Monday, March 21, 2016

Scent of a little boy

It occurs to me that I probably only have a little bit more time to post about Noah before I can't do it any longer. He is reading now - and though he doesn't and probably won't (for a very long time) read blogs, I can't be certain his friends won't… and just what he needs is some punk coming up to him in school saying, "Dude, I read your mom's lame blog… you still sleep with 15 stuffed animals at night?" (Whatever, hypothetical bully - we all know you sleep with the light on! In your mom's room! With a diaper!). It's unfair to post freely about another person's developing world, which he believes to actually be private. So I will tread carefully. It is with all of this in mind - along with the fact that his birthday blog got bulldozed over by my post about Newtown this past December - that I am going to dare write about my Noah, my sweet and complicated little boy.

A few weeks ago, I washed his favorite lovey, his little snuggy dog named Butter. Butter, I will tell you, has been with Noah from the beginning, alongside Lamby, who is very close to equally loved as Butter, a very close second, but just not quite Butter. Butter has been in the crib and the big boy bed and the bigger boy bed. He's been thrown up on and drooled on and cried on. He's been to New York, New Hampshire, California, and Florida. He's gotten lost in the sheets - or the drawers or the closet - in Florida and stayed longer than the rest of us, finally rescued by a housekeeper, packaged up, and flown back home to his Noah. Last month, I washed Butter. Butter was looking bedraggled and, frankly, every little creature should be washed at least once every few years. So I washed him and told Noah, who was happy about it. Until he grabbed him, still warm from the dryer, and held him close to his face and then burst into tears. "He doesn't smell right! He doesn't smell like himself!"

"Noah," I said. "Just keep snuggling him. His smell will return. His smell is you, silly boy."

That smell. That smell of stale sweat, under bathed, dirt-caked, breath stank, and oh-so delicious little boy. No time to brush his teeth for more than one spit-through, no interest in getting his hair combed at any point in the day, week, or year. He's agreed to a bath once a week. He hardly glances at the clothes I hand him in the morning to put on. Sometimes he grabs his own shirt and then blindly pulls out pants to go with it.

He comes outside after school and drops his coat and his backpack where I stand and sprints to the playground. Pouts, sometimes roars, when I say we have to leave to get his sister.

He stands in karate class with one leg of his Gi pants falling underneath his foot, the other half slipping down his shin; the sensei doesn't even pause but rolls them up again as she instructs the class and then reties his belt.

Green belt Ninja
To the extent possible, this is kind of how I envisioned it. All of this, with the uniform too large and playground time always too short, and the passionate protests against the requests of Mom; I pictured all of that for my little boy. He is, right now, in myriad ways, the essence of little boy.

A long (long) time ago, shortly after I had emerged from adolescence, I saw this story about kids in Fiji (maybe on 20/20? anyone?). The piece focused on teenagers, actually, and the simple premise that kids stay kids in Fiji for a heck of a lot longer than we do. Fifteen year olds play - not video games. They really play. They dive in the water, and run around, and stay outside, and spend their days creating their own fun… and the footage they showed was of tall, lanky, teenaged kids, just playing. Youth is preserved, prioritized.

I was in between my own childhood and that of my future children when I saw this, and so I just held onto the message, tucked it away for another day in the distant future. And now here we are and I'm pining for a Fiji future for our kids. But I know it won't happen, even if we moved to 15 years ago Fiji. We are all distracted by things that are less simple and even though we are aware of it, I think we often feel powerless - all of us, parents, educators, and especially kids.

My little boy still has his innocence, but already I discern new layers, now beginning to blanket that flawless, untouched skin he was born into. He sees already that there is too much order to things. He believes he is too young for all of this already. He wants to play chase with his Dad and Ninjago with his friends (he is Kai! Ninja of Fire!), and castles with his sister. But there is less and less time for that. There are curriculum standards and homework requirements. And he says, "I can't STAND homework! I just want to play! Nothing is fair!!" And he understands the fact that this is just the beginning, the start of years and years and years of this sort of thing, which will take him away from his Lego scenes and his wooden block building and his Magnatile bases and his games of tag. His meltdowns are more crushing now because they express a general frustration of unfairness - that life is so much larger than he is, that this moment isn't fair, and moreover that none of this is fair and it's just going to keep happening in various, unrelenting ways.

I try to give him perspective about his life. I show him photos of Syrian refugees (I actually do, that's probably weird). But that's another world to him, to all of us, really. And for a recently turned seven year old, who, like all kids (and people) is still living in a me-centered reality, this does not truly help his current dilemma. How to play more, be a kid longer, stave off the inevitable transition into grown-up-hood for as long as damn possible.

