Sunday, January 31, 2010

I once had a girl...

I still have the battle scars as proof you existed. And three photos. The size of your palm imprinted in mine, the feel of your ashes in my hand—ivory and turquoise—falling in to the gurgling river rushing on.

It's been two years and it is still hard to find the words, even the opportunities to speak about it all. I try to shape my sorrow and my memories of her into poems or photographs, but succumb easily to silence.

With the impending anniversaries of Amalia's birth and death--which fall within eight days of each other--I've been growing increasingly anxious, fearful and distracted. It's almost midnight and we are now on the precipice of our little girl's birthday, February 1.

What am I dreading so much? Is it the fear of fear itself? Is it the flood of emotion that hasn't had a chance to fully express itself, though I have given my grief a voice plenty of times? Is it that I'm afraid of further loss because I don't trust that the people I hold dear will want to hear me out and stick with me because I'll strike them as too needy, too unstable, too much of a "downer"?

As soon as she was born, the paramedics whisked my daughter off to intensive care. And the nightmares started. I didn't think I would survive those first days, those first weeks. I thought I would never be able to sleep again or to carry on living. I was conscious of my breathing, always hearing her raspy gasps like grasps at oxygen in my own breathing, internalizing her struggle to stay alive.

Jonah was my sole motivation to stay committed to this life, although I was very mindful of never placing my burden on him. I wanted to be truthful with him about what is happening in my world, but to shield him from my own misery, which required me to remove myself emotionally from the situation while simultaneously living inside the heart wrenching reality that it was--an impossible task. Granted, he was only two-and-a-half, but perceptive and curious nonetheless. We did our best.

Over the last two years I've worked so much on creating inner peace, and that is why I'm stunned at how much is resurfacing for me two years later.

The only time when thinking about Amalia stands apart from the trauma and hurt I so closely associate with her short life, is when I talk with Jonah about her. When he asks about her, I speak of her with neutrality that helps smooth over the turbulence and, to be completely honest, at times even the dread that thoughts of her trigger like a Pavlovian response.

When I tell Jonah about his sister, I am able--if just for a brief moment--to remain upbeat and tender and glad to remember. That is because I want Jonah to have his own stories, his own associations with his sister, free of my own painful memories. Sometimes, too, when Tim and I speak about her, the good begins to outweigh the bad.

She was and still is such a mysterious presence in our lives. It will take us years to unravel all there is to feel, learn and understand about what Amalia's presence meant and still means.

I once had a girl...
And when I awoke, I was alone, this bird had flown
- The Beatles

Thursday, January 21, 2010

A blast from the past: J-boy watches Obama's Inauguration

Yesterday was the first anniversary of Obama's inauguration. I just reviewed the post from last year I made about that. Fascinating how much Jonah's attention was on the presence of weapons in the ceremony--something I wouldn't have registered as intensely. Very telling.

Here is the link.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

happily ever after...

My minison and his minifriends seem to have a lot of discussions about marriage these days. Last weekend Jonah asked me if the cemetery was where his dad and I got married, and then proceeded to tell me that "militaries" is where people get married.

A big topic in preschool also seems to be the idea of who can marry whom. Jonah has broached this subject with me several times lately. At five, his best friend Jacob (not his real name) is already taking a stand, sounding like a staunch supporter of the doctrine that allows only couples of the opposite sex to marry. And now I have my son parroting his friend's worldview back at me, looking for a reaction. So I take a breath, embracing this as another teaching moment.

I remember when those bumper stickers, "marriage = one woman, one man," cropped up all over our city. Those were the days when a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach was almost a constant while driving behind preachy people's rear ends. And boy, were there a lot of those around. That was pre-election time in 2004. Massive conservative movement campaigns were sweeping across our state, incensing voters to show up to elections to make their voices heard on a measure designed to amend the state Constitution to define marriage as a union of one man and one woman. That was also the year Bush was up for re-election. This was before Jonah's time, but the events and the bitter aftertaste of those ideological battles are still with me. After all, these battles continue today around the country and beyond.

