Thursday, April 17, 2014

Harry Potter Life Lessons

Whenever we drive, whether the 5 minutes to school or 5 hours on vacation, we listen to books on CD. This past month, we have been going through the Harry Potter books. I had never read them and I am completely amazed at their brilliance. The kids and I are on the edge of our seats anticipating what will happen next. The books have inspired all kinds of creative play between the kids and we have designed our spring math course into what we call Harry Potter math. We do addition, subtraction, multiplication, division and fractions around crazy potions. For example, if you are making a Love Potion for 7 wizards, and you have 21 cat whiskers, how many cat whiskers go into each potion? Once the kids figure out the math problem, they then must design this witches' brew on paper. The kids have a blast doing the math and artistically demonstrating what cat whiskers and toad toes look like on paper. Now that we are well into our third book, I have noticed a pattern in the stories which prove the author even more brilliant than I had originally thought. She is a good story teller, and an excellent writer. But more importantly, she understands what it means to face your fears, and she demonstrates this understanding repeatedly, whether through the eyes of an adult or child. Today, when Harry Potter was learning how to defeat the mind power of the dementors, he had to think of the happiest thought he could muster while the dementor attempted to scare him unconscious with the horrifying image of his mother and father's death, complete with the sound of their terrified voices. Again and again, Harry attempted to think his happy thought so as to reduce the beast to a wisp of smoke and render it powerless. Again and again, he failed. Until he succeeded. Of course, this is a lesson in perseverance. But it is also a lesson in facing fear. Although Alex has been out of the hospital for years now, horrifying images of his suffering haunt my dreams, take over my peaceful thoughts in the middle of long runs, wake me in the middle of the night and taunt the quiet of our sleeping house by the sea. From our study of the brain, I understand that the more you meditate on a thought, the stronger it grows, and so I have worked to clear my mind of these images, so as to render them powerless. It took me a long time to figure out how to move these images out of my head, but as I have practiced, my control over them has grown stronger. I would assume that most parents face some pretty difficult memories and worries in the middle of the night. Whether waiting for a teenager to return home late at night, or recalling a child crashing while learning to ride a bike, we all wake in the middle of the night, worrying. We don't worry much as kids, so we don't really get the chance to strengthen the skill to face our fears and deal with middle of the night concerns, and I believe that is part of what makes parenting difficult. We aren't really prepared for the worry. I find comfort in the fact that Harry Potter is working to face his own fears. Even though he is a fictional character, he comes alive and teaches us all many lessons. Not only do we discuss the plot of the book every day, Alex and Izzy and I discuss the importance of the complex life lessons that the characters are learning. "Professor Snape is so mean!" huffs Izzy. "Yes, and you will have mean teachers too. Pay attention to how these kids deal with them. You need to learn to deal with them in your own life." "The Dursleys are so unfair!" exclaims Alex. "Yup. Unfair. Cruel. Rotten. Unhappy. Scared to death of Harry. What will you do when you meet people like that?" "Fred and George Wheasley break so many rules! Hermione is such a know-it-all! Scabbers is such a sad rat without any powers!" And most important are our discussions around facing fear. Whenever the kids have a new task that scares them, I remind them of Harry Potter. "I'm afraid to step on the ice, Mommy. What if I fall on my skates?" "I don't even know how to play whiffle ball, Mommy. What if I can't hit the ball and the kids laugh at me?" "I don't have a single friend at this camp. What if no one likes me?" "Yes," I tell them. "That is scary. What would Harry Potter do?" And so, when I wake in the middle of the night to the image of Alex covered in blood after a botched procedure in the NICU-so much blood that he had to have a blood transfusion afterward-with Erik, pathetically sponging his little feet and not a single doctor or nurse to lend a hand, one of the many images I will never quite conquer, I picture Harry, wand in the air, conjuring the image of his first flight on a broomstick while reducing the dementor to smoke. Then I think of the kids' peaceful faces as they dream in their beds, and I fall back to sleep. And in the morning, while cooking bacon, I am able to smile.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Creating Happiness

The other day I made an accidental purchase. While in the book store, I picked up Gretchen Rubin's The Happiness Project and skimmed through it. At first glance, it seemed self-indulgent (on the author's part) and long. I wasn't really interested in reading about someone's 12 month project to find happiness. I really just wanted a book that might give me a few basic steps to appreciating every day. It has been a hard winter. But somehow the book found its way into my pile of other books, and when I got home and discovered it next to my bed, I figured I might as well read it. For anyone looking to improve a life, take it from fine to good, from seasonally affected to "Bring it on, rain..." I recommend it. For parents, I really, really recommend it. For parents of sick children, it is a must. In fact, it is going to be part of the book list for The Baby Alex Foundation's Alex's Libraries which we are setting up in hospitals in CT this year. The book is filled with some shocking statistics (A 30% increase in one spouse's happiness boosts the other spouse's happiness, while a drop in one spouse's happiness drags the other down.), great insights (when I made the effort to reach out for them, I found that the ruby slippers had been on my feet all along), inspiring quotes (the days are long, but the years are short), and a plan for focusing on one aspect of happiness each month (January: Boost Energy; February: Remember Love...). The author, Gretchen, is looking to make her good life happier, maybe because of middle life malaise, or maybe just as the next challenge to an otherwise incredibly accomplished life. In our household these days, we are all working on happiness. Alex reminds me often to smile more. Sometimes he gives me a hug because I look unhappy at breakfast. Izzy tells me point blank that I do not demonstrate enough happiness when I spend the afternoons with her. They both complain about Erik being tired all the time (the poor guy). I read the book in a few days and immediately set to work to extract what might work for us. Every family is different, and every family has different needs when it comes to focusing on happiness. What stood out for me is the idea that you simply can't afford to wait to be happy. No matter what the circumstances, to truly appreciate every day, you need to work a little, and honestly, life is way too short to wait for the perfect moment to find happiness. Once you work a little, you find the happiness you desire, and realize it was there all the time. After a while, it takes less work. For me, it is simply a matter of smiling more often, so that the kids see what I feel: happiness at being with them. There is no place I would rather be. I didn't used to smile while making bacon at 5:30am, but now I do. We are all happier.