Messages

I’ve written about my blocks before—my “grown up” alphabet letter blocks. It was the end of December when I wrote a post about how my children often …um, alter the messages I create, changing the words to nonsense or silliness.

But the current message on our blocks has remained unchanged for a while now—almost since that December post. In fact, I think this is the longest running message we’ve had without some sort of interference at the hands of the teenagers in the house. But that’s because this message is special; it was created in a deeply emotional moment—one that we all survived—and no one has the heart to disturb it.

It was the night my dad passed away; the children had gone to bed, and I couldn’t sleep. I was gathering all of the items we would need for an indefinite amount of time away from home, but I was directionless. I sat down on the floor of the living room, and in a mess of tears, I composed the message—Love to Heaven—tracing the letters with my finger.

My children didn’t see the new message until we returned from our time away. “Look what Mrs. L did with our blocks!” they summoned me into the room. Mrs. L is the neighbor who had been feeding our cats and taking in our mail while we were away. I went into the living room and looked to the top of the shelf.

I half smiled to myself. “No,” I told the kids. “I did that. I wrote that message the night before we left, while you were all sleeping.” I turned away and went back to the kitchen, hiding the tears that now flow freely and often.

Those moments, nearly five months ago now, they were a time of deep and pervasive sorrow. And while grief remains with me, it has found pockets in my life where it can emerge safely—when I am alone in the car, in the morning when I get ready for my day, in the evening when I prepare dinner. And there are also the sneak attacks that take me by surprise, and probably always will.

But the message has served its purpose of comfort to all who read it. And now, perhaps maybe we could use these blocks—as we have in the past—to summon the resistant summer weather. With reluctance, I will change this long-standing message. It will take courage to sit on the floor, dismantle the words, and scramble the blocks. I will remember the last time I turned these blocks in my hands to find just the right letters—the moment when creating the perfect message was so very important.

Smiles

I sometimes forget how much I appreciate living with creative individuals—they infuse my life with happiness and humor.

This weekend, my children left on Friday for a visit with their father. On Saturday morning, I picked up the watermelon I had gotten earlier in the week and was getting ready to cut it. The “paid” sticker from the grocery store (really, just a circle of bright color) had lines in it, and I bent closer to see what was in it. Smiling back at me was a cute little face that was radiating happiness. I have no idea which of my creatives drew the face—they did it when I wasn’t looking—but whoever did it knew I would see it.

These are the simple things that make me smile.

High School Awards

Because this morning, I was grappling with how I would address this topic–one that is so important–I am reblogging this excellent post: http://www.karensargentbooks.com/blog/kid-doesnt-get-award/

A Mom’s Reflections on High School

When I was a teenager, I attended high school. Well, you’re thinking. Didn’t we all?

Yes, we did. But recently, I have become convinced that many of us block out the truth of our high school experience—the feelings of being a lone boat adrift on an endless sea—and that is a distinct barrier to effectively parenting our teenage children.

In reality, my high school experience is the single best training I have in my quest for effectively relating to my own teenagers, and I will be a better parent if I can tap into the feelings I had in high school.

If I can recall all the times I felt out of place and lonely, when I was laughed at or pushed aside, I will be able to relate to my children when they come to me in tears after being rejected or treated poorly by a peer or peer group.

If I can conjure the relief that came with the end of the school year and the long summer vacation, I will be able to reassure my children that two months off fixes a great many ills that have festered over the long months of a confining academic year.

If I can elicit the intense need I felt to stretch my wings beyond the walls of the school, I can help my children to see the promise of the future rather than dwell in the tedium of the daily life of cliques and classes.

If I can remember all the reasons I was never seen without a book tucked under my arm and all the times I used the book to hide, I can help my kids find their own healthy means of escape.

But most importantly, if I am able to reflect back on my own high school career with an honest perspective—remembering both the good times and the challenging, I can help my kids to recognize that high school may not be the best four years, but it doesn’t have to be the worst four years, either. Instead, it can be the beginning of a period of intense growth as they begin to discover who they are and what they want from life.

Yes, I attended high school. And yes, my four years in that environment can help me to better understand and empathize with my children. I will be a better parent if I can not only tap into the feelings of being in high school, but be willing to share those feelings and experiences with my own children.

And maybe, just maybe—as we navigate the challenges—I can convince my kids that they not only have the ability to make their own lives better, they also have the opportunity to better the lives of the other students they pass in the hallways.

Of Memory and Circuses

In honor of the final show of the of the Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey Circus that is happening today, May 21, I thought I would reminisce on the circuses of my past. In truth, my life as a single mom is often a bit of a circus, but I will stick to a discussion of circuses in the entertainment sense of the word.

