The contents of the refrigerator were strewn across my kitchen floor. I nearly slipped in a puddle of yogurt and broke my neck. “Frank! Leo!” I shouted. I found the culprits in the powder room, giggling beneath a confetti shower of toilet paper and random objects (a bottle of mustard?!?!). I called their father right away.
“In the 30 minutes I spent working on my computer, they’ve completely decimated the house!” I said.
“They’re doing it to get your attention,” he said. “Go outside, forget about your work for a while, and do something fun with them.”
It was either that or begin to attack the mess while they tore into another room. Why do they need to be so destructive? Why can’t they play with their toys and leave everything else alone? These and other questions I asked myself as I put on their shoes.
Then, it dawned on me. Maybe we needed to create something together. I looked at our drab fence and thought about how fun it would look with some color. I grabbed my crate of acrylic paints and some brushes and told Frank we were going to paint the fence.
Frank is not a big fan of arts and crafts, so he shoved the paint brush back into my hand and shouted out letters for me to paint. Leo watched on from his tricycle. The first word was “torn.” The second word was “yellow.” Then, it was words that start with “w.” In guiding my brush with his voice, Frank was showing me what he knows.
While I was painting, a sense of calm overpowered me. I forgot all about the mess waiting for me inside the house. All that mattered in that hour was my little muse and the picture we were creating together.
Even though Frank didn’t pick up the brush himself, he was engaging in an exercise in imagination, where the things inside his head revealed themselves on the wooden posts at the other end of my paintbrush. I even learned a few things about him, like that he knows his ABCs backwards. And maybe when he’s upending dresser drawers and shoving slices of pizza down the sink, it’s the same kind of experience for him.
I highly doubt Frank wreaks havoc upon my house because he’s malicious. He doesn't want me to be mad. It’s just his way of exploring the world. I think I’ll spend more time navigating those journeys, even if we never leave our back yard.
November 07, 2015 05:39
By Robyn Barberry
There were five little pumpkins sitting on my desk, waiting to play their part in the live action version of their famed visit to the gate, starring my St. Joan of Arc library students.
Each pumpkin was unique in one way or another, but you had to look closely to find the nuances between four of the five. The runt was a half inch shorter than the others. Another was slightly flat on one side. (Probably due to laziness.) All of the stems were different lengths and widths. Their wrinkles and dimples were as varied as clouds at dusk.
One pumpkin stood out. It had an additional growth at its top, next to its stem, about the size of a baby carrot. There was a hint of green on its ridges. When all five of the pumpkins were lined up, this one’s flaws were so blatant that the minor differences between the other four disappeared. “The fifth little pumpkin” as we dubbed it, absorbed all of the attention.
The students were curious about the protrusion. “What’s wrong with it?” they asked. “Nothing’s wrong with it,” I said, “but someone might tell you that there’s a genetic defect. All that means is that the cells that made this pumpkin grow didn’t get the message about what a pumpkin usually looks like. So, they chose to create something extra special. Isn’t it beautiful?”
While the students continued to marvel over the fifth little pumpkin, I thought about how the students’ curiosity revealed pivotal innocence that if harnessed early enough could translate to a lesson in visible diversity. How could students learn to accept people with skin colors, birthmarks, and physical characteristics related to various conditions present at birth, such as Down Syndrome?
Far too many adults are quick to make judgments about people with atypical faces and bodies. Some of those people are irresponsible and whisper comments about the kid with the freckles or the bald woman living with alopecia. For some reason they feel uncomfortable and want to pass their insecurity on to their children.
In my classroom, we don’t make fun of people for things they cannot change about themselves, like their names, the way they talk, or their physical appearances. Just about every student I’ve ever taught has respected that rule while they are in my presence. I hope and pray that some of them have carried that kindness into their lives outside of school.
God made all of us and every living thing. He is perfect, but all of us have our defects. They’re what make us special. Even pumpkins.
October 30, 2015 12:22
By Robyn Barberry
It’s been a long time since I wrote about Leo. A year, to be exact.
But, there’s a good reason for that. A VERY good reason.
When I’m teaching creative writing courses, I tell my students that every story is rooted in conflict. I write “No problem = no story” in red marker on the whiteboard and underline it three times.
People are naturally stimulated by drama. We love to gape from the sidelines as others find themselves in peril. The girl being chased by a monster. The man hanging off a cliff. The kitten in a tree. Some of us feel compelled dive in to save the day, while others wait for the conclusion to reveal itself, hoping for the best. We love both real and imaginary stories that take us to the edge.
