreaking every time Sprout walked away from a house softly muttering, “No one home.”

Halloween in my town reminded me both of how great the community services can be and how they also require public support. On one hand, while the parade and “haunted house” were on town property, it was all run by neighborhood volunteers. This great tradition simply wouldn’t exist without these people’s time and effort. On the other end of the spectrum, I overheard a man at the community center party complain that it was overpriced and “should have been a dollar.” This was in a town where 3D movies are regularly $15 and the average home price is $529,000. While I understand that $4 a kid can be a lot for some people, I got impression from his attitude that events put on by the city were inherently worth less than those put on by businesses. While unrelated to the city, I was saddened by the number of people who decided not to give out candy, although I did understand that a lot of people were out on Saturday night. Trick-or-treating is the major part of the community aspect of Halloween, but it’s reliant on neighborhood participation to make it fun.

I know not everyone has children, but I do think that we all have a responsibility to provide recreation and services to people of all ages. Youth classes and senior centers, teenage basketball leagues and middle-aged running clubs. I’m so glad my town has such great programming, but I hope that everyone can think of the bigger picture to continue to support it.

After all, I think most people like the world better with more treats than tricks.

Deja Vu All Over Again: Revisiting Favorite Places

From bald eagles to mazes made of hay bales, the last few weekends have felt familiar and yet new. With both sets of grandparents visiting, we returned to some of our favorite local places: Meadowside Nature Center, the fall celebration at Butlers’ Orchard, and Cabin John Regional Park. While we had been to them all last year, it was revelatory to see how much Sprout’s reactions changed over time.

At all of these locations, he was far more engaged than before. Previously he would just watch something intently; now he remarks and interacts with it. The animals at the Nature Center were of particular interest, as he loudly pointed out (multiple times), the snake, owl and eagle. That night, we overheard him telling his stuffed animals about the animals he saw earlier in the day. He still didn’t have a lot of patience with my explanations of the feeding habits of snakes, but that will come with time.

At Butlers’ last year, he spent most of the time slowly wandering around, blocking up the little bridge and other playground equipment for the rest of the kids. Instead, he was running around, evading my mom as he darted between sections of a wooden train.

Some of the equipment that he was too small for last year or was too intimating was easily conquerable.
Giant fake spiderweb with children climbing on it

In the past, he reacted to the running, yelling kids and the shadowy interior of Butlers’ hay bale maze by crying. This year, he sprinted down the hallways, occasionally looking back to see if he had lost us yet. He barreled through the older kids, paying them no attention. When we rounded a turn and “found” him, he giggled hysterically. He climbed straight up a ladder into a giant tractor and down a dark slide. He was also a big fan of a fake spiderweb, with bouncy elastic strands. He wasn’t that interested in climbing across it, but spent a good 10 minutes standing up and plopping himself down, the exact same way he jumps on our bed.

Multi-colored play house at Cabin John park with multiple rooms that kids can crawl between.

The cool/weird play house at Cabin John.

At Cabin John Park last year, Sprout stuck to the side with the little kids’ equipment, like houses and play cars. This time around, he still spent quite a bit of time exploring those sections, but was more sophisticated in his understanding. He actually pretended to drive the cars rather than simply spin the wheel. When he saw me whack the bells with a stick, he looked on the ground for a suitable one as well. Beyond the “baby” equipment, he tackled parts of the playground far beyond his current age, scrambling up a rock-wall and inching through tubes in the 5 to 12 year old area. I spotted him on some of the trickier aspects and warned him away from going down ladders, but for the most part, he handled it extremely well. He even slid down a giant slide that I thoroughly expected him to get to the top of and then refuse to go down. It was just as steep and far higher than the slide at Constitution Gardens Park that he was uninterested in only a few weeks ago.

