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.
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.
The mother of one of my piano students came to me last week and asked if we might start her six-year old boy on lessons on a trial basis. We’d do a fifteen-minute lesson and see how he took to it. After all, he’d been asking for lessons and copying his sister for weeks now.
So, after his sister’s lesson I sat down with him at the piano and we started. All we do at the first lesson is touch every key and name it, spell some words on the keys like DAD and CAB, and then I usually do some silly quizzes about which hand is which and which finger is which. It gives us a chance to get to know one another and to introduce the piano, and it is easy.
In just fifteen minutes, I can decide whether the student is ready and able to take lessons. For instance, this little boy stayed focused and engaged with the process the whole time. He didn’t get frustrated, and he did know which hand was which. It’s hard to teach kids piano if they are unsure which is the left hand or if they keep looking back at their mom to see if they are getting the right answers. But he was willing to trust in the process and allowed a fifteen-minute relationship with me all for the sake of learning piano. They say first impressions are real so I am counting on it, and I feel this guy is ready.
The crazy thing about this experience is what he did next because it is a reminder that kids are just as capable as adults of sizing up the situation. His first impression is valid, too. After we were finished and I told him he’d done a good job, he ran right over to his mother. I got a perfect look at his back as he spoke to her. In a clear and loud voice, as if I couldn’t hear him he told her, “I want piano lessons.”
Kids are great. They know how they feel. And there is such a short line between how they feel and what they say without a lot of smoke and distraction in-between, that if the adults in their lives are good stewards of that we can trust them to be honest with us for a long time.
Let me start off by saying that if your two-year old wants to chase butterflies or stomp in puddles, let them. Here’s why.
My sixteen-year old daughter came home from school yesterday and said, oh by the way, I tried out for the academic team. The older kids usually answer those Jeopardy-like trivia questions more accurately so she didn’t make it last year yet went back and tried it again yesterday. This time she got a score on the screening test double that of the two boys she went with, easily making it to the next level, and she did it wearing a dress she told me. Not that that really has anything to do with anything, but really, she was clearly delighted with herself. I am a girl and I can do hard things, she might have been thinking.
At dinner she told my husband, just like she’d told me, she wasn’t sure she wanted to be on the academic team, she just took the test to see. Well, I am here to tell you that this is the very line I feed myself to get me to do things my brain might otherwise tell me not to do. My intuition that I want to do something is so strong that I go and do it and then my brain suggests rational reasons why that might be okay, later. Ahead of time I am not so sure the brain would give the okay. Not that there is anything wrong with wanting to be on the academic team, or just wanting to take the qualifying test, but I think my daughter needed to not think about it too hard. Otherwise she might question her motives, or the practicality of being in another club, or if she could even do it, or that she might be a nerdy person for considering it. She skipped all that and just did it.
It is a fantastic mechanism to be honored. This process of doing stuff just because. I had not heard her say one thing about wanting to be on such a team beforehand, yet she is attracted to it for some reason. None of the reasons for or against being on the team matter. Something about it is attractive. That’s enough for me to say, honor your intuition. Trust yourself.
Teach your children to indulge healthy ideas like this one, just to see, without too much thinking it over and figuring out if it makes sense. Because after all, chasing butterflies makes no sense at all. Unless you like doing it.
It seems I had failed to cover sufficiently the usefulness of the brake pedal in controlling the car on hills and instead we were in what felt like a free fall down our steep driveway, barreling towards the street and potential live traffic. I let out a little cry at the prospect of my life ending prematurely. I don’t normally do that during driving lessons, but I thought we were just going to do three-point turns when suddenly I was on a roller coaster.
In driving lessons with my sixteen-year old daughter I see the same dynamic between us that has been going on since she was a baby. Her job is to grow. My job is to let go. Even better if it can be with my arms in the air in the front row seat screaming bloody murder because it is so thrilling.
Every day I offer a challenge, something she thinks she is not ready for that I know she can do. Whether it is cutting with scissors when she is a toddler, or maneuvering our car through the parked vehicles of the neighborhood on off-peak hours just yesterday, it is my job to know her abilities and guide her, and not let my own fears drive our discoveries together.
Okay, so I should have gone over the brake thing more clearly, but until I am in a free fall I don’t realize what I have not yet taught. By the end of our half-hour lesson she is saying she is proud of herself and hadn’t imagined she was ready for actual road driving even though I know that passing one moving car in an isolated neighborhood barely qualifies, but live traffic it was.
My job is to let go. To see that she is capable and encourage that even though doing so means she is moving farther away from me. I try to imagine that she is actually moving closer as we forge a bond of trust. It is a powerful bond that we will both cherish because it will be stronger than any cut the scissors can make, and any road that may lead to places far away.
Yesterday I kicked off my sandals and jumped into my swimming pool with all my clothes on. That’s right. Everything in my world suddenly disappeared except for the little girl slowly going under, and I do not remember thinking about anything except getting her out. Phew!
My four-year old visitor, my friend’s granddaughter, seemed unfazed by my rescue, but me and the two other adults there, and I’m counting in that my recently certified lifeguarding sixteen-year old daughter, all had to catch our collective breath and debrief a moment. Blondie coughed and sputtered, choked and was a little shaken, but generally fine after her dead weight imitation. Her seven-year old brother had given her a little shove and in she went with no apparent swim reflexes. When I looked over she was sinking, quickly filling with water, first her mouth, then her nose, her eyes, her little blond head all going under. In defense of the adults, I want to say we did have a life jacket on her but she took it off because she is four and she can do everything herself already.
Afterward, although a little timid about it, this girl got back in the pool without so much as a wimper. Big brother had to sit out the rest of the swim time, but she was praised for her bravery and encouraged to continue playing near the pool. After all, we’d just shown her that we were there, watching. She could not have been under the water more than three seconds, and her grandmother was kicking off her sandals when I splashed in, and my daughter was on her way as well. This little girl was informed that she is safe and in good hands even in a dangerous situation.
Life is full of danger, but we all must carry on despite that. Having trusted strength nearby, for all of us, is the way to navigate the waters of fear. Someone has to hold your hand, scoop you out, explain it all, or whatever you need, in order to keep going even when life gets tricky.
It was news to me when I figured this out, but now I see it clearly. We must always surround ourselves with those who care and who lift us up when we don’t even know we need it.
There is a reason my brothers and sister and I don’t trust each other today, as adults, and why none of us have any relationship with each other. It’s so inspiring for me, personally because now I dream of my own children being friends and supporting each other through life, and I am actively out here trying to make it happen.
My mom and dad raised all five of us kids in a remote location, a thousands-of-acres private estate dad was manager of, far from other humans. He was also the on-site dairy farmer and nearby harness race track manager, and later, in his free time, he became a lawyer.
With mom being an orphan she had no sisters or mother or aunts or anyone to talk to, and being physically isolated she wasn’t running into the neighbors who might commiserate about life with her. This, along with my father’s great need to be in ten places at once seven days a week, I believe, led her to use her five small children as a sounding board at times for her own problems in life.
Since there was not a lot of attention being handed out for which you might think we would all be vying, instead, I personally stood around hoping to hear Mom complain about one of my siblings, which she often did since she hadn’t really wanted five kids to begin with. The reason this was worthwhile was that with it came a fleeting moment during which I imagined that because Mom was unhappy with one of my sisters or brothers, she might by default like me. In those moments I felt a little important, momentarily, and I appreciated the shortcomings of my siblings. Now this may sound mighty extreme to your ears, but this is how it was.
Helping my children appreciate and love one another has not been a simple task for me. Saying my love out loud, acting out my love through kindness and patience have been the cornerstones of my effort. My case is extreme but it sure is handy for pointing out the easy way to spoil what has to be the more natural relationship between siblings. Teach your kids to love each other by modeling your love out loud. That way there’s no mistake how you feel. That way they may appreciate each other, too.
At the liquor store the other day I was eyeing up the tiny bottles of booze wondering which one would best suit the occasion 9am Monday morning when I would bring my foot back to the physical therapist. I chose none and instead went home and dug out my copy of Thich Nhat Hanh’s Peace is Every Step, what I think of as the monk’s guide to meditative breathing.
I am having a little post-traumatic stress I suppose, because the thought of going back to the physical therapist and handing him my foot inspires alcoholic-like behavior. I have great appreciation for the guy who has patiently helped me get my torn-tendoned foot back in action over the last year, so we must all agree that my fear of him is surely fleeting.
It started last week when he blithely applied a metal tool to the scar on my ankle and pressed into the tissue to help break up areas that still are uncomfortable. Problem is I needed the breathing techniques of childbirth to tolerate the shooting pains he produced. We agreed to keep going but afterwards I felt traumatized! He’s great. I love him. He’s helped me so much, but I was afraid to go back!
I did go back and as is the way with this guy, we talked. I always need talking. We laughed as I stalled with questions about anything rather than try it again. We agreed to go slower, to take breaks, to check-in. I read my book and breathed my breaths and although it was bad, not quite as bad as before. And I did not even think of drinks.
Earlier today it occurred to me to do like I did in childbirth and actually invite the pain. We all agree it is getting me to where I want to go…to a foot free of discomforts. Maybe, no promises, but maybe tomorrow I will surprise my clinician and show him I can welcome the blistering spikes he knows how to create, that we both want for me to get better.
That’s why I like this guy so much, he’s always game for whatever I bring him, no matter what.
Is it wrong of me to have American Idol singers playing on continuous loop while I am home paying bills and cooking and writing a book? Is it wrong of me to want to find connection with others through a screen or a speaker?
Sometimes I feel that I have been left out of the circuit that binds others together and I cannot figure out where humanity has gone.
So it turns out that every one of these singers is telling me the same thing: I need to be my own best friend. I need to love myself. I need to accept that I am on a path in life that is alone. No amount of trying to get others to be with me, to understand me, to explain themselves to me, will do. No amount of trying to connect in a way that cannot be, will do. I have to walk alone and be alone until I connect. And until that happens I have to trust myself and love myself and be myself, alone.
And in all the moments I am next to someone who is right there with me, hallelujah for that moment. Otherwise, I am loving me because that is who I have for sure.
No matter how many times I reinvent the wheel, rediscover that I must love myself best because no one else can do it for me, I seem to have to learn it all over again. It is a long road, this life, I am in.
My daughter and I watched the entire season of The Bachelor on television this Spring, and I am so excited about how it ended. It ended with a decent guy finding a decent girl, jilting a decent other girl who was quite classy in her reaction to being dismissed, seeking to learn more about herself and wishing the happy couple well, and thus highlighting the possibility that this junk TV show could serve to inform millions on how decent people behave. I was most impressed by the father of the bachelor who said he welcomed either of the two possible young ladies his son might select, and that he’d be that girl’s biggest advocate once she joined the family. The turmoil of having to pick a bride on national television, on a timeline, when two outstanding choices were at hand, was managed with prayer, the bachelor told us. Now prayer is a loaded term if you ask me, but I see it as a code word for any kind of soul searching, introspective, meditation or reverence that includes rationally considering many options and waiting to sense clarity after doing so. Argue with me if you want to on that, but that is how I am interpreting what the young man said.
I love the idea that possibly many households across America, mine included, will learn by watching what it is to be loving and kind. This family highlighted support for one another, and as one of the young women said, everyone knew what was going on and everyone was trying to help. In an impressive conversation we see the bachelor tell his mother he values her opinion and will weigh it, but more than anything he wishes for her support whatever he chooses to do. It was the model of loving civility and both of the girls he was considering looked at this family and were delighted at the prospect of joining such a seemingly healthy group of people.
Now who knows what the truth is. We do not know what goes on behind closed doors, or what miracles are generated through skilled editing, but regardless of the validity of the scenes with which we were presented, they represented to me a wholesomeness I wish for all families on earth.