Ode to my Dog

I am sitting on the couch thinking about a blog topic for today. I look down at my dog who is lying next to me, attached at the hip (well, thigh). My constant companion (when I am home). Always ready to dance at my joys and lick away my sorrows. So, here’s to you, Rafa, my dog. A musing on my answer to, “Why have a pet?”

Parade of Pets

For the first 20 years of parenting, any pets in my house were of the short-term variety. One daughter brought a goldfish home from school. Within a week, it was floating on top of its bowl.

Another daughter brought an anole home from school. The poor lizard refused to eat. And my poor daughter was a wreck as she watched it waste away. I finally suggested that we set the anole free in the back yard where it would live in its natural environment. I’m not sure what happened to the anole but my daughter felt a lot better.

Our longest-lived pet was a hamster named Little John. Aside from cleaning its cage, my main memory of him was the kids creating elaborate mazes for him to run through. He died on my 40th birthday. I felt there was something symbolic lurking there though I couldn’t put my finger on it.

Then…a Dog

Getting a dog was my idea. My oldest daughter was in college and my middle daughter was going to be leaving home in a year. I worried that my youngest daughter who was used to the boisterous interaction with sisters would be lonely with just me. She needed someone to play with, share her frustrations with. Well, if not some ONE than some THING.

Love All Around

Enter Rafa. A tiny fluffy ball of fur with two bright eyes and a button nose. He instantly became the center of attention. The girls love him. I love him. Strangers on the street coo over him. My father – who would love to adopt a dog of his own – loves him. My mother – who is clear with my father that this dog-adoption dream will remain but a dream – welcomes Rafa visits and surreptitiously gives her “grandson” cookie treats that are off limits at home.

Everything the experts say about the benefits of dogs has been true for us. We laugh more. We walk more (as in: trotting Rafa around the neighborhood several times a day). We feel the rush of joy that comes from being greeted when we walk in the door after a long day in the world. (I particularly love the wagging tail.) And, yes, my daughter and I have been comforted many times by cuddling up with this unconditionally loving little being.

Rafa is no longer a puppy. He is quickly catching up to me in age. Another joy: sharing middle aged concerns!

There are many jokes about dog owners who rhapsodize over their pets. I laugh at them, too. Because a lot of the silly stuff attributed to dog owners is actually true. I admit Rafa often reduces me to my silliest self. Another thing I am grateful for.

I will end with this: When we brought Rafa into our lives, I had a limited idea of the value of a pet. Over Rafa’s eight years, I have seen him transform a multitude of moments in the lives of many many people. I now know that pets are invaluable.

Share your favorite dog stories.

Get Writing! Poetry Slams for Kids

This week, we’ve been looking at reading poetry. You also might want to get kids excited about writing poetry. Enter the Poetry Slam.

What is a poetry slam, you might ask. It’s an opportunity for writers to read their own poems in front of a live audience. This can be done in the form of a contest. But you can also set it up for feedback without winners.

The National Literacy Trust has set up a nice guide for running a poetry slam with thoughts for pre-slam activities, step-by-step instructions for setting up the event, and ideas for post-slam activities.

This is a great way to inspire love of poetry!

Share your stories of poetry slams or other experiences that have inspired love of poetry.

Choose Poetry

New and Fabulous

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson uses rich poetic language to tell stories from her childhood. A sample from the poem The Ghosts of the Nelsonville House:

Look closely. There I am
in the furrow of Jack’s brow,
in the slyness of Alicia’s smile,
in the bend of Grace’s hand…

Beautiful. Pegged for grades 5 and up.

Oldie but Goodie

Where the Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein is chock full of fun, bouncy poems. A sample from the poem Eighteen Flavors:

Each scoop lovely, smooth, and round,
Tallest ice cream cone in town,
Lying there (sniff) on the ground.

Enjoy! For grades 1-3.

Share your favorite poetry for kids!

The Power of Poetry

I often commiserate with others about avoiding poetry. A lot of poems seem so obscure. It’s like staring at an abstract modern painting and trying to decide what it means. I can feel some ultra intellectual snob looking over my shoulder in a condescending way, exhaling a long exasperated sigh at my cluelessness.

