Today I provide the guest writing prompt at storyaday.org. This site is considered by Writer’s Digest to be one of the “101 Best Websites for Writers” so take a look at https://storyaday.org/ to learn how you can mine your memories for writing gold.
At the bus stop today, which I visit regularly to stay in touch with my youngest neighbors, I showed the kids how to get my dog to do tricks in exchange for treats. One little girl was so charmed as my dog dutifully came to her on command, that she said to me quite directly, “You come back tomorrow and we’ll do this again.” Once the older kids were on the bus and she was headed back home her mom insisted she and her very young brother say thank you to me. She didn’t let them off the hook when it seemed a little difficult. They both knew, they’d been down this road before with mom, and they said their thanks. I thanked them in return for being great friends to me and my dog.
The parents of my piano students do the same. After every lesson they instruct their children to say thank you to me. I in turn thank them for working hard and for being great students. Kids don’t always want to do this. When my kids were little we called it a ‘proper thank you’ and it required that you look directly into the eyes of the person you were addressing. It matters to me that we acknowledge one another.
Friends of our stopped by last night to say thanks for a favor we’d done them. They stayed and chatted and let us know what it all meant to them. We shared in the joy of having a connection. We said thanks back for being great guests and for acknowledging our favor.
The reason I bring all this up is because saying thanks is part of how we get to know ourselves. It is a significant means by which children learn who they are. My MANTRA! Helping kids know who they are! It is important to me because it is the reason kids ever leave home and get jobs. They are itching to go and be who they are and live the life of a grown-up after all those years of being a kid and just thinking about it.
Saying thank you is a way to become aware of what they like. They are grateful and they say it out loud. Parents help kids know this about themselves. Know what they like. Consciously. Out loud. And this in turn helps them get to know who they are. And then they often hear back why the other person is grateful for THEM. Bonus that kids then learn even more about themselves. Teaching children to be grateful, to show gratitude, to not take the world, even neighbors and piano teachers, for granted, is a gift to your child because it is a doorway to helping them learn who they are. If they know who they are they have a chance of figuring out what to study in high school, in college, and then into the work world. Knowing who they are helps them direct themselves in life.
There are a whole bunch of other benefits to saying thank you, like bringing a positive spirit to those you interact with, like character building which is shown to be a key to doing well in school, like inspiring others to be conscious of themselves, like teaching children how to treat their parents once they themselves have become teenagers and then adults, and on and on. And there are, of course, many additional ways to learn who you are. But saying thank you is a cultural norm that I love to see young parents teaching their children. It is good for children, it is good for parents, and it is good for us all.
Comparing myself to others just doesn’t work.
I am moving along after my own dreams and my dreams for my kids. It’s easy because they are all the same. I wish for each to feel such security in love, such safety, that he has the freedom of spirit to follow his heart and be whomever he truly is inside. And in this, I feel so confident that each will be satisfied with the person he finds. That each may give and take love with joy. That each may love himself and the thrill of life as all children, of every age, should.
I have had friends who it turned out were near me simply to get a closer look at the competition. And here I thought we were hanging around together because we both shared the thrill of having kids, of being human, of living life together. I didn’t notice their preoccupation with my accomplishments and those of my children, because I was too busy directing my own life to compare myself with them.
I never thought that when I was talking about my son’s excitement, years ago, at learning to be a keyboardist at an after-school performance program, that it would become cause for jealousy. After all, even I questioned the value of encouraging my son to dream of growing up to be a rock star. It felt great, I thought, that those around me saw the real value in it too. That is, that it was really about celebrating his opportunity to take risks and master something as a young adult, to envision himself as a successful person, not the literal idea of being ‘the best keyboardist ever’. For me, the idea that my son was excited about something and felt an apparent joie de vivre that led him to apply himself and try hard at something, was worth celebrating no matter what it was or how well he’d do at it. It was cause for celebration, not bragging.
And by the way, it’s tough to get me jealous. So many of my dreams have already come true. And when I don’t have everything I want, I go out and get it. I go out and fulfill my own dreams one baby step at a time. I do this by keeping my wants realistic. I get rid of wants like beautiful legs, and a cure for my sugar addiction. They are not worthy goals so I reject them in favor of others I can truly be proud of, like becoming a parent who understands what kids need and putting that before my own needs without denying myself in the process. That’s definitely worth the effort that could have gone into those legs.
