Friday, January 30, 2015

A basket of... Yousef

It was supposed to be a basket of books. It could have been a basket of eggs, or apples or clementines. I could have put garlic or onions or potatoes. I could have used it to contain the random toys or given it its previous role of laundry hamper. I could have stashed it away and forgot all about it. But when we first moved I needed a place for books, particularly for board books.

I had unpacked most of the toys and divided them around the house. Some toys were only to be played with in the basement while others were housed in the kitchen play area. Books, some dolls, and a few small toys belonged on the bedroom floor. Trains and their tracks, mini puzzles and wooden blocks were organised in transparent plastic boxes, while animal and human figurines were bagged up. Later that year JR's school would give me colored drawers and the kids would relocated the trains, tracks, puzzles and figurines there and repurposed the boxes.

The books were left. Deciding what to do with the paper books was easy; they went up on the high shelf in the kids' walk-closet, conveniently out of Yousef's reach. My books went in the hutch in the living area and Jeff's were taken to the basement office. The board books lay there. I debated a small shelf for them, but wised up about that; Yousef would bring down the shelf and the book on himself in no time. I thought of leaving them on the floor in stacks, but knew that soon they would be scattered all over the floor. I looked around the found the two identical plastic baskets and got to work; one basket held Arabic board books and the other contained the English. I set them at an angel in the corner and moved on.

Then came the cold winter day when Yousef and I needed something to do. "Get a book, Yousef," I suggested. He carried the whole basket in from the other room. "Pick a book," I asked. He tossed them out one by one on the bedroom floor. When the basket was empty, he located a favorite and proceeded to look at it, but not after he had climbed into the basket! And there he sat looking through one book after the other until he had had enough.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Jar Volcanoes

I love quality time with Jannah-Rae, but do not always want to play pretend. While she and I have certainly spent considerable time playing "restaurant," "grocery store," "doctor," "school," among others, and enjoyed it, some days I just want to bypass the role play and do something else. Puzzles, legos, crafts and reading come to mind. Today, though, I wanted to try out some science.

I had seen some blogs that boast experiments to try out with children and attempted some over the summer when the weather was warm and cleanup was easy. But since winter had begun we had not put our hands towards much messes. Today, however, was a good day for that.

We gathered our supplies: baking soda and distilled white vinegar from upstairs by the washing machine, food coloring from the pantry, glass jars from the cabinet and dish soap from near the sink. We set them up on our glass table and got to work. There was no magic formula or specific measurements to follow. A little bit of this and a little bit of that was all it took.

First, we poured the vinegar into the three jars: one half way, one a quarter of the way and one almost to the top. Then we mixed in the food coloring; Jannah-Rae chose red, blue and yellow. Next came the dish soap. Everything was eyeballed. Finally came the fun part:  adding the baking soda. First a little, then a lot and the reaction happened: out came the bubbles in all three colors, one jar at a time at first, then altogether.

It was quite a spectacle. It wasn't long before the table was flooded with color and liquid hit the floor. We were ready for it, though, with a towel strategically placed close by.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The Paper Bag

It was a Saturday at Jeddo's. We were spending the weekend there, and Jeff was alone in Columbia. Jannah-Rae had just woken up from her nap and we were putting together a puzzle in the living room. Suddenly the sound of Yousef came from the adjacent room; he had awoken. I left what I was doing, and went in for him but was surprised by the Yousef who greeted me. Instead of the cheerful Yousef I am accustomed to seeing after a peaceful slumber, I found myself confronted with a sobbing baby.

I held him. I rocked him. I kissed him. I talked to him. He kept crying.

I told him Jeddo was here. I asked Jannah-Rae to sooth him. He kept crying.

We offered him food. We offered him drink. Nothing worked.

We tried T.V. We tried the iPad. We told him we will take him out. Still he kept crying.

Finally I walked him to the kitchen. "Baddak mammam?" I asked. He pointed to the cabinet. I brought him closer. He motioned for me to open it. I did. He motioned to get even closer. I stood him on the counter. He reached in. He brought his hand out. Then, he reached his other arm, and pulled it out; this one full too. I cracked up. "Ta3a shoof (come see)," I told my dad and Jannah-Rae.

What he held out to us amounted to at least a week's worth of chocolate and treats; that's what he was after! To make things funnier, my dad asked "baddak kees ya Yousef (Yousef, do you want a bag)?" And to this Yousef nodded and we laughed some more. This was too funny, too cute.

Jeddo gave him a brown paper bag. He smiled. With a bag now available, Yousef filled it with what he held and went back for more. He kept fishing out more and more treats and dumping them into the bag until there weren't any left. He had kitkat, nutella on the go, Godiva chocolate covered cookies, oat bars, cereal bars and twix bars, saltine crackers, mini chocolate squares and a couple chocolate truffles. There was even leftover candy canes from the holidays. He wore a huge smile on his face, he was now one happy boy.

Bag in hand, "I want choo-choo," he exclaimed. He was ready to go.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Don't Tell Me

Please don't tell me I should hug,
Don't tell me I should care.
Don't tell me just how grand I'd feel
If I just learned to share.
Don't say, "It's all right to cry,"
"Be kind," "Be fair," "Be true."
Just let me see YOU do it,
Then I just might do it too.

~ Shel Silverstein
Where the Sidewalk Ends
40th anniversary special edition

~Thank you Marcia and Kayla for introducing me to this American classic by getting it for Jannah-Rae for her 5th birthday.

Monday, January 26, 2015

A "Bol" Game

One Saturday evening in January. Arlington, VA.

Look Teta, it's a bol game.

I think I will sit hear and watch. 

Hmm. I wonder what they are doing. 

Will he? Will he?

GOAL! They scored!!!

I will drink to that!

Yum. Yum.
Mai. Mai.

Watching intently. Hanging on to my drink. 
Do not disturb.
The stakes are high. 

Darn it. He missed.

I guess I will have another drink. 

What?!?!? Does this look strange to you?!?!
Me on a bar stool, watching T.V., with a water cup in my hand?
Considering Mama's position on screens, it sure does. 
I can assure you, though, Mama knows.
Actually, it was her idea.
She had to get me off the restaurant floor,
and up from underneath the table,
and away from the salt shaker.
She had to stop me from banging on the table,
and throwing the utensils on the ground,
and dispersing the sugar packets all over the place.
She had to keep me quiet, 
She had to keep us from getting kicked out,
and her from leaving an insane tip.
And to her defense. I had already eaten all my dinner.
This was just that so she can finish hers!
I love my Mama. 

