Summer in Two Words

plentiful sun. windows open. outdoor play.

buh-bye winter.

big plans. endless excitement. animated discussions.

hello fun.

extended days. beach time. ice cream.

sunburned skin.

slower pace. faster season. more vacation.

deep breaths.

college kids. increased mess. more chaos. 

oh well.

full family. contented mama. happy dog.

smiles abound.

active kids. hungry family. empty refrigerator.

weekly watermelon.

waning time. school-year looming. anxious anticipation.

scheduled life.

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.

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.

Big Girls Should Cry

Friend is a self-described control freak and I love her for it.  I adore a person who’s self-aware and can be unapologetically true to herself.

‘Control’ works for Friend.  It makes her feel safe.  She knows how to stay in her comfort zone so she’ll operate at optimal capacity.  For the most part, this works well for our friendship. Until….Friend’s controlling tendencies cause her to suffer.  Then I, in my emotion-loving, demonstrative Italian way, need to step in.

As a controller, Friend doesn’t cry.  Ever.  She likes to tell herself that she doesn’t need to.  But I don’t buy that hogwash for a second.  Friend is forthcoming about her predisposition to ulcers.  And she makes her own association between stuffing down negative, raw feelings and the resultant deterioration of her innards.  I encourage her to let it all out but this is like asking a zebra to shed its stripes.  It feels too naked and vulnerable.

Sometimes, when Friend is moved by emotion and I hear the feeling creeping up in her trembly voice, I poke the sensitivity for her, hoping that the tears will find their tipping point. But Friend is a master represser who doesn’t yet trust in the beauty of unbridled expression.

I won’t give up on her because I want her to enjoy the All-Access Pass to Life.  I want to help her see the depth and beauty that lies below the surface of the happy human experience. 

This sounds macabre.  But in truth, the realm of darkness balances the lightness of life.  It provides a broader range within which we can explore the vastness that might otherwise be limited by our own fear of discovery.

Life is like an amusement park with benign kiddie rides as well as thrill rides.  If we choose to sit on a bench watching wistfully as the more daring park-goers ride the Tower of Terror, we might feel safe and content but we’re shorting ourselves the full experience.  If we eschew our own emotional roller coasters such as grief, depression or loss, we miss the thrill of having conquered the entire range of emotions at our disposal.  We become observers on the sidelines of our own life, not daring to dive into our limits.

When I rode my first upside-down roller coaster at 40 years old, I nearly fainted from fear.  But the feeling quickly passed and was replaced with immense satisfaction in having allowed myself to participate.  The same response happened during my first public speaking event, and my wedding, and every other situation in which I am the center of attention.  Our rollercoasters are everywhere. 

Unlike me, being in the limelight is a safe zone for Friend.  But feeling and expressing downbeat emotion is her roller coaster.  I have to remind her sometimes that no one actually ‘cries their eyes out.’  And that if she ‘breaks down and cries’ she won’t actually break.  She will simply bust through the barrier that has been holding in all the hurt.

I propose a reciprocal fear-conquering goal for myself and Friend.  One day, I will put myself in front of a large public gathering to tell a heartfelt personal story, and she will sit in the audience, moved to tears, begging for tissues, because she refuses to stop crying until she is spent.  Afterwards, we will both feel shell-shocked and nauseated, but we will have each other to lean on.  When we recover, we will toast to our bravery, then, most likely, we’ll head back to our comfort corners where I will observe on the outskirts and she will smile her way through distress.  But at least we’ll be able to say that we defied our demons and lived to tell about it. 

Growing Pains

Friend is facing her first experience of launching a child off to college and is beginning to do the mother-bird scramble.

“Should I be doing something?”  she asked with a slight hint of panic.  “Did I forget to give my son some sort of key family experience?  Will he grow up and say ‘you never did this with me….’?”

I laughed out loud because this is what friends do when they’re smug about already having moved through a parenting stage that a girlfriend is struggling with.

