Water

I was in the basement moving the laundry from the washer to the dryer. It was quiet in the basement, despite all manner of teen antics that were presently permeating the first floor. I live in a townhouse-style condominium, and as with most condominiums, this one was built quickly and cheaply. Sound travels from floor to floor, from room to room, and—pretty much—from end to end.

I concentrated on sorting the items that needed to go into the dryer from those that should be line-dried, attempting to ignore the laughter and shouts from above—sounds that clearly indicate mischief is afoot. But then C came tumbling down the stairs, his feet sending vibrations through the house before he skidded to a halt on the second to last stair.

“Can you just keep yourself busy down here for like ten minutes? I’ve got everything under control!”

“Um… no,” I told him, the gears in my brain grinding to a halt. “What’s happening up there?”

But he had already begun the sprint back up the stairs. “Nothing,” he said. “I’ve got it under control!”

I sighed as I hastened my sorting, knowing his story might be more than a bit skewed, though I wasn’t sure I wanted to know what was going on. J came down to get away from the ruckus and breathe, the boys’ rough play proving to be overwhelming. “They got a lot of water on the floor.” And then she proceeded to tell me that one boy threw a cupful of water at the other. “But they’re cleaning it up,” she added.

I took a deep breath pushing the minor complication from my thoughts. After all, it was just water. If my boys need to involve some “weapon” in their fights with each other, I suppose I should be happy that they choose to fight only with water. It’s (generally) easy to clean up, and (with the exception of frozen water balloons) it doesn’t hurt.

Let’s face it: my house has a long relationship with water. In the early days of parenting, I had toddlers jumping out of the tub and running down the hall “to get something,” with no thought for drying off first. I had little ones playing “car wash” and “baby bath time” on my kitchen floor. Water balloons, sprinklers, and pools filled my summers, and snow play with its soaking wet mittens, boots, snowpants, and jackets filled the dark afternoons of December through March. Rain, “frogging” in our pond, puddle jumping, water pistols and super-soakers.

A late-stage teenage water fight? I’ve got this! After all, what’s a little water between brothers when it’s all in fun?

Tough Lessons from the Road

A few months back—probably in the fall when the weather was good and the roads were clear—there was a discussion among some of my Facebook friends about motorcycles and pushing the limits of speed. These people were jovially comparing their top speeds, as if hitting 120 was a great accomplishment.

Recently, my 16 year old has been talking about getting a motorcycle, and I am not thrilled at the prospect. While I hope he will ride responsibly if he ever does get one, there is always that temptation to just test how it might feel to go a bit faster than one should. Meanwhile, I have always lived with the paranoid and constant fear that when a motorcyclist speeds past me on the highway, I will encounter the rider up ahead, splayed out in the road after a momentary misstep.

The other day, we were on our way back from a college visit, because really, shouldn’t we just continue to look at colleges since I am now four years into the process: one kid, then the next, and now the youngest? We had just merged from one highway to the next, and I was finding my place among the several lanes. A motorcycle with a young rider suddenly flew past us at an alarming speed, weaving in and out of the cars as he flew. He was living out the rush of a lifetime. A state trooper pursued him, sirens blaring, but he continued his reckless journey unabated.

As we crested the top of the hill, we had an almost two-mile view into a slight valley and up another hill. The motorcycle was a small dot moving along the road up ahead—easy to spot as it traveled faster than the cars around it. The trooper had backed off, knowing that continued pursuit would increase the possibility of the danger.

We traveled another couple miles and… Chaos. We spotted the motorcycle in a crumpled heap. W let out a fearful, “Oh!” and I gasped, the tears springing almost immediately. This was just too much. This sight—the scene of bike, the rider, and the chaos that comes before  emergency personnel arrive—is one of those scenes that I will never unsee. It is one that will quietly creep alongside me and rear its ugly head each and every time a motorcycle recklessly passes me. My once paranoid fear is now realized, confirmed, and etched in my brain forever.

And while I would not wish this sight on anyone, this lesson is one that only the road can teach—either by example or by experience. This lesson is best learned by example. I believe the message came screaming through to my son without my need to speak a word. This young rider had gathered enough speed to send himself headlong into whatever it is that comes next.

