The Annals of an Annus Horribilis
Perhaps it was the environment of fire, flood and most pertinently, plague, that sparked M into an existential crisis this year, or the age, which closely followed, if a tad earlier, his elder brother's path of comprehending the fragility of life, but M's year has been focused on his understanding of and pondering on his and others' miserable morbidity. Even before the pandemic wreaked its pernicious pandemonium, M had drawn an abstract painting at school that he titled "After-Life". He has incessantly asked questions concerning the nature of our existence and purpose which I have not been able to provide answers to that he deems acceptable and continues to persist in his interrogation. When does one die? How do you know when you will die? How does one die? Why do we have to die? He has also expressed his anguish at losing people he loves and of dying himself. I told him that we don't die, there is a circle of life, that we are stardust and to stars we return - energy never dies, it merely transforms. This was not good enough. "I don't want to be a star again, I want to stay being M". To which L, who was apparently robustly listening to our increasingly depressive discourse, though his concentration appeared draped over his book (L is a voracious reader, now even letting me read at bedtime to the boys, a task he has proudly taken over), quipped in an earnest and equanimous manner, as if to underpin that he had resolved his earlier fears and reticence of our unavoidable conclusion, "we all have our time, M". M evidently heard his brother's comment, for his eyes widened as he glazed his glacial gaze upon him, ruminating on his response, until finally he lashed out his challenge to the universe, "well, it's not fair!". L's retort was the sufferance of a sigh as he turned the page of his book.
It has been quite a difficult year for L who was always and remains a gregarious extrovert craving company. With school and other curricula closed for 3/4 of the year and mere morsels of playdates, the absence of society has worn on L. He has stopped asking when school will reopen and quarantine will end. He knows of the vaccine rollout, yet he has come to understand that things take much longer than expected. When we do see other people, which is rare, he erupts in excitement to an extent that at times, his earnest want to connect may be overpowering. I wonder how he will handle the first of day of school when he is surrounded by the physical and not merely video presence of his peers and whether he would be able to concentrate on school, albeit he is very studious. Perhaps other kids have socially regressed and are depressed - for I do think that L is somewhat depressed. He won't admit that he's sad, but he does act out in ways he never did before and it's as if he is signalling pain. His world has narrowed and is to some extent a cadaverous husk of the lively one he enjoyed before, surrounded by friends, learning at school and in various classes, exploring museums. Conversely, his younger brother goes to school each day and while L has never once mentioned anything about this discrepancy, I wonder if it's an additional dent to his despondency.
On the flip side, remote learning has allowed us to have more time with L and to progress him academically. While we follow the curriculum, we also encourage L to pursue his academic interests, which are mostly scientific. He is very interested in marine biology and renewable energy. Perhaps the confluence of his interests may lead to harnessing algae biopower- who knows! He is already subtracting and adding numbers in the hundreds, multiplying and dividing. His reading ability has exponentially increased so that now he can read anything, albeit he may not know all the words. I told him that even adults don't know all the words - "I learn new words all the time." In order to encourage his learning of Greek, I told him one way I know the meaning of new words is to understand their etymology and from this and the context within which they appear I merely use the dictionary to confirm my understanding. While English is a Germanic language with Nordic and Norman roots, many words are also of Greek origin, in particular with respect to science. In furtherance of my instruction, I told him Greek was the key to English. Take "polyglot" I said, "poly" comes from the word "poli" in Greek which means "many" and "glot" comes from "glossa" which means language (and thus we have the word "glossary"). To my avid embarrassment, I learnt L digested this lesson too well, for when he was speaking with a friend about her Polish mother tongue and its similarities to Serbian, both being of Slavonic roots, he quietly but authoritatively informed her that Greek was better than any other language because it was the key. I corrected L and then later told him that each language deserves equal respect to which he glared at me suspiciously and challenged me by pointing out that I was now contradicting my earlier counsel and had to acknowledge the misery of my mistake.
