All I Want For Christmas…

Christmas felt different this year. This year, at the age of four, Niko was more aware of the onset of Christmas than previous years yet. For one thing, he understands time a bit better, and the anticipation was agonizing. Grandma and Grandpa’s visit seemed unbearably far away, and, when wrapped gifts finally appeared under the tree, he inquired every day when it would be time to open them. The excitement, the longing, the anticipation — all were new.

This was the first time our son really thought about Christmas in terms of gifts. It was difficult for me, in a way, to see how much space gifts occupied in his mind. My family and my church didn’t celebrate Christmas at all as I was growing up, and I was raised to believe that one of the vices brought by Christmas is the avarice and materialism displayed by overindulgent gift giving. I’ve moved past that particular part of my upbringing, and I love Christmas now — lights, ornaments, gifts, and all. But despite my current embracing of the holiday, I cringed a bit at Niko’s obvious desire and worry that he might not be getting what he wanted. Since he saw some of his baby sister Sofie’s gifts but none of his ahead of time, the accumulation of Sofia’s gifts seemed to far outweigh his, and he was desperately worried that we had forgotten to get him any. On the other hand, his little Christmas list remained modest and consistent. I asked him some time ago what he wanted. His response was prompt and clear: “I want an Olaf snowman and an Olaf book and a toy dog.” Each time afterwards that we asked him for his Christmas list, he repeated the same items with only minimal variation. As anxious as he was over the gifts, he really had only three simple items that he desired.

But it wasn’t all about the anxiety of anticipation. He rejoiced in the colored lights, thrilled at the responsibility of plugging in the tree lights each morning, and delighted in learning Christmas songs at preschool. Opening the doors of the Advent calendar each night (well, many nights — I wasn’t that great at remembering to do it) was a ritual that he loved. In fact, he loves everything about the holiday. He loves the sparkling candles, the colorful ornaments, the hope of snow.

One day Niko, Sofia, and I went shopping at an outdoor mall we’d never visited before, and there was a giant lit tree in the center square with two lovely snow fairies posing for photos with passersby. His eyes lit up with amazement: “FAIRIES! Those are REAL fairies! Can we take a picture of them for Dad?” (His dad travels often, so Niko thinks in terms of taking pictures so Dad can see whatever it is we’re excited about.) He was absolutely amazed, and even more excited when he got to stand by them and have a picture taken. I’m pretty sure that was a highlight of his Christmas.

We saw Santa numerous times over the holiday, and Niko was never quite convinced that it was a person wearing a costume; he hasn’t really accepted our story of a kind man named Nicholas who lived long ago, whom we now remember as Santa Claus. He’s pretty sure Santa is real, and Mom and Dad just haven’t caught on yet. Every time he spied Santa his face would beam with pleasure. “There’s Santa!”

So it wasn’t all about the presents. Not even close. I’ll admit, though, I worried a little that Niko would be so overwhelmed by all the gifts we and his grandparents had gotten for him that he would forget gratitude, that he would become numb to the joy of finding something new in each package. But Niko is the master of being amazed, and he was thrilled with each and every gift.

To my delight,one of his favorite gifts was a fox face cut from an old shirt of his, that I sewed into a pillow and that he’s slept with every night since Christmas. It was inexpertly sewed, but still, the fox was a highlight. About a year ago, that shirt had been almost new. He’d sneaked away with his scissors one day and snipped all over the front of it. When I saw what he’d done, I was upset, and so was he, because he hadn’t realized how destructive the scissors were. He thought he’d never see that fox again. On Christmas Day, when he pulled the fox- shaped pillow out of his stocking, he recognized it right away. He smiled with his entire body as he hugged the little pillow. I guess the reason his pleasure over that pillow delighted me, too, is that it shows he isn’t entirely captivated by shiny new THINGS. He understood the value of the fox pillow immediately; realized that I’d taken something he’d destroyed, and lovingly transformed it into a huggable bedtime cuddle friend.  He understood that the pillow represented time spent, and hard work, and thoughtfulness, and he responded accordingly. His understanding and gratitude are now one of my favorite Christmas memories.

As it turns out, all I really wanted was to see genuine joy on my son’s face. I saw that, and suddenly all my worries about materialism and avarice evaporated. Watching open his Christmas presents was the most fun I can think of!

Here are some of Niko’s amazed faces:

Guilt Trip: In Search of Perfection

Guilt. I can’t seem to escape it. I’m not talking about shame, the sense of sorrow and regret that comes with specific wrongdoing. No, I’m talking about, in the words of Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary, “feelings of culpability especially for imagined offenses or from a sense of inadequacy : morbid self-reproach often manifest in marked preoccupation with the moral correctness of one’s behavior.” (A tip of the hat to my mother/English teacher for forcing us to write all those definition compositions.) In other words, I’m constantly pursued by a sense of culpability…even when I’m doing the right thing.

Example: Right now I’m writing this post, having just finished loading and starting the dishwasher, doing some much-needed photo editing work in preparation for a project, and getting lunch for the kids. I should be enjoying this short-lived bubble of peace while both children eat and I don’t have to nurse anyone, change a diaper, or field a thousand questions. But no, even though writing is my most fulfilling personal indulgence (maybe because?), I can’t truly enjoy the moment. Instead, the back of my brain is filled with a jangle of accusations. You should be finishing that tablecloth you started for the Christmas village table. Aaron’s gifts aren’t wrapped yet. The bathroom mirrors are still smudged. Why haven’t you cleaned that smear on the wall next to the high chair yet?

Even when what I’m doing is a useful chore, I’m followed by the guilt. It’s like a persistent toddler clinging to my leg, unreasonable and impossible to nudge away. Did I choose to spend some time hanging clean clothes in closets? The guilt tugs — “What about the baby clothes you still haven’t finished organizing?” Maybe I walk down the lane to retrieve the trash bins — “But look at the weeds in that garden bed! What is WRONG with you?” If I’m not careful, the million demands, each choice accompanied by anxiety about all the other undone things that I didn’t choose, can become so overwhelming that I retreat, usually into a book. Then I simply don’t finish any of it.

If possible, it was even worse when I was teaching, before I put that on hold to focus on being a mom. For one thing, I was responsible for twenty-five or thirty people, and responsible TO even more. For another thing, every choice I made to accomplish something meant that I was neglecting not just other tasks, but other people. If I spent six hours scoring my students’ writing assessments on a 6-point rubric and entering their scores into a spreadsheet that calculated their progress from the last time I did this same activity, that was six hours that I wasn’t spending with my son and husband. If, on the other hand, I spent just half an hour grading spelling tests and math timed tests and then went for a snowy walk with my family, that walk was two hours I wasn’t using to plan the next week’s lessons. There was no winning. Ever.

I’m sure that my ADHD is in part to blame for the constant awareness of ALL THE THINGS! that need to be done. But there’s more to it than that, and today I’m going to venture into the dangerous land of theology to talk about that extra dimension of anxiety and guilt. The more I think about it, the more I believe this needs to be said.

