Raising the Artists

Noah Louvre

When my oldest was about eight years-old, he wanted to be an astronaut.

“Yes!” I agreed enthusiastically, “You can be anything you want!”

Thus, he went several weeks wearing a NASA costume and having adventures with his stuffed animals in ships made of cardboard boxes and fuzzy blankets.

I was pleased. How AMAZING to raise a person who not only wanted to pursue science but also had the adventurous spirit to be blasted into the galaxy on an engine of fire.

 I would keep the tissues handy for the moment he said, “I owe it all to you Mom,” from the space station on Mother’s Day.  

Homeschooling Mom triumph.

Mission accomplished.

Phenomenal social media potential.

So when the space fervor died down, and this same child (upon whom the fate of many future Facebook posts rested) started sketching ghoulish creatures and writing stories involving ninja mice and robotic dinosaurs, an alarm went off in my head. And when he later expressed interest in a career as a *gasp* filmmaker; I thought to myself, “Well, at least I have three other kids who can pursue something ‘practical,’ ” while handing him a camera.

When you have four kids, odds are one of them will turn out “well.”

But now that two of my other children have gone over to the art side, it leaves me with the hope that the one careerishly undecided child might do something for a living that will fund a winter condo on Santorini.

This same child attends a German school, and interestingly enough, when he was tested for a possible career, the experts said that while he has all the makings of a good engineer, they noticed he thinks outside the box and could pursue a more creative field.

The shock! The horror! What did I do wrong? When the most practical, logical people on earth are against me? 

I suppose my kids never had a chance with a Mother who, as stated on her Kindergarten report card, has her head in the clouds. This same mom with a Masters degree in English Literature (nominally more practical than a creative writing degree) and a passion for fiction writing, not only permitted, but encouraged a multitude of creative endeavors.

The real shock is not that my kids have turned to their artistic sides, but the shock is that it took me by surprise.

How could I NOT see it coming? What, with all the puppet shows and frenzied writing marathons during NaNoWriMo. Maybe if I’d forced them into science boot camp (if there is such a thing) they would’ve chosen careers that would pay for our future family reunions in San Tropez.

No. I have raised artists.

kate sus bw

*Parents Beware: When you allow children to spend time plucking stringed instruments, dancing in full costume, writing books, and performing home-grown scripts, you increase the chance that they will WANT to follow their dreams as adults.

Holy hell, what was I thinking, building that puppet theater in the basement?!

The bare-bones fact is that our own insecurities force expectations on our kids that fit them like straight jackets.

Can you imagine a world without Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, or Hogwarts or R2D2?

Why are we so damned afraid to raise artists?

Life would have the depth of a mud-puddle, without art to reflect precious intangibles, such as beauty, spirit and love.

I have slowly made peace with the idea that there is a place for artists in the world. It is a gamble, but maybe it’s okay for my kids to eat ramen noodles and work two jobs while they happily pursue their passions.

If I, as a parent, can live simply yet contentedly doing what I love, then maybe the young artists under my roof can also be satisfied in the richness and beauty of the lives they create for themselves. And when they share a higher ideal with someone else; when their art moves another person towards an emotion; then life becomes that much richer.

I don’t want to button up my kids with my fears. Though my motives might be “practical” and though they might make more “money” as bankers or dog psychologists; I would rather have them live free; and breathe; and make beautiful things.

There is too much ugliness in the world already.

It’s time to boldly raise the artists.


Thoughts on Camping, Crossfit and Culture: A Post in Which I Alienate Everyone

 

Camping

The kids and I have been in a tent in the Swiss Alps for five days, and this is the first day we’ve seen rain.

I feel thankful.

Last year was warmer, but we had the kind of dampness that crept into your soul, making you regret you put the words ‘Camping’ and ‘Switzerland’ in the same sentence, to the point where you contemplate trading months of marathon training for your own cozy bed.

This year is better.

While my nose freezes solid when the sun goes down, I learned that if I wrap my down jacket around my feet inside my sleeping bag, I will actually sleep the whole night through.

Crossfit

I am nervous about the race because I haven’t done as much long distance running as usual. I have been in the Crossfit Kettlebell program, training 5 days a week, so I’m interested (and anxious) to see how the kettelbell training translates into running 42.2 kilometers up 2320 meters.

I have more muscle this year, which while good, means I’m bulkier than the Nike-clad willow-trees jogging around camp. I’m hoping that my muscle and endurance will give me the edge once we hit the switchbacks.

Culture

Our first night in camp coincided with the American holiday weekend, which meant I could understand everything our neighbors were saying. It was strange, and honestly, kind of annoying. Sometimes it’s better when you don’t know what people are saying.