This year I've had a myriad of moments in which I've been apologizing to L for my ill parenting. My parenting abilities have been quite amputated this year as I've struggled with balancing work and homeschooling L. Albeit I've read numerous pedagogical books and have previously implemented the tools they proffer to what I've perceived as success on the whole, I've been quite upset at my depleted parental abilities this year. In the frazzled moment of delivering my work on time and educating L, I've resorted to the fallible approach of sticks and carrots. I've raised my voice (and this is a most favourable description of the uncontrolled decibels that churned corrosive content during my numerous indiscretions). I've acted exactly as I never wanted to act with my children. I have four books on the shelf on pedagogy that I haven't even opened, preferring instead to read novels in an effort to escape my duties and selfishly revel in another's story. I know War and Peace is probably not going to be make me a better parent, but I have a firm resolve to have "me" time at the end of the day, knowing I am reading something for no purpose but enjoyment. Perhaps I may argue, in an effort to defend my position, that if I don't have this time to relax and replenish, I would deplete the resources necessary to be a good parent. I hope that L's remote learning experience next year -which may end up being the entire year of kindergarten and, counting from the beginning of the lockdown, almost two years of his schooling - is one in which I am, if not a pillar of puissance, at least sufficiently strong to not resort to threats and cajoling during difficult moments that cut at my capabilities.
I invoked the Parent Police with M. I knew it was a weak move, because the prior time I had invoked it, M burst out crying. Yet I had lost my energy and resolve and rather than threatening M, I tried a different tactic. Perhaps my son will be resolving these issues with his therapist in later years, but presently, it has completed its function error free and M has complied with my requests. Always a fantastic eater, M became rather picky of late and it was trying to say the least to get him to eat his vegetables at times (meanwhile L is such a good eater and understands the primacy of vegetables in your diet to such an extent that he has repeatedly expressed regret that carnivorous animals miss out on being able ingest the vitamins they provide). I told M that it was my duty to report my failings to the Parent Police and that they would decide whether I needed to be rolled out of the family and retrained while another, better mother, that knew how to get M to eat all his vegetables and go to bed on time, would take over. During my fabricated dialogue with the Parent Police, I accepted my 40 day probation period to have M redeem his ways. M listened avidly to my conversation, his brow crevassed into a ravine of regret. "I am sorry mama" he said sheepishly, "that you had to report yourself and I don't want you to go! I will eat my vegetables and go to bed on time! I promise!" And he did - and still does.
The day the playgrounds opened back up after nearly seven months of being closed with police tape as if they were the location of a particularly gruesome crime scene, was a jubilant if manic day with kids running wild around the playgrounds as if someone had slipped in and spiked all their water bottles. A solid segment of evidently leant on parents were utilizing their kids' reabsorption of playground delights to go through numerous conference calls while others nervously stalked their kids as if they were negotiating playground structures for the first time and desperately needed their aid. My kids were ebulliently and avidly manic, indubitably some of the loudest children there, booming out to each other as they raced across the grounds to slide down the slippery dip in tandem. It was also the day that M went so fast down the slide that he flew in the air and landed on his bum with much fanfare. While he exploded into tears, I, the award winning parent of 2020, erupted in laughter. I ran up to M to comfort him, curbing my cackle, but he turned away from me, saying, "mama, I saw you laughing when I hurt myself and I am very disappointed in your choice." Children have a way of throwing your own words back at you in a way that really churns the chains of your cardiac cogs.
M is a most determined chap. When he complained that his coiffure was covering his eyes a number of times to which we responded that he wait through the weekend, M evidently lost patience with his parents, grabbed his arts and crafts scissors and proceeded to create a capillary catastrophe of which he was buoyantly proud. Despite its rather rough aspect, it certainly served the purpose of fraying his fringe so that he had a newly unobstructed view of the world.
M also likes to cause trouble. On seeing a man with numerous gold chains, presenting in front of his rimmed car, M paused and then stated "your car is not that good. It needs a wash" to which the man burst out in laughter, to M's chagrin and shouted back, "this little man's going to be the boss, the BOSS, I tell you". M accepted this prophecy and later started directing his brother, stating "I am the BOSS" to which L simply said, "no you are not, you are not a grown up", which led M to reaffirm his stance and both their broods to boil to a bellicosity that required immediate parental intervention and consequent refocusing of their energies.
