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.

Our life when we leave the house

Some days ago, I took the kids to Prague to see a small park featuring large models of dinosaurs. Shaye had been showing some interest in dinosaurs, not much but a little, and I am grateful for any interest beyond her continuing distress over differing skin colors. She has been acting out a lot more than usual, since she brought up the issue of her fear of “being black.” She rejects books with pictures of brown-skinned people. At night, she cries, “I have no eyes. I have no hair. I have no hands…” She insists that she is ugly and she can’t be “a princess” like her friends. She throws unexplained tantrums far too often. She talks a lot about hating anyone who is mean and wanting to hit people with her wooden sword.

So, dinosaurs are a wonderful interest. But getting to the dinosaur park requires the ordeal of packing, getting the kids out the door, walking to the train station and two full hours of public transportation one way. We had to get up early and Shaye was in a bad mood, as usual. She whined, complained and resisted at every step of the process of getting dressed and ready to go. I initially tried to give her the choice of not going, but it seemed clear that she would choose to resist and not go and then be inconsolable and intolerable to live with for the rest of the day as a result. So, I muscled my way through.

Once we finally got on the train, after a 20 minute walk through muddy fields, everything looked good. I sat back with a feeling of accomplishment. The kids were happily looking out the window. The worst was over… I hoped. Shaye did try to hold her leg out all the way across the aisle, so that Marik’s slightly swinging feet could be theoretically perceived as “kicking” her. She shrieked and carried on over that but such that really doesn’t even count as an incident by our reckoning.

Once we reached the city, we walked through the crowded railway station. I convinced the children to walk in a line with me in front, wielding my white cane, then Marik and Shaye bringing up the rear, as theoretically the more responsible of the two. I could hear people hissing in disapproval and drawing back from us as we moved. This had the advantage of clearing a path but I do wonder how long it will take Shaye to notice that I draw so much public scorn and be troubled by that as well.

The problem isn’t that I’m carrying a white cane in and of its self. People here are solicitous and make a point of trying to “help” blind people, although they shy away from any other category of disability. It appears that blind people are the fashionable ones to be seen helping. Rather the problem is that I have children. I have heard people hiss on a number of occasions, “How dare she have children?” or “Those poor children. What an irresponsible woman that is. How could she risk passing it on to them?” I have resisted the urge to confront them and point out that the children are adopted, partly because I don’t want the kids exposed to a scene and partly because that would seem somehow disloyal to all the blind women who do have biological children.

This time I couldn’t hear any words in the whispers, but I could hear a rolling wave of whispers as I moved and people do not generally whisper in crowded train stations. Still it was again only really a minor irritant. I do not need those people and, as far as I am concerned, they might as well not exist. We reached the escalator heading to the lower level and the subway stations. Neither of the kids can navigate getting on and off of escalators alone, so I have to do a tricky maneuver, grabbing one kid under each arm, while still keeping hold of my cane and backpack and skipping onto and then off of the escalator. As I executed the final part of this, I heard a loud whisper from up ahead, this time in a quite different tone: “Now, that’s a Mama!” My heart fairly skipped a beat. I do wish I heard more of that sort of comment.

We got onto one subway train and then off at a transfer station. We then had to navigate some super fast, long distance escalators to reach the other subway line. These escalators turned out to be too fast for me to hustle both kids on at once safely. I tried but Shaye panicked, seeing the speed of the escalator and as I was getting on, she squirmed out of my grasp and landed on the floor, as Marik and I were swept upwards. Shaye started to scream in terror. Given that these escalators are in fact dangerous, I had to do something fast. I detached Marik’s clinging hands from me and raced backward down the escalator as fast as I could, while he screamed above me. I grabbed up Shaye and then ran back up to comfort Marik. I was well winded after this and was glad I had reacted quickly. As fast as those escalators were, any delay would have made the feat impossible. Sometimes someone has helped me get both children onto these fast escalators but in this case our immediate area was deserted.

At the top of the escalator we approached the next train. There is usually a small gap between the platform and the subway, again just wide enough to make it difficult for the children to jump alone. I deal with this by holding them each by the hand on either side of me and holding my cane with only a spare finger, so that I can correctly judge the gap and tell the kids when to jump and make sure they don’t fall. Just as we were approaching the gap this time, I felt someone seize me from behind, by the same arm that I held both a child’s hand and my cane.

I glanced back just enough to catch the impression of a middle-aged woman. Then, she wrenched my arm upward as if to haul me bodily into the subway. At this violent movement both children lost their grip on my hands. Marik sprawled on the ground inches from the gap and the wheels of the train. Shaye staggered back a step. “Leave off!” I cried and shook myself free of the woman’s grip, grabbed Shaye’s hand and Marik by the seat of his pants, before he could be trampled by the crowd surging toward the open doors of the subway and barreled my way inside. To the woman’s credit, she did later alert me to our stop, when the subway’s speaker system failed, and I couldn’t tell where the stops were. She was well intentioned, though I still have a hard time understanding what would possess someone to ignore “help” the blind adult and ignore the presence of toddlers trying to get across a gap.

We reached the final subway stop and headed for yet another escalator, where an older man did actually ask if he could help one of the children on and, after receiving permission, he did so quite competently. We emerged from the subway maze into the open air again, feeling disoriented. I wished I had printed out an actual map rather than relying on memory, but a mother with two young boys cheerfully helped me figure out which direction to start in, which is always the greatest chore. Still, we had to wander around for a few blocks, as the streets did not seem to match my recollection of the online map. Finally, Shaye shouted that she could see a dinosaur, which turned out to be a giant plastic dinosaur head helpfully mounted on the front of the park. I can’t wait until she can read street signs.

After our two-hour train trek, the children were exhausted and a chill, late winter wind was blowing across the park. They only lasted about a half an hour at the dinopark. We then sought out the warm kitchen of a Facebook friend in the area. I will say that for “social media”.

A few days, later I was on the subway again, this time alone and I saw a man, clearly totally blind, being hauled along rudely by another middle-aged woman. I had been aware of his presence walking near me in the crowd for some time from the tell-tale rhythmic scrape of his cane and then I could make out the scene clearly as the crowd thinned while getting on the subway. I felt my blood begin to boil and I turned to the man, hoping to do something helpful. “Do you want an …?” My language skills failed me and I could not remember the word for “elbow”. The man, misunderstanding my intention, pulled furiously away. “Just leave me alone!” he cried. “I’m a mobility instructor for Christ’s sake!”

The woman on his other side managed to keep a hold of him, despite his protests. I was so frustrated that I spoke before I could stop myself, “Don’t grab people like that, woman!” She instantly turned him loose and he struggled toward the door on his own, stonily avoiding me. The woman who had grabbed him ended up standing next to me in the subway, so I explained it to her, including the dangerous incident with my children, and how you actually do guide a blind person, if you ever have to. She thanked me graciously and truly appeared interested in understanding.

