Letter to University from Mom

collegeBoundDear University,

You are about to receive a gift. We call her Principessa and she is my daughter. To you, she is just a statistic – one set of criteria that met with approval for acceptance into your esteemed institution.

Principessa will be leaving all that she knows to join you several hundred miles from home. She will be on her own for the first time. I don’t expect you to parent her or to take over for me in my absence. But I do expect you to provide her with what she needs to survive and to thrive over the next several years.

I hope you fulfill the promises you made when you wooed her into your fold – a solid education that will lead to job prospects, a safe environment, and ample diversity and opportunities to stimulate her personal growth.

This seems like the least I can ask for my financial investment. Which, by the way, is significantly higher than many of her fellow classmates. For instance, the athlete with the coveted ‘full boat.’ Apparently his physical skills are more highly valued than my daughter’s passion and talent for nurturing children and her long-standing desire to become a teacher.

My husband and I will pay an inflated sticker price for the reward of our daughter’s college education. To say that I’m not bitter or worried about the ability to afford this would be a lie. But I’m willing to bury my negativity in exchange for her ultimate success and happiness.

University, you have no idea how special my daughter is to me. And I get the feeling that you probably don’t care – except for caring that she reflects well on your reputation. Don’t worry, she’ll do you proud, just as she has done for us all these years.

Principessa is one in 17,000 to you, but she is one of a kind to us, her family. Please be good to her. She deserves the best you have to offer.

Sincerely,

Mom of the college Freshman

The Cheating Scandal

confirmationI may be going to hell.

Before I divulge the reason, I wish to make a statement on my own behalf. The following is an account of an isolated incident which has no bearing on my core standards as a parent.

Beagle missed the appointed Religious Education class during which he was meant to take an exam in preparation for receiving the Sacrament of Confirmation. So he had a make-up exam on his own time, in a private room, in which I joined him due to lack of waiting space.

Prior to the test date, I tried in vain to get Beagle to study. In a show of teenage defiance he staunchly refused. So of course he didn’t know the material. Beagle is a good student, unaccustomed to, and uncomfortable with, failing. Sweat beaded on his forehead and his leg started tapping nervously.

In my hand was the study guide that had been provided. It asked for lists: 10 commandments, 5 precepts, 7 sacraments….on and on. As I looked over the questions, I realized that I, a lifelong Catholic with a parochial school education, would struggle with this test. On the spot I made a radical decision to slip the answers to Beagle.

Pause for gasps and harsh judgment.

Did she just admit to helping her son cheat on a religious exam?!

Indeed I did.

Husband and I decided long ago that we would raise well-informed, well-rounded little people. This included a plan to study and practice religion within the parameters of our faith. We also agreed that it is foolhardy to expect them to embrace it any more than they embrace quadratic equations. Both are full of unknown variables and require a level of understanding that taxes the brain.

Beagle has been struggling in his faith. He likes to provoke me by claiming atheism.

“How can you quit on God when you’ve barely met Him?” I ask.

Despite his resistance, Beagle decided to go through with Confirmation. He took the name of St. Thomas because Thomas was a doubter, too.

The bishop started his homily with words of encouragement to all the parents, grandparents and godparents in attendance. He said, “You will not be judged by your child’s adherence – (or lack thereof) – to his faith…..You have done what you could. Now it’s up to him.”

I could be wrong, but I think the bishop looked directly at me and bestowed an absolution for my collusion in the cheating scandal.

When all was said and done, I quizzed Beagle. I needed one last attempt to affirm that he had learned something about religion in the past 16 years. “Just tell me, in your own words, what the Church wants you to know about being a good person.”

Beagle replied, “Don’t diss your parents. Don’t smack talk your neighbor. Don’t cheat on your wife or your god if you have one. Don’t kill, steal or do other things you know are wrong. And go to church every once in a while.”

I think he got the gist of it.

Sixteen

16If you weren’t a sixteen year old boy and embarrassed by me, your uncool mother, I would dance in the car like I used to and you’d join me.  We’d purposely embarrass ourselves and laugh at the reaction of others.

If you weren’t sixteen you wouldn’t hide in your bedroom.  You’d seek me out to share stories and jokes and music with me – like old times.

If you weren’t sixteen I’d compliment you and you’d believe me.  You’d hug me and not get antsy when I say ‘I love you.’

