Monday, May 25, 2015

Everyday moments worth forgetting

A photo:
A moment worth forgetting

I am sitting in an airport food court, coming home after a visit with our grown daughter in Cleveland.

It is mid-April, the start of empty nest season when parents prepare to launch first and last college freshmen. God-I'll-miss-them essays are everywhere, including my own recycled pieces on the subject. On my mind today is one that describes the writer's regret over not living more presently in everyday moments of raising children.

I do this too, sometimes regret  what I did or didn't do, usually when I'm already a little sad and my brain decides to tap on the glass by going, as Carolyn Hax puts it, "knock-knock, remember this?"

However, here in this food court, where I am surrounded by yester-mes with small children, I am also being reminded of context, the part our brains leave out.

A family of four has settled at a table near mine.  I am guessing the two children are three and five. The parents are dressed for a long travel day in jeans, t-shirts and sneakers. The mom's hair is tied back and she is not wearing make-up.

She leaves the group to stand in line at Sbarro's, and the dad takes out his phone. The five-year old begins to yell across the food court, "Mom! Get Pizza!" and I see the mom shake her head  and put a finger to her lips.

The three-year-old tells the dad he wants to "go see Mommy." The dad frowns at his phone and says "No, buddy. Mommy will be right back." 

The mom comes back and reports that there is no pizza here, and the kids look disappointed and she says tersely, "I know," and leaves to find something else.

The kids start to come apart. They poke, they tease, they whine, they fight and their voices become playground high.

"Guys," says the dad with a glance.

The five-year-old suddenly leans across the table and punches the three-year-old who starts to howl. The dad says, "Hey," puts his phone down, and moves over to console the younger one who is shrieking, "He HIT me! He HIT me! I WANT MOMMY!"

"Okay, buddy, it's okay," says the dad.  "Shhhh." But the three-year-old isn't having it. He scrambles to stand on his chair now, and screams across the food court, "MOMMEEEEEE!!" while the dad says, again, with a bit more urgency, "Shhhhh!"

 "MOMMEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!"

And now I see Mommy, traversing around stray chairs to get back there,  her place in line lost, her face a picture of What-The-You know what.

Incredibly, with a hopeful face, the dad says, "How was the line?" and I cringe to know what's coming.

"You know what?" says the mom with that tight, public smile that nobody wants to see, "You don't know the half of it, why don't you just go wait for the food."

She sits. The dad stands up and wanders away, phone in hand. The mom picks up the crying three-year-old and says "okay, you're all right."

"See if there's pizza," says the five-year-old to the dad's back. 

A moment later, the kids are coloring but the mom looks like she's still on call for the next fire.

The only thing going on is nothing worse.

Until another couple comes in. The dad looks like a celebrity, the mom is perfectly everything. There are two small children who I'm guessing are eighteen months and five.

The dad looks around, says to the mom quietly, "I'll (undecipherable)," and  heads over to Sbarro, where MOMMEEEE  was a moment ago.  He stands in line, hands on hips, scanning the menu.

Back at their table, "Zeke" sits in a booster seat with a baggie of veggies and crackers and says "I want (undecipherable)." The mom reaches into a bag and offers Zeke a sippy cup which isn't  what he meant.

"No," he says. The mom tries again. "NO!" he says again, and begins to shake his head back and forth, saying, "I want (undecipherable)!" The mom reaches into a bag and holds out a juice box which  he tries to smack out of her hand. Then he throws the baggie at her and begins to yell for the undecipherable thing which the mom and I can't understand, because now she reaches into the bag and just starts pulling out everything:  keys, toys, phone, comb.

With each item that she offers Zeke he shakes his head left-right-left-right saying, "NO!" and with his feet, left-right-left-right, he kicks the table hard enough to slide himself away from it.

The mom stares. "Zeke. What do you want?"

The dad strolls back with food and says, "Hey, Zeke, buddy, okay, I know you're upset, but..." Zeke uses his small hand and forearm to sweep the table top clear of the whole show, baggie, toys, and the full sippy cup.

The mom sits back, a hand pressed to the side of her face.

The five-year-old leans away from his brother's wing span.

