A “Bwoken Heart”

There is a theory that I’ve heard from different sources that, like a loving and patient teacher, God/the Universe will keep presenting us with the same lesson in different ways until we finally learn it. Unless we fully take the lesson to heart, we will continue to be given experiences (often increasingly painful ones) to teach us.

I was enrolled in gifted education programs as a child, but when it comes to taking in the most important lessons in life, I am not a fast learner.

As Simon and Garfunkel told us in “The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy)”,

“Slow down, you move too fast

You got to make the morning last…”

I disregarded the message of this song as a child who was desperate to grow up and find my way in the adult world. I continued to disregard this message as I overachieved my way through high school, always looking for the next goal to achieve, the next set of points to collect, the next club to join, the next paper to write, the next award to win. Even when I was struck down with a set of severe inflammatory conditions in my first year of University, I insisted on maintaining my three part-time jobs, attending my interfaith group, choir rehearsals and drama club meetings, all while completing a full time course load. When my father was diagnosed with a terminal illness, I modified my schedule somewhat to be able to travel every week to spend three days at home and four days at school and work… but I didn’t really slow down. I just learned how to sleep less and pack more things into less time. I performed in a play a few days after my father’s death. I had things under control.

In my first year of teaching, I ran the open house night for my school, attended every professional development workshop that I could find, helped to run fundraising events and assemblies, after school and recess time clubs, and offered tutoring and “hang out” space on my lunch breaks for at-risk kids. I became the school union representative, and joined my local union executive shortly thereafter. I joined several committees that were doing wonderful things for our community and our profession. I sang in a choir. I became deeply involved in Equity issues. I attended local labour meetings as well as province-wide assemblies. I continued to take as many courses as I could, and to do everything in my power to become a super-teacher who would save the world, one student at a time. I loved being involved, being needed, and being of service to others. I didn’t say “no” to any request for my time or skills, because I was convinced that the needs of others were always more important than my own. Through all of this busy-ness, I rarely ate dinner with my partner. My evenings were filled with meetings, events, and professional development activities. I was goal-driven, ambitious, and constantly on a mission. I had things under control.

Then came the years of infertility and loss, and I was forced to slow down. A bit. Just enough to convince myself that I had made significant changes that would allow for a healthy pregnancy and birth. I was the research Queen. I read all the reproductive endocrinology journals and did all the right things. I was the perfect infertility patient. I started to take care of my body in a way that I never had before, and felt that I had finally learned my lessons about slowing down and relinquishing control. Project Baby was my passion, and this passion quickly took the place of some of the extracurricular activities I had given up. I had things under control.

When we finally had a healthy fetus that made it to the 28-week gestation mark, I was relieved, overjoyed, and so thankful that we had finally made it. Then our little girl decided that she was tired of Chez Uterus, and tried to make a break for it. Like her Momma, Willow was an impatient little filly, and wanted to get on to the next big thing: her birth. I was placed on bed rest, and life as I knew it came to a screeching halt. I needed to not only slow down, but to come to a full stop. I was literally forced to rely on others for my very survival, and to release all semblance of control. I prayed, meditated, read, sang, and rested. I took the greatest care of my body, knowing that this miracle child’s life was depending on her Momma to finally slow down. I had things under control.

My heart’s desire came to this Earth with a host of lessons to teach her mother, not the least of which was to slow down and appreciate every moment that I am given with this miracle child. I have been learning to create firmer boundaries to protect our little family, including saying “no” to taxing social obligations and leadership opportunities, creating better work-life balance, and worrying less about what others think. We make a point of eating dinner together as a family, of honouring our need for regular outdoor time and sleep time, as well as time to wind down each night without unnecessary busy-ness. The rhythms and routines of our daily lives are sacred points for calm, connection and reassurance. This pace of life was carefully researched and crafted. I had things under control. Or so I thought.

My life has, more often than not, been more about rushing to prepare for the next moment, and less about enjoying the moment I’m actually experiencing. I’m a recovering control freak. My first instinct is often to over-plan, over-pack, and be so prepared for any possible deviation from “the plan” that I can adapt to any curveball that life may throw at me. But oftentimes, the big curveballs that get thrown in life are ones that cannot be planned or prepared for.

