Ellen Brooks

Ellen Brooks photoEllen Brooks is a teacher and writer living in Westchester County, New York. She currently teaches at Hunter College (New York City) and Manhattanville College (Purchase, NY) and has worked as a special education teacher, literacy consultant, and writing workshop leader. Ellen has published two professional texts on the teaching of reading and writing (Learning to Read and Write, Garland Press and Just-Right Books for Beginning Readers, Scholastic); her writing has appeared in other publications for parents and teachers. Ellen completed a doctoral degree in education at the University of Pennsylvania (Ed.D., 1981) and recently completed an MFA in nonfiction writing at Sarah Lawrence College (December, 2012).

 

Dayenu

At ten minutes before six on a cool October evening, I follow my teenage daughter Lizzie along the narrow stone path that leads through the garden to the yoga studio. We are early, but the classroom, where we will practice vinyasa yoga, is almost filled to capacity, and we will need to put our mats close together, leaving only an inch or two of floor exposed between. In the front of the room, propped up against the wall, is a small white board with a quote by Ganga White, founder of the White Lotus Foundation and a well-known figure in the yoga world: “Being present is balanced and tempered by keeping a long view, a lifetime perspective.”

The lights are low, and the glow of the evening sun filters through the side window, casting a faint shadow across the floor. Stillness permeates the space. Lizzie whispers, “Please stay next to me.” She lines her mat up on the floor, taking care to make the edges straight, to secure a bit of space between her mat and others nearby, and to roll the front edge under to keep it from curling up. She pulls her sweatshirt over her head, folds it neatly next to her, and takes a cross-legged seat on the mat. She takes off her earrings, necklace and bracelets, carefully placing each on the floor next to her. She glances at me. Smiling. All sweetness. I picture her room, which we have just left behind— socks, shirts, and sweaters scattered on top of her dresser and on the floor. I picture the gum wrappers on the night table and piles of jewelry strewn everywhere. And I can see her angry look; she is scowling at me and reciting a familiar mantra, one that seems to give her momentary pleasure as she distinctly utters each word: “You don’t know anything, Mom. You are such a loser.”  I am happy to be here and not there. 

When we go home, the notes for the research paper for her ninth-grade history class will wait in disarray—spread across the kitchen table and floor where she left them. Maybe she’ll be in a better frame of mind to face the challenge. Maybe she’ll try to read her own handwriting on the note cards and just maybe she will feel sturdy enough to grapple with the task of organizing and synthesizing the notes into a unified whole—to follow her outline step-by-step—to put in the time and effort it will take to write the paper. She wants desperately to do it herself; I want desperately to offer my support. After all, this is what I do everyday. As a teacher, I am practiced at helping kids just like Lizzie— students with language-based learning difficulties who work hard to meet the demands of reading, writing, and listening in school. As a mom, though, it is difficult to watch her struggle. When she encounters a problem or makes a mistake, she blames herself. I can’t, she says. I’m not any good at this. I remember a scene in the car—she is seven, and we are on our way to dance class. Mommy, am I smart? This, from a small, voice in the back seat. Even then, the lilt in her voice warned that there would be little I could do to give her assurance. In school her teachers offer praise for her hard work and persistence, but she believes that the world values performance. She doubts herself, and I want to boost her up, to give her the confidence that her efforts will make a difference. To help her develop the mindset that she can learn and grow even when the challenges are great.

Meanwhile, in the yoga class, our teacher, Shannah, will start class with a personal story or maybe she will say that this is a moment of bliss. Although I like to think of myself as positive and optimistic, and although I love words, bliss is a word that is a bit too optimistic, too cheery and over the top for me. But maybe Shannah is onto something that I can’t quite see. I imagine collecting all this bliss, bottling it up, and taking it home. Saving it for when we need it most. 

I feel Lizzie shifting on her mat, adjusting her spine, relaxing her shoulders, and sitting tall like a dancer, graceful and poised. I wonder if this is the young woman who will walk through that door later when we leave all this serenity and return home. Or will it be the beautiful girl who glares at me, standing tall, hands on hips, summoning up the same words she hurled at me when she was three: “You’re not the boss of me.” She’s right. I am not the boss. I’m the ally that she cannot see.

I don’t dare let my gaze fall directly on her. It is enough to feel her presence next to me as we settle into the practice by standing tall in mountain pose; Shannah directs us to rest our hands at our sides, to close our eyes, and focus on deep rhythmic breathing. I resist the temptation to turn my head in Lizzie’s direction. I know that she doesn’t want to stand out, to feel that all eyes are upon her, and especially not mine. I also know how much she loves attention. Mommy, look what I can do! I see the proud, confident little girl who can do it all by herself: taking her first steps, swimming across the pool, riding her first two-wheeler, running across the school playground as she clutches her latest artistic creation—a still-life pastel of poppies in a vase. 

