The rhythm of mornings on the Ridge

(I am spending two and a half months living on my parents’ place in the mountains in rural Eastern Oregon with my two preschool-age children. Shaye, who is five, insists on going to kindergarten, even during our short stay. This is a vivid slice of life.)

I rise out of deep sleep with the trill of my cell phone, which has been demoted to a glorified alarm clock out in the Blue Mountains of Eastern Oregon with no signal.

First I inhale deeply before my eyes open. There is the pungent fragrance of the pellets that feed the little stove and the undertone of snow. My eyes open to the flickering light of the little orange flame at the foot of the big bed.

I reach over and fumble to turn off the alarm, so it doesn’t wake up Marik. Then I reluctantly role myself out of the froth of white blankets that cover the bed. I wish I had this nice of a bed at home in our little house near Prague in the Czech Republic. So much for roughing it in the mountains.

I stumble the few feet to the creaky ladder that leads to the loft and blink hard to clear the sleep from my head as I climb in the warm semi-darkness, lit only by the stove. Above is the tiny loft, mostly crammed with boxes my mother is storing. There is a small space that has been cleared for two pallets on the floor and my children sleep there – four-year-old Marik and five… almost six-year-old Shaye. I squeeze into the opening between a cabinet and the railing to reach Shaye.

I gently stroke her cheek in an attempt to wake her gently but she doesn’t stir. I can’t fit entirely into their tiny space without causing a fair amount of noise, so I resort to reaching down and lifting her by both arms as she sleeps. She wakes up as she is pulled out of her blankets but she doesn’t cry. She’s used to it and she loves kindergarten.

At first, her legs don’t hold her but I put her hands on the railing and guide her quietly through the little space. I have to hold her from behind as we slide down the ladder because she isn’t awake enough to be reliable.  Back down on the floor of the tiny one-room cabin, we dress silently by firelight. Shaye is usually done first, despite the fact that I have laid out our clothes the night before. My head is still full of fluff.

She opens the door as I get my boots on and the icy air of the still-dark morning blasts against my nose. It must be more than ten below again. We step outside onto the frozen path. There isn’t much snow this morning, just a powdery dusting. I close the door quietly. Marik is still fast asleep. Shaye and I make our way toward the big house  

I put my hand on her shoulder and let her bob against my legs as we walk. The moon is waning but still fat and bright, hanging among the pines that tower above us on the western slope. An owl hoots up there in the trees. Then another answers from down in the woodlot in the hollow far below. Something else cries out in the predawn, an animal I don’t recognize.

We step quickly toward the house. A light has been left on for us but otherwise it is still dark and silent. We bustle inside, shedding boots and coats. I put water on for tea, while Shaye snuggles with the two dogs and one cat that greet us. In thirty five minutes, I get Shaye through hair brushing and a small bowl of cereal, sometimes half a cup of warm fruit tea and a few minutes of reading. Sometimes I can salvage the coals of last night’s fire in the big hearth. But sometimes I have to build it up from scratch.

When my watch says exactly 6:45, we have to start putting boots and coats on in earnest. At 6:50, Shaye stands outside while I lace up my high tops and mash my hat into place. Both dogs barrel out of the door, growling and nipping at each other playfully.

“I hear the bus,” Shaye yells and we start down the steep quarter-mile mud track that serves as our driveway. I can see the lights of the bus far below, making its way up the road beyond our property. In three minutes, we drop down to the county road that runs through the bottom of the hollow. The sky is barely starting to get light but the morning as clear as the perfect note of a penny whistle.

We’re the furthest out on this school bus route. The driver, a sweet lady named Cindy, has to drive another mile up the road to find a place to turn around. Then, she comes back down the hill and picks Shaye up on her way back. That way we have the five-minute warning to get us down the hill and we rarely have to wait long.

When we hear the bus approach again and see the warmth of its flashing lights in the distance, Shaye burrows against me, suddenly demanding of comfort and multiple hugs. I hug her and put the required kisses on her face as the bus slows and the doors open.

“‘Morning!” Cindy calls.

“‘Morning,”  I reply, as Shaye bounds up the steps and disappears into the darkened bus alone.

I stand and wave, even though I can’t see her behind the glass or at that distance. The one time I forgot to pretend to exchange waves with her, she gave me a hard time about it for days. So, I wave and smile and pretend that I can see her as the bus pulls away. One of the absurdities of being a legally blind mother.

In a moment the morning is as still and peaceful as that clear note of music. The sky has lightened a little along the horizon, though it will be a half an hour yet before the sun peeks up.  The only sound is the yipping of the dogs as they chace each other out in the neighbor’s pasture. I turn back up the road and hike to the stop, pausing a few times just to admire the morning. The brightening skyline and the pink-hued clouds are blurry to me but still beautiful, something like an impressionist painting.

I take the grassier path back up the ridge. That one ends back at the little cabin where Marik is still asleep. I slip in as silently as I can and sit in the rocking chair reading for a few minutes as the sun comes up and slowly illuminates my mother’s paintings which hang close together on the walls. This is normally her art studio, when we aren’t here. I can’t actually see the paintings unless I stand on the bed and put my face a few inches from them, but the amorphous blobs of them on the wall are comforting.

At about 7:30, Marik snuffles awake and calls out to see if I have returned from the bus yet. Then he pads over to the ladder and climbs down. He sits in my lap for awhile and I read one of the new stories I’ve ordered online. I tuck our latest addition into one of the big duffle bags I’m packing for the long trip back to the Czech Republic, a land of limited English-language children’s books, and we head back into the house.

Most mornings we are alone. My mom and my brother stay overnight in town more often than not. So, Marik and I make a more substantial breakfast, carry a load of wood down a long flight of narrow stairs to stoke the fire, wash the dishes and try to call Papa on Skype. Then it is time to find something useful to do with the four-year-old-oriented part of the day. Sometimes we just go for a walk to visit a neighbor or one of the huge trees on top of the ridge. Other days we cook or make cookies for the holidays. About once every two weeks, we can finagle a ride into town to visit the library.