When I was very young, I attended my first circus. I don’t remember how old I was, and I don’t remember where the circus was. I only remember that it was under a tent in a large field. It was a cold, rainy day, and my very scattered memories of that event include the fabric of the tent, the hay that was scattered on the ground to keep the mud under control, and the mingling smells of damp hay, dirt, and animals. I remember Dad’s large, warm hand holding my small one as we made our way to our seats. And that is pretty much my only recollection of that trip to the circus.

My second trip to the circus did not involve a performance under a tent. This one was a performance of The Great Moscow Circus in a large indoor arena about an hour from our home. [Side note: my childhood took place during the Cold War years]. It was a beautiful, sunny day, though I cannot remember the season of the year; I think it may have been somewhat cool outside. We made our way to our seats, and Dad left to visit the men’s room before the show began. A few minutes later, as my sister and I bounced in our seats in anticipation, we heard an announcement that began, “Ladies and Gentlemen….” The announcer continued, letting us know that we needed to evacuate the arena. We had a brief moment of disbelief before Mom gathered us up and headed for the door. As we descended the stairs and began to move toward the exit, we met up with Dad, and we made our way back to the car. We sat in the car, listening to the local radio station, but no news came as to why we had to evacuate. After a time, we were allowed back in the building, and the show went on as if nothing had happened. Later, we would learn there had been a bomb threat which necessitated the evacuation for a thorough search. I don’t remember any of the show that day, only the evacuation.

My third trip to the circus was to celebrate my younger son’s sixth birthday. We went to the Ringling Brothers pre-show first, where we met some of the clowns and saw some of the performers. I’m not sure how much of that experience my children will remember as time marches on. This is the only circus performance I remember—because it was much more recent—and I only remember bits and pieces. I think traditional circuses tend to be far too busy and flashy to appeal to those of us who can only pay attention to one thing at a time.

The moral of my circus story is that parents can spend time with children in all kinds of activities. Ultimately, what children will remember is the time together (and sometimes any occurrences out of the ordinary) rather than the activity, itself.

The Problem with Millennials…

A couple weeks ago, as we were driving home from who knows where, my daughter started a conversation with me about millennials and the unfair treatment they receive in the media and the greater society. The impetus for this discussion was a spot run by the morning radio deejays in which they spent their air time slamming the entire millennial generation. I had heard the radio spot that morning, but as with much of what the morning deejays say, it only registered as background noise.

The truth is, the deejays were not being very kind in their talk about millennials, which seemed odd since this generation likely makes up at least a portion of their listening audience. The gist of their discussion centered on how millennials have become notorious for being lame and useless, lazy and entitled, and living in their parents’ basements. The deejays claimed these young adults don’t want to work; they whine all the time; they expect rewards for showing up; the list goes on…. The deejays even had people calling in to tell their own stories of dealing with this particular group of individuals. To be blunt, the feature was rude, and demonstrated more about the adults who were perpetuating the generational stereotype than it did about millennials.

My daughter then raised an incredibly insightful point. “Mom, it was your generation that made millennials this way. Your generation was the one that raised us and gave out the trophies. You can’t now blame millennials for expecting to be rewarded.” This parenting truth of is one I see played out often as I go about my job, a job that involves working with millennials.

[Let me briefly say, I am not now—nor have I ever been—a helicopter parent. I have increasingly allowed, encouraged, and even required my children to make their own decisions and to take responsibility for those decisions. Have I failed in more ways than I’d like to admit? Absolutely. But I would definitely not be considered a coddler.]

Perhaps my own aversion to coddling is due to the fact that I have been working with young people in one capacity or another for most of my life. I have dealt with more parents than I can count, and I have seen parenting behavior that makes me cringe. Every now and then, I experience parenting that is worth writing about, but I usually keep my thoughts to myself.

But on this day as I drove, my daughter’s words hit me as the raw truth. We cannot expect children or young adults to behave in a way that we have not trained them to behave. If we have done everything for them and constantly protected them as they have moved through the world, of course they are going to wind up back in our homes where they feel protected, comfortable, and … well, at home. And then there’s the fact of the frightening economy into which we are attempting to launch these newly minted adults—many of whom are already drowning under the weight of student debt.

So for a moment, think back to your own youth. Remember when you were a teenager, and your parents—their friend, the world, etc.—complained about you and your friends? When I was a teenager, we (as a group) were supposedly lazy and mooched off our parents. Sound familiar? Maybe young adults haven’t really grown lazier and less motivated, but adults simply need a place to lay blame, and throwing young people into one stereotypically lazy group is easy.

What would happen if we started treating kids as individuals rather than lumping the entire generation into one humongous group? Maybe the fundamental problem with millennials is not millennials, but rather our attitude toward them and our lack of expectation for them. Perhaps, we have forgotten what it is like to be young and floundering as we pursue our dreams. Perhaps we have forgotten that with increased responsibility comes increased independence, and we fail to give kids enough responsibility to facilitate positive growth and development. Most importantly, we have forgotten that when we are senior citizens, today’s young people will be our surgeons, our lawyers, our politicians, and the creative minds that will effect positive change in the society.