On election night, Tim and I attended a party dedicated to the occasion. The entire house, full of about forty people, was discussing and following the federal and state poll results in real time. The mood turned quickly from upbeat and energetic to shocked and disillusioned when the results for both the Presidential election and the state ballot measure decisions came in. To our chagrin, the constitutional marriage amendment passed. I left the party disgusted and agitated.

"You know," I say to Jonah. "I have several friends--men who are married to men and women who are married to women. They love each other, live together and some raise children together."

He pauses briefly without losing a beat, "I like Jacob too much."

To that I reply, that's nice that you like him so much. And then it is time to say goodnight.

Friendship and love. The big questions d'jour for miniman. One thing is for sure. When it comes to my son, whether he falls in love with boys or girls when he is older, he will have his parents' total support and acceptance.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

the man with the silver crown

As the rain drenches our windshield while we wait, and the gas pump dial spins at breakneck speed, my son asks me from his car seat where we are. I say we're tanking up on MLK Boulevard, and since we're on the topic, I decide to delve in. Now that he's four, it's a good time to start talking about Dr. King: "Do you know who Martin Luther King Jr. was?"

I wonder how well Jonah will grasp the ideas behind the man's life and legacy. I try to break the concepts down to his level without sounding like a ridiculous, washed-out elementary school textbook that glosses over what really happened and mattered during Dr. King's life and still matters today.

As I navigate the traffic on MLK, which is what we call the street here, I use simple words to try to convey the essence of the civil rights movement and Dr. King's anti-war activism. It's much more of a challenge than I had anticipated to illuminate the abstract concepts at play here to a four-year-old literal thinker: in/justice, in/equity, oppression, racism, violence, law, rights, imperialism, resistance, courage, community organizing... So I start with talking about the man as someone special and brave who was a leader and who worked with people to challenge unfair things and to help people live better. Next I plan to get more detailed and to engage my son in greater depth.

Just at a point when I think Jonah is following along, he asks, "Did he wear a crown? A silver crown?" Well, he wasn't a king though that was his name, I answer.

Judging from our interaction, it's clear that the idea of challenging oppression is a little too abstract for my son, so I talk about King's anti-war activism. Fighting, getting hurt, shooting, enemies... Jonah grasps those concepts pretty well. So I discuss why Dr. King was opposed to war and we linger on that topic for a while. Jonah is curious about why anyone would wage war. I am pleased, thinking, glad you asked. At freeway speed, I am so engrossed in the conversation that I miss our turn, forcing us to loop around the whole city.

Jonah asks me if MLK is dead. I say that he is. Jonah asks how Dr. King died. I explain that he was shot, and in simple words why this most likely happened, because my son wants to know.

Finally, I tell Jonah he was named after Martin Luther King Jr., his middle name being Rey, king in Spanish. I tell him why we, his white, not overly politically active parents decided to name our son after Rev. King. I say, in simpler words, that it's because we wanted to honor a person whose work moves us deeply; that we wanted to send a ray of his courage, dedication and vision forward, into the future with the young generation; that we wanted our son to do important work for a more just world, as we--and dare I say more intensely than we--strive to do in our small, humble ways.

So, fittingly, I follow up with what he thinks he will do in the world when he is older, to which, after all this talk about ideals and societal change in pre-schooler jargon, he replies: "I'm going to drive a police... (While he pauses... I think, oh no, not the police, clenching my teeth, hoping he doesn't finish his sentence with the words "patty wagon" or some such wackiness that would make me keel over while driving sixty miles an hour)... tow truck."

A police tow truck. Well, there you have it, my friends. To be continued.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Czeching it

You knew the pun would come one day. Yes, my son and I are "Czeching it" these days. Sort of like roughing it, winging it while trying to preserve the mother tongue by any means possible.

The exciting news is that my dream has come true and a Czech preschool opened a couple of months ago in our American city. It's a brand new day. After a few months of Czechlesness, my son is back into language immersion again--once a week, but still. Since I have no kin here and very few Czech friends, the school is a godsend.