Sunday, January 25, 2015

His and Hers

It is that time again, time to watch the snow come down and accumulate, time to stay warm inside and bundle up outside, time to make the most of being outdoors. Seeing how I am not a cold weather person, I have been avoiding spending much time outside. Most of my expeditions are walking from the car to the door and back, while parking as close to the door as I possibly can. And although touting a coat, a scarf and a hat are a little too much sometimes, I chose to over, rather than under, dress, and do the same for the kids. And yet some days, if I park close enough to the door, I dash in and out sans external layers - those are the best outings since they mean that I won't be carrying around my extra clothing in addition to those of the kids.

Jeff, on the other hand, is all about the cold. He loves how refreshing it is, how clean and crisp. So, when it was time to shovel snow out of our driveway and salt the front steps, the delegation was easy; it was to be him. And Jannah-Rae!

"Can I help you, Baba?" she asked as soon as she heard the words "shovel" and "snow." "I want to help you," she continued and continued until she was asked to bundle up. "You can use my shovel Baba," she offered pointing to her little orange plastic sand shovel. "Thank you, Jannah-Rae," came the reply, it was such a generous offer from a wonderful little girl. But the little shovel could not hold up to such a demanding task, so they went to the store. What they came back with was memorable; matching shovels in appropriate sizes!

The next twenty minutes went flying by. They worked together and separately: her all bundled up trying her best and checking in on the quality of her work, and him in the minimal gear encouraging her on and helping her out. It was quality time at its best. All that was needed was a little snow, a little determination, and a little girl. They connected with each other and with nature, doing something they both enjoyed. When they were done, the shovels stood to dry. His and Hers now stand side by side in the garage ready for the next storm.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

About Yousef

"Write about Yousef," she answered when I asked her for a topic. I was sitting in front of an empty blog post page having just published my last piece. I was out of ideas and reached out to Jannah-Rae who was sitting next to me on the couch "doing Reading Rainbow" on the iPad. I thought it would be interesting to see what she would propose. The last post was about her and she had seen her photo, so she was wonderful in suggesting I write about her brother next.

"What about Yousef?" I pressed. I wanted to better understand her idea and use it as a starting point.

"About how he doesn't listen all the time," came back her response.

I smiled, I giggled, I laughed. She followed suit. In all her innocence Yousef's rebellious almost two year old ways are a worthy topic of recording, and I cannot but agree that they are. At the risk of being charged with comparing my two kids together, I have to say that Jannah-Rae was an angel of a two-year old. She listened, followed directions and had few, if any, tantrums and meltdowns. She was sweet and charming and very pleasant to be around. Yousef, while also a wonderful companion, is certainly very different.

Yousef's personality came about like a volcano, silent and peaceful one day, and loud and destructive the next. The easygoing tag-along toddler became an inquisitive boisterous almost two year old. Once content with the toys in front and around him, now the entire world is his toy, nothing is out of reach or out of bounds. While JR would sit next to me in the kitchen while I cooked and busy herself with the plastic-ware, Yousef would not leave any cabinet unopened. And should he not be able to reach something, he would grab the stepping stool, set it up and proceed. He pushes the chairs around to get to the light switches, and climbs on books and boxes to get taller.

With Jannah-Rae there were no gates, no toilet locks, no "out of bounds" areas. With Yousef, on the other hand, we were introduced to physical boundaries. Some days I think that he would not hesitate to climb into the dryer if he could. Toys and trash end up in the toilet, JR's art work and school work end up in the recycling bin. And should he see something of interest in the garbage he doesn't think twice about fishing it out and exploring it: one day it was an empty chocolate container, he wanted to have some, another it was an empty Starbucks cup, he proceeded to drink from it, a third it was an expired food item that got tossed in its packaging, he attempted to open it.

"Not everything needs to be touched, Yousef," instructed Jannah-Rae while we were browsing the kitchen store. Of course Yousef did not heed. The next thing I hear is a ceramic plate swirling and twirling on the floor. My first thought was, "there goes $35 down the drain." Yousef had picked up an expensive dish, called out "ball" and threw it down. Luckily, it was sturdy and did not break. Unfortunately that brought an end to our outing.

Then there were the times he picked up a Godiva chocolate bar and a Nutella snack box from the stands near the cash registers opened them up and started eating them. Of course I then had to pay for them and take them away from him.

"Did we buy that," Jannah-Rae would ask every other time we leave a store. What she would be referring to is the item Yousef would be holding in his hand unknown to me. It might be a plush toy, a bag of M&Ms or a bar of soap. The decision then becomes whether to let him keep it for the drive home and return it to the store on the next visit, or leave it behind in the cart while distracting him with another toy.

There are also the knock down drag out scenes at home, and elsewhere. A complete and utter meltdown over not getting or not wanting. The screams that pierce the ears, the tears that flow. The crouching to the ground, head between the knees, legs tucked underneath. The laying on the floor, face down, arms and legs flagged out. The arched back, the stiff body. There is the defiance, the repeated requests that are met with a "no," the "make me do it if you can" looks.

But then there are the times when he is loving and lovable. There are the hugs and kisses, the snuggles and cuddles, the hand holding and pant grabbing. There are the two hands that hold my face in place while they plant a kiss on my lips. There is the head that turns to me when I ask him for a kiss. There are the "hold me mama", his arms outstretched towards me. There are the "do not put me down, mama" his legs grabbing my waist. There are the "I am tired mama" his head resting on my neck. And the "it's bedtime mama" laying on my chest, his arm reaching through the neck of my shirt. There are the laughs and the giggles, the smirks and grins, the looks and the smiles. There are the eyes that sparkle and the lashes that shine. There is the (double) chin and the doughy neck. There is the soft hair, and the smooth skin. There is the chocolate mouth and the beet lips. There is his warm body next to mine in bed, reaching out to me while he sleeps. There are his lips that kiss mine in the midst of sleep, and his cheeks that touch mine just the same. There is cuteness and mischievousness, affection and tenderness. There is love and warmth and presence. There is Yousef: the best son in the world!

