Tuesday, June 15, 2010

A Pause for Thought

School is over for the year and all of a sudden, so is my state of mind - right now, I am over this city. I am sick of the noise, the new rank 'summer sewer' smells, the oppressive heat, dashing for subways with two kids - guitars, backpacks, school projects in hand. This feeling has crept up on me like a surprise birthday party, the door has been thrown open and 'Surprise!', I am ready for summer travels.

The next few months will, hopefully, restore my energy and enthusiasm. I will once again be the life and soul of the Manhattan family party. So, I am going to take a few weeks pause from blogging. I will return, refreshed and inspired by a break from the crazy, wonderful life that is raising kids in Manhattan. I have some new plans afoot and look forward to sharing them all with you when I return.

Have a great summer, dear readers.

Torie B

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Getting a Fair Shot in the Big Apple

This week we have all had to go through our medicals for our Green Card applications. Uncle Sam likes to make sure that we are up to scratch on immunisations, are clear of TB and other nasty diseases they would rather we did not distribute to the natives. Between the four of us we have had 10 needles stuck into our arms, involving six visits to two different doctors. As I explained to the junior non-natives why they had to have yet another 'shot' into their pink, plump, perfect skin, my mind began to sum up the long journey we have made to get to this point, to review all the decisions we have made which lead us here, to ask myself "Is it worth it?".

The Green Card Doctor's surgery was a production line of hope and despair. The sterile waiting room was peppered with non-natives, all willing to wait, shoulder to shoulder for two hours for a doctor to stick needles in them. At one end there was a large screen showing old Charlie Chaplin movies. Silent, comedic entertainment that dragged out the odd chuckle from the young and old alike. As we struggled to keep our jumpy kids occupied, a doctor or nurse would come to the waiting room and call aloud the next victim up for the pin-cushion olympics. As I watched each person take their turn, I thought about their story and the decisions they had made to get to be sharing the same experience. Most people seemed tense, confused, struggling to speak or understand English. The process is confusing enough for a person with English as a first language, for an elderly Chinese couple, the whole experience looked to be just too much.

Later in the day, we took a ferry to Governor's Island to go for a bike ride. As I stood, holding my hair out of my eyes, the Statue of Liberty commanded the horizon before me. I looked at her raised hand and forward stance, feeling the sense of hope that she was intended to inspire. She has stood guard in New York Harbour for 124 years, welcomed the poor, the hungry, the displaced and the hopeful. I could imagine the looks on the faces of those who had arrived on ships after gruelling journeys as she came into view. Like me, they would see in her a new beginning and gain comfort from her solidity, her affirmation of liberty and opportunity. My eye trained down to her ladyship's neighbour, Ellis Island, where on the 1st of January 1892, a fifteen year old Irish girl called Annie Moore was the first immigrant to be processed there. Annie's immigration process would have lasted three to five hours, she would have had her famous 'six second' medical, before being allowed to start her new life in the US. I wonder how Annie felt about her medical. Did she like her life here? Did it live up to her expectations? Did she get a fair shot at the 'American Dream'?

Being an immigrant means that you have a certain set of qualities. You are prepared to take risks. You are able to change, adapt and grow. You have courage. You make sacrifices. Like Annie, we will gain a lot from our 'Green Card', but we have made some personal sacrifices to get it. On the way to school I listened to my two kids discuss what they would like to be when they grow up. After trying on lots of hats (artist, author, cab driver, musician, scientist, teacher) they both unanimously decided that the best job they could possibly get was to be President of the United States of America. When I explained to them that, even if they gave it their best shot, this was a job that was not open to them, "You have to be born in the US to able to become President", they looked at me with a mixture of disbelief and disappointment. They feel that this is their country now, for better or worse and as a result they have the same sense of entitlement and belonging as the native kids. But alas, unless there is a change of law, they will have to give another type of job a shot.