You see, I grew up in a highly religious setting, in one of a network of Christian communes, known as the Move, scattered across North America (there are a couple on other continents, as well). Some of this religious upbringing was beneficial; some, not. I’m thinking of two particular doctrines that are a common thread throughout all the groups and, I think through other fundamentalist-type churches as well: the doctrine of perfection, and the doctrine of death to self.

Perfection. It sounds so innocuous. So desirable. To the devout, the lure of being perfect in God’s eyes might be irresistible. It sounds so … well, so godly. It sounds like a worthy pursuit. “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect,” said Jesus (Matthew 5:48), and it’s hard to argue with that. Those living in the Move, and perhaps those in similar churches, hear the message preached regularly. I heard it more times than I could count as I grew up. Here are the words of one of the church’s leaders, Buddy Cobb, taken from the same Wikipedia page I linked to above: “Therefore, what are you saved by? His life! What are you saved from by His life? Saved from living your own life; and when you live your own life you are always living in sin.” The idea is that every single aspect of a life ought to be given over to the pursuit of God; one ought to be entirely immersed in God, leaving nothing of the original sinful human.

It might be hard to see how embracing a doctrine of perfection could be harmful. But I’m here to say clearly and loudly, though with love and apologies to my family, that it is a poison. It creeps into every aspect of an otherwise healthy life, tainting good and pure choices with fear. Fear that this activity does not bring sufficient glory to God. Fear that what I’m doing might be too self-celebratory, too lacking in the edification of the spirit. Fear that the new skirt that looked so appropriate in the dressing room might be a fraction of an inch too short for the high standards of modesty, that my friendship with someone might override my “relationship with God,” that my pleasure in a school assignment done well might be a source of sinful pride. Once you become convinced that God demands absolute perfection, every action comes under scrutiny lest an accidental sin slip past, darkening your soul with a stain that must be scrubbed out through prayer and invoking of Jesus’ blood. Every choice has to be held up to the light and examined: Could I be doing something more godly, more useful, less selfish? The fear becomes all-consuming, blotting out the joy of a well-lived life.

But here’s the thing: This is not the life that Jesus lived. Jesus did not second-guess his every action. Nor did he recommend that his followers do so. He preached compassion, kindness, and living a life of purposeful goodness. Here is the context of the “Be perfect” command: Rather than adhering scrupulously to the law passed down over the course of two thousand years from Moses, Jesus asked his followers to fulfill the spirit of that law. Instead of being satisfied with refraining from murdering, his followers were told to not even insult another person. If an enemy sues you for your coat, give them your shirt also; if someone hits you in the face, offer them the other side to hit as well. Love your enemies. Be peacemakers. The whole point is not to live less of a life, but to live more. It isn’t about being restrained by a series of religious prohibitions; it is about accomplishing the original purpose of the law, to be guided toward God. Yes, Jesus said we ought to be perfect. And when, like a well-brought-up church-school student, we check Strong’s Concordance to see what the word “perfect” originally meant, we see that it means brought to its end, finished, complete, mature. Jesus was telling his followers that they should be living to fulfill their potential. I’m sorry, but Jesus did not once tell his followers to stop making their own decisions. Jesus did not say that living your own life is sin. That is a twisting and a perversion of what should have been a freeing message.

It’s especially damaging when combined with a second doctrine, that of “death to self.” This doctrine explains that the human self is miserably sinful. The only way to achieve rightness with God is by constantly denying oneself. A good rule of thumb when adhering to this doctrine is that if you like something, it’s probably your “flesh,” or human nature, guiding your desire, and you should quickly abandon it and go read your Bible for awhile. Of course, it’s a bit problematic if you happen to be a teenaged girl reading The Message, a uniquely down-to-earth and clear translation of the Bible, and you stumble upon the Song of Solomon. What could be more spiritual than reading the Bible? And what could be more fleshly than this beautiful and erotic love poem? That’s a dilemma, for sure. Anyway, the idea here is that to be perfect, we must deny ourselves. Constantly.

If you take these two doctrines seriously, you end up starving your soul of the good and beautiful things that God put into this world for our enjoyment. You like chocolate cake? Go on a chocolate fast! Feel like lingering outside to watch a lovely sunset? How trivial! Go wash the dishes and pray for stronger commitment to God! Have eyes for that cute boy? Pray all night for purity of mind. Enjoy a good romance novel? Better burn those books…No, who am I kidding, just tuck them under that loose floorboard, you can writhe in miserable contrition tomorrow when you’re done reading the last one. My point? We aren’t meant to be starved of earthly enjoyment. God did not create the earth as one giant temptation, to see how long we could go before giving in and enjoying something. I find it hard to understand how some Christian sects ever came to embrace that doctrine, considering that our founder (I’m talking about Jesus) was known for being a “wine-bibber,” enjoying a good party, and being frequently found in the company of harlots and other people of low repute. But somehow they did. I grew up being told routinely that all personal desires were wrong, and that God demanded utter perfection from me.

I know my mother will protest that she didn’t teach me this, and she’s right. My mother is an excellent example of a person who takes all this with a great big grain of salt. My parents don’t live a life of constant self-denial, nor do they fret endlessly over whether each choice they make is godly. They just live. But, as I tell them, when a child is raised communally, parents are only one source of input. When you attend three to four devotional times per day, two or three church services per week, and Scripture-infused classes at school, your parents’ practical example fades into the background and is overwhelmed by the desire to live up to all that goodness you’re bombarded with throughout the day. I know, logically, that most people, even in The Move, don’t actually take the dual messages of perfection and death to self literally or even all that seriously. If you ever stop in to the farm for breakfast when the world’s best Danish pastries are being served (crisp, light, melt-in-your mouth deliciousness), you’ll know that self-denial is not a big part of everyday life. But that doesn’t mean that the messages aren’t damaging. They are. For someone who’s grown up immersed in those messages, they’re inescapable. They are part of the blueprint of my brain. They’ve imbued my soul with a persistent stain of guilt that no amount of rightdoing will eradicate.

Of course, I’m well aware that I’m responsible for my perception of the teachings, for my own internalization of them, and for my inability to shake loose from the effects. I’m not out to point fingers of blame or to minimize my own culpability here. I am here to ask that we carefully consider the end results of teaching people that one’s own desires are wrong simply by virtue of being their own desires; that God demands literal perfection and absolute freedom from sin; and that the only way to achieve perfection is to sacrifice individuality on the altar of God’s will. If the logical consummation of following a doctrine is a life tormented by anxiety and formless guilt, then there’s something wrong with that teaching. It’s time to stop systematically telling children that the only way to please God is to reject everything that makes them happy.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Symptom of Childhood

It was supposed to be funny. A T-chart, headed with “Symptoms of ADHD” on one side and “Symptoms of Childhood” on the other, with identical items listed in each column. “So true!” was my friend’s comment with the post. The point, of course, was that all children have short attention spans and are wiggly, and putting a label on these things is silly. In other words: ADHD doesn’t really exist. She didn’t mean any harm, maybe even felt she was championing a child’s right to be a child.