Friday, January 23, 2015

Writing Letters

Yesterday, Jannah-Rae got a new writing pad from Jeddo. Her next request was "Mama, can you help me write a letter?" "What letter is that, Jannah-Rae?" I asked thinking she had a letter from the alphabet in mind. It turned out she wanted to actually write a letter, and a letter to Baba nonetheless. 

We set to work. "Dear Baba," it started. "I love you," was supposed to be next. But instead of an L she wrote a C and got upset. "Don't worry Jannah-Rae," I comforted her, it can say "I care about you" instead. So we spelled out the next words. When she got to the "U" in "about" she wrote a "Y", since that is the first letter in the word "You" and she got confused. I let her be. Then came the actual word "You" she wrote it without the "U" at the end and I did not correct her; such a confusing word it is! The next phrase was "very much" but that, too, had to be adjusted based on the two letter switches she made. She had asked me to draw dots for her to trace the letter "V" but instead she connected them to spell the letter "T" and although we discussed the letter "M" to be "down/up/down/up" she ended up with the letter "W" which is "up/down/up/down". Faced with a "W" she chose the word "way" and wrote that. I was going to suggest another word but decided it was more fitting to spell out a word she chose. Below is what she delivered to Baba: a heartfelt note, adjusted to convey the same message using different words, in her own handwriting. It's a beautiful thing to have.  

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Talking "Yousef"

Jannah-Rae has always been a great communicator. She began uttering words from an early age and her two word sentences weren't too far behind. Her vocabulary developed quickly and grew in complexity. And while bilingual, she was able to grasp both languages with ease. Soon enough she was conversing like an adult and chatting up everyone in sight. She would approach people of all ages and not shy away from strangers. Girls on the playground, old ladies on the bus, the cashier at the grocery store, the driver on the bus. She compliments frequently and narrates openly. So when her little brother began sputtering what is incomprehensible to most, we were not surprised at her ability to interpret his words, mimic his mode of communication, and adapt her own style of speaking to match his.

On any given day you could hear Jannah-Rae speak eloquently to adults, and what may sound as gibberish to Yousef without missing a beat. Hearing them talk would entail a combination of the following phrases:

  • "Yousef, baddak (do you want) kikeek (chicken or duck) or baa (anything with four legs such as horse or cow or pig or sheep)?"
  • "Yousef, you want baubbles?" which may mean taking a bubble bath, blowing bubbles or playing with snow. His word for snow is "baubbles."
  • "Yousef, here is totoot (car)."
  • "Yousef get cho-choo (train)."
  • "Yousef do you want mai (water in Arabic) or mammam (food)?" "Mai is also his word for juice, soup, soda, milk, or anything liquid. Mama's coffee is "mai" for example. This morning it took me a while to understand what he was asking for, "I want choo-choo mai." We were at Target and I looked around to see juice bottles with Thomas the Train as their cap. He knew what he was talking about! 
  • "Yousef let's go bye (out)."
  • "Yousef get guy (his catch-all word for figurines."
  • "Here you go, Yousef, here is your bal (ball or balloon)"
  • "Time for dodo (sleep) Yousef."
  • "Yousef say Na3am (yes in Arabic)."
  • "Yousef say 'Cheerios,' "eerios," comes the reply.
  • "Yousef, let's go baa (let's ride the carousel)."
  • "Yousef, do you want this?" "I want dis," says Yousef.
  • "Yousef, say 'what's this'." "What's dis," repeats Yousef emphasizing the 's like it is a separate word.
  • "Yousef, wein (where is) ou-ou-ah-ah?" They are looking for the monkey.
  • "Baddak ba3ed (do you want more), Yousef?" "I want moe.... (insert a Yousef word)"
  • If he says "I want cho-choo" when I say "let's go bye" then he wants to go plain with the trains at Barnes and Noble. 
  • "Uh-oh" was one of his first words, if not his very first. He uses it he drops, drips, spills or breaks something or someone else does it. 
  • When referring to something not within his vocabulary, it is "kookoo-keekee"which is his all purpose go to word.
  • "Mama, guy totoot" means Mama put the figurine I am holding in my hand onto the car nearby. 
  • "Yousef, fi (is there) kaka?" Jannah-Rae would ask. In this context she is asking him if he has to poop. "Kaka" is the baby word for poop in Lebanese jargon. Yousef uses it for poop and pee interchangeably, and has added to it another meaning: trash. Holding a dirty napkin or an empty wrapper, cup, plate or box, or a dirty diaper Yousef would say "kaka" and run to the trash can or toilet (yes, we have fished out dirty diapers from the toilet!) 
  • "Kaka" can also mean diaper if he is looking at one, even a clean one. 
  • To him I am either Mam, Mama, or Mami and Jannah-Rae is "baby." 
  • When he wants what his sister has be it food or toy or activity, he blurts "I want me."
  • "Ta3a (come)" he calls out to his sister when he wants her to join him, when he wants to show her something, or wants to hold her hand. 
  • "Wein guy?" "Wein totoot?" is one of his favorite games. 
  • "Baabie" is how he calls Barbie or any version thereof. Dolls and his human playmates are "baby."
  • When he wants to watch Super Why or see a segment on the iPad it is "I want Y," or "I want baa" respectively.
  • When it is time to brush his teeth, Yousef asks for "llla" running his tongue across his upper lip. How he associated that sound with brushing teeth is still a mystery to me. 
  • During the holiday season Yousef and Jannah-Rae got a lot of gifts but we opened one or two a day. If Yousef wanted to open a present he would say, "I want wow." or "I want yay." 
  • "I want ph," meant he wants to blow out the candle "ph" being the sound that comes out of his lips when he is blowing out. 
  • When we get in the car, the first thing he asks for is "mimi," his word for music.
  • And, if there is something he is pointing at and cannot articulate it is "bi" or "daba." In reality "daba" is a word that means "now" in Darija or Moroccan Arabic, except for Yousef it means whatever random object he is interested in. 
  • When Yousef is finished he says "ba7".
So you see, Yousef has a lot of contextual words and Jannah-Rae has become an expert on his speech. So much so, that many a time I find myself asking her "what does Yousef want?" hoping she would clarify what exactly he is after. 

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Update on Suggested Reading 2015

Almost a month ago I published a list of books that I would like to read this year. To track my progress I thought I would update the list monthly, or so. Here is where I am at now.

