Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Holiday traditions

A college friend of mine posted on facebook that she was archiving her family holiday traditions, and then posed the question, "What are yours?"

Most of my holiday traditions from my adult life were either carried over from my childhood (cookies for Santa on Christmas Eve) or are a function of my cantoring job (multiple masses to sing on Christmas Eve and/or Day.) But there are a few things that don't fall into those categories:
  • Stockings for the grown-ups, as well as the kids
  • Cinnamon rolls on Christmas morning -- only the Pillsbury-in-a-can kind will do. But now that I think of it, we may have had them when I was a kid.
  • Christmas breakfast casserole -- a make-ahead dish that just needs to be popped in the oven in the morning
  • Church for the whole family on Christmas Eve or Day, depending on when I'm singing
  • Santa leaving some presents unwrapped
  • Earl reading "The Night Before Christmas" to the kids on Christmas Eve -- something that his dad always did when Earl and his sister were younger
  • Gingerbread or eggnog wreath cake
  • A new tradition: the Christmas Donut
  • Another new tradition: the "green" (e-mailed) Christmas card
  • Yet another new tradition: Family carol-singing. The kids are old enough to know the words now, and I accompany on piano. It warms my musician's heart.

I'm hoping that the various illnesses that made their way through our family a couple of weeks ago will not become a new holiday tradition.

And now, it's time to get started on another personal tradition: the impossible New Year's Resolution list. You know, the one that specifies I'll be in the best shape of my life by the summer; I'll never speak crossly to my children again; I'll exercise 6 days out of every 7 and will get at least 8 hours of sleep every night.

Maybe it's time for a new tradition to replace the old: making a resolution or two that I can actually keep. Stay tuned.

Timmy the charmer

We had a former student and babysitter of mine, who is now in college, over for a visit yesterday. Lauren brought a friend and Timmy turned on the charm the whole time the girls were here. Making funny faces, doing his dance class routines, explaining all about Star Wars Legos, declaring that he was going to bring Lauren's Christmas gift of a stuffed giraffe to bed with him -- he did his best to endear himself to them both.

Timmy loves people, and has a particular weakness for pretty girls. Last night, when Earl was tucking him into bed, Timmy told him that his favorite part of the day was eating bagels with Lauren. Lunch with a pretty girl even trumped opening unexpected presents and watching "Martha Speaks" on PBS.

All this is lovely when Timmy is three years old, but I wonder how it will play out in his school years and beyond. Will he try to be the class clown? Will he be so busy talking with his friends that he won't get his work done? Will he go through high school and college, leaving a trail of broken hearts in his wake?

For now he can just be my charmer, my funny boy, my sweetheart.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

The accidental Jesuit

Part of the stress of the holidays for me is wanting everything to be perfect. The house, the food, the kids. Not fancy; just perfect. You won't mistake my house for Martha Stewart's, and I serve no flaming desserts. But I want things how I want them, and that includes smiling children on Christmas morning.

We did have lots of smiles. The kids had a nice Christmas, and are enjoying their new games and toys. But there was also an element of uncertainty, particularly with Abby.

She had been sick and missed the last two days of school before vacation. She still wasn't feeling 100% healthy on Christmas morning, and the aroma of my traditional egg-and-sausage Christmas breakfast casserole didn't help matters. When I left to sing the first of two Christmas morning masses, there was some doubt about whether Abby would be able to come to church with the family, as planned. Earl told me that even if she could go, she'd most likely not be wearing the beautiful Christmas dress I'd laid out for her, since the collar came close to her neck and she was extra sensitive to that, feeling sick and all.

Earl is a wonderful husband and father with many talents, but choosing clothes for our daughter is not one of them. He warned me not to comment on the outfit if I didn't like it. This did not bode well. I left the house with a cloud of thwarted control over my head.

On my way to church, I realized that this was a Christmas lesson in detachment, that Jesuit principle of surrendering control and accepting things as they are. I first learned about detachment as a concept from the Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest and author whom I interviewed last year for the Patriot Ledger. It's a way of unloading emotional baggage attached to life, of accepting that we're not in control. A simple concept, but a hard practice for a control freak like me.

