Recently, we have had a few teachable moments with the boys. We have been faced with situations where they have broken a rule or abused a privilege, but rather than punish them, we have given them the opportunity to repair the damage or remediate other consequences of their behavior. In both instances, once their relief at not being in trouble subsided, they rose to the occasion and demonstrated maturity that impressed us and, more importantly, themselves.
The whole experience got me thinking about teachable moments. The writer Annie Lamott describes how she had to retrain her inner voice from one that would order her to sit down and write, using phrases like “sit your lazy ass in this chair” to one more like a gentle maternal coaxing “just try and write one paragraph you clever girl.” Clearly, one is more pleasant and arguably more effective. When we manage ourselves and our relationships skillfully we are better able to identify teachable moments.
Even our bodies have teachable moments. When someone is training for an Ironman or marathon, that is not the time to start an aggressive new yoga regime. We will not be teaching our body anything; we will just be stressing it even more. When training for an event, most bodies need days of rest and long slow stretches, extended hip openers and chest openers with lots of support. Learning to listen to the cues our body is giving us is one of the most important steps to lasting wellness.
Often teachable moments rise out of unpleasant experiences, but that isn’t always the case. Remembering how much better we feel after enough sleep can mean that when we are tempted to stay up a little too late, we remind ourselves of that good feeling. A friend and I were joking recently after a huge dinner that our diets would start Monday. Later when thinking about our conversation I realized that even that sort of habitual thinking isn’t healthy. Even though we were both kidding around it is that “I will start tomorrow” mentality that prevents us from doing so many things. Maybe the teachable moment there is just noticing the habit. Every day there are opportunities to be accountable for our behavior, to wonder whether we could have handled interactions more skillfully, with more insight or compassion for ourselves or others. I am so completely convinced that we learn more when the methods are loving and patient than swift and punitive. I am going to start paying more attention to the teachable moments in my every day. I know they are there and there is an awful lot to learn.
Recently, my very dear friend Ruth Nemzoff pointed out to me that my recipes were pretty complicated, and had a lot of steps. Which seemed impractical given how busy I am and how many children I have. She is absolutely right of course. I realized that part of why I love cooking and experimenting in the kitchen is that I feel like I am doing something for my family but I don’t actually have to be with them. The kids can be running through the kitchen, and I can absolutely guiltlessly suggest that they play other places because I am. after all cooking for them. This recipe is actually not that time consuming if you use store bought gnocchi. Gnocchi is kind of fun to make especially if complicated cooking projects are an escape of sorts which clearly they are for me.
4 Russet potatoes
1 ½ cups Gluten Free flour (you can use regular, I like Pamela’s GF)
1 Tbsp Olive Oil
Salt and Pepper to taste
Start by baking the potatoes until they are soft to the touch. About an hour at 400 should do the job, slice them to cool and set them aside. Boil a large pot of water, about as much water as you would use to make any other kind of pasta (about 6 cups). Peel the potatoes while they are still warm, if they cool down too much they are harder to manipulate. I use the hand mixer to mash them after I have taken off the skins. Once they are mashed add the olive oil,salt and pepper and flour in ¼ cup intervals. I like to do this with my hands. When the mixture starts to get really doughy roll it out on a floured surface. Make 1 or 2 long snakes of dough and cut them every inch. The pieces should be bite sized, and will expand a bit when cooked. Lay out parchment paper, you will place the gnocchi on the parchment paper to cool after you have cooked it. Don’t let them touch or they will stick together. Throw your gnocchi into the boiling water, they are done when they float to the top. Gnocchi freezes well, so when I make it I make a few batches. Let them cool and then add whatever sauce you want.
Pete’s grilled pepper red sauce
My son Pete loves pasta, and this sauce is his creation.
6 grilled tomatoes (depending on size, Heirloom or even Roma)
2 grilled red peppers
2 Tbsp Olive Oil
1-2 cloves garlic
Salt and Pepper to taste
¼-½ cup water
I love the grilled vegetables of summer, we have even grilled peaches! I served this with asparagus that I just threw straight on the grill and drizzled olive oil and lemon pepper on after they had cooked. To make the sauce, just throw the tomatoes and the peppers straight on the grill. When they start to soften and blacken very slightly, pull them off. Throw them into a bowl with the olive oil, and crushed garlic, add a ¼ cup of water. You can add more as needed. Again I used the hand mixer to blend it all together, adding salt and pepper to taste at the end. Garnish with fresh basil. The sauce is rich but if you prefer it thinner add more water, this sauce also freezes very well.
The first time I saw a beeper I was probably 8 or 9. It was on the belt of a family friend who was a doctor. It was mind blowing at the time to think that no matter where he was, the hospital could reach him and he would get up, find the nearest phone and in minutes be updated on a patient or called into action.