But I was left feeling ashamed and utterly confused. I was ashamed because I had caused even more of a scene for the poor man, who clearly has to deal with this sort of thing every time he goes out, just as I do, and who was trying to just ignore the woman gripping him and get it over with. As I sat in a tram later that day, I watched as three people raced toward the tram from the back, hoping to catch the tram before it left. They were all close together, not a group but running in a line, briefcases flailing. Two of them hopped aboard and the third had his hand on the door, when it slammed shut. On the trams the doors are controlled manually by the drivers, who are required to watch for passengers near the doors in their mirrors. This was clearly on purpose. I craned to get a better look at the man and as the tram pulled away, I caught a glimpse of his face, not enough to tell his expression but enough to see the slightly tanned color of it… tanned in the late winter when no one should have a tan. I knew that was what I would see but it still made my insides curdle.

I had to blink back tears. I could see clearly in my mind an incident that had happened more than ten years before. I was on a tram, just like this one, when I was still new to this country and I couldn’t speak Czech well. I saw two dark-skinned, probably Romani, children get on the tram with colorful school satchels, clean jackets and smiling faces. A drunk man with straggly gray hair had grabbed both of them by the collar and the driver had held the door for him, while he threw them out onto the platform. Then, the driver had slammed the doors and sped away.

At the time, I had been so upset I could not speak for a moment. The drunk then careened up and down the aisle, cursing the Roma, while the other passengers sat in their seats, ignoring the entire incident. I finally gained the strength to stand and told him to get off the tram. I stumbled over my words, as I couldn’t speak the language well yet, so I garbled my threat to call the police on him on my cell phone and when I went to do it, I realized that I didn’t know how to call the police in this country and I knew with certainty that they would simply laugh at me. The drunk new it too. He laughed at me, spitting his fetid saliva all over me, while the other passengers continued to ignore everything. It was bad enough at the time but the memory now is doubly painful. The idea that something like that might happen to my children with their beautiful, slightly tanned faces is paralyzing.

Now, a few days later, Shaye has come to me and told me that it was not merely her bruised finger that made her terrified of being “black.” She says that her friend, a little girl named Kaja, at preschool told her she is “black and ugly.” After she told me, Shaye was so depressed that she could only sit on my lap and cry most of the evening and continued to be clingy and sad in the morning. I have tried everything I can think of in terms of comforting words, explaining, supporting, exploring her emotions, reassuring… None of my words appear to make any difference to Shaye. And why should they? Whether she consciously knows it or not, some part of Shaye senses what kind of society we live in.

And yet, I know this one thing. I know that it is possible to stand against the storm. If you have a strong family and even a very few friends. The social world may be a horrid, ugly place. But there is comfort and joy and hope around a family table and by a warm hearth. There is goodness in a garden and shared games. Why should it matter so much? I know it did matter to me, when I was a child. It mattered a great deal and it hurt a great deal. I wish it did not have to hurt my children as well. I wish I could somehow armor them against it, make them understand from an early age how fickle and ignorant people can be. Even in situations much less extreme than our own, you really can only depend on yourself and that small circle of trust that you have built with those you love.

(I apologize for the rough and unedited nature of the last few blogs. All this is quite exhausting qnd it is all I can do to get it down int he first place. Read at your own risk.)

Little roots torn from the soil

Marik came down with a mysterious fever yesterday and cried himself to sleep on the couch. Shaye and I snuggled up with him and read stories, including her book of pictures and comments from when she was little. It didn’t take long for the tough issues to come up again. It started with a line that most white trans-racial adoptive parents have heard, “Mama, I want to be white.”

I managed to handle it fairly well, asking why rather than reacting with shock and dismay. I mentioned that I have sometimes wanted to have dark skin because I think it is so pretty and I have always wanted to have clean non-freckled skin like Shaye’s. We did a little fantasy about what it would be like if we could change our skin colors. But I also told her that she is incredibly beautiful. And finally, as it didn’t seem like any of this was “working”, I asked again if someone had said it was bad to have dark skin. Her response sent an ice cycle into my gut.

“You did… when I was a baby.”

I did? Well… I never said it was “bad” to have dark skin but when she was a baby, before we thought she was following conversations, we did talk more openly about the hardships of being Romani in this country. And if a baby can’t exactly follow the conversation, what is to stop her from misinterpreting “hard” for “bad”? And why wouldn’t a kid wish for an easier life? Let it be a warning to other parents in our situation. I think I’ll put that up as my first major mistake. Don’t talk about the hard stuff in front of pre-verbal babies.

So, I explained that I don’t think it is bad and I never would have said that it is bad to have dark skin. But I have said that it is very hard to have dark skin in this country. It is hard to be Romani because some people are mixed up in their heads about it and they say mean things about Roma. I wanted to say more, to explain that this isn’t right and that it isn’t fair when Roma can’t get education or jobs, but she started yelling nonsense and acting up. I asked her if that meant that she would like Mama to be quiet and let it be for awhile. She said, “Yes, be quiet.” So, I was.

But in the evening before bed it came up again. She started crying because we read a Winnie the Pooh book about how Tigger decides he wants to get rid of his stripes but then is convinced by all his friends that stripes are good and part of what makes Tigger special. Shaye was sad because she doesn’t have stripes. So, I tried listing the special things she does have.

Me: “You have beautiful long curly hair.”

Shaye: “I don’t have any hair.”

Me: “You have clear blue gray eyes.”

Shaye: “I don’t have any eyes.”

Okay, wrong tact.

Shaye: “What do you have?”

Me: “I have long hair that is a bit gray.”

Shaye: “I want your hair.”

Me: “I have little dots on my arms.”

Shaye: “I want dots.”

Me: “And Marik has big brown eyes.”

Shaye: “I want Marik’s eyes.”

Well, at least she doesn’t know all the stereotypes by heart yet.

Marik’s fever broke in the evening, so they went off to preschool again today. Preschool is the only place where they really get to see other kids regularly. Preschool is also where one of the teachers figured out at least Shaye’s Romani background based on her quick April tan and my admission that she was adopted here in the Czech Republic. Then, that teacher, who has been nothing but kindness and help to us, told the other teachers. I don’t begrudge that but it is a fact. And not all of the other teachers are as understanding. Two of them recently told my niece Ember their racist views in great detail until they drove her to tears. And they found out that Marik is Romani too, which is going to become obvious in another month when the sun reappears in any case.

What do you choose complete isolation from other children or a school where the teachers may view Shaye’s feisty temperament as a genetic ethnically based flaw and where casual comments could have devastating effects?

I know the American answer to that. I’ve read all the major books on trans-racial adoption. They say A. move away and B. find Romani friends. So, here is my explanation of our predicament, for the record.

I am legally blind. I can’t drive and it is very difficult for people with disabilities and particularly those who can’t drive to get a job in the US. Dusan’s English language abilities are very sketchy and due to dislexia he has little hope of improving them by much. If we moved out of the country, we would very likely be living in absolute poverty with Dusan working a minimum wage job and me lucky if I could find a minimum wage job that I could get to. That isn’t to say that poverty isn’t sometimes preferable but we aren’t quite there yet. We have not faced the full force of the racist society yet, because our children are still small. There may come a time when we have to leave but the risks of doing so are significant.

As for finding Romani friends, I am seriously perplexed. So far, I have tried reconnecting with Roma I knew as a journalist. I have tried hiring a Romani babysitter/language teacher. And I have tried getting connected to Romani organizations. I have done everything short of stopping the rare (read around once a year) Romani families I happen to pass on the street and begging them to be friends with us. Part of the problem here is that the Roma are a 3 percent minority here, at most. It is a very odd situation, given that in most places with significant interethnic tension, the minority is large enough to matter economically. Here the Roma are blamed for every difficulty of the country, as if they comprised a third of the population but they are in truth rarely seen.