Little kids were running around screaming. Not simply using outdoor voices, which I totally support. Not simply calling to each other in play. But rather, the type of shrieking that should only be reserved for wounds requiring stitches, broken bones or abduction.

The shrieking lasted 3 hours.

Yes, I timed it.

But I couldn’t be too upset with them, because earlier in the day, I heard the father declare: “I don’t know why I had fucking kids anyway!”

He was serious.

In front of his wife.

In front of their friends.

In front of the entire camp.

In front of the kids.

*cringe

It gave me a little empathy for the shriekers.

On Monday, the Americans cleared out, and another family moved in. One man, two women draped in black, only their eyes showing, two little girls and three boys, who, when they weren’t playing soccer, were dutifully saying their prayers at the appropriate times.

I was curious about their family.

I automatically feel sorry for anyone involved in a strict religion–it doesn’t matter whether you’re covered head to toe in cloth or you’re a county clerk in Kentucky. I have come to feel that most religions damage more people than they help.

But I had the feeling as these women watched me camping alone with my kids in the mountains, they were sorry for me, with no man to look out for me.

Maybe I’m alienating every culture with this post–I don’t mean to. I respect the right of people to choose how they want to live, and sometimes I bruise myself trying to figure out my own way through life.

I just wonder how many people, whether they’re from the east or the west, are trapped in their lives, simply because they were born in a particular locale.

How hard is it to break from your culture, if you want to? How much of a choice does a person have? And how are we–any of us–brainwashed, rather than taught to view facts, experience life and think for ourselves.

How is the woman in the veil different from (or the same as) the cheerleader who marries the quarterback and brings Snickerdoodles to the church bake sale? Maybe she’s happy doing it, but maybe she’s simply playing a role that was written for her by someone else.

I know I have the typical Western mindset, but I think everyone should have the right to adopt a certain lifestyle/religion/culture or step away and question it.

I have the right to be myself.

And so many others don’t.

Or they don’t want to see that they can, because it seems impossible.

Because change, when you want it, is a lot of hard work, and sadly for many, it is dangerous.

For me, change means (among other things):

  • filling out paperwork in triplicate, three separate times, because you didn’t understand a phrase
  • thinking someone is angry at you, when they’re making a joke
  • telling people you’re warm and comfortable in your backpack, when you meant to say sleeping bag

Mostly, change means being uncomfortable at times, and yet feeling more at home than I ever have before.

The Marathon

Sometimes my life feels like a marathon. And maybe that’s why I run them. To free myself from negativity. To become attentive to the nature around me. To meet my real self along the trail.

The Ziel of the marathon is a high: someone puts a medal around your neck, a beer in your hand and everyone cheers; but it is not a finish.

It is a start.

The accomplishment is simply a mile-marker along the path of your life.

The life you want.

A happy life.

I wish that for every person.


City Life

Charlie 13 weeks

My dog isn’t fat anymore.

He nuzzles his velvety muzzle against my neck promptly at 05:36 every morning. When I tell him to go lay down, he wanders around briefly before jumping on my bed. By 06:00 we are getting our exercise.

Normally, I would say we are taking a walk, but really, I’m just trying to keep him from killing himself. He lunges at every moving thing, except for trucks and mopeds, both of which he is deathly afraid.

If a dog across the street stares at him, he dislocates my shoulder. If an old lady clutches her Yorkie more tightly, he jumps at her. I’ve started taking our walks earlier, and avoiding well-known dog routes, in the attempt to avoid lawsuits.

My labrador was raised as a lazy country dog, and as such, he is completely bewildered by City Culture. City life means structure and discipline, two things at which I excel when it comes to Crossfit and marathon running but fail miserably when it comes to puppies and children. I console myself with the knowledge that someday I am going to be the most indulgent (*awesome) Oma the world has seen–as long as my offspring make it safely to adulthood.

We have moved from a country house that was dark and secluded, to a city apartment that is both bright and quirky.

When my labrador drops a ball at one end of the hallway, it rolls down to the other end.  My daughter and I had a hell of a time trying to find the most symmetrical furniture arrangement in a room where each wall has a different length and angle.

I still don’t know how to hang the pictures.

Our new apartment gives you the slightly dizzy sensation of living onboard a perpetually listed ship. It is one of the charms of living in an old building.

It is home.

Something about the doors reminds me of my grandma’s house, or maybe it’s the fact that after nine years of living in Germany, this is the first place I’ve seen with closets. The spires of two churches and the warped red roofs of the Altstadt fill the frame of my window. Everything we need, and don’t need, is within walking distance.

Slowly, we’re adjusting to the ever-present traffic; the antiseptic smell of the dental clinic below; and the damn pigeons that defile our little balcony. It is a constant war against pigeon poop up there.