Shannah guides us through the flow from one pose to the next. I notice all that breathing in the room. It is a rhythmic whooshing like the sound of the undulating waves of the ocean, reminding me to breathe and push the outside world from view, but I still see the image of the crumpled papers tossed on the floor. I hear the harsh words intended to push me away. I breathe in. I breathe out. I recoil in silence.

 *****

There was a moment earlier in the day. I am hurrying to get dressed, she wants to borrow my make-up and blow-dry her hair, and your bathroom is so much nicer she says, and then she makes herself at home, turns up the volume on her iPod, and suddenly I am no longer feeling annoyed by this intrusion. We have landed in a familiar place—a routine we both loved when she was a toddler: we are dancing in the bathroom to “Brown Eyed-Girl.” This is how I want her to think of us. 

Inhale. Exhale. I picture a moment with my own father: I am the stubborn teenager who knows it all. We are upstairs in the hallway, just outside the bathroom, and while I can’t remember how or why we arrived at this moment, the hostile and unforgiving words in my head fill me with shame, but the rage takes hold, and I hear myself say the unthinkable. Die. This? Aimed at my father whom I adore? My tall, dark-haired, handsome father? I turn away, avoiding his face. I can’t disappoint him. My anger is real, but the words untrue. “Dai….enyu,” I say, grasping for a way out. With just one syllable of Hebrew, everything changes. As a child, “Dayenu” was a favorite Passover tradition, a single word conveying “it would be enough” as we sang of God’s help in our journey from bondage to freedom. As an adult, I am beginning to understand the beauty in these words. Dayenu is a reminder to be grateful to God for his many gifts. With each gift—from taking the Jews out of slavery in Egypt to the gift of Shabbat and Torah—the words echo a feeling of gratitude and convey the sentiment that this gift alone would have been enough. No more is needed. My father’s glare softens, and the tension is broken with the sound of a syllable—enyu; we are in a place where we would both rather be. I imagine my father’s initial outrage, anger and disappointment. This, from the daughter that he loves? And then he simply lets it all go with a smile. Even now, he likes to tell the story. We laugh. But I still feel ashamed.

*****

At the end of the class, when Shannah slowly brings us back to our awareness of this time and place, of the world we’re about to re-enter, she asks us to close our eyes and imagine where we would like to be if we could be anywhere. Imagine a place that brings comfort, joy and peace. Keep your eyes closed, your gaze inward. What do you see? Where are you? Picture the scene.  She tells us to remember this place and this feeling. Know that you can always come back here again. She talks about carrying this moment off the mat into our lives. I take a sip of water; my eyes wander.  Lizzie’s eyes are closed.

By the time we reach the car, I am half in calm serenity and half-thinking about the fact that it is already 7:30, we will need to get dinner on the table, maybe my husband, Marshall, remembered to make a salad and maybe he didn’t; it’s turned so cold outside, and my sweatshirt is not enough protection for this night when a blustery wind comes howling across the island. On the short ride home, a drive I love, I settle back in the seat, taking in this clear October night sky, a deep navy blue sea of stars. We seem to be the only car out on the road. I think about how I would love to paint this night sky. I wonder if Lizzie will settle into her work. Will she get the job done or will she ask for just five more minutes to change back into her jeans, and then five minutes will become ten, and ten will slip away into twenty, and she will be up in her room listening to her music, checking her Facebook, and calling down to me, “I’m almost ready,” while I pace the kitchen floor, resisting the temptation to organize the books and pick up the papers. Resisting— until I cannot stand it any more. 

Lizzie breaks the silence.

“Where was your place?” she asks.

Her question startles me; at first I don’t even remember that we have just come from this peaceful space where we can hear our own breath and focus on the stillness. I breathe in and then out, a long deep exhalation. “Good question,” I say, remembering our teacher’s words, remembering how I drifted in that moment.

“So where were you?” I ask, shifting the focus away from me.

She’s quick to answer, eager to share. “It was a Sunday morning at Grandma’s. I had a sleepover, and Grandpa made Mickey Mouse pancakes with chocolate chip eyes and a chocolate chip smile. Grandma said they were made with love and kisses.” Her voice is sweet, gentle—this is the graceful girl who sits tall on her mat.

My father’s famous pancakes. My mother’s familiar words—made with love and kisses. Words handed down from generation to generation. Those pancakes have received considerable attention over the years and have made their way into Lizzie’s writing with a notable degree of regularity: a first-grader’s illustrated sentence about a favorite food, a third-grader’s guide for making the best pancakes in the world, a seventh-grader’s reflections on lessons learned while making pancakes on a Sunday morning with her grandfather: Grandpa taught me that it’s often the small moments in life that mean the most.

“I love your story,” I say.

“Thanks. And thanks for taking me with you.” Her voice is soft and kind and gentle. It’s not her usual fourteen-year-old voice at all. It’s a voice of quiet strength, self-assurance and satisfaction.