I recently discovered that I have cardiac issues, or as Willow sweetly refers to it, a “bwoken heart”. As a relatively young woman with partial Asian heritage (age, sex and ethnicity put me in a lower risk category), this was not something that I in any way expected at this point in my life. I am an insulin dependent diabetic, but have excellent glycemic control and an A1C that my endocrinologist has frequently referred to as “beautiful”. I enjoy walking and doing yoga, and eat a pretty healthy diet that includes plant proteins and natural foods from the “hippie aisle” of the grocery store. I meditate daily and do guided visualization exercises. As my cardiologist reminds me, I’m not the kind of person who typically develops cardiac health concerns at my age.

At our regular appointments, my endocrinologist has always asked if I have had my eyes checked and if I’ve had any heart attacks or other cardiac issues. I have always laughed, told her that my optometrist continues to say that my eye health is perfect with no signs of diabetic retinopathy, and that my heart is as healthy as ever. We have always chuckled and agreed that we should always be able to smile and laugh about the absurdity of asking me about these conditions, because with my consistent track record of excellent glycemic control I would be at a pretty low risk for any diabetic complications.

Until today’s appointment.

Today, when we reviewed my ECG and cardiology report together, tears welled up in both of our eyes, because we can no longer joke about diabetic complications. She reminded me that this is not something over which I have any real control. She told me that I need to slow down, acknowledge my limitations, and allow others to help me. She voiced the lessons that the Universe has been trying to get through to me for the last 30 years.

I have not yet fully learned what God/the Universe has been trying to teach me. This time, my own life depends on me taking the most important lessons to heart.

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Pyjama Therapy

Sometimes it’s the smallest rituals and luxuries that bring about the best changes in our lives. Despite the advice of popular women’s magazines, self-care need not involve expensive spa treatments and shopping trips. One of the easiest self-care strategies I employ is the mindful use of Jammies.

I put on Jammies at Willow’s bath time (6pm) and wear them all night. It’s a mental wellness thing for me–I symbolically wash away the emotional baggage of the day with bath time, and shedding my daytime clothes helps me to get into a mindful and relaxed headspace to enjoy the precious, snuggly, fleeting moments I have with my family in the evening. Jammies represent comfort for me. They represent leaving behind work, worry, and the fast-paced freneticism of the outside world. Jammies are a physical reminder to give myself permission to slow down, breathe, and be kind and gentle with my precious self and with my loved ones.

I have multiple pairs of Jammies, giving me some leeway in terms of laundry day. My Jammies are made from loose and breathable material (usually cotton flannel or cotton with a tiny bit of Lycra for stretch), and I aim for cloth that feels very soft to the touch with no itchy tags or seams. I often ask to receive nice Jammies from Santa. I have a few second hand thrift shoppe buys in my rotation, which were purchased gleefully, as I already knew how the fabric would look and feel after being washed. I just bought a few pairs to replace some that had been loved to tatters.

Jammies are worth every cent to me. I store them in their own special spot in the bathroom so that I can change in there at bath time, and emerge from my steamy cocoon, transformed into a more comfortable and happy momma. Each pair has been blessed with the intention of bringing balance, comfort, and joy to my life, and I am ever so thankful for their service.

Death, Life, and Learning

“I will buwy this stick in the gwound and all the other sticks will come and say nice things about this stick. And how they loved the stick. And then the stick will be in the Earth. And it will help all the flowers and plants to gwow.” -Willow Mei, on burial and the circle of life.

Three-year-old children process the world’s big issues through their play. They may narrate the same story over and over until they have fully explored the topic and made it less scary or confusing for themselves. They have a natural and healthy way of coping with the world around them, if we only just step back and allow them to do so.

I never cease to be amazed at how gracefully our daughter copes with all of life’s big challenges. She continuously teaches me how to accept things as they are, how to be fully in the moment, how to tune out the things that do not matter, and how to appreciate the beauty in the world around us.

I spent seven years pursuing post-secondary education, but the learning I really needed to have in my life has come, and continues to come, through Sensei Willow Mei.