“It’s simple,” I told her.  “No, you shouldn’t be trying to make up for missed opportunities.  Because yes, your son will tell you that you short-changed him in childhood – no matter what hoops you’ve jumped through to make his life spectacular.”

Knowing this doesn’t stop us parents from trying to over-provide as we send our babies out into the world.  For yours truly, sending my second child off to college this year, my un-nesting ritual included a trip to the pharmacy to prepare an insanely sophisticated First Aid kit, the likes of which could patch up a wounded soldier on the front lines of war; one who also suffers from cold, flu, sunburn, allergies and bug bites.

Let’s face it, this milestone is big-huge for parents, not just kids.  We want to make sure that we’ve checked all the boxes.

When our babies were small, we had growth charts that told us if they were getting what they needed.  Then we had academic progress reports to inform us.  What nebulous system, besides coming of age, do we use to reassure us that they’re adequately prepared to be solo in the big wide world?

We know, deep down, that all will be well.  But we may also secretly fear that our child will crash and burn.  And worse, that it will be our fault – a result of some failing on our part.

This is a rabbit hole that my mind has fallen into more than once.  Like earlier this summer when I determined that 14 year old Peach didn’t have enough structured activity to keep her from melting in to a lazy pile of teenaged decay.  In short, I panicked and began arranging to-do lists for her to complete.  I lectured her about the balance between work and play, giving and receiving.  And I admonished her for her resistance to my lessons.

“The only time you’re growing is when you’re uncomfortable.” I told her, stealing wisdom from a blog I had read that day.

“Uncomfortable?!” she repeated.  Check.  Double check.  We were both miserable thanks to my reactionary measures.

So goes the learning process.  I’m still growing too.

Friend and I poked fun at ourselves, which always serves to lessen the growing pains.  We decided that our misguided fears about parenting are borne of the immense love we have for our children. 

Love and fear are catastrophically intertwined.  It is these two reasons, only these two, that drive all of our actions.

I give to my child because I love him AND I fear that he will suffer without my support.

I withhold from my child because I love him and I fear that he will be spoilt.

Same. Same.

I tried to explain this to Peach by way of an apology.  “If I get crazy, you’re allowed to ask me what I’m afraid of.” 

Peach might just be brave enough to confront me with my own fear.  If she does, I promised to be okay with the discomfort, because I’m told that if one masters discomfort, one can master anything.

There’s plenty of discomfort on my doorstep as a parent of three, and letting go has been challenging.  But I think, overall, I’m doing pretty well with it.

Where a Parent Really Is During Graduation

In a few days my son will graduate from High School and I won’t be there.  Well, physically I will be.  But I can’t account for my mind.  It will be wandering across acres of memories, reconstructing a captivating story of the boy we called Beagle.

Regular readers will recall that my boy-raising road was paved with its share of challenges.  But as it happens when one reaches the end of a worthwhile journey, the recollection of events, once digested, magically morphs into a more palatable version of a fairytale, complete with villains, heroes, and happy endings.

It’s only in hindsight that we’re able to connect dots that were laid down like a breadcrumb trail, solely for the purpose of finding our way back to that place we started in where pure, unadulterated love between parent and child reigned.

In real-time, when a child of ours declares his hate for his parents, we might crumble in despair.  When he fails a class, we might worry. When he suffers an injustice at the hands of a friend, we feel the hurt tenfold.  But when we watch him graduate amidst the pomp and circumstance, we see the culmination of all the horrifying and glorifying circumstances that brought him to this point.  The big picture in review makes sense.  He had to struggle some, and we had to suffer some in order to arrive at this moment of sweet relief and joy.

When one’s child graduates, there is a strange phenomenon of vulnerability that occurs during which any incident may elicit a poignant memory.  As this is not my first ‘Mother of a Graduate’ season, I recognize and welcome the anticipatory swell of emotions that shows up at random, unpredictable times.  Whilst bakery clerks may be caught off-guard by a suddenly tearful woman staring foggily into a pastry case because she’s thinking of the precious boy who used to accompany her there for treats, I am blissfully unaffected by my state of emotional undress.  There’s just no telling what catalyst will set off the waterworks in the weeks surrounding the launching of a child, and one can’t be bothered with corralling all those feelings.

