Three Things I Learned From Travel Abroad

There are two types of people in the world – those that love to travel and those that don’t.  I represent the latter. Perhaps this is because of my family’s history of disastrous vacations.  Think on the scale of flooding on the famously dry island of Aruba; visits to emergency rooms with infants; and violent storms that shut down major theme parks for the first time in their history.  When one spends savings on an adventure, only to be disappointed by unforeseen detours, the travel spirit dampens. Nonetheless, I decided to join Principessa on a service trip to Peru.

This would be just another notch in my 20-year old daughter’s international travel stick.  I, on the other hand, had never used my passport and wasn’t entirely confident that I wanted to for aforementioned reasons.  But I’m a sucker for an adventure and knew that the benefits of a trip like this would outweigh any potential travel snafus.

When locals commented with mystified shock at the rare occurrence of rain and fog covering Machu Picchu during the dry season, I tried not to look guilty, knowing that somehow the aberrant weather pattern resulted from my personal traveling curse.  

Disappointment was great but the commitment to rise above it was even greater.  Principessa and I pulled out every inspirational phrase we could muster to keep our spirits up.  This proved to be easier than keeping our cameras dry.

 

‘Blessed are they who are flexible, for they shall not break’ became a theme for our trip and paved the way for other valuable revelations to surface.  Following are the top three.

1.Wherever you go, there you are.

There’s no escaping yourself.  We may refer to travel as ‘getting away’ but the only thing we leave behind is the landscape.  Yes, we halt our daily tasks and forget our worries for a time, but we take ourselves, our essence, with us.  What we fear at home will continue to plague us. What we love will comfort us.

2. Everyone has something to teach you.

Everyone we’ll ever meet knows something we don’t.  It’s up to us to seek out the lesson.

  • The taxi driver in a chaotic city may teach you how to trust and release control.
  • Dependence on your travel companion to interpret the language may teach you humility and patience for those who struggle to communicate in your own language.
  • Observing your humble host family who gives freely despite their meager earnings may poke at your pride and make you reassess your consumerism.

3. We’re all the same

People may look different and sound different, but behind the costumes and customs, we’re very much alike.  We all feel the feels of life and speak the universal language of emotion – fear, worry, happiness, hope. We each, no matter the culture we originate from,  try our best, help each other, hurt each other, and dream.

 

Going out of your comfort zone is a must if you want to become more than you are – more aware, more humble, more fulfilled.  One doesn’t need to travel far from home to expand, of course. We can find these growth opportunities in our own backyards if we’re open to them.  But travelling to unfamiliar places ripens us for change.

In a literal or figurative sense, I saw myself in every person I encountered in a faraway land.  The beggar and the shopkeeper, the wanting child and the providing parent, the student and the teacher.  The more I allowed my thoughts of separateness to blur, the easier it was to see that we’re all one. And the more important it became to me to practice and promote tolerance in a world that seems so very fractured.

 

When People Behave Badly

The television show titled What Would You Do? makes me squirm.  I used to think it was because I hate confrontation.  But if I’m being honest, the real reason I can’t watch the show is because my answer to the question, ‘What would you do?’ would often be ‘nothing’ and I struggle with that.

It’s not that I don’t want to help people.  I care very deeply about giving hope to those in despair.  But in moments of unexpected crisis, I inevitably freeze, unable to make a transformative move that would right a wrong.

Thus it happened, as I waited in line for a public bathroom, that a frazzled mother and her old-enough daughter scurried up beside me.  Mom was squirming and wore an expression of disbelief.  Her sweet daughter stood motionless just behind mom’s leg as if trying to disappear.

“She wet herself!” the mother exclaimed without a morsel of decorum.

“Oh, I see…you can go in front of me,” I said as if that wasn’t a foregone assumption. 

In the immediate moments following the shameless reveal of the poor girl’s mortification, voices inside me screamed so loudly that I couldn’t be sure which one I should listen to.

One voice wanted me to chastise the mother for her selfish insensitivity.  Another wanted me to scoop the girl into my arms and infuse her with such depths of love that the pain of this misfortune would be unable to attach itself to her self-worth.