But he wasn’t fearless about everything; there were still a few things that definitively scared him. However, when he was scared, it was a more emotionally complex response than in the past. For example, the Nature Center has a fake cave kids can crawl through that you enter through a very dark, narrow tunnel. Sprout was thoroughly uninterested in going in it last year, but forgot about it as soon as we moved on. In contrast, he was actively frightened by it this year, and got upset when anyone mentioned it later that day. The next week, he showed a similar level of anxiety towards touching the sheep at Butlers’. That night, we heard him say to his animals that he was “a little nervous” about it. I think he picked up on me saying it, but it’s still a sophisticated concept.

Reflecting on it, I think I understand the connection between the two and why they bothered him so much. Rather than simply being scared of those things – which he normally gets over quickly – there may be a level of regret to go with it. He wanted to go in the cave and touch the sheep (he’s touched one before), but was too frightened to do so. While this may be reading too deeply into his emotions, if it is true, we’ll have to think of ways to help him not dwell on those situations. I don’t want to pass my neuroses on to him.

Besides changes in Sprout, we had slightly different options than before at each of the locations, which made for a different experience. In particular, we spent much longer at Butlers’ Orchard than we did last year, due to the fact that we weren’t freezing our asses off. In contrast to last year’s cloudy and wind-blown weather, we had clear skies. Soaking in the warm autumn sun, we went on the hayride where we actually sat in piles of real hay and stopped at a pumpkin patch. Sprout has been mildly obsessed with a “little pumpkin” we picked up at the farmers’ market a couple of weeks ago, so he was in squash heaven. He bounced around looking at all of the options and with my mom, picked out a medium-sized one that he could barely carry and a gigantic bumpy pumpkin.

I love trying new things, but there’s a charm in having traditions you do each year. It’s like a growth chart for mental and social progress for your children.

“How old are you?” “Two!”

Dear Lord, my kid is two. How the hell did that happen?

There’s the obvious answer, which I think whenever someone says, “He’s so big!” – “Well, yes, they do tend to grow.”

But as someone who has been there every day, the movement of time and his growth is different to me. I talked about this in my post on his six month birthday and I think it still holds true: kids break the space-time continuum. There’s such a mix of how we as parents process change. Some days, Chris and I gape at his expanding vocabulary or some other new feat. Other days just seem like a repeat of the one before, a well-worn routine. Some days I wish I had infinitely more hours with him and some need to have ended before naptime. Some of those are actually the same day. All of them are exhausting, whether in exhilaration, frustration, or some combination of the two.

And yet, they are each just days. Each moment is longer to him than an adult, so it’s longer to me too. I used to think more in months and years, but those timespans now seem too long to contemplate. I have to plan further ahead now – no impromptu Saturday treks into the city – but each moment is more drawn out, more intensely felt. In my late 20s, a year used to feel like not so long after all; now it again feels like an eternity, as it did when I was a child.

Looking back just a year ago, Sprout’s changed so much. While he couldn’t even walk then, now he’s running, climbing playground equipment, and jumping on the bed. (So much jumping.) On the morning of his birthday, he was even tooling around on his present, a classic blue Schwinn balance bike. His reaction to his first birthday cake was ambivalent, as he made a mess without much of it actually ending up in his mouth. But when he saw the cupcakes we bought him for his second birthday, he started yelling, “cupcake, cupcake!” He’s maintained his ability to quietly observe, but often not-so-quietly observes, pointing and labeling everything that excites him, especially basketballs and buses. He requests songs and tries to sing, even when he knows fewer than half of the words. He knows the names of his favorite books and animals, cherishing them both. He’s willing to try new foods, but also spits them out without regret, handing them over to me with a definitive “no.” Whereas I couldn’t tell when he was little if he was enjoying something, now his smile is so big it consumes me. Even when he’s focused too hard to smile, his eyes dance.

I’ve enjoyed this past year so deeply. Although some people love caring for a newborn, my favorite thing in parenting has been watching Sprout’s personality blossom. While it started emerging in his first year, it truly became so much more vibrant this past one. I also love that when I share my favorite things with him, he’s starting to appreciate them. Even when they don’t work out perfectly, that time spent together is beautiful.