Husband recognizes that I’m off-center and, wisely, doesn’t try to talk me out of tears.  Instead, we reminisce about our shared history with Beagle as if we’re discussing something that happened in the span of a day.  We talk about the tender way our son loved his dog and grieved its passing; the summer he patiently taught his sister how to ride a bike and dive into a swimming pool; the funny time at the store when the cashier handed him change and he pressed it back into her hand while whispering, grandma-style, ‘Go buy yourself an ice cream.’

These memories sustain us. The pits and peaks, the joy and pain are equal parts of the perfection.  It’s a mind-boggling miracle, really, this people-raising gig.  Somehow, the process unfolds exactly as it should, every time, resulting in unparalleled fulfillment of life.

Husband, insensitive creature that he is, presents a metaphor that brings me to my knees.  “Beagle’s life,” he explains, “is a train ride that we were on.  We’ve arrived at our stop.  It’s time to let him continue on without us.”  I envision myself on a train station platform, handkerchief waving and heart aching as my baby boy disappears around the bend. 

Husband tries comforting me with more analogies which only serves to open the wound.  He suggests that we’ve programmed the GPS up to this point, but now it’s Beagle’s turn to set the destination.  Lucky for us, he has proven that he’s competent in finding his way and surviving the inevitable travails of an adventure. Like the time when he and his friends decided to buy an old camper and take it to a concert for the weekend with less than $50 between them in their pockets.  I’ll leave the details to the imagination, but allow me to emphasize the point that Beagle did not once feel the need to call his parents for assistance.

Beagle will not likely recall his life the way I do. He may never understand how how his choices worried me, how his humor rescued me, or how his questions entertained me.  He won’t know how I doubted myself at every juncture and prayed continuously for guidance.  This is all ok with me, as long as he knows that he was, is, and always will be loved beyond measure.

The time has finally come for Beagle to claim the independence he has craved since before he could walk.  I have no choice but to trust that he’s ready.  As I sit amidst a crowd of loved ones at the graduation ceremony, I will share mutual pangs of longing for days gone by, coupled with indescribable satisfaction in present time.  Husband and I will squeeze each other’s hands a little too tightly, in order to balance the feeling of releasing our hold on the son we love so very, very much.

When all is said and done, after the diploma and handshakes and hugs, I will be replete and wrung out like a wet rag that was saturated with years of uncertainty and gratification during which I raised a young man.  My map of the parenting experience will be updated. The drama will fade and my prior concerns may seem silly.  All that will be left is appreciation for the gift of this child, this marvel who appears before me in a new light.

Pills, Pot, Profanity and Parenting

As I was leaving a parenting presentation at the local school on the topic of ‘Drugs, Alcohol, and the Teenage Brain,’ I caught up with a fellow mother of a teen boy.  We commiserated in hushed whispers about the pessimistic message of the presenter, fearing that an unintended ear would hear our true confessions. We know that our boys use substances that are frowned upon by social standards, aka laws, and we have learned to tolerate it – somewhat.

Call it self-preservation – or something more judgmental and harsh if you wish.  But don’t mistake it for ignorance, negligence, or lack of caring.  Countless conversations, teaching moments, threats, punishments and bribes have been employed at our discretion over 18 years.  And still, here we are, facing the dilemma of how to keep our kids on the straight and narrow.

When we begin the parenting journey in blissful naivete, we actually believe that we have control over how our kids turn out.  As if children ‘turn out’ – like a soufflé.  With thoughtful intention and unproven parenting prowess, we create a recipe for ourselves, certain that if we follow every instruction carefully, our result will be perfect, or at least predictable.  Plans shmams.