Each and every day, we walk the thin line between this world and the next. Depending on our choices, some days, that line seems much thinner and more vague than others—both as fine as the silk of a caterpillar hanging from a tree, and clearly visible to the naked eye. Without warning, we can slip from one side to the other.

One of the toughest lessons to learn is that each and every day is one of those days.

The Middle of the Night

Many years ago, when my children were very little, I was in a writing group. This was a group of women who met every Wednesday to write. Unlike many writing groups, we did not meet primarily to critique each other’s writing. We spent much of our time actually writing with the option of sharing our work at various points in our session.

This blissful few hours each Wednesday night was an oasis from the trenches of early parenthood and my early days as a single mom. During this time, there were no diapers, no schedules, and no crying babies. It was me, this group of women, and our pens and notebooks.

When I was void of ideas, I would often start my freewriting with, “It is two o’clock in the morning, and I am….” I found this starting point could lead me in a variety of directions and was often all I needed to jump-start my writing brain. Because I am usually not awake at two a.m., crazy things would often happen on the page—a meandering sort of writing that could lead anywhere.

One memorable piece started with “It is two o’clock in the morning, and I am weeding the garden.” In the piece, I was weeding hastily, taking out the day’s frustrations on my garden. And in my haste—and the dark and the furious pace at which I was working—I accidentally pulled up something that was not a weed, but was a thing of beauty. It was, at the time, a reminder that beauty was all around me and I needed to take the time to appreciate it.

These days, there is a bit of a wrinkle to the middle-of-the-night writing prompt. The wrinkle is that I live with teenagers, and on any given night, I could write about what is actually happening in my house in the middle of the night.

It is two o’clock in the morning, and from the comfort of my bed, I hear the refrigerator close and the microwave open. It must be snack time. Either that, or all of the food in the house is being sucked into the black hole that exists just beyond the microwave’s false back. It is amazing how much food seems to disappear in the middle of the night….

And I can continue to write, documenting more of my night. Four thirty in the morning, and someone is stirring. A light comes on, and a teen is up, preparing to catch a bus scheduled for 5:30. As the heat clicks on and the wind howls just beyond my window, I remember the child out camping in the woods tonight, and I shiver.

I am usually not awake in the middle of the night, but crazy things often happen in my house—a messy sort of meandering night that is always a possibility when there are multiple teens and young adults residing in the house.

The College Experience

Over the weekend, I was walking through the streets of New York City with a woman who had been a stranger up until the walk had begun. We had been thrown together by our daughters, who had gathered for a meeting with a group of their soon to be college classmates.

As this woman and I walked, we talked about the typical things that mothers of teenagers talk about. We started with college and choosing the right school; we talked of letting go and stepping up. We discussed work and children and the challenges and rewards of each different child. Our conversation even wandered to the care of aging parents.

Somewhere in the middle of our conversation, when I mentioned that I, too, had attended the college our daughters would attend, she asked me, point blank, if my college experience had been a good one.

I paused and took a deep breath as I gathered my thoughts. College was an experience. I had been young, as most students are, and struggling to find my way. It was not the best of times for me. “Well,” I started. “It was college. And as we gather life experience, we learn that in any situation, there will be good times and bad times.”

I went on to explain that for the most part, college was a good experience, but there were some tough times and some moments of incredible growth. I was a perfectionist. I took a tough load of courses and I demanded the best work from myself. College—like life, I suppose—is tough, but when you are eighteen, you don’t yet have the life experience to know that this is the case. You have high expectations, and you don’t think it’s possible to be on a campus with so many age-peers and yet, experience loneliness. There are things that all college students should know before they leave home. Here are just a few:

College is not the best four years of your life. I know you’ve probably heard this, but if it were the best four years, why would people keep working and striving? The best part of your life comes much later, when you’ve figured out who you are and what you are about. It takes awhile to get there. Be patient and enjoy the ride.

Don’t be so hard on yourself. Just because you have gotten into your first choice college (or your second or third choice…), and most of the time you might be happy about that, there will be times that are incredibly sad or difficult or challenging. That’s the way life is, and these years prepare you to face the sad/difficult/challenging times later on. The campus environment can’t protect you from the challenges, but it does provide a good support network to find help if you need it.