In alphabetical order:

After Her: A Novel by Joyce Maynard

Bark: Stories by Lorrie Moore

Buddhism Plain and Simple by Steve Hagen

Call the Midwife: A Memoir of Birth, Joy and Hard Times by Jennifer Worth

Coco Chanel: The Legend and the Life by Justine Picardie

Dear Life: Stories by Alice Munro

Five Star Billionaire by Tash Aw

Freud's Mistress by Karen Mack

From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E. L. Konigsburg - readit's ok

Hole in the Sky: A Memoir by William Kittridge

Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson

In Paradise: A Novel by Peter Matthiessen

Let's Just Say It Wasn't Pretty by Diane Keaton

My Sister's Grave by Robert Dugoni

Nine Inches: Stories by Tom Perrotta

Reconstructing Amelia: A Novel by Kimberly McCreight

Still Life with Bread Crumbs by Anna Quindlen - read, enjoyed reading it

Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart

Swim Back to Me by Ann Packer - read, it's ok

The Art Forger: A Novel by B. A. Shapiro - reading 

The Circle by Dave Eggers

The Giver by Lois Lowry - read, excellent book

The Glass Room by Simon Mawer - read, interesting and engaging 

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker - reading, an interesting though difficult read.

The House We Grew Up In by Lisa Jewel

The Imperfectionists: A Novel by Tom Rachman

The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer

The Invention of Wings: A Novel by Sue Monk Kidd

The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman

The Madam's Daughter by Joanne Orion Miller

The Platform Sutra: The Zen Teachings of Hui-Neng by Red Pine

The Round House by Louise Erdrich

The Silent Wife: A Novel by A.S.A. Harrison - read, easy read and not too involved

The Telling Room: A Tale of Love, Betrayal, Revenge, and the World's Greatest Piece of Cheese by Michael Paterniti

The Undying Lamp of Zen, the Testament of Zen Master Torei

This is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett

Tinkers by Paul Harding

Monday, January 19, 2015

Birthday Girl

"It's an American Girl doll," beamed Jannah-Rae when she opened the box. And although it wasn't really an American Girl doll, it was! It was what she had been craving following her intimate experience with the library dolls and she was thrilled to have one she could keep. My friend in Portland had sent her the "Birthday Girl" outfit and the surprise came out all too well. The perfect ending to a great year ahead. Happy Birthday Jannah-Rae, one last time for this year!

Sunday, January 18, 2015

The Last Time

From the moment you hold your baby in your arms,
You will never be the same.
You might long for the person you were before,
When you had freedom and time,
And nothing in particular to worry about.
You will know tiredness like you never knew it before,
And days will run into days that are exactly the same,
Full of feedings and burping,
Diaper changes and crying,
Whining and fighting,
Naps or lack of naps,
It might seem like a never-ending cycle.

But don’t forget…
There is a last time for everything.
There will come a time when you will feed
Your baby for the last time.
They will fall asleep on you after a long day
And it will be the last time you ever hold your sleeping child.
One day you will carry them on your hip then set them down,
And never pick them up that way again.
You will scrub their hair in the bath one night
And from that day on they will want to bathe alone.
They will hold your hand to cross the road,
They never reach for it again.
They will creep into your room at midnight for cuddles,
And it will be the last night you ever wake to this.
One afternoon you will sing “the wheels on the bus” and do all the actions,
Then never sing them that song again.
They will kiss you goodbye at the school gate,
The next day they will ask to walk to the gate alone.
You will read a final bedtime story and wipe your last dirty face.
They will run to you with arms raised for the very last time.

The thing is, you won’t know it’s the last time
Until there are no more times.
And even then, it will take you a while to realize.

So while you are living these times,
Remember there are only so many of them
And when they are gone, you will yearn for just one more day of them.

                                                                                                  ~author unknown

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Birthday Party Countdown ~ Saturday

Today came too soon. The night was interrupted by Jannah-Rae spiking a fever of 104.5 during the early hours of our sleep and subsequent multiple wakings. We finally got up at five although none of us was ready to start the day.

The first thought that came to me upon waking up, after wanting coffee of course, was to take out the cream cheese and frosting jar from the refrigerator. Earlier in the Fall, and knowing I would be making JR's birthday cake as usual, I had picked up a container of orange cream frosting from Williams Sonoma. It was on clearance and so I had walked out with an amazing product for a few cents over a dollar. It has been sitting in my cupboard since. Also sitting in my cupboard were sugar letters spelling "Happy Birthday" along with a few sugar balloons. I was still not sure whether or not I was going to use them, but had them handy just in case. These, too, were a bargain purchase from the grocery store in the development.

I had been toying with ideas for Jannah-Rae's cake since November. The one I had originally planned required a great deal of forward planning; it was a cake within a cake with the number 5 baked on the inside. I did not have a number 5 cookie cutter and went looking for one like a woman on a mission. When my mother in law finally attained one from her friend, I thought my idea was saved. Alas, it was too high and the inner cake did not fit in the final baking pan. I thought to buy a deeper cake pan, but that would have proven disastrous as the outside would have burned leaving an uncooked center. But I was not ready to give up on the idea yet as I had seen first hand how beautiful the final product looked. Earlier I had executed the idea using a flower in the center and it turned out great. There was no reason why I couldn't carry on with the number 5. So I went searching again, this time for smaller cookie cutters. I found a set at my old employer and brought it home; it was worthless. After baking the first cake and cutting it up, the shapes proved to be too small and light to hold their own in the dense batter; they floated around and baked in any which way. I was left with a cake looking like nothing. I scrapped the idea and pondered others.

Jannah-Rae asked for a palace cake with a prince and princess; I refused! I was not ready to give up the party for a princess theme or go down the princess route. I needed a theme-free fun cake that would both look and taste good. I pulled my favorite chocolate cake recipe out and sought to match it with good looks. I decided on chocolate malt balls facade. I had seen such cakes before and admired them and thought I could execute one without much fuss; I would make a three layer chocolate cake completely covered with balls of chocolate malt. Then, I changed my mind! After talking it over with Jeff we settled on two two-layer cakes instead of my original one three-layer and one one layer cakes; a three layer cake would have been difficult to tackle when it was time to cut and serve as we are rather inexperienced in that department.