Such is the rhythm of our mornings on Pumpkin Ridge. There is peace to it along with hard work.

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The Festival of Spring

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Our little family seems to be growing tentatively. Here is a picture of Ember, holding Marik, with Ember’s boyfriend Tomas and his 11-year-old sister Eliska, standing in front of me. We are standing under our Maypole which we are getting ready to dance around. We had a wonderful Beltane celebration, which you can see more pictures from on my special Wheel of the Year writing project page:

https://ariefarnam.wordpress.com/the-wheel-of-the-year/

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A Joyous Yule overall

We had a wonderful holiday season over all. Thanks to the cooperation of the calendar, Dusan had plenty of time off work without having to take much vacation time. The weather didn’t cooperate, so we were mostly indoors or wet to the skin with snow slush and mud, but as the song says, “Heedless of the wind and weather.” 🙂

Marik and Eliska the cat soaking up some rare and precious rays of noontime winter solstice sunshine.

Marik and Eliska the cat soaking up some rare and precious rays of noontime winter solstice sunshine.

Shaye used the last of the snow to make a snowgirl, decorated with the fruits of the year's harvest, not just a carrot nose, but potato eyes and an apple mouth. Okay, the rocks were still buried by the snow, though that didn't last long.

Shaye used the last of the snow to make a snowgirl, decorated with the fruits of the year’s harvest, not just a carrot nose, but potato eyes and an apple mouth. Okay, the rocks were still buried by the snow, though that didn’t last long.

Wholesomely chaotic Yultide chaos with cookies, candles, bread sourdough, piles of unsorted papes and children's crafts in the background. The cookies were a bit unwholesome with the food coloring in the decorations that caused Shaye to melt down for about two days. We may have to ban food coloring in future, though it was fun to decorate colorful cookies.

Wholesomely chaotic Yultide chaos with cookies, candles, bread sourdough, piles of unsorted papes and children’s crafts in the background. The cookies were a bit unwholesome with the food coloring in the decorations that caused Shaye to melt down for about two days. We may have to ban food coloring in future, though it was fun to decorate colorful cookies.

By the second day of Yule, a steady downpour had turned the snow into a dangerous mix of ice and slush. It was almost impossible for anyone to drive in the mess. We went out caroling in the rain on the 23rd to bring gifts to two neighbors who most needed the boost, a lonely elderly woman and a woman in one of my ESL classes from the Ukraine. Our rewards for being heedless of the wind and weather were huge smiles and two wonderful gingerbread cookies. Shaye was delighted to find "Grandfather Deer" again.

By the second day of Yule, a steady downpour had turned the snow into a dangerous mix of ice and slush. It was almost impossible for anyone to drive in the mess. We went out caroling in the rain on the 23rd to bring gifts to two neighbors who most needed the boost, a lonely elderly woman and a woman in one of my ESL classes from the Ukraine. Our rewards for being heedless of the wind and weather were huge smiles and two wonderful gingerbread cookies. Shaye was delighted to find “Grandfather Deer” again.

On the fourth day of Yule, the spirits and grandma gave to Shaye and Marik an electric piano, a little red wagon and much joy.

On the fourth day of Yule, the spirits and grandma gave to Shaye and Marik an electric piano, a little red wagon and much joy.

During the holidays we went to visit the in-laws in South Bohemia and while there we encountered the one great sorrow of the season. My 19-year-old American niece Ember was along to see the Czech relatives and my mother-in-law and father-in-law took the opportunity to try to lecture her on the dangers of living without a television and the genetic flaws of the Romani people. When my husband came in the later topic started to get out of control. Ember had the presence of mind to check whether the children were within earshot and, since they were in the next room, she left carrying them. Having overheard raised voices, I was coming to find the children when I met Ember and the children leaving the scene. The children appeared oblivious to the poisonous racist rhetoric being produced… this time at least. While we are blessed in so many ways, the shadow of the times follows through every season.

Shaye knows that she and Marik are Romani. I think she is a bit confused about how it is that they are and we are not, although I have reassured her that we are all partly Romani because part of our family is Romani. She enjoys our few Romani books and fondly remembers our Romani language teacher, who couldn’t continue teaching due to major health problems. Shaye’s preschool teacher remains wonderfully open and welcoming of our cultural and ethnic differences and I have begun to do monthly volunteer workshops for the kids at the preschool about different cultures.

For now, the hardest part remains relations with the Czech side of our family. We continue to visit them because, aside from Ember, we have no other family here.

A rare and precious picture of us with Shaye and our Czech nieces Evicka and Bara during the holidays - Need I say more? This is why we keep going back despite the difficulties and conflicts.

A rare and precious picture of us with Shaye and our Czech nieces Evicka and Bara during the holidays – Need I say more? This is why we keep going back despite the difficulties and conflicts.

Got babies, must travel

We were out over the Atlantic Ocean with two hours left before landing in Amsterdam and three other women within four rows of me were, like me, dealing with a pair of young children alone without any adult assistance. I had overheard other passengers bemoaning their bad luck in being seated with so many small children nearby. My children were both asleep but they were the only toddlers sleeping. All eight of the others were screaming or howling to one degree or another and I don’t even know what children further away on the flight were doing because I couldn’t hear anything over our local uproar.

The man in front of me stood up to get his bag out of the overhead compartment and looked at me and said, “It’s amazing that your children have slept a good part of the flight.”

To be fair to the other harried mothers, my children had screeched, fought and demanded for the first three hours of the flight (not to mention the two preceding hours at the airport). But at the moment in question, Shaye had been asleep for nearly four hours and Marik had slept for two and been up for two and just gone back to sleep. And I had reasonable hope that it would last awhile yet. “Well, I did give them a little dose of Benadril,” I told the man in front of me.

“Oh, I get it, “ he scoffed and waved his hand dismissively at me.