Grief Through The Eyes of a 3 Year Old

Dear Grownups,

I need you to read me "Nana Upstairs, and Nana Downstairs" by Tommie dePaola just one more time today, to see if Nana gets to come back this time after she dies in the story. I need to keep asking you if my Grandma is coming back and if I can visit her again. I need to hear the same answer, over and over, like a call and answer refrain. I need time to truly understand and process what "gone forever" really means. I need to play with my dollies and pretend that one dies over and over, comforting myself by allowing her to come back to life with my magical thinking within my pretend world.

I need you to know that I feel your big feelings, even when you think you are hiding them from me. I see the tightness in your jaws, the weariness in your puffy red eyes, the way your shoulders droop. I see your furrowed brows as you answer emails on your phones. I hear snippets of harshly whispered conversations and phone calls. I hear the tension and impatience in your voices, and I see through the false cheerfulness that you're using to cover your own fears, sadness, anger and confusion. I need to ask you why people seem so sad and mad, and I need you to reassure me that it's not my fault.

I find it distressing to hear comments like "She's in a better place", or "She will live forever in our hearts". I'm confused because dying means gone forever, but people say she is living and in another place. Why isn't she living with her family? Why can't I visit her?

I was frightened when I heard someone say, "Dying is like sleeping forever", because that means I don't ever want to let myself or anyone I love fall asleep or else we might die, too.

I'm scared because you told me my Grandma was sick and that is why her body stopped working. My daddy has a cough. He's sick. Now I worry that he is going to die. I don't want my mommy lying down in her bed because it reminds me of my Grandma lying down in bed when I visited her. I have to ask about all the people I know who are older. I have to know if they are sick. I have to ask if they will die, too. I need you to reassure me again that my Grandma's illness was different, that every cough and sniffle will not equal death.

I need you to understand that when I get easily frustrated with tasks I could easily do last week, that I need some patience and compassion instead of your criticism. When I wet my pants instead of going to the toilet, I need you to know that I am not being defiant, but rather, struggling with connecting to my own elimination cues as I struggle to understand the sudden changes in my schedule and the emotional reactions of the big people in my life. I am processing all of the huge feelings that are within and around me. When I ask you to help me put my shoes on or to hold the spoon for me while I eat a few bites of my dinner, it is not because I can't do it myself. I just feel really insecure right now and need someone to help me feel loved, cared for, and nurtured.

I need the safety net of my routines now, more than ever. I need regular meals, snacks, play, rest, and sleep. I need my bath and my bedtime story. I need my snuggles and my songs. I need my blankey and my stuffies, and everything that helps me to feel safe. I need as much "normal" as you can give me in the coming days and weeks.

I need you to understand that I may want your attention and love one moment, then may want to retreat into my own quiet space the next. I need you to understand that I am sensitive to all of the lights, sounds, smells and movement that come along with large gatherings, and that I may be easily overwhelmed. I need to not be tasked with being "on" as the "entertainment" to distract adults from their own feelings, and that I may shut down or melt down if I am the centre of attention for an extended period of time. I need you to protect me from becoming overwhelmed, and to help me when it's all become too much.

It's okay that you cried when you told me that my Grandma died, because it showed me that it is okay to cry when we lose someone we love, and that expressing big feelings is a safe and healthy thing to do. It's okay that you cried when you read me "Nana Upstairs, and Nana Downstairs" the first time, as it taught me that good readers make meaningful connections as they read texts, and that good writing can evoke powerful feelings.

In this time of hurt and healing, please don't forget about me. I need you. I need you to model healthy grieving and self-care coping strategies. I need you to take really good care of yourselves so that you can take really good care of me.

Love,

Your grieving child

Dear Driver

Dear driver of the tan minivan with license plate BTSN 279 who was turning right on a red light from Spadina Rd onto Highland Rd in Kitchener this afternoon:
You almost made my worst fear come true today: losing my miracle child. 
You were not looking in front of you as you swerved around a stopped vehicle to make your turn. You had your neck craned to the left so that you could see if any cars were coming. You didn’t see the large stroller in the intersection and the woman in the bright white shirt pushing a small child in that stroller. You didn’t see her look of panic as she ran to push that stroller out of the crosswalk that you had entered. You didn’t realize when you had bumped her wrist and the handle of the stroller with your vehicle. You finally stopped your vehicle when you heard a disheveled drunk man on a bicycle screaming obscenities at you and threatening to smash your windshield. You may have heard that woman tell the drunk man that there was no need for swearing, and tell you that you were lucky that the stroller was pushed out of the way in time and that you needed to pay attention at crosswalks. You may have also seen the woman pull her metal water bottle away from the drunk man when he reached over to throw it at your windshield, and quickly leave the scene so that he would deescalate. You may have heard him start cursing after her for protecting you from his wrath. 
You didn’t see the woman shaking, gasping for breath, and trying hard not to cry, so as not to upset her little peanut any further. You did not see the strength it took to not give into the fear and rage and desire to hurt you that the drunk man was inviting. You did not see how many unkind words were waiting to be spoken but were swallowed so that the child could witness a relatively peaceful scene instead of one filled with even more profanity and threats of violence. 
You didn’t see the little girl pee her pants. You didn’t see the woman’s fear and distrust of vehicles and crosswalks for the rest of the walk. 