When the kids went down for their nap at 9:00am I got to work. I whipped the frosting and stirred the jam. I began assembling. I had not thought to buy a cake circle, so I made one myself from a leftover cardboard box that I wrapped with aluminum foil. Then I lay parchment paper around it to protect the cake stand from frosting drips. I lay the first layer: it was the vanilla cake. While I had intended on making it a fully chocolate cake, I had run out of cocoa powder during the preparation phase and decided to do without. I thought it would be a nice modification to have a white layer a midst the two darks and now I used it as the bottom layer for the first, main, cake. I piped some frosting around the edges to safeguard any filling spillover and spread the strawberry jam inside the parameters. Then I brought over the chocolate layer. Once the jam had settled I began icing.

I am certainly not an expert on frosting. As a matter of fact, I make a terrible mess trying to cover a cake up with anything. I usually eat my cakes plain and simple, if I eat them at all. In reality I like to bake cakes but I hardly ever eat them. I serve them to friends and family but do not approach them much; it is the baking rather than the eating that entices me. I also wipe off any frosting from store-bought cakes and cupcakes. I think they go too heavy on the topping which is either too sweet or too fatty. But Jannah-Rae had asked for frosting and really having it was the only way I could get the malt balls to stick on the cake. So I had to figure out how to do it and I did. I laid a thin layer on and around and did not take much pain in its unevenness since it was all going to be covered with malt balls. But it wasn't!

When I commenced with the malt balls, I had a hard time getting them to stick. The first few balls kept falling off the sides so I feared the worst but kept on going. After the first row was up, I added the second and the third pressing them all into the cake as I went. Once the third row was done I was left with a gap between it and the top of the cake. Unsure of how best to cover it, I let it be and circled the top of the cake instead. Looking at the cake, I was satisfied with where it was it. And as I did not trust that the malt balls were going to stay put I decided to conserve my energy and use what time I had left to get the second, back-up, cake ready. Unable to leave the top plain, though, I reached for the mini M&Ms to personalize it.

The back-up cake was "plain" compared to the main one. Two chocolate layers separated by strawberry jam, leftover orange cream icing and mini M&Ms made it complete. Not having enough frosting left though meant that only the top layer got cover while the bottom one remained exposed. That was not an issue since I was only going to bring it out in the event that I woke up the next day to find all the malt balls in a heap at the bottom of the main cake.

The cakes now done, I moved on to set up and decorations. We hung up streamers, balloon and dangling swirls around the kitchen and in the basement, We split the "Happy Birthday" banner into two and hung one on the wall in the kitchen and another in the basement. Jannah-Rae wiped down the the rented table and chairs was wiped clean and set them up in their corner of the kitchen. We brought out the paper plates and plastic utensils, washed and dried the serving platters, prepped the ingredients for the popcorn maker, blew up the rest of the balloons, covered the cakes and turned out the lights. By then it was time for bed; tomorrow would be a busy day.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Birthday Party Countdown ~ Friday

With Jannah-Rae sick a few days before her party I was really worried we would have to cancel the celebration. When we went to the doctor yesterday, one of the questions I had asked her was whether she thinks we should carry on with our plans. She did not see a reason why not, since the party was still five days away and suggested to see how Jannah-Rae fared on Saturday before making the final decision. So when she woke up feeling slightly like her "old" self, I decided to commence the party preparations, but instead of touting one child like originally planned, I had both of them at hand and had to navigate much while they napped.

Being up at four thirty in the morning meant that they both took an early morning nap. During that time I baked the first two of the four cakes. I had measured all the dry ingredients the week before into plastic containers so it was rather easy to add the wet ingredients, mix, pour and bake. As soon as I started, though, the door bell rang and I had to tend to the dryer delivery people while mixing the chocolate cake but that was not an issue as they knew exactly where to go and what to do. But with all their noise, the kids woke up a few minutes into the nap and were all over the kitchen in no time. Yousef, who did not really understand that the cakes were for later, threw a fit when he was denied a piece of the freshly baked cake. I appeased him with M&Ms and then decided to head out as soon as he was finished from his treat. Our route was leading us to two places: H-Mart and A Ton of Fun.

Months before I had reserved child-size tables and chairs for the party. After calling around to potential indoor party venue, I had decided that holding the party at home was both more fun and more economical. Yet I was faced with an pertinent issue: how was I going to seat over a dozen two and five year olds? Our house was sparsely furnished and the floor was not comfortable enough. Besides it was winter and the hardwood floors would be cold. So the idea of a picnic lunch was scrapped. I needed table and chairs, and I needed to rent them. I did an online search and found two companies that carried child-sized furniture. I called the first one and went with it. Today I would have to pick the material up.

When I had arranged for the pick-up time with the company I had thought I would down to one child with ample room in the car for the long table and the numerous chairs. But when today came, I found myself having to adjust both my schedule and mode of transportation. Jeff and I made a one-time exception and allowed JR to sit in the front seat on the way back from the rental company, a twenty five minute drive on two freeways. Luckily there was no traffic and JR was well aware of the dangers of sitting in the front seat so she stayed put and focused. We made it home in plenty of time for another nap!

Before heading to A Ton of Fun, we stopped at H-Mart to purchase our supplies for the fruit and vegetable platters. Cherry tomatoes, baby carrots, broccoli, cauliflower, sugar snap peas, celery and cucumber constituted our choice for vegetables. As for fruit, we settled on apples, bananas, grapes, pineapple and kiwi. I had wanted some cantaloupe or honeydew but we did not see any we liked. With our two bags in hand, we headed out into the cold and on our way.

Once home with the kids in bed, I prepped the vegetables and baked the second batch of cakes. I chopped the celery and onion for the tuna salad and washed and dried the platters. I covered the cooled cakes and refrigerated the produce. I brought the chairs in and wiped them down and sorted the decorations in preparation for tomorrow.

When Jannah-Rae woke up she asked to be given a role, and I had the perfect part for her to play: put together the "Party" sign. With a brush, pink paint, a sticker and glitter glue, she set about her task. Before long she had finished the sign that would direct out guests away from the front door and towards the garage door; the party would commence in the basement with free play and organised games while the kitchen/dining area upstairs were reserved for food and cake in the second hour of the celebrations. Once complete she moved on to allocating the party favors among her guests and organising our "Pin the Tail on the Donkey" game.

