It’s all grit to me

My youngest daughter started a new school last week. It is the second time in 8 weeks that she has started middle school. The only thing worse than starting middle school once is starting it twice. In my recent blog to the Instagram generation, which was directed to my daughters who will likely never read it, I referenced the challenges of being in an IB middle school. When I wrote that post, I didn’t know how much more challenging it would become in such a short time. We escalated from “this isn’t going so smoothly” to “I’m pulling her out” in less than two weeks.

In 13 years of schooling even the unschoolable, I have never once considered pulling a kid out in the middle of a school year, much less smack in the middle of a 9-weeks. I’m either getting harder or I’m getting softer. I’m really not sure which one made me do it.

But I did it. And she was happy I did.

I expected some raised eyebrows. I expected some level of judgment. What I did not expect was that the worst would come from my older daughter.

“You’re quitting,” she said. “She’s a quitter. You could have pulled her out of a couple of bad classes and just changed her schedule.” She delivered quite an impassioned speech. I chalked it up to hormones and flushed most of it where the hormones go.

But she didn’t let it go that easily. A day or so later, Lucy got in my van after school. We rode along quietly for a few minutes before she opened a new thread of the same discussion.

“We talked today about growth mindset,” she began. That sounded promising. I was all ears. “It has to do with grit,” she said. “Something some people need a little more of,” she continued. The emphasis on some people caused me to bristle just a little.

“Now, hold on a quick minute,” I argued. And then we went around the horn again about my reasons for pulling Jenna out.

And I’ve been thinking about it since then. And the thing is, we did quit. I allowed her to quit and I quit, too. But I’ve determined in the last 8 days that quitting isn’t a bad thing if you are quitting something that isn’t worth doing (smoking, punching people in the jowls, IB schools that rob your childhood). And of course, making that determination is an intensely personal choice.  

In just the last week, Jenna has started a new school around the corner from our house. She’s had new hallways to learn, new kids to meet, new teachers to adjust to. She’s had wrong schedules and then schedule changes. She’s had teachers question whether her mother actually turned in her field trip permission form through the office. She’s had the same teachers apologize to her when they found the form. She’s had a lot of stuff. It wasn’t a week without some growth minded grit, I can tell you.

On Monday, she walked the dog with me before we headed toward school for day 1 of her 3-day nature fieldtrip.

“I wish I was in Keller’s homeroom,” she said. “All my friends are in Keller’s homeroom. They are grouping us for the field trip by our homerooms.”

There was going to be nobody for her to ride the bus with. No one familiar to eat her packed lunch with. No one to make her feel safe.

“OK,” I said. “Well, let’s discuss this. Let’s try to make something out of nothing.” This is usually the point where the kids stop listening, 100%. But maybe today would be different. And here is the pep talk I pulled out of the poop bag dispenser and tucked into her backpack.

Every burden can be a blessing. I know this is true because I recently got it in a fortune cookie. Also, it’s in the bible. And I’ve lived it. But a person must be willing to be a conduit for the transition. Let it happen.

Do hard things, but make sure the hard things are worth doing. The hard things of IB middle were not worth the resulted suffering. The hard things of transitioning to a new school would be. This one is a work in progress.

Make it good. There isn’t always an exact right answer and an exact wrong one. And sometimes we aren’t even sure to which side the meter is leaning. We decide and we do the best we can with it. Whatever it is you decide—wherever you land—go and make it good.

Here’s where it got a little weird for her.

You are never alone. Even if you feel alone—even if you get on a bus with a group of kids you don’t know—you are not alone. God is on that school bus with you. Sit next to Him. Pray to Him. Let Him be beside you. Picture Him right there with you on that bouncing yellow school bus with the vinyl green seats. If you invite Him on your field trip, into your new school, He’ll come.

And then we put the dog in the house and drove to school. She had a glum look on her face as I tried to nudge her out the door and into a deserted teacher parking lot. Her eyes pleaded with me, clouded with fear and doubt.

“You got this,” I said. “And God has got you. Now go.”

And she did.