My jaw opened and closed but nothing came out.  Nothing.  I was bereft of the words of comfort I desperately wanted to give.  So I kept glancing at the girl, directly into her eyes, trying to will her to absorb my compassion via energetic osmosis, I guess.

But the girl continued to look at the ground hoping, I’m sure, that it would swallow her up.

Then, as if to clarify the obvious, the mom tugged the girl’s hand abruptly and said, “Do you have any idea how embarrassing this is?!”

A pained squeak escaped my throat in concert with the girl’s tiny vulnerable voice that pleaded softly, “But mama……”

I swear I witnessed the girl’s heart leave her body along with any final threads of self-respect.  She had been stripped of dignity and stood raw and vulnerable at the mercy of mom.

In situations such as these, when parents behave badly, I feel I have no authority to be self-righteous.  I too have reacted poorly at times and compromised my responsibility to do no harm to my children.  Like the fiercest of Mama Bears, I have defended my little ones against bullies but there are also times when I’ve failed to protect them from myself.

It’s hard, this human thing.  Sometimes we hurt each other with the things we say or do.  Other times we change things for the better. Many times, the best thing we can do is nothing at all.  How is one to know for sure?  I guess, since there’s no universal guide about what we should do, we can only discover what we would do and continue to think about what we could do.

The College Kid Contract – Moving Home For The Summer

College children will be returning home next month and frankly, I’m more than a little bit nervous. 

With only one child left at home, I’ve become re-acquainted with the pleasures of order and cleanliness.

I would be the first to tell you that I love the chaos of family life.  There’s a feeling of purpose and satisfaction in the work of managing a household full of the dilemmas and disasters that accompany a clan of children.  And some of the funniest blunders occur when our household spins out of control.

But I’m not a glutton for punishment, and I’ve tasted the sweetness of post-parental peace.  I’m an entirely different person when I’m not overrun by a full house.  I’m kinder, more patient, generous, and thoughtful.  I call friends and my own parents more frequently.  And I relax, guilt-free!  Sometimes I even sleep late.

It’s glorious, this return to self.  It’s as if I’ve woken from a dream – a very full and joyous one – and found myself standing in my own shoes again.  There’s a vagueness about me, like the stupor one has upon waking, and it’s going to take some time to understand and appreciate it all.

At present, I’m facing two inbound teens who are recognizable but so very different from the tentative pair that packed up their lives 9 months ago.  They’ve had the chance to exert their independence in a variety of new, sometimes challenging, situations and they radiate confidence.

One would be labeled a fool for assuming that these young adults would morph back into the habit of obedience that preceded their college experience.   The over-18’s have been in the big wide world playing adult, sort of, but not really. Now they will appear at my doorstep with selective amnesia and forget at least some of the rules all of the time.

In an attempt to preserve my sanity this summer, I’ve decided to resurrect the idea of a family contract.  This time, the language is more formal, like the leases my college children each signed for their apartments next year.

I’m not aiming to make our home an unappealing place with rules so strict that big teens/young adults feel stifled.  And I’m certainly not interested in playing corrections officer.  I’m simply looking to create enough order and peace so that none of us feel the need to fight or flee.

This contract may not be welcomed.  And I won’t win any awards for the most popular parent.  But if all goes well, perhaps my children will see and appreciate the new, steadier version of me – the one without the bags under her eyes, calming sipping a cup of tea on a lazy Saturday afternoon.  The one who is likely to dole out more yes’s than no’s when her house and her life aren’t turned upside down.

……………………………………………………………………………………………..

Re-entry Contract

By signing this lease you hereby agree to the rules set forth herein which outline a basic code of conduct for the household.  This contract is binding.  Any violation of it will result in corrective measures including loss of amenities and forfeiture of personal items.  Expenses may be incurred.

1. RESPECT

Common spaces are sacred. They should be uncluttered and clean when not in use.

  • No dirty dishes on the counter or in the sink.
  • No articles of clothing dropped on tables, chairs or floor.
  • No random paraphernalia scattered on counters.

2. CONTRIBUTE

Each resident is expected to contribute to the work of the household. Chores are done by all, for all.

  • If you eat/sleep in this house, you are expected to help with food shopping, prep, and cleaning.
  • Don’t be limited to your assigned chores.  If something needs attention, take care of it.

3. COMPLY

All rules set forth by the parents will be adhered to without the need for reminders or warnings.