"How about Charlie Chaplin?", I said. "What? The weird looking guy with the big foot and funny moustache we saw when we got our shots?". I told them how the 'weird guy' was born in the East End of London and moved to the US aged 21. He didn't get to become President, but he did become one of the most iconic movie stars of all time. You know, if you give it a fair shot, you just never know what the land of opportunity will deliver.

yours, lobbying Congress to amend Article II, Section 1, Clause 5 of the United States Constitution

Torie B

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Miss New York 2010

Since arriving in Manhattan there is no doubt that I have been 'Miss New York'. [Note: 'Miss' is slightly too flattering, given it is my 11 year wedding anniversary today, but 'Mrs New York' doesn't have the same ring to it]. I have embraced everything this city has had to offer. Arriving with an open heart and an open mind, ready to make the best of what life had thrown up - a new start in this wonderful but complex city. And like any contestant in the real 'Miss New York' there has been lots of gushing, beaming and positively bursting at the seams with enthusiasm.

But like the glassy eyed beauty contestant, the bubbly discourse only tells half the story. Behind the coiffured facade lies something a little deeper. Miss New York has been missing a lot recently. You all know about the garden longings. But as I sit here on our wedding anniversary the other 'missings' can no longer be ignored. Today is also my brother's birthday and it is hard to be so far away. Granted we have both travelled the world and spent many birthdays apart, but this time it feels harder because I was the one who left and what is more he has his first child on the way, soon waiting to meet it's Auntie. I can't help it, I feel guilty.

Guilt is an emotion that mothers feel too much. I know the reasons why I feel it but it still follows me around like a beauty contestant's topless photo on the Internet. Why can't we just can't shake it off? I suppose it is because Mothers love to look out for everybody, be there to physically hold their hand. Throw them a party. Put the candles in the birthday cake. Some how a card and a phone call doesn't seem good enough.

Another example is my best friend. She lives in Barcelona and is expecting her first baby today. Yes, today is going to be a tough day. Since the evening that we were in her parent's house, aged 18, crying and hugging over her packed bags ready to move to university the next day, saying our goodbyes, I have never missed her this much. I just want to be there and hold her child. Have that connection with her or she that was taken for granted.

For people who move abroad, leaving behind parents and grandparents is also very hard. You are that much further away, they get older and the long flight becomes less pleasant. They see their grandchildren less than they used to, though when they do visit, they get to stay for longer. In a way that means that they get to just slot into the kids' daily routine, which is a special insight for Grandparents who live far away. Then there are very elderly grandparents, who just can't travel. When you move abroad, you think about all that precious time you are missing and the responsibility of caring for them that you should be sharing with your family members who stayed behind.

Sometimes calling, emailing or facebooking can get difficult. Maybe some people will resent the fact that you have managed to find happiness in your new life. People live busy lives, and it is not always easy even keeping up with friends who live nearby. The 'Guilt addicts' can use that to beat themselves up - " it's because I left, moved on, left them behind". The movers just have to hang on in there and hope that the good friends will continue to make an effort.

In this global, well-travelled world most people live away from their family and friends for a period of time. The reality is that with such freedom and mobility, no one can be with all the people that they love all of the time. It is just a part of modern life. Personal circumstances have made me very sensitive to missing people, so I understand why this experience resonates. It's why I am more of the 'Miss' than anything else in 'Miss New York 2010'.

yours, working at animal shelters and helping to solve world peace

Torie B

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Book Club: I am Nujood, Age 10 and Divorced

In the last year, since moving to Manhattan, a lot of things have changed in my life. One of those changes has been my book club. In St. Alban's, I had a real, live, wine drinking, gossip sharing, shoulder-to-cry-on book club. We would meet once a month, discuss the book (sometimes), listen to each others' problems (half of the time) and laugh (all of the time). Now, I have a new kind of book club - an online book club, attached to the wonderful, NYC Mom's blog that I am lucky to write for. Each month we read a selected book and post a blog about how the book as made us feel. Has it made us think about our lives in a new or different way? This month we are reviewing 'I am Nujood, Age 10 and Divorced' by Nujood Ali with Delphine Minoui.