You didn’t see the anxiety attack the woman had afterward that made her huddle over the toilet in the bathroom, willing herself to throw up so that the overwhelming feelings would leave her stomach. 
You didn’t see the construction worker with the gentle eyes who approached the woman after you drove off, asking if she was okay. You didn’t see the teenager from the bus stop come over to check that nobody was hurt. You didn’t see the kindness of strangers who never would have connected had it not been for your mistake. 
You didn’t get to see the woman explain to the child that even grown-ups make mistakes and deserve to learn from them and move on, unharmed and forgiven. You didn’t get a chance to be part of the long, loving snuggle that mother and child shared once they both felt safe again. You weren’t there for the extreme wash of relief and peace that finally overtook the woman as she decided to forgive you and settled back into her routines at home, choosing to move on with her life, with her head held high, and with gratitude for her living, breathing child. 

Technology and Tots

Back in the day when I worked in a Reggio-inspired daycare program, children would ask questions and teachers would rush around on our breaks and after work to put together books, pictures and hands-on learning experiences to reflect the interests and inquiries of the children. Often, the programming took a few days to put together, and interest in the topic needed to be re-kindled in some cases. We didn’t have access to mobile technology with Google search engines and YouTube at our fingertips. We did the best we could with the resources available to us, which included the public library and books and manipulatives that we had purchased and stored in our homes “just in case” kids demonstrated an interest in life cycles, insects, etc. 
Parents are often upset by the presence of technology in classrooms. I fully understand their concerns, especially as Willow’s daddy and I have done the research and have limited the amount of screen time our daughter is exposed to. Concerns around the overuse of technology are legitimate. We don’t want to be raising a generation of children who are glued to endless YouTube streams and can’t sit still for more than two minutes without playing a highly stimulating video game. We don’t want kids glued to a screen all day instead of solving problems with real materials and people. We don’t want kids watching television instead of getting outside in the fresh air to move their bodies and learn about balance, cooperation, and managing risk. 
The difference between YouTube zombies with delayed language and impaired focus skills and kids who use tech as a learning tool is huge, and it often starts at home. The HOW of tech is the missing piece that most people don’t see. It’s easy to demonize technology and lump all device use into one vile category: something that should be avoided at all costs. The reality of the situation is that our children are going to be exposed to technology and an overabundance of information, whether or not we promote any kind of technology use in our homes.  
Most organizations are recommending complete abstinence from screens until the age of about 24 months. We tried to follow these guidelines, as the research on eye, brain, and speech development and screen time is pretty convincing for this age group. We don’t have “television” per se (just Netflix), so we aren’t the kind to people who have a TV running in the background all day on a news or weather channel. My partner and I often sit down to watch specific programs in the evening after Willow is asleep, so it wasn’t hard to avoid having her exposed to constant screen time as an infant and toddler. We did show her family photos on our phones and iPads, and allowed her to have FaceTime chats with long-distance relatives. 
Willow is now three years old, and she asks some really cool questions about the world around her. This morning, in the midst of a thunderstorm, she inquired as to what makes thunder. I could have easily provided a pat answer to her inquiry, such as “well, that’s just the clouds going bowling”, but I have never truly appreciated the cutesy answers that adults often give to legitimate questions posed in earnest by inquisitive children (especially as an inquisitive child myself), so I said, “That’s a great question. Let’s find out!”
I pulled out my phone and we did a Google search for “what is thunder for kids” and asked Willow to help me listen for the dominant consonant sounds in a few of the words as I typed “what… it starts with wuh… …wuh… what letter should I type to start that word? Can you find the w for me on the keyboard?” Once we typed our query, Google gave us a very brief and understandable explanation with a photo, and offered us a 3 minute video for kids on lightning and thunder, which we watched together and chatted about. In this short interaction, we were learning about letters and letter sounds, learning how to do research using simple search terms, and learning that our questions about the world are worthy of exploring and researching. We discovered some neat Science facts about light and sound energy, and our conversation continued long after the phone was returned to my pocket. 
Those who demonize technology use with children often believe that there can be nothing useful about having technology in the hands of children. They often tell me that screens are only used as electronic babysitters, as a way to keep kids quiet in a restaurant or as a way for a tired adult to avoid having to interact with children. There are definitely dangers surrounding technology use and screen time with young children, most of which occur when screen time is unsupervised and is used as a replacement for human interaction… but it is not a matter of black and white, tech or no tech. 
Appropriate technology use needs to be modelled. When kids see tech being used for communication and learning instead of simply as a way to “pass the time”, they learn that technology is an important tool. Appropriate technology use needs to be guided. When kids are invited to help us look up a recipe online for biscuits to make together, they are invested in the process and the product of their learning, and learn how to search for and use information that is relevant to them. When a parent says “our job is to find a cookie recipe, so we won’t click on the link for the cookie game or the Cookie Monster video”, the child learns about staying focused on the task at hand, and avoiding some of the many distractions that pop up in the world of the Internet (and in life). Likewise, stopping a YouTube video to discuss what we’ve seen, instead of allowing YouTube to endlessly play “related videos” allows for verbal processing, reflection, and true learning instead of the passive intake of more visual information that our brains can actually process in one sitting. 
Technology itself is not the problem. The way that we interact with technology is what makes it either purposeful or problematic. We can teach our kids to use tech as a valuable learning tool, or as a source of passive entertainment. The answer is not banning technology or devices from homes and classrooms, but in teaching both adults and children to use it responsibly for the betterment of themselves and others. 