Meanwhile, the other dad has come back to his table bearing pizza. In the ten minutes he has been gone, the mom has grown calm and has engaged the two kids with a game on paper, the injured three-year-old on her lap.

And as they serve themselves and begin eating, the dad pauses and looks over at the other table where Zeke's tantrum has peaked and left him tearful and exhausted, and the five-year-old is still looking at his i-Pad and the mom and the dad are looking at nothing.

The pizza dad shakes his head, then looks at his own little one and says, "Hey buddy, your ear's okay now?"

"It's fine," he says.

And here is what I know. Both of those mothers will probably see their sons off to college in sixteen years or so.

In the context of things that are over, they will remember the destination of that trip possibly, but not the getting there. That part they will have to reconstruct. One, maybe both of them, will be wishing she could somehow have been more in the moments to remember them better.  But I believe we're probably as much in those moments as we can be.

Context is everything.





Sunday, May 10, 2015

Tuesday nights with Mummy

Mentor Mummy
My mother lives down the road. 
We get together every Tuesday to share a glass of wine and trade stories of the week.
"Hello, Mummy," I say when I see her, and "Hello, Darling," she says which still sounds elegant after all these years. I check to be sure she seems healthy.  She checks to be sure I seem happy. 
She feels lucky to live this close to me, but I am luckier.
She has told me how important these visits are to her, but right now, they are more important to me because I'm taking notes.
It is the equivalent of a walk, a quiet drive, an hour with my own thoughts to spend that hour or so with my mother, because as true as it was back when I was sneaking into the bathroom to cut my own hair, there's nothing that travels through my mind that I can't say or ask her if I choose to. 
She felt lucky to have a daughter, she has said, but I was luckier to be the daughter of the least judgmental parent on the planet.  
As is the way with daughters and mothers, we have more in common as I age.  In her late seventies,  she's seen this movie while I'm still dealing with plot twists and new characters. And every so often, I miss something in the script. Maybe an exchange that raised my antennae, maybe an observation that made me circle back, maybe a throwaway I plucked from the pile of things that are easy to miss but should be noticed.
A comment, a facial expression.
Like a college professor or a favorite boss I might have doorway-chatted with after hours, my mother has done her hands-on and off parenting, and is happy to listen to me talk about mine. Many of our conversations start with, "Tell me what you think about this..."
Because.
Mummies don't retire.
They become mentors.
Our youngest child will turn twenty-one in three months. Our oldest child is married with good cookware. My hands-on parenting days are behind me, and most of our children have not just left the nest but are feathering their own.
Some  parents describe a feeling at this stage of a job done, a giant project turned in. But I have learned from my Tuesday nights with Mummy that the longer we live, the more, not less we have in common. That if we talk less, we will probably say more. That the best conversations are about listening and not telling, asking not assuming, arriving by invitation and not force. And, most recently, that whether we live down the street from one another or on opposite coasts, it won't matter.
Because.
The best parenting years of all might be the hands-off ones, over an honest Tuesday night conversation, and one's wish to know what is in the heart and mind of the other. 
Mummy and I have more in common than we don't but the most important thing is gratitude. 
She is thankful to have me in her life, but with all my heart, I am more thankful for all those Tuesday nights, as my mother's mentee, Darling.


Friday, May 1, 2015

A tiny little story about love


I love this story too much not to tell it again.

A while back, I co-hosted an event to promote our local Boys and Girls club. I had a chance to catch up with an old friend I haven't seen in at least  a decade.  We talked about where our kids were in their lives and eventually came around to the subject of when our daughters fell in love and how we reacted to the idea of them getting married.

When my friend thought things were getting serious, she said to her daughter, "You'll have to tell me when it's time to love him."

Later, after the daughter and boyfriend had moved in together they gathered with their parents for dinner. As they left the restaurant, the boyfriend leaned over and said quietly to my friend, "It's time to love me, now."


That's what I said, too.


Thursday, April 23, 2015

Ten things to tell an engaged daughter

It's almost wedding time, and so today, I'm re-posting "Ten things to tell an engaged daughter," the most highly viewed thing I ever wrote anywhere at any time. 