Garbage goes out more frequently in the new apartment, or we are swarmed with gnats. For some reason, forks are a scarcity in our house, and need to be hand washed after every use; and every person who calls this apartment ‘home’ has to remember their keys.

The one who has most quickly adjusted to our new life is our fluffy little dog. He prances perfectly down the street on a loose lead every morning and like clockwork, shits by the steps of the church, which is housed in the ground floor of our building. I’ve learned to bring two baggies with me, because he frequently likes to leave something extra in front of the liquid smoke shop.

City living means the kids have easy access to swimming and the mall (very important for summer). I went for five days without driving my car, and nobody starved or actually died of boredom. And we can spend time with friends, without a major road trip involved.

Discipline is hard. Structure is hard. But with those things comes a certain freedom. And like any worthy endeavor such as weight loss, exercise or good health, the rewards are worth the effort.

So, we will HTFU, as our coach says, and press on in this new city life.

Now if I can just explain it to Charlie, when I take him to Doggy Integration School.


Maintenance

A mealy bug fell from my running shoe, as I clapped the pair together. It made me wonder if my writer’s brain was also starting to decompose, due to inactivity.

With my integration course over, I’ve found myself with a 3 month backlog of housework.

When we rented this house, it was perfect for us: a big yard, nice countryside, enough compartments to stick each kid and canine into.

But I live in a place where you could play golf on the hay fields, and with my schedule, I’m lucky to get to the grocery store before they close.

So, we’re moving to the city where most things are within walking distance and our yard includes miles of trails, maintained by other people. I will have a small balcony where I can kill helpless plants, and each kid can escape to his or her own room, or with the threat of a new Paleo Lifestyle, downtown to the ice cream cafe.

I’m pretty sure it’s written in a book somewhere that matter decays over time.

Houses, running shoes, gardens, friendship, love. If you let something go unattended, nature will do its damnedest to turn it back to dust again.

Maintenance doesn’t always require a ball gown and makeup. Sometimes you have to wear rubber gloves and fight the urge to vomit.

You walk through messes made by other people, so you clean it up and open the window and breathe in the air and admire how fresh things look again.

Maintenance requires sweat and heart and soul.

Disrepair requires nothing.

But when you tend something truly well, it gives you an intimate look at the thing; and if you’re attentive, you can enjoy it in a way that fills the soul.

It’s time to experience the beauty of maintenance.

 


Ausbildung

Heute, kann ich nicht auf Deutsch schrieben. Das Thema ist zu tief und meine deutsche Wörter zu wenig.

Therefore, today I am sitting on my gender-free sofa, not worrying if I am at the computer or on it,  and using present continuous to my heart’s content.

I have been sitting across from Mohamad, Remus, Vlad, Andy, Gosia #1, Gosia #2 and Jolanta for months now, so I know their faces well. I can see, sometimes, the pain and fatigue hidden behind their eyes; but better is the gleam of humor, that begins a class-wide uproar. It is a near mutiny when Vlad is on a role with his subtle quips.

While I don’t know the other faces quite so well, I could probably describe them well enough for an artist to sketch them with some accuracy.

Then there is our teacher, Oksana. She says she doesn’t have children, but I think every 6 months, she has about 20 new ones.

Like a good parent, she takes us firmly, yet gently by the hand and leads us from our verbal infancy to a more functional role in this new society. She has struck, with us, that magical balance between loving her, and fearing her enough to give her the respect she’s due. Her job is not easy. It does not pay well. But she puts her heart and soul into it; and like children, we strive to see that look of pride on her face.

The integration course is not simply about learning language or politics, it is about living a better life. The teachers understand our struggles, and they care about how we are living and working and interacting with the people around us. You cannot pay someone to put such heart into a job. It is something that must be within them already. And I am thankful they chose this line of work.

I know I will stay in contact with our group, but it will never be the same again. We will never be so scared and so freshly ignorant about this country. We will become fluent, settle into routines and find our paths in life.

I will miss Janna, to my right, with her direct manner and sharp humor, and I will miss Thao, to my left, also direct, but with a sweetness that makes everyone want to adopt her. I will miss the China/Thailand banter between Xu and Pattraporn.

I will miss it all.

With any challenge, whether it’s learning German or a Workout of the Day or running a marathon, you feel bonded to the people around you, because you can empathize with their struggle and share in their success.

I am so proud of our class.

Today, we have our oral exam, and while Oksana will be pacing the floor like an expectant parent, I know we will all succeed. She had taught us well; and she can now let go our hands, and take hold of the new arrivals.

Meine Freunde, ich bin stolz auf euch.


Student Teachers

Screen Shot 2015-02-25 at 6.43.47 AM

Someday this will be in German!

 

 

All teachers should be students.

