Accountability Anyone?

Published in the Ferndale Record, January 28, 2015

Last week a parent called my school office. He asked what time his son had PE and I told him. He said this:

“He forgot his PE clothes today and I was going to try and get them there before his class, but I can’t make it. Guess he’ll just have to remember to bring them next time. How will he ever learn this stuff if I do it for him?”

Thank you, sir, and well done.

Children don’t magically learn accountability, and they certainly don’t learn it when they’re constantly bailed out by a well meaning but misguided parent. I see this happen a lot.

You want children to succeed and you want to help where you can – always. But what you don’t want to do is take away their personal responsibility or live in fear that if you don’t do everything they ask, you’ll be unpopular and invite rebellion. Rebellion will happen no matter what you do. You’re going to have to trust me on this.

When one of my children was in high school, he had an extraordinarily hard time with morning wake up. He was in an early class and had to be out the door before 6:30am. It was common to hear his alarm blaring for 30 minutes before he turned it off, if he did at all.

I dutifully rousted him almost every day. I had things to do, too, but first on the list was getting him on his way. After months of this, I hated it and more importantly, realized he needed to learn the skills I was providing for him. I told him I wouldn’t be waking him up anymore.

One day I didn’t do it. His music came on loud and he slept. I got up, ready for work and left the house. Around 9:30am, he called my work place and said, “What just happened?” He mentioned what time it was, and asked why I hadn’t awakened him. I calmly invited him to remember the conversation we’d had. He wanted me to come take him to school because he simply couldn’t miss it. I told him I couldn’t because I was working. When he asked me what he was going to do, I said, “Figure it out.” He was furious.

But things eventually got better, like they always do when you require a child to do something important.

A 5-year-old appeared in my office and with a factual lilt in his voice announced, “I pooped my pants.”

To help those who come to me with such problems, I keep a drawer full of clean clothes and plastic bags. I also don’t ask a lot of questions. I give them what they need and send them to the nearest bathroom where they do the work. It happened twice to this little one during the week, and both times he was forthcoming, open and ready to take responsibility.

A few days later he brought me a homemade card. A crude drawing on the front was difficult to decipher, but I soon learned it was a pair of underpants. The sentiment on the inside was one of thanks for helping him. It was signed with Xs and Os.

Responsibility, accountability and gratitude: learn early, practice often.

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Lessons From A Five-Year-Old

Published in the Ferndale Record, January 29, 2014

In what could be considered a bold move, a five-year-old at school approached me after I’d bandaged her finger. “Maybe someday, when my parents are dead and I’m grown up, you and I can be friends.”

The whole “parents are dead” thing made me cringe a little, but then I remembered the mind of a child, and the unusually active and fertile mind of this particular child, and instead of recoiling, or explaining age differences and logistics, I smiled and said “OK.”

Then she said, “Maybe we can have a sleepover.” Again, my mind gravitated to that grown-up place of stark reality, but I quickly found my inner kindergartner and said, “Maybe we can.” She closed her eyes, hugged me tight and ran to class.

The itty bitty ones live life, play and love hard until someone or something, completes the siphoning of his or her original spirit – and they eventually morph into what others think they should be, not who they really are. It’s hard to watch.

In adult land, we normally don’t say it right out loud. There’s a kind of dance, some posturing, image to consider. And it’s true, asking someone – even a platonic friend you like a lot, to have a sleepover is well, kind of odd.

I guess the question is: Should it be? Is it really so socially askew to say what we’re thinking, especially if it’s kind, complimentary or loving?

I read a book once about a gutsy woman who decided to “never suppress a generous thought.” I get what she meant, and I think that’s what children and truly genuine people already do. No hating or bashing allowed. Go with the good stuff.

It’s like giving kudos to your best friend on her new haircut because you really love it and it doesn’t even occur to you that this declaration might make your own hair any less stunning. Or, maybe telling a coworker that you saw a thing he did when he handled a tricky situation with grace, without being afraid this compliment will make you sound like a doofus.

If we get over ourselves, our egos and insecurities, handing out generosity makes us feel great, and doesn’t diminish who we are, but connects us to the people around us, and the world in general. We become shareholders in a giant community of givers, and the perks are endless.

Can we really learn all that from a five-year-old? That, and more. One day as she was leaving the school, my pure and vocal little friend began gushing to everyone. “I love you lunch lady! I love you office lady!”  No one thought this was too much or inappropriate. It was simply a manifestation of who she is.