If you weren’t sixteen you’d admit that you get scared sometimes and would look to me for comfort.  You’d ask my opinion and not have to pretend that my words of wisdom mean nothing.

If you weren’t sixteen, you wouldn’t wear a perma-scowl to appear less sensitive than you are.  You’d allow yourself to feel.

But you are sixteen, like I once was.  I know what’s underneath that tough exterior of yours – the same generous heart, humorous spirit, and killer personality that I fell in love with so many years ago.  When you’re not sixteen anymore, these hidden gems will resurface.  People will marvel at the man you’ve become.  “Who knew?” they’ll remark.  A knowing smile will cross my lips, betraying my secret.  “I knew.” I will say.  A mother always knows.

 

Can I Be Without It?

An elderly client asked me to ‘wait just a minute’ because she couldn’t go out without her lipstick.  I chuckled at her vanity.  The very next day, after an early morning workout at the gym, I discovered that I’d forgotten my toiletry bag and had to go to work sans makeup and moisturizer.  Mortified.

I wasted a lot of energy that day on self-consciousness, half expecting people to gasp at the sight of me or politely look away in horror.  On the contrary.  I was alarmed that no one seemed to notice.

The experience had me thinking about all the silly things we’re attached to:  beauty products, habits, routines, opinions, feelings….So I posed a question to myself, ‘Can I be without it?’ and decided to experiment with letting go.

  • Husband kicked off my experiment by backing into something with my brand new car.  Can  I be without anger?
  • I rushed through my day, inner metronome beating faster than a clock.  Can I be without hurried steps and racing thoughts?
  • A Sudoku puzzle got the best of me.  Can I be without success?
  • The smartphone battery died.  Can I be without my Lifeline of communication?
  • I shared a fitting room with my teen daughter at the mall and noticed my aging form.  Can I be without self-criticism?

It might have been easier to leap a tall building in a single bound than drop the things I grasp onto for dear life.

Ekhart Tolle points out that, “Sometimes letting go is an act of far greater power than defending or hanging on.”  It doesn’t make logical sense, yet it’s true.

Peach agrees.  In one week she lost her beloved piano teacher to retirement, dear friends to a move, and a run for class president.  A whole lot of loss for a tween.  I offered the ‘everything works out for the best’ phrase and other unhelpful clichés, but given my own struggle with releasing, I was less than convincing.

Recently I’ve been watching my father, who appears older than his 78 years, fade away.  He is confronting a rapid loss of control over his mind and body.  Can he be without the persona of strength and resilience that provided the scaffolding for his family?  Can I?

Our attachments tether us and keep us from living unencumbered lives.  The degree to which we feel the pain of loss is the degree to which we have bound ourselves.  Perhaps the purpose is not to learn to be without the things we’ve adopted, but rather to be free of them, so that when they do pull away from us, it doesn’t hurt so much.  We could notice, without resistance, the point of attachment – the place where we’ve welded ourselves to an idea of who we are and what makes us whole – and not let it tear us apart.

The simple wisdom that states, ‘You can’t take it with you when you die.’ is universally applicable.  We can’t take our hopes and sorrows any more than we can take the material goods we’ve amassed.  So why hold on at all?  Why not prepare for the Big Letting Go right now so that when the time comes we can breathe our final breath with peace?

The truth is, I cannot stop loss.  But I can enjoy freedom if I remember that I can be, and someday will be, without whatever ‘it’ is.

Father of the Year

hammock (2)I made a mistake – the kind that hurts the people you love.  It happened when I got lazy with my words and insulted husband in front of our daughters.  It started innocently with a conversation about Principessa’s birthday request last year – to take a surfing lesson with Dad.  Neither had surfed before but husband easily picked up the skill, like most agility-related things he tries.  Peach remarked that she’d like to learn to surf and would like to take a lesson.  “No need,”  her sister remarked, “Dad can teach you.  He was really good.”  To which I absentmindedly replied, “Maybe not.  He’s a horrible teacher.”  Ouch.

Husband got angry.  I got defensive.  Later that night, having managed to strip myself of stubborn pride, I sat us all down for an apology.  It was a teachable moment at my expense about taking responsibility for one’s words and attitudes.  All this to say that my transgression made me reflect on husband with less of an ‘I’ve been married for 19 years and have earned the right to say what I want’ mentality, and more of a compassionate ‘Look at the magnificent man I just threw crap at!”  (This, the same man who tried to teach me to snowboard and almost knocked my teeth out with his knee, which is why  I say he’s a terrible teacher.  But I digress.)