Nujood Ali, the author and protagonist of this book, lays before the world, in this her true story, how she came to be seeking a divorce from a Yemeni court at the age of ten. It is an insight into the plight of some children in the Yemen, who are forced by their family to marry when they are still in the depths of their childhood. As harrowing as her story is, it is also very inspiring and empowering. Nujood fought against all of her upbringing and had the courage to demand a divorce, alone. As I began the book, I wondered how on earth such a cruel life could relate to my own life? But the further I got into it, Nujood's voice was so compelling, fearless and engaging that she forced me to consider the wider issues of the power of independent thought.

The scale of controlling people's behaviours, thoughts and freedom is a very large one. On one hand, you have the world that Nujood lives in. Extreme poverty, strong religious beliefs and a complete disregard for the sanctity of a child's mind. On the other, you have Manhattan. I have tried before in previous blogs to analyse what it is that makes New York so special. Looking at this unique city through Nujood's eye, I fall in love all over again with it's liberal principles. No matter what creed, colour, sex, point of view you come from, you have a place here. Independent thought is positively encouraged. Frankly, it is a prerequisite. Try turning up at the school gates without an opinion on the lead in the New York Times and you'll soon learn.

I was brought up in rural Northern Ireland. The phrase 'children should be seen and not heard', was a regular part of my childhood. I'm not claiming to be quite able to relate to Nujood, but I feel an empathy with her plight that perhaps my liberal, Manhattan children never will. One of the reasons we were able to leave behind their English prep school education was because we loved the progressive teaching at their new school. My kids are actively being taught to think for themselves on a daily basis. There is not enough room on this blog to talk about what an incredible change that has been for them, safe to say that it is making my job as a parent (sometimes you just need to do what you're bl**dy told!) much more difficult.

So, how did this child, Nujood aged 10, come to have this powerful ability to think beyond her poverty, her family's expectations, her society's pressures and beyond, even, her age? Sometimes, it isn't your post code, your zip code or your remote Yemeni village that decides your ability to think against the common grain. Child brides happen even in my new adopted country (ok, freak suicidal cults make headlines but are not exactly mainstream) and Yemeni women maybe think the niquab is better than ripping their faces with scalpels, in the way that some 'Western' women do in order to 'fit into' their society. Independent thought is not for sale, it can't be bought. But it can be taught, fostered and nurtured in all of us. You just have to say what you think and fight for it. Hmmmm, that sounds like blogging to me...

yours, thinking independently,

Torie B

Dishing the dirt: I was given this book by the publisher for free. They know that my independent thought protocol is so strong that their kind gift will not influence my view of the book. But, if you click thru and buy the book - it will help pay for my kids' 'free thinking' education. JOKE! It won't.

Interested in Nujood's Story? She was nominated, along with Hillary Clinton and Condoleezza Rice as Glamour Magazine's Women of the Year in 2008.

Come tweet with us at #svmomsreads

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Green with Envy

The garden longing returns....

Our new urban world seems to want to torment us with garden thoughts, wishes and memories of our old garden in St.Albans. It was 91 degrees yesterday, too hot for a visit to the park. A perfect day for after school fun in our old back garden, dancing through sprinklers. I can picture my son run, dive and tease the rainbow of water, with an equal desire to miss the cold water and to dance in the middle of it's playful spray. He would run at full speed down the water slide, grinning from ear to ear. Without a care in the world and sometimes, without any modesty.....whipping off his uniform, down to his bare skin.

I throw open the big windows of our apartment to let the air in and stand and stare at the Hudson River. The view doesn't inspire me today.

I go to a photography exhibition at my friend's lower east side penthouse. The exhibition was inspiring, her deck with a garden (yes, ACTUAL grass) with a view of the Brooklyn Bridge and her swimming pool, with a view of the Empire State Building made me feel sick with envy.

I go to do the school pick up. My daughter comes out of school with her pride and joy, a little pot plant that she nurtured from a seed as part of her 'Plants and Nature' social studies curriculum. "Mummy, Mummy, I know all about growing plants, can we plant a miniature garden on our windowsill?". I picture all the bulbs, shrubs and trees that we all planted together as a family in our old garden. I hear her say to her teacher with pride, while she is staring intently the ant farm and worm compost in her classroom, "My Daddy used to kill all the slugs, ants and worms in our old garden, he didn't like them because they ate his plants. I would help him by hitting them on the head with big stones". I can see her, crouched down, her legs so little, her bottom was touching the path, whacking these poor little garden creatures with scary ferocity and focus.

