Peaks, Glaciers, & Kids – Part I

Tiptoeing out of my warm room, I slip onto the porch and brave a few daredevil mosquitos at 4:30 a.m., hoping that the other guests at Kennicott Glacier Lodge would still be in bed.

A large raven zips by, followed by a curious violet-green swallow.  In a nearby spruce, a veery trills a ripple sound. The first explorer to discover this area must’ve held his breath like me, enjoying a private moment with this view.   Now the largest national park in the United States, six times the size of Yellowstone, Wrangell-St. Elias contains nine of the sixteen highest peaks in North America and the nation’s largest system of glaciers, superlatives that seem inappropriate for exploration with young kids.

For Memorial Day weekend, even at this hour, I am pleasantly surprised that I can’t hear a whisper of human activity.  Apparently, this is a good time of the year for locals to enjoy McCarthy-Kennecott before the tourist season.  There is a relaxed attitude at play, where it is easy to erase from the scene the restored mine buildings painted in red with crisp white trimmings, the “No Parking” sign, the half-buried giant metal wheels that once crushed copper ore, even the windows that I peer through occasionally to check on my snoring family.

Kennicott Glacier sweeps down from 16, 390 foot Mt. Blackburn to carve this U-shaped valley.  Rocks and debris from the surrounding army of peaks and valley walls coat the jagged ice in shades of blacks, grays, and browns.

Barely visible against the white clouds in the north, Stairway Icefalls, a massive frozen cascade feeds Root Glacier.  St. Elias Alpine Guides co-owner, Gaia Marrs, suggested that it might be fun for Kyra and Ethan to hike with crampons on this glacier later today.

I am a firm believer that having kids should not change your life.  However, pacing the porch this morning, I worry that I am a bad mother for equipping my five-year-old and two-year-old, who crash into each other and do face plants every few steps, with crampons.

Yesterday, I didn’t see any other kids staying at the lodge.  I got the feeling from chatting with locals that parents with kids around the age of mine usually don’t vacation here.  It could be due to the eight hour drive from Anchorage with the last sixty miles rumored to be a 3 hour ordeal negotiating a graveled McCarthy Road sprinkled with washboard, potholes, and railroad spikes. A neighbor of mine who has a six-year-old and four-year-old twins thought that you still had to cross the Kennecott River by hand-operated cable tram.

So far, I am happy to report that our adventure to McCarthy-Kennecott offers a mother with young kids:

  • Rest.  In 1997, a footbridge replaced the hand-operated cable tram allowing more visitors to access Kennecott and McCarthy.  However, most visitors stay put, since there are limited shuttles that run between Kennecott and McCarthy and it costs about $5 per person, one way.Last night, relaxing on lounge chairs just outside the lodge while my kids played nearby on a plastic adventure playset, I realized that nearly every day we are driving back and forth between Eagle River and Anchorage for school, swim, or ballet lessons.  We never really pause to enjoy our surroundings.  And even when we do, there’s always the rev of engines rushing by.On our porch in Eagle River, I often ask my kids to close their eyes and tell me what they hear.  Before they mention the river or a bird or squirrel, they answer “car” or “airplane.” Here, the birds and insects drown out everything but the soothing roar of National Creek and Kennicott River.
  • Enrichment.  Out of more than 200 games on our iPhones, my kids spent most of McCarthy Road snapping photos of each other.“Smile,” Kyra ordered.“Say Cheese!” Ethan said.

    Kids taking photos of each other with iPhone

    And when Ethan fell asleep, Kyra stared at the landscape speeding by and then quietly typed away on the Notes app.  When I asked her what she was doing, she said, “Mommee, I’m writing about our trip.  How do you spell Copper River?”

  • Reflection.At Chitna before we started the McCarthy Road, we lost cellular service.  With no computer, television, phones, or Internet access in Kennecott, I could finally hear my own thoughts.  The kids didn’t bombard me with questions or demand that I play with them.  Nature occupied them with unlimited stimulation and, best of all, absorbed their squabbling.   They spent hours hopping after a Junco or battling each other with sticks or throwing rocks into the river.Being disconnected from the rest of the world also forces me to turn inward.  Without emails to check or phone calls to make, memories of my summer working at Glacier National Park return, reminding me that I had once thought rangers and expedition guides had tempered the best quality of life.  Most importantly, I found time to check-in with the wild part of myself that had to take a backseat when I became a mom and gave it some room to breathe.