But as I stared at it, I felt like I’d be kicked in the stomach. Looking at it, I couldn’t breathe. I felt the old guilt and shame rushing back, the accusing voices that had tormented me for years from my own mind. If you cared enough, you’d be able to be on time…remember what you’re supposed to be doing…finish your work on time. If you really wanted to, you’d hear when you’re being called…pay attention in class… stop staring off into space…keep your room tidy. If you had enough faith, you’d be able to pray and conquer these issues. Just like everyone else must be doing.

The first time I met a child with an ADHD diagnosis was my first year teaching. He was the sweetest fifth-grader in the world. Kindhearted, generous, well-mannered, and so very anxious to please. He was friendly, full of goodwill toward even the marginal kids, and well liked. But spacey, so spacey. Twitchy. Impulsive. Words would fly out of his mouth at the most inappropriate times, and he’d drop his shaggy blond head onto his desk in embarrassment as classmates turned to look. Small sounds like pages rustling or pencils scratching distracted and irritated him. Writing topics eluded him. To get started on work, he needed me to crouch next to his desk, softly talking him through the process: “Look, here’s a list of topic ideas. Do any look interesting? Okay, now jot down three big details. Do you think you’re ready to fill in small details?…” Mind you, I’d already walked the entire class through the concept, working through an example together, giving time to choose topics. He just…hadn’t heard. Or the task was too overwhelming. Or he couldn’t focus through the sounds of others working.

When he did get started, as long as nothing distracted him, he was singleminded and incredibly creative. Reading his stories, I’d laugh out loud, and look up to see a pleased grin on his face. He didn’t lack intelligence or skill; he simply couldn’t focus without help.

When I first met him, I didn’t know he had ADHD. Our records weren’t computerized at the time, and student files were all kept in the school office. You had to check them out, and you couldn’t keep them in your classroom overnight, so they had to be returned by 4 – giving little time for a newbie like me to sift through the thick stacks of data, assuming I’d even known what to look for. Having been hired the day before school started that year, I didn’t even know at first where to look for these files or what to expect to find in them — and while I wanted to learn about my students, I had other priorities, like developing my first lesson plans, organizing my classroom, and completing beginning-of-year paperwork, schedules, discipline plans — things the other teachers had already finished before school started. So I didn’t know about his diagnosis, but soon I started to wonder.

Then one day soon after school started, he arrived with hair uncombed, jacket disordered, his normally cheerful demeanor anxious and scattered. He couldn’t sit still. He hopped up to get tissue he didn’t need or to get yet another drink from the water container I kept in our relocatable classroom, interrupted, acted uncharacteristically hurt and then borderline belligerent when another student disagreed with him. By mid-morning he hadn’t completed a single task and was distracting other students, causing disruptions. I called him over to me. Head hanging, ashamed, he didn’t even wait for me to ask. “I’m so sorry, Mrs. Malapanis, I’m really sorry, I’m trying but I forgot my medicine this morning and it’s just really hard.”

I took a deep breath. “I know what it’s like not to be able to focus,” I told him gently. “And doing it without medicine must be so hard. But when you don’t have your medicine, it doesn’t mean you can give up. It means you need to find other ways to focus.” I helped him with a few tricks that often helped me: I moved him to a desk away from other students, where the light was dimmer. I asked him to close his eyes and breathe slowly as he thought about the task he needed to complete. And he tried hard, really hard, and by lunch time had nearly finished one task.

The episode jarred me deeply. I felt the tiny seed of disquiet that had been disturbing me lately begin to grow. Why did I identify so strongly with this child? Why did I feel that I did, indeed, know exactly how he’d felt that day?

I didn’t know much about ADHD. The university’s education program focused more on compliance with IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) than on recognizing or managing specific disorders, and in the triad of Christian communes where I’d grown up and attended school, if anyone spoke of it at all, it was with scorn. “Those kids just aren’t disciplined enough. They need a better routine. Their parents aren’t doing their job. Public school teachers are too permissive, too lazy to take the time to understand their students. ADHD is a fake disorder. It’s a sign of degenerate times. You don’t see OUR kids running around a classroom like that.”

Actually, that last part was more or less true. Classes were very small in our school — when I was in 6th grade, our 6-student class was the biggest in the history of the school. Students got a lot of individual attention. Even during a group interaction, being one of three or even six students is very different than being one of thirty. So a lot of the issues that a child with ADHD could display in a large, busy classroom might look different in a school like the one I attended. (There’s a good reason that teachers work with students they have concerns about in small groups.)

I’d been taught to believe that ADHD was a fake disorder, a way to pretend a child wasn’t simply badly brought up. The diagnosis was an easy way out for teachers too: medicate a child instead of connecting and managing differences creatively. And supposing a child did have a Real Problem, it was nothing a little prayer, faith, and love — and a bit of effort on the child’s and parents’ part — couldn’t fix.

But poor discipline or laziness were not what I saw here. This boy had loving, dedicated, hardworking parents. His good manners and old-school courtesy were clear signs his parents were doing their job well. And his forgetfulness, his habit of blurting at inappropriate times, his difficulties controlling his body — these things caused him significant distress. He worked harder to overcome them than any other student ever did. There was no laziness here, no lack of caring.

Meanwhile, my own performance in the classroom was suffering. My desk was piled high with unfinished paperwork. I was weeks behind with grading assignments. Some weeks I didn’t even have formally written lesson plans — I just taught the lessons I knew were supposed to be taught each day, with little preparation. I was working 60-80 hours each week, staying at the school late each night, returning after supper many nights or working at home until well after midnight, and working through the weekends — but with little to show for it. I would lose whole hours of time, drifting, getting nothing done. While class was in session, the noise in my classroom was intolerable to me. Visitors commented on how quiet and calm my room was, yet the pencil-borrowing, page-number-reminding murmurs and the rustle of pages, clicking of pens, squeak of shoes on chair legs, and even noisy breathing were enough to constantly disrupt my chain of thought. When students were in gym or art, the hum of the lights and the voices on the playground took their turn distracting me.

[I’d like to add here that despite my personal struggles, my students thrived. I was distracted, yes, but I’m also fairly creative and extremely dedicated. And teaching — getting concepts across — is a knack that I have, not to mention a deep and sincere love for my students. I can’t say that my issues didn’t affect them, because obviously they did. But my students were learning and progressing despite those issues, because I worked my ass off to make sure they did.]

For my third year, I was reassigned to second grade. We had a new principal that year who took a different approach to managing her teachers, including frequent informal observations.  Not long after I returned from maternity leave (Niko was born in October, and I returned after the Christmas break), she called me to her office and told me that my performance was inadequate. She helped me lay out a plan for improvement, including observing in my neighbor’s classroom and having my neighbor observe me and give feedback.

I was stunned and humiliated. But I knew she was right. I needed help, and the worst part of it was that I had known it for some time. I just wished I’d taken the initiative to ask for support instead of having it mandated. That meeting was a turning point for me. It forced me to confront the fact I’d pushed to the back of my mind: I had a problem. A real problem.