    • Parking in your designated spots in the driveway.
    • Doing chores in a timely manner.
    • Use of the laundry facilities for no more than one day.  Keep it moving!
    • No food in bedrooms.  No dishes left scattered around the house. (We don’t need to revisit the fruit fly infestation of last year!)

4. BE CONSIDERATE

Each resident is expected to add to the harmony of the household.

    • Ask permission when using something that isn’t yours.  i.e. CHARGING CORDS!!!!
    • Follow long-established household rules.  There are no excuses for not knowing expectations.
    • When inviting friends to the house, ask a parent first, and assume responsibility for their behavior.

In summary, we welcome you home.  May your brief return be a peaceful and enjoyable event for all.

___________________________________________________ ___________________

Reflections On Grief and Loss

Sometimes life isn’t what it appears to be.  Sometimes loss is actually gain.

When I was a newlywed, my father-in-law died unexpectedly.  With less than 2 months of marriage under my belt, I felt ill-prepared to play the mature role of wife to the aggrieved.

Husband and I were supposed to be figuring out little things like how to co-exist, compromise, and negotiate whether one should squeeze a toothpaste tube from the middle or roll it up from the bottom.  Instead, we were thrust into decisions and actions that catapulted us past the fun frivolity of young adulthood.

In hindsight, the events of that summer were serendipitous.  Being immersed in grief, Husband and I had no inclination to trifle with each other.  When peers voiced their stage-appropriate struggles and discoveries, I would listen with the ears of an outsider, unable to relate.  From my new perspective, there were much bigger things in life than, life.

The blessings amidst loss are difficult to see.  Even with an open heart and willing mind, clarity may never arrive.  The darkness surrounding grief is thick and impossible to penetrate with the naked eye.  If one has any hope of experiencing the full range of possibilites, one must abandon conventional thinking and principled resistance.

In situations such as school shootings, it’s tempting to stir the pot of grief with anger, regret, and demands for retribution.  We want someone to ‘pay’ for our loss.  When it hurts so badly that it’s too much to bear, we share the pain, hoping it will make us feel better.  And sometimes it does.  There’s no greater love than that from another human who can hold our grief, if even for a fleeting moment.

But healing and transformation will never arrive in the midst of hate.  We can’t hear the wisdom within whilst venom is spewing forth.  Anger is a catalyst to be sure.  It can be helpful to light a fire that will enlighten the world.  But true change needs a safe entry-point.  When our intent is to burn those from whom we need help in order to move mountains, we all lose.

It must follow, if one is to go on living after loss, that we pick up the pieces of a shattered delusion of order and justice and put it back together in a way that suits a new paradigm.  This is true no matter the circumstances of loss.  This is one of the gifts to be garnered.

During my recent experience with grief following the loss of Beagle’s 19 year old friend, I found myself privy to a fresh perspective of sorrow.  It was intense and heart-breaking, as one would expect, but it was also magnificent.

Beagle and company filled up an entire church pew, standing shoulder to shoulder in their dress clothes without space enough to slip a piece of paper between them.  Parents stood behind, watching their sons’ bodies tense and tremble, listening to tears flow, and observing, in warp speed, the transformation from boy to man.

These boys, the embodiment of healthful youth, processed through protocol and were received with enthusiasm by their friend’s family.  They toasted the boy who no one had ever seen in a bad mood. They poked fun at their late friend’s expense, just as they would have if he was there with them, solidifying his lasting place in the brotherhood.

The gifts of grieving unfolded with every ritualized, as well as every unscripted, step.  Never was the congruence of love so evident  as it was in this group coming together, supporting each other in grief the same way they bond with each other in celebration.

Life is never the same after we lose a fellow human.  Each puts a personal stamp on the world that cannot be replaced. And there’s no prescription for how to go on living.  But one thing is certain: allowing yourself to experience loss for all its potential will inevitably lead to grace.

Support For A Child In Grief

I didn’t need to answer the phone to know that something was wrong.  Teen sons, in my experience, don’t just call Mom out of the blue.  A trembling voice confirmed my fear – something terrible had happened.  Beagle’s good friend, one of his posse, has died.