From September 19, 2013:

People think your soul mate is your perfect fit. But a true soul mate is a mirror, the person who shows you everything that is holding you back, the person who brings you to your own attention so you can change your life.
 -- Elizabeth Gilbert.

Very soon, our daughter will be married. In my life, I have attended only a handful of weddings where I was certain it would last. This will be one of them.

And yet, since we reached the halfway point in the planning, I've found myself wishing to offer some parting gift of wisdom. Not the birds and bees talk of yesteryear, of course. 

More of a nests and hives talk.
  
An argument has evolved between my mother self which wants to share wisdom the minute I earn it, and my better judgment, which knows that unsolicited advice is tolerated more than it is followed. People in love blaze their own path, thank you very much.

And, adds my better judgment:

We customize our marriages. We rise and fall and stumble and glide through them, trading our coins of love and promise to create a new whole that won't leave anyone's unique self out. 

After nearly three decades, we've had our wins and fails and I could offer as many don'ts as do's. Maybe more, unless you ask my husband, who claims not to remember the "don'ts" because he is very good at marriage. 

And, in a discussion of "what marriage is and isn't",  is it better to caution against the things that are sure to damage a marriage? Or share the discoveries which made you understand that marriage is not just something you have in common with your spouse, but a place where you feel more honored, accepted, understood and loved than anyplace else?

And, as I consider offering any advice at all,  should I consider how much difference do's and don'ts advice made in my own life, which was none?

And, yet, says my mother self:

In three days, I will watch my daughter walk into the arms of her man. Knowledge is for offering, like fine food that you've prepared with your own hands. You put it out there, and whoever is hungry can eat. And so, from the turned down pages of my own manual I offer the ten things about marriage I consider most Worth Mentioning. 

Be who you are. You came to the relationship as whole people, with identities and a purpose in life. Feel complete in your relationship, share your happiness, look forward to everything you'll do together, feel better about everything when he walks in the room, miss him when he's gone. But honor your individuality. He loves things about you that you're not even aware of.

Know your marriage. As you know yourself, know your marriage - why you love each other, what you need, what you have learned to give and take - and realize that very, very little of this is visible to others. When people tell you when to buy a house, or when to have children, or why your marriage should be like theirs, remember how much information they are really working with, which is practically none.

We love differently. People can love each other equally and show it very differently. Women of words can be married to men of action if each knows they are loved the best way possible by the other and wish to stay that way.

Talk. Tiny amounts of honest communication - all the time - even when you're not together will keep you in sight of each other. Absent or lazy communication - all the time - even when you're in close proximity to each other is worse than silence.  

Listen. Learn to listen as much as you wish to be heard. You do this now, but life will get noisy. There will be distractions. Listening is not just making eye contact and waiting for the other person to stop talking so you can tend to something else. That's just hearing. 

Show your belly. There are plenty of times when you should play your cards right, not give yourself away, not expose your belly. But in a marriage is not where to do that.  Show who you are. If it's hard to do that sometimes, you're doing it right. 

Bring it up. Even if you are sure what is in his heart, never think you know what's in his mind. Don't let something go just to avoid "clashing." Give each other a chance to be understanding and allow yourself to be surprised.

Use Humor. When stuff  seizes your attention  that won't matter in a year from now, do your best to treat it with humor. Humor heals, humor binds, humor relieves everything in the world and makes life easier. It also improves your facial expression.

Ask. When you do get upset with each other, start conversations with these words:  "I'm having trouble with something but I think you can help." It's amazing how responsive people can be when they are invited to help you, rather than defend themselves.

And... 

The most important thing, what will keep you attuned, what will assure you live within the hearts of each other, as well as in the same house, is this:

If it's happy, if it's loving, if you mean it...

Say it.

You make me happy.
I appreciate you.
I love you.
I'm glad I married you.

And in almost three decades, when you are about to watch your daughter walk into the arms of her love, do what I plan to.

Turn to your husband and say:

I would do it again.



Originally posted: 9/19/2013

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Conversations with your college freshmen that matter before they leave, and long after they've gone.

