We’re doing time in the kitchen on a Tuesday afternoon. It’s 4 p.m. and a grim, slushy twilight has already descended, the long December night beginning here and now. Give me a play-date, give me a phone call, give me the reprieve of a sisters’ Dance Show, give me a cocktail, please. Anything but two girls fighting over a wooden build-a-teddy-bear kit neither of them has glanced at in years. Ava has claimed the pink polka-dot bear outfit and the smiley bear face, while Carmen unleashes furious shrieks that jag across my brain like a needle scratching a record.
Patience, I think. Breathe, I think. I don’t want to exile them to the cold front porch and lock the door, as I have during previous fights. I’m trying so hard to be good -- cooking black bean soup for dinner, ordering the family Christmas card online, setting up an art project at the kitchen table so the girls can make homemade holiday cards for their teachers.
But therein lies my error. Even in the sunniest of moods, kids’ arts n’ crafts can leave me seething with irritation. Despite my best intentions to be a cheerful, contented mother, I inevitably start to begrudge the gobs of glue and the paper scraps everywhere and the frustrated 5-year-old begging me to write her name. Timing the art project with December sleet is a surefire recipe for unhappiness. Mommy’s simmering resentment nourishes nobody.
Why do I insist on taking on MORE in the holiday season, when anything extra feels overwhelming? I should have brought the girls to Amy’s Bakery for pumpkin whoopee pies after school and drank a decaf latte in the company of familiar strangers. But I wanted to be good. I wanted to be generous. Every year, I want my holiday column to exude joy and gratitude, and instead I find myself releasing pent-up stress. What is it about December’s expectations that oppress us? Why can’t we lay our lists aside, forget the perfectionist dreams of seasonal bliss, and just be?
Lately the true joy of my days comes at bedtime, settling in to read Harry Potter. For months I wrestled with the question of whether my children (aged 5 and 7) were too young for the tween-aged wizard. The Dark Arts that Harry must defend against are seriously dark. Eventually I stopped debating and dove in, because I wanted to read Harry Potter again. Not "The Magic Treehouse" or "My Father’s Dragon" or some other more age-appropriate fantasy. It was a selfish motive -- to immerse myself in J.K. Rowling’s elaborate magical world and share it with my daughters.
As we snuggle into Ava’s bed, the kitchen drudgery and freezing rain and fighting slips away. Ava gives a delicious shiver on the pillow, eyes lit with anticipation:
"Every time I say the words ‘Professor Snape’, I get a little tingle along my back," she breathes.
Carmen (age 5) is not so moved by the nuances of character and plot. She prefers to play with her stuffed ducks while I read, occasionally chiming in with questions. We laugh at the antics of the mischievous Weasley twins, wonder at the details of Potions and Herbology lessons. Still, I fear the backbone of the story is too scary for them -- Harry’s parents were murdered by the evil wizard Voldemort when he was only a baby. Rowling’s books offer a mix of accessible humor, skillful prose and imaginative brilliance, all woven into an age-old battle of light versus dark. Will anyone suffer terribly if I’ve made the wrong choice and it is too early for Hogwarts?
As our children grow older, we have to keep deciding what is appropriate for them -- until that power no longer rests in our hands. I didn’t want to tell Ava about the children shot at Sandy Hook elementary school last Friday. My instinct was to shelter her from that unthinkable horror for as long as possible. But I also didn’t want her to hear what had happened from someone else.
"Our world is insane," says meditation guru Adyashanti. "The sooner we can accept that, the less we will struggle." I pulled my 7-year-old onto my lap when she asked me how old were the children who were killed. I felt I couldn’t bear it. But I did. I held her tight and spoke the truth into the musk of her hair.
"Please don’t cry, Mommy," she said in a grave tone.
Surely reading about the courageous adventures of an 11-year-old wizard will fill us with hope and bravery in the face of encroaching darkness.