Here is a child who wants to know everything - what the planets are made of, who all the ocean animals are, what the Big Bang sounded like, how long it takes to become a Ninja, what Palm Sunday means, what's another example - besides ants and caterpillars - of a symbiotic relationship in nature.

But these nights, my tiny first grader slumps over his homework, tears blurring the number models in front of him; he clenches his pencil until his knuckles lose color, and his interest in learning anything at all drains out of him too.

"I hate that Grace just sits there playing and doesn't have to do ANY HOMEWORK AT ALL!"

"She's just a little kid," we say. "You're just a little kid," we think.

I do not enjoy watching this little boy throwing himself into spinjitzu level tantrums like we haven't seen since he was three. He enjoys it even less. It transforms him and he hardly recognizes himself. When it is finally over each night, the regular hum returns to the house.


He's blessed with a teacher who understands him, engages him, enriches him, keeps him curious and thoughtful. He's blessed with a school that emphasizes kindness and respect and acceptance above everything else. And yet, I know he worries that this is the easiest it will ever be for him, that work just gets harder and heavier and play disappears a little more each year. He has become just shy of innocent.

There is this new pop song he loves. It's called Stressed Out (and it's by Twenty one pilots):

Wish we could turn back time, to the good ol’ days,
When our momma sang us to sleep but now we’re stressed out.

Sometimes a certain smell will take me back to when I was young,
How come I’m never able to identify where it’s coming from,
I’d make a candle out of it if I ever found it,
Try to sell it, never sell out of it, I’d probably only sell one,

It’d be to my brother, ‘cause we have the same nose,
Same clothes homegrown a stone’s throw from a creek we used to roam,
But it would remind us of when nothing really mattered,
Out of student loans and treehouse homes we all would take the latter.

When he sings along, I wonder what he's thinking. (Have the good old days already happened in Noah's mind? That can't be.) So I asked him. "What do you think about when you think of those words?" I said. "Oh, like I guess when I was one. The good old days, when I was one, and when Gracie was in your belly." I will not over-think this one, but it's fair to say I want the candle of his childhood to consist of the smells of those years "when he was one" and, more importantly, these current years and many many more years to come. His Fiji years.

There is also so much I don't know.  I'll think I know and then a small child I've never seen or heard of will run up to him at school and give him a giant hug and I'll realize how much of his own person he is becoming, with me merely in the background for most of it. But I love these moments, or at least very much appreciate them. He drops the word "Sick!" in the same way we used to say "Sweet!" (or, before that, "Swell!") more than once a day now. Last week, he came into my bedroom with his sweatpants rolled to mid-shin and his socks pulled up entirely. "Oh, honey! Come here, I'll fix you up," I said, unwittingly, reaching for his socks. "No keep it," he mumbled and I interrupted my own pause with an "OK, great."

He'll go to school some days with a sick stack of Pokemon cards that he doesn't fully understand how to use (play? trade? I will never ever never ever ever understand Pokemon). He sprints into school without looking back at me every day and begs to get there early to be with his buddies. But he also came home from a field trip not long ago with not one stuffed animal wolf that he had picked out with his field trip money, but two - a mommy and a baby. I could have cried (I cried).

He is not fond of Scooby Doo (too scary) but is passionate about Harry Potter. And yes, we know it is dark, but he's entered a world that he craves to reach back into every day and it doesn't feel right to deny him that or keep such a magical world from a boy who still imagines. Oh, the happiness he feels when Gryffindor wins a Quidditch match. And how horrified he is at Malfoy and that slithering Snape. And the urgency to pick up the next book when another has been completed. Yes, we know it is dark and that we are doing our equal part in contaminating that beautiful brain of his. But it just sort of feels right, so we're going with it.

My sweet little boy, who does in fact sleep with 15 stuffed animals at night, and who wants to be everywhere his daddy is, and who cries when he loses dessert and loves to be tickled and can't yet tie his shoes; yes, he is still the baby boy I've always known. And yet, there is more behind that wild hair and those giant circular, curious eyes and there are experiences behind those widely spaced big boy teeth and those ever so slightly freckled (the kind only a mother can see) pink cheeks. Oh my boy, who recognizes but cannot help frustration getting the better of him, who celebrates the rare school night when he just gets to play and eat and read, who dreams of a Hogwarts kind of life while sleeping securely in his cozy little bed, next to the Butter that smells of his childhood.

Magical ride on a peregrine falcon