A Letter To My College Graduate

Dear daughter,

Sometimes I gaze at you – a beautiful, kind, mature young woman on the doorstep of adulthood – and I wonder what I did to deserve you.  I recall the work of child-rearing sharply enough – the disciplining, advising, nurturing and consoling.  But how it amounted to the miracle of you is a mystery. 

You exceed any dream I could possibly have had.  When you were born I tried to imagine who and what you would become, how I would support you, how I would fail you, and why life chose to put us together. But none of my predictions came close to describing all that unfolded.

I find myself wanting to reflect on our years together the way one wants to re-read a favorite story over and over.  Even the strenuous parts capture my attention in a way that they didn’t the first time around because I know where the story is headed and how crucial every morsel is to the overall theme.

I see how the world is better because of you.  I see how the future needs you.  And I see that despite my efforts to show you, you don’t fully realize how valuable you are. 

Graduation is an opportunity to indulge my desire to love you out loud.  In concert with mothers everywhere, I proclaim my pride along with my gratitude for having had the privilege of raising a child.

Life must be smiling at itself for the job it’s done in creating you, us, all of it.  Especially the love that perpetuates between us, filling the world with wonder.

As you make your way into the next chapter, far from my reach, know that there is nowhere you can go that my love can’t follow.  I will be right here, holding a space in my heart that was carved out just for you.

Try not to begrudge the loss of the familiarity that you hold so dear.  Keep moving forward in the way that you do, with a zest to experience everything, knowing that nothing is meant to last forever.

All that life wants from you is to say ‘yes’ to that which draws you out and brings you joy.  May you find what you desire, and be alert to the surprises that await you.

Love,

Mom

Stumbling Onto Mindfulness

I dreamed of a sinkhole the size of a lake opening up in front of my car,  leaving no way to get around it.  It wasn’t at all clear what I should do.  It never is when you’re confronted with a mammoth-sized crisis – which is exactly what’s happening in my waking life.

When one is in the middle of mayhem, it’s easy to feel helpless. Nevertheless, one must put on her big-girl panties and deal with the business at hand.  When she does, she may discover a secret hiding in the darkness.

Being forced to deal with an enormous problem is a crash-course in mindfulness.  The sheer size of the obstacle obstructs my view so that I am unable to notice anything else.  That which would normally distract or annoy me – the traffic, the dishes left in the sink….has no power.  I am here.  Now.

Here, in this very moment, is where peace resides.  Not in the future or the past.  Even if the present looks like a monster looming, it’s only an illusion.  There’s no need to escape – only to be still – so that the moment can show you what it has to offer.

In the past, I’ve tried to practice mindfulness but failed to achieve even a remote amount of satisfaction in the effort.  Effort is exactly where it goes wrong, I’ve discovered.  You can’t compel yourself into the present moment.  You have to allow the moment to capture you. 

One doesn’t arrive at this place without having to surrender.  You cannot be both grasping and letting go simultaneously.   If it takes a crisis to help you release into the now, welcome it.  Drop your worries like hot potatoes.  When you do, you will see that all is well.  Truly.

Eventually, life will begin to look friendly, even in its ugliness, and you will see that there is a place beyond previous perception – a place where you can’t help but become more than you were.

 

Let’s Talk About Sex

At 15 years old, you’d rather set your hair on fire than spend one minute talking with your parents about sex or anything remotely resembling the topic of ‘relations’ as grandmother used to call it.

Girls of my generation didn’t have to fear that the topic would arise at impromptu times, or at all for that matter.  We were more likely to have an educational pamphlet strategically left on a bedroom dresser for our private discovery.  Translation – ‘We shall never speak of such things with each other.  Good luck.’

Sexuality was and is a taboo subject that makes for the most squirm-worthy encounters between parent and child.  Much to my youngest daughter’s mortification, it is my parental mission to demystify the topic.

Our conversations began harmlessly enough when said 15 year old acquired a boyfriend.

“If you’re old enough to be in a relationship, you’re old enough to talk about it.”  I told her.

Benign topics were introduced first with the utmost care to lure my daughter into the safe space of my good intentions.  We, or mostly I, talked about respect, companionship, loving yourself….all the ingredients of basic attraction.  When it came to the conversation titled ‘What makes a girl a slut?’ poor Peach couldn’t escape the conversation fast enough.

At family dinner, Peach’s older sister – having survived her own version of ‘the talks’ years prior – mercilessly opened the can of worms.

“I heard you cornered Peach in the car today.”

Silence.

Husband, unsuspecting soul, took the bait and asked why.  Giggles from one side of the table met with groans from the other as sisters anticipated what would follow.

“Don’t,” Peach begged.

Sorry sweetheart, I must.  How could I live with myself as a parent if I failed to enlighten my girl and prepare her for all that lay ahead?