Me, with my unexpected pleasure of parenting
A while back, I was asked by Grown and Flown, a highly regarded parenting blog, to take part in a slideshow by expressing an unexpected pleasure of parenting. Mine was this:

I have loved and accepted my children every day of their lives. But who they have become on their own are four people I would love if I met them today.

More recently, I posted a piece about visiting our son at college. The afternoon we arrived, he told us he'd invited a "bunch of guys" over to meet us and suggested we come by at around ten for a few rounds of beer pong, then leave before the actual party started later. Ha ha.

We would use water, he added graciously.  "You don't have to actually drink beer."

It did not cross my mind to be horrified by the prospect of college juniors and seniors drinking beer at a party. It did cross my mind that we were being invited to glimpse the world he lives in now and who he is becoming.

The post was appreciated by many people who have kids in college, but not by everyone. One  reader suggested I might have used the moment as a jumping off point to talk about "drinking responsibly."

Well, that ship has sailed, but point taken. College drinking makes parents nervous, especially those about to launch first freshmen. 

Because I actually take the well being of college students (and their parents) very seriously, I will pass along a few "worked for me" tips in hopes that your own talk about drinking responsibly won't feel like one you're having with yourself.

From my own files of "wish I had," and "glad I did":

Dial down your fear and ASK.
We have launched four children, which means our first teenager, poor thing, got me at the ground floor of the learning curve where the motive for everything was to make sure nothing bad ever happened to our children. Here is where good discussions start with the words, "I just want to tell you a few things" and promptly die.

When our last child was getting ready for college, our conversations were more Q's from me, and A's from him. I had seen him affect his own success and failure in high school and knew he liked driving his own bus. We covered the gamut of college temptations but not without striking a deal: I could ask him anything. He would be honest. I could ask follow-ups. He would explain. I could not "freak out" over anything.
   
Be real.
Our kids stay on the rails in high school because they have seen more of their choices than they've told us about and have selected carefully.

The temptation to characterize the behavior that will surround our kids at college as foolish or stupid or beneath them is well-intentioned but guilt-producing. Teens – good ones – fall in love and have sex. Teens – good ones – get together at the beach and get drunk. Some become pregnant. Some become substance-addicted. Most do neither. Acknowledging that destructive behaviors are as much a choice of smart people as productive ones is honest. It is not giving them permission to be one of those bad teens at the beach.

Recognize who they already are 
By the time all of our kids left for school our discussions about drugs, birth control, and safety on the street were no longer about dire consequences. They were "if and when" conversations of how our kids might react in difficult situations, in context with who they were.

What might they do with the opportunities to cut loose once they didn't have to face parents in the kitchen the end of the night? What might they do to feel wanted and welcome instead of lonely and unsure? Could we agree on how they would stay safe? Would they tell me if they thought they were in trouble?" 

If early conversations are candid, they'll open the door to honest  dialog about how our kids' lives are really challenging them, so that we are not left searching their tone of voice or laugh for clues.

Do not overlook the bystander talk 
Thomas Vander Ven is the author of "Getting Wasted," which explores not if, but why kids drink to excess in college. In his interview with Salon.com, he discusses the VERY important  role of "bystander," which  any college student should be prepared to assume.

A discussion with college freshmen about how they must look out for others is as important as those about how they will govern themselves. Not every female who drinks at a party will become a sexual victim. Not every male will become an alcoholic. But every college kid at a party is a bystander, and our kids should know when to intervene, to call 911 if someone is dangerously high, to notice when someone is alone and too drunk at a party. High school kids don't turn in their friends – let the parents deal with that – but in college, "telling" could save a life. 

Say that.

Recognize who they have become.
We know our new freshmen, and they know themselves, in context with a life that will change completely come fall. They will abandon some behaviors, experiment with others, and probably develop a hard-won appreciation for moderation.

As Vander Ven points out, when they're in their careers, and working late all the time, and coming home exhausted, they're probably not going to get together in someone's room to get hammered.

Those who are still on the rails three years after leaving home are there because they've continued to assess their choices in the quiet of their own minds. They have earned their own respect. And self-respect is delicious and habit-forming.