But if I step back from my fear of being seen as a rube, I can conjure up lots of moments in my life when poetry has brought me a joy that no other form of writing can.

Poetry: Delicious Language

In my early phase, I was taken with the language of poetry. The first poem I remember loving is T. S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. The first few lines enthralled me:

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized on a table.

I was fascinated with the etherized patient. “Ether” was a tantalizing image for me when I was a child – resulting in many, many readings of Curious George Goes to the Hospital. And an eternal love for this poem.

Poetry: The Glee of Rule-Breaking

Another early favorite was e e cummings. I think I may have liked him because he
didn’t use capital letters
or periods
what a rebel

Poetry: The Outpouring of Emotion

As I grew, I became more enamored of the romance, the emotional sway of poetry. Adrienne Rich became a favorite. As in her Twenty-One Love Poems, II:

and I laugh and fall dreaming again
of the desire to show you to everyone I love,
to move openly together
in the pull of gravity, which is not simple,
which carries the feathered grass a long way down the upbreathing air.

Poetry: The Connection of Sharing

As a young mother I delighted in the communal nature of poetry. Especially silly poetry that I would read aloud to my girls, sending us all into gales of laughter. Here are a few lines from Shel Silverstein’s Ridiculous Rose:

Her mama said, “Don’t eat with your fingers.”
“OK,” said Ridiculous Rose,
So she ate with her toes.

Poetry: The Expression of Social Commentary

As the mother of teenagers and young adults, I have spent many hours in the car listening to the social commentary of rap. Though I don’t always admire the lyrics, I love the rhythms of Eminem, JZ, and Pitbull. And one the very first rap songs to grab me seems worlds ago now but I still like it – The Crown by Gary Byrd and the GB Experience

Next time you feel like you’re in a rut
Go see the mighty kingdom of King Tut.
It will blow your mind, no doubt, it’s true
‘Cause, guess what, King Tut looks just like you.

Of course, social commentary is not new to this century. Emily Dickinson wrote over a hundred years ago:

They shut me up in Prose –
As when a little Girl
They put me in the Closet –
Because they liked me “still”

Poetry: Find What is Powerful For You

When I went to college, I told my Chinese-American roommate that I didn’t like Chinese food. I didn’t understand (but I later learned) that this is like saying I don’t like food. That’s how many Chinese dishes there are. So, too, with poetry. There is something out there for everyone.

Share your favorite poems and experiences of reading poetry!

Democracy Matters

Sitting in the thick of election season reminds me of how powerful democracy can be. We are such an unruly and diverse collection of citizens with passionate opinions that run the gamut of political thought. And we have set up a framework for reaching consensus that gives each adult – the high and the low, the young and the old – equal say-so. That is the theory.

But it takes work to make democracy work. What are the issues? What are the candidates’ proposals for addressing the issues? What does this mean for today? This year? This decade? This generation? The generations to come?

Why vote?

Teenagers and young adults are immersed in the very important work of figuring out who they are, what they want to be. For many, the democratic process floats around them on their TV sets and Facebook newsfeeds, a source of drama to watch but not to participate in.Voting rates have varied over the years but the population ages 18-24 years old always comes in last.

Inspiring Participation in the Democratic Process

Democracy Matters aims to move the needle. This non-profit organizes student leaders on campuses around the country to strengthen democracy the old fashioned way: through grassroots organization. This means supporting campus leaders in educating fellow students about their role in the democratic process and inspiring students to raise their voices.

Start Young

High schoolers can’t vote. But they can learn. Democracy Matter gets this. And they plant the seeds in high schools around the country. High School Fellows work on outreach, public speaking, and writing.

Here’s what one college student has to say about her experience: “Democracy Matters has given me hope that we will be able to create change and make our democracy truly the people’s.”

Learn more at http://www.democracymatters.org

That’s what it’s all about.

Share your stories of organizations that are nurturing democracy.