In any event, I have failed at every turn. Whether this is my fault or something to do with the very protectionist Romani culture, I don’t know. Of the few Roma I knew well when I worked in Romani communities as a journalist most have simply disappeared. I went in person to find the homes of some of my Romani friends on the other side of the country, only to find the homes destroyed and the people gone. My closest Romani friend disappeared into an underworld of drugs and fear about a year ago and I have not heard from him since. One family, who remains stable and successful, has stopped speaking to me over what I assume must have been a cultural gaff on my part and even they live an eight-hour train ride away.

I tried hiring a Romani babysitter. I found one woman who was kind and good to the children and willing to come. I paid her better than a regular babysitter because I wanted her to work on speaking Romani language to the children as actively as possible. She did her best and for three short months we had her for one morning every week. But as time passed her health deteriorated until she rarely came and she had no energy to engage with the children at all when she did come. I finally went looking for another babysitter but I have not been able to find anyone and now Zdena, the woman who used to come, does not answer her phone or Facebook messages anymore. I have very few contacts among Roma in Prague, so mostly I asked around among Romani organizations.

Most of the Romani organizations I have approached were either geographically distant and thus unable to hep with local connections or simply not interested or in a couple of cases openly hostile. One man who came highly recommended by some of the better contacts in other cities, picked up the phone and said, “Oh, yes, I’ve heard about you,” with a sarcastic tone and then refused to say if he would pass on my offer of a babysitting job to others. I have not heard or read that Roma are as suspicious of interethnic adoption as some African American groups are, but it seems logical that they might have some of the same concerns. Perhaps this is the problem.

In any event, I hope that those who cry that trans-racial adoption stamps out the culture of the children might think a moment on this. I know for a fact that there are many adoptive families who either purposefully or through lack of awareness rob their trans-racially adopted children of their identity and culture. But how hard do birth communities make it for those of us who want the connection! Given that the Romani community does not want its children stolen away by children’s homes or adoption, there should be at least passive acceptance of those who try to make their way back, if not active support. I know it is easier said than done. The Romani community here in the Czech Republic has been beaten into the dust so many times that every effort at organizing comes from a massive gathering of strength and courage.

I do have plans, not great plans but little plans made out of match sticks and straw. There are a couple of big Romani music and dance festivals coming up. We will go and do it up well. But festivals will not result in relationships. The only thing I can think of for that is that as the children get older, I will volunteer to do English or art classes at Romani children’s summer camps run by charities or at some of the inner-city after-school clubs run by other organizations. At least then we would come into real contact with Romani kids. Generally the kids attending such programs will be eight or nine at the youngest. Until our children are close to that age, we will be pretty much on our own.

As I held my children on either side of me, one burning with fever and the other wracked by the self doubt brought on by a racist society, I noted how similar the two ailments seem to be. Both are painful reactions to an invasion of something that poses danger. Both children needed to be held and comforted.. And yet the fever passes and the identity struggle is only beginning.

Mama, I’m not black!

I thought that eventually I would gently introduce my children to the issue of racial and ethnic prejudice, which we live with here in the Czech Republic. I had this plan to introduce the story of Ruby Bridges to them with a picture book, sometime next summer or next year (mainly sometime later… not now. 🙂 ).

But the Gods and children never do what you want. Over the past month, Shaye has become increasingly concerned about the color black and particularly people with dark skin. She started to get angry every time Dusan or I read one of our many children’s books with diversely colored people in them. Then, one day she came out with it and shouted, “I’m not black! I don’t want to be black!”

I felt near to panic. How could this happen? Our children have been as sheltered as it is possible to be in a country that is wracked with interethnic animosity. They only go to preschool two days a week and the preschool director has shown through her actions to be particularly kind and open-minded. Where could she have heard something negative about dark skin color? Where could she have heard any reference to her being black? My American neice Ember pointed out that the comment that started it all may have actually come from Romani kids at our monthly meetings with foster and adoptive families. It might not have been a negative comment, simply a question, “Are you black too?”

I can see it. Romani kids growing up in this country often refer to themselves as “Gypsies” or “blacks” because they have never been given any other vocabulary for their identity. They might easily ask that question because Shaye is definitely tan enough to not fit into the very pale Czech norm. So, it would be a natural and innocent question from a Romani child.

Two days later, Shaye was in the bathtub and a very dark purple… well, black bruise that had been on her fingernail for nearly two months, ever since she slammed her finger in the door finally broke and drained. She was elated. “Mama, look! I’m not black!” Oh, so was it an ethnic comment or was she just afraid, in that way of children that the strangely persistant bruise would stay there forever or even grow to cover more of her. She is very vain about her fingernails and was very said that one of them had this unsightly bruise on it.

For awhile, I thought that was all it was, but her protests over books with children of different colors continued. Shaye has particularly serious taste in childrens books. She would rather here about real kids than Dr. Seuss much of the time. We were reading a story about a little girl in South Africa. The story went something like this: “This little girl goes to the Number 6 primary school. Here are her friends. They are very happy to go to their school. A few years ago, there was a rule that said that they couldn’t go to the same school. All the white children had to go to one school and the black children had to go to a different school and the Indian children had to go to yet another school. It was a silly rule because the color of someone’s skin is not that important. The children are very happy now that they can all go to the same school and be friends.”

Shaye stopped me, “Ï don’t want her to go to my school.”

Me: “Why not?”

Shaye: “I don’t like black people.”

Me, trying not to sound TOO distressed: “Oh, why don’t you?”

Shaye: “They look like monsters.”

Me, grasping for straws: “Well, I think she’s pretty. She can go to my school.”

Shaye: “I’m not black.”

Me: “No, you’re not black. You’re kind of cinnamon colored. Look, what color is my hand and what color is your hand?”

Shaye: “I don’t know.”

Me: “Well, look at the picture. Does the little girl look really black? Her shirt is black but her face isn’t really black. It is brown.”

Shaye, noncommitally, “Hmmmm…”

Me: “And look, the paper is white. Is my hand the same color as the paper?”

Shaye: “Yes.”

Me: “Well, people call me white, just like they call that girl black but i’m not really white. I’m more like bread-colored (if you are talking about our whole grain bread) and that girl is more like chocolate colored.”

Shaye: “I’m white.”

Oh, for crying out loud, what do I say now? They did not teach you this kind of stuff in token multiculturalism classes at my university. Do I ägree and let her sayu she’s white because she is close enough to white that, at least in the winter, no one in America would argue with her? Would that not cheapen her Romani identity and teach her that I agree that white is preferable? Do I argue with her and try to persuade her that she is Romani and that Roma are supposed to have darker skin, even though some are much lighter-skinned than her and I have known completely culturally competent Roma who were as pale as me? Judge the response I chose if you will, but nothing is simple about this.

Me: “Well, you’re colored like bread with cinnamon in it.”

Shaye: “Hmmmm…”

Me: “Do you think we are really very different from that little girl who has dark skin?”

Shaye silent.