I felt a pinch of anger. I had asked for it with that comment about the Benadril but still. Benadril is not a sleeping drug and it takes so much more than that to get toddlers to sleep a long stretch on an airplane. Before I left for this year’s trans-Atlantic trip I did some research online for toddler-travelling tips. What I got was pretty basic: bring food and toys, spread out the goodies and don’t give them to the kids all at once, try to get bulkhead seats. (Yeah, right. Dream on. I’ve flown dozens of times and never been near a bulkhead seat.) The advice seemed woefully inadequate for the task of a 16-hour airline trip. So, I figured out my own ways to cope and found them to be effective.

And here is my more comprehensive prescription for how to do long-haul flights with toddlers, while preserving parent-sanity, flight attendant friendliness and the good-will of fellow passengers.

– Bedtime routines: Have a well-established going-to-sleep routine. My children have the same bedtime routine on 99 percent of days. Yes, there are exceptions but they are truly rare. Before naptime, we put on music and dance around for 15 minutes, sit on the potty, read stories, sing a song and wind up the little mechanical toy that plays music. In the evening before bed, we watch a 15 minute video, brush teeth, sit on the potty, take a bath, read stories, sing a song, say a prayer, say goodnight, wind up the mechanical toy. These routines have to be followed as closely as possible when traveling. (Okay, no bath on the airplane but I did wash their faces and hands with wipes.) Keeping these routines is probably the single most important part of encouraging sleep during travel. I have read that the key to a successful bedtime routine with small children is to keep the order the same. You can leave out parts or lengthen or shorten parts but changing the order is apparently a bad idea.

– Sleep props: My second key is sleep props. The more you can create the surroundings the children normally sleep with the better. Putting a loud fan near where the child sleeps for at least a week or two before the flight may help because the airplane noise is intense. Beyond that, creating a homelike space on the flight means using up every last inch of allowed carry-on luggage. My kids have blankets, stuffed animals, binkies, the mechanical music toy and scarves to block out light. I strapped their quilts and scarves to my carry-on pack in a roll and dared airline personnel to call it oversized (which taken together it certainly was but most of them are not dumb enough to deny bedding for toddlers). Then, I had to bring at least one stuffed animal for each child, their binkies and the wind-up toy.

– Break the sleep schedule strategically: Okay, it is helpful to have a schedule in the first place. Normally, my kids get up at around 7:00 or 7:30, take a nap between 1:30 and 4:30 and go to bed at around 8:30. This schedule primes them not only to sleep at certain times of the day but to want to sleep after a certain number of hours of wakefulness. So, if I break the schedule carefully, I can maximize sleep at the right times of the trip. On a trans-ocean flight, your ideal goal is to have the child really tired and ready to sleep about two to three hours after the flight takes off. This is because these long haul flights begin with food service around 1.5 to 2 hours after take-off. If your toddler goes to sleep immediately after take-off, the hubbub of food service and the smells will probably wake her up and getting her to go back to sleep before another five or six hours have passed could be a challenge. Also, you actually want your child to eat the airline food, so you have to carry as little as possible. Eating right before sleep also ensures that she will be full and ready to sleep for a long time. That said, timing this change of schedule is easier said than done. If you have another flight before your trans-ocean flight that can really complicate planning, as can flights at various times of the day. You want your child to be a bit late for nap or bedtime to encourage longer sleep but not too late. If you break the routine too much your toddler will either fall asleep in a most inconvenient place (like the security line) or be too tired and stressed to go to sleep at all. On our flight from Europe to the US, we had to be at the airport at 5:00 a.m. That meant that my break in routine started the day before. I made sure the kids had an early nap and woke up early. Then, I put them to bed at 7:00 p.m. instead of 9:00 p.m. Then, I got them up at 4:00, when they normally get up at 7:00 and I hoped that they would last at least seven hours until naptime. That meant 3 hours until take off, 2 hours on a short flight, an hour and a half layover and just enough time to get up in the air with the seatbelt sign off. Then, I put them to bed. No food that time, but I knew I couldn’t keep them awake any longer or get them to sleep on the first (very exciting) flight. I managed it, although they were very cranky and almost fell asleep in the Amsterdam airport. Fortunately, the meal service didn’t wake them after only an hour of sleep. That time, they slept five hours and then were awake for the full remaining five hours of the ten-hour flight, which was grueling. On the return trip, I could plan better because my first flight was the trans-ocean flight and it was in the middle of the day. I put the kids on a late schedule, instead of an early schedule, getting them up at 8:00 or 9:00 in the morning if possible, so that when our trans-Atlantic flight took off at 1:30 p.m., they were not yet ready to sleep and they held out until 4:00 p.m. instead of their usual naptime at 2:00. This resulted in 6.5 hours of sleep from one kid and 5 from the other and it was scheduled to have them good and rested before the harrowing transfer in Amsterdam.

– Infant-in-arms MEANS infant on long flights: I never did do the “lap baby” thing. By the time I was bureaucratically able to travel with my adopted children, they were too old. My first was only 16 months old on the initial flight but she was 18 months by the time we returned and I was afraid to have only the one seat. I saw a woman with a baby about that old on her lap on my last flight and she even had another seat occupied by her six-year-old son to work with. It looked miserable. The toddler could not sleep and it was very uncomfortable for the woman to sit with the heavy toddler on her lap hour after hour. When I had to hold my two-year-old on my lap for two hours on that flight (because the other child was using both seats to sleep) my legs fell asleep and it was very uncomfortable after the first 45 minutes. While it is very tempting to go with the airline’s rule of two years as the cut-off for “lap babies”, keep in mind that the rule is primarily made with short one or two-hour flights in mind. I would gladly hold an almost two-year-old for two hours to avoid hundreds of dollars of extra expense. But for ten or more hours? Get another seat. It allows your toddler a full-sized carry-on and checked luggage as well, which you’ll need to cart all of his 50,000 necessary objects.