Presidents: Good Reads

Barack Obama

Of Thee I Sing: A Letter to My Daughters by Barack Obama, illustrated by Loren Long is not about a president but is written by a President. The book gathers children and great leaders, one by one, until we see them together forming the many facets of our country. It makes the connection between the stories of leaders past side and the potential of our children to become the leaders of the future. Pegged for ages 6 and up.

Theodore Roosevelt

The Great Adventure: Theodore Roosevelt and the Rise of Modern America by by Albert Marrin is a young adult biography about our 26th President known, among other things for his strong, colorful personality, his visionary work to create national parks but also his less honorable actions such as the railroading of black troops for a crime they did not commit. For 12 and up.

Share your favorite books about our Presidents!

Teaching Love of Country

I was torn about today’s blog. After all, today is Valentine’s Day. Happy Valentine’s Day to all! And tomorrow is President’s Day. And there’s lots to say about both. What to do? Decisions. Decisions.

Meshing Valentines Day and President’s Day

So here it is. I always think expansively about Valentine’s Day, not limiting myself to celebrating romantic love. I’ve made countless doilied valentines for parents, sisters, children, and romantic partners. In college, my roommate and I made dozens of homemade heart-shaped cookies and passed them out to friends and professors around campus. To my way of thinking, V Day is a celebration if love in the broadest sense.

Turning to President’s Day, we celebrate the leaders of our country. Why? Out of a desire to honor the leaders of this country that we love.

There’s the overlap. Love of country.

Trying Times

We are in trying times. A lot of Americans do not love the current condition of their country. For many, it’s harder and harder to make ends meet. Time with family is harder and harder to squeeze in. Retirement recedes further and further from our grasp. It’s a scary time where hatred is palpable. People are often suspicious of those who look different, talk different, worship different. Some of us wish desperately for the good old days. Others of us wish just as desperately for a future that has been an elusive promise since the days of our founding fathers.

What, then, is love of country in times such as ours? And how do we teach this love of country to our children?

Love of Country

This February, along with V Day and Prez Day we are immersed in election season. We flock to the polls to vote. To me, this is the ultimate act of love for our country. For many, voting is takes incredible determination. Bum legs or weak lungs can make the physical act of getting to the voting booth a Herculean challenge. Rounding up the identification required in some states can require wading through pools of red tape. Ill-equipped polling places and malfunctioning voting machines can cause lines around the block.

In the face of all this, stories abound of our American citizenry’s fierce will to vote. My mother tells the story of an old woman who stood for hours on swollen legs to cast her vote for Obama saying, “I have waited all my life for this. I can wait a little longer.” A young man once told me of how he was turned away from his polling place for not having the right ID; undeterred, he endured hours in the Office of Vital Records getting the proof he needed, then claimed his ballot and voted. Every election year, thousands of energetic volunteers zip around their cities and towns driving the handicapped to and from their polling places.

What do these stories say to me? They say that people will do almost anything to exercise their right to vote. Why? Because they are invested in democracy. And they love their country.

Teaching Love of Country

If we love our country, we want it to flourish now and in the future. We will not always be here. We must pass the torch to the next generation. How do we do that?

Actually celebrate President’s Day. What an opportunity! A day off to share with our kids, to read about, talk about, watch movies about our country’s leaders, past and current. In my youth, we had a recording of this comedian named David Frye who did impressions of President Nixon. I may not have understood all the references but some of the issues sunk in.

These stories might inspire your child to declare he or she will be president one day. Maybe explore your child’s Presidential agenda – sometimes an eye opener. Your child might rhapsodize about world peace. Or maybe about making school for kids optional.

Watch the debates, have an election day party with your kids. Every four years, we have the chance to engage our children around the issues most important to our country today. And, just as important, to give them a visceral sense of the democratic process that they will be a party of. I loved sitting in front of the TV with my parents, watching the election results roll in. It felt like one big party that included my little family and all of those many people in rooms across the country shown on my TV screen. And we got to eat bowls and bowls of popcorn!