A Secret Spot

With sprinkles of water from gray skies cooling my cheeks, I followed in Auntie Rita’s footsteps along the shore of what she called, “A secret spot.”

Kyra and Ethan’s giggles echoed in the wind whipping across the ocean.  At the moment, they had no interest in what Auntie Rita and I were doing.  Ethan sunk his fingers into the sand and massaged it into his hair.  Kyra tunneled her Zhu Zhu Pet Hamster.  And if they weren’t both marinated enough in the earth, Kyra shoveled it into their laps.  They simply couldn’t believe that they could play on a beach in Alaska.

I couldn’t believe that Auntie Rita wanted to spend Mother’s Day with us.  Some people call her Grandmother Rita of the International Council of Thirteen Indigenous Grandmothers.  Others call her Dr. Blumenstein, Alaska’s first certified “tribal doctor.”

Over a decade of being part of her life, I am still in awe that this internationally renowned and revered woman, who has three kids, ten grandchildren and ten great grandchildren, loves me like one of her own.

Tightening her bright blue hood around her wizened face, she broke out into a mischievous smile and beckoned me close.  She stretched out both hands, leaned down towards a round low shrub, and closed her eyes.  Her lips moved and I wish I could have heard what she said to that plant.

She pulled out a plastic bag from her backpack and said to me, “Take just a little from each.”

Then, she snapped off several stems and whispered to the plant, “Thank you.”  She brushed the leaflets against my nose.  I inhaled a cilantro-like fragrance.  “Petrushki!” she announced and hurried off to the next shrub with the speed of a child collecting candy that scattered from a piñata.

As we harvested, Auntie Rita taught me about some of the other plants growing in the area.  She pointed out the ones to avoid.  She kept saying to me, “I just love you so much,” filling the emptiness that my mother’s death had left within.

We snacked on crisp petrushki and paused frequently to inhale the wind laced with the breath of the plants and sea animals and ocean.

When my kids tired of their hard labor on the beach, they each drifted towards me on their own time.  I repeated what Auntie Rita taught me.  To respect the plants.  Talk to them.  Say thank you.

ethan picks petrushki

Ethan gently stroked the shrubs and asked, “What’s that?”  He patted his belly and asked, “For me?”

I placed a petrushki leaflet on his tongue and he crinkled his nose and spit it out.  “Mommee, this is for Daddee.  I pick for Daddee.”

“Okay,” I laughed.  He was right.  Thomas loves cilantro, so I knew he would like petrushki sprinkled on his pasta and stews.

Kyra approached each shrub with all her masculine energy, which Auntie Rita had sensed when Kyra was still in my belly.  “This one is a boy,” Auntie Rita had said.  “I am never wrong.”  So the first time Auntie Rita met Kyra, she had bounced the lively four-month-old in her lap, shook her head, and laughed.  She said something in Yupik and explained that she gave Kyra her mother’s name.  It means something strong like penetrating rock.

Auntie Rita watched in the distance as I instructed Kyra not to grab fistfuls of petrushki but just a stem at a time.

“Like this Mommee?” she asked, waving three stems bristling with leaflets in my face.  Her cheeks flushed pink from the past hour on the beach.

“That’s better.  Now, what do you do?” I asked.

She shut her eyes and said, “Mommee, I have to go pee.”

“Can you hold it, please?” I whispered, glancing nervously at Auntie Rita who had her back turned to us.

“No,” Kyra howled and started to twist her legs together.

Hoping we weren’t contaminating any food source, I rushed off deep into the woods with my naughty daughter.  About a half an hour later after we resolved her business, we slipped quietly back to our harvesting spot.  Kyra grabbed the plastic bag out of my hands and stuffed some leaflets roughly in.  Then, she punctuated each stem-bending-pat on each shrub with “Thank You.”