It could be learning Chinese or basket weaving or handstand push-ups; it doesn’t matter, as long as you are acquiring information that has never before popped your neurons.

As teachers, we can forget things such as that deer-in-the-headlights reaction when your name is called or the maddening frustration of failure.

As students, particularly as students of a foreign language, we magically go from educated to illiterate when the bell chimes 08:00.

We make a thousand little mistakes that pelt us like freezing rain. It is hard and humbling; and it is perhaps the best lesson a teacher can learn: the art of failure.

Slowly, too slowly it seems, this gelatinous mass of information begins to take shape. Soon, we find ourselves making new errors, and so the learning continues.

As a teacher, there is nothing more rewarding than to see a student use knowledge you helped him acquire. To watch a student go from stuttering to eloquent in a matter of weeks or months, is perhaps one of the reasons many teachers love their profession and put up with the unpaid hours of work that go into it.

Students, quite often, are too steeped in their studies to be objective about their own learning. As students, we tend to see only our failures and not our triumphs. We look to the next area we can improve, rather than looking back to where we began.

Being a student has helped me to be a better teacher because I know exactly how my student feels when he uses the wrong preposition or gets hung up on finding the ‘perfect’ word, which he suddenly can’t remember.

Likewise, the best coaches are the ones who also train. Maybe they have years of knowledge and experience, but unless a coach is also in the trenches, respect is a little difficult for me to muster.

When I lived in the country, the village hunter would drive his little car along the dirt road, his dog running alongside. This was also the hunter who recommended I bite my dog’s ear, to get him to submit. These are not the teaching methods that inspire me.

I am not learning advanced chemistry or particle science here–it’s only German. I think millions of people probably speak it, and in time, I will too.

But as long as I’m a teacher, I want to be learning too. I never want to forget what it’s like to be illiterate or to be the person doing push-ups against the wall (yes…that’s what I did 2 years ago).

I feel like the universe is smiling at me when I make the same mistakes in  German that my students make in English. It’s amusing and frustrating, but it gives me a new way of understanding how I can help my students achieve their goals.

And now, my time is up.

I have to go to school!

 


Shoulders Back: Why Honest People are the Best

“Shoulders back, Keri!”

Immediately, my shoulder blades sprang back, as far as they were willing.

Where the hell had Johannes come from? It’s like he can instantly teleport himself from one end of the gym to the other–as if he has some innate awareness of when I have bad posture. It’s gotten to the point where, if I THINK I see him out of the corner of my eye, my shoulders fling themselves back.

He is the Pavolov of correct shoulder tension.

Damn it. Sometimes I just want to stand there cock-hipped and drink my water.

However, after two years of Crossfit, and at least a year of Johannes’ intensive Pavlovian Conditioning, I can finally do toes to bar.

*Toes to Bar: T2B: noun: to hang from the bar in pull-up position and quiver while other people actually bring their feet overhead and touch the bar. 

At the Box on Tuesday, my feet magically touched the bar. The mysterious connection between mind and body had finally been rewired, and was functioning.

I was giddy.

As always, I contemplate these little life lessons, and I realized that the best coaches, teachers and friends are the ones who are honest with you.

At first, it was humiliating when Johannes would appear from nowhere, like some phantom of the Box, and remind me of my sagging shoulders–especially when I thought they WERE back already.

I would get so mad at myself. But had he not said anything, I would still be dangling from the bar, wishing I could do a rep.

Learning German is the same way. Without Frau Hoppe, pleasantly, but firmly correcting me, I would never learn.

German is a frustrating language, and the basics have been sitting on a dusty shelf in my brain for nearly 15 years.

Sometimes I feel like I am the worst student in class–that I should just give up–that I’ll never learn all the damned articles and conjugations and how to forget my English grammar.

I often have to say things in German that would be completely wrong in English. It’s like I’ve stepped through the mirror and into a linguistic World of Opposites.

The Mad Hatter adding verbs to the ends of sentences and randomly adding gender to nouns.

Sometimes I make mistakes that make me blush–but it’s ok. The best friends laugh with me about it. If they never corrected me, I would continue offending people in German the rest of my life.

Life is like this too.

I have a friend, let’s just call her Tiger, who is the kind of person who will tell you if you have spinach stuck between your teeth. You don’t even try to lie to her, not just because she could beat the shit out of you, but because she can read your face like the front page of die Bild.

Because of these friends, coaches and teachers, I can finally see bits of light through the cracks of this shell I’ve put up. It fills my heart in a way that’s almost terrifying.

There’s nothing better than to feel comfortable in your own skin. To live your life. To take a risk and step out of the shadows. To realize your opinions matter.

Everyone makes mistakes. But not everyone learns from them.

Learn.

And move on.

Every rep counts.

 

 


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