The teacher next door is one of my favorite people in the world. She has a heart big enough to engulf every single needy person she encounters. She could embrace the world if somebody could suspend time to allow her to meet every individual in it. This woman spearheads reading committees and student needs meetings. She was passionate about advocating for children with special needs, going so far as to fill out complex paperwork for other teachers if it meant their students would get help. On top of all that, she has a wicked sense of humor and can deliver a pointed one-liner that will keep you giggling all day. She’s the teacher I want to be when I grow up.

So, going to her and pouring my heart out wasn’t hard. She listened sympathetically. “Are you okay?” she asked. I shook my head. “No,” I said honestly. “But I will be. I want to figure this out.” She gave me a fierce hug. “We’ll get you through this,” she promised.

I kept mulling over what had happened. That day back at the beginning, when I told my student that I knew what he was experiencing, had stayed with me, a constant thought buzzing in the back of my head. Now, I pulled it out and took a good hard look at it, along with all the other things I had been pushing aside. It was time to confront the truth.

As usual, I managed this with my typical lack of grace. I was sitting in the deserted library, chatting with my newly-appointed mentor. We’d talked of this and that, until the conversation turned to family. She told me her mother was very ill and had just been diagnosed with cancer. I was listening, truly, but here’s the thing with my brain: there are ALWAYS at least two (usually more) things happening in there. Part of me was reacting with sympathy and concern to her life changing, heartbreaking news. But the quiet place in the back of my mind was roiling with my newfound truth, and it chose that very moment to send  it blurting out through my mouth. It went like this —

She: “My mom was just diagnosed with cancer. I’m having a really hard time dealing with it.” Me: “I think I have ADHD.”

She didn’t even blink. Didn’t pause to shake off the discomfort of having the topic changed from her heartbreak to my needs. Didn’t grimace in irritation. She reached out, put her hand on my knee, and said, “Oh, honey, yes, you do. You sure do.” I writhe in shame every time I think of it, but I think I’ve never loved her more than I did in that moment.

Later, I took an online questionnaire posted by a doctor — not mine — to help his patients determine if they need help. I took the completed pages to my doctor and told him my story, including the confirming opinion of the experienced teacher next door. He glanced over the pages and raised his eyebrows. “If even half of this is accurate,” he told me, “I have no problem prescribing medication.” He went over my options: I could go the traditional route, with highly controlled stimulants. They’re typically very effective, but they also require an appointment with a psychologist and follow-up appointments each time the prescription needs renewed, and they run the risk of being addictive. We chose a medication called Strattera, which was developed to help people experiencing depression, but was instead more successful at dispelling symptoms of ADHD that many of the test patients were also experiencing.

The procedure was simple, but it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It meant abandoning a lifelong conviction that my problems were solvable if I just cared enough; prayed hard enough; tried a little bit harder. I’d been taught that depending on medication for behavioral issues, or for mental health, was a failure  of faith. I felt that I was giving up, that I was succumbing to weakness of character. I wallowed in waves of shame, disappointment, sadness.

And then I started taking the medication. It’s supposed to take 4-6 weeks to see effects, but within a week my desk was clean and organized. I had figured out a more effective way to manage discipline. I had designed half a dozen new, adaptable worksheets for my students to use when analyzing books. The clutter in the corners of my classroom was disappearing. I found, as more weeks passed, that I could distinguish between mischievous noise and working noise. When I was giving one-on-one assessments, I could focus on the student in front of me and still know what the rest of the class was doing. The sound of pencils scratching no longer sent me into shutdown mode.

There were other changes, too. When I folded laundry, I was no longer compelled to line up the stripes in kitchen towels perfectly. I no longer needed to design complex color patterns as I stacked folded socks and underwear. If clothes were hung on hangers of a different color, I didn’t grind to a standstill. I hadn’t actually realized these were issues; I still don’t know why I did them, or why the medication affected these odd behaviors. All I know is that I was more clear-minded, more focused, less anxious, than ever before. And something else happened: the cycles of depression that circled back through my brain once or twice a year simply…didn’t. I have not had a single episode since starting Strattera.

I still have ADHD. I still forget things, still get distracted. Time doesn’t make sense to me — it doesn’t progress for me the way it seems to for other people. Sometimes I blurt out things that only make sense to my hundred-thoughts-a-second brain. My desk is never truly clean; neither is my house. Even now, I function best when I have at least three projects and two books going at once, so I can abandon one for the next when my attention runs out and still get something accomplished. But the medication has done something that no effort on my part has ever done — it’s given me the ability to cope. I can manage my symptoms now, even use some of them to my advantage. I’ll always have ADHD, but I’m okay with that.

And I want other people to be okay with it too. Suggesting that it’s a fake diagnosis doesn’t do anyone any favors. Facing its existence, facing that a person with ADHD might need the extra help of medication to deal with otherwise insurmountable difficulties, is the kinder approach. I struggled for thirty years. Thirty years of secret shame, self-hate, and a growing conviction of my own inferiority, before I discovered that I actually could be organized and focused — I just needed more help than I was getting. Children with ADHD greatly benefit from the awareness of the disorder, as do adults.

Speaking personally, my realization that I have ADHD has been like a key to a previously unknown library of management strategies. I’ve been able to find ways of coping that I didn’t know about before. I now recognize, for example,  that trying to power through a work session after my mind has started to drift isn’t a useful approach. Instead, I take breaks when I start to lose focus. I go do a different project, stand up and walk around, do the dishes — and instead of giving these behaviors a negative label (Procrastination! Laziness! Lack of staying power!), I recognize them for what they are: my own way of getting things done. I keep a to-do list, both mental and physical, if there’s something I’m worried I’ll forget to finish, and I try to make things on the list a priority when I move on to something new. I make sure I have another project started so I don’t spin my wheels when I need to stop my current project. And it works, more or less. Am I as efficient as someone without ADHD? Almost certainly not. Am I more efficient than I was before the medication and the new approaches? You bet your boots I am.

I have ADHD. I’ve come to terms with that fact. And even though I cringe when people deride the disorder as a simple lack of discipline or low level of commitment or just not caring, I’m not going to wither in shame whenever I see one of these references. My ADHD isn’t going anywhere, and neither am I. For better or worse, here we are, inextricably entwined. Get used to it.

A note: I couldn’t find the original T-chart I mentioned in the first paragraph. The one pictured as the “featured image” sends a similar, though broader, message. I found it over at Grounded Parents, in an excellent post called “Internet Meme Demolition Derby: Childhood is not a Disease!” It’s well worth a read.

Siren Call

I saw the flashing lights up ahead, beyond my turn: an ambulance and a fire truck. I craned my neck to see what had happened, but the emergency vehicles blocked any view of details. I parked at my bank and got out of the car, walking carefully on the ice in high heels as I hefted Sofia in the car seat carrier. As I stepped onto the sidewalk, I heard the spine-chilling sound of sirens approaching, heading toward the incident that was now out of sight. Pausing, I turned toward the highway. Police car? Another ambulance? I wavered, hesitant to go about my business when an emergency was occurring just down the road.

