Monday, December 29, 2014

Happy Holidays

        This is going to be a short one. I know that statement is shocking. By now, those who drop by here regularly, a small but intelligent audience, are used to my lengthy diatribes on whatever happens to be crossing my mind at the time. That is not by design. It is merely my nature. I don't intend, upon sitting down to write, to expend as much as two thousand words or so on the subject of baby food or the cleanliness of my floors, it just seems to happen. That's the way I am. Long-windedness and waxing philosophical are character flaws of mine. Heck, this one's over a hundred words already and I haven't even said anything yet. The point is, I'm still wrapped up in enjoying the holidays so I'm busy with a lot of other things, (fun things), and in no real mood to write. So please forgive me my shortness here.

         Christmas is over and a good time was had by all. I was finally able to get into the Christmas spirit a few days before, primarily by writing the last post "Here Comes Santa Claus". Thinking about the meaning of Christmas while writing that post did the trick, along with finding a new sewing machine under the tree.

         Kiley had her first Christmas and, as expected, it was a success. She got everything she wanted, or at least everything she would have wanted if she were old enough to desire particular things. She got some outfits and a soft baby doll from me and "Uncle Tom", and so many other presents from parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, friends of the family, etc. that they can't be counted. This being her first Christmas makes her a celebrity in our family, so she was showered with love, attention, and gifts. She will remember none of it and we will never forget it.

         Since Kiley's mom is a teacher and doesn't have to go back to work until after New Years, I have another whole week off. Hooray! I'm planning on taking Kiley out for the day New Years Eve, just for fun and to give her mom a real day off. Then it will be New Years and the holiday season will be behind us. It comes so quick and goes so fast, which, I suppose, is the nature of wonderful things. The cold dark days of winter lie ahead of us, the bleakest time of the year. I'm not looking forward to it except maybe to taking Kiley out in the snow. That will be an experience for both of us. I'm already pining for March to go out like a lamb. Give me spring!

         The only thing I am looking forward to this winter is Kiley's birthday in January. What an event that will be. Another excuse to shower her with love, attention, and gifts. This coming year will be filled with so many milestones for her. I am really looking forward to it all especially because somewhere along the way Kiley will begin to talk. That will be truly amazing for me and everyone associated with her because we don't really get to know them until they can talk and express whatever ideas they have. Soon enough we are going to find out what is going on in that little head of hers. I can't wait to hear what she has to say. I hope everyone is having as great a holiday season as I am. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all.


Sunday, December 21, 2014

Here Comes Santa Claus

          When my granddaughter was six or seven, (she is now fifteen), she asked me the strangest question for a six or seven year old. I was her "Nan" at the time. I have always been her "Nan", am now, and always will be, but at the time I was really her "Nan" the way I am Kiley's "Nan" now, her daily caregiver and one of the people she counted on to supply her with everything she needs. She asked me, "If someone commits murder can they be redeemed?"

        My initial reaction was something along the lines of, "This child is watching too much TV." But this was a serious question and I could tell that the answer was important to her, so putting aside for the moment why she was concerned about murder and where she got the word "redeemed" I gave her an honest answer. I said, "If someone is truly sorry and dedicates themselves to making amends, then God will forgive them no matter what they have done."

        She rolled her eyes and said in an exasperated tone, "Not God, I mean Santa Claus." Oh Santa Claus! Okay. So it's not our immortal souls we're worried about here, it's the size of our "haul" on Christmas morning. "Well", I said in response, "God may offer infinite forgiveness but with Santa Claus I think committing murder pretty much puts you on the 'naughty list'". That satisfied her and she went back to whatever six or seven year old nonsense she was engaged in at the time.

        Santa Claus, what to make of him? My granddaughter can be forgiven for thinking and speaking about Santa Claus as if he were God because, as described by adults, Santa Claus has many god-like qualities. He is wise and kindly like an old father. He knows everything, at least everything of importance like when you are sleeping and if you've been "nice". He's everywhere all the time and can be in everyone's home all over the world in one night. He judges us on a scale of "naughty" and "nice" based on our behavior. He travels, not in a "chariot of fire" perhaps, but at least in a sleigh that's candy apple red. And, of course, he is inseparably linked to the joy that is Christmas.