So, we go to the hardware store, go home, throw open the window again and plant our windowsill garden. Every morning, after breakfast, she waters her garden and asks the eternal question, "When will they flower?". I look at the garden and will it into life.

Regular readers will know that it is about this time that I turn the negative into positive. So, here goes. I'll give it my best shot.

Whilst we are no longer masters of our own green oasis, we have become borrowers of others. In the autumn of last year we planted some bulbs in a public garden in our neighbourhood. It has become part of our routine to walk past it and pick out which brightly coloured friend belongs to us. It is nice to know that we have added something to the New York scenery. Then, a few weeks ago, we joined some friends to help 'green up' a park in Chelsea. We spent the afternoon digging, planting, spreading compost with friends and complete strangers. As we worked as a team, bonded and toiled, local residents and passers-by stopped to talk to us, thanked us for making their park nicer, took pictures and smiled at the sight of New Yorkers who give up their free time to make this city greener. My son still talks about 'his rose bush' in Chelsea, so whilst Clement Moore Park may belong to Chelsea, there is a little piece of it that belongs to us too.

Today I am packing to get ready for a trip to Maine to stay with friends at their country house over Memorial Weekend. I am overjoyed at the plans afoot for the kids. Exploring and building dens in their wood. Pottering on the river in their boat. Bar-b-ques and garden games. So, again, when life moves and creates a hole. Somehow, something comes along to fill it. Friends. And even better than that, friends with a garden!

yours, with dirt under the nails of her perfect Manhattan manicure

Torie B

Sunday, May 23, 2010

The Den of Creativity

My kids are professional den builders. By that I mean they spend a great portion of their time constructing their own little schools, houses, hospitals and concert halls out of pillows, cushions, sheets and anything else they can find. About once a week our apartment is transformed (read trashed) into a living, sprawling, chaotic den that never seems to be finished. They rarely sit or do anything in the dens, the point seems to be to build (read turn tidy apartment upside down) and discuss (read argue) and create (read drive me crazy).

The most recent one occupied a frenzied three hours of their time and as I ear wigged outside the door of my son's bedroom (read standing dithering about whether or not to make them start to tidy it before bed), I heard my daughter ask him if he wanted to come over to her den to have some dinner and watch a movie. I skulked away with a smile on my face, treasuring having overheard a part of their play talk. Their den building is such an important part of their relationship and their development. After school, they rarely ask to watch TV, instead a pact is usually made in the lift on the way up to play dens together. I can see that the den playing allows them to try out new personalities, to try out new adult like behaviours and to role play. It is a massively positive thing. So, why, oh, why won't the Control Freak Voices in my head leave me to let them get on with it?

With every slam of the linen cupboard door, Clean Voice says, "You'll have to wash those sheets again'. With every request for sticky tape, Tidy voice says "You'll have to spend hours picking little bits of tape off the wooden floor". With every cushion that disappears off the sofa and down the corridor, Neat voice says "Put it back!!". The den this morning, just about pushed me over the edge. They had spent most of yesterday building it and I had pushed the bad voices to the back of my head and let them keep it over night. In the cold light of day, however, when I needed to get them out the door in a hurry, the chaos behind the door was almost giving me palpitations. I did not have the time to sort it (it would take at least an hour) and I had no time to nag them to sort it (which would take at least 2 hours, lots of threats, raised voices, wailing etc).

The reality is that I just cannot live in chaos. Back in the UK I would let them leave their dens in the garden, summer house or playroom. The luxury of space meant that I could close the door and let their den of creativity live to see another day. But here in Manhattan, I just can't. Every bit of space is accounted for, filled and there is no margin for error. The voices in my head have just got too loud. Before moving here I thought a perfect day of shopping would be heading to 5th Avenue, the reality is that it is the The Container Store that now has me practically weak at the knees. They bring out a new space saving device and I'm stampeding up 6th Ave.