Kyra harvests petrouhski

Auntie Rita thanked me many times too.  She said that she couldn’t have thought of a better Mother’s Day gift.

I told her the feeling was mutual.  Ever since I became pregnant with Kyra, I wanted to raise my kids with a traditional lifestyle and diet, which research proves has tremendous nutritional, spiritual, and physical benefits.

However, subsistence is not easy if you aren’t born into these traditions.  Hunting and fishing has been expensive and risky.   Even the simple act of harvesting plants can be potentially dangerous if you don’t know what you are doing.

Glancing to my left where Auntie Rita bent low over the ground and to the right where my kids rolled in the sand, the weight on my shoulders lightened as the task I set for myself about a month ago in Dandelion Killer  came into fruition.

It was not easy to arrange this day or find the right words to share this special moment with Auntie Rita but I hope this post resonates with KTDontheGo:  Alaska’s Very Own Secret Garden, Daddy Dynamic: The Classroom in the Backyard, and tomorrow’s show The Hunting and Fishing Family.

A Confession: Part II

About a week after the art exhibit started at Pacific Northern Academy, Ms. Jaeger invited Ethan and me to model for Kyra’s class.

“Are you sure my terrible two is going to stay still for the class?”  I asked Ms. Jaeger.

“Don’t worry.  It will be fine.”

I leaned in close so only she could hear me, “So, do Kindergarteners know how to sketch from live models?”  Note:  I’m asking a teacher that had fifth graders create artwork for the film, Everybody Loves Whales, and seventh graders design four 54-piece dish sets and two tea sets with ceramic artist Ade Waworuntu.

“Oh yes, light and shadow on a live person is the best way to learn how to draw for artists just starting out.   Plus,” she peered at me over her glasses, “there’s something about a living being that reverberates.”

I could see what Ms. Jaeger meant.  Just as we sat down in the center of fourteen Kindergartener artists, Ethan stood on my lap, threw both arms into the air, and sprang off my thighs shouting, “I’m Buzz Lightyear!”

The Kindergarteners giggled hysterically.  “Ethan,” they cheered.  Some of them clapped and chalk dust flew from their little hands.

Ethan tossed his Buzz toy at his audience and three of them retrieved it for him.

Always the crowd pleaser, Ethan, then twisted in my arms as if he were ending a complex salsa routine and dipped dramatically across my lap.  He closed his eyes and threw his arms and head back toward the ground for a final flare.

Meanwhile, I watched nervously as some of the Kindergarteners, who had already started to sketch him in the Superhero flying stance, frowned.

But Ms. Jaeger reassured me, “Moving models are a fun challenge for artists.”

And she was right.  Catherine recovered by turning her paper upside down after she finished Ethan’s figure.

Charlie concentrated on designing his own outfit for Ethan and making sure Buzz appeared firmly in his hand.

Emily gave me extra long eyelashes and captured my earrings perfectly.

The twins, Mark and Sierra, imagined Ethan and me in their own fantastical world.

Hannah focused on Ethan’s face, taking extra time to blend in his hair by rubbing tissue paper over her brown chalk lines.  When she noticed me peeking, she said proudly, “My mommy taught me how to draw.”

My chest tightened when I heard that.  Her mother was an artist too, who told me she never taught Hannah how to draw either.  She simply had a lot of art materials lying around the house and Hannah enjoyed watching her work.  Lilly and Maya’s mother, who used to be an art teacher agreed, “Yes, sometimes, I’ll just throw down a tarp outside and let my girls go wild with paint.”

Lilly confidently accessorized my persona on her page.   She gave me fancy pants and a figure I wish I had.

Her twin, Maya, had entirely different aesthetics.

“Go wild with paint” sounded messy to me and it was something I’ve never tried, but with school ending next week I made a mental note to take my art supplies down from the top shelf of my closet and make them more accessible to my kids.

Fortunately, Kyra and Ethan seemed to be born with plenty of swagger.  “Look what I did!” Kyra waved her rendition of Ethan an inch from my nose.