        Bells are ringing, children singing                                                                                                               All is merry and bright      
        Hang your stockings and say your prayers  
        'Cause Santa Claus comes tonight.

        It is that inseparable link to Christmas and, thereby, an inseparable link to God, which gives Santa Claus his identity and meaning. Santa Claus is Christmas, - Christmas personified. And the spirit of generosity, fellowship, and goodwill (the spirit of Christmas), which Santa Claus embodies, is merely the smallest aspect of a greater spirit that is the foundation of all things both spiritual and physical, the seen and the unseen.

        It has become a cliché that we have lost the spirit of Christmas, that Christmas is too commercialized and, in some respects, who can deny it? Shopping is practically a religion in itself in some quarters, and the retail business, in general, relies on the Christmas buying spree to turn a yearly profit. The stock market can rise and fall based on the traffic flow through the malls on Black Friday. And I suppose it is easy to point to Santa, the fountainhead of Christmas giving, as a symbol of the commercial aspect of the season. And there are those who do. But that is a misconception, a distortion of the very idea of Santa Claus and of Christmas as it is celebrated today.

        When people say Christmas has become too commercialized, what they really mean is that it has become too secular; that we have taken the "Christ" out of Christmas. But that too is a misconception. For no matter how jaded we are, no matter how wrapped up in the commercial aspects of the holiday we become, we cannot take Christ out of Christmas anymore than we can take the spirit of generosity out of Santa Claus. The two are inseparably linked and when we celebrate that holiday the spirit of Christ is expressed through us. It doesn't matter if we do it with intent or with any concept of higher purpose in mind. Whether we, as individuals, are religious or even aware of the significance of the holiday matters not one bit. The true spirit of Christmas seeps through, unstoppable and undeniable. The very way in which we celebrate Christmas, even when removed from religious purpose, is by itself holy. Indeed, even the most avowed atheist, when celebrating the "secular" holiday of Christmas with trees, wreaths, colored lights and Santa Claus partakes in the sacredness of Christmas as well. For he who expresses himself with warmth, generosity, fellowship and goodwill draws himself closer to God whether he believes in him or not.

            Santa Claus knows we're all God's children
            That makes everything right.
            So fill your hearts with Christmas cheer
            'Cause Santa Claus comes tonight.

        So I suppose my granddaughter was actually pretty close to the mark when she was six or seven. Santa Claus may not have the authority to forgive us our trespasses, but he is the perfect symbol of Christmas, of the yearly celebration of the birth of one who can. And it is more than fitting that we celebrate that birth with buying and gift giving, with the joy, fellowship, and generosity that the Christmas tradition inspires regardless of whether we are mindful, as perhaps my granddaughter was in her innocence, that we do so in remembrance of the greatest Christmas gift of all – redemption.

            Peace on earth will come to all
            If we just follow the light.
            So let's give thanks to the Lord above
            That Santa Claus comes tonight.


Monday, December 15, 2014

A Ghost of Christmas Past

        It is the holiday season again. Christmas is hot on our heels and I am not ready. I still have presents to buy, a tree to get, cookies to bake, cards to write, and a wish list to make (my husband is really starting to hound me about the list, but I don't know what I want.) I'm finding it hard to get into the holiday spirit for some reason, which is strange for me because I'm usually a Christmas nut. Maybe I'm just tired. I have dealt with chronic pain for decades now, which is increasing as I get older and I have been having trouble sleeping again because of it. I certainly feel tired (and old too, I just turned fifty-nine today.) Maybe I'll perk up after I get a little sleep, whenever that happens. Also, my husband is working a lot so we are not together much, which bums me out. The whole situation is not conducive to engendering a holiday spirit but there is still time. That spirit is now loose in the world and could pounce on me at any moment.