Reluctantly, I pulled my focus away from the sirens and turned back toward the building. As I did, I noticed several people in the parking lot. All were doing normal people things. Walking with a cup of coffee to their cars. Wrestling children into car seats. Talking to a friend while maneuvering along the icy sidewalks. Chatting on a phone. One man glanced curiously at me, his expression indicating mild concern. Nobody looked toward the sirens; it was my own interest, not the life-and-death drama nearby, that was causing puzzlement.

I find this attitude hard to adapt to. When I was growing up, I lived in a small town — a really small town. Three hundred people, approximately, including the one hundred or so distributed across three communes that made up the core of the town’s only regularly-attended church. At a guess, I’d say a quarter of the men and most of the high school boys (and a couple of girls) in the commune, as well as quite a few from the rest of the village, were members of the volunteer fire department. Others were paramedics and ambulance drivers. Whenever these volunteers weren’t at work, a pager would ride belts and jacket pockets. It wasn’t terribly unusual for a church service, communal meal, or morning devotions to be interrupted by the high-pitched jabbering beeps of several pagers in chorus, followed by a staticky announcement of the location and nature of the emergency. The room would go still as everyone froze to hear what was happening. And then, mass exodus ensued as people rushed for jackets, grabbed keys, and hurried to cars, some to man the fire truck or ambulance, others to go directly to the scene of accident.

The volunteers in the commune’s high school obtained permission to carry pagers in class because the fire department was so short-staffed. Depending on volunteers for the entire staff, except the chief (at that point, my youngest uncle; he now trains other emergency responders), meant that it was hard to hold on to able-bodied members, so the high school kids added valuable bodies to the ranks. The first few times the pagers went off in class, the students on the department exchanged excited, slightly smug grins as they made a dash for the door. Skipping class for an exciting event — what could be better? But those expressions of anticipation and glee didn’t last through too many calls. Soon they were replaced by a businesslike squaring of the shoulders and a hint of grimness around the mouth and eyes. Once you’ve helped cut another human’s mangled remains out of a crushed car, or sprayed down flames on a derailed train and semi truck containing  a charred corpse and a beheaded man, you realize that this isn’t a party. This is harsh, gritty reality. My friends were in the front ranks of the battle against highway hazards. Each pager signal was the starting bell of a race to save a life.

And always, the pager signals were followed by the sound of sirens. Those sirens were personal. They were meaningful. We could tell the difference between the ambulance siren and the fire truck. If police sirens were added, that was an added layer of gravity. If we heard a siren go by, we’d instantly start analyzing: What direction was it going? Which vehicle was it? We’d mentally list the people we knew who were ill, or pregnant, or doing a dangerous task. At times, the sound of sirens was a signal to pick up the phone and start making calls. Hello, Julie, I heard the ambulance. Sounded like it was going north. Is Nana okay? Or, Is Connie having the baby? Do you need a ride to the hospital? Or maybe, I just saw the ambulance turn into West Farm’s driveway. Is someone hurt? You couldn’t hear a siren and remain detached. Every siren meant that someone you knew and loved could be in danger — either having had an accident, or responding to a dangerous emergency.

It’s been years since I left the commune and village to join the rest of the world. Now, when sirens go by, the victims and drivers are unknown to me. It’s no longer personal. But I can’t act as if nothing is happening. I can’t avoid the knowledge that a siren might mean someone is dying, or hurt, or in fear of their lives. When I hear a siren, I turn and look. Even though I can’t take action, I can pause for a moment to send a thought of support for the emergency response team, for the people who might be in need of help, and for the people I love at home who are still volunteering their time and bodies to help others.

I realize most people haven’t had the experience I have. But just for a day, do me a favor. When you hear a siren, pause and think about the people involved. Take just a moment to be human, to react to the sound of danger. Just for a few seconds, stop and send your thoughts out to the men and women risking their lives to drive ambulances and fire trucks. They could use the good energy.

Photo credit: commons.wikimedia.org, by Michael Gil from Toronto, ON, Canada.

Most Wonderful Time: Christmas Past and Present

Sparkling beaded garland stretches around a green tree, white lights are sprinkled across the green branches, while the shimmer and glitter of painted-glass ornaments catch and reflect the glow. Under the tree is a red-and-copper tree skirt I sewed several years ago when the perfect tree skirt refused to appear in shops. On the table, ornament-shaped candle holders dusted with gold and red glitter rest atop my grandmother’s hand-woven table runner next to tiny vases filled with wintry twigs and berries. A gold paper star in the window, lit from within by an electric tea light, sends out a gentle glow. Brightly-decorated nutcracker soldiers guard the fireplace, while a jolly ceramic snowman stays safe from a curious baby behind the sturdy iron screen. High on a shelf, a silver Advent calendar is ready to count down to Christmas. A tall Santa in stately robes presides over the living room’s festivities from the next shelf. Down below, a winter village has escaped from the pages of Charles Dickens’s books, the windows and street lights gleaming convincingly. Cheery colored lights embrace the front windows and the edge of the roof. Our favorite carols flow through the air. A baby’s dimpled hand stretches cautiously toward the twinkling lights, eyes wide with wonder, turning toward us for reassurance. A small boy dances around the room, pausing periodically to inspect the new finery. Talk of gifts and cards, wrapping paper and ribbon, and a chance of snow next week, all twine through the air, merging with sparkle and glow to form an unmistakable feeling: the holiday season is upon us.

I’ve only been celebrating Christmas for about twelve or thirteen years, so the candles and lights and music feel new and exciting to me, too. I don’t stare and dance like my children, but I revel in the explosion of holiday decor all the same.

I grew up in a peaceful, prayerful commune that was strictly nonobservant of all holidays — well, except for Thanksgiving. Christmas wasn’t as bad as Halloween, the devil’s day, but we still regarded Christmas celebrants with a certain amount of sorrow and pity. We pitied all those foolish people who’d never figured out that Jesus was born at harvest time, not in the middle of winter. We felt a certain scorn for those who didn’t know that the season was a continuation of Druidic and Pagan and Roman holidays, all in celebration of other gods. And hadn’t anyone pointed out to them that Santa is an anagram of Satan?

It never occurred to me that people might simply not care about all those valuable facts.

People crave light and color, especially green, in midwinter. It’s especially notable in northern climates, where winter is dull and grey. The shortness of those monochrome days does something to the psyche. And the month or so leading up to the Winter Solstice is the perfect time to push back at the darkness. People like to claim that “Jesus is the reason for the season,” but if that were really the case, we’d be celebrating in October-ish and our motifs would be straw, tiny babies, and pregnant mothers; not glittering lights and shining gold and silver. Solstice has been celebrated for millennia; Christmas is a newcomer to the scene. The darkness, my friends, is the reason for the season. Darkness, and a craving for light. And there’s no shame in admitting that.