Husband is the man who, when accused by the teenaged Principessa of being disconnected from her, Googled articles on fathers and daughters to better understand how to mend their relationship from her point of view.  Despite his efforts, Principessa holds tight to her assessment.  I’m led to believe by parenting experts that this is normal separation-type behavior and completely age-appropriate.  Whatever, it’s still frustrating.

Because Principessa doesn’t know what a great dad she has. I’m fairly certain that my father didn’t research ways to connect better with me. The parenting standards were different.  An elderly friend offered this generational divide – she said she had a good father, one who didn’t drink alcohol and didn’t beat her.  Oh yes, and he didn’t give her away when her Mom died.  Lucky girl.

When Principessa pulled her wild card – the one that reminds us that she has only one year left in our house before college so we better appreciate her  – husband called her bluff.  He proposed a year-long commitment between the two of them.  During the 52 weeks until Principessa graduates, they would commit to one day per week to do something together – just the two of them.  He did the math out loud, “That’s 26 ideas apiece. Sunday nights.  You and me.”

It sounded a bit like husband was challenging Principessa to a street fight, but she accepted the terms nonetheless.  I sensed nervousness on both sides.

As you can imagine, it’s been a rough start.  Finding time is always a challenge.  But neither are willing to surrender.  They bake together, go out for ice cream, exercise….and they sometimes argue.  But at the end of the day, they’ve made a deposit into their relationship bank account.

I suspect that the significance of husband’s efforts will bounce fruitlessly off of Prinicipessa’s  surly attitude.  Like a typical teen, she’d die before she’d release her claims that Dad is uncool.  Lucky for him, teenhood is not a permanent condition.  I envision a day – far, far, away – when Principessa will reflect on this time with appreciation.  “We had such fun!” she’ll say.  Husband will repress his desire to strangle her and will reply, “Why yes, we did.  We always had fun.”

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Happy Mother’s Day To Me

Peach,Beagle,PrincipessaDear kids,

Remember me, if you must, as the mother who bombed as the Tooth Fairy, did just okay with the Easter Bunny, and outright refused to entertain the idea of a mischievous Leprechaun.

Remember, if you must, that I ran perpetually late and occasionally showed up in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Remember, if you must, that I struggled to contain my temper, cursed a little too much, and failed in the doting nursemaid realm.

But if you insist on remembering these things, remember also that I never said ‘no’ to the building of a fort, a party idea, or a wild haircut.

Remember that I encouraged you to create, even if it meant sacrificing 250 paper cups and several rolls of tape.

And know that I never lied about loving your creations – every last one- because you are a miracle to me.

You expect a lot of me, as you should; any mother worth her salt accepts this.  But she never promises to be everything to her child – only a really good someone who tried really hard.

Despite my most earnest efforts, you will complain about me to your friends, roll your eyes at me, and remind me of my mistakes in parenting.  And I will remind you that you made mistakes too.  We will laugh about it all and sit down to a game of cards, because that’s our style.

I adore you, my children, in a way that is beyond description.  I treasure what we have together.  Motherhood is the best thing I’ve ever done.  Thank you for giving me that title.

Love,

Mom

City Girl In The Country: Lost – My Messy Beautiful

Lost. My Messy BeautifulHusband says I can get lost in my own backyard. He exaggerates. The fact that I couldn’t find my way home from Peach’s dance class when we first moved to the country and had to call him to send up a flare, is not ample evidence. To a city girl, everything looks the same in the woods.

Fortunately, I’m not afraid to ask for directions. Like the time at the hardware store when the kindly gentleman employee, noticing my bewilderment, asked if he could help me. “Yes,” I gratefully replied. “I’m looking for caulk.”  The stunned, red-faced man led me silently to aisle 5.

Life is a maze – one in which I am frequently befuddled. And scared. Sometimes it seems that there is no difference between the middle-aged me and the eight year old me who cried her way through an amusement park after getting stuck in the glass maze. Or the teenage me on the first day of Sophomore year in a new school who burst into tears from the stress of being the new kid in a paralyzing scene of adolescent frenzy.

Perhaps this explains why a girl who failed Geography is addicted to maps and has a pet name for her GPS. And why my favorite job in college was Orientation Guide – leading packs of overwhelmed families through the labyrinth of an urban University Campus. Guiding is the antithesis of being lost.