– Make homey nests: The scarves I mentioned earlier were crucial. I’m talking about filmy scarves in dark colors or a dark-colored bed-spread, which can be used to cover a crib normally, so that the child is used to the color and will sleep better even at home. On the flight, I used a bedspread to make a tent for the children to sleep under. This blocked out the glaring lights and toned down the overly interesting sights AND made the space almost like home. I pinched one side of the cloth in the top of the raised tray tables and the other side I tucked behind the headrest pillows. I carried clothes pins in case I ended up on a flight where the seat tops were smooth. (You can’t drape the cloth over the back of the seat because other passengers have video monitors and tables there.) Then, because I had two seats to work with I made two beds, one across the two seats and one on the floor. (As soon as I got on the flight, I asked the flight attendants to give me any extra blankets and pillows and I used these to make a mattress on the floor and to pad against the metal legs of the seats.) Technically, the flight attendants told me that I would have to get wake the children up, if the seat-belt sign went on during the flight, which of course it did with every little bump of turbulence. But with my tent, the kids were out-of-sight and out-of-mind and I suspect that most flight attendants will look the other way when there are already eight toddlers screaming in that section and your toddlers aren’t. They will probably insist on waking up a child sleeping on the floor for take-off or landing. And one true safety issue: Be careful of toes or fingers or hair creeping out into the aisle. I once had a finger smashed by one of those carts and you cannot really imagine how heavy they are. If a child is sleeping on the floor, be careful that they don’t fling out an arm or foot to be stepped on or driven over by carts!

– Bring food: Mealtimes are odd and not always predictable on planes. Trying to get a toddler to wait an extra hour for food can be a huge problem. And if you have any domestic US flights on your itinerary or much of a layover, the airline food won’t be enough. Most airport food in inappropriate for healthy-eating kids at hyper-inflated prices. On the bright side, the only people who can bring liquid and gel type things on airplanes anymore are parents with children under 2. So, you can bring sealed baby food and yogurts. I think technically, you are supposed to have them in your little liquids baggie, but I have sometimes forgotten that step and never had trouble over it. I was even waived through with a thermos full of water that I had forgotten to pour out. In addition, bring pre-cut cheese, fruit, carrots, cucumbers, sweet red peppers, bread, little cream cheese or butter packets, dried fruit and non-sweet crackers. A lot of energy and granola bar type things are not great because of the sugar content. Airline meals have plenty of treats and too much sugar will lead to hyper kids, which you don’t want in confined spaces. One interesting tip is that cut pears in a plastic bag do not go brown like pre-cut apples or squash as easily as bananas, making them an excellent fruit for travel. That said, I always seem to bring too much food. Better too much than too little but do keep in mind that you don’t need more than about as much as each person would eat in one meal. If you plan reasonably, you should still be able to eat airline meals. Today airlines are offering a wide array of dietary options. I don’t recommend ordering an infant or child-meal though. Infant meals are generally a jar of baby food, which you could order in order to avoid carrying it I suppose, but you’ll have little choice about what you get. Child-meals are reported on consumer websites as being very unhealthy and greasy, basically a fast-food-plus-junk-food type meal. If you want your child to have more kid-friendly food, consider ordering a “bland meal” or “low-sodium” or even vegetarian. All of these options tone down the meal. Sometimes they are fresher than the regular but sometimes they are not very delicious. That is, unfortunately, the luck of the draw. One thing I learned on my last flight is that ALL “special meals” are brought out far earlier than the regular meals. So, if you are worried that your children will be hungry or won’t be able to stay awake for the meal time, you could order some sort of special meal just to get it early. This especially applies if you are seated at the back of the plane. On large planes the meal service can take an hour to get to the back of the plane.

– Drinkie!: Need I remind anyone not to forget to bring water bottles or sippy cups? Even if you can’t bring them on full, you can fill them onboard. Even toddlers who can generally drink from cups at home will find it difficult not to spill the light plastic airline cups during turbulence. And the consequences of spills are so much more daunting on an airplane. If older toddlers or preschoolers won’t drink from a sippy cup because its “for babies”, try a water bottle with a squirt top or even just a plastic cup with a lid and a straw.

– Bring fun: Okay, it is pretty obvious that you need to bring entertainment for kids on airplanes but here are some more specifics to keep in mind. It is best to have different types of entertainment. Very few toddlers can watch videos for more than an hour straight. I generally don’t let my kids watch a lot of videos or TV, partly because that increases the time they’ll spend watching them when I really need a quiet activity, but it is limited even so. The same goes for books or any other type of entertainment. So, it is best to have a range of activities – a few books, a video player or computer with good batteries (free videos onboard are generally for older kids and won’t hold toddler attention), a few small toys (but not so small they’ll easily drop between seats), activity books, coloring books, magnetic scenes (but you should be resigned that some magnets will be lost) and anything that takes up a lot of time for your child lately (doll clothes have been one recently for us). Be wary of toys with many parts that are useless when one part is lost and be wary of round objects like balls or cylinders, which will get away down the aisle. Disposable things are good or things you don’t care a lot about. I brought a couple of plain duplo legos for my 21-month-old with great success. He could practice putting them together and taking them apart and yet if one got lost, it was no big deal. Finally, older toddlers and preschoolers can be entertained for awhile by an electronic toy. I have tried it with children under two and the distractions of the plane are too much. But my three-year-old was happy to play with one of those six-in-one learning systems for even two hours.

– For heaven’s sake, use the fun strategically: Even more important than what sort of fun you bring is how you use it. First, capitalize on the fun the airplane offers. Don’t pull out your toys right away and keep them a secret if possible at first. Most toddlers will be happy for about an hour, looking out the window, watching the take-off, looking at people, flipping through in-flight magazines. After they get restless, pull out one fun item. Choose a video or something passive, if you are hoping for them to sleep soon. Choose something with active participation if you don’t want them to sleep. When there is no food service in progress and the flight is reasonably stable, take advantage of the moment to walk up and down the aisles. If you get seats near the back, which I actually recommend in some circumstances, some flight attendants will let you play for awhile near the back galley where there is a small open space by the back emergency exit. Most importantly, if you do have a new toy that you expect to be very exciting for your child (particularly a new electronic toy) save it for after the major sleeping portion of the trip. For instance, in the example I started with, my children were quite difficult in the airport and for the first three hours of the flight. I was tempted to give them the new six-in-one “learning systems” I had got them, but I resisted the temptation and got them to go to sleep instead. Then, they slept most of the rest of the flight, were refreshed for our transfer when we reached Europe. But by the time we got onto our next flight to cross Europe, they were tired and frustrated with traveling. That last two-hour flight could have been miserable. But I pulled out my “secret weapon” – the electronic toys – and they were happy for two more hours because the new toys were interesting enough to combat their accumulated exhaustion. We arrived in Vienna with a four-hour drive still ahead of us but with kids primed for sleeping in carseats.