I remember the winter my mom’s best friend got (re)married. She has been like a second mother to me, and her generous spirit makes her well loved in the trio of communes where I lived. We wanted her wedding to be perfect. A winter wedding was uncommon, so we had no season-appropriate decorations ready to be reused, no fresh flowers to brighten the rooms. Someone had the bright idea to twine green garland and white twinkle lights around the stairway banister in the main house on our farm. “But won’t that seem a little… Christmassy?” someone worried. Everyone considered the problem for a moment. As one, we all silently decided: we didn’t care. The garland and lights went up, not just on the banister, but on the front porch rail as well. The following year, those decorations quietly appeared again in November. And again the year after that. No one called them Christmas lights. No one even mentioned them. But our winter-starved eyes drank in the glow and the green, like stranded desert travelers bask in the cool of an oasis.

These days, long after my departure from the farms, everyone is a bit more relaxed about the holiday. They have a big Christmas dinner with lots of visitors from the village. Some families put up trees and even share gifts. You can occasionally hear Christmas carols, maybe even in the church service. You could look around a living room on Christmas Eve and never know you were on a highly conservative religious commune. It’s almost…normal. It doesn’t surprise me. That first garland meant that full-blown Christmas was an inevitable eventuality. Once you experience the lifting of the spirits that comes with the lights and glitter, it’s hard to go back.

As I look around my cozy living room, at my little ones awed and delighted by the new festive decorations, I feel the reassurance that back home, they’re doing the some of the same things. It’s a connection that is strangely meaningful to me — strange, that is, considering how far removed my life now is from what it was. I guess it’s a little personal sign that says: It’s okay. No matter how far you go, you’ll always be connected; this will always be home. And there it is. Connection: the second “reason for the season.” The sense that we are together, even when we’re apart. That our love doesn’t have to grow thin as the physical distance stretches between us. Family is family, and always will be.

Crokinole and Turkey

At this time of year, as holiday traditions are being hauled out and dusted off, I feel the distance from my Canadian family with an extra pang. I miss the joyful sense of celebration, the gathering of a big, noisy group, everyone talking over each other, fielding a dozen hugs in ten minutes. Our little family is building its own traditions, and they’re good ones. But still, at this time of year, I miss my childhood home and my family in Canada.

For me, “family” includes a hundred or so people distributed across three small communes within a five-mile radius in Northwestern Ontario, but especially the residents, current and former, of the West Farm. (Generally I try to keep location and name details out of my posts to protect the privacy of my loved ones on the farm. In this case, it officially goes by a different name, so you won’t find it on a map should your curiosity prompt you to look.)

Even in our secluded community which refrained from worldly celebrations, Thanksgiving was a big deal when I was growing up. It had the benefit of being neither Halloween (the Devil’s own celebration, as I mentioned in a previous post) or Christmas (a worldly holiday of pagan roots marked with prideful indulgence). It was one of the “Big Three”: Thanksgiving, convention, and graduation. Convention was a yearly long-weekend event. The important leaders of our network of communes and churches, known hierarchically as the “Traveling Ministry” (the lesser traveling preachers and teachers)  and “Father Ministry” (the ruling class who handed down decisions both religious and practical), would arrive in March. Visitors would come from all directions to attend all-day revival-style services, causing our group to double or triple in size for several days. High school graduation was nearly as exciting: families of the graduating seniors of our little school would travel to congratulate them, the formally dressed seniors would present speeches, everyone would enjoy a big celebratory meal, and the seniors would open stacks of gifts. It was as close to prom as we ever got — pretty dresses, suits and ties, and lots of excitement, balloons, and confetti, though without dancing or limousines or clandestine make out sessions.

But Thanksgiving was the big one, the special one. It was just us — no out-of-town visitors, no preaching, no speeches. Just good food, family, and after-dinner games. Sometimes we’d invite a few families from outside the commune, or some single police officers or a nurse on assignment at the nearby nursing station, without family nearby. But just as often, it would be only familiar faces.

The women would bustle around the kitchen all day, cooking up a storm. Six or so pies would materialize by dinner time: two or three apple pies, at least one each of pumpkin and pecan, maybe a blueberry pie for good measure. Someone would usually whip up a batch of butter tarts. (For the non-Canadians reading this, butter tarts are a bit like the good part of pecan pie with all those nasty big pecans taken out. This one from Canadian Living looks like a good recipe, though I haven’t tried it.) We’d start fresh rolls in the morning so they’d come out of the oven, crusty and fragrant, before the pies had to go in.  One of the cooks would invariably make a sweet potato casserole topped with brown sugar or marshmallows or both; someone else would comment that it looked awfully sweet, whereupon the maker would suggest that perhaps another of the many side dishes might be a better choice for the complainer. And this was certainly a good point, because there would be more than enough side dishes. Stuffing — made with bread cubes, of course, not cornmeal. Huge steaming pots of mashed potatoes, which had been peeled and diced by the younger cooks to keep them out of trouble and spare the adults the tedium of peeling dozens of potatoes. Green beans with bacon. Occasionally roasted sweet potatoes, a concession to the objections of a few to the sweetness of the marshmallow-topped casserole. There would always be cranberry jelly… the real, clear jelly, from a can, of course. Sometimes someone would make cranberry sauce from scratch, but that never replaced the jelly.

Cooking took all morning and afternoon, but for us younger girls, there might be time to enjoy the day off school. We’d race out of the kitchen, grateful for the reprieve from peeling endless piles of potatoes, and pull on heavy snow pants and coats, thick mittens, warm hats. Sleds jostled behind us from the sheds of houses as kids made a beeline for the big hill. We’d swoop down on sleds or on slick snow-pants-covered bottoms, some daredevils trying to ride the sled down standing up, others swearing that going belly-down made the ride faster. The sleds rushed down with solo riders or crammed with as many bodies as could fit, with arguments erupting at the bottom over whose job it was to pull the sled back up. Noses would turn pink, eyelashes frosted over, fingers and toes froze as the afternoon darkened to a blue twilight. Finally, we’d trudge inside, trooping into the kitchen to see if anyone had made hot chocolate. If there was enough stovetop space and anyone had had some spare time, there might be a big pot of made-from-scratch hot cocoa waiting on the range. Maybe one of the ladies had made banana or zucchini bread to snack on, or maybe we grabbed a leftover muffin from breakfast, while one of the moms poured mugs of hot cocoa for all of us. There might even be marshmallows bobbing in the mugs.

Dark came early in a Northwestern Ontario October, so it wouldn’t be dinner time yet, but people would be wandering into the main building early anyway, setting up board games on empty tables and pulling out musical instruments.  A Crokinole game would occupy the place of honor at one of the round tables — it didn’t take long for eight people to claim places around the board while others gathered to watch, and a game as competitive as any at our peaceful commune would commence to the tune of guitar strings tuning up next to the piano. (Crokinole, by the way, is another Canadian tradition. It’s usually played with two or four people, but the board can accommodate up to eight.) A few more cerebral types would gravitate to the Scrabble board, while  a game of UNO broke out in a corner.