By the time I got to church, surprisingly, I had detached myself from the situation. If Abby could come, great. If she couldn't, I'm sure my father-in-law would stay with her at home. If she could wear the beautiful dress, terrific. If she couldn't, well, I'd just be glad she was there.

I sang the first mass without even thinking about Abby too much. After coffee in the rectory, I returned to the church, and, to my joy, there was my whole family, including Abby. She wasn't wearing the Christmas dress, but her shirt matched her jumper, her hair was brushed and she even had a faint smile on her face.

I congratulated myself on my detachment efforts. And then, I realized that a better measure of my detachment success would have been if Abby hadn't been at church.

I'm still a control freak, but at least I recognized an opportunity to practice detachment, and it wasn't as painful as I thought it would be. We'll see what happens the next time.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Clearing and excitement

Tuesday: Things are looking up, as the song goes. Abby announced a little while ago that she was starting to feel "perky." She looks much better, and has some color back in her cheeks.

All three kids are getting very excited about Christmas. I just helped Brian wrap his present for Earl, and when I suggested he put it under the tree, he smiled and said, "I'm like Santa!"
Timmy has notified me of an eleventh-hour addition to his list: a telescope. I'm not sure whether this is due to an actual interest in the heavens or the cool gadget factor. I've explained to the junior astronomer that Santa has probably already figured out everyone's presents by now, and last-minute orders are tough to fill.
Abby informed me that Timmy's telescope wish was brought on by the Diego Christmas special. I guess it's better that he wants a telescope than a llama or something.
Wednesday: All I want for Christmas is some willpower. I have eaten so many Christmas cookies that I'm sure I have gingerbread where my brain should be. I'm looking forward to/dreading the new year, when I Am. Getting. Serious. About. Losing. Weight.
Just a few last minute things to do today: some wrapping, making dessert for tomorrow (says the gingerbread brain) and one mass to sing. Then I'll have the rest of Christmas Eve at home, for the first time in many, many years. I've never really been with the kids on the night before Christmas, because I've always been running out to sing a later mass. But my only cantoring obligation is at 4:00 today, so I'll get to help leave out cookies for Santa and tuck in my little dears, probably a few times. Tomorrow morning will be a little hectic -- I'll be singing two masses -- but tonight will be fun.


Remember, gingerbread brain, those cookies are for Santa.

Although it's been said many times, many ways:

Merry Christmas to you.

Monday, December 22, 2008


We've had an avalanche of snow and illnesses in our neck of the woods over the past few days.

It started snowing on Friday and didn't let up until it turned to rain yesterday evening. All that rain was ice when I got up today and the thermometer read 11 degrees. Earl wins the husband of the year award for not only keeping up with the snow removal, but for scraping and warming up the van in plenty of time for me to take the boys to school this morning.

At least the boys were well enough to go to school. Poor Abby has a stomach bug, which started last night and is still sticking around. She's fine if she doesn't eat anything, if being unusually pale and subdued is fine. She's bummed about missing school again tomorrow but it's not bothering her as much, in terms of a schedule change, as I thought it would. Which just proves she is a pretty sick little girl.

Earl is still sniffling, sneezing and coughing. I'm mostly over that but am feeling pretty queasy, myself. At this point I am just hoping we're all well by Christmas.

And on that note, I'm making it an early night. I'll leave the visions of sugarplums to those whose digestive systems are in working order. Hmmm, what would be a good nighttime vision for me? Ah, yes...spring. Green leaves. Flowers, even. I'd welcome a little spring fever, after dealing with the real kind for the past several days.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Handel and Haydn review

My review of the Handel and Haydn Society's Bach Christmas program ran in today's Patriot Ledger.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Snowy prescription

It's Friday. I'm hunkered down with a sick Timmy and a recovering Brian, waiting for the snow to start. It's been a busy week, and I don't mind having to stay at home while Mother Nature gets cranky outside.

This week, I taught my last lessons until 2009, sent out my "green" (emailed) Christmas card, printed and mailed a few others, and finally got my Christmas treat list organized with a spreadsheet. (I just realized I forgot to send a treat with Abby today for her school-based occupational therapist. Spreadsheets are great but one actually has to read them.) I need to make another batch or two of cookies and I'll be all set.