– Choose seats: As I said before, I have never had a bulkhead seat. Certainly, if you can get one, do so. You probably won’t be allowed to sit in one of the “emergency exit” rows with children, so if you do ask for those seats you will end up being moved and you may be moved to a very bad seat, so it is better not to ask for them. Given that most of the better seats are now classed as “economy comfort” on many airlines and come at a steeper price, you may not have many choices, but there are still a few choices. If you are traveling with one child, buy your tickets early enough to get a window and an aisle seat if at all possible. Opt for two seats together by the window, even if you are travelling with more than one adult. It is far better to be able to trade off with another rested adult than to have both adults right next to the child the whole time. If you are traveling with two small children and one adult, which was my situation and the situation of two other mothers nearby, there are two reasonable options. If the plane has three seats between the window and the aisle, choose this. If the plane has only two, still choose the window seat and then two aisle seats across from each other. This is a surprisingly good arrangement. When the children are sleeping, you have a place to sit away from them, so that your movements will not waken them. And the seat across the aisle gives you a “time-out” option for an older toddler or child who can’t stop fighting with a sibling. This is the best option I have found all around. If you can’t get this, which I couldn’t on my first trans-Atlantic flight, look toward the back of the plane. On planes with four seats together in the middle, there are several rows at the back that have only three seats in the middle. These are considered undesirable because they are at the back (greater turbulence), near the bathroom (lots of traffic in the aisles) and in the center of the plane, so they are often filled last. Unless you are worried about the turbulence at the back of the plane, consider that being near the bathroom is really an advantage with toddlers and these three-seat arrangements offer a pretty good scenario for dealing with two children. I tried out both the three seats in the middle and the window-aisle-aisle arrangement on my last trip and both were much better than the alternatives, with the latter being somewhat preferable. The other families whose children cried more generally either were seated in two seats with one child always on the adult’s lap or they were sitting in the middle four seats with a stranger seated at one end.

– Use preboarding: I have actually read in texts espousing tips for traveling with babies that you should wait to get on at the last minute. While the idea of a few more moments to move around in the airport seems tempting, I advise against it unless your carry-on is very small and you have one child that you can carry. The problem is that people with small children really do need more time to get on and it is not fun to be rushed by the flight attendants or to be in a crush of people with small children. But the most important issue is your stuff. Caring for toddlers takes A LOT of objects to be accessed often and quickly. That is why your carry-on will generally be far too large to fit under the seat and you will be standing in the aisle getting into it constantly when your children are awake. I don’t know any way to avoid this. So, it becomes paramount to gain overhead space right above your seat and this alone would be enough to induce me to take advantage of the airline’s offer of pre-boarding for people with small children.

– Pack a toddler first-aid and spill kit: Okay, just to cover the basics, do bring at least one change of clothes for your children and at least one spare shirt for yourself. Children spill and on airplanes they often throw-up. This is simply life. Beyond that, make sure you bring any medicines your child needs regularly or when she has a cold or flu or stomach trouble. Even a minor cold can blow up into a major viral illness with the changes and stress of air travel. Bring any relief for ear infections that you can. I suggest bringing a small amount of honey to put in a child’s ear at the earliest sign of an ear infection. Honey absorbs moisture and has disinfectant properties. It will absorb into the skin and will not harm the ear. Moisture in the ear can cause serious infections with the changes in air pressure that occur with air travel. Be sure to bring a thermometer and whatever you use to combat high fevers. Infections tend to move fast in this environment and it is not uncommon for infants and toddlers to develop dangerously high fevers on airplanes. Bandaids are always a good idea. And, of course, bring a large package of wet wipes, whether your child is still in diapers or not.

– Be prepared to be a modern Girl Scout: Despite the best laid plans things often do go wrong. Flights are delayed and cancelled. Weather can turn bad. A difficult flight attendant may interfere with routines. And real illness may strike. I have heard stories of parents who constructed makeshift tents out of bedding in the corners of airports to weather long delays with children. The most harrowing air-travel experience I endured was when my husband and I took our first child (age 16 months) across the Atlantic for the first time. As soon as we got on the 10-hour trans-Atlantic flight, my daughter developed a fever of 104 F and became listless. I gave her infant Ibuprofen and infant Tylenol and alternated them every two hours but six hours later the fever had not abated. We had asked for medical help and the flight attendants had produced a passenger who was some sort of medic. He had looked at the baby from ten feet away and declared that he did not believe she was sick and returned to his seat. My husband and I, as fairly new parents, were panicked. Fears of ruptured ear drums and meningitis zipping through my thoughts. Finally, we decided to try a method routinely prescribed by Czech doctors for emergency reduction of high fevers which involves wrapping the child in a luck-warm wet towel or sheet and then layering that with warm dry blankets to limit the loss of heat. We wetted down our baby’s bedding and used heaps of scavenged airline blankets to wrap around as a second layer. Then, we switched between the wet bedding and fresh, dry airplane blankets every 15 minutes, as per the instructions we had been given by a doctor during our mandatory parenting training for our adoption application. It was a grueling routine. Within an hour and a half we were surrounded by piles of soggy blankets and had surely made enemies of every passenger and flight attendant near us, but our daughter’s temperature was down to 99 F and it stayed down just long enough for us to get off the flight and into an urgent care doctor in Portland, Oregon. There it was discovered that our daughter had a massive and dangerous ear infection. The doctor asked how in the world we had managed to bring the fever down on in flight and, although she had never heard of the Czech method, she had no argument with it. The moral of that story is simply use whatever you have or can acquire from others or from the flight crew. Don’t be afraid to ask (politely) for things. They might say no but it is worth a try.