Happy second birthday, to my sweet, lovable, brilliant son. May we have an even more incredible year together to come.

In (Belated) Honor of Mother’s Day

Knowing I’m the mother of a small child, multiple people this morning asked me how my Mother’s Day went. I could definitively say that it was wonderful. For breakfast – not in bed, too many crumbs – Chris made french toast with farmers’ market strawberries. At church, my friend Teresa took Sprout to kids’ class for the first time and said he behaved fantastically. The little bit of marker on his shirt was very much worth it for the hand-made card. In the afternoon, we hiked the Rock Creek Trail, a paved path that runs 20 miles from the suburbs into the heart of D.C. We saw a thick black water snake, ducks, three white-tailed deer, fish, and plenty of squirrels. Sprout loved his perch up in the baby backpack. Instead of a hotel or restaurant brunch, we went to Taiwanese dim sum for dinner, where we got a ton of food for $30, including as many noodles as Sprout could shove into his mouth. It was a Mother’s Day very much suited for this particular mommy, without any of the commercial trappings but with all of the love I could imagine.

But as lovely as my day was, I know Mother’s Day can be incredibly painful for many women. Whether because they wanted to be mothers and could not; have lost children to physical illness, accidents, or broken relationships; or have no contact with their own mothers, this particular celebration can feel very exclusionary. That’s why I loved the Litany for Mother’s Day that we printed in our church bulletin yesterday. My friend Rev. Deb Vaughn, was guest preaching, and I thought it was incredibly sensitive of her to include it.

Even if you aren’t familiar with the particular stories of these Biblical figures, I think their experiences ring true to many people:

We remember Sarai who was taunted by others in the household because of her inability to have children.
All-encompassing God, we pray for those who feel excluded when we emphasis one kind of family as normal.

We remember Esther, who was adopted and raised by her cousin.
God who embraces us all, we pray for those who cannot be raised by their parents, for a short time or permanently.

We remember Jochebed, the mother of Moses, who placed him into a raft on the river.
Saving God, we pray for parents who struggle to raise their children in oppressive circumstances.

We remember Hannah, who loved her child so much she handed him over to another to raise.
Loving God, we pray for parents who have placed their child in another family.

We remember Naomi, who grieved the death of her sons.
God, who grieves with us, we pray for parents who mourn the death of a child.

We remember Ruth, who gave up her family to be family to another.
Inclusive God, we pray for those who choose to be family to those isolated by culture or language or distance.

We remember Elizabeth, who had a child in old age and we remember Mary, who had a child as a teenager.
Ageless God, we pray that as a community we accept people of varying life stages and responsibilities and relationships.

We remember Rachel, crying for her children.
God of justice and hope, we pray for those whose children are killed, and look to a time when children can live safely in their communities.

We remember Lois and Eunice, who taught Timothy faith by example.
Faithful God we pray for those who teach us faith by their lives, may we remember that we also teach about you in the way we live.

We remember other people, not named in the Scriptures, like the mother of the prodigal son.
Companion God, we pray for those who wait for a phone call or a visit, cut off from family and friends by distance and disagreement.

Nurturing God, we give thanks for those
who enrich our lives by their presence
who teach us about your abundant love
who encourage us to journey in faith.

(c) Rev Patty Lawrence

I hope that no matter your circumstance in life, no matter if you are a parent or not, that you have or are able to find a family – whether biological or not – who loves you as mine does. That is my Mother’s Day hope and prayer for all people.

Easter with All the Trappings

While I celebrate Easter as a Christian, I also appreciate its spring celebration aspects as well. Needless to say, rabbits and eggs are much more about fertility than Jesus. So somewhere between the seasonal, commercial, and religious, we celebrated Easter in its many weird forms.