Brian has been fighting a cold for a week or so, and complained of ear pain on Tuesday night and the next morning, so doctor appointment #1 was Wednesday. No ear infection, but he was pretty uncomfortable yesterday, too, so I kept him home from preschool. Timmy had also had a cold, and yesterday while I was teaching his eye became so swollen that he could hardly open it, so doctor appointment #2 was last night, at the urgent care clinic. Meanwhile, I had to attend a concert I'd been assigned to review, so while Earl was dealing with sick, crying, barfing three-year-old, I was listening to Bach in Jordan Hall and worrying about the sick, crying, barfing three-year-old and the daddy who was taking care of him.

The concert was enjoyable, but poor Timmy was put on a strong antibiotic and an antibiotic ointment for an ear infection, sinusitis and cellulitis. Doctor appointment #3 this morning, a follow-up for Timmy with our own pediatric practice, revealed that there's an ear infection, sinusitis and conjunctivitis, but no cellulitis. He seems to be improving every hour and was very relieved that there were no shots or blood tests involved. He did tell me during the appointment this morning, "Mommy, I am not shy of you, but I am shy of the doctor." The doctor -- who also saw Brian on Wednesday and thought he looked much better -- got a kick out of that.

So now, we're all home, save for Abby, whose school is letting out at 12:30. Earl will pick her up and hopefully I can persuade him that what we really need on a cold, snowy, blustery day is a nice fire in the fireplace. I'll make cookies, try out some fancy hot chocolate from one of my students, and we'll have a family snow day. And when we tire of that, there are always movies-on-demand.

We're all warm, cozy and on the mend. A little forced hibernation before Christmas week: just what the doctor ordered.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Mood lifting

I was pretty grumpy this morning. Make that awfully grumpy. Yelling at the kids, grousing about the house, stressing about the holiday things I have to do.

The grumpiness continued as I shepherded the kids to the van and made my way out into the sleet. Getting chewed out by a crossing guard because I misjudged how much room I needed to get the van off the street and into the drop-off circle didn't help, either. Nor did things improve when Abby, noticing the crossing guard's badge, asked if I were going to be arrested.

Testily explaining that crossing guards didn't have the authority to throw mommies in the slammer, I finally pulled into the drop-off circle, dispatched the boys and headed to Abby's school. We walked to the gym, where the kids wait until it's time to go to their classrooms. I hugged Abby goodbye and hung back for a few minutes, watching her.

She took her place in line, and immediately was greeted by two friends. Soon she was smiling and talking energetically, her ponytail bobbing with each nod of her head. She was happy to be there.

She looked so, well, normal, in her interactions, that it put a smile on my face, despite the morning's less than optimistic start. Her teachers told me she had a good day yesterday, in contrast to last week's tough times.

I hope has another good day today. She certainly helped mine get back on the right track.

Green Christmas Card

Merry Grinchmas
Happy Holidays from the Fay Family
Julie, Earl, Abby, Brian and Timmy

Monday, December 15, 2008

Tuckered out

Here is Timmy, snoozing Friday evening before dinner. He had a cold over the weekend but seems better today.

Many of my students (and students' parents) can vouch for the sleep-inducing comfiness of the white chair. Not too many of them put their teddy bears on their heads, though.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Chorus pro Musica

My story about the upcoming Chorus pro Musica holiday concert ran on Thursday in the Patriot Ledger.

Our own private autism

I got an email from Abby's teachers yesterday, expressing concern about her behavior in school this week. She had been defiant, making inappropriate noises, and even mean to a new girl in her class, telling her she didn't want to sit next to her. Abby's very caring and perceptive teachers wondered if we'd noticed any changes in her behavior at home, or if we had any ideas about what might be causing the changes at school. They theorized that two unusual events -- an early dismissal on Monday for a doctor's appointment and the lockdown drill yesterday -- might have thrown her off.

This is new. In the past, it's been Earl and I who have sent emails to Abby's teachers, alerting them that Abby was going through a rough patch and asking about whether there were any behavior problems at school. Abby's been fine at home, so the email yesterday came as a bit of a shock.

We printed the email and brought it to Abby's therapy appointment yesterday. We already had decided that the early dismissal and the lockdown drill, plus all the changes at home due to the holidays -- Christmas tree in the living room, Advent calendar on the wall -- might have been responsible, at least in part. We wanted to hear what Abby's wonderful therapist had to say about it.