Share symbols of our country with your children. My birthday is July 3 and when I was a kid we always had a 4th of July picnic which I thought was to celebrate me. It was a great opportunity for my parents to explain, “No. We are celebrating our country and our membership in this great community.” There were flags. I wore my red, white and blue outfit. Fireworks were my favorite.

Encourage your kids to get involved. The 1968 election. I was ten. My parents supported Kennedy, then Humphrey. I supported McGovern. After school, I’d march myself down to the local McGovern campaign office and stuff envelopes with the adults. And I got cool campaign buttons.

Enough reminiscing. It’s 2016. How do you teach love of country?

Inspiring Reflection on the Importance of Family

I read a little story recently that has stuck with me, particularly in light of the annual Chinese New Year focus on family. You can read the whole story, which is by Jeffrey Davis, at http://www.inspire21.com/stories/familystories/1000Marbles. I will just summarize here.

Life is Hectic

Two men were talking about the hectic nature of modern life. The younger man was stressed out by 60-70 hours on the job every week just to make ends meet, not enough time for family – sound familiar? The older man responded with his story of “1000 marbles.”

Remembering Life’s Most Important Priorities

The older man had lived his early years with patterns much like the ones the younger man was stuck in. As time marched on, he thought (as most of us do) about mortality. Doodling around, he did a quick calculation: how many Saturdays does a person have within the average lifespan of 75 years. Turns out the number is 3900.

Now at the time he made this calculation, the man was 55 years old and he figured he had about 1000 Saturdays left. He thought about this. And he went out and bought 1000 marbles and put them in a jar. And every Saturday he saw the marbles in the jar shrink just a little as he removed one from the mix.

This helped him keep in the front of his mind the finite time he had to spend with the things that were important in his life. And spurred him to make time for those things.

Honoring the Importance of Family

When the conversation was finished the younger man put aside the plans to do chores he had scheduled for that day. He woke his wife and invited her to breakfast. Explaining his change of plans he said, “Oh, nothing special, it’s just been a long time since we spent a Saturday together with the kids. Hey, can we stop at a toy store while we’re out? I need to buy some marbles.”

Share your stories of honoring the importance of family time.

Chinese New Year Recommendations

Bringing in the New Year by Grace Lin is my favorite book on Chinese New Year. The pictures are vibrant, awash in color. And the story really captures the importance of family as they come together to participate in various rituals that are traditionally part of this holiday. Right now it’s selling on amazon in a board book version. Is great for the littlest ones but good for grade school kids too.

Celebrating the Chinese New Year: An Activity Book by Hingman Chan is just what the title says. After sharing a little history of the holiday, the book walks you through how to make traditional Chinese New Year items such as paper lanterns, red lucky envelopes and parade gear. A great way to celebrate the holiday!

Chinese New Year – A Celebration of Family

When my children were in grade school, one day each year they would march with their classmates and teachers in a big in-school parade through the halls. They would don colorful capes and masks and carry bright red lanterns. They would end the parade with gatherings in their classroom to share an array of special eats.

What were they celebrating? Chinese New Year.

Another Holiday!

You might be holidayed out. Or you may be thinking – yay! Another distraction from the dark deep freeze we find ourselves in. We humans do our best to dress up the winter months (each and every one of them, it seems) with light and color and comfort food.

A Celebration of Family

Either way, I think Chinese New Year is worth noting. Why? Because the partying at this holiday is about honoring the bonds of family.

When the Chinese started this tradition in ancient days, the birth family was the most important unit of relationship. In 2016, the concept of “family” is broader – it can include extended family, blended family, partners, and dear friends. But the essence of the celebration is the same: taking time out of our busy lives (yep, put those computers away!) to gather with our inner circle. This can be a great ritual for children. A time to honor the reciprocal bond among their family members that supports and nurtures, rejoices in successes and comforts when there are disappointments.

So I intend to celebrate. And maybe you will, too. It doesn’t need to be for the entire weeklong holiday. Even just a quiet dinner can be profound: a moment to honor and affirm the importance of family to us as individuals, to our local communities, and to our human community around the world.

Happy Chinese New Year!

Share your stories of celebrating family.