God–What’s There To Say?

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firstcommunionA week from today my daughter will make her first communion. It’s a big deal. I know it’s a big deal. But I’ve only been Catholic for a year. I feel a little awkward attending classes with my daughter, trying to guide her through something that I myself don’t quite understand.

There’s so much I still don’t know. For example, am I supposed to genuflect every time I go into the pew at Mass or just the first time? Can I still use my rosary even though the cat ate one of the Our Father beads? I don’t know.

And for her—do we need to get a veil or something for next week? Or white gloves? We haven’t covered that yet.

I have no nostalgic anecdotes to share with my daughter. I don’t have that story that begins, “When I was your age” or “At my first communion” because our experiences are so different.

In my RCIA prep classes no topic was off the table. We talked openly about our feelings toward the church’s stance on marriage. We talked about the implications of having a Pope Benedict versus a Pope Francis and how it made us feel as parents to join a church that we felt still had to answer for the scandals brought to light in recent years.

I came to the church from a place that needed to take the doubt and cynicism that I had harbored for many years and reconcile it with the good feeling I had when I came to Mass. My daughter comes to church because we bring her there every Sunday.

So what I am going to tell my eight-year-old about what it’s like to be Catholic?

Two weeks ago we sat a table in the cafeteria across the parking lot, where we have the Faith Formation classes, filling out worksheets, sounding out words such as “chalice” and “Eucharist.” She was doing the little dance she does when she’s excited about something, wiggling a little from side to side. This was different from when we did homework together, something had shifted. We weren’t working in tandem anymore. A part of her mind was someplace else, a place I don’t have access to.

We were sitting in the green-tiled room that is so familiar to her. She had her first Easter egg hunt there at St. Augustine’s in that room. At Halloween, she paraded around the tables with her brothers. Last year during one of my RCIA classes, the family decorated Christmas cookies there, baked in the ovens in the cafeteria’s kitchen. This is her home. A place that keeps the figurines for the Nativity scene in the basement and has an organ in the balcony, and she knows this because we come to decorate the church several times a year. In November there’s an altarcito where we put out a picture of Grandpa. In October there’s Bless the Pets day when we bring the cat (to be forgiven for chewing on the rosary).

For her the church is very simple. The Pope is a nice man in a white hat. The God she knows is Social-Justice Jesus, who hugs lepers and reminds us to be nice to people. This is the community that she knows—this is the community she is going to join.

I watch my daughter. She’s glowing from the inside out, chewing on her lip. Her eyes are shining. And as she hums to herself and spells “communion” with three m’s, I realize that I don’t always have to be the one who teaches. She doesn’t always have to learn from me. That maybe this time I am learning from her and her idea of the church.

Giselle in Three Acts of Life

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“And then the Willis make him dance

(thank you wikipedia)

until he’s really tired and then they throw him in the lake.”

This was Chiara explaining the story of Giselle to four young boys under the age of four.

I was sixteen the first time I saw Giselle. American Ballet Theatre had come to San Francisco and Eddie Ellison (whom I was so sure had stolen my Walkman but to whom I said nothing because Eddie Ellison was really hot) snuck us into the Opera House and we watched from the standing-room-only area. Baryshnikov and Alessandra Ferri were dancing the leads. I was so star-struck by Alessandra Ferri that I waited at the artists’ entrance and got my first-ever autograph. Duncan Cooper snuck into the dressing rooms and stole what he claimed was Baryshnikov’s shoe.

The second time I saw Giselle, I was in it. As Giselle’s double in the second Act. The night before I’d boarded an overnight train that left Verona at midnight and arrived in Graz, Austria at 8 in the morning. I made my way from the train station to the ballet studio, took company class and afterwards the director said, “What are you doing today?”

Uh, going to Vienna to see what their ballet company is like?

“Because we need a dancer with brown hair for tonight’s performance of Giselle.”

So I stayed for rehearsal, “danced” in the performance, (which really meant being strung up in a harness and being floated across the stage), stayed in a B&B paid for the ballet company. I stayed a week (included one return trip to Verona to get fresh clothes, also paid for by the company), and sat in on a boatload of boring Act I rehearsals. I actually still have a small Austrian pension since ballet dancers are government employees.

The third time I saw Giselle was today sitting next to Chiara in the balcony of the San Francisco Opera House.

When Daddy Dances

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I danced my last Nutcracker in 1996, but my husband is still performing, year after year, as the Sugarplum Fairy cavalier. He has known some of the ballet students since they were soldiers in the Battle Scene.

Every Saturday from September to December, my husband rehearses and coaches the girls he will dance with. As an extra bonus for me, he takes our children with him. Our daughter Chiara has been attending Nutcracker rehearsals since she was seven months old. She loves it. For the past three years she’s been right beside him onstage.

Her first Nutcracker as a spectator at just under two years old, however, was a little different. By the time she was a year and ten months, she was sitting through two-hour dress rehearsals without incident. So I thought nothing of taking her to an actual performance to see Daddy dance.

As soon as she saw him jete’ onstage at the beginning of the second act she yelled out, “Dadd-deeeeeeeeeeee!!!!!!!!!” Not in a “bravo” kind of voice, but with the voice you use to warn someone that they’re about to be hit by a bus. All the dancers onstage smiled a little harder. One of the candy canes suppressed a giggle.

When Matt made his first exit into the wings, Chiara burst into tears.

“Dadd-deeeeeeeeeeee!!!!!!!!!”