Abby's therapist said that all of the changes in schedule and routine might have had something to do with it, but pointed out that the meanness to the new student was probably due to the very fact that there was a new student. For a child with social difficulties, the introduction of a new person into the stable, safe, figured-out classroom environment could have been pretty upsetting. Her thoughts probably ran something like: How does the new girl fit in? Is she my friend? How do we relate to her? How do I relate to her?

Abby was pretty receptive to talking with me about her week yesterday, so I knew something was up before I even got the email from her teachers. Abby volunteered that she had a tough week and mentioned the lockdown drill (where they were only pretending there was a skunk in the school, not a real skunk, she informed me.) She said the drill was hard, but that she got through it, and then mentioned being mean to the new girl. She couldn't articulate why she was mean, but for her even to recognize the meanness and associate that with having a tough week because of the drill was a breakthrough for her. And to be able to talk calmly about it, too, was a big deal.

She told me she was all better, since she was home. And she was. We had a very smooth evening last night. She was happy and cooperative. I would never have known she had a tough day, let alone a tough week.

I think I'll try to talk with her about the new student today. I may even write a social story for her about it. Sometimes I forget, because of how far she's come, that she still needs help navigating certain situations.

It's situations like these that make me wonder how activist autism mothers do what they do. Where do they find the energy to deal with autism as a cause, when they undoubtedly have situations like Abby's, and many more besides, in their own lives? How do they tackle Autism with a capital A, while simultaneously dealing with their own private, family autism?

I'd love to hear from you, autism moms. You amaze me.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Pops review

I reviewed opening night at Holiday Pops for the Ledger. It's up on the Taunton Gazette website with a few cuts. If the whole review runs in the Ledger tomorrow, I'll post that link.

What a fun concert. If you need a dose of Christmas spirit, treat yourself to a ticket.

Mum's the word

Sometimes I feel like I'm not a very good autism mother. This is different from feeling like I'm not a very good mother, which I also sometimes feel, but that's another -- several other -- blog posts.

Autism mothers are different. They schlep their kids here and there for therapy and social groups. They have their state reps on speed dial and march on the State House whenever there's important autism legislation in the works. They become advocates in the best sense of the word -- fighting not only for their children, but for the larger, more noble cause of improving the lot of those with autism, raising money, educating, finding a cure.

Some autism moms do all that and write passionately and eloquently about it, too, like Susan Senator and Judith Ursitti, both of whom I admire very much.

I've done my share of schlepping. I've even emailed my government representatives now and again. But it is beyond my capability and strength -- and truthfully, beyond my interest -- to take on Autism with a capital A.

It's not that I don't care. I want to make the world a better place, too. I even have a bit of a platform, with the writing opportunities I've gotten over the past year or so. But I can't seem to throw all my energies into Autism with a capital A. I just don't have it in me to write consistently about the big picture.

Of course, because autism is part of my life, it does find its way into my writing. I welcome the opportunity to educate and even to inspire, if my words can do that for someone. I guess I'm just struggling with feeling like I ought to do more for the cause, and I'm resistant to that.

Maybe if I mostly write about my family as if it's normal, it will feel more normal to me. Maybe if I don't acknowledge the autism elephant in the room, it won't really be there. Maybe if I crack a joke about it or pass off some of my kids' behaviors as mere idiosyncrasies, others will let it slide and not think that there's anything different about my children, or me.

The truth is that I just get tired of it. When it's a part of my day-to-day existence, it becomes too hard to read every single issue of the Schafer Autism Report. I don't want to take my children to a special community outing for kids on the spectrum. I cannot bring myself or my children to participate in yet another research study.

I just want autism to leave me alone.

Thank goodness there are other autism moms out there who won't leave it alone.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Surrender and stretch

Over the weekend, I sang as a guest at a parish in Boston. During the homily, the pastor mentioned that he had been asked by the Cardinal to move to another parish. Clearly, this priest did not want to go, but he explained the move to the congregation as follows:

"I'm a diocesan priest. Obedience is my life."

And then, later,

"Life is surrender."