All that was left to do today was one last stop at the store to buy milk and juice for drinks and cream cheese for the frosting. That we did after picking Jeff up from work. Our day was now officially over. Tomorrow would be dedicated to assembling the cakes.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

A day like yesterday

A day like yesterday makes me wonder how I made it to the end of the day. It began not much unlike any other day, at about 4:00 in the morning. I first reached for my phone to check the time and confirm that my body was functioning as expected, waking me up at the set hour before the rising sun. I used to have a policy of not going to bed with my phone, but since giving up on the digital large numbered radio clock to guide me through the night hours I returned to my trusty phone. And while said clock still sits with its cord strewn alongside it on bedroom floor, it is merely another object for me to put away rather than a functional piece of furniture. A hour after I had brought it back from my parents, hooked it up and set up the time, Yousef had decided that it was a new "toy" and went about setting the alarm, changing the dial and turning up the volume. When it went off at an odd hour one day, I decided that was the end of that attempt at a "normal" life.

After I verified the time, I took a quick peak at my inbox to see if I had any "important" emails; of course there were none - nothing unusual. Then, I checked Facebook to see what others have been up to and to arm myself with topics for morning conversation. I barely gave it a minute and decided it was a waste of the morning minutes. I will surely be returning to it throughout the day to distract myself from whatever else I would be doing. By the light of the phone, I made my way down the stairs.

In the kitchen I set about putting the dry dishes away, heating water up for coffee, tea and oatmeal and getting Jannah-Rae's lunchbox ready. It was Wednesday so all she needed was "sides." Wednesdays are pizza days and three dollars from Baba bought her lunch. Earlier on in the school year I had thought I would allow her pizza from the school as a "treat" every once in a while but that soon became a routine. It wasn't that I was against pizza per se, I just didn't want her to eat pizza made from unknown ingredients. So I sent her with homemade pizza a few times, then life got the better of me on Wednesdays and she joined her friends in their weekly indulgence. I set out her sides: frozen peas and fresh blackberries, labelled the containers and counted the change. I made the oatmeal, brewed the coffee and sweetened my tea. Then I headed towards the living room couch and turned on my laptop. Today, I was going about my morning in reverse: I was going to tend to things first and meditate later. Except that later never came.

Soon after I sat down I heard footsteps on the stairs; it was Jannah-Rae and she was not looking good. "My throat hurts," she said and that was the beginning of a long day at home. She had a fever, was coughing and sneezing and she was not going anywhere but back to the room. I, too, wasn't going anywhere either and had to make the best of a day at home with a sick child and an overactive toddler. My day was going to be interesting.

We started with food and tried different things: cereal with milk, toast with honey, bagel with cream cheese, boiled eggs. A few bites of each and on to another choice. The dishes in the sink began to pile. Then we worked on a wooden sail boat; the sails are still missing. We moved on to assembling Yousef's workbench; it arrived with broken parts. We tried doing puzzles; pieces covered the living room floor. I tried a "contained" activity and handed the kids foam, a plastic box and figurines; Yousef sprayed it on the carpet. Trains and tracks weren't any better; the trains went flying down the stairs. We tried the i-Pad but when it was time to hand it back Yousef had a complete meltdown.

And so went the day, from one activity to another and from one screaming session to another. All the while, JR was doing her best to stay upright and cheerful attempting to eat and drink but not managing to do as much as she should. She dozed off a few times, took a couple doses of medicine and lounged on the couch. She was clearly not herself and try as I could to make her feel better, she was just sick and needed love and attention.

I kept watching the clock; the hours were ticking by so slowly. It was only 10:30 one time. Then it was only 2:00. We had four more hours till Jeff got home. Then, it was 4:30 and by the time it was 5:30 I was out of ideas, energy and the will to go on. So when I almost tripped on Jeff walking up the stairs my spirits lifted; now we could all get in the car and go for a drive to cut off the last hour of the day and change the scenery. And out we went, for juice and treats. It was after 7:00 when we returned and bed time got started. Jannah-Rae was fast asleep within minutes of getting in bed while Yousef decided to be "cute" and delay bedtime. He kept playing "peek-a-boo" and giggling, asking for water and the bathroom, wanting to eat and see Baba. Shortly before 8:00pm he stopped giving me kisses and surrendered to sleep. It had been a long day.

How I made it from 4:00am to 8:00pm without losing my mind is a mystery to me. In the midst of everything I managed to make, and eat, lunch and dinner, fold, and put away, a load of laundry, pay three bills by phone, put up plastic on three windows, and read two chapters from my book. I did not yell at the kids, express frustration or complain about my situation. I could have screamed at Yousef for spilling the juice, or for throwing the popcorn on the floor, or for emptying the foam canister on the bedroom floor. I could have lost my patience with him over the tantrums, the multiple change of clothes, or the torn pages of the catalog. But I chose otherwise. I turned a blind eye to the mess, looked over the trash and walked around the clutter. I took it hour by hour and looked for the fun a midst the chaos. I laughed rather than frowned, hugged close instead of shoved away. I took part in their life rather than try to control it. I became one with them, rather than stand apart. I told Yousef to pose while I took photos of him pushing shaving cream unto the floor. I enjoyed cleaning up the mess.

Yes, it was a rough day. But it was also blessed. It was a reminder of all the wonderful things that make up my life. True, Jannah-Rae was sick and that put a damper on the day, but she is with us, and that is all that matters. She, her brother and her father are what make a day like yesterday a wonderful day.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Virginia Air and Space Museum

On our way back from Virginia Beach we had planned to make a stop at the Virginia Air and Space Museum. Although we have visited the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC so many times, we were curious as to what other such museums had on display. We were not certain the visit would be worth it, but we stopped anyway, tempted by the lack of crowds, the free admission and the need to stretch our legs at least once before making our long journey to Columbia. Looking back after having sat in traffic for four hours we were glad we made that stop.

The museum was much smaller than the one in the nation's capital, but I felt the space was much more open. I attributed that to the fact that we were not bumping shoulders with tourists the whole time which was a nice change. We toured at our leisure and the kids were able to experience almost all the displays, many of which were hands-on. Their journey started with the kids' area, the heart of which was a hot-air balloon.

Then there were the slides and the model airplane.

There were real airplanes, of course. Some you were able to ride in and fly,

and others to guide through the take-off. 