Meanwhile, kids busily put out stacks of plates and baskets of silverware on the big island counter in the kitchen, filled water pitchers, and carried drinking glasses to the tables. Iced tea, which had been sequestered away in a back refrigerator lest teenage boys down it all before dinner, was brought out into the open and distributed to tables in pitchers, because even in the winter no celebration was complete without iced tea. An aunt bore the giant turkey triumphantly from the oven while the mouthwatering aroma swept the rooms. Rolls were tumbled into baskets while girls scooped potatoes out of the big pot into glass bowls, and two women attacked the turkey, carving it into neat slices. Finally, the food was all arranged on the counter, buffet style, and we flocked to our places at the table for a blessing before we dug in.

When we were stuffed with as much food as we could manage, a guitar would softly strum, the piano would echo the notes, and we’d sing songs together: our after-dinner daily tradition. Songs about giving thanks, about love, many of them written by people sitting there in the room.

Cleanup wasn’t too much of a chore; at the tables, dishes were stacked at top speed and quickly scraped and carried into the kitchen. Dads wiped tables and grabbed brooms to sweep the floor of the big dining room, while the kids manned the dish tubs and dried clean dishes. Moms and aunts swiftly wrapped food for the refrigerators. Then, cleanup complete, it was back to the board games and cozy visiting.

My dad would bring out a few new jokes, his sober joke-telling face carefully prepared in advance, always hopeful that the punch line would take the listener by surprise. His brothers would gently jeer — “I heard that one three months ago!” — while they competed with their own stories, others chiming in. Occasionally, a few people would present a skit: nothing serious, just a sketch designed to draw laughter, usually involving costumes we’d thrown together from our collection of old or silly clothes, wigs, and odd accessories. A piano player might wander over to the instrument and run her fingers over the keys, and teenagers would migrate to the piano corner like iron filings to a magnet. Somebody would add a guitar, then another, maybe a mandolin or banjo or hand-made fiddle or classical violin, and we’d sing one song after another while others visited or tried to best each other at the Crokinole board.

Thanksgiving was a day for family time. It wasn’t anything exciting, I suppose. No family feuds, no drunken quarrels. No Black Friday — in Canada, Thanksgiving is on a Monday in October, too far from Christmas to be dragged into the holiday shopping chaos. Besides, we didn’t celebrate Christmas (although we did love finding good deals). It was pretty simple: good food, music we made ourselves, family. And this time of year, I find myself thinking more than usually of my family.

So, to my American friends and family, let me wish you a wholehearted Happy Thanksgiving; and to my Canadian family, thank you for giving me these warm memories of simple traditions. I love you. Happy Thursday.

This year's pumpkin pie.
This year’s pumpkin pie.

Holidays: The Sanctified and Unholy

From my dear friend Gracia, who, like me, grew up communally. Loved reading her Thanksgiving nostalgia!

What Would Babygrapes Say

When I was growing up, we didn’t do Christmas. Christmas was eschewed as a Pagan Holiday established by the Ancient Romans in observance of the Winter Solstice and celebrated by the Modern Harlot Church, whose followers chose to dwell blindly in the Outer Court. Nay, we were a Sanctified Holy Remnant faithfully abstaining from such Worldly traditions.

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Who Can Find a Virtuous Laundress?

It haunts me with unrelenting persistence, this pursuit of laundry perfection.

My laundry list: Niko’s mud-stained, grass-stained, who-knows-what-else-stained jeans and shirts emerge from the washing machine victorious, pristine. Sofia’s grubby-kneed pants and sticky sleeves are as new when the laundry is done. Unspeakably soiled diapers? Pure as the Snow Queen’s gleaming white hair. And then come Aaron’s work shirts. They’re nearly perfect when they go into the washing machine, really. He’s a tidy, order-loving person who never spills food or smudges ink. But the collars, of course, after being worn all day in the heat of a California drought (he travels often for work), are – forgive me, Aaron – not quite as flawless as they could be. And, since moving to Oregon, when they come out of the wash, they remain not quite flawless.

Back in Anchorage, I would spritz the collars with laundry stain remover, toss them into the washer on the delicate cycle, and pull them out again, spotless. It was one of my few areas of housekeeping pride. Dishes may have been unwashed, floor may have had a bit of dust, laundry remained unfolded for days, but by golly, those shirts were clean. Every time. I would hold one up, note the gleaming white collar, and feel a warm glow of pride. Did it again! That is one clean shirt!

In Oregon, the laundry routine has been the same, and the washing machine is an updated version of the same model. But the shirts no longer have the incandescent whiteness of a beautifully laundered shirt. And my pride has suffered as a result. Oh, how it’s suffered.

When this began, I turned, naturally, to Google, and discovered that hard water can lessen the effectiveness of laundry detergent. Borax, I read, can soften the water and get clothes cleaner. Naturally I rushed to Target and bought a monster box of the stuff. I started shaking some into each load. It helped, but not enough. Aaron’s shirt collars were still notable for their imperfection. But I was out of energy. I was pregnant with Sofia, growing more uncomfortable every day, and miserable in the unfamiliar summer heat reaching past the 90s and into three-digit temperatures. Grudgingly, I settled for almost good enough. But it still disturbed me.

I know, of course, why this bothers me so much. This one area of housekeeping success has been my token of the Virtuous Woman.

I remember joining the other teenaged girls in a chorus as we recited Proverbs 31, demonstrating our willingness to embrace virtue as well as our skill at memorization: “Who can find a virtuous woman? For her price is far above rubies. The heart of her husband doth safely trust in her, so that he shall have no need of spoil…Her husband is known in the gates, when he sitteth among the elders of the land…She looketh well to the ways of her household, and eateth not the bread of idleness.” We were relaxing in our Sunday School teacher’s living room on a Sunday morning, preparing to read from our slim navy hardcover book — Beautiful Girlhood, it was called — about staying modest, wearing hose at all times, being sure our knees (better yet, ankles) were covered, and — above all — being sure that, should our vanity lead us to wear makeup, we be sure to remove it each night, lest unsightly leftover makeup mark us as undesirable.

We didn’t take most of it too seriously — while we lived in a Christian commune, our style was as modern as budget and the knee-and-cleavage-covering dress code allowed. After the requisite reading from the book each Sunday, the rest of our 45-minute pre-church session was mostly spent giggling and chattering, mostly about the old-fashioned suggestions in our book. But the virtue part — that stuck, for me, anyway. We heard it in so many ways as we grew up. None of us doubted that we’d someday have a husband. Each of us firmly believed we’d be an excellent wife. Hadn’t we been cooking for scores of people at each meal since we were old enough to reach the counter with a stepstool? Didn’t we take frequent sewing classes? Spend untold hours each summer gardening, harvesting, canning? Yes, we would be the epitome of Virtuous Women.

Of the girls in that group, only one remains on the commune. Our beliefs have evolved — even the beliefs of the one who’s still there, though her beliefs probably look a little more commune-traditional than mine. We no longer feel anxious if our knees are revealed; we know our virtue isn’t dependent on marriage. And yet, for me at least, the need to prove my womanliness remains.

