My philosophy when it comes to toys, media and stimulation in general, is less is more. Growing up is challenging enough without adding flashing lights, incessant beeping and a random torrent of television images. Regular household routines, lots of time exploring outside, make believe and as many picture books as possible make more sense to me. We treat screen time the way we dole out ice cream: occasionally and with great ceremony. (In our house that’s usually about half an hour once a week.)

Gifts are enormously tricky then. Because unless other people understand and value your philosophy, the noisy, plastic, beeping battery powered crap starts pouring in. It’s fun. It’s cheap. And of course, children love it. They love it like elderly people like slot machines and telephone scams. But that doesn’t mean it’s healthy.

My Toddler’s Precious Mind and Heart Are Not For Sale. 

I don’t want to give one inch to the merciless marketing aimed at children. It’s sophisticated and employs a knowledge of child psychology much deeper and more nuanced than my own. Allowing my son to become familiar with omnipresent Disney characters is a slippery slope. I don’t need him instantly recognizing Elsa on every single package of yogurt, pretzels, juice and toothpaste available.

Why would I give strangers, who clearly want to sell us things we don’t need, such a powerful hook? They’ll have to work harder than that. (And I know they will. Nothing short of moving to Amish country could  totally stop the consumer machinery we live in.) Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood is a great resource for this topic.

My Toddler Isn’t Making Choices, I am.

He’s still too young to make decisions about what we are buying, or even what he wants. It seems like a violation of his capacity for choice to put him into clothes emblazoned with brand names, phrases or characters. He’ll be ready to choose them himself someday, but for now, I prefer to keep it very neutral so he can relate to other kids as a kid first rather than as a “fan” of the Ninja Turtles.

We All Have to Live with These Objects. We Should All Enjoy Them. 

Everyone in our household has to live with the toys, clothing and household necessities that belong to our son. I prefer for these things to be calming, quiet, and as neutral as possible, because that’s how I want our house to feel. Beautiful. Restful. Calm. Happy. Welcoming to everyone.

Toddler Gift Guidelines

Here are the rough parameters we’ve worked out so far. If an object passes these tests, it usually works out well in our home.

  • No batteries – batteries do the work a child can and should be doing.
  • No obnoxious sounds – this is a simple kindness for the rest of the household. My toddler is noisy enough without any help, thanks.
  • Avoid plastic, Favor Natural Materials – plastic toys are easily broken, and often have lots of tiny, hard to corral pieces that contribute to clutter in the house. They feel insubstantial and disposable. I believe children also notice the difference between something made with quality and something cheaply made. Whenever possible, I like to give my child something that feels sturdy, solid, well made and pleasurable to look at, hold and interact with.
  • No Branding, Characters or Phrases – toys that are thinly disguised promotional materials are everywhere. Why have a bike with princesses on it when the bike itself should be the cause of excitement and stimulation? It’s to reinforce a message about Princesses and to get us to buy more, and I want no part of that. One thing at a time.

Simple. Beautiful. Built to Last.

These guidelines can be hard to stick to- it’s tempting, even pleasurable, to give in when you see how children delight in the cheap and easy. But it comes with a hangover for everyone in the house.

How do you choose what toys enter your house? How do you decide what to get rid of?

 


Don’t believe them when they tell us we’re more divided than ever.

Our country has been divided from the start, on the question of whether or not “inalienable rights” applied equally to every human being, or only to white men. We fought a civil war on this very question.

My understanding of history had been that although this fundamental paradox was written right into the Constitution, the forefathers were blinded by their time and culture, where white male power was sacrosanct. The history shared by my teachers, church and family said, yes, these inequalities existed at first, but we have all worked over time to overcome them and create a more inclusive and tolerant society. Tolerance is what makes our nation great. The melting pot(!) and the moral arc of the universe bends towards justice(!) and so on.

I believed that, even after I got out into the world and saw examples to the contrary. Examples of imperialism, commercial exploitation and our government’s blatant interference in the political processes of other countries. I told myself that the United States was mostly a force for good in the world, despite these ugly examples. That we Americans were always trying to be better.