This was the first election year in which the kids were cognizant that it was occurring. The days following the election, my phone notified me that my usage had gone up astronomically as I recursively checked for updates (someone should explain to CNN that "too close to call" is not what one expects when they relate that they have an "election update") and utilized electoral college possibilities for a Biden win as constructive math problems for L. M, who calls Trump "Trumpet" something that at first I corrected, but then thought it rather fitting, started to herald even before any announcement that "Trumpet lost, lost, lost, he is gone, gone, gone" to which L quickly affirmed that many houses in the neighbourhood had Biden-Harris signs and those with Trump on the windows signalled "Nope" which he explained meant that nobody wanted Trump and his "selfish policies". I asked L what he meant, not being able to remember when I had spoken to him of the retiring administration. "Mama, you know, he only cares about making money and not the people and Joe and Kamala, they really care for the environment and for the people" said L. Then he looked at me with earnest eyes and asked "I'm right, aren't I, that they will take care of us?" I nodded. "Yes, L, they care". "I hope Joe reads my letter" L then retorted and I nodded assertively. He had written a letter to the President earlier that week as part of a school exercise. L's message to the President consisted of stating that he wanted everyone to stay safe and healthy and wanted everyone to wear masks and eat their vegetables. L called my bluff. "But if my letter is in my journal then we never send it so that the President cannot read it?" he inquired. I nodded sheepishly. "I confess I forgot." L percolated on this point. "Well, Joe is not President yet and I forgot to mention the orcas he needs to help out up north. So I will write a new letter and you will send it this time?" he asked me, waiting for my vocal confirmation before nodding his head to attest to our agreement and obliging me to perform on it, before moving on. I await further instruction...
This Christmas the boys were skeptical of Santa's existence. "He's not for real life" M confronted me one day, with L beside him. "What energy does he use to power his flying sleigh?" L began his interrogation. "How does he know if children are naughty or nice?" L continued. "How can all the presents fit in his bag?" M asked. I have never been a Santa fan. The idea of Santa is a little creepy. He exploits the poor elves who have yet to unionize, he infringes on every company's trademarks, he violates all customs laws, he whips his working reindeer and spies on children across the world. More importantly, if he loved children so much, then why utilize all his energies to get children toys for Christmas rather than ensure that every child has - each day, not just Christmas- good shelter, clean water and sanitation, access to good medical care and an enriching education? My husband is rather the Santa champion of this household. Thus, I directed their questions to him. They remained skeptical and knowing my husband cherishes the tradition, I had an idea after reading about Dr. Fauci's public declaration that he travelled to the North Pole to inoculate Santa Claus. I showed the boys Dr. Fauci's declaration and in a blitz the boys' suspicions were allayed. "So he is for real life!" M shouted. L quickly proceeded to inform his father that rather than cookies, which were unhealthy, we should leave Santa carrots and celery to give him needed vitamins for his exerting work and warned his father several times to ensure that the gas was off in our fireplace so that Santa would not get burned. The authority to which the kids subscribed to the government was apparently impenetrable - if the leading immunologist says Santa is real, then who are we to argue?
I must admit that this year Christmas was the most materialistic one we've had, in an effort to make up for a decidedly crappy year. While it is a joy to see the eruption of smiles on your kids' faces when they open up their presents and revel in their new books, games and toys, it is also a decidedly wasteful celebration. We cut down millions of trees, use millions of rolls of wrapping paper and other packaging and utilize more energy to light up our decorations. Paradoxically, this commercial and material revelry, compounded with gluttony for good measure, is diametrically opposed to the message of its eponymous immaterialist, whose birth it was originally meant to celebrate.
It's four days to the new year and the boys are excited to see it go. We have been crossing each day on our calendar in December in an earnest countdown to the new year. Their determination to get to 2021 is symptomatic of the toll this year has taken on them and in turn on all of our children. Goodbye and good riddance. Adieu. To a healthier, better, livelier 2021!
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