Advice to My Younger Self

Watching teens go through their various challenges is one of the more difficult parts of parenting. I always thought it would be great if I could somehow spare my children the trauma of middle school and high school. These are the years when kids are jockeying for some kind of ridiculous social position. They want to be seen as the best, the brightest, the funniest, the prettiest, the most popular, the most athletic, etc. The “senior superlatives” celebrated in the local high school speak to the role such competition plays in the lives of teens.

And yet, competition—being the best athlete, having the most friends—these are not the things that are the most important in life. The most important things in life are how we treat other people and how we treat ourselves.

By channeling my younger self and tapping into some of the challenging experiences I remember, I can offer some advice to my teenage self [which is actually thinly veiled advice to my teens…].

Mind your own business, and don’t get involved in other people’s drama. There may be situations that look enticing, and times when it is tempting to step into someone else’s train wreck. And there is no reason not to step in with a sincere offer of help. Otherwise, drama is always good to avoid—your own, and that of others.

Set your goals high. The higher your goals are, the farther you will go. If your goals are easily obtainable, you will not have a reason to keep pushing yourself and keep growing. As a wise teacher once said, “If you are not growing, you are dying.” Setting your goals high will give you a reason to keep growing.

Find your own internal motivators. You have to find meaning in what you do, and that meaning has to come from you. No one else can make sense of your life and your activities. No one else can give you reason to complete tasks, to earn good grades, and to pursue your goals. That meaning and sense of purpose has to come from you.

Walk away from those who don’t treat you well. Keep walking and don’t look back. There are many people who use others, manipulate them, control them, etc. These people, they will get what’s coming to them. It’s called karma, and it really does exist.

Don’t let other people define your limits. Other people are always quick to tell you what you can and can’t do. For example, You shouldn’t pursue a career in [insert creative endeavor here] because you won’t be able to make a living. When I was in graduate school, my advisor—who had met me moments before—looked at my proposed plan of study and said, “You can’t take that many courses. You won’t be successful.” I wanted to say, Watch me! Instead, I just nodded and said these were the courses I would take, thank you very much. Sometimes, people tell you things because they want what’s best for you. Sometimes, they don’t want you to be disappointed. However, only you can determine what’s best for you. And that leads to the next point…

Find your passion and pursue it. If you love to write, find a way to incorporate that love into your college program or your career path. If you are passionate about biology and music, be creative about how these two pursuits might fit together into a career that will feed your soul. If you can’t figure out how to form your passion into a career, at least continue to pursue the activity in a way that is meaningful to you.

Always be true to yourself. You know who you are and what you stand for. Don’t compromise your values or yourself to fit another person’s idea of who you should be. Be you because that is the best and most viable choice you can make.

Advertisements

Sweater Hugs

It’s been cold here in New Hampshire. And by “cold,” I mean take-your-breath-away cold. In fact, if you stay outside for more than a minute, one of your vestigial—but important—parts might freeze off: ears, nose, fingers, toes…. If you’ve ever lived in a cold climate, you know just the kind of cold I am talking about. It is C-O-L-D!

The cold sneaks through the walls of the house, around the windows and doors, dancing across the floor as a draft that brings the cold inside. The furnace is struggling to keep the temperature comfortably warm, so we need to bundle up in extra layers, even around the house. Turtlenecks, sweaters, and warm socks are necessary.

* * *

Back in the days when oversized sweaters were all the rage, I might (or might not) have usurped my dad’s old red wool sweater. I have a vague recollection that he let me borrow it for something when I was a senior in high school, and he decided he wasn’t going to wear it any more anyway (something about it being too small and not really something he was likely to wear), so it became mine. Now, I’m not sure if he really thought he wouldn’t wear it, or he wanted me to have it, but over the years, I have held onto it and worn it every now and again. Each time I sort through clothes to donate, I pass by the sweater, leaving it in the cedar chest just in case I want to wear it someday.

* * *

It has been almost a year since Dad passed away. The pain of loss was renewed with the holidays and the approaching new year. As I looked to bundle up against the cold this morning, I remembered Dad’s sweater, folded and ready for wear at the bottom of the cedar chest. I took it out and put it on, knowing that it was the perfect sweater to keep me warm today. Throughout the day, I cherished both the warmth of the sweater and the feeling of being wrapped in a gentle hug.