Never turn down an invitation to visit their world.
Accept. If you are lucky enough to have been invited to a water-pong party, go. You may be impressed to discover that your child and his friends have become their own family with assignments for clean-up duty, and house rules about how to host others safely and behave themselves. 

If you are, say so. It means a lot to them, and is the best report card you can hope for.




Thursday, March 26, 2015

Twenty-somethings, you have my heart

The twenties: chaotic, thrilling, exhausting, delicious
-- and short.
I'm writing about twenty-somethings today, not because I have four of them, but because I respect and enjoy them and have four of them. I'll have to generalize, something twenty-somethings hate, but we're all busy and it will save time.   

I love a few things in particular about twenty-somethings.

I love their sense of humor which is wry and casual and irresistible. 
I love their open caring for one another because that is one huggy generation. 
I love that they fit career goals to who they are, rather than the other way around. This generation lives mindfully, with balance and awareness of how they spend time, and 
with whom, and on what.  Because  twenty-somethings are comfortable with who they are.

Eventually.

Because.

Of the things that don't change from generation to generation, one is this: the twenties can be one mind-stretching decade.

In a quiet restaurant the other night I listened to a couple of twenty-something women behind me discuss a work problem that one of them was having. She had committed some error after being given unclear instructions. First she didn't want to appear inexperienced by asking for clarification. Then she was corrected, and corrected publicly. From the content (they were sitting right there) I guessed she was a young attorney working among more established people, possibly in her first job, eager to please, or, at least, eager not to make a mistake. The correction had really gotten to her.

But worse, she talked about how this must have made her look to them when she was doing what she thought was the right thing.

I encounter such worry a lot in my eavesdropping. I wanted to slide my chair over and tell her, "It gets easier."

I too, encounter people my age (which I refer to as not-forty) who see twenty-
Example of a not-forty person
who was probably never young
even in his own mind
somethings as self-involved, unmotivated and aimless. It would be more helpful if such not-forty people who regard twenty-somethings that way would recall the same "who am I and what do I want now?" questions they tussled with after the kids left. Not to mention their own twenties-angst as they shifted from following rules to writing them.   

As my experience and restaurant research has shown, the twenties is a time when one must deal with self-doubt in everything from work suitability to the personal lives they've crafted, and here is why in my opinion:

To start with, the state of being completely secure and self-assured is not aged into, but reached, and not without some travel through the former state of being, well, angsty, as you kids call it.  I also think there is a here-and-now mindset in the twenties, when it seems that what it is, is what will always be. Time's gifts of perspective, which include proof that we can change as we see fit, can't be realized yet. Thus, the pressure to get it right, right now.

Choice-anxiety is an old problem with a new acronym - FOMO - or, fear of missing out.

We had that FOMO thing in our twenties, but we took Cosmo quizzes for it. Because, no magazine was more eager to exploit – oh, I'm sorry, I meant "explain" – the anxiety of twenties-in-flux than Cosmopolitan Magazine with it's holy crap cover teasers:  Who are you really? How sexy are you really? What do people think of you really? And so on.

Me, I found nothing in my twenties more daunting than those "really" questions. Did I really know myself? Was I really happy? Questions which only launched we innocent twenty-somethings into binge-worrying about everything from what our co-workers thought of us, to whether we had the right linen to invite the boss for dinner.

It was enough to suffer the squirmy feeling that everyone else, Cosmo for example,  knew me better than I knew myself without a quiz result that said, "You need more confidence!"

For fun, while I was writing this, I peeked at the Cosmo site and they're still at it: Are you really in love or forcing it?  And this: Are you really a secret bitch?

Sigh. It's all fun and games until you wind up with answers you don't like and sit moody and glaring at your not-really lover across the table because he probably thinks you're really a bitch.

Something else I came across while I was reading up on twenty-somethings I don't actually know, was Allgroanup.com, a site created by Paul Angone who specializes in the being of twenties. Mr. Angone makes the elegant suggestion of discovering happiness by first discovering and pursuing your passion.

Raise your hand if you are a twenty-something saying, "I don't have one of those yet."