Once done with the ground floor, we headed up to the second which housed even more kid-friendly activities. There we inspected space shuttles, model aircraft carriers, and a collection of old fashioned radios that was housed in the Amateur Radio satellite station.

JR and Yousef rode the treadmill,

built rockets,

and drove the space racer.

But the best part of the visit, in my opinion, was the ladies' room.

Before we left the museum, JR and I went to the bathroom. On our way in, we saw a lady heading out shaking her hands dry. Trying to make conversation I asked, "isn't there a hand dryer in the bathroom?" "I didn't see one," she answered, "unless it is hooked to the sink," she completed. And she was right! There was the Dyson's Airblade Tap Dryer floating above the sink.

And we spotted it after seeing it on the flat screen TV hung on the bathroom wall playing the "How-To" video of the faucet/dryer contraption. Yes, the TV was there solely for the purpose of guiding bathroom users to the hand dyer.

And to assist them even more, there were printed instructions by the sink. My guess is that the museum had quite a few confused people walking out of their bathroom!

It was certainly a museum of discovery, down to its ladies' room.

Flower Garden

"Garden in a shopping cart
Doesn't it look great?
Garden on the checkout stand
I can hardly wait."

And so go on the book about the Flower Garden by Eve Bunting. I had forgotten all about the book Jannah-Rae had picked out as a prize from Howard County Library last summer. She took part in the summer reading program, and after finishing ten books, picked out one she could keep. The book looked simple enough, and colorful. So I confirmed her choice. But only when we got home and read it together were we able to appreciate its simplicity and richness, its rhythm and magic.

A little girl goes shopping with her dad for a "flower garden." She picks out pansies and tulips, daffodils and geranium, potting soil and daisies. She looks on anxiously as they pay for their purchase: raisins and bread, oranges and cereal. They head out. She holds on to the box with the garden supplies and takes the bus. They arrive at their building and mount the stairs to their apartment; there isn't an elevator. They set to work. Finally, the surprise is ready.

"Happy, happy birthday, Mom!
A garden box - for you!"

Cake and ice cream are set on the table. Candles are lit. It is the mother's birthday. While away the girl and her dad had set up the surprise: a loving gift for a loving parent. There are no frills, no decorations, no elaborate schemes. The celebration, and the present, are simple yet thoughtful, all that a mother really needs. 

The book is not complicated. There are no underlying plots, or complex characters. The text, when put together, barely fills a page and yet it is memorable. The colorful illustrations, the musical lyrics, the realistic topic, makes it a wonderful addition to our library. It is so humane in its story line and so realistic in its scenes that I imagine myself there in the book every time I read. I find myself wondering about the girl and her family, wanting to walk down their street and visit their house. I imagine seeing the little girl's face, listening to her voice, feeling her excitement. I imagine my own family holding a similar celebration. To say I love this book is an understatement. I am so glad Jannah-Rae brought this book home. 

You can buy a copy of this book here, or check it out from your local library

Friday, January 9, 2015

The Final No

The Well Dressed Man With a Beard

After the final no there comes a yes
And on that yes the future world depends.

No was the night. Yes is this present sun.
If the rejected things, the things denied,
Slid over the western cataract, yet one,
One only, one thing that was firm, even
No greater than a cricket’s horn, no more
Than a thought to be rehearsed all day, a speech
Of the self that must sustain itself on speech,
One thing remaining, infallible, would be
Enough. Ah! douce campagna of that thing!
Ah! douce campagna, honey in the heart,
Green in the body, out of a petty phrase,
Out of a thing believed, a thing affirmed:
The form on the pillow humming while one sleeps,
The aureole above the humming house…

It can never be satisfied, the mind, never.

~ Wallace Stevens, The Well Dressed Man With a Beard first published in: Parts of a World (1942), in Collected Poetry and Prose of Wallace Stevens (Library of America ed.), p. 224.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

This is FIVE!

Five is a month-long celebration.
It is three birthday cakes in three days,
and one more party coming up.

Five is a pre-celebration with Teta and Jeddo,
A surprise party at the school,
and leftover cake with Baba.

Five is an excited little girl with a beautiful bright smile.
It is balloons, and streamers and birthday banner.
It is gifts waiting to be open.

Five is three presents from Teta,
three from Grandma,
and three from Mama and Baba.
It is a hug and a kiss from Yousef.

Five is a new backpack, a pencil case and a toiletry bag,
new cooking tools and pretty doll outfits,
a popcorn popper, books and crafts.
It is an 18-inch Madam Alexander doll with curtly brown hair and shiny brown eyes.
It is more to arrive.

Five is ~ correction ~ a year long celebration!
Happy Five Jannah-Rae,
Here is to a wonderful year.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Questions For a Five Year Old

What is your name? Jannah-Rae
When were you born? January
How old are you? Five
Who is your mommy? Ranya
What does your mommy do? Make me stuff
Who is your daddy? J-E-F-F
What does your daddy do? Go to work and get money for me to buy stuff
What is your favorite color? Red
What do you want to be when you grow up? A mom working at a doctor
What is your favorite food? Broccoli, cheese pizza
What is your favorite snack? Toast with butter and honey, and toast with nutella
What is your favorite drink? The juice that you (mama) makes (orange, carrot, celery, grapefruit, apple and beets)
What food do you not like? I do not know
What is your favorite animal? Monkey, zebra, lion, koala bear and panda
Where do you want to live when you grow up? I do not know
What do mommy and daddy do after you go to bed? Have dinner and go to bed
What does daddy say? He loves me
What does mommy say? She loves me
What is your favorite song? Jingle Bells
Where is your favorite place to eat? Chick Fil-A, The Diner and Five Guys
Who is your favorite person? Yousef
Who is your best friend? Kaitlin and Kelsey and Grace H and even Brooke
What is your favorite book? Goodnight Moon
Who is your brother? Yousef
What does he do? Help me with a lot of stuff
Where did Yousef come from? Mama's tummy
What is your favorite thing to do? Go to the park and school
What is your favorite outfit? A dress

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

A snow day

Jeff is in Boston, my parents are in Arlington, the kids and I are in Columbia. And, it is snowing. During the silent hours of the night, the snow slowly fell from the sky covering roads, covering trees. I woke up to a blanket of white, clean and peaceful, the first snow of the year. It is January 6th.