Ant Poison 

Willow found a container of ant poison on the floor of a bathroom today. Thankfully, she didn’t touch it because she has the amazing self-preservation instinct to generally ask before touching unknown and potentially harmful objects. I told her it was poison that can hurt people and animals if we touch it or get it in our mouths. She asked why people would leave poison on the floor. I said that it was for the ants. She innocently asked if the “little red circle” was a “house for the ants”. For a moment I almost went along with her sweet version of the truth (or “alternate truth”, if you prefer), but decided to be truthful in the gentlest way I could. I said that people don’t want ants inside buildings, so sometimes they buy ant poison in little red circles that kills the ants so they won’t be inside anymore. She was horrified. “They kill the ants? They hurt the ants?” She asked, her eyes as wide as saucers. “Well, yes.” “On purpose? Why, Momma?” “Well, it’s too hard to relocate all of the ants outside, and they really don’t want the ants to be here.” (We practice the spider relocation program in our home, because I can’t bring myself to kill a spider, even though I know that they will likely perish outside in the cold). 
She accepted this explanation, but was quite shaken. Thankfully, Daddy was waiting outside of the bathroom and offered snuggles to soothe the nerves of a newly minted three-year-old who just realized that people sometimes hurt creatures on purpose. 
Oh, our sensitive, gentle, compassionate and caring child. What a huge heart she has. My heart hurt today as I watched her face fall with this new piece of information. It would have been easier just to pretend that nobody kills insects, but I want to provide honest answers to honest questions, and I want to help her to learn to cope with the world around her. 
I desperately want to protect this miracle child from the disappointments of life, but I know that I also want to help her to develop the skills needed to get over these small shocks to her understanding of the world with support from those who love her. These small moments pave the way for future heartaches and disappointments. There will be many more and larger discoveries ahead. Moments when parts of her innocence will be chipped away. When the protective bubble she’s privileged enough to enjoy will suddenly pop. I know these moments are coming… but I don’t feel ready to tackle anything bigger than ant poison just yet. 
Willow will continue to teach us how to cope with seeing her struggle and experience pain, discomfort, and disappointment. She continues to make me a better and more thoughtful human being, teacher, and parent. She is truly my greatest teacher.