As a nonfiction writer, I tend to follow human interest stories. People exploring. People overcoming disabilities and disease. People surpassing expectations for their age, class, gender, size, shape, or color. People finding courage and using it. "Will he/she make it?" is the first question on my mind. “How?” is the second. I like triumphs, not tragedies, but, like most readers, I like don't lie to read a story unless the hero overcomes some form of adversity. “No problem = no story.”
Leo just turned two and celebrated with a construction-themed birthday party. He loves tractors and trucks, cats and dogs, books and blocks, food and more food. Every morning, he climbs into bed with me and says in his sweet voice, “Mommy? Hold you!” The other day, he said the Sign of the Cross before I gave him an Oreo in our tree fort. He has enormous brown eyes and laughs often.
And that’s it. That’s Leo’s story. Or should I say, his “profile?”
I don’t tell many stories about Leo because, praise be to God, there aren’t many. He spends his time with me, Patrick, his brothers and his grandparents, and gets along great with everyone (even our temperamental cats). He doesn’t go to school. Everything he needs is provided for him. Leo’s life is far from boring, but it’s simple and carefree. It’s not the kind of life anyone wants to read about. And isn’t that a wonderful thing?
It makes me think about how Jesus disappears from the time the Holy Family flees through Egypt until He is lost in the temple at age 12. I like to believe that He had a happy, peaceful childhood that was so free of conflict that there was nothing to write.
Big brothers Collin and Frank have their own share of struggles with school, sports, friendships, and the growing pains along the path to independence. I could write a book about each of them and someday far too soon, drama will find its way into Leo's life. But, for now, I’d like for Leo’s life to consist of eating, sleeping, playing, reading, cuddling, learning, and growing in peace and quiet.
October 29, 2015 12:23
By Robyn Barberry
As I was researching art related to Pope Francis’ visit to inspire my students, I stumbled upon a beautiful installation called “Mary Undoer of Knots” by Meg Saligman. It is based on the painting of the same name, a personal favorite of Pope Francis.
I found a video describing Meg Saligman’s project and found myself mesmerized by her work. She built a grotto outside of The Cathedral of Sts. Peter and Paul in Philadelphia, hung a huge print of “Mary, Undoer of Knots,” and tied white strips of fabric into knots on fences, wires, and walls. Some were woven into the grotto, where a fountain offered the tranquility that comes from being near living water.
Each strip of fabric contains a struggle, a concern, a prayer from a different person. Some were sent through the Project Home website, or in person. At the time I showed my students the video, there were 30,000 strips. There must be close to 100,000 now.
All of the problems are tangled together and offered to Mary to untie. I had my students write their own concerns on labels that we joined together on posters in our own version of the installation. We even listened to a beautiful song called “Help Us, Mary,” which was composed by E.A. Alexander to accompany the installation.
On my visit to Philadelphia on Tuesday, I was running out of time and realized that I probably wouldn’t make it to see “Mary Undoer of Knots,” especially because I thought it was far away from the Franklin Institute, where I was visiting the Lego Vatican. But as we pulled around Logan Square, I saw thousands of white strips flapping in the wind next to the dome of the Cathedral.
“There it is!” I told Patrick. “It’s just too bad there’s no parking available.”
And a spot right next to the installation materialized.
I don’t want to say a whole lot about “Mary, Undoer of Knots,” because the pictures will tell the story. However, I was helping a friend through a crisis, wrote down his name, and since then, things are looking up! Also, I got to meet Meg Saligman, the artist. I almost burst into tears when I met the mind and hands behind such a powerful project, but instead, I thanked her. I’m sure I’m not the only one.
September 30, 2015 11:57
By Robyn Barberry
To prepare for Pope Francis’ epic visit, I decided to share some art created just for the event with my PreK-8th grade students at St. Joan of Arc in Aberdeen. I knew my students would love Fr. Bob Simon’s “A Priest as Minifigure Contemplating the Splendor of the Vatican,” a realistic Lego replica of St. Peter’s Square.
I shared a video with my students describing the project (it took Fr. Bob 10 months to assemble 500,000 Lego bricks!) and told them that the work was on display at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, which is only a short car ride away.
After telling my SJA students about the Lego Vatican, I decided I had to see it myself. So, I did!
Fr. Bob’s masterpiece is the perfect bridge between the Franklin Institute’s wildly popular “Art of the Brick” exhibition of Nathan Sawaya’s incredible Lego sculptures and an exciting new display of Papal treasures, “Vatican Splendors.” (I’m hoping to take my students to see the latter.)