I am not sure what the day ahead will hold, it is still 5:00am, but I do know what JR asked me last night: "is Baba coming home today?" "I hope so," I replied. And she pressed on, "why not yes?" Because I knew about the snow, and she didn't. Because I was not sure if the airport would operate under these conditions. Because I did not want to make a certainty something I was unsure of. Because I did not want to disappoint or be disappointed. "It might snow," I said. "And flights nay be delayed," she finished for me. Yes, I nodded, yes.

How does she know these things, I wondered? Where does she learn all this from? I guess she knows more than I think she does, and I need to give her a more credit than I do. My little girl is not so little any more, and there is nothing like an innocent snow day to remind me.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Happy 5th Birthday Jannah-Rae

Happy Birthday, Jannah-Rae. 
I love you.

I woke up extra early, and went to bed extra late last night, to get things ready for your big day. I dangled streamers, blew up balloons, and hung up a banner. I baked a cake, frosted it and hid it away. I planned the surprise party with the school, I sneaked in the treats. I wanted to be ready for you today. I wanted to be prepared.

When you came to us on your own time that cold January morning in 2010, I was not ready, we were not prepared. My bag was not packed, my journal was not complete, my pregnancy scrapbook was still missing photos. I still had appointments to make and things to do. I had work deadlines and shopping lists. We still had not bought you a crib, and we hadn't yet decided about a changing table. We needed sheets for you, and blankets, a bouncy seat and a play mat. You needed a "going home" outfit. I needed more time. Yes, we were not ready; but you certainly were. 

Since then, I have been trying to be ready for you, to be prepared for your wants and needs and yet I never am. You are your own little self, my dear, and always one step ahead. I do my best, and you do your part just as well. Together we keep each other in check. I tell you to be thankful for what you have, to be happy with what you got, to enjoy what is here. You look to what more could be had, what can be improved, what else needs to be done. With my reminders you balance yourself and remember to be content. You are content. But you are also ambitious. You are eager. But you are also patient. You are loud. But you are also quiet. You are a mysterious mix of seeming contradictions. You are everything you were meant to be. 

"Happy Birthday," the banner above your head read, repeatedly covering the entire length of the wall. Happy Birthday, it sure will be. 

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Birthday Girl Through 2014

It's the day before the birthday and JR is over the clouds. Yesterday she picked out the cake to celebrate, the third pack of candles, the birthday horns in preparation for her first celebration. She glowed when she set the items on the checkout counter and was asked if she is getting ready for a party. "You are turning five, right?" she was asked and shyly she nodded, amazed that they had guessed. 

I had spent the last few days invested in making her gift. I sorted through a thousand photos from the past months selecting those that portrayed her through the year. From her fourth birthday party in Beirut, through the snow in Morocco, the airport in Paris and her time in Arlington, VA to our move to Columbia, MD, her outdoor life in the suburbs and her time spent on vacation, the photos ran through her many moments and faces. There are happy faces, sad faces, sun-kissed faces, and glowing faces. There are faces on horses, faces on trees, astronaut faces and butterfly faces. There she is with Yousef, with her doll, with her self. She is running on the treadmill, riding her bike, jumping from higher and higher up. She is kneading, rolling, cutting. She is making bread, crackers, sushi. She is eating, hugging, kissing. She is checking us out at Trader Joe's, riding the duck boat on the lake, feeding the animals. She is picking fruit, reading books, smelling the flowers. She is guiding a military aircraft, dressing her dolls, getting her nails painted. She is building a city, playing with foam, dancing in the rain. She is serving me from her play kitchen, laying on a bed of nails, coloring with sidewalk chalk. She is being a girl, a four year old girl, a big sister, a first born. She is being Jannah-Rae.   

I had spent hours going through the photos. I narrowed them down to a hundred. Then, I added a hundred more. I made them into a movie. I added music. I watched it over and over again. I edited it. I shared it with my friends. I then deleted it. I took it down. I removed it from the public sphere. It was my gift to her, and it was too special to spread out. I kept it on my computer, for her to see. She will love it, I am sure. I cannot wait to see. 

Happy Birthday Jannah-Rae

I love you!

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Drive Thru

Earlier this year I made a breakthrough coming to terms with driving to, rather than walking to, a coffee shop. That heralded a major turning point in my living in the suburbs. Today, and as the new year unfolds, I found myself making another breakthrough by not merely driving to get coffee but by ordering the coffee from the warmth of my car. 

Drive Thrus had always puzzled me. Drive Thru Starbucks' puzzled me even more. I had long thought that the idea behind coffee shops was establishing a meeting place where people could congregate and socialize. "Let's go get coffee," had been a suggestion of an outing, an event, a date. It was not about the coffee or the treats; those were a bonus. It was about sitting with friends and family chatting the hours away. Then, I moved to the suburbs. 

A lot changed when I moved to the suburbs, and not only in my surroundings. Distances became longer, playgrounds became scarcer, walks became shorter. The car became indispensable, I became more flexible. Grasping the reality that I needed coffee to keep me going, that I had to drive to get said coffee if I did not want to brew it at home, that I needed to take one or two little people with me to get it, that I needed to bundle them up in order to order it, that I was going to be policing them through the entire waiting time, that it was too much work to get from Point A (wanting coffee) to Point B (getting coffee), I finally understood Drive Thrus; it was not about the experience, it was about the product. And yet, understand as I had, I had still not succumbed to the convenience. That was until yesterday when Yousef decided to farewell the old year at 4:00am, 

Yousef had been waking me up every hour or so that night. Following a flu shot, he must have been having a rough time and was looking to me for comfort. Finally at 4:00am he gave up trying to go back to sleep. Try as I may, he just clung to me and looked around for something to play with. I decided to take him for a drive. I got him dressed, put my jeans on and got into the car. I loaded the nearest drive thru Starbucks that I know of into my GPS; it was eighteen minutes away. Yes, I was about to drive eighteen minutes for a coffee; this would have been sacrilegious in my "old" life. And yes, I was going to use the Drive Thru; this would have been even more sacrilegious. But it was cold, 26 degrees, and early, 5:30am. And so it was: the last day of one year heralding many days of a another year. 

Here is to a year filled with change, flexibility and acceptance. Thank you drive thru Starbucks, you have contributed to my growth.