– Bring anxiety and nausea reducer: Now, at last, we come to the issue of medication. It is in reality the least of what one can do to ensure a reasonable trip and I have heard that, without all the other measures, it doesn’t work well on its own. Still, I do carry antihistamine and anti-nausea medications for children. Anti-nausea medication is good to have for obvious reasons but many anti-nausea and antihistamine medications also have the (in this case) handy side-effect of causing drowsiness in many people. It is advisable to try this out on your child before the flight, in a somewhat less dire situation, because a some children react to Benadril and similar medications by becoming hyperactive instead of drowsy. Another issue to consider is that the drowsy side-effect reportedly stops working, if the drug is used too often. So, you might want to only use it in extreme situations, such as trans-ocean trips. Other than our two trans-ocean trips with children, I have only used it in on one other occasion and that was for our first toddler’s nausea brought on by the overexcitement and stress of going to meet our second child for the first time. Now, because I am an amateur herbalist, I would like to add that there are some herbal alternatives. Ginger has anti-nausea effects for some people. Candied or fresh ginger can be helpful to chew but young children often don’t like it. Ginger tea, if sweetened, may work better but I have found it’s anti-nausea effects to be sporadic. Lemon balm is helpful for anxiety and it helps some people go to sleep. It does not have any tendency to make some people hyperactive but the dose required to truly bring sleep to an overwrought child would be difficult to induce such a child to ingest. You could try lemon balm tea in the sippy cup as a preventative or, in a pinch, a teaspoon of lemon balm tincture scalded with a bit of boiling water from the galley (to evaporate the alcohol in the tincture) may do the trick. When traveling with two toddlers alone, I found that I couldn’t handle brewing special teas on the flight, when I couldn’t bring them through security from home. So, after five hours of dealing with out-of-control children, I resorted to Benadril, which calmed their nerves enough that they slept. The primary effect of the Benadril was probably to calm nerves to make falling asleep a bit easier and then it supported sleep, so that they may have slept longer than they would have otherwise. However, I doubt that it would have worked nearly so well without the other strategies I followed. The reason that I blurted this out when a stranger mentioned how well my children were sleeping was because I still feel a bit guilty for voluntarily exposing my children to pharmaceutical chemicals. So, it was really my guilty conscience speaking.

As you can see the effort and preparation involved in achieving a trans-ocean flight with two toddlers and one adult is enormous and, even with all that effort, I had to resort to chemical medication. The point of the story is probably: don’t try this unless there is a desperate need to travel.

Something like our first family vacation ever

We are in Sopron, a small town in Hungary that sticks out into Austria. We’re having our first family vacation “ever” more or less, definitely the first with all of us.

We passed through Slovakia and stayed the night with an email friend who has adopted two gorgeous Romani girls. Another family with Romani children from Austria/Hungary came to visit us there. We had a wonderful day in the sun, around the wading pool with sun-burned adults and nicely tanned, very very happy children.

Now we have three days to play around the Austrian/Hungarian lake of Neusiedel before we get on our flight to Oregon and leave Dusan to build herb driers and rock walls by himself all summer. So far it has been a wonderful trip with few fights among children and/or adults.

A quiet sunrise

Ever since instituting my new schedule, I have been getting up at 6:00, at latest 6:30, to have a shower, light a candle and a stick of incense, take vitamins, eat a light breakfast and brush my hair before the children descend upon me. I have always wanted to be clear-headed enough to light a candle and incense once a day but even without children I rarely got around to it. Then, with children it seemed impossible.

But I am managing it, so far for the third week in a row. I haven’t done the schedule perfectly. There have been days when I couldn’t even begin to follow it and generally things went from bad to worse as my organization dissolved into bare survival and lots of yelling by both children and Mama (yours truly). But I have noticed that on the days when I can manage to get up early and do my routine – avoiding the seductive call of my laptop which whispers, “Psssst! I have interesting emails here for you from friends, offering much needed moral support. Come on, just look for a moment.” – when I can do it, the day goes significantly better.

At this time of year, this means that I get up in the gray light just before dawn, stumble downstairs and into the shower before my eyes are even half open. The warm water wakes me up. I could do without many of the comforts of modern life but hot showers are in a class of their own. By the time, I’m clean and dressed, my brain has started to kick in. I spend a quiet moment lighting my candle and incense on the eastern window sill just as the sun is rising through pink and orange mist from the forested hills where the Czech author Josef Lada wrote his pastoral poetry for children.

I carry the candle back to the darker part of the living room and set it on top of our woodstove, which I have always envisioned as the center of the family space. In fact, I planned the construction of the house around that idea. So, it is fitting that the candle burns there. I recite a little poem to focus my mind for the day and I feel somehow that I have accomplished something already in the day.

Then, I go to the herb cupboard for iron tablets to combat my anemia, St. John’s Wart to fight off depressive tendencies and any remedies necessary for the moment. I run nearly boiling water out of our specialized water heater under the kitchen sink into the large bowl full of carefully washed baby bottles (hopefully if the evening went well the night before). This is an imperfect method of sterilizing bottles but the best I can manage with a recalcitrant husband, who loudly proclaims that he does not believe that infant formula is really so prone to bad bacteria.

I turn on the pot to heat water for tea, put herbs into a strainer, cut crusty Czech bread and spread it with the jam we made last summer just before Marik “came home.” On most mornings, my quiet is cut short at about this point, at around 6:45, by Shaye stirring in her crib, vaulting over the side – she still refuses to sleep in a “big kid bed” – and clomping noisily past where Marik is sleeping in an apparent attempt to wake him up as well. But if I am lucky, she may sleep a few more minutes and I might get to drink my tea and pick out the tangles in my hair while listening to an audio book from the Library of Congress’s service for blind US citizens overseas for five or ten minutes.

It is not much and not everyone will find the same value in such a thing, but I think that my personal rhythm is helped a great deal by this one small change in my daily routine.

Potties, flying food and tantrums versus the ideal day with toddlers

While I mostly write about the controversial parts of life, most of our days are not filled with controversy or inter-ethnic tension. I thought it might be fun to try to set down a sort of “day in the life” of our little gingerbread house on Grumblers Ridge.

