Permission to Play: Birthday Parties

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Two of the most popular posts on this blog are: SuperMom: DIY Barbie Shoes and A (Few) Photo(s) a (To)Day: We Make Things. Both posts reflect to the DIY ethic we strive to embrace as a family. It’s a foundation of me and Dan’s relationship which dates back ten years to the first kid’s birthday party we planned for George’s 7th birthday.  I was still in grad school, had no kids of my own, and had never hosted a birthday party for a child before. I wanted it to be awesome. I had a subscription to a short-lived Martha Stewart publication – Martha Stewart Kids – which illustrated many of the things Lara Lackey found wrong with Martha’s ideas for kids in her 2002 NAEA presentation “Martha Stewart and Art Education: Is She a Bad Thing?” Step-by-step instructions, overly aestheticized displays of materials which an art educator or parent knows wouldn’t last five minutes around a group of kids, and examples that only an adult could replicate. But the article that’s relevant to this post wasn’t for kids per se, it was for parents. Parents who wanted to throw the best birthday parties on the block.

The section on building a backyard miniature golf course caught my attention. I showed it to Dan and George and they liked it too. Little did I know what I was getting us into.

Dan and I had been dating about ten months and this was the first big project we did together. It tested our skills (mostly Dan’s abilities to build things) and our creativity. We spent a lot of time figuring out a theme for each hole, using as many materials as we could find around the house as inspiration as possible. It was a creative challenge and we learned a lot about one another building through the process.

Dan motorized the windmill and we used baking dishes to create sand and water traps.

This weekend we marked our tenth year of planning birthday parties together with a Harry Potter-themed party for Cora’s sixth birthday. Our schedules are a lot busier than they once were so I did a lot of the initial planning and gathering of supplies. But as we hung out together the night before the party pulling together the potion making station, I was reminded of how much joy and satisfaction we’ve found over the years putting ourselves in the minds of the kids we’d be hosting and imagining how they would play with the prompts we set out for them.

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While the point of the planning was the party, the process was equally important for me and Dan. We laughed as we made up names for the ingredients and shared high fives over one another’s ideas for potion combinations and other activities we’d be setting up. Making birthday parties has provided us an annual opportunity to spend time together, playing around with ideas and materials to create something.

Realistically we probably only have a few more years left of planning parties for children. When the time comes, we’ll have to find some other excuse to pick a theme and plan some fun and games for our own friends.

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‘Tis the Season for Solidarity

Growing up in Great Neck, NY, the “quintessential Jewish suburb” (Goldstein, 2006), December was a time for Chanukah candles, not Christmas lights. Still, I remember the few houses around town that were decked out for that holiday. I loved and hated those lights. I loved to see them twinkling through the crisp winter nights. I hated that they reminded me of this great big and seemingly amazing thing I wasn’t a part of.

Today, I live in Columbus, OH where most of my family, friends, and neighbors celebrate some derivation of Christmas. At times I have felt uneasy participating in their seasonal traditions. Afterall, as the Chanukah story teaches us the Maccabees fought the Greeks for the right to be different, not to blend in.  But, as I’ve written in this space before, I now feel comfortable sharing the joy my friends and family feel at this time of year. (See, for example: “Cultural Responsiveness Begins at Home,” and “Our Craftiest Christmas to Date.”)   In turn, I’ve shared my Chanukah traditions and together, we’ve found light in the darkness.

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Sharing the magic of Chanukah candlelighting with some non-Jewish friends.
(Columbus, OH 2007)

Times seem pretty dark for many of us at this moment in time, and it’s not just because the sun is up fewer than 10 hours a day. Many of us are afraid of the direction our country will go when our president-elect takes office in January.

The appointment of Stephen Bannon as Senior Counselor to the President set a lot of Jews on edge. We fear that with someone like Bannon in the White House, someone who has supported racism through the spread of white nationalist messages on Breitbart “News” Network, prejudice and violence against minorities will not only increase, but be condoned. When the story broke of Richard Spencer’s speech at the white nationalist movement conference in D.C. last month, our worst imaginings seemed even more like real possibilities.

After watching Spencer’s talk and the response from his audience, I had a sickening thought. With Chanukah around the corner, would I feel comfortable setting our menorah in the window per tradition? I voiced this fear to my husband, Dan, who was raised Catholic but does not associate himself with the church any longer. While he is not Jewish, he is supportive of my commitment to my Jewish heritage and my desire to raise our daughter, Cora, with a sense of Jewish identity. Dan assured me we would light the candles and display them for the world to see, and that we would get others to join us. (I really love that guy.)

So, here’s your invitation.

If you are Jewish and haven’t lit Chanukah candles in a while, please join us.
If you are a friend of Jews, please join us.
If you want to show the world that you are not afraid to stand up for those who have been persecuted for following beliefs that don’t mimic the dominant culture, please join us.

The Jewish calendar is lunar based which is why our holidays don’t fall on the same secular dates each year. This year we’ll be lighting candles for eight nights beginning December 24th. I’m excited by the idea of millions of chanukiot (a name for menorahs used on Chanukah which have 9, rather than 7 candleholders) taking their place beside Christmas trees, Kwanzaa Kinaras,  that night.

There are lots of ideas for DIY menorahs out there as well as well as information about the candle lighting traditions. If you have a Jewish friend or neighbor, they might have an extra one you can borrow.

Dan and I made up the following secular blessing which we welcome you to use if you are so inclined. It speaks to the spirit of the traditional Hebrew blessing, but is something we believe Jews and non-Jews can say without fear of contradicting their own religious or philosophical beliefs.