Why not be jealous of the fact that I’m turning my life into what I want it to be? It’s not happening to me; I’m making it happen. God gives everyone gifts. Learning how to appreciate them is not a competition. Find your gift and those of your children and go be a star shining brightly enough to help illuminate your life AND mine.
Teenagers are difficult. You want to help and tell them the answer to the question they ponder, yet the truth is, if you do they turn you off and shut their ears and bound off in another direction in search of the answer you are holding in your outstretched arm.
Our girl had two great job offers this summer, to lifeguard at either the local Y or to lifeguard at a nearby summer camp. It’s a great position to be in but it was complicated by the fact that one looked significantly more challenging than the other. She would be expected to teach swim lessons even though she’d never done that before, and to teach little ones to dive in the water head first. There would be in-service days once a month, weekly staff meetings, a paid week of training before the season began, more hours than she’d had before, and the list goes on. The job at the summer camp sounded like too much. At least to her.
And on top of all that, these were her first real job interviews, ever. At the summer camp she’d been asked many questions, and to her delight had been complimented on the way in which she’d answered, apparently pausing to consider her answers before sharing them. But they wanted to know difficult things like what she’d learned at her last job and who was her role model. What kind of seventeen-year old girl names her mother and then feels free to come home and tell her all about it? Sometimes she seems about forty, mature in her understanding and acceptance of herself, willingly consulting with herself on important matters. Exactly what I would have given an arm for when I was her age. Yet, there is doubt despite the maturity.
We told her we didn’t care which job she took but the better one looked to be the summer camp. It’s too hard, she said. What if I can’t do it? So in the end we advised she do what she wanted, but consider in the process the various adults who felt she could do the harder job. Between the folks who offered it to her on the spot, her references including a family friend who works at the camp, and her parents, I pointed out that there were about seven adults who each believed she could do the difficult job and even hoped she go for it. Keep that in mind when you choose a job, honey.
And I walked away and hoped to God she would realize the opportunity before her, the support she has behind her, and her own ability to put herself right where she needs to be. I told her how I felt and then I left it to her.
She loves the kids, she’s surprised how easy it is to teach swimming and she comes home every day with a smile on her face, learning and growing as you should as a teenager at a summer job. Every bit of this is part of the important lessons you just can’t get any other way.
Have I already confessed to watching American Idol incessantly? I am serious, I collect every show on DVR and then watch it over and over again when I’m home alone.
But it’s more than enjoying the music. I want to see how the winning contestant/artist, who is new at this, gets there. That’s the part I like. I like watching people who are new at trying this thing of singing on television, in front of judges. And truthfully, anyone really good on this show has been singing for years because they indeed do love to do it. It’s that they are new at thinking of themselves as worthy of the opportunity to sing in front of influential people and millions of people.
I like watching this because there is a clear progression from people who are scared and trying it out in the beginning, to those same folks getting comfortable being themselves. I love watching this! I love seeing people get out of their own way to just open their mouths, get into their song, and let it come out. This is inspiring to me, someone trying to do the same thing that I am trying to do in my life, just not in singing. (Alas, I am a terrible singer.) I’d love to get more comfortable writing my story, hearing my own voice in it, being myself and not worrying about what others will think, or what will happen if I show who I really am. I am obsessed with trying to get there. Trying to let go of the hiding that has happened to me.
Growing up I was not allowed to be myself. There was always something wrong with that. I rarely felt I was doing the right thing, and I didn’t often inspire my parents into saying that they were pleased with me. They did not say they loved me and they did not say I was wonderful. I worried about how they felt, but I had no idea how they felt. I had no idea if they even liked me. It was terribly confusing as a kid to be constantly trying to get it right with so little information, so little feedback about anything I ever did that WAS good. I had little to go on about what I was doing right, and plenty of information on what I was doing wrong. I learned to be afraid of being myself. I was actively NOT doing things rather than actively DOING things.
So here I am today trying to figure out still how to be me!
Watching the folks on American Idol try to be themselves, which is what is needed to sing like a rock star, is fascinating for me. I see tiny developments when I watch the show over and over, that tell me the contestants are trying new ways of allowing themselves to ‘be’, as they do not stop themselves or worry about what others will think. Jena is the contestant I saw do this so well this season.
She came on singing music she wrote herself. She got better each week but you saw her stumble trying new ways. Once she even said that some things worked and some did not, showing us that she was challenging herself to try things and forgiving herself when not everything went perfectly. Yet in all that she never lost herself or her ability to sing beautifully. She kept going, kept adding new skills, and in the end she is fantastic! Always being true to herself and allowing herself to show through. I am so proud of her, and simultaneously jealous that she has people around her actively trying to show her how to do it. Encouraging her out loud, and kindly, to do this difficult thing.
I have always wanted that. So I live vicariously through the contestants on this show, not only because they get to sing so well, which I’d love to be able to do, but because they have people around them dedicated to lifting them up and showing them who they are and encouraging them to be bold enough to embrace that and share it.
Today I told my daughter I was concerned that I might be living my life vicariously through her. Because that’s a thing. You can do that. And I really don’t want to.
It stems from the idea that I want her to be fully informed about her choices in life, as a teen, since there are so many opportunities for teens, and for students, that go away when you grow up. School groups are always getting free looks behind the scenes at the quarry or the theatre or the kitchen of a restaurant. You can shadow people in their jobs as a student, and there are plenty of things kids get to do that grown-ups are not allowed to do so freely.
When I was a teen I had no idea what the choices were. I made decisions based on fear. I chose a college on the fear of leaving my boyfriend too far behind, and on the fear of costing my parents too much even though we didn’t discuss that (I tried to guess), and on the fear that I couldn’t get into the school I really wanted to go to (I didn’t even try). My decisions were based on fear and on ignorance. I had no idea how the world worked and had no one to ask for clarification.
So it thrills me, this is the living vicariously part, to be able to explain the world to my daughter, and to offer her suggestions on how to make a decision. It’s usually about gathering facts and listening to your gut. In one second’s time we have the answer to the question, “I wonder what it’s like to be a Rotary exchange student in Poland” by searching the internet for a blog of just such an experience. Voila! Complete with pictures. There, go now and weed the garden, pondering all you’ve seen, mulling it over so you get a little bit closer to having enough info to make a decision.
See what I mean. I am living vicariously on the idea that she is getting to do what I never got to do. It isn’t, ‘be a Rotary exchange student in Poland’, ‘it’s make decisions with the help of a grown-up’. She gets to make decisions that suit her because she’s making them as an informed individual.
Yay! Wish I’d had that.
The day after my son’s fantastic graduation party in New York I was a little beside myself. Really now, it’s a big deal to graduate a kid from college these days. One major life hurdle is cleared!
But oddly I felt out of sorts the next day.
When I was ten and then twelve and then fourteen I watched my three older siblings go off to college and never return. My eldest brother got involved in a cult and failed out of school and then roamed nomadically for a while. Then my oldest sister went to school and we rarely saw her again because she didn’t come home and Mom and Dad didn’t take us to visit. My next sister went to college too but in no time decided to stick out her thumb and hitchhike across country to as far away as she could get. It had become every man for himself, and I remember thinking someone should have warned me that families cease to exist once the kids go off to college. I actually thought this was normal!
Our nuclear family, which I see clearly now, was not too solid to begin with, broke apart and never regained its footing as an entity. We just didn’t have the strength as a family to hold ourselves together. So as each member left, ostensibly for college, the family got smaller and weaker and I grieved more.
So the day after my son’s graduation from college last week I had a sense of fear that this is what really happens, and that my son would flee from us now that he is capable of being financially independent. I had great fears that I have served my purpose, as my mother did, and that my role is over. That’s what my mother taught me, I suppose. Thankfully, seeing that idea in print helps me recognize its absurdity, but it’s hard to ignore the feelings that are right there threatening such nonsense as real. I’ve worked hard to have the family I do today, fighting against so much of what my mother taught me. But under it all these outlandish ideas spring up to threaten my happiness today and I swat them down and say, “See, we have a new life different from the one in your head. Stop it. Embrace your world as it is now.”