Since the cold is going to drag on, I think I might wear Dad’s sweater again tomorrow….

The Right Tools

On Christmas morning, we woke up to the quintessential “white Christmas.” Snow was falling thick and heavy, sticking to the trees and piling up on the lawn and driveway. It was the scene everyone longs for on Christmas.

But a white Christmas does not come without its challenges, most notably, the need to deal with snow removal. Snow doesn’t simply go away, and it can’t stay on the driveway and walkways… unless we want to be immobilized until spring, that is, and I’m pretty sure that was not in the cards. So I donned my warm winter snow boots, jacket, and gloves, and I trudged to the shed where—it was promised—I would find my dad’s “snow shovel.”

Let me take a moment to explain my use of quotes on the term “snow shovel.” In my parents’ house, the shovel that had been used (for many years) to rid the walkways of snow seems to be more of a lightweight garden shovel than an actual, dedicated snow shovel.

Sure enough, the shovel that I expected to find was standing at attention on the floor of the shed, waiting for me, taunting me, no doubt. Mom had also offered me a beautiful, rusty child’s snow shovel that I had when I was a child, back in the Dark Ages. This shovel held a picture of a cheerful snowman, and the handle was wiggly and just a few sizes too short for my adult frame.

I used the child-shovel to do a quick scraping of the stairs before I grabbed the larger shovel and headed out toward Mom’s car. After I removed the snow from the car (with a proper tool, not with the shovel!), I started to clean out the snow around the car. I shoveled, removing the snow so she would be able to get to the drivers side door without incident. The shovel was heavy with a long handle. It wasn’t flat like the scraper I was used to, and I struggled with it. With each scoop of snow I threw, I could hear Dad’s voice: “I’ve used this shovel for 40 winters, and it has always served me well. It’s a good snow shovel, nice and light.” Clearly, Dad had not held one of the newer plastic shovels designed specifically for snow. If he had, he’d know it was the right tool for the job.

From the car, I shoveled a narrow path down the driveway, a temporary walkway until the plow arrived to remove the snow from the driveway. When I was done, I retreated to the cozy warmth of the house.

The next day, I went out and purchased two new shovels for Mom, one large with a wide, flat blade and one, a very small scoop with a telescoping handle. It was far from an extravagant purchase, but Mom now has the tools she needs for the next storm. However, I am willing to confess it was maybe a little selfish of me. Now, when I’m at Mom’s house and it snows, I have the shovels I need so I don’t feel like I’m stuck and trying to dig out from the 1950s!

Rediscovered Treasure

This weekend, winter decided to move in. On Saturday, the temperature dropped several degrees, and the snow began to fall just before noon. And Saturday was the day I chose to sort through my Christmas ornaments to decide what I would keep and what I would give away. After all, some of the ornaments in my collection have been kicking around since I was just out of college. And even earlier.

Nowadays, I tend not to burden my tree with an overabundance of ornaments like I did when the kids were younger. Mostly because I like it simple—lights and a few sparkly ornaments to reflect the light back into the room. But there is also the fact that my teenagers are excited about decorating the tree, but not so excited about taking it down after Christmas.

So I sat on the couch and opened the large, green plastic tote, removed the first cardboard box, and began to unwrap small tissue paper balls to rediscover what was inside. Plastic animals dressed in Santa hats with wreaths, hand-painted cinnamon sticks and wooden disks picked up at a long forgotten craft fair, needlepoint plastic canvas squares… these were the items that found themselves in the ever-growing “give away” pile.

As I sorted, I came upon a yellowed box that said, “Mom’s dwarfs” in the handwriting of … I’m not really sure … one of my aunts, maybe? And in pencil, in a similar handwriting, it said, “For Suzanne from Nana.” More recently written were a number of notes in Dad’s handwriting: instructions about being careful, about the fact that there were extra parts wrapped up by themselves, about the things that Dad would typically warn me about as he removed these very fragile items from their carefully crafted tissue paper cocoons.