        Remember when you were a kid and there was nothing, and I mean nothing that could dampen the Christmas spirit? No matter what was going on in the world or in your life, when Christmas rolled around it was "Joy to the World". And it wasn't just the whole Christmas presents thing either. That was just icing on the cake. It was everything else about Christmas that made it such a great time in our lives, the sights, the sounds, the smells, the food, the people, the happiness, the feeling of magic and wonder. That's what I love about Christmas today just as I did when I was a kid.

        This will be Kiley's first Christmas. She will be one year old in January so she won't remember it. None of us remember our first Christmas. But her parents will remember, and I will remember, and she will enjoy the moment as it happens even if the memory doesn't linger. Thinking back, I'm not sure which is the first Christmas I remember. The memories of five, six, and seven all sort of blend together, so I don't know for sure which memory of Christmas goes with which age. I do remember one Christmas for certain, though, because that year something different happened, something that stood out. If you are old enough, you probably remember it too.

        I turned nine years old in December of 1964. Christmas was coming and I, along with every other kid, was primed for the event by all of the lead-up that had been taking place since Thanksgiving. In school we had switched from Thanksgiving arts and crafts to Christmas arts and crafts and our classrooms were decorated with our creations as well as a Christmas tree, wreaths, and garland. The windows of the classroom were decorated with Christmas motifs using that white stenciling stuff that was so popular at the time. We were rehearsing the Christmas play and planning the Christmas party, everyone committed to bringing a particular "goody" that their mother had agreed to supply. The toy sections of various department store catalogs had been carefully perused and selections made in the full knowledge that there was never any guarantee that our wishes in that regard would be respected. The anticipation was unbearably ecstatic.
        The pathetically few Christmas TV specials designed for kids that were in existence back then were the final ingredient to our soup of excitement. In 1964 they consisted primarily of a Marionette feature that depicted "The Night Before Christmas" and "The Nativity". "The Night Before Christmas" as acted out by stringed puppets on TV, was mildly entertaining to a nine-year-old, but "The Nativity" was lame. We got enough of that kind of stuff in Sunday school. We always watched both of them anyway, regardless of their entertainment value. It was part of the tradition and, therefore, exciting. There was also the excellent "Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol" which we all loved and had been a holiday TV staple since I was seven.

        Things were proceeding towards Christmas in the usual way when out of the blue something new happened. On TV, they started showing advertisements for a new Christmas special. It was called "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer" and what glimpses we were afforded looked positively tantalizing. It was done in stop-motion animation, which made it stand out compared to the marionettes and the regular animation of Mr. Magoo. Everyone not a grown-up was talking about it in excited tones and had checked off the scheduled date, time and channel on their mental calendar.

        When the day of the airing finally arrived we were ready. I parted with my friends at dinnertime with the promise of comparing notes and critiquing the performance the next day. When the time arrived my whole family was clustered around the TV for the event which formed quite a crowd since I have nine brothers and sisters. I'm not sure all of them were present. My oldest brother was in the military at the time, my youngest brother was a baby, and my oldest sister was too busy being "engaged" to care about the truly important things in life like "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer", but everyone else was there with bells on.

        The show started right on time and it was absolutely fabulous. From the moment the snowman that looked and sounded like Burl Ives came out, I was glued to the set and spell-bound by the riveting tale of this heroic young reindeer that was unfolding. Incredible! It was all there - the songs, the drama, the excitement, the pathos. And the characters! From the frozen Burl Ives (the narrator) to Clarice (the love interest), Hermey (steadfast friend and future dentist), Yukon Cornelius (intrepid prospector), The Bumble (good God!), Santa, the elves, the reindeer, the Misfit Toys, what nine year old could ask for more? And the fact that it was all done in stop-action was mind boggling! By the time of the climactic ending, I knew I had seen something of great import in the annals of film-making and I went to bed impatient for the morrow when I could share my thoughts with my friends.