For the next 40 minutes, I kept busy in the house and prayed that all would be well on this field trip. It was a big leap into a new system. She would be facing it seemingly without allies. I prayed that God would do what I had told her He would. That He would be with her on the bus and everywhere. That she wouldn’t feel alone. And then I prayed specifically that He would show up in a big way, big enough to be quite obvious to Jenna. I knew He was going to be with her, but I needed her to know it, too.

Right then I got a text from Jenna saying that her permission form was lost. If they couldn’t locate it, she wouldn’t be allowed to get on the bus. That wasn’t the kid of action I was hoping for when I was praying. Not 5 minutes later, I got a phone call from Keller, who was not Jenna’s homeroom teacher, but was looking for her form. She asked me to send a text with certain wording, giving Jenna permission to be on the field trip and on the bus for transportation.

I sent the text.

About 5 minutes after that, I got another text from Jenna saying that she had inexplicably been put into Keller’s homeroom with ALL of her friends. She didn’t use the word inexplicably. That’s all me. And it wasn’t inexplicable at all. It was exactly what I had prayed for. There was no reason to put her in that homeroom. It wasn’t her homeroom. But there she was, boarding a bus with her friends.

“I’m going with Abbey,” she wrote me.

“REALLY??” I texted back.

“Mhm,” she responded.

“Guess what that is?” I texted her. “That’s GOD. That’s a direct answer to our prayers today.”

She sent me a couple of winky faces.
I’m still not sure what to do with those guys.
I can’t even believe that was only Monday.

Driving out of the neighborhood this afternoon for Carpool #1, I thought again about all of this. I caught my inner critic whispering, “Did I do the right thing?” And then I pushed back at her, reminding myself that there is no one way. No one right thing. Nothing is perfect. I struggle with this constantly, because I’m a destination thinker. I think that if I just do A and B, the perfect C will occur. And if I get D, it’s because I forgot A or did B wrong. I’m trying to be a journey thinker, because if I haven’t arrived yet, the chances are, there’s no one place to go. But I do need to keep going forward.

Even though my inner critic will likely continue to ask all the wrong questions, I can strike back with an occasional right answer.

I don’t know much about much, but I do know this:

The right hard things are worth doing and I’ll do them until they get easier. I can make good of almost anything. No matter what decision I make, what bus I ride, and what posse does or doesn’t surround me, I am never alone. And that’s good enough for me.

Unfinished Business

I’ve been thinking a lot about my job.
I’m a parent. I don’t get paid in conventional dollars. But I do get paid in something. Sometimes it feels like sentiment. Sometimes it feels like a sentence.
But it’s a job, man.

I used to have a steady, good-paying job writing software manuals. And I was decent at it. There were stretches when it was a lot to handle. I can remember being assigned new projects writing about software I couldn’t use. And typically the people who programmed that software were too intellectual to explain it to me.
Deadlines loomed. In those deadlines, I was known to become a tad overwhelmed.

But that was different than parenting. When I had a work project to learn and write up and edit and polish—and when the project felt borderline impossible—I could close the door to my office and spread all my papers out on my desk and pull up my emails on my screen and sit there until I figured it out. I can’t do that now. The difference in my former work and my parenting work is that my former projects were never out walking the streets while I was trying to figure them out and finish them up.

My current projects are out on the streets.
And I’m nowhere near finished with them. I need them to sit still while I read a few more books. Sit here. Don’t go anywhere. I need time.

I’ve been a parent for 18 and a half years now. I’ve been a parent of 4 for almost twelve. I’ve witnessed and participated in—some might even say caused–a few catastrophic moments during those years. There was that time a kid did unspeakable things with their diaper and its contents. There was seaweed eating. Stingray tank licking. The roach in the sliding glass door track. That one week when the potty-training nightmare refused to poop. The summer of childhood constipation. Jaundice and the light suitcase. Being pregnant on July 4 two years in a row. Many, many stomach viruses, often following a big meal of hot dogs. There was colic. Projectile vomiting. Croup. A baby allergic to every food tested except chicken, lamb, and white potatoes. Making the grueling decision to have one repeat the first grade. Having teen boys suffer broken hearts. Failed classes. Difficult job interviews. Stand-offs over medications. Wrangling the before-church Easter photo.

