"How was camp today?" I ask, forgetting to ask a more specific question.
"Fine," she says, true to script.
I am going to ban that response. That and "boring."
"Did you already know any of the other kids?" I try again.
"Are they nice?"
"Not really. They all know each other and played together and didn't really include me," she says glumly looking out the car window.
"Huh," I say, tamping down the platitudes that are rising in my throat, trying instead to come up with a response that will make her feel heard and supported. "That sounds hard. I know I don't like feeling excluded."
"Yeah," she mumbles and slumps deeper into her carseat.
We ride home in silence while her little sister sings "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" to her stuffed dog.
At home, she wants to read a book, curled up in my lap, draping her tan limbs over mine in an unusual display of cuddliness.
I want to grab her in a bear hug, snuffle her hair, look deep into her eyes while I extoll at length about her beauty and brilliance but get a hold of myself and let her lead. I sit still.
And I close my mouth.
When we take walks around the neighborhood, I see the same people over and over again. We live in a small town, we have our favorite routes.
This happened sometimes when we lived in California, but our city there was much bigger, it was easier, possibly even safer, to just avert one's eyes and feign invisibility. In California, even when I unexpectedly saw someone I knew well, I often ducked into the crowd to avoid having to say hello. I'm just not good at those unexpected moments. They make me anxious and weirded out. How long do we need to chat? Do I have to have a long time to talk if I approach them to say hi? What do you even talk about?
It's taken me three years of living in Virginia to start saying "hi" to everyone we pass. Or "good morning" or, even, "lovely day, isn't it?" I still mentally rehearse and rehash what I say and how I say it. I still duck out of chance encounters sometimes.
But not always.
I'm cultivating a new habit: friendliness. I guess I've grown weary of good friends telling me they didn't like me when we first met, that I seemed cold or bitchy from afar.
I'm not cold or bitchy. But I'm shy and awkward (bloggers unite!) and my girls have some of my shy awkward blood in their veins and they are watching and learning from everything I do.
When we walk and I greet a neighbor, the girls ask, "Who are you saying hi to? Do you know them, Mama?"
And I say, truthfully, "I don't know them well, no. But it's good to be friendly."
Later that night, I tuck Z into bed and she curls against me, asking if she has to go back to summer camp tomorrow.
I've managed to drag out of her that she liked the teacher, she liked the class, she's just feeling socially out of step with the other girls. I am struggling mightily to not project or judge or feel I have to fix everything.
"Do you want ideas about how to try to make friends with some of these girls?"
"Well, think about what makes you feel good, what makes you want to play with someone else, and do that. I like it when people smile at me and say hi. I like it when people compliment me on something I just said or ask me about my favorite book or ask to join in on something I'm enjoying."
"There is this one girl who had a dinosaur shirt on that I liked."
"Exactly! You can compliment her shirt and then follow up with a question that keeps the conversation rolling."
We role play a little with her as herself and me as the dinosaur shirt girl. Then we switch and she's the dinosaur shirt girl and I'm her and we wind up laughing hysterically into her pillows.
Her laugh is like a sparkle volcano and I want every one of those girls to love it.