Tuesday, August 26, 2014

It Is What You Make It

Well here we are, in school with two kids. If buying a vacuum or signing a birth certificate or choosing a pediatrician didn't make us feel like adults, then filling out two hundred forms the first week of school and packing side-by-side lunches does. It's official: we're not playing house. This parenting stuff is legit.

If the end of last year was Test Preschool Out year for Nella, then this year is the real deal. We're in the preschool directory and "Nella Hampton" is typed on cute little labels on cubbies and job lists and birthday calendars.

She's doing really well, and in one week we've had a good handful of reminders that the extra challenges she faces are real and present, but that the greater truth of watching your kids learn new things--regardless of their pace and position among learning curves and growth charts and standards--is about the most fulfilling thing your heart can withstand.

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The preschool environment is really good for Nella right now, providing an opportunity for her to thrive outside our home, make new friends and learn instructional routines that will soon be part of her everyday life. But the classroom setting also draws attention to her challenges--things we forget that she'd probably be able to do if she didn't have Down syndrome. We are very good at focusing on Nella for who she is and following her own pace that sometimes we forget--"Oh yeah, most kids this age can have a complex conversation." We watched an old video clip the other day from when Lainey was three, and I couldn't believe how well she spoke and interacted with us. You really do forget over time, and while I might not be as bad as the old man in the elevator last week who thought he'd tap into his former dad-of-little-kid days and take a shot at guessing Dash's age with a, "Lemme guess--8 months?", I at least have forgotten enough not to make constant comparisons. I love that we see Nella for who she is and that we're not pressured by what she would be doing without that chromosome, but I also like to keep my finger on the pulse of age-appropriate expectations so that I can prepare her as best as possible for the world that awaits her.

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Her classmates responded to an "All About Me" activity last week, answering questions about themselves like what their favorite color was, what they wanted to be when they grow up, their favorite toy, their favorite food, etc.. Her teacher, sensitive and eager to make subtle accommodations, texted me the list of questions the night before the activity, understanding Nella wouldn't respond to these with verbal elaborations like her friends and hoping that maybe I could send in some answers so her poster would be as fact-filled as her classmates'. While she knows many words and can run to the pantry with a passionate "I want crackers!" to tell you what she wants to eat, she doesn't elaborate much with open-ended questions and sometimes just smiles and says, "yeah."

I pulled the list up on my phone and grabbed a torn piece of paper and a pen. We'd try again. "Nella, what's your favorite toy to play with?" I knew I could make it easier by giving her choices or leading her to pick the one I knew was her favorite. In fact, I could save us all the trouble and jot down reasonable answers without her even being asked, but I wanted her to answer on her own.

"Toy," she said.

I rephrased it. "What do you like to play with? Can you show me what you want to play with?"

"Play with," she repeated.

I'd try a different one. "Oooohh--your favorite food. What's Nella's favorite thing to eat?"

"Favorite eat," she mimicked with a smile.

It wasn't going to happen this way, and Lainey knew it.

"Can I do it with her?" she asked, reaching out to take the pen. "I know what her favorite food is."

Lainey kneeled down next to Nella, using the same syrupy mom voice she uses when she plays house or teacher or calms Dash down after a boo-boo.

"Nella, is spaghetti your favorite food? Do you love spaghetti?"

Nella smiled. "Yeah."

In the space after "Favorite Food" on the paper, Lainey carefully wrote "spagity."

"Is a baby doll your favorite toy?" she went on. "You love baby dolls, right?"

Nella smiled again. "Yeah."

The questions and yeahs continued until the paper was filled, and Lainey handed it back to me, satisfied with her progress.

"Thank you so much for doing that with her," I said, "You just helped her with her first homework assignment, you know."

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I would love nothing more than to have a long conversation with Nella--to hear what she really thinks about spaghetti and baby dolls and her sister's plan for her to grow up and be a singer and a daycare worker who rocks babies all day.  I dream of these language victories and how they would help us know our daughter even more.  But for now it is what it is.

"Oh, don't say that in front of Dad," my sister warned me up north this summer after I dropped the phrase in conversation, "He hates that saying."

"He hates 'It is what it is'?" I laughed. "Why?"

My dad overhead and jumped in. "Because it's overused to be a cop-out phrase. It is what it is if you accept that. But it is what you make it if you tell yourself it can be more." Life Lesson Crammer, he is.

Down syndrome for us will always float somewhere between "It is what it is" and "It is what you make it." Like any parent of any child, we love our child just the way she is...and we'd love for her to reach her full potential which takes some pushing for all of us.

After one week of school, I was pleasantly surprised (okay, I cried) to hear Nella sing her entire preschool prayer, word for word, at bedtime the other night. She'd been spongin' up the week's experiences, saving the big moment to show us: You sillies. Of course I can show you what I'm learning. Watch this.

Different strokes for different folks, different paces for different faces. We're all learning.