Those things were hard.
Some days we agonized.
But they weren’t the hardest. They were nowhere near the hardest.

The hardest time I’ve lived as a parent is now.
Right now.
(I didn’t say worst, I said hardest.)
Two boys in high school. Two girls in middle school. Three schools. Kids in 6, 8, 10, and 12.

Crying babies in the night made me a zombie-like shadow of myself. Stomach viruses were hard. And gross. Croup was terrifying. But I knew what to do. I knew to run the shower and hold my boy in the steam until he could breathe freely again. I was a champ at cleaning up any fluid that escaped any body. I knew what they needed and I had the energy and the means to fix it.

Now, I don’t always know what to do. Am I too lenient? Too harsh? Too reactive? Do I hug them or drive over their iPad? Is this problem a temporary thing or a symptom of a larger issue?

I spend a lot of time shrugging at Todd while he gives me his best simmer down speech.
I spend a lot of time trying to catch the pieces that are falling around me.

I spend a lot of time praying.

And I spend a lot of time trying to connect that prayer with the moving pieces. Trying to connect the kids to each other and to me and to the God that hears and answers our prayers.

This parenting thing is a confidence-shaking, low paying, high stress gig. But it comes with some pretty big perks. Sometimes those perks send me texts out of the blue telling me they love me. Sometimes, those perks get along with each other and laugh like hyenas at something they won’t share with me. Sometimes, they help each other with homework. And in those moments, it’s not so scary to have my unfinished business out walking around.

I don’t have it figured out. I’m pretty sure I’ll never figure it out. But it seems important to keep trying.

So I will.

An actual attempt at a fall photo for the Christmas card. Nailed it.

The Typing Teacher

There are a few people to whom I owe gratitude every time I finish any piece of writing that’s longer than a sentence fragment. I always thank God for sewing words into me. For making me love the way a sentence sounds as it leaves the pages of the books I read. I thank my parents for encouraging me. And my tribe for caring, even if at times they are only pretending. And for my friends who fail at life with me or pay me to wear snorkels or try to kill me on sailboats. And for my children who mortified me in Sam’s Club by creating a manmade Lake of Pee that essentially shut down our entire checkout line during the holiday season.

So many people are behind every word I write.

But the thing is, I don’t write. I type. And while my fingers are hovering over the keyboard of my laptop, there is a conspiracy that often happens without my consent. It is as if one part of my brain is whirring and whipping up a paragraph with my typing fingers while another part of my brain simply observes the process like a captive audience. I’ve heard the expression among other nerdy writers (we are all nerds), “Did I write that story or did it write me?”

That’s at least a little truthful. And when I don’t have access to my laptop and my fingers cannot hover over that keyboard, I struggle to get the words out as quickly as they are forming in my head.

There’s at least one more person that I owe, and owe big, when I get to cranking on something. She is a person I not only never thanked, but she’s a person I pretty much treated like cat vomit.

My 10th grade typing teacher, Mrs. Bonds.

Mrs. Bonds was a commanding figure in front of a class. She was as wide as she was tall and carried with her the whoosh of panty hose when she walked the aisle of typewriters to give us instruction we did not want.  She scooted down the aisles sideways, because she couldn’t make the squeeze walking forward, and bumped the backs of our heads with her hind section as she passed by. She smelled like convalescence and loved typewriters. She loved them.

At the beginning of each class, she stood in front of the room as we sat at our typewriters, and announced what the lesson would be that day. For the first few weeks, we worked on a different key every day. F-J day taught us to center our hands over the keyboard with our index fingers resting comfortably on the raised lines of those keys. Our index fingers were to always come home to the F-J headquarters. Learning to type q and p was awkward, because we had to try and harness the power from some other finger and somehow transfer it to our pinkies.

But the day and the lesson that I remember most from typing was E-D Space day. The E and the D required our middle fingers. The way Mrs. Bonds chose to teach this particular lesson brought together the elements of a perfect storm when it came to a room full of morally underdeveloped teenagers.  She could have held her hands out over a phantom typewriter and shown us the proper way to type E-D. Or she could have held her hands high, palms facing the classroom, showing the movement of the middle finger as it typed the E and the D. But she didn’t do any of that. She held her fleshy hands, backs facing us, with all her other fingers tucked away nicely and the middle finger stretched high in all its glory. Then she waved those middle fingers at us rather enthusiastically as she chanted, “E-D-space, E-D-space…do it with me now. E-D-space.”

Oh, man.

Clearly, I’m a dunderhead even 30 years later, because the memory of this still makes me laugh. The classroom arrangement placed us in rows that faced each other and were perpendicular to her. On E-D-Space Day, all I had to do was raise my eyes a degree to lock eyes with my friend, Amy, directly across from me. And once I locked eyes with her, it was over. Thirty other students found themselves in the same situation, trying to laugh quietly as a typing instructor flipped them off for a solid 45 minutes and then wondered what could possibly be so funny about E and D.

I’m sorry, Mrs. Bonds.
Truly.

One afternoon in the spring of 1987, I received the bright idea to drive off campus for lunch. Alone. I was 16 and drove myself to school. Driving was legal. Leaving campus for lunch as a sophomore was not. That was a privilege reserved for the upperclassmen. But I was only going to be gone for a few minutes. I had given it a long second of hard thought and couldn’t see the harm in it. I wish I could remember where I was going for food. There were Chinese restaurants and fast food chains up and down Tennessee street. I don’t remember which one was on my mind that day, because I never made it there. As I was creeping along in lunch hour traffic, I looked over my right shoulder to change lanes. In that instant, the guy in front of me slammed on his brakes. My reflexes were a tad slower, and I braked by running my dad’s roll bar on his Jeep CJ-5 into the stopped guy’s tailgate.

I waited for his E-D-space when he climbed out of the truck, but he was nicer than that. He did bury both hands in his head full of brown accountant hair and lament what I had done to his tailgate. I had only tapped it. But roll bars don’t tap lightly.  

After apologizing profusely, I ran across the street to Bullwinkle’s bar to use the pay phone. My dad arrived a few minutes later. When my Dad got out of his car and walked to the accident scene, he extended his hand to the man I had hit.

“Hey, Dave,” he said, with a pained smile on his face.

“Hi, Mike,” the man said back. I had hit my dad’s friend, and then came to find out that the man had just picked up his truck from the body shop not 10 minutes before I crunched his back end. What are the odds?

After getting a ticket and a strong talking-to by a cop, I skulked back to campus for 6th period Typing. I was hungry and class was already in session. Because I was late. I crawled into the room on my hands and knees and tried to balance my weight to keep my backpack from falling to one side or the other. Then I slid my backpack under the desk, pulled the chair out and attempted to shapeshift my way into it. My head popped up, across from my friend, who glanced at me with confusion as she continued typing.

She pulled what she had been working on out of the typewriter wheel and slid it across the table. There were a slew of double quotes and colons on the page followed by the phrase, “where were you?”

I rolled a blank sheet of paper into my typewriter and typed back, “Snuck off campus for lunch. Rear ended a guy my dad knows. Police came. Hungry.” Then I threw some colons and double quotes in for practice and slid the paper across to her.

She took my paper, shaking her head as she read it, and rolled it into her typewriter. Then she typed a few more words before passing it back across. 

“Idiot.”

I couldn’t argue with that, so I rolled a new sheet of paper into my machine and began practice my punctuation. I was supposed to do everything without looking at my hands. That was the whole point of hitting the E and the D and the space over and over and over again. It was supposed to become automatic. But it didn’t for me. Because I was skipping class and laughing at the teacher and having a pretty good time with my table mate.

Three and a half years later, while being forced to answer phones and do clerical work at my dad’s real estate office, I sat down at a typewriter and rolled a fresh piece of paper into the machine. There was no one waving her hands at me and chanting. There was no one across the table making me laugh. It was just me and the typewriter and an afternoon full of nothingness.

And I began to type.

F-J-space, F-J-space.
E-D-space. E-D-space.
And then I began typing up fake For Sale ads, with glorious descriptions of bedrooms and amenities and fictional scenarios about people who had died in the home. Houses with rotting corpses sold cheaper. I always practiced with my eyes closed. And by the end of that summer, I had become rather proficient.

I have no idea what happened to Mrs. Bonds. I only had her for a semester and we were never close. But she taught me to type and she taught me well. And because of her, my words flow more easily. When I wake up in the dead of night with a sentence or a thought that will not go away, I try to plunk it out on my phone or jot it down somewhere, but it’s never the same as positioning my index fingers over F and J and waiting for something magic to happen.

To Mrs. Bonds, I want to say I’m sorry for being a snickering pain in your swishing pantyhose. And I want to say thank you for burning into my brain a skill that became the foundation for the words I love so much. And I want to say one final thing: All those times you stood up in front of the class waving fingers at us wildly, we laughed because we thought you didn’t know what you were doing. We laughed because we thought we knew something you didn’t. But now I think maybe you knew exactly what you were doing and somewhere you’re having the last laugh on us.

And I’m going to type The End just for the E and D of it.

The End.

Give my Regards

I spent the last 4 ½ days in New York City, my very favorite city on earth. Even now, I am looking out of my hotel room at the city sights below. I hardly missed my dog. That’s how much I enjoy this city. In previous visits, I have embraced looking like a tourist. Stopping in the middle of 42nd street to take a picture of the jumbo screens in Times Square. Going to Macy’s and buying something just to say I did. But the more I go there, the more I want to blend. This trip, I started out getting accosted by the Hop On/Hop Off bus guys a lot and ended the trip with them not realizing they should accost me. That was a win. This post won’t change anyone’s life, but here are the things I learned in New York City this week. If you find yourself int the city that never sleeps .

Get up early and book an early bird tour of the 9/11 museum. If you go when everyone else is there, you won’t have a clear shot of 3/4 of the artifacts and you’ll struggle to hear the tour guide. This tour was one of the most moving things I’ve ever done. I probably only saw half of what was available, but after 2 hours of reading, listening, and watching, I was at my capacity for digesting the events of that day. Very moving. I’ll do it again next chance I get.

See Hamilton. Hamilton is everything people have said it was. I went in knowing very little about Alexander Hamilton and knowing none of the music and I came out a massive fan. I would have sat through it twice in a row, despite the fact that I was twisted into a pretzel-like position in a seat half the size of my middle-aged body.

Don’t stare too long or get too close. Naked Cowboy is old. I haven’t seen him in person in almost a decade. Though he’s tried to work out so that he doesn’t take on the title of Fat, Naked Cowboy, the years haven’t been good to the lines on his face.

Never make eye contact with anyone wearing a costume. The people in costumes in Times Square are obnoxious and deserve to get punched. I sat and ate an Egg McMuffin in Times Square yesterday morning and watched the process for a solid 30 minutes. They prey on older, single Japanese men. They prey on slow walkers. They prey on anyone who seems to stagger step for more than a second. If you make eye contact with them, they are on you like a bad germ. They force you to hand over your phone to take the picture you didn’t want. Then they attempt to get a $10 or more out of you. I watched the strategies. I watched the money being split up after. People are stupid and Minnie Mouse was a troll.

45% humidity is a dream come true in September.

Never miss an opportunity to go to Washington Square Park. There is always something worth seeing. Yesterday, we had a 2 hour window with nothing in it and took the subway there. We people watched for awhile and were going to stroll the surrounding Greenwich Village streets when I spotted a puppet that I recognized. It was a hippie sitting at a tin can drum set that I had seen on YouTube playing Rush songs. I grabbed Todd’s arm and asked him if it was what I thought it was.

Sure enough. It was Ricky Syers and his puppet entourage, sitting against the fence line in Washington Square.

“Should we go over? Maybe we should just move on,” I said. I waffled back and forth for a minute, because we had been on our way out of the park. We were on a mission. After wavering for 3 or 4 minutes, we walked over to meet Ricky Syers. One of the things I’ve learned as I get older is that you should always seize an opportunity if it’s in front of you. Don’t regret what you did not do. We dropped some money in Ricky’s hat and he thanked us and shook our hands. Then he proceeded to perform the life out of a Rush song I’d never heard before. It turns out that he’s far better known as a maker of puppets and the puppeteer than he is as a musician. He had puppets for the people he performs with in the park. He made a tiny grand piano and a puppet that looks identical to the man playing the grand piano 25 feet away. Stepping into his space in the park was to step into a world completely foreign to me. I wish it had occurred to me to ask how the piano got there and how and when it leaves. It is a full sized grand piano, not a baby grand. You don’t roll one of those babies into the park day in, day out. And you don’t leave it to sit out in the elements. I lost sleep over that last night.

Pot smells like skunk. Pot is everywhere in New York City. I am 48 years old and never knew what marijuana smelled like until 3 weeks ago. My 13 year old daughter pointed it out at a high school football game and now I’m a pro. I smell it everywhere. And in New York, I got a lot of practice. It smells like the distant, pungent aroma of skunk spray. I decided not to try it. Maybe next time.

Real estate in the city is expensive.
But a girl can still dream. Send money. For now, I’m going home.

Chopsy

Remembering 9/11

On September 11, 2001, I was 30. I had been a mom for only 3 1/2 months. It was Tuesday. And prior to that particular day, September 11’s only significance to me was the birthday of a very special little boy. This day was his 2nd birthday.

I was preparing my entire family to attend his birthday party at the neighborhood community center. Todd’s parents were in town and even Todd had taken the day off work. We were going to party like it was 1999. My infant son was dressed and strapped into his carseat. My in-laws were coming a tad later in a separate car. And Ben was waiting 10 minutes away to celebrate being 2. This was his day.

I gathered the gift, my baby, and my loose ends and awkwardly bumbled out to the car. On the way to the party, I tried to listen to the radio. To music. But reporters kept breaking in. Because by then, the first tower had been hit by a plane. But they weren’t saying what had happened. I had absolutely no idea what I was hearing reported. I couldn’t understand. If they were making themselves clear, I was too foggy to get it. I didn’t know what it was, but I did know something big had happened. One reporter said that in 30 years of reporting the news, this was the worst thing he’d ever seen. What had he seen? I immediately called Todd from my cell phone. He was still at home.

“Turn on the TV,” I said. “Something terrible has happened. Tell me what it is.”

He turned on our TV and watched in shock as the 2nd plane hit, the second tower fell, which was followed by the first one. He watched New York burn. He watched people run screaming. He reported it all to me as I looked in my rearview mirror at the infant legs of my son kicking in his converse sneakers.

When I pulled into the parking lot of the rec room where the party was, I was rattled. My friends were all inside, putting gummy worms into cups of ice cream and oreos. When I walked in, no one had heard the news. Within 15 minutes, it was all we were talking about. Inside that room, it was Oreos and 2 year olds. But when I walked out into the lobby for supplies or the restroom, the news as it unfolded was echoing from a local station. Bouncing off the tile walls and floor. Inside was one world. Outside was the other. Which world was the real one?

Were we at war? Who had done it? What did it mean? I didn’t know. I couldn’t grasp it. I didn’t have time to cry. After all, we were celebrating.

I distinctly remember sitting down next to baby Andrew during that party and looking intently at him. He was still strapped in his carrier, still wearing his converse sneakers. But now I had added a cardboard party hat to his ensemble. He was playing with his own fingers. He smiled at me. He could see himself in the large wall of mirrors next to us. I looked at him and ached. How had his world changed today? What kind of world would he grow up in? I remember asking myself that question. I didn’t know the answer that day.

I know the answer now. I know the world he’s growing up in. It’s not the same world I knew when I was his age. He’s only known this world. This new world. A world steeped in a level of brokenness I can’t fathom–can’t really put words to. A world we look at out of focus because we are looking through a veil of tears. A world of Sandy Hooks. San Bernardinos. Orlando night clubs. A world of falling towers and fatherless children.

A world of hatred and insanity.

I don’t know what to say to my children. I don’t know how to equip them to see what they’re seeing and cope with what may come, because I didn’t have to walk this road. I feel a little guilty even practicing my monologue, because as I type these words, I realize that I do so from a position of luxury. My children’s world view has changed. And the world they are growing up in has changed. But their personal world did not change that day. Like it did for so many. For New Yorkers. For children. For spouses siblings and parents and friends.

From my living room, in my state, in this time, I feel like I can do two things:
I can remember and reflect and honor.
And I can teach my children to do the same.

Dear Kids,

You are living in a dark time inside a dark world. You will lock eyes with evil people and encounter some of the coldest hearts imaginable. You will see terrible things. Don’t let the hatred of people cause you to question the love of God. Don’t let the terrible wrongs committed by some blind you to the beautiful rights done by so many others. Don’t confuse this world with the world to come. Don’t let the darkness of the world around you hide your view of Jesus. He’s there. Keep looking. Don’t let what you see–what is and what may be— keep you from shining.
You must shine.
Be a beacon. A helper. A light. A weeper. A lover. A comfort. A joy. A friend.
Be fearless.
Even in the face of fear, be fearless.
Be an overcomer. Because Jesus overcame.
Be.
As long as one light still shines, it will never be truly dark.
God help you–God help us all–to be that one light.

Together.

___________________________

For a good read about a firsthand account of September 11, 2001, check out Out of the Shadow of 9/11: An Inspiring Tale of Escape and Transformation by Christina Ray Stanton. She saw this day unfold from her terrace 6 blocks from the falling towers. She escaped in her pajamas. Everything she endured as a witness and a New Yorker was almost unfathomable to me. Her account is a perspective I had never read. Worth a read!

To the Instagram Generation, From 1982

I can’t say I wasn’t warned about life someday with 4 kids. I’ve had 2 in diapers at one time. I’ve had potty training fiascos that would qualify for Dateline episodes. Maybe even get me my own reality show.  For sure, people would have tuned in to watch Kid #4 take me for a ride. I’ve had 4 different schools. But this year I have something I’ve never had before.

I have two girls in middle school.

I’ve caught myself saying, “Why didn’t anyone warn me about this?” And then I’ve answered myself, because there’s never anyone else around during school hours, “You knew. You had to know. You WERE them once.” And then I shudder and try to keep doing whatever it is that I’m supposed to be doing. Sometimes these flashbacks completely upend me. Sometimes they amuse me. Those were not my best days.

I made Cs at a public middle school. What if I’d gone to an IB school? I hated opening the crinkled cellophane of a school portraits package, because I knew what I was going to find inside. I knew my mother would be sending it out in the Christmas cards. What if I’d had Instagram?

In 1982-1984, I didn’t deal with the things my girls are having to deal with now. But some things are universal. So I’ve been thinking about Middle School Missy and wondering what she would tell my girls about the world if she could. Here’s what I came up with:

Dear 2019 Girls:

  1. Do your best. Turn in your work. Study reasonably. But after that, let it go. A C in 7th grade World History will not change your life or the direction of your life. An A++++ would not either.
  2. Work with what you have. If you have straight hair, do straight hair as well as you can. If you have curly hair, do curly. Don’t do curly for straight or straight for curly. That’s just raging against the machine. God gave you what you have. Accept it and wear it well.
  3. Look at your body for its strength, not its shape. Your body is going to change 100 more times before it settles into anything you recognize for any length of time. You are a constantly changing lump of clay. And your body has a big job to do. Recognize it for the amazing way it does that job. For carrying you to 7 classes a day and surviving last period P.E. in the hottest place on earth. For surviving two brothers and each other on a daily basis. Fight for your health and not for popularity and you’ll be fine.
  4. Don’t worry about the boys. It’s way too early to worry about the boys. I tried and tried and tried to get Kyle Miller to like me in September of 1982. I had a mismanaged afro and teeth that protruded just enough to feel the cold fronts 15 minutes before I did. I thought those were the reasons Kyle didn’t like me. We were buddies, but he really liked Lauren Hightower. So I tried and tried and tried to be just like Lauren Hightower. I thought it I did everything right, he’d see me like he saw her. Fast forward 20 years and I learned that he was married to a guy, living a very different life than the one I was prepared to offer him. Middle school romances are condemned at their outset, by one thing or another. Just keep swimming.
  5. No one looks good with duck lips. It’s the universal face of stupidity. Cute people who never knew awkward. The most awkward person ever, dealing with a mouth full of metal and rubber bands. They both look equally bad with duck lips. You’ll see.
  6. Everyone deals with something. Loneliness. Divorce. Grief. Abuse. Abysmal self-esteem. Something. The girl who embarrassed you at lunch? She’s dealing with something. The girl you think is perfect because her duck lips picture got 155 likes in 15 seconds? She’s dealing with something. There are no charmed lives. There are only people better at hiding the uncharmed parts of theirs.
  7. Sometimes what looks like snob is actually just shy. Get to know people before you decide they aren’t worth knowing.
  8. Every day has good in it. Every day is salvageable. Sure, there are days when you’ll get called Popcorn Head more than you get called by name. And there are days you’ll sit out of the really cool science lab because you forgot to grab the paper your mother signed that allows you to participate. And there will be days when word gets back to you that someone doesn’t like your hair. Or your clothes. Or your face. Or your personality. Even on those days, you can find the good. If you don’t see it right away—if you are too exhausted even to look for it—be patient. Wait it out. Because it’s there and it’s coming for you. So take a deep breath, put your duck lips back in their holster, and get off Instagram.

Girls, you’ve got this. If it all gets too much, go find your mom. I hear she knows a thing or two about dealing with middle school.

Sincerely yours,

Popcorn Head
1982

Daughter of Another Mother

On December 8, 2017, I lost my mom. She died of Alzheimer’s. I am 48 and a mother of 4 myself. In a sense, I don’t still need a mother. In another sense, and probably the only one that counts, I will always need my mother. I will always want to call her on the first day of school or when a kid gets his driver’s license or gets a part in a play with more than 3 words. I will always be grateful for the things she gave me.

We tend to immortalize the dead as better than they were. There is no human that does not create a wake of messes for others to clean up at some point. I’m doing my part, I can assure you. My mother was no different. She could yell at us when our rooms looked like an FBI ransacking. She could give us the stink eye when what we needed was mercy. And she didn’t like talking on the phone about nothing. When I was homesick, away in college, I really did want to talk more. About nothing. Like I do now.

But she almost always came back and apologized when she had been too hard on us. And she was the first one to laugh when reaching over the front seat to pop my misbehaving brother with a comb (I certainly never misbehaved) and the comb flew out of her hand and smacked the backseat window. She wasn’t perfect. But she was my mother.

In August of 2015, she received the official Alzheimer’s diagnosis. To my knowledge, she is the only one in my family to have ever had the disease. Apparently the disease did not care that we had no family history. It did its thing anyway.

We were lucky that she never forgot our names. She never saw me enter a room when she did not know that it was me and that my name was Missy. But she lost the ability to laugh at herself and others. And she lost her zing along the way.

Every now and then, I am looking for something else and I stumble upon something I jotted down or typed on a random day dealing with Alzheimer’s. Today I was looking through some notes and found this. I don’t know if it was an intro to something or an odd attempt at poetry. I don’t remember what was behind my writing it. Either way, it took me back and made me gratefully melancholy for what I had and still have in my mother.

Daughter of Another Mother

I have to go meet my mom.
Only she’s not there.
She’s not where I left her.
And she’s not where she told me she’d be.
She’s not where I’ve looked for her.
She’s lost; locked away behind her diagnosis.
Alzheimer’s.
She’s locked in a room where I haven’t been able to find her.
That’s what I keep thinking. But she’s still here. She is still “findable,” I’ve just been looking in the wrong places. I’ve been trying to find her where she was. Where she should be. I’ve been trying to bring her out. To me. But she can’t come to me. I have to go to her. I have to meet her where she is and on her terms.
If I ever want to see my mother again, I have to set aside the person she used to be. And I have to set aside the person I am right now.
If I can change myself enough and allow her to be changed already, then we can sit down in her room together and be.
Just be.
Because right now, that’s all there is.