“Anytime,” I say. “Okay, sweetest…I’ll tell you my place.”

No response. I try again, louder this time. “Lizzie…Lizzie?”

Nothing. I turn and see that she is wearing her headphones—listening to her music. Her head and shoulders sway in rhythmic motion as if she has transported herself from the passenger seat to the dance floor.

One day I will tell her that the place I imagine is one in which she is the central figure. It is a cold October evening, just like this one. The rain is pounding, and the trees whip against the house, but inside, our home is filled with a feeling of calm, quiet, and serenity. The light glows from Lizzie as I watch her sitting at the kitchen table, surrounded by papers and her laptop. She works on the final revisions for an essay for history class; she is in a deep state of concentration. The usual activity continues—the dogs chomp on their dinner, the dishes clink in the sink, the phone rings—and, yet, she seems to block it all out. She has worked at this makeshift desk for more than an hour. I watch as her eyes move from her notes to the laptop screen. I want to move closer, to see what she’s writing—but I resist the impulse. I imagine that she is searching for just the right word or remembering a detail that she wants to add. Maybe she is taking time out—time to take stock and enjoy the feeling of control. Eventually she gets up and says: Want to hear what I wrote? Can I read it to you? She stands tall, her shoulders relaxed. I am aware that my own breath is slow and steady as I exhale. Her presence in this moment is a reminder that patience is an essential part of a long view of your child’s development. Lizzie begins to read. She probably doesn’t even realize that the corners of her mouth are turned gently upward.  

*****

We are home again, and in the kitchen, the bright lights shine on the table, now set for three, with Lizzie’s books and papers neatly stacked at the other end. Marshall has picked up the crumpled papers from the floor. I wonder how my father let go with such ease. Each year at the seder table, I can’t help but remember that long ago fight. Dayenu calls for us to notice each single act of goodness. It calls our attention to the extraordinary and to the gifts that reside in the small everyday moments; dayenu reminds us that each step is significant in the process of moving us closer to the life we seek. Perhaps, it is easier to be a teacher than a mother, easier to be accepting of the students in my classroom, honoring and rewarding their successive approximations of the desired strategies, behaviors, and routines that I aim to teach. It occurs to me that the moment Shannah asked us to imagine was already within my view—the image of a teenager on her yoga mat, moving through the poses with intention, making the choice to commit this time to the yoga practice and to herself.  Dayenu.

11 thoughts on “Ellen Brooks”

  1. Awwwww El….
    Such a gift you have… The gift of words, the gift of creating such imagery, capturing moments in time, such deep strong feelings, so much wanting, so much love… So much hope… The privileged pain of parenthood… Loving and wanting so very much for our children.
    I love you and appreciate you so.
    Xoxo
    Susan

  2. I was really taken by the image of the author and her daughter in yoga class, as well the author’s description of everyday life, which likely mirrors that of many readers with teenagers. The writing is lovely, the flow between time periods perfect, and the conflict between the author’s teacher and parent roles well described. A wonderful essay! My daughter will be getting an extra hug this afternoon, just because.

  3. Just beautiful! Each word so perfect for the line, the moment, the passage. I felt privileged to be there with you, by your side, feeling the push and pull of parenthood, wanting to do the right thing, without letting emotion and impulse overwhelm the moment. Your ability to seamlessly reference the generational ties was brilliant. Engaging and warm and loving. I want to give you a hug!

  4. This is an exquisite piece about the fears, joys and unexpected moments of being a parent. Brooks made me remember that period when my daughter vacillated between the comfort of being a child and her desire for independence.
    And I learned a new word. Dayenu. Beautiful!

  5. I just read your Dayenu story. It’s beautiful.

    Today I dropped Daniela (my daughter) off at the airport for 10 weeks at Hebrew U., then a day in NY and then 10 weeks in Buenos Aires, on a human rts. internship. She packed till 2am, her entire wardrobe on view, periodically weighing the suitcase to make sure she was within the airline restrictions, debating whether to take linens or buy upon arrival, etc…Moment after moment, I watched and tried to pull myself into the experience rather than impulsively commenting on the procrastination, the late hour, the excessive number of t-shirts and party outfits.
    Before I knew it I was standing at the security line hugging her goodbye and trying to hide the tears. Time together is so fleeting. How great to come home and discover this story, printed out of Dayenu on my desk.
    Thank you.

    1. Abby, thank-you for sharing this story. It seems we’re always improvising, figuring out our role as parents and when to pull back, when to lean in. Like writing, parenting is a constant process of revision. I love your observation that time is so fleeting!

  6. this could be you, extrapolating 35 years. my eyes are bad, I have trouble reading straight lines. is anything recorded? I keep a lot of pictures on FB. I can’t hold a camera, but lots of people gave me pictures. if you like “friend” me. Barbara said she saw you. I see you and marshall are still together. great!

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