So it is my belief that young people need two things: opportunity and mentorship. When I was young and just starting out, someone had faith in me to do a job and to do it well, and they gave me a chance. [As I look back, it was more like a string of someones who recognized that I was good enough, smart enough, skilled enough to do the job.] We owe it to these kids to give them the same chance to prove what they can do.

As a teacher, I have experienced the incredible passion, determination, eagerness, and conviction that millennials possess. Take a chance on a young person; reach out and offer your support. My guess is, they may need some encouragement and guidance along the way (as we all do), but there is little doubt the time you take will be worth it.

{Photo illustration by my amazing daughter}

Collaboration Qualm

I came across this quote today, and I found it intriguing. Visualize a qualm….

To me, an academic assignment that involves group work is sort of like a dish of melting ice cream. You might be deeply interested in the topic or the assignment, but the fact that you have to complete it with a group is disappointing and takes the fun out of the process. You know that you will have someone in the group who doesn’t carry his or her weight, and you are concerned that one person’s lack of contribution will affect the outcome of the entire project. And the evaluation of said project. And ultimately, the grade.

I have witnessed a few too many group projects gone wrong. In truth, if I had a dime for every time a student came to me with a complaint about a group project, I would be a wealthy woman. “This person isn’t doing any work, so now I have to do her part and my part,” or “So-and-so won’t respond to my texts, and he hasn’t completed the research we need.”

Wouldn’t you think by now, teachers would realize that a group will always carry one or more individuals. Group projects are a punishment to the good students because one or two of them will be forced to do all of the work and the others will skate through on the work (and the grades) of those students.

I have qualms about collaborative assignments. You probably have your own qualms. A dish of melting ice cream, a deflated balloon, a sailboat in the middle of a lake without a lick of breeze in the air. Think about your own qualms and come up with a good metaphor to describe them.

[Image credit: http://www.relatably.com/q/qualms-quotes%5D

Lessons from the Road

So I am at it again—driving with an inexperienced driver. Here’s the funny thing about driving with a new driver: When you get in the car, even if you know where you are going, you never really know how the drive will go. You might have a plan in your head when you embark on the journey, but when you get out of the car, you think, Well, that didn’t turn out the way I thought it would.

Take, for example, a drive we went on earlier this week. Unlike my older two children, this child is very anxious to be behind the wheel, and if we are going somewhere, he always asks if he can drive. So this week, we had to travel to the next town (a small city), and we had to get on the highway to get there. It was just past rush hour, and I knew a route that would skirt the main part of town and bring us to our destination without the worry of traffic, turns, and too many stoplights.

Well in advance of the exit ramp, I let the young driver know that the ramp was a sharp curve, and he would want to slow down. Way down. But the exit comes up quickly and there is traffic coming onto the highway that needs to be negotiated. As we careened around the turn, my son said, “Wow, that is a sharp curve!” But he was able to maintain control as he finally slowed to a better pace.

I took a couple deep breaths to calm my heart rate as he merged with the cars on the new road, and I said, “You’re going to want to get into the left lane.” I pointed ahead. “See that light? You’ll be turning left there.”

“Right there?” he asked, gesturing with a tilt of his head, as his hands were on the steering wheel.

“Yes,” I responded as we moved closer to the intersection that I was looking at. We remained two lanes away from the left-est lane. In my head, I knew we could go straight and still get to our destination, and I only briefly considered mentioning that by left lane, I meant all the way to the left. But I decided to let it slide.

We went straight through the light, and he asked where he was supposed to turn. “Back there,” I replied. “But you’re fine. We can get there this way.” In the end, we arrived at our destination safely and in plenty of time, and we got some unexpected experience navigating the city streets.

And I learned a valuable lesson, because learning is not exclusive to one person in any given teaching experience. I need to remember that even though—in my head, and with my years of experience—this driving thing is very straightforward, for a rookie navigator, the road system is a maze of unchartered territory. It’s always best to keep directions simple. Maybe we go a bit out of our way, but in doing so, we avoid the panic of directions given too swiftly and followed recklessly. It’s a process, this business of driving a car, and well… practice.

The point of driving hours is to practice rather than to reach a destination. Destination will be the next step. In the meantime, keep your hands on the wheel. Keep your seatbelt on. And (as Dad always said) watch out for the other guy.

13 Reasons Challenge

Today, while I was doing my behind-the-scenes blog thing (i.e. reading, following, commenting on other bloggers’ work), I stumbled on an amazing blogging challenge that I could not pass up. This young blogger had seen the TV show “13 Reasons Why,” and she offered this challenge to other bloggers: Write a post on the 13 reasons why you are happy. What a great idea! Many thanks to Steph for putting forth this challenge. Here goes:

1 – Morning. The fact is, I woke up this morning, and that, in and of itself, is something to be happy about. Morning always comes, but as I get older, I realize the chances of not waking up increase just a bit each day. Life is temporary, and I am happy that I am still here on this planet.