“That’s me,” Ethan said, beaming at his sister.

“That’s my DeeDee,” Kyra said.  With the back of her hand, she brushed her hair from her forehead and a red streak appeared like an exclamation point.

“It’s beautiful,” I praised Kyra.  After that, every Kindergartener excitedly presented their artwork to me for flattery.  Ms. Jaeger told me that every child is an artist.  She said, “Encouragement is all kids need to be creative because when they get older inevitably they will have a habit of being self-critical.”

In truth, the Kindergarteners learned quite a deal this year.  They worked on the elements of design: line, shape, value, texture, overlapping, modeling, linear, aerial, and color perspective. They experimented with pencil, charcoal, chalk pastels, india ink, tempera, acrylic paint, printmaking, book arts, still life, landscape and figure drawing. They even explored clay techniques, creating an Alaskan Animals Tile Table.

In addition, they taught me a great deal too.  Armed with fourteen masterpieces, I went home that day dazzled by these passionate confident five and six year olds.  Most importantly, they reminded me to throw self-criticism to the wind.

A Confession: Part I

As long as I can remember, when it comes to art, my mother’s side of the family won awards.  The artistic gene ran strong producing writers, painters, sculptors, photographers, and graphic designers.  A gene, which I inherited but my brother did not.

I saw over the years how this placed my brother at a disadvantage.  In minutes, I could churn out an assignment with a creative twist that would wow my teacher into giving me a top grade.   For hours, he would stare at me with envy as I goofed off while he still sat at the kitchen table struggling with his assignment.

When Kyra’s school, Pacific Northern Academy, launched an art exhibit on May 5, showcasing the best work from each student ranging from Kindergarten through Eighth grade, I must confess that I was nervous.

A week earlier, we had brought home Kyra’s portfolio and Drawing/Reflection Journal, one of the reasons why many parents choose PNA.  With two days of art per week,  the portfolio and journal is a wonderful treat offered by Ms. Brenda Jaeger, the fine arts teacher since 1996 who won the highest awards in seven exhibitions, including four All Alaska Juried Watercolor Exhibitions.

We “oohed and aahed,” of course, in front of Kyra, but later after the kids were in bed, I scrutinized her progress.  Most of her artwork looked similar to the abstract stuff she did last year, where it seemed like she just scribbled.  Having spotted some of her classmates’ work where vases and flowers clearly appeared in their pieces, I worried that Kyra did not get the Chow family artistic gene.

Kyra's sketch of "Angry Birds"

Or worse, maybe I had not done enough to nurture it.  Earlier in the school year, I had noticed that her classmates drew people while Kyra drew “Angry Birds,” from the popular iPhone app.  So, I sat her down one evening and showed her how to draw a person.  Her first attempt mimicked my sketch precisely and I saw this figure pop up in her Drawing/Reflection Journal throughout the year.

Whew, I had thought:  She does have the gene.  And then, I think I just focused my energy on academics, ballet, and piano and forgot about art, until now.

So before Kyra got out of class, I popped my head into the art exhibit along with several other anxious parents.  Sandwiched between her classmate’s watercolor of a perfect owl and a Picasso-looking chalk pastel vase, I found Kyra’s relief print of a bright yellow truck on brown paper.  Not bad, I thought.  She’s working in a media I’ve never tried before.  Plus, Ms. Jaeger had matted each piece and included a photo of each artist so that the presentation as a whole looked quite professional.  But in the distance, I could hear other parents saying to each other what I was afraid to say:  “Oh my god! I wish my daughter could draw like yours.”

By the time, my kids sipped their apple ciders from fancy plastic champagne glasses and snacked on salami, cheese, and melon and listened to one of Kyra’s classmates, Charlie Edwards, and an Early Kindergartener provide ambience with at least twenty memorized violin songs, I started to say the same thing.  After all, my mother used to hear parents whisper this into her ear and it made her so proud.