The election of Donald Trump has deeply shaken my belief in the goodness of our country.

I have been unable to comprehend how anyone could choose Mr. Trump over Mrs. Clinton. All questions of policies aside (not that his policies were ever made clear), his violent temper, self-aggrandizement and aggressive bullying forced me to conclude he was unfit for office.

But what this election has shown me is that at least half of the country believes the America of the past was better and they are willing to pay any price to go back. I can’t believe that they looked at candidate Trump and thought “This is a man who looks incredibly even keeled and well prepared for the job of running the country.” I can believe they thought, “If he can’t pump the brakes, no one can.”  They believe their values are under assault, and they voted for someone who seems like he’s not afraid of a fight.

They believe our country was more moral when it didn’t tolerate gay marriage. They believe it was more just before the Black Lives Matter movement. They believe it was more prosperous before the crash of 2008. (Hard to argue there.) They are angry.

Donald Trump’s anger and sneering displays of power reflected their feelings of frustration and catered to their alienation. This does not mean that every single vote for Donald Trump was racist and evil. I imagine many people cast that vote with deep misgivings, but knew the alternative would continue down a path they don’t wish to accept. And like it or not, we have to accept those votes and voices as part of the democratic process. Freedom means each citizen may draw their own conclusions.

For my part, I want to see The United States of America live up to the very simple, very lofty ideal set forth by our founding fathers. The glittering ideal they expressed before they gave in the dull status quo of white men only.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident,

that all men are created equal,

that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,

that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

What beautiful, immortal simplicity. We are all equal, intrinsically, basically, incontrovertibly. And yet, how far we still fall short of this elegant principal.

I believe that our country is never closer to this ideal than when we guarantee equal rights to all people, regardless of their color, sexual orientations, religions of physical abilities. We can’t guarantee equality under the law by favoring conservative Christian viewpoints above all others. Ask the citizens of Iran how enforcing religious laws has worked for their country. Equality under the law preserves freedom of religion, but not just for people whose ideas we agree with.

Equality under the law for all people means that gay couples should have the same rights enjoyed by other legal unions. Equality under the law for all people means that black communities deserve the same careful, consistent policing that white communities enjoy. Equality under the law for all people means minority kids get the same educational opportunities and resources white suburban kids get. Equality under the law for all people means that Muslim Americans need not fear deportation.

The only comfort I can find is very thin indeed. It’s vigilance, plain and simple.

Vigilance is personal. Vigilance is making decisions every day about how to model the values I hold. How can I support the tolerant, open minded society I want to see? What charities do I support? What jokes do I call out? What do I let slide? What do I model for my own child? How can I have more diversity in my social circle? What do I share with my students in my classroom about this beautiful, frightening, inspiring world?

Vigilance demands my engagement in my community, self-discipline and spiritual practice. Only having left leaning friends won’t help me bridge the gap. If diversity and tolerance are important to me, I have to step up and talk to people I disagree with in a constructive way, with love.

Maybe that comfort isn’t so thin after all. It demands a great deal of growth for me and anyone else who wants to continue moving forward together.

 



Journal Illustration by Becky Kazana

Asking myself Why Not? quite a lot lately. Also, noticing that there are rarely perfect fits in life, but often there are patterns. This sketch began with my toddler scribbling on the page- a testament to the freedom of imperfection.




In the wake of yet another mass shooting, I found myself searching back through “For the Time Being” by Annie Dillard for this passage.

“There was never a more holy age than ours, and never a less.
There is no less holiness at this time- as you are reading this- than there was the day the Red Sea parted…There is no whit less enlightenment under the tree by your street than there was under the Buddha’s bo tree…There is no whit less might in heaven or on earth than there was the day Jesus said “Maid, arise” to the centurion’s daughter, or the day Peter walked on water, or the night Mohammed flew to heaven on a horse. In any instant the sacred may wipe you with it’s finger. In any instant the bush may flare, your feet may rise, or you may see a bunch of souls in a tree. In any instant you may avail yourself of the power to love your enemies, to accept failure, slander, or the grief of loss; or to endure torture.
Purity’s time is always now.”