Give yourself time. You are living away from home for the first time. You will need time to transition to your new life, adjust to your new surroundings, and familiarize yourself with your new schedule—just as you would in any new situation. Don’t make a snap judgment and go home after your first—or fifth—night on campus. If you find you are homesick, make a commitment to try one new thing each day—even if it is just to take a different route to class.

Power through. It’s not always easy to keep going when things happen or when life rears its ugly head and wants to take you down. But as with any situation, you have to keep moving in a forward direction. Eventually, generally sooner than you think, you will find yourself back on course, and you will be happy you kept moving.

Take advantage of all that you have available. College campuses have a wealth of resources available to students. There are professors with a vast array of knowledge. There are classes in many varied disciplines. If you think you want to try out a course in a new subject area, do it. You will also have activities and lectures and events available to you. Choose wisely, but take advantage of what is offered. If something looks good, check it out. Who knows when you may have another chance like this?

Surround yourself with people who energize you. It is a fact that spending time with people you are fond of will help you adjust to the newness of your surroundings. It will make you feel connected, and it will give you a network to fall back on, and you will have a chance to raise others up, as well.

Most importantly, enjoy! While you are studying hard and involving yourself in all that your college campus has to offer, don’t forget to enjoy the moment. Take a minute to toss a Frisbee with a friend, grab a coffee on the way to class, or take a P. E. class so you can fit in some exercise. You will be glad you did!

Wrecked

Over the past month, I’ve taken to watching an occasional cheesy, feel-good movie on a certain well-known television channel. While I don’t spend a lot of time watching tv, every now and then, I turn on this channel just to get my “fix” with one of their very predictable movies.

Christmas is a good time to tune in because they have a number of good holiday movies, and they repeat them often enough that if you miss a good part, you can catch up the next day.

Needless to say, when my kids came home from Christmas with their father, I had been watching these movies, and I continued to watch when they were home. Initially, the kids would pick on me—and on the movies—relentlessly. But then my daughter warmed up. Even though she still had lots of complaints about the acting, the predictable story lines, the staged settings, etc., she could see some of the good points, as well. Perhaps she even liked the feel-good ending of all these movies….

The other night, as she and I watched a new movie, W began to comment on all of the problems he noticed.

“That’s some great acting there,” he commented in a tone that dripped with sarcasm.

“We don’t expect great acting,” I informed him. “Just a cheesy, feel-good movie.”

“I bet I can tell you how it’s gonna end,” he continued.

“So can I,” I replied. “That woman right there,” I pointed to the screen, “Is going to end up with the guy in that last scene. And… I knew that in the first five minutes of the movie.”

“You know,” he ventured. “I think I’m going to start a new channel. My channel will entertain viewers with movies where nothing turns out right and nothing ends up all nice and tidy. The guy and the girl will never get together.”

“You’re not likely to get many people to watch,” I informed him, though in the back of my mind, I considered whether this was true.

“They’d all be first time watchers,” he informed me. “They would think they were getting a movie with a nice, happy ending, but nothing would turn out well in the end.”

“And they’d all be so shocked by the ending, no one would watch a second time,” I informed him. However, I later realized that people might watch again just because they wouldn’t believe that all the movies would end badly. And the more I thought about it, the more I realized there might just be a niche market for this type of programming.

Creating these movies might not be a good strategy to reel in the viewers like me, but train wreck tv is a thing. It’s generally a reality tv thing, but who’s to say these same viewers might not want to watch a movie every now and then? I think he might be on to something.

Positivity Post: Presents

As if I don’t have enough trouble keeping track of the things I own with teenagers around the house, I have this cat. And the interesting thing about this cat is that she is quite a quiet little love by day. By night, however, she turns into a fearsome hunter of the most amazing objects. And as she is “hunting,” she likes to announce (with a shockingly loud meow) to everyone in the house that she has found something worth sharing.

Her favorite nighttime “prey” used to be anything in a plastic sandwich bag, and generally, the heavier, the better. For a while, she would carry a bag of mosaic tiles from the basement to the second floor each evening. Each morning, I would find the tiles on the floor and carry them back to the basement where they belonged. One very special night, she brought me “breakfast in bed,” a banana muffin in a bag that she retrieved from the kitchen counter.