This winter has been very odd. It was so mild as to be worrying until the end of January, rarely even freezing. Then, the temperature dropped to 20 degrees below freezing for two weeks. Only in the past few days have we had any snow and it has only been barely enough to run a sled around. But finally, we have a semblance of winter.

These days, Dusan wakes up at 5:45 and is gone by 6:30, pulling his car out of our new garage in the night. I usually wake up to see his lights swing out across the light layer of snow on our unplowed gravel road. He has to drive about 30 minutes to the outskirts of Prague to the new offices of the company he works for as a surveyor of telecommunications lines.

I stumble out of bed as quietly as possible, because Marik sleeps in my room and waking him means an end to all hopes of breakfast or a shower. If I was on top of it the night before, clothes for me and both children are already prepared downstairs on the table, so I don’t have to rummage around in my room and risk waking up Marik. I make my way downstairs and shower, put on tea water and try, in vain, to move a bit faster.

These days dawn usually comes about 7:00. Oddly enough, the sun is often visible during February. I think it is actually one of our sunniest months. Perhaps it just seems that way after the constant gray of the previous four months. In any event, I sometimes get to watch an actual sunrise while I eat my breakfast of green tea and dark crusty bread slathered with Hungarian rosehip jelly or my own homemade current jam. I usually drink some kind of green tea and try to do a few emails or clean up one of the many small messes that are always in the way. I usually don’t get to do those things, as Shaye wakes up by about 7:10 and the only way to keep her from waking up Marik is to devote full attention to her.

Our current routine is that I comb Shaye’s hair while she watches home videos of herself as a baby or Marik’s homecoming. Sometimes she watches online clips of Romani folk dancing. She loves all of these things as much if not more than Sesame Street or other official “entertainment.” As much as most people marvel at my fortitude with Shaye’s long hair, this is actually one of the most pleasant and calm times of the day and often the only time with just me and Shaye. Her hair is easy to comb and she does not whine or even wiggle much, so we find this time is pleasant, unless Marik wakes up before we are done, which he unfortunately does sometimes.

That adds its own element because Marik’s current routine is that he makes a very large, very stinky mess in his pants immediately upon awakening. If the responsible adult of the moment is very quick and does not dally at all on the way to get him out of his crib and plunk him down on a potty chair, chances are that the big mess will end up in the potty and not in Marik’s diaper. This event is in effect the primary motivation for the entire morning routine – the race to get ready enough that one can spring into action to catch Marik’s poop in the potty and avoid cleaning up a poop mess.

If that feat is accomplished to satisfaction, the whole day somehow seems brighter. If one has to follow breakfast by wiping up a large stinky mass of fecal matter, the day necessarily seems a bit dreary. However it turns out, I follow with bottles of milk for both children and clothing. Usually, I have not managed to dress myself or brush my hair by this time either. So, they drink milk, I dress Marik and assist Shaye. I dress myself and usually finish my interrupted breakfast. Then, if there is a reasonable chance that we will actually see another person before Dusan gets home, I make time to brush my hair.

Psssst. If you don't exhaust Mama before she bakes them, you might get gingersnap cookies.

By the time all of that is done, it is certain to be about 9:00. At that point, there is generally laundry to be hung up, food to be thawed or pre-prepped for lunch, spills to be mopped up and, soon enough, more pottying to be done, fights to be broken up, bruises to comfort, tears to dab and toddlers to hold until calmed. And there is already a layer of toys across the floor, even though it was clean when we went to bed the night before. I usually have some sort of goal for an unscheduled morning like this. Often the goal is to get outside for at least a half an hour. Sometimes it might be a small art project. In any event, I spend the next hour trying to catch up on necessities enough to reach our fun goal.

Around 10:00, the kids eat their morning snack or a real breakfast in the case of Shaye, who won’t eat much before that. The snack usually consists of fruit, yogurt and bread with jam or cheese. And, then, if we are fortunate, we are able to either go outside or do some sort of project. Going outside requires that both children sit on the potty, at least one of them has a temper tantrum while waiting for me to find their scattered outdoor clothing, I wrestle Shaye into her mittens, sweater, snowsuit, boots, scarf and hat in that order, while she laughingly attempts to thwart me, I nudge Shaye out the door and then tackle Marik in the same manner. It seems to go relatively smoothly, except for the requisite tantrum at the beginning of the process (never about the same thing). Even so, it takes at between 30 and 40 minutes to get both children outside.

By this time there is usually little more than a half an hour to spend outside before I have to go in and get lunch ready. That is more or less okay because either the temperature is extremely cold (usually under 10 degrees below freezing) and the children’s faces freeze or it is above freezing and there is mud and slush that quickly soaks snow suits. We have had perhaps one day this year with a comfortable mildly freezing temperature fit for sledding and building snowmen.

After the children roll inside through the doorway, shedding snow, boots, mittens and hats in a ragged line leading to the playroom, I sweep out what snow I can and go to heat up lunch. If I did not cook in advance, we would never eat anything with real nutrients, so we tend to make huge pots of things and then eat the same thing for days on end.

Marik has just reached the stage where he insists on feeding himself but has only a 50 percent accuracy rate with shoveling food toward his mouth. But still, I see the light at the end of the tunnel with meals. Someday soon we will all simply sit down with our plates and eat together nicely, perhaps even remembering to give thanks for our food before we dig in. But at present it is still chaotic. Both Shaye and Marik scream to be first and I try to have both of their bowls hit the table at close to the same time. Then, I try to help Marik feed himself, while snatching bites of my own lunch when I can.

After we eat, I try to clean up the worst and most urgent of the messes, including washing the food-spattered floor, putting away leftovers and clearing dishes that will otherwise be grabbed and broken on the hard tile floor. There are also hands and faces to be washed, bottoms to be put on potties, fights to be broken up, crying to be calmed and always unexpected disasters and messes to be dealt with. By the time, I glance at my watch and notice that it is almost 1:30 and time for stories before naptime, I am so exhausted that the only thing that gets me through diapering the children and lugging them upstairs is the prospect of a break… soon.