People sometimes back away when others emote. Most of us have been in a room dripping with emotion, and it made us squirm. But choosing to forego deep feeling exacts a price on our capacity for happiness. We don’t have to express it like a child might, but if we want the accompanying joy, express we must.

Someone once said “Everything I ever needed to know I learned in Kindergarten.”  I would argue it happens before that.

Tales Of A Recovering Hyper Over-Enthusiast

Published in The Ferndale Record, March 27, 2013

I used to be ‘that’ mother. The one that yelled the loudest from the stands for her kid on the field, the one that clapped and hooted vigorously after every child’s performance, the one that gushed and cooed over every ‘participant’ ribbon my children brought through the door. 

When it was a trophy or winning award, the air oozed with gusto that could easily suffocate everyone else in the room. Exceptional examples of schoolwork or first numbers scrawled on a napkin were stuck onto the refrigerator for months.

Everyone knows parents who fall into the hyper-enthusiastic category. I thought prolonged cheerleading was how one motivated offspring, and didn’t know any other way to express the abundance I felt.

Then some time ago I discovered how embarrassing my antics had been to one of my children. This cut deep and hard. In the name of encouragement and parental zeal, I’d humiliated one I love.

I used to be ‘that’ mother, and inside my heart of hearts, I still am. I’ve toned it down, which is not a natural state for me, but curiously, especially as the mother of adult children, it’s revealing. Maybe it’s simple maturity or something like it, but robust hollering from the sidelines has been replaced with perspective and gratitude.

Recently, my son and daughter-in-law invited me to Boston for a visit. I got to spend a few days with their family, see them in their natural habitat, and observe the life they’ve built since their move from Seattle last summer.

The entire trip could have been me shouting from the stands. “Oh, this is wonderful! I love this house! What adorable children you have! This city is amazing! WOO HOO!” I could hear it all rumbling around in my soul. When we drove past Fenway Park, I’ll admit to a somewhat sedated outburst. I just couldn’t help it.

Then, right before the flight back to Seattle, I visited my son’s office on the 14th floor with a spectacular view of the Boston skyline. I saw his name on the door and felt that tug again—the one that wants to gush.

I saw the pictures of family on his shelves, the awards he’s earned, and quite suddenly I felt like he’d just brought his first finger painting home from kindergarten. Only this time, I had no words, no overwhelming ebullience to express. It caught in my throat, and the only thing I could feel was joy.

As he drove me to the airport I told him what a great job I thought he was doing with his family, his life, and that it was lovely to witness. He laughed and said something like, “And this from a mother who thinks everything I do is great!”

“No,” I told him, “It’s more than that. You love your wife and children and they love you. Your kids feel safe and want to be with you. You are building a happy life. I’m telling you I can see that.”

I’ve figured out that it’s not so much about me being a frenzied proponent as it is about loving without agenda, guile and ego. When I do that, my tendency to emote gets swallowed up in pure joy.

I still bubble over occasionally and probably always will. But there’s more satisfaction in subdued observation than I ever would have thought. Gravy days for sure!

Too Many Clouds? Watch For The Light

Published in The Ferndale Record and The Lynden Tribune, January 30, 2013

Grave and inhumane acts occur every aching minute all over the world. Injustice and inequities, agendas both hidden and blatant seem to cover the sun, and it’s easy to wallow there, to get stuck.

I decided to think hard for just a few minutes (any more than that is a stretch for me) about what’s good and right in my world. There’s plenty, and if it’s happening to me, something similar happens to everyone, in every culture, in every nation, in every family. The consensus? In the muck, there are tender mercies and flashes of light. The trick is to grab and remember them.

Last year delivered some brilliance. I found out that I get a granddaughter this coming June, the Olympic Games rocked my world for a couple of weeks, I was the recipient of stunning acts of kindness and generosity, and I got to spend a solid week on the beach in Oregon.

Any of those items alone would have been enough to call it a fantastic year. But there were a few other things that stood out. Here are my top five shiny moments for 2012 – in no particular order, except number one, which is in its rightful place at the front of the line.

5. I sold a home. It’s my first time doing this as a single person. I had stellar help from a rock star realtor and advisors who knew their stuff. I was never alone in the process, but in the end it had to be my decision. I felt like such a grown-up.

4. After downsizing with reckless, joyous abandon, I moved into an apartment. Visitors are welcome. But I love the peace, relative quiet, and the ability to do, be and wear (or not wear) whatever I want, whenever I want.