I had coffee with a friend yesterday, who is going through some tough times. Although my friend's situation is different than the priest's, she is having to cope with something -- a big something -- in a way that is not natural or easy for her.

I was struck by the similarities between the two situations. Both the priest and my friend are denying themselves and their wants, maybe even their needs. They have very little choice in the matter, and it's clear that it's hard for both of them.

I think this gets to the heart of the concept of "dying to self." Life's changes -- the end of a relationship, a major career change, an unforeseen family situation -- can feel like a part of us is dying, especially when the situation is out of our control.

Maybe that's why I had such an incredibly difficult time after my first child was born. I've described the months after Abby's birth -- while being very joyful and exciting -- as a sort of dying and reemergence as another person. My whole identity changed, and it wasn't easy, fun or pretty. It felt like a little death. Truthfully, a big one.

How interesting, the ending of one life and the beginning of another. Maybe that's why people say things like "When God closes a door, he opens a window" -- to reassure themselves that things will work out, that they're not really trapped, that what feels like the end now is just the intermission.

I now realize the painful identity change I endured when becoming a mother was necessary. The love and compassion and attachment and protectiveness and all the other emotions that go along with being a mother, had to be stuffed into my heart, and there was some major stretching that had to happen to fit them all in. It hurt.

The priest will end his time at one parish and begin with another. My friend will continue to cope, relying on support from others who have lived through similar situations.

My heart continues to be stretched; by my children, my husband, my students and friends. Someday, maybe it will be big enough to take it all in without aching.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Looking forward

When I was in high school, I played a little game to help myself get out of bed in the morning. I'd turn off the alarm, and then lie there and think of something to look forward to during the day ahead, to motivate myself to get moving.

It's the evening, not the morning, and I need to go to bed, not get up. But here are some things I'm looking forward to, anyway, both sooner and later:
  • Coffee with a friend tomorrow morning
  • Reviewing the Boston Pops concert on Thursday evening
  • Maybe some cookie-baking and A Christmas Story-watching with my sister over the weekend
  • Christmas Eve at home, for the first time in 15 years
  • A girls' weekend in January with Steph

What are you looking forward to?

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Early morning conversation

It's still dark. I look at the clock. 5:47. No wonder I have a headache. I'm late for my first dose of caffeine.

Earl says, "What time is it?"

Me: "Almost six o'clock."

"Almost six o'clock?"

"Yes. Almost six o'clock. I didn't set the alarm."

"You didn't set the alarm?"

"No. I'm not getting up."

Earl, surprised: "You're not getting up?"

"No, I'm not getting up. I'm sick."

"You're sick?"

"Yes, I'm sick. I have a little cough. Are you getting up?"

"I'm getting up."

Me: "You'll have to make the coffee, but just push the button."

Wait for it..."I'll have to make the coffee?"

"Yes. Just push the button."

"But it's all made?"

"Yes. Just push the button. The dishes in the dishwasher are clean."

"The dishes are clean?"


He gets up. I lie there in the bed, hating my headache, coughing, and giggling like a fool.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Just a Minute family column

My latest Just a Minute family column ran in today's Patriot Ledger.


We're in the process of decorating our Christmas tree. Right now, all we have on it are the lights and the angel at the top.

The boys got up this morning, and were delighted with the tree already. Timmy, in particular, was fascinated by the angel.

"I wish I looked like an angel," said Timmy.

"But Timmy, you are an angel," said Brian.

"Yeah, I am," Timmy replied.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Kvetch as kvetch can

There's a grumpy mommy in my house.

I have the sweetest children in the world, and all I could think about tonight was putting them to bed and getting them out of my hair. Brian wanted me to help him do "his" homework (actually, photocopies of Abby's) but just then, I needed to clean up the kitchen before I could even dream of making dinner. This was after teaching until 6:00 and then packing up the kids to take the babysitter home.

All during the cooking of dinner, Brian was very needy. Abby and Timmy pretty much kept to themselves but Brian was enough to drive me up the wall and onto the ceiling. Then, after dinner, there was more clean-up, followed by the bedtime routine that went as smoothly as any other night but for which I had absolutely no patience this evening.

The poor kids were asking me if I was mad at them. Abby kept saying "Oh, you're not angry with me." I wasn't angry with any of them. Just grumpy, and for no good reason.