Recently, she has a new favorite. She has discovered a paint brush which was never used, but clearly, I thought about using it for a project one day. I left it somewhere readily available to her, and she now looks for it each night. She carries it to the bedroom of one of the kids and leaves it—sometimes on the floor, sometimes in their beds…. The kids think it’s funny… and cute.

So now, when I say to them, “Has anyone seen my…?” I fully expect to hear them respond, “Who knows, Mom? Maybe the cat took it!”

Annotation

When you live in my house, you never quite know what you’ll come across. Last week, I found that my grocery list had been annotated.

Generally, when I write an item on the list, I do it quickly with very little thought. As long as the item makes it to the list, all is good. Apparently, sometimes my handwriting is not legible to others in the house, which shouldn’t really matter where the grocery list is concerned since I am the one who buys the groceries.

And yet, someone noticed that what I had written—the word “bread”—did not seem to resemble the word, and wrote some wise-crack note to let me know such was the case. When I took the time to study my hasty handwriting, I could see how an unsuspecting reader might misread the word. But really, who writes “mead” on the grocery list? I don’t think they even sell mead in the grocery store.

Just wait…. The next time he’s home, I’m going to add some crazy items to the grocery list. Then I’m going to send him to the store to find them!

Teen Dinner

So there I was yesterday afternoon, minding my own business, sitting in my office proofreading a document. It was 3:30, and I was thinking about how the evening was likely to play out. At home, my youngest was packing for a weekend camping trip with the Scouts. When I left work, I would go directly home and drive him to where the troop would be meeting. However, I had just reread the email, and a worrisome feeling came over me like a shadow.

According to the email, my son was responsible for eating dinner before the troop assembled, a fact which was frequently true before camping trips. However, before I left for work on this particular morning, I had cooked a pound of spaghetti and popped it in the fridge so the assembly of a dinner casserole would be hastened before I sped off to a class. In my mind, I could see the bowl in the fridge, his hands reaching for it, and the majority of it disappearing before I even got home. Once he got to it, that will be the end of the spaghetti.

Anticipating his approaching dinnertime, I texted him, listing the food options he might choose other than the spaghetti. Thankfully, we had some leftover chicken he particularly liked.

If you are looking to evoke a slight panic at the end of the work day, there really is nothing like the realization that your hungry teen might consume your partially prepared dinner!

Family Dinner

When I was growing up, we always had our evening meal together as a family. I have maintained that tradition as much as possible in my life with my children, as I feel it is important that we sit down together and share a meal and conversation. At dinner, we can sit together, relax, and enjoy each other’s company while we are doing something we need to do anyway. After all, from my experience, there is nothing as effective as food to bring teenagers to the table.

Our family meals might start out calm and orderly. “Could you pour the milk?” “Please pass the salt.” “This is really good, Mom. Thanks.” But any time you have three teenage siblings in the same small space for any length of time, “calm and orderly” can unravel fast and stuff begins to happen. I’m just gonna say it: Our family dinners can get a little rowdy. Take last night, for example.

I don’t know how things deteriorated as quickly as they did, but it started with one of the younger siblings deciding that the oldest would be responsible for fetching anything that was needed—milk, salt, dessert, utensils. The jovial requests picked up in intensity. When younger brother said, “Hey C, can you get me some ice cream? Oh, and I’ll need a bowl. And a spoon. Don’t forget the ice cream scoop…,” C decided spoon, bowl, and scoop would be best delivered via air mail. And so, a spoon flew across my kitchen into the [thankfully] nimble hands of little brother.

“Did you just throw that?” I turned to ask. But by the time the words had come out, a ceramic bowl passed through the air from one boy to the other. “STOP!” I commanded. “Do not throw dishes and utensils!” Seriously? Why is this even something that has to be explicitly stated? This could have gone very badly, but thankfully, it did not. It was not until a few minutes later, when C was playfully tossing a cup in the air to tease me that he dropped it. At least that one was plastic. It does make me wonder what they do when I’m not home.

Come to think of it, this may just be the very behavior that has carved so many chips out of the edges of my dishes….

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.