It's okay. In his piece called "The unsexy truth to finding your passion," Mr. Angone offers a nice homing device:  

Through my 20’s, many of my “great ideas” and passionate pursuits have gone straight to the trash, except for one thing.

Writing. 

And I haven’t kept writing because I’ve been pinch-me-I’m-dreaming “successful.” I’ve kept writing because I can not, NOT do it.

If you are a twenty-something grappling with questions of who you  are and what you want now, take heart:

You probably have the answers to the questions now, just not on demand. Instead, they may be covertly toiling to drive you from the plan which blocks your passion, and toward the place where you come alive. You may only know it when you no longer have questions. You will definitely know it when you regard yourself as the true authority on what's good for you.

Many of us who are not-forty respect and cheer you twenty-somethings. 

Because. 

We know that while some things will come more easily to you now than at any other time, some things will never be harder to figure out than they are right now,  which means one good thing – it only gets easier.


Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Age is a requirement. Old is an elective. And other things I learned at college last week.

Who can see the metaphor in this photo?
In a phone conversation with my college junior recently, I reported that he was over budget and asked what was going on. He reported that it had just snowed an inch on his North Carolina campus and because the administration had "freaked out over the snow," they'd cancelled classes, and so he and his friends threw a "snowpocalypse" party. 
And so he had to spend a little more on that. 
I'll bet all those morning commuters in NC who slid into each other on the way to work didn't  throw a party. 
Ah. Youth. 
A while back, someone in my writer group posted a question: when are we "old?" I thought about that, but not because age is troubling in my view. It is just unanswerable in my view, an issue of attitude more than years. 
I know everyone says that, but I mean it. I've known humorless thirty-year-olds who are older than whimsical sixty-year-olds. And while it's hard to describe the difference between an old and a young attitude, it's easy to observe if your four millennials range in age from snowpocalyse to married-with-a-masters.   
First, what youth isn't, is fewer years, or lines, or aches and pains, or better memory and vision. We aren't old if these things are going on. We're old if we complain about them, because nothing is more tedious.

And, we aren't "old" if we are no longer young. We're old when we feel we've seen the best of life already and don't bother to grow. 
Better to ask, what is "young?" Well, sometimes it's just offering a not-old response to a spontaneous opportunity for fun. 
It's this: 
We'd risen at four-thirty a.m. to catch an early flight from Boston to North Carolina to visit our snowpocalypse-throwing son, wishing to spend as much of our arrival day with him as we could.  We met him for lunch, and again for dinner at a "nice restaurant," after which, we planned, he would head to whatever-he-does, and we would head back to the hotel. 
But our son was eager to introduce us to his buddies, and had already invited them, and they'd already said "Sure!" and so he asked us to "come by at around ten" for a couple of rounds of beer pong before their actual party started at twelve. 

We would use water, he added graciously. "You don't have to actually drink beer." 

This could not have been less like whatever-we-do. We could have passed, we almost did. 
"We'll be there," I said. 
We went.
We stayed.
We played. 
The guys whooped and yelled when my husband got the ball in the cup and there was high-fiving when he and our son won, and then there was another round, and then I started asking questions about this and that, and then I said, "Can I try?" and five guys jumped in to advise me to "float, not toss" the little ball and use more wrist than arm, and so on. 
A little before eleven, we cleared out well in advance of actual party-goers who probably didn't want to see their own parents that night or anyone else's.
My notes from the plane:
Young is taking part in something fun even if it's hard.
Old is taking part in something fun if it's easy.
Young is looking forward to something that's even better.
Old is looking back on everything that's already happened as better.
Young isn't immature, young is energetic.
Old isn't tired, old is cautious.
Old cancels classes.
Young has a snowpocalypse party. 
The experience of hanging out with my son and his respectable (and authentic –  no pressure there to dial down the language in our presence) friends left us feeling lighter for having shed the parent cloak for a brief time, but mostly it left us feeling included in something spontaneous and happy and fun which, yes, felt like youth. 
What I learned at college last week is this: age is a required course.  But "old" is an elective.
Now go and organize a wine-pong party and act your age.