September 30, 2015 11:47
By Robyn Barberry
“What’s so special about the pope?” was a question posed on Facebook by one of my former students, who is now in her early twenties.
“I don’t know who he is, but I don’t want my roads to be shut down. Kids shouldn’t be missing school for this,” said a student who moved to Philadelphia after high school.
“He’s only important to Catholic people,” another student replied.
“Catholics worship him instead of God,” said a friend I didn’t know.
“He’s probably the anti-Christ,” was the reply that triggered my emotions. It was from the student who posed the question.
How could someone say something so terrible about someone so wonderful? I decided to walk away from my computer before my fingers punched out something that could destroy the close relationship I have with my former student. How could someone say something so terrible about someone so wonderful?
I wanted so badly to rush to Pope Francis’ defense, but I knew that I as a representative of the Catholic church, I couldn’t allow myself to show rage. That would only push all of them further away. Instead, I chose to address my student directly, with patience and love.
Her question was one of innocent curiosity, while the misinformed responders led her down the wrong path. They didn’t understand my faith. They didn’t understand that the leader of my Church is also a leader of the world. So, I decided to say something wonderful about someone so wonderful.
“He has major influence on decisions that impact many, many people in the world. Take the time to read his views. I think you might be surprised that you agree with some of the things he has to say.”
I sent a link of his address to Congress, adding that he chose to have lunch with the homeless, rather than politicians. “He’s a pretty cool dude.”
The negative comments stopped.
Pope Francis is a living example of what it means to be like Christ, and more and more people are recognizing it. I’m not a big fan of the door-to-door variety of evangelism, but I do feel that the positive reputation that Pope Francis is creating for himself offers Catholics an excellent opportunity to discuss our faith with people who are confused by or curious about Catholicism, but who recognize the goodness in our Holy Father's words and deeds. We should vigilantly watch the horizon for situations where someone of another faith (or an absence of faith) actively wants to discuss Pope Francis. He is the living face of our Church and the perfect place to start a larger conversation about what it means to be Catholic.
“Catholics don’t worship Pope Francis,” I explained in my final post to my students and their friends. “We look to him for guidance.” Perhaps they will, too.
September 26, 2015 04:18
By Robyn Barberry
Lenora “Peachy” Dixon is by far the most interesting person I know. She's a writer, a waitress, a stockholder in a major company, a mother, a grandmother, a music lover, a former business owner, and a proud Catholic. I helped edit her first memoir “A Peachy Life,” published by City Lit Press in 2011 and her forthcoming sequel “A Peachy Business.” (A third book is also in the works!) Patrick calls Peachy “Baltimore’s smart and beautiful version of Forrest Gump.” In her almost 74 years of life, Peachy has found herself standing beside some of the greatest people to ever set foot in Baltimore, from her old boss Johnny Unitas to her Sabatino’s customer Frank Sinatra. But Peachy’s favorite memories are being in the presence of St. John Paul II and Mother Teresa, right here in Baltimore.
On Thursday September 24th, 2015, Peachy will be in Philadelphia to celebrate with Pope Francis. She will be checking in with us afterwards! But, first I asked her to share her story of encountering then Pope John Paul II on October 8, 1995.
Peachy didn’t think that she would ever get to see the Pope in her lifetime because the Pope lived in Italy, the land of her ancestors, and she was just getting by as a waitress in Baltimore. When she heard that Pope John Paul II was going to be visiting Baltimore in 1995, she arranged to partake in the festivities with her friends Mary and Cindy from Sabatino’s.
Even though they had worked until 3 o’clock in the morning, the three ladies woke up extra early on that beautiful October morning, headed to Royal Farms, bought disposable cameras and coffee and headed downtown to scope out a good spot to see the Pope John Paul II.
They settled in at the intersection of Pratt and Charles Streets and watched Pope John Paul II say Mass in Camden Yards as it was broadcast on a huge TV screen right before them. Peachy’s Aunt Mary and Aunt Lena attended the Mass, while Father Lou Esposito from her parish, Our Lady of Pompei, assisted Pope John Paul II.
Peachy was wearing blue, the color of the Blessed Mother, because her Aunt Mary said the Pope would look her way. But, when Peachy looked around, she realized that Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity were lined up across from her, and for sure, the Pope would see them first. When he drove by in the Popemobile, Pope John Paul heard the chants “Papa! Papa!” from the Hispanic people surrounding Peachy and her friends and turned to them and waved.