3. One night I went out to dinner with my teenage son at his favorite eatery. We munched and laughed our way through conversations about video games, our favorite TV and James Bond, and then it was time to go our separate ways. We stood to leave and right there, in front of God and all the diners at Red Robin, he leaned in and kissed my forehead. I felt goofy and grateful. Months later, the sweetness of that unsolicited, public display of affection from my boy still lingers.

2. I ran a mile without stopping. This is not likely a huge accomplishment for many other people, but for me the experience was giddy and life affirming. In my world it’s one of those “If I can do that, I can do anything” kind of moments.

And, a tiny speck of brilliance ended my 2012 a week before the year was officially over:

1. On Christmas Day, six of our family members went to a movie together. I sat next to my daughter who, like me, appreciates music on a cellular level. It sears our souls. It speaks to the core of who we are and never leaves us. I knew the movie would be almost entirely sung, but was surprised at how the story and actors combined to make the experience so personal. During one especially fragile scene, my daughter gently laid her head on my shoulder, took my hand and started to sob. The connection and belonging of that brief instant will live in me forever.

I could write a column about all the bad things that happened last year, and there were more than a few. But why? Light always prevails. Always.

New Year’s Evolution: Love, Hate, Whatever..

Published in The Ferndale Record and The Lynden Tribune, January 2, 2013

A long time ago I decided to stop making a big deal out of New Year’s—both Eve and Day. I’m happy with this decision and here’s why: Less pressure.

I used to like the hoopla. When I was a child and a teenager it was all about socializing and usually I had lots of fun. But the year I was 16, I found out, quite by accident, that my boyfriend had been at a New Year’s Eve party in another town with another girl. My heart ached and for a long time anything associated with New Years was off my radar.

I moved into adulthood ready to enjoy this renowned party night again. When my children were little, I reserved baby sitters months in advance. That’s right—months, just so my husband and I could go out with friends on New Year’s Eve. We must have had a good time because we kept doing it. But for all of the feverish anticipation, specific wardrobe selection and carefully detailed plans that were involved, I’m thinking, was it really that great?

The December 31st that I was expecting my fourth child, I couldn’t stay awake until midnight. Boom. There it was. That was the year I realized it was OK, maybe even better to do what I really wanted (which, in this case was go to sleep), as opposed to what felt mandated by the masses.

Even more years passed before I got out of the biggest end-of-December-first-of-January rut of all—New Year’s resolutions. I stopped making them, and here’s the kicker: No repercussions and no guilt! January 1st came and went without the seas boiling, and my inner rebel was saying, “See? It’s no big deal!”

Exactly. While some people view the midnight hour from December 31st to January 1st as magical, granting them super powers upon which to cruise into the new year, I do not. If I want to exercise more, lose weight, read more books, eat more bacon, learn to spot weld or shake it Gangnam style, I can begin my new project on March 3rd or July 14th.  Too many deals I’ve made with myself have been broken in the name of a new year. Never again.

So now, if I look back objectively, which of course we all do, I can see how this time of year used to be fun, and it still could be if I choose. I can also see how in the past I tried too hard to make it something it wasn’t—ground breaking, forever-beginning, first day of the rest of my life-ish. I can do that any day I want.

Freedom can be a by-product of hindsight. A good party, small get together, Times’ Square in New York, these things all appeal to me at different times. But so does skipping December 31st altogether. Yeah, that’s it. Let’s jump right to, oh I don’t know, January 2nd maybe?

The thing is, I really want to like New Year’s and look forward to it sometimes. But I don’t want holiday revelry to be required by law (or others who see me as anti-social), and I intend to feel just fine when someone asks “What are you doing for New Year’s?” and I can say with confidence, on both sides of the calendar, “Whatever I want.”

The Upside Of Downsizing

Published in The Ferndale Record, September 26, 2012

I’ve recently become an apartment dweller, and please excuse my bold assertion, but I think it looks pretty good on me. After gradually letting go of things both tangible and not, my pared belongings and I reside under a much tinier roof. Someone else takes care of the maintenance, and life is simpler. Living lean has considerable advantages.

The move from big house to small-ish digs, and everything that came with it has become a metaphor for my life. The shedding involved was cleansing, even purifying.

I reveled in all my stuff. It represented my history and I felt a level of comfort surrounded by it. My desire was to maintain a large enough home where children and grandchildren could gather, spend holidays, and comfortably stay for days at a time, and I, of course, would be the unchanging hub of this universe, doling out nourishment in the form of food, love, acceptance, support and clean sheets. I would be there for them.

So, even though selling my home and donating items was cathartic, it also stung a little. Because of the downsizing, things would not turn out like I’d hoped. But in the process, I stumbled on what I value most.