I know our family will stay together and remain an entity because we’ve worked to create that life, but it’s still a scary idea for me to send my kid off into the world and hope he comes back to see me. I told him all this and asked him to show me his love more loudly so I could hear it well and shut down this fear in my head, and he said he’d be glad to.
For the first time I feel old and I know that Mother’s Day is doing it because I can see that my role as mother is diminishing. I have a son out in the world fully independent for Pete’s sake!
I have an embarrassment of wealth, joy that is, at what God has handed me in three great kids who are healthy and happy and here with me. We are skyping to be together today but will see each other for real next week for my eldest’s college graduation, and I am overcome with joy at the thought of all that. It’s too sweet to accept this gift from God. Such joy I cannot truly deserve. To get to see the graduations, to get to see all the proms, and to get to see all the successes of my almost-adult children is way more than I prayed God would give me.
When the kids were babies I prayed he’d let me live long enough to see them to the point where they’d at least remember me. When they passed that I wanted to live long enough so they’d remember my lessons, and after that I wanted to live long enough so they’d be able to make some of their own decisions, and after that it is all gravy – that we get to share even more of the joys of life together is making me more grateful than I can say.
Last Saturday at the college rugby game we went to see, one boy broke his nose and another broke his leg. Not among those tending to their bleeding children, I had time to pose on the sidelines with my son and husband for this selfie.
I’m learning a lot about selfies. Turns out they are not just about self-absorption as I thought, but instead according to my daughter’s research paper (tipped by a generous cousin at UGA) I learned that they have much to do with communication and self-awareness.
If I’d been my son taking this picture I’d have been full of pride at the idea I’d inspired both my parents to travel two hours south from their home to see me play with my team. I’d have felt pride in being part of a team, in being fit, in being alive on a spring morning. No idea what was actually in his mind when he snapped this but he was eager to share it, texting it to me moments after he took it. I, in turn was eager to text it to each my two other kids.
For me the unspoken message here may seem obvious to some, and some may take it for granted that this is how families behave. But for me the idea that we travel to see our kids, that we have fun together and take such spontaneous candid happy moments as evidence of that, is the grateful message in my texts. I want to encourage our family to stay together and have fun together and texting selfies is a way to do that. I communicate my joy of being with my son and the implied joy of being with any of my children, and I report my awareness of this happy time by sending it to my kids.
It is hard to have kids leave home and spend their time away, so meeting them and enjoying their company whenever we can is top on my mind, and funny, my son’s selfie helps me appreciate that and share that and hopefully create more of that for the future.
When my daughter was in fourth grade I encouraged her to be in the variety show at her elementary school. Her brothers had had a great run of it, testing the idea of standing up in front of their peers and entertaining them in whatever way they could find. They were stand-up comedians, or musicians, usually.
My daughter wanted to be at the piano playing a song called Jazzy Cat, and she wanted to wear cardboard cat ears stapled to a headband, and a cat tail that hung down from her waist and across the piano bench. She also had whiskers painted on her face. This was all her idea. Nobody else wore a little costume if they played a piano piece. In fact, the kids who played piano pieces typically play classical music and wore more serious clothes as if they aspired to be concert pianists.
The point is that this is what she wanted to do and just because no one else was doing it didn’t seem to figure in for her. She had a vision of who she might be, and trying it out at the variety show was a safe enough place. Since then she has not turned into a jazz dancer, a serious pianist (although our duets are pretty fun on a Friday night), or a theatre kid. None of it was literal. It was all for the fun of the moment and I am sure informed her about herself in some way I cannot appreciate.
Now we are on the college search. I feel the same desire to let her figure it out again, defining for herself who she is and where she fits in. In both cases I am right there talking it all through with her, doing what it takes to help support her as she explores her own identity. But what I am not doing, and very deliberately, is tell her who I think she is or what I think she should do. If she asks, I have opinions, but I try hard not to impose them on her.
It turns out that if I’d had it my way at the variety show she would have done something entirely different that I won’t even mention here, and I can see now it would not have been half as cool as a jazzy cat.