Let’s not despair. Let’s look inside ourselves and decide who we want to be.

 



The zinnias are coming up like mad. I love their riotous colors- fuschia, an orange that’s almost red, and a striking pale peach for surprise. They are stalky creatures, growing tall with big green hairy leaves that come in perfect pairs, like bunny ears. The tight green little buds are scalloped where the petals will unfurl and when they do, such colorful, vibrant faces! Impossible not to consider them perhaps the flower that laughs the loudest. They are straightforward, humble flowers, the kind that don’t mind growing in ditches or next to barns. There is nothing fussy or pretentious, just easy, sun-loving, happy little blooms.

This simplicity and straightforwardness are becoming more and more valuable to me. I’m cutting the zinnias right from the garden and putting them into any container I have at hand- a rinsed out pickle jar works just as well as a proper vase, and if the wind comes up from the ocean and sends it tumbling over, there is less upset when it smashes.

What I am trying to say is that I am worrying less about what my life looks like, and more about how it makes me feel. And less fuss leaves room for more of what matters to me.


We have ants.  It’s as if the veil of reality has been temporarily lifted and I have begun to see that the whole house, which I thought was made of boards and beams and nails and tin and wires and pipes and screens and paint, is actually made up of ants. They are swarming in the corners. They are pouring up mysteriously from cracks in the floorboards. They are moving in angry semicuicular currents underneath the microwave and seething in the damp seam of countertop behind the kitchen faucet and the wall.

We are fighting back. Whenever we spot one of these writhing masses of shiny insect bodies, we place a clear plastic trap filled with borax nearby. Soon, they team around it, drinking greedily, antennae waving excitedly. They drink and drink. They are supposed to bring the poison back to their colony. It is supposed to end them. Soon, the clear liquid inside the traps is gone, converted into the dead carcasses of ants. But still more come. They come and come and come. They come to new corners of the house. They come to places that food could never possibly be. They crawl along the cabinet by the door where we keep our shoes and keys and wallets. They come marching under the door to an empty corner, just to show their strength. Their dead bodies litter the floor like dust. Industrious, aren’t they? Relentless. Determined. Busy with their tasks.

In my own life, I have been on an endless quest for the defining transformative moment. I like the idea of a big, grand, once and for all solution. I think most people do. It’s very human, or at least, very American, to assume that one day I’ll finally do the big wonderful thing and suddenly my life will snap together,  like the satisfying click of the final puzzle piece.

I can devote huge amounts of energy to an overhaul project that promises to improve my life, especially if it involves my immediate environment. Eric and I have moved 23 times in our ten years of married life, and in each home, I’ve spent tremendous amounts of time making the house just so.  Refinishing furniture, sewing curtains, re-organizing relentlessly. It’s the lure of never having another mess occur. It’s the idea that maybe, finally, everything will be put in order once and for all and I can finally get on to the real things. The real things I want to do with my life.

Joan Didion once said that she wrote in order to know what she thought.

Can that be done sporadically, on the rare days when there is no work, and the laundry is all put away and the baby is napping? One doubts it.

I think it must be necessary to marry the big push with the daily grind. You know the grind already, don’t you? The get up and make coffee and get dressed and drive to work kind of daily grind. It’s not my favorite, but it is part of life. It’s what the ants are doing. They aren’t thinking about much, they’re just doing what needs doing, what life demands of them. Ah, but the project. The project I love. I love the excitement of possibility. I love the surge of energy that flows into me- I become almost superhuman when there is a deadline to be met or a party to be thrown or a room to be painted or a suitcase to pack.

I’m not looking to routinize everything, to have a rigid schedule that I have to follow to clock my creative time. But I do want to find a better balance between these two parts of life so that my daily grind is not missing the creative and so that projects are not limited to home improvement.

How do you find a balance between your daily realities and your creative aspirations?