I try to read to the kids for about twenty minutes before naptime. It is pretty chaotic at present. Marik doesn’t have the attention for stories read at Shaye’s level and will only sit and listen if the reading is interactive and completely focused on him. Shaye also often wants to bounce on beds and run around to keep the adrenaline of awake-time going. So, it is not always really reading for twenty minutes. Okay, it is rarely that – though it does sometimes happen that Shaye and I read while Marik plays relatively quietly on the floor. This is helped along when I can remember to bring cookies or apple slices for the children to nibble on while they listen.

Then, I put Shaye into bed and sing to her. These days she almost always demands “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” of all things. She has demanded that one song for a year now. Finally, I pick up Marik and head for my room, where I wrap him in his sleeping bag and loose swaddle and sing him if not to sleep than into a drowsy state with a variety of folksy songs.

If I truly had naptimes to myself, I think I would be fine. However, it is rare that even the most urgent food-related messes have all been cleared up, there isn’t still a basket of laundry to be hung or I don’t have to cook another major meal. If I don’t have to attend to those things, I can write my blog, research some of the many topics I’m working on, work on herbs, keep up correspondence, work on the children’s lifebooks or the like for about two hours.

After the kids get up, there is another round of potties and snacks and then either a leisurely period of play or a chaotic continuation of cooking with unhelpers, if I haven’t finished the naptime cooking tasks, which is common. Dusan gets home around 5:00 and needs a few minutes to recover from driving in traffic. Then, there is dinner, more or less as chaotic as lunch and, then, more cleaning – this time with two of us but both of us very tired.

The only television in our house other than the hairbrushing videos of the morning happens at 8:00 when the kids watch Sesame Street, Elmo’s World, Winnie the Pooh or the Czech Little Mole for fifteen minutes. Then, there is bath time, almost always accompanied by tantrums over who gets what toy, splashing, brushing teeth or who gets to dry off first, and by this time of the evening the tantrums are sometimes dealt with in less than patient ways by exhausted parents.

Yet, in the end, one of us somehow manages to wash the kids, smear them with herbal moisturizing salve and put on their pajamas, while the other one finishes cleaning up the kitchen and hopefully sweeps the disastrous downstairs floor. Then, I put Marik to bed with songs and a short story just for him, while Dusan reads a bit with Shaye and, then, I read again to Shaye on most nights and always repeat my singing performance and say a poem about the moon (another ritual must). You would think that I had an ear for music, given how much Shaye insists upon my singing, but I am nearly tone deaf and my singing is a rough approximation. Shaye even recently told me that my singing hurts her ears, but she perversely continues to request it.

By this time we have reached 9:30 in the evening and I stumble back downstairs for a cup of tea and a quick look at emails, which usually turns into a bit longer than a quick look and I often don’t make it to bed until 11:30. As a result, I’m running on a maximum of seven hours of sleep a night, which I am not built for. I wish I were the kind of person who can live happily and healthily on five or six hours, but I’m not. Over the long term, even seven hours leaves me bleary and less than patient with the children. I need eight hours in order to be efficient and stable in my moods. I also need iron supplements and St. John’s Wart tincture, if not all the time than during certain periods. These days, I usually forget both and suffer from anemia and low energy as a result.

My low energy isn’t the only issue, as you might have noticed. Our daily routine is less than inspiring. So, when Dusan took Shaye to his parent’s house this weekend and I had some relaxing time with just Marik and space to think a bit, I decided that I have to try something new. So, I have devised a schedule that I think we may be able to implement on days when we are home all day. The key feature, I suppose is my bedtime, at least an hour earlier than usual and my wake up at least a half an hour earlier than the usual. Other than that there is more strategically placed cleaning and more teaching kids to pick up after themselves both hopefully resulting in time for more reading, art projects and times to focus on music. It will probably require sacrificing some of my computer time, but I hope it will be worth it. Here’s the schedule below. I will report back on my success in sticking to it.

Daily plan with kids aged 3 and 1.5 years – February 2012

6:00 – Mama wakes up, light incense and candle for sanity, shower, brush hair, breakfast, take vitamins and herbs, pour boiling water on bottles to sterilize, defrost any necessary food or put on pots for broth or beans
7:00 – Shaye wakes up, brush Shaye’s hair, Shaye tries to eat yogurt or drink a bit of milk
7:30-8:00 – Marik wakes up, immediately goes on potty, gets milk bottle (210 ml)
8:30 – Morning routines completed, morning poem with kids, pick up toys if left out, story time and very short session with preschool homeschooling techniques
9:15 – Marik on the potty, Shaye chooses art activity or short project, do project + clean up
10:00 – Snacks, while listening to music or recorded stories
10:30 – All potty, dress and go outside
11:30 – Marik on the potty, lunch prep, kids clean up toys
12:00 – Lunch + thanksgiving poem
12:45 – Marik potty, Mama clean up
1:00 – Music, dance and singing session, gradually getting into slower calmer music
1:30 – Story time with fruit or cookies
2:00 – All potty, Naps, Mama’s quiet time
4:00 – All potty again, use construction toys, pretend play or games
5:00 – Marik on the potty, dinner prep, hopefully with Dusan taking kids and thus more possible to make a meal or finish a prepared meal each day
6:00 – Dinner, Marik on the potty again
7:00 – Clean up kitchen, diaper drying, unload/load dishwasher, sweep, declutter, wash out baby bottles and put in sterilizing bowl
7:45 and 8:00 – Marik on potty, kids clean up toys before video, video
8:15 – Bath, brushing teeth, all potty, other parent washes pans, finishes kitchen clean up
8:45 – 9:15 – Stories, bedtime moon poem, kids sleep
10:00 (max 10:30) –Mama to bed

All the reminders about Marik on the potty are because of our somewhat alternative potty training technique. It is a lax version of the “diaper free” method. It worked very well with Shaye who decided to potty train herself completely at 17 months. It has been rougher with Marik because of his late arrival home but it keeps major messes to a minimum and will hopefully allow eventual voluntary potty training. It still requires the normal amount of diapers, however.

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