When I see a panicked child in a store or a dog wandering the streets, I cannot rest until it is reunited with its family. Helping the lost is akin to reaching out the hand that knows what it’s like to tremble with fear and grasping another to steady it.

One day, I found a boy at the beach who was clearly too young to be alone. I detained the happy little chap until his mother arrived on the scene, frantic. Scooping him up, she admonished him for wandering off. His precious rebuttal to her fear was, “I not lost, Momma. I right here.” Clever lad. He knew that wherever he went, there he was. Why waste time worrying about where you’re supposed to be when the place you’re at is so magnificent?

I’m sure it’s magical for some people, like Husband, to explore the unknown and find his own way. Say, for example, in Disney World. But for those of us in need of a plan, there are at least three books that one might read on how to negotiate this particular adventure with efficiency. If these two very different people attempt to vacation together, they might argue a lot and vow never to vacation together again. Not that this happened to me. Just sayin’.

In the Adventure Park of Life, if given the choice, I opt for the guided tour. And I know I’m not alone. When I Google ‘How to deal with anger,’ I don’t even have to finish typing the sentence before several of the most frequently requested answers pop up. People want to KNOW. They don’t want to struggle.

That being said, I’ve learned to appreciate uncertainty and to find the humor in feeling lost.   Because the truth is, I’ve never not been found. When I was lost in sorrow, love found me. When I was lost in chaos, clarity found me.

Life, it turns out, is not the terrifying place I imagined. Writing about it reminds me of this. When I find myself confused about life’s challenges, writing sheds light on the internal compass, which is a heck of a lot more interesting to follow than a real compass. It takes me to places I never knew existed. And then, of course, I want to lead others to these places. So I share my thoughts with you and hope that the little match I’ve lit will light your way too.

Henry David Thoreau said, “Not until we are lost do we begin to understand ourselves.” He is smarter than Husband who tells me, “You’re hopeless without a map.” But Husband is cuter and has a tremendous sense of direction. When we married, my first choice for our wedding song was Follow Me Follow You by Genesis. Husband said it was too hard to dance to. But I think the real issue was his disagreement with the ‘I will follow you’ part. He was understandably nervous, given my track record.

My lost-ness is a well-honed skill. I rather excel at it. It’s not much to brag about, but I’m sort of attached to it.

 

This essay and I are part of the Messy, Beautiful Warrior Project — To learn more and join us, CLICK HERE! And to learn about the New York Times Bestselling Memoir Carry On Warrior: The Power of Embracing Your Messy, Beautiful Life, just released in paperback, CLICK HERE!

 

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The Old Shoe

 

I am an old shoe, shoved to the back of the closet, worn thin and out of style.  But in my hay-day I was really something.  Your consideration of my needs will polish me and help me to shine again.

 

I am slowing, not fading.  Please give me time to catch up.

I am needy, but not helpless.  Allow me to do what I can, and trust me when I say ‘I can’t.’

I am dull in senses but not without feeling.  Be gentle with me.

I am less clear mentally, but not stupid.  Treat me with respect.

I am fearful, but still hopeful.  Protect me and my remaining dreams.

I have less bodily control, but no less dignity.  Shield me from embarrassment and teach me things in a way that doesn’t diminish me.

I value the old ways that defined my youth.  Please don’t invalidate my long-held  beliefs.

You cannot expect me to be who I was. I am changed.  But I have not lost ‘it’ and you have not lost me.  I am still the mother who carried babies, the man who supported a family, the person who achieved and gave generously of resources.  I’m a little more crusty and vague, I admit.  But I am still valuable.   I hope you see that too.

 

This post is dedicated to the clients whom I am privileged to work with every day.  And to aging people everywhere.

Good Morning, Monday

keep-calm-and-love-mondayGood morning, Tiredness.  Hello Bad Mood.  Greetings, Schedule That Makes Me Cringe.  I’ve barely opened my eyes and there you are waiting for me.  How did you get in again?  Did I leave the door open?  I’ve got to remember to lock it when I go to bed.

You creatures are like a cold draft blowing through the cracks of my house.  I shiver and shudder at the feel of you and roll over to pretend it’s still dream time.  But you don’t leave.  You get increasingly loud, demanding that I rise and start the week.