If this were an inspirational novel or memoir, I’d have had an epiphany accompanying my realization of the source of my obsession with those shirt collars. I’d have realized that an obsession rooted in an over-religious upbringing might not be what I need for a guiding life principal. But I just can’t let those shirt collars go. How can my husband be praised in the gates, if his shirt collars are grimy?

Now that Sofia is nearly a year old and has fewer tummy troubles, thus being less needy and giving me a bit more time for frivolous obsessions, the urge to assert my status as a Woman of Virtue is rising again. Over the last month or so, I’ve tried a couple of solutions. One week, I tried making a mixture of borax, Spray & Wash, and a bit of  water to combine them, and I spread the paste over the collars. It actually left the shirts less white than before. Not the desired outcome.

The next week, I sprayed the collars with stain remover first, then spread the same paste over the damp cloth. Victory! Well, almost. I could still see the shadows of stains, but it was so much better than it had been that I decided cleanliness had been satisfactorily attained. All I needed to do was to write a post and hit “publish”, and I would officially be a Virtuous Woman again. I wasn’t entirely pleased, but it was… well, it was close enough, right?

Then, Aaron’s aunt and uncle came by for an overnight visit. Over dinner, I happened to mention my search for the perfect stain remover. “You need Nicole’s recipe,” our aunt said. “It’s like magic. It will get absolutely anything out. She used it to get three-year-old paint stains out of a jacket.” And, because she could see how excited I was over this magical concoction, she texted her daughter Nicole, who promptly texted back with the recipe.

I can’t even tell you how ridiculously thrilled I am about this new stain remover. In my next post, I’ll give the recipe and tell how effective it is. (Spoiler: It’s VERY effective.)

It’s Not National Geographic Material, But…

I was fifteen when my dad gave me my first camera. I was speechless with delight — I remember the sensation of actually gasping for breath in surprise and joy. Gifts were rare in our family: we eschewed Christmas, birthdays, and worldly possessions, so a spontaneous gift like this was even more meaningful than it might have been for an ordinary kid.

My father has always had a gift for both photography and drawing, sometimes combining them by making sketches and even embroidery patterns based on the photos he takes. He has his camera with him nearly everywhere he goes. My dad and his camera were fixtures in my childhood and especially in my teens, when his interest in “real” photography took off. On long road trips with my mom, they periodically stop so my dad can photograph scenery or flowers while my mom stretches her legs. When he visited us in Alaska, he would go on early-morning drives to capture shots of things he’d seen as we drove around the Anchorage area: the tidal flats, a field of blue-flags (also known as wild irises), a train running between the inlet and the mountains. He’ll sit quietly while family visits, unobtrusively shooting photo after photo of interactions and games. He’s never published his photos, unlike my uncle (his brother), who also loves nature and photography, and shares his photos on a website he calls Wild Sky Photo. He just loves taking the pictures. I think that camera was a way for us to connect, to share a passion.

It was the night before a high school trip that my dad gave me the camera. Our entire high school — all ten of us — were traveling from our group of three small religious communes in Northwest Ontario to a collection of communes in British Columbia. We’d been preparing for months with individual, original, inspirational speeches, and practicing two or three new songs. We would provide the church services as we visited the northern groups. That was something of a tradition in our network of communes — being prepared to share inspirational messages, but especially sharing music. Singing was integral to our way of life, and somebody was always writing or discovering a new song. It was just considered a courtesy to share it with other groups whenever you traveled.

But the real highlight, to us, was the road trip. Ten kids in two vans. Music of our own choosing — and someone was sure to bring along some carefully selected secular music, and if we were absolutely angelic, perhaps we could convince our chaperones to allow us to play it as we rode along. Then there was the hotel stop along the way — giant sleepovers aren’t any less fun when you’re being raised as a highly conservative, long-skirted, Bible-studying commune dweller. The frosting on the road-trip cake was the visits with people we only saw rarely. My cousins and I were excited to see another set of cousins on one of the British Columbia communes, but there were other friends and acquaintances as well, plus who knew how many new friends.

And I photographed it all. I used up all the film my dad had given me by the end of the second day, and had to buy more at gas stations and convenience stores along the way. I snapped photos of the scenery. Of pillow fights. Of friends hugging. Teens sleeping, puppy-piled in the vans. Volley-ball games, girls still in their long, awkward skirts. Campfire sing-alongs. I overcame my habitual shyness to walk right up to people I barely knew so as to frame them better for shots. My viewfinder became my key, allowing me to break through crippling terror of crowds and strangers.

I still have most of those photos. They aren’t good ones. I knew nothing at all about photography, and my camera was a basic point-and-shoot model. No zoom, no focus. Most of the pictures are blurred. Sometimes you can’t really tell who’s in the photos or what’s happening. But there were some gems. Going through them a few years ago, I was surprised to find a picture of my sister-in-law’s husband in Renaissance costume, playing the piano and singing in an informal rehearsal for a show. This was about four years before I met my husband, and I hadn’t even known the young man’s name — I just had been struck by the picture I saw and wanted to keep the memory.

These days I use a beautiful silver Canon, a digital camera that has a zoom lens and a second, long lens that can be interchanged. I still don’t know much about photography. But I’ve learned a few things along the way, and now I find joy in photographing my children and garden. Lately I’ve been learning to use the long lens. It’s proven to be a steep learning curve for me. It reminds me of the slow, stumbling trial-and-error experience with that first little camera. Most of my photos of the birds at our feeder are a little blurred, often badly lit or poorly framed. I still save some of them as a learning reference, just like we save our preschoolers’ early writing attempts.

Now, when I look through photos on my computer or phone as I’m preparing to edit and choose some to share with family on Facebook, I find myself thinking of my dad and his role as a recorder of my childhood. It’s a good role, I think, and one that I’m happy and proud to be carrying on in my own little family. I’m not a photographer; this isn’t a photography blog. But still, I find an unexpected peace in freezing those moments of my children playing, a perfect bloom, a bird on a branch, even a plate of good food. I delete more photos than I keep. I miss more shots than I take. I don’t know how to do some of the techniques I see from trained and experienced photographers. But those photos I do take and keep are treasures to me.

And here, just because today I’m thinking about photographs and family and treasures, are a few photos of my favorite treasures: my kids.

Exhibit A: Sofia’s 11-month photo shoot. We’ve done this every month since she was born. My eventual goal is to collect one from each month of her first year into a collage frame for her room. We did this for Niko, too. He’s four. No collage frame yet. Maybe some day…

Exhibit B: My adventurous boy, later the same day as Sofia’s photo shoot. He wanted to sit on top of the well, just like he had a month before when Garrett Beatty of Nuro Photography came to photograph our family. I agreed — but only if he let me take his picture. Later, he decided to gather some wood to take inside. The power went out the next day in an ice storm, so I ended up being thankful for his impulse.

Exhibit C: These are the first shots I’ve ever taken with a long lens. Please remember that I don’t work for National Geographic. And I’m just learning. But still, I’m pretty darn proud of these fuzzy photos.