Last Monday was Jonah's first day there. He was beside himself, refusing to go home after a full school day. The next morning he begged to return. He even burst into spontaneous song in Czech. Most importantly, he is not mad at me anymore when I speak Czech to him. Tonight he even asked me to read to him only in Czech AND he understands almost everything I say (if I keep it simple enough)! His teacher even said to me she's pretty sure Jonah understands everything she says. The biggest task for me is just to remember to speak it to him daily. And as sentimental as it may sound, it's a good feeling to be keeping our heritage alive, passing it on to at least one more generation.

on the good days

On the good days, I remember the students do give back. They challenge me to the brink of madness, but they teach me this: patience, generosity, loving firmness.

Today was one of those days.

When I started this job, I vowed to myself to remain who I am: a fun-loving, playful, curious, questioning, intensely emotional person. And because I can get so silly and dramatic, I worried my students wouldn't take me seriously. You know the old cliche advising teachers to not smile before Christmas to instill respect in students? Well, even if I tried--and believe me I have in other teaching situations--I'm not someone who could pull that off.

I am not a big person with an air of authority, so I have to figure out different, creative ways to get my students on track and to create order in the classroom.

This year I'm focusing on building relationships and remaining positive and centered even on the bad days when students give me hell, ignore my instruction, refuse to work.

But things are getting better. In general, my students and I do have good rapport. Most of them are at least intrigued by the work we do together and I do think that a lot of them find meaning in it.

For instance, my English class students are now writing short stories on the topic of injustice. Good stuff.

I just wish there wasn't so much tedious work involved: grading, grading up the wazoo.

But on days like these, the good days, I try to remind myself why I do this work and how much it does make me grow as a person.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

teacher talk

Tereza, the teacher here. Popping in to record that on the menu, unexpectedly today, is something of a professional crisis. Fun times. I should be working on curriculum (at home, as per usual), getting ready for a staff meeting and a full week of teaching next week, plus all that other good stuff that goes with my job, but things are surfacing that I have to pause for, to mull over.

I love my job. I adore the kids. I think about them constantly, pore over books, trying to figure out how to best work with my students to inspire them, increase their skills, to work around the barriers the kids I call the "conscientious objectors to forced schooling" have set up (educator Herbert Kohl writes insightfully about students who decide to actively not-learn). I look for ways to get my students to take charge of and pride in their learning.

I think I succeed sometimes; I can see it in those moments when students are eager to share their writing and ideas, begging me for feedback, curious about what we're doing next, busy working in groups, not noticing that lunch break is upon us...

As any teacher, I work about twice the hours I get paid for. That is normal. To be expected with this line of work. But I'm finding that I tear myself apart internally for feeling more and more resistant to working outside of school hours. I get sick of the tedious tasks I'm expected to do for show, e.g. write down lesson plans teeming with teacherese when I'm already up to my neck with grading and planning. I admonish myself for being bored, lazy, irresponsible, for just wanting to reap the fruits without the labor. But it is beacause spending my time on the mundane tasks (other than choosing materials and responding to student work--I say that because I have an issue with grading) steers me away from the overarching goals that are at the heart of teaching for me. The kind of teaching I believe in is all about establishing relationships and weaning students off their reliance on authority, encouraging critical thinking and courage to stand up against injustice. Also, finding or reigniting internal flames: curiosity, drive, pride in accomplishment... All that deep stuff that can't necessarily be enumerated. And yes, I need to give my students basic skills, of course!

As far as working with youth, the job I have now is as perfect as they come. A small school with an amazing group of staff, freedom to structure my own curriculum... But there are still tasks I'm expected to complete that don't feel integral to what goes on in the classroom. And I am beginning to really resent this.

Perhaps part of why I am having these feelings is that teaching is one of my great, life-long passions, but it's not what I want to consume my life. I am also passionate about writing and photography and I want to fit all those into my life.

So, how do I do all that AND parent at the same time? I don't know. Over winter break I had a hard time getting motivated to do the tedious teacher things. I started to lose connection with why I love teaching. But as soon as I walked in the school in the new year with the students coming up to me and greeting me, it all came back. I was back in my element, so grateful for the opportunity to work doing what I do.