Me: “Let’s see. You know how some apples are red and some are green on the outside?”

Shaye: “Hmmm…””

Me: “Well, when you open them up they are all just apples on the inside and they are all sweet. People are like that. On the outside people are different colors and speak different languages but we’re all pretty much the same on the inside. Just like I’m American and Papa is Czech and you and Marik are Roma. But we’re all pretty much the same and we make our family with lots of good food and music and people from three different cultures.”

Shaye: “Mama, they have to let you go to school even if you are American.”

Me, trying to keep up: “Well, yes, I can go to school too. But do you know what? When I was a little girl, there were some people who didn’t want me to go to the school in our town, just like that little girl in the book couldn’t go to school with the kids who are different colors from her.”

Shaye: “Why?”

Me, carefully keeping my voice light and without emotion: “You know how my eyes are different from other people’s and I can’t see ver good? Well, when I was a little girl, some teachers and other people didn’t want me to go to school just because of that. That is just as silly as saying someone can’t go to school because their skin is a different color.”

Shaye, vehemently angry: “Those are mean, yucky teachers! I’m going to get my sword and hit them until they’re dead!”

Me, trying not to show that I am shocked by the intensity of her outburst: “Honey, that kind of thing really makes you angry and it makes me angry too but we can’t hurt people, even when we’re angry.”

Ï’ve known since the beginning that there would come a day where I would have to say something like, “Honey, you know, most Romani children in this country are not allowed to go to good schools either, just because they are Roma. That is really wrong. It is a terrible thing and it hurts Romani kids in our country. There are lots of people who think that Roma are bad. They don’t understand and they are mixed up in their heads. They need to learn that Roma are the same as Czechs inside.” Was this the day? It seems far too soon for that. She’s only just turned four. How can a child that young possibly cope with such terrible things so close to home and not be hurt by it? And yet, she’d better hear the facts from me first with my interpretation, rather than the way she’ll hear them out there or even in preschool. Even well meaning Czechs will put it in ways that are unacceptable by my standards, such as “Roma just don’t know how to behave right, so they have to get speciaql education, but we feel sorry for them and we’ll help them. And you’re not like them. You’re a special good Romani girl.” Grrrr….

So, I opened my mouth to say it. To try, to strike a blow against the beast of racism with my puny little fists, to fight the battle… I said the first three words, and then…

Shaye: “Mama, I want a book about fairies.”

Me, finally checking my watch, “Oh my! it is suddenly an hour passed your bedtime! How time flies.”

I’m still not sure if I did well or not. I’m sure I messed something up in there. But hopefully, she’ll take the good average of my comments over the years, rather than the screw ups.

On the positive side, in the morning in the car on the way to the grandparents’ house, Shaye declared, “I’m the same and Mama is the same and Marik is the same and Papa is the same even though they are boys and Eliska is not the same because she is a cat.”

Nuggets

P.S. On (Not) Meeting Czech Standards

Lest anyone think I’m a supermom. I think I sent Shaye to preschool with jam from her breakfast still smeared on her face. I can’t see it from more than a few inches away and I noticed it when she stuck her face in my face when I was trying to wash the poop off of Marik’s bottom in the morning. I thought, “Oh dear, I had better remember to wash that off. It is the sort of thing I wouldn’t see and could forget.” But by the time, I had washed off the baby and washed out the potty and dressed the baby, it had slipped my mind and I don’t remember washing the jam off of her face. I might have automatically, but I might well not have and no one will ever tell me if I brought her to preschool smeared with jam. All I can say is I hope they connect the white cane to the jam issue and think I should never have had children because obviously I can’t see well enough, rather than simply thinking that I’m intentionally neglectful.

Gratuitous Cute Pictures

Here's a picture of Shaye in front of the preschool. It's a different day, so no jam.

Marik is concentrating very hard on trying to learn to dress himself on a morning when we have hurry up to take Shaye to preschool.

On Loneliness

Here is a quote on loneliness from “Forgotten Fire”, a very heavy but extraordinarily well-written book by Adam Bagdasarian that I have just finished reading:

“The problem with loneliness is that unlike other forms of human suffering, it teaches us nothing, leads us nowhere and generally devalues us in our own eyes and the eyes of others. It lies upon the soul lightly or heavily, depending on one’s age and one’s luck and swiftly transforms the hardiest of souls into a living ash of spiritual doubt and despair. It is impervious to medicine, common sense, wisdom, humor, hope or pride. It simply comes, sits in the center of the heart, where it cannot be overlooked and abides.“

It is not that I am excruciatingly lonely right now but I have been at times, and this quote rings true to me in a way that generally only poetry can. This is not about solitude, which is a completely different thing. This is about enforced, long-term loneliness. There may be people who have never really known such loneliness but I believe those who have will recognize Bagdasarian’s words. The saving grace is that there is comfort and company in that recognition of a life lived a century ago.

Do you measure up?

I am feeling a bit “run ragged” and it isn’t really the children who are doing it. Mainly, I feel like I am constantly trying to meet three different sets of standards, which are sometimes contradictory and all tend to be very demanding of time, energy and self-control. There are the standards for behavior, parenting and housecleaning set out by Czech culture and the standards set out by my segment of American culture, particularly the more progressive parenting books and my family back home. And, finally, I also have a few standards of my own and these are often among the most demanding and yet to me make the most sense. Because I live in the Czech Republic, yet have my family in the US, I really have to try to meet both sets of standards, which can be a real challenge.

I can’t even remember all of the rules and standards in each of these categories off the top of my head but here are some illustrative examples:

Czech norms:

– House must be spotless, including dusting and windows sparkling whenever anyone comes to the door. No dishes must EVER be left in the sink, even awaiting washing. (Recently, I heard a foster parent castigated by a social worker because her child had dumped out his school backpack on the floor in his otherwise spotless room and then run outside. The things had remained lying in a heap for several minutes!)

– Everyone, except honored or feared guests such as the adoption social worker on inspection, must take their shoes off when entering a home or apartment.

– Children are expected to take off not only their shoes but all of their clothing and dress in a new set of inside clothes, when arriving at home or preschool.

– Children are expected to wear pajamas for afternoon naps.

– Children must never be allowed to splash in mud puddles and must not be seen with dirt on their clothes. Faces must always be clean, even when playing outdoors in dirt.

– All clothes including t-shirts and underwear must be ironed.

– Adult women must wear either dressy black slacks or tight fitting jeans or sober dresses when in public.

– Children must be nearly silent in public.

– Children must not run around or stand to look out of the window on the train or tram.

– Parents must use every means necessary to enforce such rules, including bribing with sweets and constant shouting. Parents spank but not in public and generally do not admit it.

– Hair brushing, teeth brushing and other grooming are taken very seriously and must not be left up to children’s whims.

– When two people pass in the street the younger or less socially prestigious of them must say “good day” to the other. Parents are expected to publically scold their child, if they don’t greet strangers by age three.

– Playing with food is strictly forbidden. Written parenting advice states that parents should remove food immediately at the first sign of fidgeting, in order to train children to eat in an orderly fashion. Balanced nutrition is not emphasized. Many adults refuse to eat vegetables. But men and children should not be expected to eat the leftovers. Each meal should be different.