Moments later, iconic Baltimore reporter Michael Olesker and his wife Susie came by to interview everyone about the experience. Peachy said, “The thing that is special about Pope John Paul is he radiates holiness; you can feel the rays of holiness coming from him.” Peachy went on to explain that by being near Pope John Paul II, she could receive some of those rays.
Peachy, Mary, and Cindy chased the Popemobile as far as they could. “It was like chasing a rock star,” she said. “Except in this case, the rock is Jesus.”
September 23, 2015 10:16
By Robyn Barberry
My last daunting summer task to be completed before Labor Day was to organize my photographs. My albums are my time machines, and my photographs are the force that amalgamates a moment into a memory. They are glimpses of God's presence in our lives. So, twice a year, I try to organize my pictures so that I can easily find them for a school project, a birthday or holiday present, or just because I want to remember someone, something, or someplace.
In the past, this process would’ve meant hours spent on my living room floor with the TV as my white noise, sorting glossy prints into piles. In 2015, this means compiling digital files into one (or three) central location(s) for backup. It’s just as much work, except that I’m standing at my counter desk with my fingers are tapping on keys with my eyes are on my laptop screen while Pandora streams in the background.
But, there are times when the frustration level is the same. It almost always involves missing gaps of time. (“Did 2011 even happen?” “Why don’t I ever seem to take pictures in November?”) Worse yet is when I can’t seem to find pictures that I know I took.
Frank’s infancy was an overwhelming time for our family after a tree fell on our house. But somewhere amidst the chaos was a sweet baby. The only problem is that I found it so hard to remember what he was like as a newborn because the pictures I’d taken of his first few months at home had disappeared shortly after we were displaced. I did, however, have pictures from my old iPhone in my Apple online storage from when he was 6 months old and forward. So, I went to retrieve those. But my drive had been wiped clean.
I contacted Apple who affirmed that it was a procession error on my part. They tried and tried to retrieve my files, but said I needed to have the iPhone in my hands to try one last recovery strategy. When I looked for the iPhone in the safe place where I keep it, it was gone.
I prayed. I asked for the intercession of St. Anthony. I convinced myself that all that was lost would be found – because it almost always has. Then, I set back to work on my photo organizing task.
In one of my backup locations, I discovered all of the pictures from the second half of Frank’s first year – the ones I was certain I’d lost on my Apple drive. I thought there still might be some missing, so I went back to find my iPhone.
It wasn’t there, but two of my older phones were. I tore off the backs and found two memory cards. My heart pounded as I inserted them into my laptop. There was 2011. Collin was a curious and hilarious two-year-old. I had just started a new job. I discovered I was going to have another baby.
And there was 2012. There was my newborn Frank who was more beautiful than I even remembered with cobalt blue eyes and peachy skin. I remembered his sweet, earthy smell. I remembered swaddling him and gazing in awe at him as he slept in his swing. I remembered how much Collin adored him. I remembered introducing him to our home. And I remembered spending the earliest part of his life there with him.
I thought that I’d lost the first year of Frank’s life. I wondered what I’d tell him about his baby days when he got older. I wondered how I would console myself when he grew up and moved away and all I wanted was to hold him again. What would I share with his wife and kids? But, thanks to my good old friend St. Anthony, I now have tangible evidence that my son was once 8 lbs. 13 oz. and that he was loved.
September 08, 2015 09:56
By Robyn Barberry
I woke up on August 10th from a horrible nightmare. It was the first day of school and I had nothing planned for my art class. I got out some papers and crayons and told the students to draw whatever they wanted. The 4-year-olds just stared at me, the 8th graders laughed, and Collin, my son and 1st grade student, cried.
This wasn’t the first time I found myself awakened from a deep sleep, covered in sweat and panting because I’d just escaped a fictitious, yet painfully realistic experience in the land of nod. But it was the first time my subconscious reminded me in my dreams that I was both a teacher and a mom, all at once; all in the same place.
It was 4:00 a.m. and I couldn’t get back to sleep. A train came wailing by and I convinced my mind to load all of my troubles on it. As I drifted back to dreamland, I vowed to spend the next seven days preparing for my best year yet. I wanted to wow my students; I wanted to wow my son.
I submerged myself in Pinterest, stealing ideas for my environmentally-themed units left and right from fellow teachers and stay-at-home-moms. My good friend Gina, who has become my coworker once again, joined me in my quest to engage students in art projects inspired by oceans and trees, the rain and the bees. I imagined guiding Collin through the activities designed for my younger students. His masterpieces would be sure to dazzle the visitors to my refrigerator museum.