I think she thought he fell off the face of the earth.

“Where Daddy? Where Daddy?” she kept asking. I’d tell her: first there’s the Spanish variation, then Arabian, Chinese, Russian, Merlitons, Mother Ginger, Waltz of the Flowers, and then Daddy.

After the last flower waltzed away, the lights lowered and the soft music of the Sugarplum Fairy pas de deux began to twinkle.

“Dadd-deeeeeeeeeeee!!!!!!!!!” Chiara yelled when she saw her father escort the Sugarplum onto the stage.

“Shhhhhh. . .” from the row in front of us. They were the ushers.

“Da-dddddddeeeeeee!!!!”

An usher hissed at us again.

I scooped my daughter up in my arms made a hasty exit. With the secret toddler ninja wiggle that makes kids both slippery and brick-like, Chiara broke free and ran to the doors leading back into the theatre.

“Da-dddddddeeeeeee!!!!” She pounded her tiny fists on the door, doing her best Brando from Streetcar.

She was even more hysterical there in the foyer, so we went back in.

Even in the dark I could feel the ushers’ steel glares. Would we be asked to leave? It is a kid’s ballet, after all.

Chiara stopped sobbing, but she continued to call out from time to time. On stage my husband gracefully promenaded his lovely partner. He was beaming. He’s dancing for his little girl. Why should we leave?

Every time Chiara called for him, Matt and the Sugarplum smiled a little broader, sharing this inside joke with everyone else in the theatre who had seen our daughter at the front of the rehearsal studio next to the mirrors eating her morning snack and watching her Daddy dance.

Chiara is a fixture at these Saturday rehearsals in the ballet studio, but the real fixture is my husband. If you are a parent of a kid in this show, you know him. He entertained your daughter backstage when she was an angel in the prologue. He taught her how to do finger turns and supported lifts during pas de deux class. And if your kid is a boy, my husband taught him fart jokes. If you are remotely involved with your child’s pre-professional ballet career, you adore my husband. And you probably know Chiara as well.

So if a little girl crying for her daddy is ruining the show for you, maybe you should lighten up.

Which is more or less what I told those ushers.

The Story Behind Violet and Ruby

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Three weeks ago on a lovely Wednesday afternoon, my daughter Violet_and_Ruby_Cover_for_Kindleand I were sitting in a cafe in our neighborhood, doing what we always do on Wednesday afternoons: sip hot chocolate while we finish the homework that’s due the next day. This Wednesday was different because the cafe was buzzing with a boatload of 10 and 11-year-olds with green books that must have been somehow connected to the green bus parked across the street.

It turned out that the bus was a promotional tour bus for Jeff Kinney’s newest book from the middle-grade series Diary of a Wimpy Kid. According to the buzz in the cafe, Jeff Kinney himself was signing copies at the bookstore next door.

Chiara has never read any of the Wimpy Kid books. As a first-grader, those books are little over her head. But of course it didn’t stop her from wanting one. And because I help organize author events in my daytime life, of course I had to indulge her.

“How come the bookstore doesn’t have books written by kids?” Chiara wanted to know as she emerged from the store with her own signed copy.

In retrospect I could have just told her that only professional writers get to be in bookstores, the same way only professional firefighters get to drive the fire trucks. But instead I gave her a brief history of traditional publishing.

“Well, it’s not so easy to publish a book,” I began. Then I listed all the droves of people involved with publishing a book who aren’t directly involved with the writing of said book.

“Then an agent—that’s a person who helps you get your book printed by the companies who print books—talks to a bunch of people. Some say, ‘No, thank you. We already have books about that.’ But maybe one will say, ‘I love that story!’ That person is an editor. And then maybe they’ll look at the book and say, ‘But we think you need to change that one part at the end.’ And then there’s another person who calls up the bookstores and says, ‘Hey! I’ve got this book that I think is really great! Want to have it in your store?’ It takes a lot of work.”

“But you’re publishing a book,” she said. Which was partly true. I’m editing an anthology of essays from my writing group. We intend to self publish.

“Why can’t little kids self-publish?” Chiara wanted to know. I didn’t have a good answer for that one.

And that’s how we found ourselves at the same cafe two days later. I typed while Chiara dictated one of the stories she tells herself at night when she is trying to go to sleep. From time to time I’d ask a question such as “How can a wheelbarrow fit in a backpack?” and she’d clarify (“It folds up, of course!”) Or I’d say, how old is Violet? How do we know? But for the most part, I just typed what she told me to type. Occasionally she’d ask me to read back to her what she’d written. Sometimes she’d even correct my dictation. (“That’s not a period there. I want it to sound really fast.”)

I kept waiting for her to lose interest. But each day she’d say, “Can we work on my book today?” Sometimes she’d even decide to revise. “I don’t think that chapter title tells you what’s going on anymore. I wrote about something else. Can I change it?”

She drew pictures for each chapter. I scanned them into the computer.

“Can I give a copy to my cousins for Christmas?” she wanted to know.

So I went to the website for Amazon’s Create Space and opened an account. We bought an ISBN number ($10). I found a template cover and uploaded a photo from the Create Space library. We even invented our own imprint (Noelle & Noelle) after our middle names. I clicked through the screens, filling in the blanks. And then, voila! We submitted the book. An actual book. 44 pages. For sale on Amazon and everything.

Doesn’t that sound like a great stocking stuffer? Not convinced? Check it out for yourself.