I suppose I'm allowed to have a grumpy evening without justification now and again. And at least I didn't yell. Well, not too much. And only clenched my teeth a little bit. I still came through with the bedtime stories and lots of hugs and kisses, too.

As I felt I needed to inform a friend today, I really do love my children. They were just a little much for me tonight.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008


A few random things, none of which merits its own blog post. Or maybe I'm just feeling lazy.
  1. "Feelin' Alright" has to be added to the list of perfect music. I'm not generally a Joe Cocker fan, but I love piano and percussion and this song has both in abundance. I even sat down at the piano and figured out how to play it. Me, with absolutely no non-classical ear training! But I figured it out -- just two chords, really -- and can do a decent job with it. Now all I need is a conga player. And Joe Cocker.
  2. Lots to add to the list by Marvin Gaye, too: "Mercy, Mercy Me," "What's Goin' On," "Let's Get it On," even "I Heard it Through the Grapevine." Good, good stuff.
  3. I got myself out of a stressful situation on my own terms. Can't elaborate but it's all good.
  4. Abby is going to have a "lockdown drill" next week at school. A support person who works with Abby at school has asked me how we would like her to prepare Abby, and I'm stumped. It sounds like a pretty intense experience: police there, kids in a designated area of the room, door locked, lights and computers off, and kids silent for up to 20 minutes. At least it won't feature any alarms or flashing lights, which would be big problems for Abby. I just need to think about how best to prepare her (with the support staff) for this event, without getting too much into why the drill is important for student safety. How can you explain that to any child, let alone one with anxiety problems?
  5. Suddenly, Earl is into basketball, too. Sigh.
  6. As I wrote today to a long-lost college friend, facebook is the best and worst thing to happen to me in a long time. Best, for renewing old friendships and making new connections; worst, for the insane amount of time I spend logged onto the thing.
  7. Having good work to do is a blessing. How very lucky I am, that I get to do what I love and get paid for it, too.
  8. I finally started my Christmas shopping today.
  9. I'm feeling more and more Christmas-y all the time. I haven't sprung this on Earl yet, but I want to put up our tree this weekend. It's time.
  10. I still have "Feelin' Alright" in my head. Can barely sit still to type.

Celestial sighting

I see the moon,
and the moon sees me.
God bless the moon,
and God bless me.
-- Children's prayer

Monday evening, Abby and I were driving home from her violin lesson around 5:15. I was thinking of the above prayer, when suddenly, we came up over a hill and there, low in the sky, was the moon, seeing all of us, with Jupiter and Venus looking down, too.

The conjunction was so big, so bright, so beautiful, it took my breath away. I felt blessed for having seen it.

Time was, as a little girl, when I wanted to be an astronaut. Carl Sagan was my hero. Perhaps it's not so unusual, for one born just weeks after the first moon landing. That dream of going into space died down as I got older, due in no small part to my difficulty wrapping my head around the mathematics involved in physics class, as well as a sudden inability to ride anything at an amusement park when I reached my late teens. I figured, if I can't handle the teacups, I'll never handle multiple g-forces.

But for a few minutes on Monday evening, my inner astronaut gazed upwards in wonder, knowing that anyone who saw what I saw was blessed, indeed.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

El universo y la música latina

As I've written in this space previously, I've been making an effort to reconnect with an earlier incarnation of myself, especially where music is concerned. Years of children's and country music, the preferences of those with whom I share my home, had dulled the memory of music I had enjoyed. I'm getting back into my own preferences, and have been having a great time.

Now, a blip: I've been in touch with not one but two college classmates, both of whom are into Latino music in one way or another. One has a degree in ethnomusicology and is now living in Colombia, his mother's native country; the other is someone I barely knew in school, but whose father was Venezuelan and who now salsa dances and plays conga drums professionally, to boot.

They've both written about various forms of Latino music, and I find it very interesting that two people I barely knew in college are both in touch with me these days, and are passionate about a genre of music I know nothing about. My entire exposure to Latino music is the Buena Vista Social Club, plus one outrageously fabulous arrangement of Feliz Navidad on one of my GRP CDs.

The universe is giving me a nudge to go learn something. iTunes, here I come.