Lessons

“It’s 4:13. It’s been exactly 24 hours since I set the microwave on fire!” My son proudly makes this announcement as he’s packing to leave for the holiday.

The previous day, when I drove up to the house, my youngest was sitting on the front steps. “What are you doing?” I ask.

“I was getting a headache in the house, so I had to come out here.” A man of few words, that one. It is unseasonably warm at 60° outside, so I thought he was just spending some time enjoying the weather.

My face must have been an indication of my lack of understanding. “C tried to set the house on fire, and it smells, so I had to come outside.” He gets up and starts walking toward the car.

“What happened?” I ask.

“He was heating pizza in the microwave, and the foil started a fire.”

“He put foil in the microwave??”

I see him hedge just a bit. “You’ll have to ask him. He put a pan on it to put it out.”

Now I am totally confused. A pan? Foil in the microwave? He is old enough to know better than to do that. I gather my stuff from the car and go in the house where I am greeted by the sharp odor of smoke and my oldest child. “Did he tell you the story?” His expression is cautiously smug.

“He told me his version. Now I want to hear yours.”

“Well, I was heating some pizza so I could eat before work.” He pauses. I recognize this tactic—giving me one piece of information at a time and making me work for the story. He thinks I’m going to feel sorry for him. He underestimates me.

“And…” I prompt in a tone that indicates my post-work lack of patience.

“I opened up the foil and put the whole thing in the microwave, and I put a paper towel across the top. The foil caught the paper towel on fire. So I picked up that pan,” he points to the 8×8 square baking pan that I had used the previous night for the overflow chicken parm, the few pieces that wouldn’t fit in the bigger pan. “I put that over it to put it out.”

I must say, as shocked as I am that he put foil in the microwave, I am impressed with his quick thinking. “So…” I choose my words and tone carefully. “Did you learn anything from this experience?”

“Don’t put foil in the microwave…?” he raises his eyebrows and smiles at me as he states the obvious. But I can see there is more. Even though he might not be able to articulate it in that moment, he knows that in his ability to respond quickly, he averted disaster.

As adults, we sometimes do things that are not very smart when we are not thinking. We are busy, and our minds are cluttered with the stress and goings on of everyday life. We should expect the same from our children. Putting leftover pizza in the microwave (foil and all) was an honest lapse in judgment—one that anyone could have made. The important thing is that he learned from it—he learned, first hand, that foil and microwaves don’t make a good combination. He learned that if there is a small emergency, he can handle it. And he learned that he can think quickly and solve problems under pressure. In this situation, real life experience provided better lessons than I could teach my son. And these lessons—they are priceless.

Roots and Shoots

The plants on my windowsill have been growing pale and leggy with neglect, so the other day, I transplanted the most needy of the lot. One of them had been pushed off the windowsill in the midst of a cat-fight months ago; it was lacking dirt and trying to hold itself together in a cracked pot. This plant was my first patient. After some loving attention, it is still struggling, though I am hopeful it will overcome the recent stresses it has faced.

My Christmas cactus was my second patient. It had outgrown its small pot and was craving a larger space in which it could stretch its roots—spread out a bit. I had no idea how bad it had become until I slid the roots from the pot. It was—essentially—all root. There was little dirt in amongst the tangled, pot-shaped ball. This plant has begun to recover from the stress of roots that were too tight.

The third plant to warrant my attention was purchased as a miniature plant, but had clearly moved beyond “miniature” status. A new, larger pot, and it is doing just fine, thank you. This plant is standing straight and tall, undaunted by its early days tagged with a “miniature” label. It is healthy and shiny and reaching toward the sun.

The experience of re-potting these plants has made me see that sometimes, we also become “pot bound.” We long for more in our lives, and we look for change—something new or a new way of doing things. We might need to stretch our own roots and move on to another phase in our lives. We might start something new or end something that isn’t working. We might re-plant ourselves in a different location, putting down roots in a new area, or simply spreading our roots where we are as we readjust the path of our journey. Or, we might, instead, send up new shoots by taking on a new project or a new way to challenge ourselves. Whatever you choose, I hope you find the space you need to stretch, to spread your roots toward stability, to grow tall, and to stand proud.

Stories

“Mom, I have a story to tell you!” Sometimes, I am greeted excitedly at the door, and sometimes, I hear this later in the evening, as we are eating dinner or working through homework. The teen who starts with this introduction launches into an excited re-telling of something that happened at school or on the bus, often spinning the effect of the story for the specific listener—drawing out the action, leaving out some detail or other, or adding in suspense and emotion.

Over time, the stories have changed as the children’s lives have become more complex. Gone are the days of stories of the deer outside the classroom window or a special activity at a friend’s birthday party. Today’s story, for example, included a misguided miscreant who pulled a knife on another student, and the conversations that resulted from that occurrence. These stories, they are not designed to encourage a parent to sleep peacefully at night. But they are stories of events that need processing. They are stories that allow the teller to think about the information, to figure out how it fits in the big picture of life, and to know that someone has heard… is listening.

At times, I wonder how we got from, “Mommy, can you tell me a story?” to “Mom, I have a story to tell you.” Not that I am complaining. As I think about the path we take, I realize that stories are woven to help us figure out certain aspects of our lives. With very small children, parents tell stories to help them understand things that are happening or to alleviate their fears. As kids grow, the roles switch, if we let them. The kids take the lead in telling the stories they need to tell. Stories emerge from their experiences, and they often weave in their fears, their hopes, their dreams, allowing them to process the full range of emotions in their heads.

I hope that as they move through their lives, my children will keep telling me their stories. I hope they continue to find value and comfort in the stories they tell and the stories they hear. And I hope this is something they pass on to their own children.

“Normal”

“Mom, why don’t you ever act like this when our friends are here?” It was breakfast before school. So early that the sky was still gripping its blackness—the dark before the dawn. The winter night chill of the kitchen was just beginning to retreat into the corners. I had been singing silly, cheerful songs, both to wake myself up, but also to ease (shock, really) my sleepy kids into the routine of the day. As teens, they are more than used to my craziness and uninhibited um… extroversion.

“As I recall,” I thought back to the memorable moment. “You once told me to ‘never act like this’ in front of your friends.” And, being the type of mother who would never want to embarrass my children, I obeyed. Though I will admit, it was tough.

“But Mom, when we tell them how crazy you are, they don’t believe us.” My son, the oldest, rolled his eyes but said nothing.

“So…,” I thought carefully about how to phrase what I would say next. “You want me to start acting ‘normal’ when your friends are here?” I watched her face, then my son’s. A flicker of horror on his face, a brightening of hers.

“Yes!” she exclaimed. My son raised an eyebrow—a talent he learned from his grandmother—and still said nothing.

I looked him in the eye, no kidding on my face. “You agree with this?”

“Whatever.” He shrugged, turned, and walked away. Yes! We have a new normal! (But I will still try to behave when we have company).

Pieces

Sometimes, when my children tell me stories, I can hear the broken pieces rattling around inside of them. The pieces are jagged and sharp like broken glass, threatening to poke through the surface and rip through tender flesh. I let the children talk, telling me the stories through which their hurts, their sadness, their disappointments are revealed. At times, the disappointment is minor, like a missed role in a play or a snubbing by a not-close friend.

Other times, the hurt is much deeper—a wound that continually gets ripped open despite their best efforts to keep in closed and let it heal. Maybe “someone” is coercing them to do something they don’t want to do, or their events once again don’t fit into “someone’s” schedule. Years later, and the story remains the same.