At the time it seemed like an amazing innovation. Eventually all sorts of people started to carry beepers. It was no longer just doctors on call who may be needed urgently by their office. It was the police, business people of all varieties, even drug dealers. Those little black beepers eventually gave way to the cell phone and now we are all “on call” all the time.
The cell phone has changed everything. We had this babysitter when I was a little kid who was out of central casting. She was a thousand years old and wore those pantyhose socks rolled down at her ankles. She would arrive, (an experience that was always accompanied by my mother wearing Aliage perfume), my parents would greet her with the relief in their voices that I recognize in my own at the arrival of the sitter. They would kiss us goodbye, and leave the number of the restaurant on a notepad in the kitchen should anything go wrong. As soon as they drove away Mrs. Carter would fall so deeply asleep on the couch that we would put tissues over her nose just to watch them shoot up into the air with each massive snore. She was not overly concerned about emergencies.
Now of course many of my friends have apps where they can tune into their children’s baby monitors from wherever they are. Not only are they reachable via cell, but at the slightest blush of anxiety over the wellbeing of their child, the first pang of missing them, they can log in to their bedroom. It doesn’t just relate to children, I often find myself feeling vaguely rejected because I emailed someone a non urgent request and have not heard back within hours.
Our sense of urgency is off balance. We text to say “on way” as we are leaving the house to whoever is at our destination. We carry our phones from place to place like Linus and his ever present blanket. We have feeds of information pouring in from all over the world, our childrens’ bedrooms, CNN, Twitter, Instagram; all of it keeps us up to date on our universes big and small.
I think that all this “on call” doesn’t always bring with it a sense of connection but instead allows our anxieties to rule the day. We are all always slightly on alert should we be needed, a level of edge that I am quite sure my parents did not feel when they left us in the care of the world’s oldest babysitter. In some ways, feeling constantly plugged in means we are never actually anywhere. A friend of mine with a teenage daughter told me that if nine of her daughter’s friends are together, they are all texting the tenth friend who isn’t there. Locked in constant communication with each other regardless of location.
I am not sure we all have more to say, or more to worry about. We just have more access. Recently, I have taken to keeping my phone on silent all the time and, for the most part, buried in my purse. I am not a doctor, and yoga emergencies are rare. Should one of my children be in trouble their schools have enough numbers that they would reach me. I did not consciously break the habit of treating my phone like my woobie. It happened slowly. I just kind of stopped answering it, and eventually people stopped calling or expecting to hear back right away. Amazingly, the world has continued to turn. When something urgent has come up, the message has made its way to me in plenty of time. I also feel liberated from my feeds. I engage them rather than the other way around. If I want updates they aren’t hard to find.
I don’t know if I can stop being “on call” altogether, but I do know it feels way better to live on my own non-urgent terms. Sometimes less is more, even for those of us who work on the fly we need to learn how to stop treating everything as if it were urgent and re-learn how to be unavailable. If you are telling someone you love more than once a day to “wait a minute” or “one last thing” you might be teaching a lesson you don’t want them to learn. When we are constantly plugged in somewhere else we send a pretty clear message to the people we are with: someone somewhere is more important than you are. I know in my case the people I am with are usually the ones I care about most. I am going to stop asking them to wait while I multi-task the universe. The universe won’t notice but those people that I care about certainly will.
My mother doesn’t like gold stars, in fact she doesn’t like attention of any kind and feels about applause the way a cat feels about the bath. In her own quiet steady way my mother has made her life about finding the beauty and the magic in places where other people can’t see it or don’t think it exists. She does this in small ways, like choosing the Charlie Brown christmas tree every year despite the fact that there are many gorgeous, full ones available. And in large ways by spending her career as an advocate for the rights of women and children all around the world.
My parents have sold their house. It has a plaque on it that says “John Knapp House 1760” in case you thought your eyes were deceiving you about whether or not it was old. The people who have bought it will perhaps tear it down. We knew that and recently signed the demolition papers that accompany the sale. The land is worth more than the house to anyone but us, and for the most part we have made peace with that strange reality. So, recently when I walked by my mother’s house and saw that she was planting pansies I couldn’t help myself. I laughed and said, “Are you gardening for the bulldozers?” In my family we have a long history of taking uncomfortable truths and whacking each other with them until they stop feeling weird. She looked at me, smiled and said “No, it’s still my house and I would like to look outside and see pansies.”
She is right of course. She won’t move until August, which is several months of looking outside your window at no pansies. Do I think it is a little bit like the band playing as the Titanic sank? Absolutely. If she didn’t plant them no one would notice except her. We are all too busy going a million different directions. She didn’t plant them for us, or for the bulldozers, she planted them because she loves them. My mother has built her life around the belief that no matter how grim a situation there is always the opportunity for the human spirit to triumph. Whether it was giving voice to those most downtrodden on the other side of the world, or believing in the power of spring flowers to uplift us all.
She has quietly taught me and everyone who knows her that there is the possibility for magic in all things. That life’s most beautiful and poignant moments come in the places where we least expect them. We can choose to see the joy and possibility in our everyday, not because we want gold stars, but because it makes for a better view.
We are moving, so I am packing. I went upstairs today to start on the attic. I have been making deals with myself for days to begin the process, so I was feeling resigned with a hint of itchy pre-boredom as I went up the ladder. I was starting with the things we use least. It was a horse race between Colin’s college textbooks, my high school camping gear, and some ice skates–until I saw my breast pump peeking out of a bag. We had a winner…..
In the bag with the breast pump was a towel shaped like a duck, a tiny sock, a tennis ball, and a copy of What to Expect When You Are Expecting. I held the book in my hand. I turned it over. Then I ripped off the cover and the title page, which I ripped in half. Before I was totally aware of what I was doing, I started ripping more pages, like a bite of ice cream that turns into the whole pint. In minutes I had shredded the book. I was sitting on the attic floor looking at this huge mess and thinking, “maybe I can wrap glasses in it or something”, trying to make this weird random act of violence against this book make sense.
It does make sense though. It is one of the best selling books of all time, but it sends the wrong message. It sends the message that if you love your kid enough and you rock them in a chair and wear comfy clothes, and you start with peas instead of peaches and you watch and track their milestones, then you are in the clear. But that is wrong. You can do everything right and things can still go haywire. In fact they probably will.
Here is what I think you can expect:
- Expect that your 10-year-old will be a Minecraft genius but not remember that dirty clothes go in the washer.
- Expect that your 8-year-old will be charming and kind and wonderful, but may frequently have days when he cries three times before breakfast.
- Expect that no matter how much you love your 6 year old, she may not be able to say Mom because her brain isn’t wired the way yours is.
- Expect that you will look at your husband and feel like you haven’t seen him for days, even though you live in the same house.
- Expect that you will think that we need as many words for tired as the Eskimos have for snow. Not sleeping through the night for ten years and taking an Ambien on an overnight flight are two different kinds of tired.
- Expect that you will see your hands on your steering wheel and wonder why your mother is driving.
- Expect that you will look at your children at least once a day and think, “I really love them. I hope they turn out ok.”
- Expect that every day you get to begin again, and that is all that really matters.
I was a little embarrassed that I destroyed the book, I didn’t know I had any feeling about it whatsoever. I have learned that having children is not about expectation it’s about learning to see ourselves and them for who we really are and to love each other in spite of it. There will always be a gap between expectation and reality, so learn the basics: feed them, love them, apologize often and let them do the same, but don’t drift too far from what’s real. It’s the only thing that matters.
My first pancake is about to turn ten, which means that I have been someone’s mother for a decade. When I was pregnant with Ben, I went to Greenwich Hospital to fill out all the pre-delivery forms. On his form there was the section that said “Relationship to Patient.” I pointed to my stomach and said to the nurse, “We haven’t met yet.” She looked at me with a mix of laughter and pity and said, “You are the patient’s mother”.
A few days after he was born, we headed back to the hospital for a post-delivery check-in. When I explained to the nurse that he would only sleep at night if he could sleep on me, and that I was worried that I was starting him off in life with bad habits, she smiled with that same mix of laughter and pity, and said, “He is a baby animal and you are his mother.” Clearly, I was not a quick study, because I kept having to be reminded that this very small human around whom the entire world now seemed to revolve was depending on me.
I am by nature a confident person, or at least very good at faking it. To the outside world I think it looked like I took to motherhood quickly and easily, but in fact I was obsessed with not screwing it up. I hated not knowing whether or not I was good at it. I wanted evaluations, feedback of some kind, but of course the one person entitled to evaluate my performance slept eighteen hours a day and couldn’t keep his socks on. I realized that what was hard for me about motherhood was not the exhaustion, or the changes in my body, or even the loss of my beloved routines. It was the insecurity. I wanted to get an A….
The joke was on me of course. The one time in my life when I wanted to be the perfect student it simply wasn’t possible. My sweet first pancake, who broke me into motherhood also taught me that I had to let myself off the hook. I was not going to be able to be the perfect mother because there is no such thing. When I feel like torturing myself, I look at other women I know who seem to enjoy standing on sidelines, or whose houses are always clean, and I think that they are better at this than I am. Comparing myself to other women is poisonous but especially when it comes to parenting.
He is a baby animal, even as he is about to turn ten, and I am his mother. He doesn’t know that I have never felt fully qualified for the job, and that the whole thing is held together with duct tape and love. I am the only mother he has ever known and the best thing I can do for him is to stop chasing perfection and just be kind and patient with us both. He is my first pancake. I have learned more from him than he has from me, and I will be forever grateful to him for his patience and faith that I am up to the task of motherhood.