And now, I pulled one out of the box and placed it in my lap. I unrolled the tissue, getting closer and closer to the treasure it held. The weight of the ornament was less than one might expect, making it easy to fumble or accidentally drop it. But it was cradled securely in my lap. Finally, I was rewarded for my care when I spied the first glint of pointy shoes, a leg, and then a jolly face, its paint cracked and peeling from years of use.

My breath caught in my throat as I could feel Dad’s large hand carefully placing the “dwarf” ornament in my own then small hand. Each year, without fail, before he let go, he would ask, “Got it?” double-checking that this delicate figure was secure and would not fall to the floor where it might meet its demise.

The fact that these old ornaments had seen better days did not make them any less precious. The memories they evoked were worth the extra care needed. Of course, now that I have carefully unwrapped these very fragile ornaments on my own, I believe they are less fragile than all the past fuss would indicate. No matter. I still took great care as I hung them on the branches of my tree.

My one question that will never be answered: why, with elves all around at this time of year, did these ornaments end up being labeled “dwarves” rather than “elves” that might be more fitting for the Christmas season? I suppose I’ll never know. I will be left to devise my own theory.

 

 

Snippets of Life

Memories of my life are filed away like index cards carefully placed in drawers, an ancient and ever-expanding card catalog of snippets of life. I can open the drawers, flip through the memories, and see the things that have brought me to this place—this point in time.

Different drawers contain different sets of memories. The good memories fill several drawers, and I can flip through them quickly, as if spinning a Rolodex, or slowly like I am engrossed in detailed research. When I look in one drawer, I can see my children toddling down the hall. There are first words, first steps, first days of school. I pause for a moment on an afternoon spent running around the front lawn, desperately trying to catch leaves tossed and blown on the wind. The giggles are as vivid in memory’s ear as they were that day.

If I work really hard, I can go back to memories of my own childhood: picnics on an old wooden bridge, dressing up for church on Sundays, holidays, and the occasion or two when I walked home from school in the middle of the day for lunch. There are memories of lessons learned, family time, and brief vacations thrown in here and there for good measure.

Silliness weaves through most of the drawers, knit into the fabric of my very being. Here and there, a memory will bring up the humor that my children often take for granted. It is an essential part of our family life.

There are memories I draw upon for inspiration. Times I was the definite underdog, but I persevered and met with success. Times I was on the receiving end of Mercy and Grace. Times when love and laughter were on my side as I worked through a challenge.

The not-so-positive memories are in a drawer of their own, lest I accidentally stumble upon them while I am surfing my pleasant memories. I don’t open that drawer much—I don’t need to. It is stiff and broken and hard to work. It doesn’t quite close all the way, and sometimes, the memories slip out, catching me when I am low, and nagging at the edges of my brain. These memories, they chastise me for… well, for everything. Not good enough. Not strong enough. Not thin enough. Not happy enough. Not. Enough.

And I work diligently to recover and move on as quickly as I can to another drawer. Because the catalog has never been a bad thing. It helps me to stay organized and grounded. And it helps me to move in a positive direction. The good memories outweigh the not-so-good memories. File away the “mistakes made” as lessons learned, and they suddenly become a necessary step in the process. Because every step and every misstep, every turn and every detour, every moment lived through every age is a tiny building block in the process of creating my life. The good, the bad, the happy, the sad, every card in my catalog… these are all lessons learned.

Blink

Over the years, we have hit milestones with the regularity of the thump of a flat tire. Thump… thump… thump…. At first, it’s kind of reassuring to know that your child is hitting all the important milestones. But recently, it seems the car is speeding up and the milestones thump by faster and faster—at an alarming rate of speed, really. And this week, my daughter completed—and submitted—her first college application. Breathe.

These monumental occasions always give me pause and compel me to take a quick (or leisurely) inventory of the years that have come and gone. This most recent milestone hints at the small amount of time I have before she is off and testing her wings.

The early years of single parenthood are still vividly etched in my memory. I spent the days looking in the rearview mirror, counting heads in the backseat of the car. As the one parent of three very small children—all under five—I was always afraid that in my sleep-deprived state, I would leave one behind. Maybe one slipped by me somehow, and was still hiding in a store in the mall. Perhaps someone went to use the potty and was in the bathroom finishing up, or worse, didn’t get in the car and was standing in the driveway in a puddle of tears wondering why I left without him/her. In those early years, that fear never fully dissipated.

I blinked and we were in a new house in a new neighborhood with new friends and a new school. Little hands reached for mine with regularity. A hand to hold; a hand to help; a hand to lead the way. Those were days of constant attention and discovery and learning. There were toys and games and books and building and dancing and crafts. LOTS of crafts.

And then I blinked.

And the day came when they were all in school, mornings first and then full days. The school bus rumbled up the hill in the morning and swallowed them up. I would watch as the bus drove off up the road and out of sight before I ran home to switch to “adult” mode and be on my way to work. In the early days, I was home from work for 3:15, always needing to beat the bus to meet the kids so they were supervised and transported to the activity of the day. Always rushing so I wouldn’t be late.

Until I blinked.

The kids were able to ride the bus to their activities. My work hours increased, and an after school sitter took on some of my role. Extra keys were made and cell phones purchased and the kids further shaped their identities as they took their first tentative steps toward independence.

I blinked again, and now they are nearly through high school. They will be out on their own soon, with jobs and lives that take them all in different directions. That doesn’t mean my job is done. A mother’s work is never done, is it?

Just don’t blink.

When Aliens Move In

I was having a conversation with my neighbor recently, and midway through our discussion, she said, “Was your son home the other day? I said ‘hi’ to him, but then I wasn’t quite sure it was really him. I thought it was, but he’s changed so much….” Her voice trailed off.

I get it. We have lived in our neighborhood for the past 13+ years, and the kids were very, very little when we moved in. Now, they are hovering on adulthood, driving, working. They have grown from knee-high to taller than Mama. Their schedules are busy, and they don’t cross paths with the neighbors as much as they used to. So it doesn’t surprise me that recognizing them might be a challenge.

There is this subtle change that all kids experience on their journey from childhood to adulthood. But then there is the not-so-subtle change when they are suddenly much more adult than they were yesterday; one day—quite suddenly—they almost seem to be different people altogether.

It usually happens after a feeding-frenzy when they have somehow managed to consume every edible morsel in the house. They go to bed and the next day, or the next week, they wake up, come into the kitchen for breakfast, and you think, Is that really my child at the table? As you look at said child, you notice that the face is more angular; the shoulders are a bit broader; the voice is deeper and the vocabulary is more mature; moods and attitudes vary from moment to moment; and wait… my child would never have worn those clothes yesterday. Where did he even get that outfit? You rack your brain trying to remember if you purchased that shirt, or from whom he might have borrowed it.

As you begin to get used to this taller, louder, hungrier being that now inhabits your home, you simultaneously start to wonder what happened to your child. Where is the child who—just yesterday—was climbing trees and catching frogs? Where is the child who cuddled up next to you while you read bedtime stories? Where is the little one would get up from a Lego-building session and come into the kitchen for a hug?

In fact, I will admit that last summer, I dropped my son at camp, as I had every year for several years. A week later, when I went to pick him up, I could not find him in amongst the crowd of boys all dressed alike. I even spotted him at one point, only to continue scanning the crowd because that kid just didn’t look like my kid. Seriously. My own kid.

And then there was the day over the last year when I called home on my commute from work. A man answered the phone and my heartbeat quickened. WHO IS THIS?? I almost screamed, but then I heard a lilt that I recognized in the strange male voice. Oh, wait…. Perhaps this is the new voice of my kid…?

It’s been a process, but I’m beginning to get used to the new kids who share my house with me. Because with these new kids come some unexpected adventures and new idiosyncrasies. These new kids help each other, they work together, they brainstorm solutions to their own problems, they have goals and dreams, and through their daily experiences, they are developing the grit to reach the goals they set for themselves.

And every now and then, I know they are the same children who have always lived here. When I am really lucky, one of them will come into the kitchen and surprise me with a spontaneous hug.