        Everyone I knew proclaimed it a great show and it was thoroughly discussed and opinions about its most salient points expressed. We all agreed that mistreating anyone simply because of a "non-conformity" was wrong, and we all came away from the experience with important lessons about compassion, inclusiveness, and the evil of intolerance firmly implanted in our pre-adolescent psyches.

        The cultural impact of "Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer" can not be overstated. An entire generation was conditioned to believe that being an individual and going your own way was not only acceptable but actually preferable to the stifling conformity of previous generations. This led directly to the rebellion against the status quo and the subsequent upheaval that was so indicative of the 60's. Non-conformity became the new religion as the young cast off the accepted norms of appearance and behavior.  A nation wide cult of 'do your own thing" followed, culminating in the youth of America adopting new individual forms of dress, conduct and expression that had everyone under the age of thirty looking, talking, and thinking in exactly the same way. Let diversity reign!

        The years following that pivotal debut were marked by further forays into the stop-action Christmas special genre. Success breeds imitation and a plethora of similar though generally inferior offerings ensued. I can't say that any of them had a comparable effect on me, though not being nine years old anymore may have had something to do with that. Today, "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer" is shown approximately a hundred million times during the Christmas season, which kind of takes the "special" out of Christmas special. But I'll be there to watch it at least one of those times along with the still excellent "Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol". If that doesn't get me in the Christmas spirit then it ain't Christmas.


Monday, December 8, 2014

Night, Night. Sleep Tight.

The Nightmare Henry Fuseli (1741–1825)

        "Ah sleep! It is a gentle thing, beloved from pole to pole." That is so true! Take it from, someone who often suffers from insomnia, Coleridge was absolutely right, there are few things as pleasant as sleep. Most of the time, that is. Sometimes it is not so pleasant. "To sleep, perchance to dream, ay there's the rub." The word "rub" means "problem" and Shakespeare was talking about the "big sleep", of course, but the little sleep can sometimes be no picnic either. Not all sleep is peaceful and, just as Hamlet feared, it's not the sleeping that is the problem, it's the dreaming.

        Yep, I'm talking about nightmares, the "bad dreams" that wake our children up in the middle of the night and are the bane of every young child and their sleep deprived mothers. What are they, these "boogie man" dreams that haunt the night? The "mare" in nightmare raises the image of a female horse, and I have seen art and even cartoons depicting a nightmare as a dark horse, but the word actually comes from the Old English word "maere"; a mythological demon from Germanic folklore that tormented with frightening dreams. (Why is Germanic folklore always so dark? Hansel and Gretel, Rumpelstiltskin, good Lord!) Regardless of where the word comes from the actuality comes from within, from ourselves. Essentially then, a nightmare is our selves scaring ourselves. No wonder they are so frightening. Who knows better than ourselves what we are afraid of?

        Kiley woke up from her nap the other day in an absolute "state". She was crying inconsolably, disoriented, I didn't know what the matter was. It took a while to calm her down and after ruling out any injury I came to the conclusion she had awakened from a nightmare. What else could it be? But that raises the question: do babies have nightmares, and if so, about what?

        Babies spend a great deal of time sleeping. The younger they are the more they sleep. So with all of that sleeping going on is there a correspondingly large amount of dreaming as well, and therefore the potential for a larger amount of nightmares? Surprisingly enough, some research indicates that the answer is "no". Babies do not dream a lot, researchers say; in fact they may not dream at all. Some neuroscientists believe that babies are actually dreamless for the first couple of years! This despite the fact that babies spend much more of their sleeping time (about twice as much) in the REM (rapid eye movement) phase of sleep than adults do, and it is in the REM phase that adults dream. Neuroscientists believe, however, that REM sleep serves a different function in infants. It allows babies' brains to form new neural pathways and for different parts of the brain to become connected, a prerequisite for memory. Memory seems to be essential to dreaming and perhaps we don't dream when we are babies for the same reason we don't remember being babies – a lack of the ability to store memories. Later, REM sleep aides in the development of language, (similarly, young birds learn to "sing" during REM sleep.) 