So, something has to give. Either the kids get less creative or I tell the Control Freak Voices to pack their bags, there's no place for them here in Manhattan. My daughter knocks on the door and asks me if I want to come and see her new den. It's a writing den, a place where we can blog together, she says. As I pull back the sheet she has her laptop ready and a cushion for each of us. The Control Freak Voices flights are booked.

yours, from below a sheet

Torie B.

Friday, May 14, 2010

I'm Just a Girl Who Can't Say No...

A couple of weeks past, our school held a community talk on 'How to say no to your child'. These events are normally really informative, but I decided to give this one a miss. You know...don't you just say "No"? Sometimes I think our generation of parents spend too much time dancing around our kid's emotional well being. Sometimes we all just need black and white, we need someone to clearly draw the line and stand by it. Plus, I felt I had an idea of what the speaker was going to say. I know all the alternatives to "No" - distraction when they are toddlers, offering alternatives, reasoning and explaining when they are older. Yip, I've tried it all. On the days when I have woken up with my Mary Poppins head on, I've embraced positive parenting with a slightly manic look on my face, but by the time bedtime comes round, Mary Poppins has packed her bags and flown out the window.

There is no doubt that positive parenting works, but it is utterly exhausting. I have met some parents in New York who made a decision from before their kids were born to never use the word "No". Maybe this happens elsewhere, but it is the first time I have encountered it. I recognise that you have to be a very resourceful, creative and strong parent to do this but I wonder what happens when that child becomes an adult and has to cope with the big hitting "NOs!" in the real world. So, I have adopted a position somewhere in between the two styles and I really feel that it is this kind of inconsistent, schizophrenic parenting that makes me the mother I am.

The ability and frequency with which I utter the word "No" on a daily basis with my kids is verging on Olympic and living in NYC has produced a whole new set of "Nos". Here are some daily examples. Mum, can I have homemade chocolate pancakes with maple syrup for breakfast [on a school day]? No. Can I wear flip flops to school, x does? No. Can I wear makeup to school, y does? No. Can I throw my apple peel out of the window [on 21st floor]? No. Can I race the elevator by running down the fire exit stairs? No. Can I jump over the subway turnstile? No. Can I walk the rest of the way by myself to school? No. Can I have a ice cream double cone with M&M, oreo, rainbow sprinkles [at 8.15am]? No. Can I have a dunkin' donut? No. You get the picture. By the time I have picked them up and had the same conversation, but exactly in reverse on the way back from school, I realise that I have not given a positive response all day. If the community talk had been "How to say yes to your child", it would have been more up my street.

Wanting more, pushing and questioning the boundaries are exactly what kids should do, so I realise my kids are not alone in this behaviour. [PLEASE let them not be alone!?]. As a human race, the fact that we are always questioning, pushing, wanting and driving has enabled us to do amazing things...finding cures for diseases, inventing the world wide web, creating SpongeBob Square Pants. But I wonder when does it all gets too much? Where do you draw the line? Rather than being a cumulative cycle of growth and discovery, you start to get into negative territory.

My exasperation with my kids' demands was brought down to earth this week, when my husband correctly pointed out that the kids are only mirroring our behaviour. We have always been active, interested and engaged people in the community and world around us, but living in New York, that active mind set has developed into a near drug like habit. There are so many great things going on, all easily accessible that I feel like a child in a sweet shop. I want to do it all....I just can't say no. Take this week, I have packed every minute with an activity, accepted every invitation to go out and still managed to fit in a duathalon on Mother's Day. I then spend the next few days wondering why I am so tired, under the weather and frankly, a bit to jumpy on the "No!" front with the kids. I need to slow down, recognise that this is not a sprint. New York (hopefully!) will be my backyard for a long time so I need to take the slow plod approach I used on my duathalon instead.

New York is the ideal place for the energetic, the driven and the hungry but every once in a while you have to say "No", because in the end we all need to hear it once in a while.

Yours, trying to resist opening an email entitled 'Free, fun activities to do with your kids in NYC, NOW!'

Torie B