I find myself telling the news to everyone I cross paths with – not for any hope of consolation, but rather to solidify the truth.  Repeating the words moves me toward acceptance.  Beagle doesn’t know why, but he’s doing the same thing.  He didn’t want to talk at length about the tragedy, he just wanted to tell me, then hang up the phone and tell the next person and the next, until he could believe what he was saying.

In the hierarchy of horribleness, the passing of a child trumps the list of losses that one could encounter in a lifetime.  Few things are more cruel and bewildering.  When a life is cut far too short, the facade of relative safety and structure that outlines our typical days explodes, leaving us exposed to the elements of reality.  Nothing is guaranteed.  Life does not belong to us.  If it did, we would get to decide when it ended.

I have been around this block before, of course, and I know my way through grief.  But Beagle does not.  He is barely a man-cub and not yet fully versed in love and loss.  The time has come for Husband and I to teach lessons we had hoped would not arise for many years.

We cannot spare our boy any pain.  We can only hold a space for it, allowing it to express itself in any of its wildly varying forms.  We begin to paint a picture of grief, leading by example with unrestrained tears, voiced regrets, and demonstrations of strength and support.

We show and tell Beagle that no matter how mature you become, you will struggle with death.  The very fact that you have dared to love and connect to others means that you will suffer loss.  Try not to hate love for loss.  Try not to hate life for death.  Keep your heart open.  Don’t construct walls where doors should be.  And promise me you won’t subscribe to outdated stereotypes of masculinity.  Real men DO cry.

Beagle, you were meant to cross paths with your friend who left so soon.  The chapter of time with him is done, but the story doesn’t end.  The two of you will eternally be connected.  You will remember him and integrate him into your future with stories and rituals.  You will find ways to honor him.  You will introduce him to people who will never meet him. 

Eventually, happiness will touch your sorrow.  You will smile when you think of your time together instead of feeling drawn into the pit of your belly.  Don’t rush the healing. And don’t prolong it for anyone else’s sake.  Let it evolve in it’s own time.  Trust your heart to guide you. 

We were all lucky to have known this sweet boy.  Thank you, Beagle, for bringing him into our lives.  Know that we are here for you, supporting you as you leave the innocence and carefreeness of your youth behind.  You are now part of a club that no one wants to belong to.  You are far from alone.

How To Stick To A New Year’s Resolution

A woman sat at her desk at 10 a.m. counting the minutes until lunch.  She was staaarrrving, she said, despite the fact that she had eaten breakfast just 2 hours before. Self-deprivation was masquerading as hunger in response to the woman’s decision to give up sugar entirely, thereby prompting her refusal to partake in the customary mid-morning coffee and donut run.

I took a step back in case she decided to take a bite out of my arm.  I’ve seen this level of desperation before.  It follows the January 1st festival of resolution-setting that can create misery amongst otherwise happy, even-tempered humans.

Resolutionists have good intentions to better themselves, but many make the mistake of declaring war instead of transformation and end up embattled with an enemy they can’t defeat.  They decide that they’re somehow failing and they plot a course of action so extreme and unfriendly, they can’t possibly sustain the motivation to pursue lasting positive change.  It’s as if they’re running away from themselves, leaving behind the person they are for the better version they want. 

But we can’t outrun ourselves.  Wherever we go, there we are, judging and shaming and should-ing all over ourselves.  If we fail to prepare properly, we find the journey of self-improvement to be  lonely and impossible.  So we turn back, unable to see it through to the end.  Then, of course, we emerge with a new reason to be disappointed in ourselves.

If we want to create meaningful change, we have to change our personal stories.  Instead of running the script of defeat in which it’s sooooo hard to lose weight, or to break a habit, we begin to introduce compassion. 

In this softer story, we love ourselves enough to change eating habits thoughtfully and gradually; we  resist temptation by showering ourselves with simple comforts and words of encouragement; and we muster up the same patience with ourselves that we would grant to a small child who’s learning a new skill.

The secret to change is love, plain and simple.  (If you snorted bitterly when you read that, take a breath.  It’s truer than true.) When we meet ourselves without anger and resistance, we find compassion instead of contempt.  Via the loving way, we encounter no enemy within, no destructive thought to sabotage our goal.  There is only kindness, pulling us along, picking us up, and making us feel like the better person we want to be.