– It is embarrassing if a child is not potty trained by age two.

– Children should know the colors and be able to recite at least one rhyme by age three.

– Children should learn to read in the first grade. Children should not be made to read too early.

– TV is a normal part of parenting. The TV may be on at all times and children are expected to watch TV every day. Parents who do not allow enough TV will be criticized for stunting their child’s social development and ability to make friends. During a recent court case involving allegations of child abuse the newspapers printed stories condemning the parents in the case by stating that they never allowed the children to watch TV. Familiarity with popular TV shows is an accepted social prerequisite.

– One does not refer to controversy or conflict openly. One does not disagree openly with persons in authority. However, one also does not apologize for missteps but accepts the consequences. One should never admit to ignorance on any subject or point out that another does not know even the smallest fact.

– One does not use a tone of voice audible more than a few feet away.

– One must avoid showing much outward emotion at all, although negative emotion such as a grouchy tone or scolding a child is more acceptable than exuberance. Parents are expected to be upset with a child expressing emotions.

– Adoptive parents should avoid talking about adoption, except in private. Open adoption is a completely taboo subject.

Progressive American standards:

– Hygiene is the most important part of house cleaning. Things may be cluttered but baby bottles must be sterilized and cutting board kept separate.

– Children must be allowed significant freedom of movement and expression.

– Children’s toys, including markers and paints should be within their reach at all times. (This can be a significant hazard if the parent is visually impaired, but it is a constant demand in progressive American parenting books.)

– Children should be allowed to pick out their own clothing and should not be forced into grooming that they categorically reject. However, boys must never be allowed to wear pink or purple, except for specially tolerated dress-up games.

– It is normal for children to get dirty within reason. Parents who don’t allow it are criticized.

– Children are allowed to make some mess while eating. Parents are expected to accept messes as normal and wash the floor after each meal or use a sheet of plastic, which must also be washed.

– Responsible parents provide their children with a balanced diet made from organic produce. Leftovers are acceptable but the diet must be varied and balanced.

-\ Parents must control their temper and present a calm front. Parents who show frustration may be admonished by strangers in public.

– Spanking is completely untenable. Even time-out is frowned upon. Yelling at and bribing children are taboo. One must talk quietly to children to explain rules and there should be few rules.

– Parents must claim to allow young children only 15 minutes of TV per day and older children no more than one hour, whether this is true or not.

– Involuntary potty training should not begin until at least age three.

– Parents must talk to their young child constantly, in order to produce a vigorously verbal child.

– Parents must read to their children for at least 20 minutes per day.

– Many parenting books insist that infants and young toddlers must have the undivided attention of a parent for one third of all awake time.

– Children should learn to read in kindergarten or earlier.

– Mothers who do not breastfeed, even adoptive mothers, shall be admonished in public.

– One does not allude to money, such as by saying one can’t afford to buy expensive organic produce.

– Environmentally conscious parents use cloth diapers.

– One must smile as much as possible and must not tell anyone but close friends about difficulties or problems. One must not show too much negative emotion but exuberant positive emotion is more acceptable. One must keep a positive front.

– Adoptive parents should display constant gratitude and humility. One must at least claim to believe that open adoption is best.

My standards:

– Given that we can’t afford to buy organic produce, I will grow all the organic produce I can and reserve any that is in short supply for the children. I attempt to get rid of other chemicals in the household, in so far as it is hygienically and financially possible. I do use cloth diapers, even though clothes dryers are unheard of in this country and we do not own one.

– I want my children to have experiences with art and other children at least once a week. I want my children to dance to music and go outside every day if possible.

– I take off dirty or wet clothes. Children should nap in comfortable clothes, which may mean taking off jeans.

– Children should be provided with waterproof clothing, so that they are allowed to splash in mud puddles.

– No infant of mine will be forced to poop and pee in his or her clothing against all natural instinct. They will be provided with opportunities to use the potty every hour and after all meals, though not forced into potty training.

– My children will have a lot of books, given that there is no reasonable library nearby.

– My children will have dolls of various ethnicities and especially those that “match” them.

– My children will be provided with the toys of both genders.

– My children will be allowed to choose their clothing within certain parameters of social and climactic necessity.

– We receive no TV signal and my three-year-old watches no more than 25 minutes of any sort of video in a day (in two different segments). My 17-month-old watches no more than 15 minutes and often none at all. This really is the max. I never use videos as a babysitter.

– My children will have all the necessary tools to learn to read early and repeated opportunities to do so, if they decide they are interested.

– One must openly protest when one witnesses injustice, particularly if the injustice is perpetrated against a stranger. One must try to moderate emotions in public to be socially acceptable and in private to avoid frightening children. However, expressing too much emotion is a lesser moral infraction than ignoring injustice.

– Children are in the process of learning self-discipline. Allowing harmful behaviors where the consequences are not immediate enough for them to make the connection does not help them. Children should be protected from addictive influences, such as sugar and passive entertainment, until they can regulate them on their own.

– Hurting others is not allowed, including hurting others’ eardrums as a means of coercion. Children must be allowed to yell and scream at some point, preferably outdoors.

– I believe in giving children choices whenever possible but I also believe in making sure all the proffered choices are socially acceptable, safe and practically possible.

– Clutter is very hard on a visually impaired person, so I try to keep it down. A clean house makes me feel patient and peaceful. I am also afraid to have a visitor in my house if it is messy.

– I try to ensure undivided attention for each child for at least a half an hour each day. I try to talk to the children as much as possible. I definitely read to them two to three times per day.

I certainly fall sort of these standards, including my own, on a regular basis. I favor some Czech standards over American norms, though I probably still lean towards American culture on parenting. I try to clean my house to Czech standards, when I expect a visitor, but visitors still appear to think my efforts are sloppy. Even the five-year-old neighbor girl once asked me, “Why don’t you EVER clean your house?”

I now feel, as most Czechs do, that taking off one’s shoes in a home is the most basic courtesy and common sense. However, I do not iron anything that can possibly pass without ironing and garments requiring ironing are rarely worn in our family. Ironing without being able to see the wrinkles that get ironed into greater wrinkles is one of my least favorite activities. I end up with a terrible back ache from leaning over to peer at the cloth. I know there are totally blind people who iron. I think they are both amazing and slightly insane. In any event, this marks my family out in Czech society as slovenly. Most Czech women spend at least an hour per day ironing.

I generally agree with progressive American parenting standards but I have to teach my children Czech standards of behavior and grooming to protect them from social ostracism. I employ non-isolating, boring time-outs near me for misbehavior on a regular basis, as well as isolating calming with comforting toys for tantrums. I use natural consequences, routine and preparation to avoid discipline issues as much as possible. I try to explain rules whenever possible.

The long and the short of it is that I simply don’t measure up to the social expectations of the day. I often feel overwhelmed and inadequate but I am comforted by the fact that I manage to follow my own standards best. My standards are demanding but practical. Even so, the past week illustrates the difficulty of satisfying my own standards and progressive American norms, while living with the demands of Czech society.

Last weekend, we went to a retreat weekend for adoptive and foster families. It was supposed to be relaxing and replenishing. Instead, I found it draining. Every time I approached a group of other parents talking, I felt unwelcome. There was never any of that softening of the posture and minute repositioning that opens up even just the possibility of a space for a newcomer. Everyone there already seemed to know each other and although I knew two of the families from previous meetings, I knew neither well. Both of the mothers I knew spared about one minute each to exchange pleasantries with me at some point during the weekend and then they disappeared back into their hardened circles of conversation, in which there was clearly no more room.

The last time, we attended this retreat was in October and I remember that the social atmosphere was similar, but I had enjoyed that first weekend immensely because I was so sleep –deprived from having a new one-year-old particularly emotionally needy baby that I was glad to be an outsider and sleep a lot. The only part of the weekend where I was very involved at that time was when a psychologist came to give us a lecture on Saturday morning and, instead of his topic, he spent the whole morning delivering his diatribe against the criticism the Czech Republic is receiving over its orphanages. He went on at length about how orphanages for infants are not as bad as some people make them out to be. My standards insisted that I speak up and I did, repeatedly. I did not shout or show emotion by American standards, but I was accused of being emotional by the Czech psychologist, who pointed this out to the group as a clear indicator of my lack of credibility.

So, this time around, when the same psychologist appeared and saw me, he launched into a recap of the previous lecture and pointed me out as “those westerners who think that Czechs have just come down from the trees when it comes to child psychology, even though it was Czechs who first pioneered the field in the 1950’s and they are the ones who learned from us…” and so on. I didn’t open my mouth that time. I was too exhausted by the snubbing I had perceived from the other participants and I let Czech standards of not questioning authority override my own standards of morality, so I left the room.

It was not an auspicious beginning to the week. I spent Monday mainly recovering from the emotional trials of the weekend, trying to clean my house at least enough that I can function in it without seeing much, attending to my children according to American standards and teaching my English class at the community center in the evening. On Tuesday, I had to clean the house closer to Czech standards, because I was expecting a 10-year-old English student and his parents would stand in the doorway and look in to inspect my cleaning. I managed to clean and cook, because Shaye was at preschool. Her preschool teacher remarked critically that I had not provided Shaye with three sets of clothes for the day. I had sent spare clothes, in case she got wet, but I had not provided special indoor clothes for her to change into, after wearing her street clothes for all of 30 minutes, prior to arriving at preschool. I did provide pajamas for her afternoon nap but not providing those would have been unthinkable.

By Wednesday, I felt recuperated enough that I decided to take on The Ultimate Parenting Challenge and take both toddlers to Prague by stroller and train for a meeting of the adoptive-parents-with-preschoolers group. The play area where the meetings are held is delightful and Shaye loves it. That said, getting there is like an expedition to the North Pole.

First, I got the kids up extra early and hurried them through their morning routine, so that I could load them (and all of their food, drinks, never-leave-home-without-it stuffed animals and outside clothing to withstand possible rain and sleet) onto the stroller. Then, I took the long way around, which is a bit over a mile up and down steep hills, to the train station, because the short-cut is currently a mud bog, deep enough that small automobiles might be lost in it and never seen again. By the time I reached the train, I was completely exhausted, but proud of myself.

I even managed to keep both children seated with their feet not on the seats and keep them quiet with snacks for the 40 minutes it takes to reach the city by train. We received no glares from Czech passengers and I did not even have to use grouchy Czech parenting methods to ensure compliance. One 20-month-old boy even decided that he wanted to sit with my kids and his mother let him. But still I was conscious of the strain to do everything perfectly according to the various cultural requirements.

We got out at Main Train Station and I pushed the stroller laden with children and backpacks down the ramp into the station, onto the elevator and into the subway train under the station. So far so good. I was carrying my white cane while pushing the stroller, which might look a bit odd to anyone who actually understands how a white cane works but it is primarily for identification purposes and it does help when I am frantically trying to figure out whether this train about to depart is the right one or trying to cross a busy street.

We took the subway to the stop nearest the meeting place. I had researched that subway stop on the internet the night before. The Czech Association of Wheelchair Users webpage insisted it was accessible but the map provided had been incomplete. It showed that one could indeed exit the subway station its self on wheels but I knew from experience that the exit left you in an enclosed courtyard accessed only by a huge single flight of stairs two standard floors high. I hoped that somehow I had in the past missed seeing an elevator or ramp and decided to trust the Association. But when I arrived at the station and asked the surprisingly pleasant station guard, she told me that there is no access and that I had to find someone to help me carry the stroller up the stairs. Apparently, the website had simply meant that the station building its self was accessible and neglected the fact that it opened into an inaccessible courtyard.

I managed to find a very nice man to help me carry the stroller up the stairs and we arrived at our meeting in good spirits. One of the adoptive mothers, named Blanka, who has seen me several times before made an extreme show of calling out to me and identifying herself from the other side of the room. “Hi, Arie. It’s Blanka!” Her attempts to be sensitive to my vision impairment are often crude and she speaks to me in a tone far louder than that accepted by Czech social norms, but she is almost the only person in the country who has ever actually identified herself to me, so I appreciate it, even if it feels forced. I always great her by name and often openly thank her for identifying herself. At first, I hoped this might rub off on some the other regular participants, but it never has. Even so, the fact that Blanka accepts me means that the circles of conversation at this meeting are open to me. I sat with Blanka and a group of women who I could almost recognize but not quite. I know some of their names. One is Hana, who is very sweet, but I could not tell which one she was this time.

My children were suitably well-behaved and dressed. But I had to run a bit of interference to ensure that they ate something with nutritional value in addition to the sugary snacks provided as per Czech custom. Then, we did the whole public transportation routine all over again to get home. The trip from my door to the meeting takes two hours. We stayed two hours and it took two hours to return. But it felt worth it this particular time.

On Thursday, I had to take Shaye to the state preschool to pick up a form to apply for a place for her there next year. The state preschool is heavily subsidized and is a fraction of the price of private preschools. There are not nearly enough places in the state preschool for all the children who want to attend, so the principal of the school makes no special effort to make applying easy. There is only one day, when forms can be picked up and then a week later, there are two days when forms can be turned in. The form must be certified by both the child’s doctor and city hall in order to be turned in, so these certifications must be obtained within that week. I did not know all this when I went to pick up the form and the children were so overjoyed to see a real playground that I had to stuff the papers into the stroller to chase after them. The state preschool has the only reasonably good playground in town and no one is allowed to use it, except as part of attending preschool. We were not even really allowed to use it during our visit to pick up the form, but I let Shaye and Marik climb on the equipment a bit and suffered the stares of the other parents and the principal. There are some things I can’t tolerate, and walking a playground-starved child through a playground that she is not allowed to play on is one.

I had my hands so full of toddlers that I was home again before I had a chance to read the form and discover that I should have visited the doctor’s office. I called the doctor to try to see when I could come and he shouted at me over the phone, saying that he had seen me come to town and that I should have come to get the certification while I was there. I tried to explain that I had not read the form, but I could not really explain that reading any text takes me ten times longer than sighted adults, so it isn’t something I can do while on the street with toddlers, and I am a foreigner who doesn’t automatically know the procedure for applying to preschool, which apparently everyone else does. So, I got a scolding and I will have to take a special trip into town with two small children to get the doctor’s certification that Shaye is healthy enough to attend preschool.

If that wasn’t enough for one week’s misadventures, Friday was Marik’s adoption court date. My niece Ember has no classes on Fridays now, so she came to watch the children. While in the US a child generally must be present in adoption court, here it is discouraged, if not forbidden. The first time we showed up with 10-month-old Shaye in adoption court the judge castigated us harshly. When Shaye tried to get down from my lap and whimpered when I held her fast, he told us he could not believe our audacity in bringing an infant into court. When we were standing at attention to hear the judge’s formal pronouncement and Shaye started to cry, I glanced down at her for less than a second, thinking frantically how I could quiet her. That was when the judge threatened us with a ruling of “contempt of court.”

The social worker commiserated with us afterward, explaining that he was the meanest family judge. When we got our summons for Marik, she told me that we had drawn the nice judge this time, but we were still nervous. The case scheduled before ours appeared to be a divorce case with four children involved and it went 30 minutes over time. It was only scheduled for an hour but obviously there were complications. Both the judge and the social worker looked as if they had been through the ringer when it was over and she whispered to us that we had better be quick and meek with the judge, as he was in a very bad mood.

The judge got down to business as soon as we were in our places but he seemed befuddled. He kept searching through his papers and asking ridiculous questions of nobody in particular. He didn’t appear to believe that we were married for one thing, despite having both copies and our original marriage certificate. When that was settled he made me swear formally that I understand Czech, so that I could never claim that I had not understood the proceedings. Protocol in Czech court is very strict. One must keep one’s eyes on the judge at all times. One must stand to speak, even if only answering a yes or no question. We were also each called to stand at a wooden railing of sorts that took the place of a witness stand and questioned very perfunctorily.

When Dusan was up, the judge asked, “How long has the child been with you?” and then “You are delighted with him, right?” Then, to the woman typing the proceedings, “Put down, ‘We are delighted with the child,’” even though Dusan had simply answered “Yes.” When I was up he mainly asked, “You agree with everything you husband said, right?” When I answered yes, he told the typist to write, “I refer to the statement of my husband.” In this fashion, our case was closed in half the allotted time, making up for some of the previous delay. We didn’t mind the abruptness, although the judge might have been less gruff.

The important thing was that he admitted as “evidence” the letter of the official state linguist of the Czech Republic, which we had brought to prove that Marik’s name is permissible under Czech law. That’s another thing. In the Czech Republic, you can’t just name a child whatever you want. There is a name for each day of the calendar year and one is strongly encouraged to use one of those. Then, there are official books giving lists of names that have been approved by the official linguist of the country, an unpleasant woman who enjoys her position of power a bit too much. But we had been able to extract a letter from her, for a price, which grudgingly admitted that Marik Rye can be Marik Rye. She was not happy about the name Marik in particular, although American baby name’s registries claim that it is “Czechoslovak” and Zdena claims it is common in Slovakia. But, in the end, the letter was written and stamped with an impressive state seal. Thus, the judge allowed Marik’s full name into the official record, which will make many bureaucratic matters easier in the future.

The secret language of eyes

I signed up Shaye for some kind of toddler music class. It is supposed to use some special methods to indoctrinate children to have musical talent – not that Shaye needs to be pushed in that direction. She already appears to have at least some musical talent but it was the only music activity open at the local community center. I also teach English classes for preschool children one morning a week and do some volunteer work at the same place, so we spend a fair amount of time there.

Last year, it was under different leadership and there was a wonderful receptionist who personally welcomed every person who came in the door and warmly made everyone feel comfortable. I loved going down there, and that is how I got involved as a volunteer. She made the atmosphere so good that I always dawdled on my way to leave. But the leadership of the center changed and there is also a new receptionist. The new receptionist is nice enough, but very distant and focused on getting paperwork done.

I don’t know if that was the entire reason for the difference but I felt a complete turn-around in the atmosphere. People come in, go to their classes, pay for them, sit talking in little huddles of friends and leave. It appears to me that people are no longer interested in talking to people who aren’t already their close friends. The parents from my English classes for parents and toddlers, don’t greet me or exchange a few words after class anymore. The people in a nursery rhyme class that Shaye and I attended over the summer seemed to almost pointedly ignore me. Once I even feared that it was because they had guessed Shaye’s background, because one woman appeared to refuse to hold Shaye’s hand in a ring-around-the-rosy type of activity. But I also figured she might have had a really bad morning or be reeling from divorce court the day before, you never know. But, in general, I feel snubbed and excluded from the tight little cliques that form when other parents have tea in the café area after class. It makes my stomach turn sour and I barely have the energy to make it home after classes. It all reminds me painfully of being harassed in school as a kid because of my huge, thick glasses and strange eyes.

Well, anyway, that has been the situation ever since the spring, but this morning we went for our first music class and came in a few minutes late. It had been “one of those mornings” with Shaye, so I had had to run all the way to the club and I was out of breath and tired when we go there. I moved into the circle trying to be inconspicuous and not disrupt the class with our late arrival. But several people arrived even later than we did. One of the late arrivals was a little girl with shockingly white-blonde hair. I noticed her mainly because I was watching Shaye dance in the middle of the circle and, as usual, musing over how she doesn’t look dark at all until she is up next to some really pale child. Then, suddenly she looks Romani through and through.

As I watched, I noticed that the extremely blonde little girl had extraordinarily thick glasses, and I realized that her hair wasn’t just extremely blond. It was practically albino white. My interest was sparked and I kept an eye on her for the rest of the class. Sure enough, she had that way of moving, her little pointed face jutted forward, her body moving in a studied way, even though she was fast enough. She looked at a ball just a few inches from her face to make out the pattern of colors on it. She looked like me, especially me as a child.

Once I had seen another child, a boy with thick glasses, in the café area of the community center and I had sat down near his mother and casually said to her that I used to wear really heavy glasses like that but now I have super-powerful contact lenses. She had looked coldly at me and made an inarticulate “Um huh” noise and gone back to staring into space. It was a typical interaction for the new atmosphere at the community center and it depressed me. I had wanted to make a connection with someone sure, but I also knew that her little boy would face a lot of obstacles and misunderstandings as he grew up with eyes like that and that I could help his mother to predict and alleviate many of them, if she would talk to me. I also wanted to talk to her because it does the wounded places in me good to think that I might help another kid with absurdly thick glasses to avoid some of the pain I suffered. Therefore, it stung doubly that she wouldn’t talk to me.

This time, I was even more afraid to talk to the mother. I knew the first one probably was simply too overwhelmed, but she had also seemed afraid. The way she had moved away from me after that and the way I observed her relating to her son, showed that she had not dealt with her own denial and pain over his disability. I was afraid of another such reaction, so I wasn’t sure if I could approach another similar mother.

At the end of class, I was waiting to talk to the teacher about buying the course music CD and I noticed the mother of the little visually impaired girl waiting nearby, so I took a deep breath and said it, “It’s amazing for me because your little girl looks exactly like I did as a child.”