We were partly motivated by my in-laws visiting for the weekend. Because it was too cold to do anything outside, my mother-in-law wanted Sprout to get photos with the Easter Bunny. While I have conflicting feelings about Santa, I’m just apathetic about the Bunny. Considering Sprout’s highly negative reaction to Santa at Christmas, I didn’t have high hopes for the Bunny. I was mostly right. Sprout stood calmly in front of the Bunny, leaning forward to peer at him from a foot or two away. But when we tried to put him on the Bunny’s lap, a wordless look of panic crossed his face. He held out his arms, looked at me and pleaded, “Mama mama!” After only a few moments, I declared it a lost cause and picked him up. I’m not going to try to convince my kid to grin when he’s terrified. The photographer got in one photo before he got properly upset, but he’s far from smiling. My mother-in-law was happy with it though, which was enough for me.

Our other Easter activity that day – dyeing eggs – went over much better. Sprout knows the word “egg” and is starting to learn his colors, so it combined two exciting things for him. I’m not sure, but I think he jumped to the conclusion that the different shades of colored water were paint. (He’s familiar with the idea from the book Mouse Paint, where white mice jump into jars of paint and mix them together.) So when we showed him what happened when you drop a white egg in colored water, much like a white mouse climbing into paint, he caught on very quickly. Despite our cautions to be “gentle, gentle,” he dropped almost every egg into its respective cup of water from a substantial height. Of course, he managed to avoid getting splashed – it all ended up on my mother-in-law’s shirt instead. Thankfully, food coloring does wash out.

The next morning, our dyeing paid off, despite my initial hesitation. While I was afraid Sprout was going to step on them, my mother-in-law convinced me to do a gentle introduction to egg hunting with him on Easter morning. We spread the eggs out on the rug and gave him the carton to put them in. He methodically picked up each egg, looked it as we named the color, and placed it neatly in the carton. The adults actually came much closer to stepping on the eggs than he did! His basket was filled with plastic eggs, which he also loved playing with. Even now, he’s constantly picking them up, opening and closing them and putting them back in the basket. Woe to me for thinking a toddler wouldn’t like filling something up and dumping it back out!

Sprout only received one Easter basket, filled to the brim with sweets. I knew that my in-laws were going to give him candy – even though they knew we would eat most of it – so I didn’t want to do that as well. Besides, candy is one of those things I won’t bother giving him until he asks for it. Instead, I bought him two spring related presents – a set of real gardening tools made for children and the complete collection of Beatrix Potter stories. Both are fabulous, although I severely underestimated how much of a tome the stories were. Hopefully he’ll understand that we can’t read them all in one pre-bedtime session!

After we opened baskets, it was time to go to church. While we had family Easter egg hunts in the past, we included the general public this year for the first time as an outreach event. One of the other church members brought 200 eggs to hide, which I thought was going to be more than enough. Of course, any time you’re overly confident about something, it backfires spectacularly. Much to my surprise, 10 minutes before the hunt was supposed to start, we had a tremendous group of children and parents all over our front churchyard. And a bunch of kids were putting eggs in baskets before I had the chance to say, “Go!” In literally less than 5 minutes, all of the eggs were gone. Knowing that other families were going to show up a little late, I scrounged eggs from Sprout’s basket and that of the church kids’ and re-hid them so they would at least have something to look for. Thankfully, the same folks who brought the eggs also brought extra goodie bags of random toys and candy, so all of the kids that had very few to hunt for at least got goodie bags. We also had a plethora of sweets, so my fellow-church goer Jan made sure every kid got a cookie or cupcake. Thank goodness for extra cookies. I still felt terrible when we had to tell families that there weren’t any eggs left though. At least we have some lessons learned for next year.

The day finished off with dinner at a restaurant modeled after an Adirondack or Rocky Mountains lodge, all wood crossbeams and duck decoys. My father-in-law – who is a pickier eater than Sprout – enjoys the food and the decor. Plus, as Sprout loves running up and down a ramp it has decorated with twinkle lights, we acquiesced to his request of “walk, walk!” several times. He also managed to put away a truly ungodly amount of macaroni and cheese.

Except for a few bobbles, our Easter turned out pretty darn well.