2 – My three great kids. Even though sometimes I may complain (as most parents do), they really are amazing—talented, funny, caring, etc. And I am honored to be here to watch them grow in competence, confidence, and independence.

3 – My family. They are the best! In addition to my kids, my mom and my sister are two of my favorite [adult] people in the world. I also have extended family members who are always around to remind me that the tree we all fell from was full of nuts. Really, I’m not the only crazy one.

4 –My wonderful Partner in Everything (PiE), one of my other most favorite adults. Every day, I know he loves me, supports me, challenges me, pushes me to be a better me, even if sometimes he thinks I am crazy (see #3) or I make him tear his hair out. Hey, relationships can’t be all sunshine and roses now, can they?

5 – Being a single mother. For 14 and a half years, I have lived this lifestyle. And I have survived. Really, I have done more than survive. As challenging as it has sometimes been, I love begin a single mother to these three crazy creatives of mine. I believe single parenting was by far the best choice for us, as a family.

6 – My home, which is warm and safe and dry. Even though we might not have as much space as we want at any given moment, our home has served us well. It gave us a bit of space to grow, and we’ve been able to figure it out. With its lack of storage space, it has also limited the amount of “stuff” we can acquire, which is always a good thing.

7 – Amazing neighbors. How many people can say that?

8 – My wonderful church family. It is a small parish and a welcoming community, which has allowed my children to recognize that there are people outside of our family who love and care for them.

9 – I am not going to say I am happy for the hard times. However, I will say, the hard times offer an opportunity to put the good times in perspective. Therefore, I am happy for the resilience that hard times bring.

10 – Spring. It is spring in my geographical area, though there are days it doesn’t feel like it; it has been mostly cold and raw and rainy. Despite the cooler temps, flowers are blooming, trees are sprouting leaves, and the spring peepers are peeping. This time of year makes me happy.

11 – I have three awesome, cuddly cats, and I love them dearly. They make me laugh; they allow me to talk to myself, and if anyone overhears me, I can blame one of them. “Oh, I was just talking to the cat.” And it has been scientifically proven that petting cats will lower my blood pressure. Perfect excuses to have a cat… or three.

12 – Tradition. You know, sometimes I think I don’t have many traditions with my children, but when I really think about it, I realize there are quite a few. Whether it is the manner in which we celebrate Christmas, the simple things eating on the deck in the summer, or our annual trip to Family Camp, we definitely have traditions, and I treasure them.

13 – Creativity. I am so happy that I am able to create something from nothing. Or more likely, create something useful from things like leaves and string and glue and tissue. Creativity is sort of like magic that way.

Can you think of 13 things that make you happy? Maybe you can include one or two in the comments.

Fridge Lock

It is interesting how conversations progress in my house, and how quickly things change.

A week ago, my son came home from college and in all honestly, he might not have eaten the entire time he was there. On one of his first days home, he was eating a container of apricot yogurt. I didn’t know he liked apricot yogurt, and there were other flavors in the fridge I thought he did like. So I mentioned to him that I had purchased the apricot for his brother.

At first, he stared at me as though I had somehow insulted him. Deeply. And then he marched to the fridge, threw open the doors, and said, “Tell me which food in here is mine, Mom. What has my name on it?” He made a sweeping motion with his hand, indicating the contents of the fridge. “Can you tell me? Because I see none.” He turned and looked directly at me, taunting me, daring me to answer him. I stared back. Then I smiled and shrugged, but I did not answer.

Fast forward to today. I purchased bagels earlier in the week at his urging, but today he complained, “There are no bagels left. I only ate one of them, and the rest disappeared.” He was disappointed. Somehow, he had forgotten that food tends to disappear in a house with three hungry teenagers. And my house doesn’t have the seemingly endless supply of food that he enjoyed in his college dining hall.

“We should put a lock on the fridge,” he proposed, apparently backing off on his open-refrigerator policy of just a few short days ago.

“And that would mean that only I would have access to the food,” I countered, suddenly recognizing what a great idea this might be to have complete control of the food.

“No… I would have access, too,” he told me. “I know about fridges. I majored in culinary in high school.”

I laughed. “Interesting thought, but that might cause more problems.” I imagined one of his siblings trying unsuccessfully to get into the fridge—even for a glass of water, and I shuddered.

Yes, the conversations change quickly around here. This afternoon, as I left the grocery store with a full cart, I said to my boyfriend, “There. Now I won’t have to come back for at least two days!” It seems it might be a long summer of frequent food shopping. Maybe a lock is not such a bad idea.

Image credit: FreeImages.com / Griszka Niewiadomski