Kyra and Ethan making a toast with a kid-friendly champagne glass

That night, I asked Kyra to show me her portfolio and journal again.  This time, I studied my daughter instead of the artwork.  Her eyes brimmed with excitement.  She also asked her dad and Ethan to listen to her story about each piece.  Sometimes, she said, “I don’t know what this is?”  Other times, she would shrug and laugh because she had no idea what she drew.  But here were some of my favorite:

“This is a car with teeth.”

“You can’t tell what this is because it’s a sneaky U.”

“That’s me and you.  I put us inside of a heart.  And we are getting married.”

“That’s me! That’s Kyra.”

Ms. Jaeger reminds me that there is no right or wrong way to do art. There are many ways to create. Exploration during the learning process is an effective way to facilitate student learning. As students do the process of art, they develop their personal vision. Students learn about themselves through the process of creating representations of their own ideas. As the process of art leads them to make choices and to take creative risks, they gain confidence in their ability to solve problems and experience the joy of freedom within structure.

She says, “Art, taught well, allows a growing child richer self-expression, more varied ways of understanding the world, and opportunities to feel joy and wonder.”

A Mother who had Time to Play

This will be my sixth year as a mother, and still Mother’s Day has never felt like my day.  Since 1994, the year my mother died of liver cancer, I have dreaded a holiday that used to be my favorite.

Weeks before Mother’s Day, my brother and I would start planning an elaborate multi-media handmade card, which always had to be bigger and better than the year before.  We wrote poems, stitched quilts, painted watercolors, crafted origami…all hosed with plenty of glitter.

Mom made things extra difficult for us because she couldn’t wait until Mother’s Day to see what we were up to.  She enjoyed sneaking up on us and trying to get a peek.  And if she succeeded, then I would insist on starting a new project, even if it was the night before Mother’s Day.

When my dad begged us to stop this ridiculous game, both my mother and I simply said, “We can’t help it.”

Mother’s Day was not only an artistic challenge with a splash of espionage but the one day my mother let me pamper her, while she made the other 364 days of the year an exciting adventure.   On a weekday, she might pick us up from school and drive us straight to a movie theatre where we watched two or three films in a row and feasted on buttered popcorn and hotdogs for dinner.  On summer break, while Dad dozed in the passenger seat, she might drive super-duper-fast on bumpy dirt roads.

She held herself to a standard painted on a wood plaque in our kitchen:

I hope my children will look back on today
And see a mother who had time to play.
There will be years for cleaning and cooking
But children grow up while we’re not looking.

She also had a way of showing up when I was in distress, as if an invisible Bat-Signal alerted her whenever I needed rescuing.  When I was in college and my brother was battling cancer, I remember once waiting for the elevator to arrive and tears welling up in my eyes because a mean boss had just chewed me out.  Just when I was about to give up on the elevator, the doors had opened slowly and my mother and brother stepped out, wiped away my tears, and told me to quit instantly.

I think what makes Mother’s Day tough on me now is the magnifying lens I hold over my own parenting.  I wonder how my kids will see me.

I worry that they see a mom that cries all the time.  Even my two-year-old has started to ask, “Mommee, are you sad?”  He would rush over and kiss me on the nose and ask, “Feel better?”

I worry that they see a workaholic.  My five-year-old said to me the other day, “Mommee, you go work on computer and we will watch T.V., okay?”

I worry that they might prefer an hour with the iPhone over an hour with me?

Sure, there are days when I take them on adventures like dog mushing and snowboarding, but are they enough to counterbalance the days I rely on technology to educate them?

And then I feel even worse that I recognize these faults and haven’t had time to do anything about it.

I wonder when Mother’s Day will stop reminding me of all the ways I have failed to be the mother I had.  When I look through all those handmade Mother’s Day cards she had saved, I noticed how many times I raved about how this was my “most favorite” day.  Maybe, I won’t start enjoying Mother’s Day until my children write me a card with that sentiment.

Unfortunately, I don’t think they will ever feel this way until I achieve mom’s standard of being the kind of mother who had time to play, a challenge made more difficult by technologies like iPhone apps, iPads, Kinect, and the Wii.

How do you compete with these technologies to be a mother who had time to play?