“Really,” her voice showed amazement but not anything unfriendly. I explained hurriedly, that I am visually impaired and that my hair used to be that kind of almost white blonde, that it darkened to honey blonde only after I was 20 years old or so. She willingly explained that her daughter has “ocular albinism”, just like me. Her glasses are not as powerful as mine and it seems as though maybe she can see a bit more than I do, but she still has the look and that certain way of moving that seems really odd, if you don’t know vision impairments. Some of my friends have eventually admitted that, when they first saw me, they thought I was mentally retarded because of the way my eyes flit around and the way I move my body, even as an adult. The little girl had the same erratic eye movement, though her mother said it had been much worse when she was a baby.

She said they had done intensive vision exercises with her as a baby, that were supposed to help her eyes develop better and she was convinced that it her acuity had improved. She knew all the best eye doctors and orientation specialists in the country, so she didn’t need my advice on that account. The line moved and she talked to the teacher and went downstairs to the café area. I followed a few minutes later, mulling over whether or not I should say anything more.

When I got downstairs I couldn’t find the woman anyway. I saw her little girl playing with the other kids well enough, because of her distinctive coloring, but I couldn’t remember what her mother was wearing. I knew she was blonde, but there were several blonde women still around. I fed Shaye and waited. Soon there were only two blonde women left and the little girl was still there. In fact, the little girl came over and asked to try one of Shaye’s crackers. She liked it so well that she asked for another and hung out around us for awhile. She was very sweet and pretty.

Finally, the little girl went to one of the women, who responded warmly and gave her more crackers. I had to hope that was her mother, and not someone else like me who just gave her crackers. I decided to try to speak to her again, just to tell her that if she ever wanted to ask me anything about my experiences, particularly difficulties in social situations and at school, I would give her my contact information and she was welcome to call me, even if it was years from now.

So, I sat somewhat nearby, although not near enough to intrude on her little group of friends. The woman was engrossed in a fast-paced conversation with two other women and I am completely inept at gracefully interjecting a brief comment in such situations. With my extreme nearsightedness, I can’t see people’s faces to judge the right moment when a momentary interruption would be okay. So, I waited for around 40 minutes, while the women talked and talked. Shaye played in the kids’ corner and was generally good, so I figured I could continue to wait.

Finally, one of the other women in the group left and the third was momentarily distracted by her child, so I nervously stepped forward and gave my offer to tell her about my experiences.  She again reacted pleasantly and said she would definitely be interested to hear about it. In fact, she started asking questions right away.

We covered the importance of allowing a child with a vision impairment to do active physical things. I told her about visually impaired kids I had met at special camps for the blind, who could see better than me, but couldn’t walk on even mildly rough ground, because they had been so overprotected by their parents that they had not learned the myriad tiny physical adaptations one has to make to navigate a world that is only dimly seen.

We discussed reading. I was told I should use magnifying glasses and was extremely frustrated with them. It was only in adulthood that I fully realized that they really are no help at all to my particular eyes. I used large print, which was some help, but not really necessary. Regardless of the size of the print, I still read at only about 50 words per minute – a tenth of the speed of a normally sighted and educated person. The only way that I was able to get good grades in school was if I was given extra time on written tests, and only some teachers were amenable to that. My grades also went from about a C average to almost entirely straight As after I learned to type in the sixth grade. Here in the Czech Republic, very few people know how to type, unless they are professional secretaries, so this was worth pointing out. With those tiny netbooks around, even smaller hands can learn to type and it could be a godsend for a visually impaired child.

Then, I mentioned, a bit more tentatively, that the real challenges are actually social. The physical stuff can be overcome with some specific efforts, but the social problems are harder to neutralize. She nodded. “I can see how that would be,” she said. “When I was a teenager, I had to wear glasses and I was embarrassed so I didn’t, and even with that smaller difference in what I could see, I was very uncomfortable in social settings, especially with groups.”

I explained how it is difficult for me to participate in a conversation of more than one person. Just as I had difficulty knowing when I could speak to her, I have great difficulty participating but not interrupting in a conversation with more than one other person. Because I am a feisty person, I tend to ere on the side of interrupting, which makes me appear rude sometimes, even though I am probably more conscious and careful about it than most people. But if I was a shy person, I might have difficulty ever participating in such conversations.

I told her how much trouble I had had just finding her as well, only moments after we had spoken. And I explained how, because I am not totally blind, many people don’t really get that I seriously can’t see much and are offended when I don’t recognize them when we meet. It feels awkward sometimes, but I am always relieved when someone tells me who they are. I always appreciate the effort, even if I had figured out who it was already.

Then, I remembered a part of the equation that even I tend forget because I would never even know about it, if sighted people hadn’t told me. When people, especially children, come into a new social group, for instance at the start of school, they look around and try to make eye contact. If two kids make eye contact and one of them wants to open up communication further, he or she smiles very slightly and waits for a reply. If the other smiles, the first one can smile more. They may not even speak at that first meeting, but a connection has been made and they will usually talk to each other at some point. A lot of these interactions are completely unconscious for sighted people.

I have read that 90 percent of human communication is non-verbal. Some of that has to do with tone of voice, of course, but much of it is visual and I miss almost all of the visual stuff. In the scenario of children meeting for the first time in school, I cannot make eye contact. I can’t even take the first social step. As a child, I couldn’t even fake it. I have learned, with the help of special teachers, to look intently at the smudges where I know people’s eyes should be and try to make eye contact. I know from experience that the effort often makes for a better conversation, even though I have been told that my fake eye contact still is not the same as the real thing and gives a disconcerting feeling. I pointed out to the mother and her friend that I was sort-of making eye contact with them, but that I was really only faking it. They both seemed very thoughtful, after that.

But that is just the beginning of the problem. If I can’t make real eye contact, I certainly cannot engage in that subtle conversation of timid smiles. I cannot make those initial connections the way people are used to and this severely impacts my ability to make social acquaintances. It is a probably the primary reason that I still have few friends in this little town where we have lived for the past six years.

Suddenly, the mother broke into my train of thought, “You’re right. When I was willfully not wearing my glasses as a teenager, I hated meeting my friends at a restaurant. I would walk in and smile at the wrong people or I would smile at my friends and wouldn’t realize that they hadn’t noticed me yet. I always wanted my best friend to meet me outside and go in with me, and I didn’t even really understand why myself. And…” she hesitated then, obviously a bit uncomfortable, but then went on, “…when I first saw you in the music class, I noticed you were different somehow because you didn’t look around the way everyone else does. When it is the first day of a new class, everyone looks around and kind of acknowledges all the people they know or even just sort of know. You didn’t, and I thought you were probably a foreigner who doesn’t speak our language, because sometimes foreigners are so shy that they don’t look around.”

I was momentarily stunned but as usual I automatically tried to cover it up. I probably should have just let her know that I was amazed, but I didn’t want her to feel that she might have offended me by speaking so frankly. So, I just laughed and agreed that that is true and moved on. But later, after I had given her my contact information and we had all gone home, the thought of what she had described filled me with an odd mixture of emotions. I am partially elated that I made a connection with someone at the community center and glad that I could help her understand her daughter better. I am even relieved to find another part of my social difficulties that is not “my fault”, e.i. not due to my being stupid, rude or insensitive. But I also feel shaken to the core. No wonder I feel like I’m constantly moving through a world where everyone is in a clique and I’m not invited. They are all using a secret language to connect with each other and I am shut out, forever, without appeal. The little internal demons of despair and panic that arouses within me are admittedly hard to put down.