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

Thursday, May 6, 2010

An Irish State of Mind

The Alicia Keys song 'Empire State of Mind' is one of my favourite songs at the moment, I love her voice and can relate to a lot of her emotions about the 'concrete jungle where dreams are made, where there's nothing you can't do'. Since arriving here in August, being in an Empire State of Mind has been my modus operandi and I have thrived on it. This week, however, I have come to wonder whether, sometimes, you need to step outside of the Manhattan state of mind and broaden your horizons. This place seems to do some funny things to some people who have been here for too long.

Take one person whom I have met twice since we moved. The first time we met, she was introduced to me as being a 'socialite'. Really? A real live one? Okay, this will be interesting. As she gave me a three second scan with her eyes, she obviously clocked two things. First, I was of no use to her. Although I was 'social', I was also 'lite', far from a heavyweight in Manhattan social circles, so could not help her in her quest for cocktail party world domination. Second, I was younger than her. She pulled her face into a tight smile and said, "So, I guess there are lots of young mothers in Ireland?". With the arch of her eyebrow it was clear that she was picturing me and my fellow celtic mothers as teenage delinquents, who didn't understand birth control, had no ambition and stood around street corners in cheap denim, smoking Benson Hedges. My instinct was to pull her hair and make irreverent insinuations about her place of birth (What? That's what good Irish girls do!), but instead I said graciously, "Well, given that most of my friends are in Ireland as well as scattered all over the globe, some with kids, some without, I really have no idea what you are talking about". I put her down as someone who needs to step out of their Empire State of Mind and travel a bit more, maybe to Ireland?

This week however, our paths crossed again at another event. As she swept into the room, quickly deciding who would be her first schmoooze, she clocked me, blanked me and moved onto to her first rung up the social ladder. I found the scene amusing and carried on having a great night. About an hour later, I was standing chatting. Suddenly, the socialite appeared with a look on her face that looked like I was the answer to all her prayers, "Oh I just couldn't leave without saying hello to you". Ok, I thought, I know what's happening here, she wants an introduction to the person I was talking to. And lo and behold, she had barely completed her performed air kiss either side of my cheek before she had stuck out her hand. Introductions were done, she got what she wanted and then disappeared into the night. I was left feeling a bit used. This preoccupation with age and social status was not the positive Empire State of Mind that I share, nor have come to love.

The following day, I was brought back to earth with a bump, when my son and I stopped at an Irish themed cafe when we were out for a cycle along the Hudson. Our waiter, Kevin, sauntered over ten minutes after we had sat down (with no menu in hand) and grinned "How's it goin'?". Me, "Yeah, great thanks, umm can we see a menu". Kevin, "Jeysus, ye don't want to be orderin' any food from in there. Those chefs are mental". Me, "Er, OK, could we get some smoothies please?". Kevin, " Well, between you and me, they're five dollars and they're mingin'". I couldn't help but burst out laughing! Compared to the socialite who practically breathed insincerity, his honesty was refreshing. Kevin wasn't thinking about his tip, his Irish State of Mind was just saying it how it was. I wanted to take Kevin's greasy ginger hair in my hands and plant a big kiss on his ruddy cheeks. I didn't, obviously, otherwise he would have thought I was feckin' mental.

My Irish State of Mind also came in useful when we learned of the attempted bomb attack in Times Square. Having grown up in the 80's in Northern Ireland, you develop a thick skin to inherent danger. Living with the slim, but real, possibility that you could be a victim of a senseless terrorist attack makes the Irish/Empire State of Mind interchangeable, New Yorkers have got used to the same feeling since 9/11 that people in Ireland have been living with for decades. I brushed off the feeling of fear and got on with my weekend. In the early hours of Sunday morning, however, when a bomb echoing thunder storm shook our apartment building, I found myself leaping out of bed, putting my shoes on, ready to wake the kids and make an escape down the fire exit. My Irish State of Mind had automatically assumed the worst, put us in the middle of a terrorist attack and had me making a rescue plan. It took about 35 minutes for me to realise that it was just thunder.

And so, as I lay in bed trying to get back to sleep in the aftermath of my first experience of an Empire thunder storm, I realised two things. First, the Irish State of Mind - from Kevin's honesty to the first hand fear of terrorism, will never leave me. Second, the socialite's version of an Empire State of Mind is, thankfully, not shared by the good friends we have made here and, what's more, my love affair with New York still continues. In the words of Alicia Keys "even if it ain't all it seems, I gotta pocket full of dreams".

yours, in her own Empire State of Mind,

Torie B