“Sex,” I blurted out.  “We’re talking about sex.”

Varying degrees of regretful reaction erupted around the table, abruptly ending dinner and sending Peach off to hide, again.  Now that the ‘talks’ had been exposed to the masses, there was no sensible option other than full-on assault.  It was open season on the Birds and the Bees.

Husband cued up his bluetooth speaker with the song Let’s Talk About Sex and blared it throughout the house, effectively reaching any hiding space in which Peach sought refuge.  A song became a sing-a-long which became a dance party which ended with the ‘adultish’ family members in a fit of maniacal laughter.

We had abused the topic of sex with a level of extreme irreverence, hoping to push a reluctant teen past her squeamish barrier.  Only the tiniest bit of guilt washed over me.  I might have been inclined to doubt our guerrilla tactics if Peach had shown signs of PTSD.  But in character with the resilient third child, she emerged intact without any mortal wounds to her psyche.

We all bear battle scars from adolescence.  I’d rather have my child wounded by information than by ignorance.  Besides, what fun would it be if she didn’t have a horrifying story to share with her own children someday?

If You Love Something, Let It Go

They say that if you love something you must let it go.  If it loves you in return, it will come back to you.  I didn’t realize that I was counting on this when I sent my daughter off to college 4 years ago.

In theory, I had launched her into the world and was glad of it.  But I failed to see the strand of hope that tethered me to her like the string on a kite soaring out of reach. 

When my daughter announced that upon graduation she would travel 8000 miles away to teach in a third world country, the tension on the line that connects us tightened, begging me to release my remaining grip.

I indulged in sadness just once, crying briefly, then it was done.  I had never been so forlorn about something that I endorse 100%.  But history has taught me that my fears are poor predictors of reality, and that time spent on worry is always wasted.

It seems like yesterday that I left a teen daughter trembling at the entrance to Girls’ Leadership camp – a place she hesitantly agreed to attend for the summer preceding High School.  My homespun girl needed to build courage and independence in adolescence.  It was my job to help her find it, not to wait for a time when she felt ready.

As maturity set in for her, I ceased having to push her off the platform of certainty. Our roles reversed and it was I who felt reluctant about my daughter’s ever-expanding adventures.  Like tearing apart velcro, I could feel the ripping each time she ventured farther into the big wide world. The beauty of velcro is that it can be joined and separated over and over and remain just as strong.

In time, I realized that I wasn’t losing a child to the world.  Rather, I’d gained a scout through whom I would experience places and people I wouldn’t otherwise encounter. I would see life through my daughter’s eyes and share in her world no matter the miles between us.

I used to believe the adage that parents give their children wings to fly.  In truth, children are born with wings and the instinct to use them.  Flying isn’t taught but allowed.  We can give nothing more than freedom.

When the fear of flight rises, it may take all the determination one can muster to release the restraints that bind us, and our loved ones, to the ground.  It’s not until we truly let go that we can enjoy the reward in soaring.

Parenting is a noble prospect, rife with opportunity for personal growth.  As we raise a child, we raise ourselves.  Our mission, if we accept it, prompts us to evolve into far greater beings than we ever imagined, or wanted to be.

Unconditional love insists that we surrender our parental fears in order to fulfill a commitment to those who follow our lead.  When we cooperate, we find that life has a way of unfolding in the most natural and perfect way. 

Despite inherent uncertainty, there is peace waiting for us.  We have only to release our grip on what we think we know in order to see life smiling at us and saying, “Trust me.  I’ve got this.”

When Your Boy Becomes A Man

Beagle called Husband with an announcement.  “I’m my own man now.”

Without missing a beat, Husband replied, “Oh, good.  I’ll send you the man-bills.”

Husband was referring to the hefty expenses that he and I shoulder for college attendance, an off-campus apartment, and a vehicle.

Beagle clarified that he qualified for man status because he acquired a dog. 

For countless reasons that don’t need to be spelled out for the mature reader, I was horrified.

When Husband and I recovered from our shock, we breathed a sigh of relief that Beagle is practicing fatherhood on a canine instead of a human baby.  Let’s be realistic, the news could have been entirely less welcome and the outcome, more life-altering.

I could have seen this coming.  Beagle had threatened to take the family dog with him to college and he insisted on caring for her when we travelled. He loves dogs and is adequately versed on basic pet care.  For what it’s worth, he has kept his fish alive for 10 years. (A fish that remains in my house due to its need for an unreasonably-sized tank.)  But a dog of one’s own at college is a different beast altogether.

These are the occurrences that give a parent the chance to make good on vows to support a child.  It’s easy to promise lifelong unconditional love when gazing at an innocent newborn who hasn’t crossed any lines.  But can we show up for our kid when circumstances and choices challenge us?