The illusion begins to deconstruct as early as the first tantrum when our little cherub learns to express his discontent.  It progresses to backtalk, profanity, sneaky behavior, lying….any rebellion that helps a child begin the natural separation from parent.  ‘Psychological differentiation’ they call it – an academic way to describe the tug of war between parent and evolving child.  If kids aren’t testing their boundaries, they’re not growing.

A professional colleague had a son who was delinquent and derelict by all accounts.  The mother, an educated and compassionate soul, endured a years-long struggle to set him straight.    Certain that she had failed as a mother, she all but gave up hope of him ever pulling himself together. The boy, a late bloomer you might say, transformed his life in his 30s and went on to study law enforcement.  He is now a judge.  I’ll bet he’s a cracker-jack judge, having had all that experience on the other side of the law.  I also bet that prior to his current career, there was plenty of gossip about how the boy ‘turned out’.  And lots of judgment about his parents, too.

Another friend has a brother who started smoking pot at the age of 14.  He wouldn’t quit until he decided that becoming a pilot was more important.  The point is this: the lives of our children are not about what we want for them.  It’s about what they want, when they want it. 

This is a hard pill to swallow for a conscientious parent. Parents are under pressure to produce a product that will pass quality control.  But to some degree, our real motivation is to satisfy our own need to have a child who makes us proud, or at the very least, doesn’t shame us. We want the ease of not  having to worry about the stability, safety, or success of our children.  We don’t want to be reminded that they are their own beings who have every right to make choices – good ones and bad ones. 

Long ago my son refused GPS tracking, aka Parent Stalking.  Thank goodness.  It has forced me to trust or to worry blindly – just like my parents did without the benefit (or curse) of constant contact.  When I feel the need to check in, I text the one question that summarizes my intent:  “Are you happy and safe?”  That’s really what I want to know.  More importantly, that’s what I want my son to ask himself.  I want him to check in with his own heart and mind.  If the answer to either of those questions is ‘no’, ADJUST COURSE.  I’ve found that the asking is enough to let him know that he is loved and that I’m here for him.

My threshold for alarm is raised quite high since the early days when I worried about kids not eating vegetables to the the present concerns of kids making choices about risky behavior.  Case in point, when teen son opened the pantry cabinet and found an array of delicious and very un-nutritious snack food, he turned to me in shock, grinning from ear to ear.  “You’ve given up, haven’t you?” he asked with delight.  “That deserves a hug!”  I accepted the hug with the same level of gleeful appreciation with which my son cracked open his bag of chips.

Sometimes our parenting doctrine gets in the way of our evolution.  It becomes a god we worship ritualistically without question.  At some point we must loosen the reigns simply because they become too hard to hold on to.  Which usually means that it’s exactly the right time to let go. 

This year I accompanied my son to the voting polls for the first time, where he cast his own vote based on his own thought process.  He was also called for jury duty and could be part of determining another person’s fate.  In the eyes of the law, he is mostly his own young man.  He knows his current mind, and his thoughts are valid, if not in line with my own.  He is experiencing his expanding heart.  He is living with his raging hormones.  And none of it begs me to interfere or to impose outdated restrictions.  It asks for freedom to live.

Wise adults tell children that they were placed on earth to shine their own light.  What if your child’s light is less like a lighthouse and more like a bonfire?  What if the very purpose of his life, the hope he gives, comes so far down the road that you can’t see it?  Maybe it’s in a form that you don’t yet recognize.  Maybe he is shining his light already but you can’t see past your disapproval of personality or behavior.

After all these years I have less certainty than I did before I became a parent.  Much of what I thought I knew was best for my children was misguided because it was based on my own ideas from my own life.  It turns out that ‘best’ is a nebulous and evasive concept.

We simply cannot know what is best for anyone but ourselves.  This doesn’t mean we don’t try to impart our wisdom or enforce rules that make our lives sane.  But we must remember that parenting is part of a bigger dance – one in which every child has the right to be his or her unique self, whether we like it or not.

Previous Older Entries

%d bloggers like this: