This is a video of me telling my story at the West Chester Story Slam Grand Slam in November 2014. The theme of the evening was ‘thin line’ and all us, myself included, beat that idea to a pulp. My story is about losing my last baby tooth last year at Thanksgiving dinner.
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.
In my family silence is a form of hiding. You know, kind of going off the family grid and not talking to anyone anymore, feigning disinterest in the ways of the family. Oh, I make it sound deliberate, but really it is a form of fear one can barely help indulging in. It is a form of hiding who one is from behind a wall, scared of being one’s true self, waiting for others to be in contact as some kind of proof that you are valued, even if, illogically you are willing to wait decades. But that’s okay. It is a form of coping that may be the best choice possible.
Paradoxically, I have noticed that the hiders seem to have a high degree of interest in what the rest of the family is doing. So although hiders are silent they are keenly attuned to the goings on of their relations. And it’s easy these days to Google the family member you’ve neglected to speak to for years, to see what they are up to, or follow blogs or Facebook pages or twitter. It is easy to keep tabs on who’s had a legal proceeding or a publication, a problem or a success, without ever having to admit to caring.
I know a little bit about this since my default setting for scare is to shut down and not talk, claiming to myself all kinds of irrationalities. Making all kinds of oaths to myself about what I will or won’t do next time. Convincing myself I am not worth shit. Telling myself words of hate and self-loathing, pressuring myself to do things that feel too hard or too scary. Carrying on the ways of my parents who taught me to regard myself this way, and in turn creating a kind of comfort in such practices. It actually feels good to hate yourself when that’s what mom and dad have taught you to do, be it deliberately or inadvertantly. And so it is hard to break out of such thinking.
And even though I am not guilty of searching for family members online, I know that is what happens. There is a certain kind of glee in being able to have the power of knowing what others are doing without revealing what you yourself are doing. Or what you care about or whether you are okay or not. In not putting yourself out there yet reaping the benefits from others who do.
It’s a form of coping. A way, learned in youth I am pretty sure, that keeps one safe from people who might hurt you with the knowledge of what you care about, of what you do, or where you go. It’s a way to protect yourself.
It’s a tough way to live, hiding all the time. Being out of touch and keeping silent to feel safe. But I understand. I really do. It’s what you have to do to get by.
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.
This year I sat in on just about every class for AP English Language and Composition in our high school. I am the theme reader for the class, kind of a writing coach, and so I review all the written papers the kids do and make comments and corrections to support the teacher’s lessons. He’s a pretty great teacher (Teacher of the Year, 2014) so I feel especially lucky to have had the pleasure of watching him impart his wisdom all year long. Recently he shared with the class this great TED talk on vulnerability by Brene’ Brown.
She gets it exactly right, and with legitimate scientific research, which I always think is a great boon to support the things we already know deep down to be true. In other words, this lady is smart.
Sometimes fear runs my life and I cannot stop it. I am afraid of not being able to accomplish what I want, and I end up taking the fear with me to sabotage what it is I am afraid I cannot accomplish, thus not accomplishing it because fear is in the way…
Recently I’ve watched this video on vulnerability and being authentic as an antidote to my fears.
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.
About thirty parents were standing around the softball fields with rakes and shovels yesterday morning, poised to groom the fields after a winter of abuse, to help our girls have a place to play ball this spring. The turnout was great and everyone was in the spirit to be outside and help one another get the job done. There was one big problem however and that was that we had only one wheelbarrow. So one load of dirt at a time was being hauled from the parking lot all the way out to the infield. Six or eight people with rakes would attack it and level it in moments and then they and the other twenty or so folks would stand around waiting for another load to show up. It would take all day to get the job done at this rate and it was apparent that we should have brought more wheelbarrows.
It seemed like an easy enough problem to solve though, since the field is surrounded by a neighborhood. Wearing my dirt-covered work gloves, in my dirty jeans and with windblown hair, I knocked on doors. The first lady I got was in curlers and an old-fashioned duster and seemed flustered that someone was outside the door. But when I told her we were cleaning up the fields behind her house and that we were short some wheelbarrows she gladly offered hers. I should have targeted folks with better wheelbarrows though because hers actually had holes in it, and although we used it we were afraid we’d break it. That sent me to some more houses and I found Louis answering his door. He was so glad to help he got out his pump and inflated the flat tire on his. When I came running across the field with a second quite functional wheelbarrow the folks standing at the dirt pile cheered.
Before long I’d secured another even larger wheelbarrow along with another set of hands in the owner of that one. All told we had three extra wheelbarrows, and suddenly the job was going by at a rate three times faster.
People I found at home that morning couldn’t wait to help a crowd of folks cleaning up the park they lived next to. When they heard we were picking up garbage and grooming the fields they were delighted to help.
Everyone wants to be a hero and by asking neighbors to loan us their tools, admitting we had many hands but had neglected to come prepared, these folks were eager to jump in and save the day. I mean it. Every person I asked either agreed to loan us their wheelbarrow, or if they didn’t have one suggested a neighbor who did.
My crowd of parents thought I was the hero. But the truth is all I did was ask.
I loved seeing how eager people were to help out, and I loved seeing how easy it was to make that happen. My colleagues marveled at this simple task of asking for what we wanted, but by admitting we were ill-prepared yet determined to get the job done folks saw an opportunity to be heroes. Who wouldn’t take that?
The thing I learned yesterday morning is that you just have to ask for what you want because good will begets good will.
When I was younger I remember making up things. Exaggerating. Pretending to know things I did not know. And spouting off about things, digging a hole for myself I sometimes could not get out of. I see now, clearly, that that was my insecurity speaking. I was afraid of the truth of the matter. That I didn’t know something. Or that I would look stupid. Or that I was worthless as a person. No, really. My childhood ears were filled with words from authorities around me that implied and outright told me that I was full of crap. And that was before I started making up things. Making up things was a way to try to stem the tide of the ever increasing idea that maybe they were right, I didn’t know anything. I was stupid.
Making up things, lying, exaggerating, whether you are a kid or an adult, is a way of hiding. Of hiding behind ideas and words and attitudes that feel safer than the real ones. Admitting you don’t know something is tough because in the wrong company we run the risk of being made fun of.
Admitting who we really are, and encouraging our children to do the same, is a gift because we cannot move ahead in life, or grow as people, if we hide behind made up ideas and silly postures. Kids need permission to not know. We all do. No one can have all the answers all the time. Telling kids they are stupid, or bullying them inspires a reaction like the one I had…to try desperately to seem to know it all.
When my kids were little we called it a ‘proper hello’. We also had a ‘proper goodbye’. They had parts. Like looking the person right in the eye and deliberately addressing them. It was not formal, but it was deliberate. It showed intention. We insisted on it so our kids got in the habit of requiring themselves to acknowledge other people.
Lots of kids today are not held to any such standard. I used to say hello to a little boy I saw every morning, but his mom never insisted he say hello back. She rolled her eyes and said, “Kids,” but she did not insist. This boy’s parents did not seem to have high expectations of him in that regard, and I’ll guess in any regard as it turns out. He was allowed to let his fears drive his behavior. It’s hard to say hello to grown-ups.
He’s a teenager now and he’s failing school, not interested in much of anything. He’s soft and slow and unengaged. Nothing much matters to him, it seems.
I cannot help but wonder if being expected to say hello figures in. Shouldn’t he hold himself to some kind of standard in life? Maybe not being required to say hello is indicative of a life of not being required to rise to enough challenges. To face down enough fears. If we don’t hold our children to higher standards, they will not hold themselves to higher standards either.
Who knows? Whenever I see children allowed to disobey their parent’s requests to be polite and their parents allow them to indulge those fears, I wonder if we aren’t creating the kind of loneliness and lack of connection, the apathy, that seems to be growing in our culture.
One of last week’s piano lessons was unusual in that light bulbs went off in MY head. My little friend did not like the idea that I cover her hands with a book as she tried to play a piece, pushing my book away and pulling it up to look under it. She did everything she could to thwart my efforts to encourage playing while reading the music rather than looking back and forth between music and keys. It got to the point where I was ready to give up because it was getting a little physical for a piano lesson, and she said outright it was too hard. She really believed it. It was just something she COULD NOT do.
So in my usual way we wrote that in the lesson book,”This is too hard to do” with an arrow pointing towards the name and page number of the piece. She agreed wholeheartedly this was indeed too hard to do.
I told her that I did not see it as too hard for her. She does hard stuff all the time, and this was just one of those things. I am confident you can do this, I told her. She did not like this plan at all. This is a student that is cautious. She checks everything before she begins. I urge her on, saying, let’s go, no more stalling, do it. She wants to readjust her seat, crack her knuckles, give heavy sighs and mention the weather, coming up with all manner of distraction rather than try the difficult task.
Ho hum. Get on with it. Eventually it occurred to me that fear was driving her actions or should I say, inaction, and I decided to break it down to its component parts to demystify the project. I think she feared making mistakes and hitting the wrong keys if she couldn’t look down and be sure of what she was doing.
I showed her how she could feel, with her fingers alone, where on the keyboard there are three black notes in a row. We practiced both looking at three notes in a row and looking away and feeling three black notes in a row. I showed her how just south of one of the black notes, F#, is the F we’d be needing for the song in question. She was delighted to see that she could do it. So we tempted fate and I had her wave her hands in the air and swing them around behind her, close her eyes, look here and look there, and then close her eyes again and then place her hands on the F. With no problem at all, there it was, under her fingers where she needed it to be, without any looking at all. F!
Next thing you know, playing the song with a book over her hands made not a difference. Now that she knew where F was without looking, and how the other notes related to those, because we of course walked through a conversation about that, she was golden. All the fear seem to drift away.
I was not that clear on how my little friend felt about all this until her father walked in at the end of the lesson. She called out for him to be awed by her ability to close her eyes and miraculously locate F on the keyboard and she grandly demonstrated this new ability. He had no idea what this meant or why it mattered but he applauded her success and celebrated in her great achievement.
Phew! I told him, even if he doesn’t understand, he should know for sure that he got his money’s worth today.