I spent the following week purging the art room of spoiled paint and yellowed paper, shelving returned books, and decking the halls (and the library) with paintings and posters reminding students of the rules, encouraging them to think positively, and celebrating the glorious bodies of water God created when he made our Earth. (Water is the art and library theme for August and September.)
When I stepped back Sunday afternoon (the day before school) and took in the beautiful and tidy spaces I’d created, I decided that it was good. But the bliss didn’t last for long.
In preparing for my own return to school, I’d completely neglected to tend to Collin’s back-to-school needs. He had a cool shark backpack from his great-grandmother and the same blue geometric lunch bag he’s used since he was two, but that was it. Immediately, I was faced with a new nightmare: the failed parent.
So, like millions of moms and dads across America, I rushed to Target on Sunday night, where I scavenged the last two packs of glue sticks, a 24 pack of crayons (they were out of the smaller size his teacher requested), paper towels, tissues, juice boxes, and a family pack of rainbow Goldfish crackers for snack time. It was as if we were all preparing for a major storm -- and in a way, we were. An avalanche of homework and a whirlwind of carpools were imminent -- we'd better sharpen our #2 pencils.
Unfortunately, I forgot the most important thing – socks. I scrambled through last year’s uniform bin for a gym shirt. The only one I could find fit like a wetsuit and was splattered with permanent pink and red acrylic paint. I allowed myself to hyperventilate for one minute before deciding, “He’s the art teacher’s kid. They’ll understand.”
After another restless night of battling my way through bad dreams centered on the notion of my occupational failure, the first day of school inevitably arrived. After stopping to take a brief selfie on the front porch, Collin and I went on to have a great first day at St. Joan of Arc. No one stared or laughed at me. No one cried – not even me.
The story ends well, but it could’ve taken a smoother course. The problem was this: I was so worried about planning mind-blowing lessons to impress my students – especially one – that I forgot about the basics. More importantly, I forgot about balance. I can’t let myself focus too much on teaching or too much on being a mom. I need to learn a better way to be both.
I have since obtained Collin new socks and a new gym shirt. My decorations still look awesome, my lessons are going to be great, but most importantly, my students (one in particular) and I are happy to be learning together again.
August 28, 2015 08:28
By Robyn Barberry
Some of my fondest childhood memories include summers on the Chesapeake Bay with my family. On many occasions, this meant that my company included my dad, my uncles, my cousins, and my beloved grandfather. With our moms working back at home, and our dads running trot lines, we kids spend time exploring the islands or small, rural communities (and cool old houses) we got to call home for a week or two. We cooked (Uncle Martin taught us his crab soup secrets), swam in the Bay (always under supervision), and told scary stories (which often resulted in us sleeping with all of the lights on in the enormous room we shared). The whole experience was a little bit like a cleaned-up version of Lord of the Flies.
Eventually, my parents and my aunt purchased a rancher in an area near Deal Island in Somerset County called Chance. My dad stays there frequently during business trips to the Eastern Shore, and my cousins pay a visit to the Chance house when they need a little escape from the hustle and bustle of urban and suburban life. It’s amazing what a sojourn by the water will do for the soul.
A sunny weekend showed up on the five day forecast, so my dad and my brother decided to spend a few days fishing and crabbing in Chance. This time, they invited Collin to come along. Naturally, I agreed, but only after I reminded them that cookies are not an acceptable breakfast – not even on vacation. Collin and I threw a few items of clothing and a couple of toys into his travel bag, rolled up his sleeping bag and kissed goodbye as he embarked on his first journey to Chance.
The next morning, I woke to find two pictures of Collin fishing, including his first big catch, a perch that would fit nicely in a toaster oven. Within a few hours, there were videos of him swimming in the bay, making “sand angels,” and roasting marshmallows by the fire. I didn’t need live updates to reassure me that Collin was safe or having fun, but it made me smile when I pictured him having as much fun as I did when I was 6 on the shores of the Chesapeake. They call it God’s country for a reason.
As they were getting ready to leave, Collin called me frantically. “Mom! I caught something and I don’t know what it is. It has the head of a minnow and the body of a snake. I don’t know what it is!”
“It’s an eel,” my brother said in the background. “A two foot eel.”
When he got home, Collin told me about the eel again and that a crab got loose in the boat. “And guess what else!” he said. “They took me to Burger King by the big bridge, and I got chicken fries!”
And on that note, I knew that Collin had the perfect Eastern Shore trip with his grandfather and his uncle, just like I did when I was a kid.
August 19, 2015 08:56
« Older Entries
By Robyn Barberry