        It is believed that dreaming is a mental process that forms in early childhood only after the ability to imagine things visually and spatially has been achieved (somewhere near the end of the first two years.) Not surprisingly, it seems the initial dreaming of small children is more primitive than adult dreams are. Even at the advanced age of four or five, children typically describe dreams that are passive and plain with no characters that move around and engage in action. This might be logical. Imagination, which is what dreams seem to be made of, grows with experience. The more you know the more you can imagine, and young children are not renowned for their knowledge. It isn't until about the age of seven or eight that children begin to have dreams with more structure, action, and plot. This is the same time when children gain a clear idea of their own identity and so begin putting themselves into their own dreams.

        I find all of that kind of stuff fascinating but other "experts" disagree with it and I am not really buying it. Since infants can't talk, all opinions on whether they dream or not must be based on supposition. I am sure any dreams a one-year-old might have are far more primitive than the dreams of a forty-year-old or even an eight-year-old, but to assume that they do not dream at all is jumping to conclusions. It may be true that very young children have a limited ability to form memories but that merely suggests a capacity for unsophisticated dreams not a total lack of dreaming. In the same vein, the static and plain dreams reported by four and five-year-olds may merely be the result of a limited ability to express themselves rather than a limitation in dreaming. (Over the years, I have learned to take whatever a four-year-old tells me with a grain of salt.) My husband is fond of relating some truly complex and horrific dreams he had at the age of four or five. (But then, over the years I have learned to take everything my husband tells me with a grain of salt too.) Still, I probably agree that it isn't until the age of seven or eight that sleeping becomes the nightly adventure that it is for most of our lives. And it is probably around that age when the "nightmare" takes its classic form.

        Sigmund Freud said that "dreams are the windows to the subconscious" and that they are often filled with symbolic imagery that has meaning only on a subconscious level. It may be that some dreams are an attempt by the subconscious to work through some unresolved internal conflict, but I don't believe that all dreams or even most dreams have some deep hidden meaning wrapped in symbolic imagery. Sometimes a grizzly bear wearing your father's tie while eating your mother is just a grizzly bear wearing your fathers tie while eating your mother, but regardless of any lack of deep meaning it is still horrific and wakes you up with a start. And that's what we are talking about here. What do you do when your child, of any age, wakes up from a nightmare?

        The obvious answer is that you need to follow your natural instincts and console them. Regardless of the child's age, consolation is the first step and with pre-lingual children the last step. Soothing sounds and soothing actions work good on them. For older children, more may be needed. I try to help them allay their fears by talking about what frightened them and, depending on their age and level of emotional development, using calm language to ease their trepidation. Helping them to understand that what happens in dreams does not affect the waking world is good if you can pull it off (for God's sake never let children see any of that Freddy Kruger stuff), but not all children waking from a nightmare can use cool logic to calm themselves. When talking about a nightmare, I find it best if you can get them to do most of the talking. Just as with guilt, fear can be relieved by unburdening one's self, it's cathartic. Drinking a glass of water usually helps, not because they are thirsty but because it is a common and ordinary action that helps bring them back to the real world and has a calming effect.

        Some children have more nightmares than others for whatever reason. Sometimes having them keep a diary or journal can be helpful. Girls seem to take to this kind of thing more than boys but boys can get into it too. It can be cathartic and fun and also helps develop writing skills. There are journals designed strictly for recording nightmares (see here) and are whimsical and fun. Habitual nightmares, however, might be a sign of something serious going on, perhaps in the waking world, and should be taken seriously. If it gets to the point where you find yourself wondering if your child needs professional help dealing with such an issue, stop wondering, the answer is probably yes. Even if you are wrong, better safe than sorry.

        We all have "favorite" nightmares that we remember all of our lives and often tell other people about. Many of them were dreamed in our childhood. We even have recurring nightmares that pop up here and there throughout our lives. The city of dreams is full of neighborhoods good and bad, and we can never tell, upon laying down our heads, which neighborhood the sleep bus will let us off in. But we spend one third of our life asleep for a reason. The waking world is a weary place for both our bodies and our souls, and sleep a gift that is given and gratefully received, whatever dreams may come.