So I listen. I let them know they always have my ear—whether they want it or not—and they talk. I listen below the surface, paying special attention to what is not right, what is not good. The act of talking wears on the broken parts like the tide works a piece of glass—wearing, smoothing, dulling. In time, the broken pieces become worn and opaque, like beach glass, dotting the path of their journey, touchstones of strength and growth. But for now, I will pay attention. I will notice the unspoken undertones of their stories, and I will support them through listening, questioning, and being present. I will offer them an outlet for their thoughts, like a rock tumbler churning and working the moments of their lives. It is something we all need. Someone to listen. And to be present.

Creative Pay Down

If I’d been paying attention, I would have known long ago that I was destined to live in a house full of creative individuals. These individuals leave their half finished projects strewn on every flat surface in the house; hoard craft supplies and stash them around the periphery of the living room, like giant piles of trash; and, in the case of my youngest, scatter miniscule electronic components resembling nothing more than small, dead beetles across the floor and hope no one steps on them.

My children have been releasing their creative energy since they were very young. When my oldest child was in pre-school, he would happily meander through the aisles of the craft store, picking up all the “treasures” he found on the floor and tucking them into one of the various pockets of his cargo pants. When it came time for laundry, I would methodically check each pocket, removing sequins, buttons, wads of thread, feathers, petals of silk flowers, the list goes on. It wasn’t long before these items, and many more, littered my floors, the kitchen table, the living room couch. My “Come clean up the table for dinner,” would be met with a disappointed, “But we’re not finished with our projects yet!”

I am no stranger to creative energy, having been a crafter, writer, and artist for as long as I can remember. I was the kid who could make something from nothing and find the inherent beauty in items others would toss aside. My mother would dispose of trash on the sly, stuffing promising items deep into the wastebasket under the gross, gooey garbage, in hopes I wouldn’t discover them in the morning and declare them my newest “treasure.” I made holiday ornaments out of walnut shells, paper, egg cartons and cotton balls. Plastic separators in packages of fruits and vegetables were useful for crafts, as were toilet paper tubes, the netting used for onion bags, uncooked pasta, and pretty much any other discarded objects. I was forever finding uses for trash, and I’m famous for saying, “Don’t throw that out! I can make something with it!”

And now, I am reliving the reality my mother lived, and I have dubbed it “pay down”—the things I imposed on my mother which are now being imposed on me by my own children. Together, we figure out how to manage the energy—and the stockpiles of stuff that are necessary for true creativity—as we carve out our own creative space in our small house. But there is a plus side of living with others with so much creative energy. We share our often chaotic life, our ideas, our art supplies, and ultimately, our inspiration.

Good mom/Bad mom

Every now and then, I find myself a unique position, a position from which I can choose to be the Good Mom or the Bad Mom.

Let me set the scene. My daughter is in the school play, and this weekend is the production. Practice has been running late this week. Very late. Couple that with the time change, and we aren’t seeing much daylight these days. The other night, I went to pick her up, but she needed money for her cast t-shirt, something we hadn’t paid for when we ordered it because I always think I might have more money next month.

She had reminded me via text after school to bring money, so I texted her from home before I left. “How much?” She texted me back with the information.

When I arrived at school, she sent me another text: Are you here?

Me: Yes

Her: Can you come in to pay?

Me: Can you come out? I can’t park here.

And so, she came out. It was dark, and all mini-vans look generally the same in the dark, right? She came running out the door, took one second to get her bearings, and ran off toward a mini-van. But not my mini-van. Nope. She ran off toward the first mini-van that looked like ours.

There I was, suspended in that moment where I was watching her run. Away from me. Toward the vehicle of who-know-whose-parent. Do I call to her? Do I let her open the other car door? I hesitated. It would be humorous, both for me and for the other parent, if she actually opened the door of the other car.

I rolled down my window, still uncertain, pausing. But then, as she reached for the door handle, I called to her. In that split second, I chose to be the Good Mom rather than the Bad Mom. Oh, to be the Bad Mom just once. We would have laughed about that for years to come (but not right away….)