Change can be difficult, but it doesn’t have to be fatal.  Now that January has come to a close, I hope to find all of my friends in good health and spirits – unbeaten by their own austerity, and unintimidated by the smell of a donut.

He, She, It, They

On my 10th birthday I received the #1 toy on my wish list – a remote control dune buggy.  I recall the rapture of childhood as I steered the car around my house, watching it flip when it hit a wall.  I was in heaven….until an aunt walked in and saw me playing with it.

“What are you, a BOY?” she asked in a trill voice with an unmistakably judgmental tone.

My elation turned to deflation.  That single question bore into my core with the essence of my wrongness – the wrongness of my desires, the wrongness of surrendering to utter happiness, the wrongness of ME.  I had exposed myself without any forewarning and I suffered a painful blow in consequence.  It was no longer safe to be vulnerable.

The sting of this injury to my self-esteem guided me years later when I became a mother.  Determined to do right by my own children, I subscribed to gender-neutral philosophy.  Bedrooms were painted in greens and whites, and toys were chosen for merit – not gender appeal.  A part of me wanted my first-born daughter to like ‘boy toys’ so that I could unabashedly support her in the way that I would have appreciated when I was a child.  But my darling little girl had other ideas.

One of Principessa’s early nicknames was Girly.  This photo might explain why.

Girly expressed her passion for all things pink and glittery in over-the-top style.  One almost got the impression that she had been assaulted by her dress-up box. When given the choice between a toy car or a doll carriage, she opted for the carriage and bedazzled it.

As she grew, Girly continued to live her life mostly within societal expectations for her gender.   Nonetheless, I paraded through parenting carrying a torch I adopted from 1970s feminist, Marlo Thomas. The “Free to Be You and Me” movement saluted values such as individuality, tolerance, and comfort with one’s identity.  I adore this concept and the way in which it was conveyed – through entertainment.  It was a friendly and palatable invitation to broaden limited thinking.

The same may be said about the modern movement to blur gender phraseology – except for the ‘friendly and palatable’ part.  The suggestion, or growing demand, that we alter the use of the pronouns ‘he’ and ‘she’ to ‘they’ or ‘it’, is an attack on long-held grammatical rules. As one linguist said, pronouns are like hardware and not so easily changed as nouns which are more like software.

When one is trying to convey a point, especially one as complex as gender identity, one must make the information user-friendly.  If the audience can’t understand the language, the message is lost.  Such was the case of the student who received an acceptance letter from Brown University that referred to her as they. The girl and her family were understandably confused and off-put.

One can sympathize with those who identify with alternative gender context.  They want to be referred to in a way that feels authentic to them.  If someone called me Sir, I’d take offense because I identify as woman.  We crave self-identification but we loathe labels, especially ones that feel incorrect or offensive.  

It’s clear that binary concepts of gender are outdated, but language structure is not.  Altering language to avoid offending, may be, in theory, a righteous thing to do.  But when it meddles with comprehension and clarity, it looks more like a stunt or a passing fad.

I once knew a man who taught his dog obedience with nonsense words.  The command SIT was KETCHUP.  He had great fun with this, and his dog didn’t care because the intention was understood and unchanging.  But no one else could instruct the dog unless they had first learned the language. 

Words are just a bunch of letters thrown together for the purpose of communication.  They have no meaning except that which we assign to them.  The problem is that humans don’t always agree on meaning. We can get very emotional about words.  

Freedom, evolution, and expansion of the mind change how we think about things so we feel the need to change what we call those things.  But if we cannot agree on language, communication suffers.  If communication deteriorates, society follows suit.  The poet Margaret Atwood said, “War is what happens when language fails.”

Sometimes in war we arrive at the question, “What are we fighting for?”  Is it tolerance we’re seeking by changing the language people use to describe us?  Do we become more tolerant as a result of the language we use?  Or is it the opposite – is respectful language a result of tolerance?

This conundrum is not easily solved.  But one thing is certain, if we communicate with closed fists, we’re bound to propagate the very problem we’re trying to alter – intolerance.  Perhaps, if we focus less on words and more on intention, we will preserve not only our ability to comprehend each other, but our civility as well.

Previous Older Entries

%d bloggers like this: