Social Constructs

2020 Lesson Number Four: Social constructs are flexible

There are social constructs that have become so much a part of our lives that we have forgotten they are merely social constructs. This year, for example, there has been much talk of students falling behind in school—of not completing the “required curriculum.” Parents have expressed great concern that their son or daughter will fall behind and not acquire the skills necessary to progress to the next grade level. The student won’t be able to pass some randomly selected marker of achievement. Or the student will have a decreased opportunity to attend the college of his or her choice.

What is lacking in these conversations is the recognition that all students are experiencing the same school and learning issues. All students. And not just in the U.S., but all students around the world.

What if instead of expecting students to reach some imaginary marker, we change the bar? What if we decide that the skills necessary to move to a new grade level might be a little different than they have been in past years? What if we recognize that this year, students might have acquired a whole new set of skills that we didn’t expect?

Students might not have acquired the same skills they normally would for their grade level. But now, they have gained an awareness of how to take precautionary measures to coexist with others during a global pandemic. They have learned, firsthand, about supply chain shortages, supply and demand, and hoarding. They have lived through a major historic event and seen what is possible if we all pull together. And they have experienced the tragic consequences of an infectious disease spreading through the population. Students have learned to navigate mask-wearing and Zoom classrooms; they have learned self-discipline and an ability to minimize distractions in a distraction-laden environment; and they have developed skills to deal with uncertainty in a life that once felt completely safe and well-planned. They have learned to give back to their communities, and they have planned socially distant events and pitched in like never before. They have watched over loved ones and taken on roles that they might not have been ready for. They have grown and stretched and matured.

It is fair to say that this year has been a lengthy lesson in some challenging life skills. So what if we shift our focus from all the things these kids can’t do and all of the things they didn’t have a chance to learn. What if, instead, we give them credit for all the amazing and meaningful things they did learn and all of the life experience they gained. What if we look at this year as one big lived-history lesson?

Since societies are the ones who determine school curriculums, they can determine the changes to the expectations. I, for one, believe that if you made it through 2020, you have some life skills in your tool box that will serve you well for years to come. I don’t believe anyone is falling behind. I think we are all falling into place.

{Photo by Marcelo Silva on Unsplash}

Moments, Masks, and Missions

There is much to be said of the experience of living life. This whole slowing down thing has changed the focus of so many of us. Before the coronavirus shut-down, we were focused on some imaginary mission—reaching our goals, our children’s educational and athletic achievements, amassing money—that we forgot what it’s like to live. We hustled our children from one activity to another. They played baseball and soccer, participated in Scouts and dance, they painted and played a musical instrument. Until that all came to a screeching halt.

And now, we’re faced with a different reality. What would happen if we let our children (and ourselves) have some unstructured time? What would happen if we all had time to think and breathe and not be constantly scheduled for every minute of the day? What if we gave our children time to come up with their own activities? Time to fill in whatever way they see fit. What would happen then?

If we continue to schedule our lives so full—to carry out some imaginary mission of productivity at all cost, we are not allowing ourselves to live life. We are not teaching our children what it is like to pay attention to the world around them and be with themselves. We are not allowing them to experience what life throws at them. We don’t expect them to reach because we are doing the reaching for them. We are not expecting them to figure out solutions to their problems because we are finding solutions before they even have problems. We are not teaching them to fit their mission to their life. Because they are living our mission and not their own.

This weekend, my son became a college graduate. Just like that. No fanfare, no diploma, no walk across the stage, no ceremony. One minute he was hunkered over the computer finishing up assignments that had been four years in the making, and the next minute, he was a college graduate.

And on Saturday morning, we were faced with the task of creating a special day and making our own memories, however simplistic and disappointing. He donned his cap and gown, and we ventured out into the windy, snowy, never-a-dull-weather-moment that is New England in May, and we took pictures. Proud college graduation pictures. In some, he is wearing a face mask, lest we ever forget what upended his senior year and his college graduation. And when we went inside, we feasted on homemade chocolate cake.

Life is not in all the things we try to cram into our schedules. Life is in the moments—in the deep daily living. It’s in the things that go wrong and the manner in which we rise to the challenge to address them. It’s in the ways we grow and the lessons we learn. Life is not in the mission to accomplish, but in the mission to learn and improve and grow. Life is in the mission to live fully and to make the best of every situation.

Lessons from Lockdown: Logic, Life, and Laughter

This period of lockdown has offered us a unique opportunity to shift our focus and reevaluate who we are and what is important. It has offered us a unique perspective on the things we hold dear. As many people sort, declutter, and simplify their homes, they might begin to sense that what’s important lies in the little things, the intangible things, the spiritual-rather-than-material things.

Logic: Today, I almost started an email, “I hope you and your family are doing well in lockdown.” Now, no matter how true and relevant that is, I couldn’t help but think it sounded like the family was in jail. So I rewrote my opening sentence. The person who received the email will never know of my near faux pas, but I definitely appreciate the thought that I have to put into writing a normal statement after working from home for nearly two months.

Life: Yesterday, I helped my son move out of his college dorm for the final time. This was not the way it was supposed to be—returning to a room that was a time-capsule, untouched since the mid-March day he came home for a week of spring break; moving out with almost no one else on campus; not having the much-anticipated celebrations of scholarship, graduation, and ending ceremonies. It was a two-hour time slot of “pack up your stuff and get out.” When I drove away, he stayed behind, saying good-bye to a senior-year-interrupted in the way that was appropriate for him. As I drove home, I shed a few tears for him—for the proper end of college he wouldn’t have; for the memories he wouldn’t make in favor of others that would define him and his entire cohort of age-peers. And as I drove, a bald eagle flew overhead as an illustration of the way he will soar once the tethers have been released. It will be a different world by then, but these young adults are in the perfect position to take it on and run with it.

Laughter: Our house is regularly filled with laughter, even in the tough times. These days, we could easily abandon laughter altogether in favor of the dark and dreary, but where would that lead us? Nowhere good, no doubt. So we laugh. On a recent afternoon, I was cutting the hair of my younger son, exercising the clippers that I bought when the boys were young to save money on haircuts. I hadn’t cut anyone’s hair in ten years, at least. But this kid likes his hair short, so he asked me cut it. At one point, in a move that was far from professional, I realized the cord was hanging in his face. “Sorry about the cord,” I told him to let him know my technique was far from polished.

“That’s okay,” he told me. “I’ll mention it in your Yelp review though.” Ha! If I open my own pop-up barber shop, that would not be the worst thing my Yelp reviews would say.

We do our best to hold on to the lessons we are learning. And we keep laughing because the laughter keeps us positive and the positive keeps us moving forward. And forward is the best way to get through this.

{Photo by Matt Seymour on Unsplash}

Broken Zippers

We have reached a critical point in our school career, my youngest and I. With just over three months to go in his entire school career, the lunch bag he has been using since eighth grade (maybe seventh) has sprung a broken zipper. We have been able to limp through this crisis so far, but we are reaching the end of the bag’s utility faster than we are reaching graduation.

The zipper has two pulls that meet in the middle. One of the zippers has come off its track and hangs useless and rattling at one end. While that might seem workable, what with the second pull and all, the zipper has a section of broken and missing teeth, and the other end only zips halfway, leaving the bag gaping and in danger of dumping its contents—literally “losing its lunch,” if you will.

But as I mentioned, we have only three months left of school. In our entire career. It’s not like a new lunch bag can be passed down to a younger sibling or cousin or neighbor. In three months, we’ll be DONE, and there is no one younger to use a crummy lunch bag.

But I know better than to think three months of paper lunch bags would be a good idea. Number one, the environment doesn’t need to give up any more trees. And number two, paper doesn’t keep the lunch cold and the weather will be warming soon.

But here’s the kicker. I knew we had another black lunch box in our house somewhere… or at least we used to. We definitely have a green one, and I know exactly where that one is. But there was a black one… now where did we put that?

Then one day last week, I was carrying the laundry to the basement, and I spotted the lunch bag. It was covered in a layer of dust, hanging on a hook behind my older son’s quiver of flu-flu arrows. (Those suckers haven’t been moved since he was in high school, and he’s graduating from college this year…). So, I took it down and tossed it in the laundry room to wash over break.

A couple days later, when I went to throw it in the wash, I realized it wasn’t empty. You know that feeling of dread you get when you have no idea what you’re about to see, but you know it can’t be good? As I reached for the zipper, I prepared both my eyes and my stomach for whatever four-plus year-old food I was about to uncover. I closed my eyes and unzipped the bag.

I opened one eye and peeked in. A sandwich bag full of goldfish—still orange (though pale) and smiling—stared back at me. A smaller bag held $1.25 in quarters—milk money. I breathed a sigh of relief as I peeled the sticky goldfish bag from the bottom of the container. The oils from the crackers and the years in the bag had made the plastic sticky. I chucked the bag in the trash, scrubbed the residue from the container, and tossed it in the washing machine. Now, we have a nearly new lunch bag to end out the waning school year!

But an important lesson can be learned from this story: Check your lunch bags at the door. You may thank me someday.

Grapes

I have learned to ration grapes.

This lesson was a long time in the learning, but I think I finally have it down. It comes after many months of missing out on the grapes—grapes I bought. I would come home from the grocery store with three pounds of grapes, dump them in a colander and wash them. While they drained in the kitchen sink, they would disappear. All of them. Before the end of the day.

Week after week, month after month, this was happening. Now, you might think I would have caught on before now. You might think I would have devised a solution months ago. Or stopped buying grapes. But I didn’t. I just kept thinking that requesting my kids not eat all the grapes would be enough. Nevertheless, when I arrived home from work. The grapes would be gone.

“You ate all the grapes!” I would say when I discovered the disappearance.

“No. I saved you some,” would come the inevitable reply.

“Three grapes. You saved me three grapes!!”

“Oh. Is that all that’s left?” And there would be a long pause. “Sorry….”

And so, I have learned to ration the grapes. This is just one in a long line of lessons I have learned in my parenting career. I wash a small bunch at a time, and leave the majority in the refrigerator. In the back. Where they might go unnoticed.

It’s the only way I can have my grapes and eat them, too.

Adulting

I’m struggling a bit with the challenge of parenting adults. As all of my children are now over 18, there is a delicate balance I have to strike between over-parenting and under-parenting. And the balance changes from one day to the next and from kid to kid. So I have to figure out the balance (times three) each and every day.

One thing I want is to be honest with them about the excitement of being an adult because every kid should be prepared for all the fun that awaits them, and they need to know the tasks they will be responsible for. This morning, I texted my daughter a picture of my coffee; we were texting, and texting pictures of food is a thing, right? And it was kind of cool the way the sunlight was shining through the coffee and getting caught in the ice cubes. Did she agree with me? I doubt it. But after I sent the picture, she asked me where I was.

“I’m getting my tires rotated,” I informed her. And then I added, “I just love adulting” Really, there’s no place I’d rather be on a Saturday morning. When I completed this task, I was planning a trip to the transfer station to deposit my recyclables. And the fun would continue in a similar manner throughout the day.

“Oh, fun,” my daughter responded. “I can’t wait to start adulting.” The good, the bad and the mundane. It’s all in there somewhere. I’m not trying to dash her excitement about adulting, but a realistic picture of the fun that lies ahead isn’t unreasonable.

Is it?

Really Old

So… this evening, I worked late. I had to teach a workshop to a graduate class, and I had told my children—who are all still home for break—I wouldn’t be home for dinner. Since we have a fridge full of leftovers, I knew they wouldn’t have a problem finding something to eat. I walked in the door at 7:40, which spurred them to action on the dinner thing. While they heated up the food, I went upstairs to change into my pjs and get ready for bed.

When I came out of the bathroom, I could hear them talking about music and Metallica and how the band had been together forever—well, since 1981, anyway. My older son asked the younger, “Are they finished now?”

The younger son responded, “Nah, they’re never done.” Then he thought for a minute and changed his mind. “Well, they might be. They’re all really old now.”

The older brother asked, “How old are they? Like seventies?”

“No.” There was a brief pause. “They’re like Mom’s age,” came the response.

Oh dang! It’s always quite enlightening to get a glimpse of yourself through the eyes of your kids.

Unexpected Duties

Last evening, my son walked in the door from work as I was walking through the kitchen with a basket of dirty laundry. “If you want to give me your sweatshirt, I’ll toss it in with this load,” I told him. He unzipped his jacket and slipped it off. He started to throw it on the chair, but then changed his mind. He brought it to his nose and sniffed. But right now, he has a pretty bad cold. “I can’t smell anything.” He held it out to me. “Can you smell this and tell me if it needs to be washed?”

You know that parenting manual that we are all supposed to receive before we leave the hospital with our newly hatched babies? The manual that the hospital always forgets to give new parents? This particular task is in there. It’s in the chapter titled, “Unexpected Duties of Parenting.” This chapter contains all the things parents must do, but don’t know about. These are the Surprise! duties, some of which could be perceived as dangerous.

“Uck! This smells horrible! Smell it!” This exclamation is usually followed by some item or other being held out at arm’s length toward the unsuspecting (and thoroughly disgusted) parent.

“It’s really dark in there, Mom. Can you go first?” Yes, that’s definitely a good idea. I’ll go first and when whatever is in there eats me, you’ll be left here to fend for yourself. Good plan.

“Mom, I think the milk is sour. Taste it.” Ooo! That seems like such a great offer, but … no thank you, I’ll pass.

“I dropped my boat [fish net, stick, jacket… insert item here] in the pond, and now I can’t reach it. Come help me get it!” All “emergencies” like this one are delivered frantic and breathless. They often take all spur-of-the-moment creative resources a parent can muster to devise some plan, gather all of the possibly necessary items (stick, rope, rain boots, etc.), and run to retrieve the stray item.

Then there are the SCREAMS that emanate from the far reaches of the house at top vocal volume. With heart pounding, the parent will call out, “What’s happening?” The child who screamed replies, “MOM! There’s a bug in my room!” The parent, with pounding heart calming and eyes rolling, will say (as calmly as possible), “Well, kill it,” because that would be the logical thing to do, right? The panicked reply is always, “It’s HUGE, Mom! Please come, NOW!!”

Over the years, there are myriad forgotten items that have to be delivered to school after the morning’s frantic rush to get out the door and make the bus—lunches, schoolbooks, papers, projects, you name it.

All of this—from crazy requests to chaotic moments—is contained in that single chapter of the great, unseen parenting manual. It might be nice to know these duties are coming and expected. Then again, no one can predict when a child/teen/young adult might say, “Yuck, smell this!” So maybe these unexpected parenting duties have a purpose for us, as parents. Maybe these are simply tiny lessons in thinking on one’s feet and creative problem solving that, when strung together, make us stronger and more prepared for the bigger issues and the truly important parenting duties.

{Photo by Ben Wicks on Unsplash}

Adventure

We set out on an adventure the other day. As we were driving, the clouds grew dark and foreboding up ahead. The traffic was heavy and slow, and the farther along we went, the stormier the clouds became.

Now, we don’t live in tornado country, and while we sometimes have some roiling clouds, this particular evening, the clouds were angry, but not turbulent. But straight ahead, there was a cloud that appeared to be reaching downward.

“That cloud looks like it wants to be a tornado,” my daughter commented.

“True,” I agreed. “But since we are taking the next exit, we’ll be heading in a different direction soon.”

However, as we rounded the exit ramp, the cloud ended up centered directly ahead of us. “Or… maybe not,” I said, with a feigned nervous tone. We drove on, and before long, it started to sprinkle. Then rain. Then, we were driving through heavy blinding rain.

And then we weren’t. The rain slowed and the sun poked through the clouds—first one small ray, then a bit more until I knew there had to be a rainbow behind us, a thought that was later confirmed by friends’ Facebook photos.

We drove on, our adventure unfolding. We drove toward a beautiful sunset that grew in intensity with each passing mile. Thankfully, there was no tornado. But adventure is all in what you make it. And sometimes, the best adventures can be found on the other side of the storm.

{Photo by Simon Matzinger on Unsplash}

Surrender

At the beginning of this year, I came across a picture of a knitting project—a temperature blanket which is completed at the rate of one row per day. I’m not sure what possessed me to take this on, but the finished product looked intriguing. One row per day. How difficult could that be? On January first, or maybe the second, I selected an array of colors—one for each of the ten-degree temperature ranges we’re likely to experience here in the Northeast. I was ready to create a beautiful blanket. One row per day, I thought. I can commit to that!

It wasn’t long before I realized what I had gotten myself into. As I began to knit my one row each night, I realized I had absolutely no control over what the finished product would look like. I could not choose the color I would use each night. Nope. That was chosen for me based on the temperature that day. Suddenly, I was not the creator of the blanket. I was merely an unwitting tool in the finished product. The blanket was going to be its own story, and it was not my story to tell.

Now here we are, almost halfway through the year. I have kept up with my temperature blanket, and I am finding the results somewhat interesting. My colors are based on the high temperature of the day, and there are occasions when I consider fudging just a bit. Ooo, 59°. Perhaps I could knit a row of yellow, my 60s color… but I don’t.

I’ve realized, knitting a temperature blanket has been a giant lesson in surrender.  And this lesson comes at a time when I desperately need it. My children need my advice more than ever.

But do they really? Shouldn’t they figure things out on their own without me meddling in their business? Without me throwing myself into the decisions that will ultimately prepare them to face more and more challenging decisions? Shouldn’t I let them be?

They don’t need me the way they once did, and this is a challenging place for a parent. I won’t always be here, and I know my job is to let them flounder until they ask. My job is to give them the confidence that they have the skills they need. My job is to surrender control and trust that I have done my job in preparing them for exactly this. Even though I might want to help them out just this once… I have to let it go. I have to let them soar or fall so they will learn how to keep moving.

I may not like it any more than I like switching to a colder (or warmer) color in my knitting. But that’s exactly why knitting this blanket at this time has given me such a great lesson. I am not the one in control. I have to let go. My children are ready to tell their own stories.