Monday, December 1, 2014

Inside Out

        The munchkin and I had a short week together last week due to the holiday. I only had her Monday and Tuesday, which gave me five days off for Thanksgiving. Excellent! What with cooking Thanksgiving dinner for my family and getting caught up on some other things I needed the time off. Weather-wise, Monday and Tuesday were gorgeous days where I live, which is in the Mid-Atlantic Region. Monday was especially nice with temperatures around 70 degrees. Wow! It doesn't normally get that warm in late November around here. I seized the opportunity to get Kiley outside even though it was windy, because we won't be seeing any more days like that for a while. Winter is just about upon us and if it is anything like last year's bitter cold we won't be spending much time outside. It's time to close the shutters and hunker down until spring.

That doesn't mean we won't ever go outside during the cold months. I like to get Kiley outside as much as possible even in the winter because I am a firm believer in the axiom that fresh air is good for you. It's not just the freshness of the air outside that is beneficial, it is also the freshness of the surroundings, the change of scenery. Spending too much time trapped in the house has a bad effect on children. I can see it in Kiley after a string of rainy days. Being confined to the kitchen and family room areas of my house gets to her after a while, and she starts going stir crazy. All the toys in the world can't change that. To relieve this I'll often allow her to spend some time in the living room, which she sees as a real treat. She loves it in the living room even though there are no toys, TV or anything special to do in there. It's just the change of scenery, something different; that makes the living room desirable to her, that and the lure of the forbidden.

When she gets really antsy I let her go upstairs which is like another whole world to her. If the living room is a treat to her, the upstairs is nirvana. There is like a whole new universe up there for her to explore – four bedrooms, two bathrooms, and a big hallway. I let her climb the steps herself to reach this wonderland which is an adventure in itself. She loves to climb.  We get on the king-sized bed and roughhouse. I sometimes even fill the tub with warm water and let her play in it like a pool. She brings some floaty –toys in with her. She loves the tub.

Despite the many joys that can be found inside, none of it can compare to the outside. Kiley loves to be outside. Outside is where freedom lives, even though I am with her the whole time. In the warm weather she goes out in the backyard every day and I let her run barefoot in the grass. We have a baby pool for her and a baby swing. My husband and I made a "secret garden" for her, tucked away in an isolated corner of the yard. She has to go through a gated arbor to enter it, covered with flowering vines, and there is a little bench where she can sit surrounded by flowers and little garden sculptures. She loves it in there, even though the butterflies scare her sometimes, and she likes to have the arbor gate closed behind her once she has entered. I suspect the older she gets the more appealing the "secret garden" will be; that is until she gets so old that the magic dims.

The "Secret Garden" when it was first planted. Before it became overgrown and wild!

I plan to take her outside as much as possible in the winter as well, because she likes it so much. There won't be as much to do in the cold, but the fresh air and change of scenery will do her good. When it snows she'll have a blast. You have to keep a close eye on little ones when they are outside in the winter, even more so than in the summer. In the summer a little sunscreen is all they need for protection against the elements, but the cold is much more dangerous than the sun and much harder to gauge. I'll have to keep a close eye on the weather reports this winter with a special interest in the wind and the chill factor. Fifteen or twenty minutes outside in the cold is about as much as toddlers can bear. You have to be sure to keep their fingers and ears covered and keep a close eye on their faces. When their cheeks turn red it is time to go in.

Once the holidays are over and we get into the deep winter of January and February the opportunities for outside forays become limited. You don't want to take a toddler outside when it is twelve degrees. It looks to be a long winter coming up but an eventful one. Kiley will turn one year old this winter, in January, and by the time the flowers start sprouting again she'll probably start talking. I predict one of the first words she learns will be "outside" – right after "Mommy", "Daddy" and, of course, "Nan".