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I decided if my kids were back in the learning and new experience game, I didn't want to be left out, so I signed up for an adult ballet class and showed up last week with a couple of friends who promised they too were "inexperienced beginners." My friend Andrea lost all credibility because, while I was having my crooked plie gently corrected by the teacher, Miss "Ballet Beginner" was Pas de Bourree'ing across the floor all total profesh. But whatever. I'm definitely the most inexperienced (translated: hilarious-to-watch) dancer in the class and wouldn't know a rond de jambe if it kicked me in the face, but I'm learning and it's fun, and my body's being stretched past what I thought it was capable of--sore muscles to prove it. I'm pushing myself and watching the moves of the other dancers in the class, knowing I'll pick things up as I go.

Before floor exercises last week, our teacher suggested the less experienced dancers (cough cough, Kelle!) join a group of--well, let's just cut to the chase here--people who don't look like asses out there. Knowing clearly which group I belonged to, I scooched a little closer to the two dancers in front of me who obviously had some dance instruction under their belt.

"How long have you been dancing?" I asked one of them.
"Since I was two," she answered.
"Whoa, you beat me," I admitted. "I just pretend I'm a ballerina in my kitchen when I play classical music."

The music started and I followed her lead as our group glided across the wood floor to the other side. I was happy I wasn't dancing alone even if I couldn't keep up. Different strokes for different folks, different paces for different faces...we're all learning.

I made it through class and look forward to more practice, more stretching, more learning this week.

Oh, and my ballet friend? The one whose lead I followed? I noticed something a few minutes into class. She has Down syndrome too.


I'm so excited for what this year holds for Nella--it is what we make it.

I expect great things.

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Wednesday, August 20, 2014

A Room for Dash

We finished another round of musical rooms, putting the girls together in a shared room and transforming Lainey's old room for Dash.  The room was originally a dining room that we hardly used, so we closed it off to create another bedroom and filled it with furniture that had been given to us. It worked great for Lainey for a while, but the room felt very cramped with large furniture and a wall-hogging daybed. My goal in using this space for Dash was to pare down the furniture, leaving open space for play and to make a room that could easily be kept clean with a place for everything (and if there's not a place for it--we don't need it). And, of course, I wanted a room that felt happy and playful with interesting and meaningful details. Since the room lacks shelves to highlight keepsakes, we utilized the walls for art and interest.

I love freshening kids' spaces, and whether our kid room makeovers have been to welcome a baby ("We're not putting any more walls up in our house, lest you get any ideas," Brett has warned me.) or to switch things up, we've used a lot of things we already have when doing room makeovers, adding inexpensive changes with thrift shop finds and elbow grease when possible.

The old room:

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Freshened up:

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The biggest change to the room came from the brick wallpaper we added, a thick textured wallpaper we found from Total Wall Covering after a lot of research on brick wallpaper. I love what it did to the room.

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A little Northern Michigan love--M22 sign from M22.com

I found the table in Dash's room at Goodwill, but it was a kids' patio table with slats on the top and an open umbrella hole. I bought a spruce board from Lowe's, big enough to cover the table top, and Brett cut it down and sanded the edges and corners. It's white on one side if we want to flip it over, and I painted a road scene on the facing side to create a play table for cars. We started a Plan Toys City collection for him when he was tiny and are slowly adding to it with birthdays and holidays. I love the quality, size and selection of these road toys.

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All the cars and street toys store nicely in a crate for easy clean-up.

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Pillow, Passive Juice Motel

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Wood bird: Little Alouette, Knit Fox: Sweet Bauer Knits, Floating Bookshelf: Land of Nod 

We already had most of the wall art above his dresser, pulled from his old room, but I love the new Honey Eater print in his room, a gift from Michael McConnell, artist behind Pooping Rabbit. I've admired his work and family for a while now and am so happy to have a bit of his talent on our walls.

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Personalized Family Mobile: The amazing Pink Cheek Studios

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Polka Dot Sheets, Land of Nod. And pediatricians and dentists: bottle in crib, I know. Forgive me this once. But look! Cute fox, eh?

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He likes his new digs, and we love the happy new space too. There's plenty of room on his carpet for the entire family--we've tested it out.

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I'll share the girls' new space soon.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Another First

The end of another first day. 

I read Lainey's First Day of Kindergarten post the other night, wincing through all the hard parts and waiting for them to get better just like I watch movies I've seen countless times, thinking maybe the ending will be different this time. The post hasn't changed in two years--she still sits on a bench at recess and cries; I still wait outside her classroom door for the bell to ring. Also, Castaway? When Tom Hanks comes back, he still finds his girlfriend shacked up with the dentist.

This year, thankfully, our first day was less dramatic, made easier by experience but doubled in complexity (and prep time!) by sending two off for first days--Lainey to second grade, Nella to preschool. Maybe it's some sort of overcompensation for the fact that my heart gets a little twisted sending them off, but I was Y2K ready this year. Outfits ironed, bags packed, forms filled out, lunches packed, notes written, fridge stocked, house cleaned. A message to the world: Hey, world. I got this.