How to keep going without feeling warn-out by the mundane, how to stay inspired and full of energy for teaching and my other creative pursuits? I don't have any answers yet, but I'll keep looking.

[photo credit Walter Sanders"]

Friday, January 01, 2010

the year in review

2010 busted in the door, but, though I'm mapping out some goals for the new year, my mind is still stuck in 2009. What a year jam-packed with adventure it was for us! The second international move within a span of twelve months and all the adjustments that go along with that--new job, new place to live, new school for Jonah... Also travel, lots of travel. Six countries, five U.S. states, and at least 16 cities and numerous other historical sights that we visited in 2009. How lucky for us! Here are some in pictures I took on our trips:

The hip and historic city of Berlin, which I visited with my 80-year-old grandmother:

London where we met up with Jonah's paternal grandparents and a good old friend from college:

The ancient and still pulsing city of Athens which my little family spent four days exploring:

The breathtakingly rustic and romantic, cousin-of-Venice Corfu Town on the island of Corfu, or Kerkyra as the Greeks call it. Here we spent a week with Jonah's Czech grandparents:

Of course my birth city of Prague where we lived for a year:

And other places of interest, with our favorites being the very mysterious medieval castles and ruins around the Czech Republic. The one pictured is a 14th century castle called Bone (Kost in Czech):

And towards the end of 2009, New York, where we visited my sister and husband for Thanksgiving:

Workwise, I must admit that my job in Prague was the most boring and underpaid one I've ever had--teaching executives, secretaries and accountants English. Now the Czechs are known to be slow to warm up to strangers, but I had no idea how much that would impact my lessons! Imagine sitting in the same room with a poker-faced, taciturn man (or woman) for 90 minutes, hoping to get a conversation going. Yes, you're right. Sounds like a bad date--several, in fact--every day of the week!

The best part of the job was taking an undercover survey of current attitudes on politics and society under the guise of teaching conversation (when people finally did speak). Fascinating. But I'm glad the new school year is in full swing, because now I get to do work that I'm passionate about--teaching high school English to immigrant youth. I'm definitely in my element at this small public charter school. Yay!

Thinking back at last year, most of all, I value the relationships that sustained me over the last year(s) when things were going well and when things were difficult, especially after the death of our daughter. These are some of the special people who have always made us feel loved and supported:

My lovely grandmother:

My daddy and wife, who both helped us so much to make a new life in Prague:

Tim's parents who visited us in Prague:

And of course the uncles & aunts:

And many sweet friends... You know who you are.

To all those contemplating a move abroad, I highly recommend it. With enough emotional and practical support, it can be done, even with a small child. However, for anyone able to do it, I suggest a time frame of at least two years. A year is barely enough to begin to adjust, let alone get comfortable and create lasting bonds. Though the Czech Republic is my first home, I had never lived there as an adult, forging my own way with my own job, my own place to live, etc. Of course my family who still lives there helped, but I wanted to make new connections and get plugged in to some meaningful political/social work. However, with such a limited time, it felt like parachuting in, so I gave up trying because it just felt irresponsible to only be able to commit to a short time without the ability to form deep relationships. That is my biggest regret. But, many things were good: my son learned Czech, I got to spend with family and old friends, and to reconnect to my roots.

Our year in Prague made me realize that I am still Czech to the core and that, though I doubted myself before, I do have a deep understanding of the culture and society. Also, I proved to myself that something as challenging as starting a life in another part of the world with my whole family could be done. I am also glad Tim was able to form a bond with the place that makes me who I am.

In 2010, among my personal, creative and professional goals, I'm hoping to explore the Pacific Northwest more and to make it to a couple of national parks we've never visited. We will see if those dreams come true.

On a more recent note, the Czechs say that how you spend the first day of the new year is how you will live the rest of your year. The day started with an intense wrestling match with the self-proclaimed Wrestle Lord who tried out some of his deadly new moves, such as the fly toss, on me. Good thing we wrestle free style and I was able to solicit the help of a bunch of pillows in the process. Next we played some more and ate a feast of leftovers from the night before and some homemade cookies delivered to our door by a good friend. Not a bad start to a year, is it, friends?