I don’t love my child only when he makes super-smart decisions.  And I don’t intend to bet against him.  But I will draw boundary lines and muster up the conviction to stand by them.  This is Beagle’s dog, not mine.  He will make his mistakes, discover his limitations, and hopefully experience the joy and satisfaction that comes from caring for another.   I’ll be at a distance, cheering him on, and watching as my boy unfolds into a man.

Where Change Begins

I hear your criticism, Dear One, and I get it. You want your grievance to solve something in the world, but it won’t.  Its only power is to inform you. It speaks about you, TO you, but you’re not listening.  You think the fault belongs to another.  

This intolerance you feel toward the person, the practice, the system…sit with it before you try to give it away.  Let it show you where you feel inadequate, unworthy, victimized, powerless, impatient, confused. 

The blame that passes through you is the voice of all these misunderstandings in yourself.  It seeps from your wounds and invades the air that you breathe.  It colors your voice and clouds your thoughts.

Turn inward, you.  Be not afraid to see the pain.  Address it with respect and patience.  Be open to its message.  Allow yourself to forgive everyone and everything that unveils its part in the drama.

Only then will Clarity, previously uninvited, appear at your doorstep.  Step aside and allow it entry.  Once acquainted, you can’t help but fall in love.  Fear will fade, anger will be replaced by understanding and compassion, and Peace will become your steady companion, your muse, and your power.

This is where true change begins.

Why I Raised My Kids To Be Mediocre

When my son was in elementary school he was invited to join the Math team.  Invitations into this circle were reserved for those who excelled in the subject.  Assuming that anyone on whom such an honor was bestowed would be thrilled, I enthusiastically congratulated him.

“I’m not doing it,” he told me in a tone of utmost finality.

“Just because you’re good at something doesn’t mean you enjoy it,” he explained.

What followed on the heels of the recognition of my son’s academic prowess was unexpectedly negative.  He had been outed as smart – a label that repelled him.  He would spend the next several years trying to undo it.

It wasn’t the ‘smart’ part that my son minded.  He just didn’t want the responsibility that came with it.  Grown-ups expect a lot from little achievers.  Once a child proves that he can rise to the top, the pressure to remain there is immense.

I know this because I, too, was labeled a ‘smart one.’ Rare was the occasion that my academic report card didn’t prove my potential for a great future. It was thrilling to my second-generation blue-collar parents to brag about my achievements and the future they dreamed for me.  “She’s going to be a doctor,” my father would tell people, without ever asking me what I wanted for a career.

I decided that I didn’t want my own children to become puppets who performed for their parents, teachers or coaches.  Nor did I want them to depend on recognition.  Which is why I raised them to be mediocre.

It wasn’t that I didn’t want them to excel or work to their full potential.  Rather, I wanted them to know that it’s okay to be just okay; and that they can have a full and successful life even if they never become ‘the best’ at anything.

If I had encouraged my children to stay up late studying, worry themselves silly, and pile their efforts on top of their talents, they may have won more recognition from admirers.  But none held the promise of happiness, or a good career, or even a college acceptance. 

What happens when we give children opportunities for relaxation and playtime no matter the amount of homework?  They learn to balance their time, get their work done, and still leave space for the things that sustain their souls – a practice many adults have abandoned to their detriment.

What happens when we forbid them from comparing themselves to their peers or siblings, and we teach ourselves to do the same? They learn to encourage others, instead of envy them, thereby preserving faith in themselves.

When children are groomed to detach love from performance, and they have no fear of judgment from the adults they look up to, they’re excited to try new things, even if they don’t excel at them.  They’re unafraid of failure and more apt to take positive risks.  And they make better choices for themselves – ones that will lead to fulfillment of their unique purpose in life.

My college Junior texted me an observation.  “I’m so relieved that you don’t bug me about grades or my schedule or things that are going on because you trust me.  I have friends whose parents harass them on a daily basis.”

As parents, we sometimes fear that if our children don’t adhere to our metrics for success, they’ll fail at life.  We think that they can’t or won’t survive without our interference, and we condition them to believe the same. Secretly, we also may worry that they’ll embarrass or disappoint us because we believe that the way our kids’ lives look reflect on our own success as a parent.

So we formulate plans for them as if it’s a roadmap with an indisputable delineation of paths.  Do this and you’ll arrive at success.  Do that and you’ll be a worthless bum who can’t support yourself and will end up living under my roof until I die.

The truth is that when children are intrinsically motivated, instead of by the promise of glory, or the threat of a dissatisfied adult, they’re more able to sort out the pieces of their own puzzle and not be tempted to throw it in the trash. 

If children learn how to slice up the pie chart of life in a way that sustains them for the long haul, but not necessarily in a way that impresses others, they’re more likely to enjoy the journey and less likely to resent it.  When no one asks them to take on the impossible task of being the best, children end up being self-reliant, successful, and anything but mediocre.

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.

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.

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