“Thank you for being here with me tonight,
to celebrate the miracle of the Chanukah light.
Peace out.”

(NOTE: I hope to come up with a catching #hashtag we can all use to connect on this project, but I need help. Please send your suggestions or post them as a comment below.)

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Art Educator as Ally

Like many of you, I’ve been feeling really blue since November 8th. I’ve been feeling like there’s very little I can do to protect the rights of many Americans I know and even more I don’t know who are concerned that their voices will not be heard and their very presence challenged under a Trump/Pence-led government. Chief among these are my LGBTQ family and friends.

In June, I bought Cora a rainbow flag at the Columbus Pride parade. At the time I felt silly, like I was just supporting the vendors trying to make a buck off the event. But she’s carried that flag to each rally we’ve been to in the past few weeks. Currently, it’s draping the dashboard of my car. Carrying the flag beyond the pride parade I feel like we are making a statement, showing we are allies who support the insanely simple idea that
LOVE IS LOVE.

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Today I had an encounter with a student that confirmed I am making a difference beyond adding rainbows to the visual political landscape.  A gay man living in Texas, this student works as a public school teacher and volunteers with various organizations in his community. Early in our studies together he expressed interest in making art with LGBTQ youth in his area. Today we talked about concrete steps he plans to take to make that happen.

At the end of our conversation he thanked me for supporting his vision and for encouraging him in his pursuits. I am so proud of him and can’t wait to see where this leads. I’m excited for the kids whose lives he’ll impact, whom he’ll help to see that it gets better. With his permission, perhaps I’ll share it all with you someday.

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A Fire Dragon Bed for Azari

Cora would like to share a Lego idea she created. She said,

“I got inspired by the dragon’s foot pieces to put them on beds. I put those on just for decoration. So the original elf beds only had a pillow but my bed has a claw as part of the pillow and foot piece for the Elf’s feet to catch onto. These help them stay on the dragon but can also help them lay down without falling.”   

Cora is prepping other ideas to submit to Lego Ideas like the dragon trap below. She wants them to make her toys so other kids can play with them, and she can get free Legos.

  
 

Adventures in the Land of Lego

Parents of every generation spend time reminiscing, comparing memories of their  childhoods to the experiences of their children, worrying that something is missing. Oftentimes my friends and I lament our “good old days” when we ran around the neighborhood without hawk-eyed helicopter parents tracking our every move, when there was just one phone in the house–attached to the wall by a short cord–which everyone in the family shared, and MTV played music videos 24/7.

Like our own kids, we recall playing with Legos. The Legos of our youth consisted of a bunch of bricks in varying shapes and sizes and a few mini figures that we transformed into our own imaginary worlds. Today most kids purchase Legos in kits with themes, often tied to movies and other mass-consumed cultural icons like Harry Potter and Disney Princesses. There were few blueprints for what to do with Legos in the 1980s. Today, kids follow step-by-step instructions for what to make with them, and often that’s as far as they’ll go. They beg for a kit, build it once, and set it on a shelf to be admired like an architectural model.

This isn’t the worst thing in the world. Following printed instructions kids practice literacy skills, learning to read the visual plans and follow directions. In displaying the results of their efforts, they practice the skills of art collectors making choices about where and how to show their work. What they do not do is explore their own ideas.

When my step-son George was younger he was really into Lego Star Wars. He asked for large kits for birthday and Christmas presents. I remember him building the kits according to the directions upon receipt. But he spent more time using Sharpie markers and scotch tape to give each Storm Trooper its own color-coordinated uniform and watching YouTube videos to learn how to transform individual components into various types of weapons his troops could employ. Once, he made me a birthday card out of Lego. I know there’s a photo somewhere…

While I initially tried to keep Cora’s Lego collection to the classics while she begged for some of the Lego Friends kits, made and marketed for girls. She learned to follow the instructions to build the kits as they appear on the box, and she enjoys this so much that she takes some of the kits apart to rebuild them. I think she likes the structure this process provides, as well as the results. I can relate – sometimes it’s nice to follow a recipe, other times I like to throw a bunch of ingredients together to make a new recipe.

Cora seems to enjoy deconstructing the kits, piece by tiny piece, as much as she enjoys putting them together. This takes time and because she’s always been more of a big motor muscle skills kid, I know she’s learning just as much through this process – sitting quietly and separating the small parts with her hands.

She’s also been recombining pieces from the sets to create her own creations – some reflect a narrative in development while others are more like color field experiments in three dimensions.

While this can make it frustrating to find all the pieces when she wants to put a kit back together, that’s part of the Lego Adventure–sifting through the bins, looking for just the right brick. And when you can’t find that one, identifying and settling on a substitute. Problem solved, through creative reinvention.

 

 

 

 

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Drawing Work

(This is a follow-up to my last post about drawing with Cora.)

Cora’s friend sent her a drawing of her baby chickens last week. It was sweet and simple. I suggested she send a drawing of our girls in return.

She dictated a message and I wrote it for her. She proceeded to make marks on the paper with glitter glue talking her way through. In the end, she had a collection of blobs haphazardly scattered around the page. 

After some discussion, I convinced her to give it another try. Afterall, she was trying to communicate an important message to her friend.

“Amelia…If you see a hawk put your hens away in the henhouse.”

We talked about where the chickens would be standing and where the hawk would be flying and she made lines for earth and sky. That seemed to be all she needed.  Something to break through the blank slate. She added a sun, grass, and a few hens. Finally, we talked her way through the hawk – head, beak, body, wings, feet, and her favorite part – super long, sharp talons. 

 I told her, again, how proud I was of her work. I knew she could do it. And I can’t wait for her to do it again.