Listen up.  I want you to wait outside the door.  You can’t be gathering at the foot of my bed like this.  I’m likely to trip over you and hurt myself.  I need some space in the dark of the early morning.  If you’d step aside, I might be able to peel myself off the pillow and proceed with my morning.  Making this body move is hard enough without you getting in the way.  Shoo.  Away with you.  I want to get off on the right foot.

I close my eyes tight and wish like a child for the demons to be gone when I open them again.  Someone save me.

Oh, hello Gratitude – my knight in shining armor.  Slay my dragons and whisk me away.

“You are not paralyzed.  You have the ability to move on your own.”  Grateful.

“You have a job and a home and food to eat.”  Grateful.

“You are fortunate to have lived another day.  It is a gift.”  Grateful.

Thus, Gratitude pulls me up and leads me out of the nightmare of Monday.  It splashes water in my face and opens my eyes to what’s really happening.  A day.  That’s all.  Not a nightmare.  Not a curse.  Just a day.  Seize it.

Oh, the tricks I have to play to ward off negativity.  It blows through the cracks in my soul like the cold winter wind.  Perhaps if I caulk the spaces with enough gratitude,  I can insulate myself against the pain of it’s bite.  It’s all I can hope for.  Monday mornings, like the New England winter, aren’t going away anytime soon.

The Mountains We Climb

mount washingtonAfter only half an hour on the trail leading up Mt. Washington, ten year old Peach began asking the dreaded question, ‘Are we there yet?’  Her siblings were hedging bets that she wouldn’t make it.  We’re not a hiking family and this is the highest elevation in the Northeast.  Thinking myself clever, I advised, “It’s all a mind game. Harnessing your negative thoughts is the only way to get through this.” As it turns out, I was the one who needed to wrangle my mind.

When a young couple with a toddler caught my attention, I registered a pang of inadequacy that plagued me for the entire climb.  In early motherhood, I thought  I would be the kind of mother who effortlessly carried toddlers in backpacks while climbing mountains. Suffice it to say that one attempt was enough.  I had that backpack sold faster than I could throw it in the basement.

So when I encountered this mother on the mountain, effortlessly hauling her child,  I hated her.   While I struggled on all fours to negotiate a treacherous precipice, she climbed upright teaching her daughter the alphabet in two languages!  The more she and her family giggled, the more I seethed.

It’s understandable, isn’t it, that when my teen daughter claimed this woman as her hero, I wanted to push the woman off the mountain. Ugly, ugly thoughts consumed me.  It was as if this woman materialized for the sole purpose of making me feel bad.  Even though I’m quite certain that she didn’t mean to reduce me to a puddle of self-loathing and jealousy, it did feel as if she was climbing the mountain AT me.

At the outset, I had expected to wrestle with doubts about my fitness.  After all, the last time I climbed this mountain, I was 20 years younger.  But this level of negativity was a surprise.  Thinking myself somewhat mature and grounded, I was unprepared for the meltdown of my self-esteem.

It took me days to get over my animosity toward that harmless woman on the mountain.  And even longer to get make peace with my disappointment in myself.   Which reminds me of a Zen story.

Two monks were on a pilgrimage. One day, they came to a deep river. At the edge of the river, a young woman sat weeping, because she was afraid to cross the river without help. She begged the two monks to help her. The younger monk turned his back. The members of their order were forbidden to touch a woman.

But the older monk picked up the woman without a word and carried her across the river. He put her down on the far side and continued his journey. The younger monk came after him, scolding him and berating him for breaking his vows. He went on this way for a long time.

Finally, at the end of the day the older monk turned to the younger one. “I only carried her across the river. You have been carrying her all day.”

I’m happy to say that I’ve finally put the woman down.  I forgive her for accomplishing something I couldn’t.  And I forgive myself for being envious.  Having taken a few steps back, I can see the ‘mountain’ of gifts I’ve received from this experience.  Not least of which is the reminder that comparing oneself to others is dangerous business.

I often marvel at husband and his triathlete friends who, at the end of an extraordinary race, make excuses for why they didn’t do better, or as well as the next person.  Tama Kieves says, “Many of us burn for validation, string the moon up in the sky to get it, yet treat our own triumphs like used paper plates after the picnic….Celebrate the you that attempted the journey.”

Jealousy, self-criticism, hate…..THESE are the mountains we climb on a regular basis.  These are the mountains we need to  conquer.

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