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We did our thing. Ready early, first day pictures in the driveway, music in the car, hands held in the parking lot and up the sidewalk. They both did great--a few tears, but being the seasoned dropper-offer I am, I knew they'd be fine.

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I wasn't home ten minutes and mom friend texts flew in like air traffic control updates: who cried, who didn't, pictures of well-dressed smiling kids holding "First Day of ______" signs. This is how it goes. I'm two years in now, but school years are like dog years, so I've been doing this for twenty-four years.

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With 24 years of experience, I can tell you this: no matter how much they're smiling, no matter how much you love their teacher, no matter how much they convince you to just go, mom, I'm fine, turn around and don't even think about asking me for a kiss in front of my friends, you're still going to leave feeling like you left your own beating heart in a cooler in a classroom, asking someone else to make it thrive for seven hours. Every day. 

There's no doubt our teachers are miracle workers.

As good as it hurts, as bad as it feels good--this is just the beginning. There are years of first days ahead--for them, for us.

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Both girls came home beaming today. I watched for the first smile the second I made eye contact with them, and it came soon enough, followed by "they did great" reports from their teachers. We're in it now, the first day checked off, the rest of the year officially in progress. From here on out--through school, through life--it's Groundhog Day. Letting go and picking up.

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For every first, there's something good that follows.

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Happy days to all those facing firsts this month!

Friday, August 15, 2014

Michigan, Last Bits

Tired of Michigan pictures? Too bad. Alright, alright, I'm wrapping it up. But Sleeping Bear Dunes is ridic beautiful, and I have this one last bit before I move on to important matters of reality like school starting and kids growing up and people to love.

People to love--my people. I feel all Moses saying "my people" but, for the record, I would totally travel 40 days in the desert for any of them.

You know what's amazing? Kids know their people. Even if they're usually hesitant of new faces, even if they haven't seen these people in months and months. They can sniff out family, instantly feeling comfortable, secure, loved. I love watching it happen.

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A day at "the point"--the shallow part of the lake where all the boats come to hang out

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The rest of our trip was spent with family--three cottages full. Mornings were my favorite. The little kids wake up first with my dad, coffee's brewed, bacon's put in the oven and the "ssshh, everyone's sleeping" admonition slowly lifted until kids are hollering and running outside, a rooster's call to all to wake up. And they do--aunts, uncles, nieces, cousins--barely awake, dragging their feet into the kitchen, looking for coffee. Then we pile up into couches or chairs on the deck, bed head's a plenty, and we tell stories, make fun of each other, act out as many scenes from the past as we can, diverting into the hilariously inappropriate realm often. And every morning there's a moment when everyone's loud and laughing, my kids in respective cousins' laps, coffee cup number three in the works and my dad's all call to the table for French toast about to commence (FYI: don't make him call twice)--and I think, "This? This is special." And because it really only happens once a year, I drink it up, oblivious to the not-so-perfect moments that naturally accompany our time together.

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Musical Kayaks, Dash's favorite game.

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My nephew, Max, pulling his babysitting shift.

Lodge night. Uncle Bubby passes out pool tips and I discover that sadly, The Cranberries'"Linger" has been retired from their juke box. The horror.

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One of Nella's favorite peoples: Kaity. She gets to be a flower girl in her wedding come October.

Behold, Sleeping Bear Dunes. You can't go to Northern Michigan without visiting the dunes. We only climbed the first one and even then, we were panting and near collapsed at the top. It's worth it though. Completely. I hear it's worth it to also climb the next three dunes to the water, but we weren't about to test out that theory with kids on our backs.

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little beach outside of Glen Arbor

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That's right, Dash. Eyes to the ground, buddy. Do not be distracted by the view on your left. Nothin' to see there, nothin' to see there.

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Last time we visited the dunes, we cut our visit short and missed out on the town of Glen Arbor. Never again. This darling little town nestles so many gems within a few short blocks--cafes and restaurants, soap shops, The Cottage Book Store (think log cabin full of hidden rooms, creaky floors and books--in other words, heaven) and Cherry Republic which hosts a winery, bakery, restaurant and store with all things cherry. Cherry salsa, cherry soda, cherry wine, cherry ice cream--even cherry lasagna. Even their toilets are made out of cherries. Okay, I made that up.

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The Cottage Bookstore

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Walked into this store and got the most amazing individualized attention and a lavender sand blaster hand massage. I peeked out the open door out back and there was lavender everywhere--and rows of pretty tea towels drying on clothes lines. Absolutely charming.

I slipped out of dinner early on our Glen Arbor night, hoping to walk Nella and Dash to sleep in the stroller because they were--let's go with irritable. A few corner turns led us here instead, a secret little place we found that magically reverses irritability.

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And now we are home, fully submerged back into our routines, and it feels good. We really missed Brett--thankful for FaceTime and printed heads-on-sticks to allow him to hilariously appear in some of our pictures, but still--there were many "Brett would love this" notations.

Happy to be home. School starts next week. Until then...another cup of coffee.

Have a great weekend!

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Saying Good-bye to Summer and Embracing New Season Inspiration over @eHow this week.