Sometimes, the solution is simple

On learning to move through the hard stuff

Last evening, after our tv time, Desmond was headed down for a bath. But he stopped on the stairs and said, “I would like to do all the math homework [my teacher] gave me. She gave me two sheets to do for the weekend!!” 

So we found a place at our kitchen table. He did both of his math sheets, which were double sided. 

At the end, he was tired. But he said, “Wow, I did that!” 

This was a proud moment for our little fellow. 

Desmond’s brain picks up everything, like one of those roaming robot vacuums. He eavesdrops on conversations and answers questions within them. Months after we’ve watched something together, he references an inside joke we made for a week after we watched it. Since he was three, he has been wondering about the cause of the Big Bang. 

However, learning on paper has been tough for him this year. 

I didn’t particularly worry about where he should be. Kids learn to read in their own time. We’ve been in the middle of a pandemic, after all. We kept looking at words and playing with phonics, joyfully. However, it has been tough. He grew worked up when he wrote a letter the wrong way or couldn’t read a word. That part worried me. 

A few weeks ago, he started going to school again, in the afternoons, four days a week. Immediately, I let go of teaching him anything academic. Kids need a community.

Learning is a social act. 

He has been happy. So happy. He comes home bouncing, talking about new friends and the time they spent in the garden, the woods, and on the playground. His teacher set him in a reading group with a few kids at his level and he was been working there, industriously. Words are starting to pop out at him. He’s recognizing words he has never seen before. It’s working. 

And yet, when he does math worksheets at home, he grows frustrated. Over and over again, frustrated. Sometimes yelling. Sometimes leaving the room. Something was going on. I stayed calm. I knew this had nothing to do with me. 

Monday morning, he wanted to wait to go to his childcare at the elementary school, where he thrives, to complete the worksheets he had forgotten to bring home on Thursday. I let him put one worksheet on a hardcover book — the Pete Souza book about Obama, which we cherish — and start working. Then, I sat back and looked at my phone.

Well, not really. I was looking at him doing his work. He didn’t know that. 

The first worksheet? He asked for my help to read the instructions, but he did both sides without an issue. 

The second worksheet? He slowed a bit but he still enjoyed it. 

And then he started growing frustrated. 

When I offered him the chance to stop, he refused. He wanted to power through. 

The more worksheets he had to do — there were four — the angrier he grew. 

One thing I’ve learned from spending so much time with Desmond over this past 14 months? When he presents as angry, he’s actually scared. 

Most people are scared when they present as angry. 

I thought and thought as I watched him: what is frightening him?

Then I saw him squint. Then rub his eyes. Then he shifted his legs to bend closer to the paper. I thought of how he has complained of headaches after our homeschool lessons. How angry he grows after doing reading work from a book. 


“Desmond!” I said. “Can you see that paper well?”

“No!” he said. “It’s so hard to see these words!” 

Relief and sadness both flooded my chest. 

“Hey buddy! Let me have that paper.” 

He handed it to me. I put it over my shoulder and asked if he could see any of the words. Nope. A foot closer. Nope. Closer and closer. When I held the paper about 12 inches from his eyes, “There! Now I can see it.” 

When I was eight years old, my teacher suggested to my parents that I have my eyes checked. I sat at the front of the class, yet I squinted hard. Sometimes I grew tired. (There were other reasons for that.) But none of us knew. 

How does a kid express that she can’t see well if it is the only way she has ever seen? 

I remember the moment I put on my first pair of glasses. Everything shifted into crispness. Details. Lines. Colors more vivid. Alive. 

My dad always remembered that I turned to him with a big grin and said, “Oh, so that’s what the world looks like!” I don’t remember saying that, but I remember them telling me the story. 

My memory of the day is driving home with the window open, my head tilted toward the sky. All I saw, instead of the familiar blur, was leaves on eucalyptus trees. Green, dusty green, light green, dark green, fluttering in the breeze, still, over and over, the entire world focused, the trees, the trees, the trees. 

Oh, so that’s what the world looks like! 

“Hey Desmond, you need glasses. And it’s fantastic that we know!” 

He grumbled and hid his head at first. But when I told him my story, he listened. And then he lifted his head. 

I put my reading glasses on him, the crazy sea-foam green ones, far too big for his face. But his face softened as soon as he put them on. “Ohhh! Now that’s better!” 

We showed Danny and Lucy both. They oohed and awed over him. (Lucy is his most enthusiastic cheerleader in moments like these.) And then I asked him to keep the glasses on while he finished his last two worksheets. 

His body stayed relaxed the entire time. 

Later in the morning, I walked him to his childcare site. The sun beamed bright. The leaves on the fir trees gleamed. He was holding my hand. 

“Hey Desi. I know you’re feeling a little scared about going to class today, since you have a hard time with reading. How do you feel now, since we’ve found out you need glasses?” 

“Well,” he said, taking in a breath. “I am saying this to myself inside my brain.

This is hard but I can get through it. This is hard but I can get through it.”  

I gave him a big hug. “I’m so proud of you, my sweet boy.”

Walking back to the car, everything looked blurred, the leaves on the trees a smear. This time, however, it was temporary — happy tears. 

This newsletter is called Finding Joy in Enough. Every day, you can choose to create joy out of the grief of your life. That’s what I’m doing here: paying attention to moments of joy without isolating them from the hard stuff.

The lotus grows out of the mud. They’re both essential.

Did reading this piece give you a little joy? Or something new to think about? Become a paid subscriber. It’s only $5 a month. Or, $55 a year, if you want to save a little money. And, feel free to share this with your friends. Thank you. 

If you are here because you knew me first as a cookbook author, you might want to look at my husband’s newsletter, Joy in the Belly. There he is telling the story of being a lifelong chef, discovering that he has ADHD, and learning to work with his mind to become a home cook who gives his people joy in the belly.

We all need more joy.

I’m happy you’re here. And I’m grateful for your support.