I get to keep the memories. Like the time my former husband and I bought a behemoth, oak roll-top desk so I would have a place to write. We spent more on it than any piece of furniture we owned. I adored that desk, the way it looked, smelled, functioned and held my stuff. But it was just that—a ‘stuff’ holder. It went to the kindest of friends, who, because she’d done some research and loved me, insisted upon paying twice what I was asking for it.

A lot of the shedding wasn’t so obvious. Somewhere along the way I also let go of the need to be right all the time, and to check my whining when things don’t turn out like I want.

I saw myself become more patient, ditching the need for a quick fix, learning how to wait. Expectations fell away and outcomes, as unexpected as they may be, were seen for what they are—blessings. I fret less about everything in general, and many things specific.

As a little girl I had a Magic 8 Ball, and by the way, who didn’t? I asked it lots of questions, usually concerning boys I liked or what we were having for dinner. Not approving of its answer simply meant giving it a good shake, trying the same question and hoping for the mystical, floating triangle in the inky substance to show up in the bottom window and tell me what I wanted to hear.

Back then the questions were simpler, and I could pretend. Among other things, not pretending anymore means opening up to what could be, not just what I think I want or need.

All things considered, my singular apartment life is not awful. In fact, it’s quite lovely. And I’m learning that being there for my family has nothing to do with a big house. It has to do with my heart, which made the move with me.

The Only ‘Constant’? You Guessed It.

Published in The Ferndale Record, June 20, 2012

If the only constant in life is change, then my little corner of the world seems to be fixed in the hardest substance known to man. Changes—big ones, currently permeate the lives of virtually everyone I know, including me.

I used to think change was fixable, temporary, or even wrong. But people who are older, or at least wiser than I am, know better. They know, and I’m learning, that rolling with it makes more sense than kicking and screaming, although I still do a little of that, too.

The alternative to accepting any variation of what we consider normal is to be frozen in denial, to stagnate, and eventually die (which, of course, we all do anyway). Despite the sting of significant change, I keep convincing myself it’s better than staying stuck. Why? The philosophical answer involves growth and personal strength. The easy answer is, it keeps boredom at bay, besides, there’s little choice. It happens whether I concur or not.

Change, especially if it’s unexpected, reminds us we’re not in control. Not really, anyway. We can steer our lives like we do a car, but it doesn’t take into account the decisions of others. We can be hit head-on, or sideswiped, and within seconds, we’re thrown into something we didn’t sign up for.

But the truth is, we did. We woke up. We chose life. We loved someone. We took the job. We made the move. We reached out. We made the call. We did whatever it was that got us here, and now, quite by surprise, we’re on to the next thing.

It’s not always bad, this change business. New opportunities, different people, wiping the slate clean—it can be all it’s cracked up to be and more. But loss is difficult, at least initially. We think only about what or whom we’re losing and how it affects us. It literally bites. Hard.

The inevitability of change doesn’t make it any easier. Knowing someone is going to die, or move across the country, or graduate and take a job that’s far away can prolong the hurt, the sense of abandonment.  It’s like drowning in slow motion.

So, what do we do? We probably ache inside, or maybe outside, and then we roll with it, and if we’re lucky, we get to help by dancing with joy or holding hands that grieve. To handle change any other way is exhausting and alienating. I know this because I’ve become an expert at resisting anything new or different—yet, when I fall into the fray and stop fighting, the ride is, well, maybe not easy, but less painful. And if I’m patient, there’s good stuff coming.

I’m a slow learner. But once I know something, I really know it, and here’s what I know: Change of every kind will descend upon me and the people I know and love. I can’t really predict how I’ll feel, but I can honor the process. I can let things be what they are without having to be in charge. I can help where I’m needed and back off where I’m not.

And I can do this every, single time.

A Peaceful Letting Go

Published in The Ferndale Record, February 8, 2012

This weekend, some of the people I love most are gathered in another state at a memorial service celebrating the life of my former mother-in-law, and I’m in front of a keyboard trying to make sense of my thoughts.

When someone dies, it’s common for family and friends to practically bestow sainthood upon the deceased, often choosing to conveniently, and respectfully forget the uncomfortable, or dicey times shared with that person. We do it because we feel bad for not always liking or agreeing with them, and in the absence of unvarnished honesty it’s our way of making nice, feeling better about our own dark feelings.

She was a person who stirred my emotions. Ironically, in the few weeks before her unexpected death, I came to a quiet resolution about the role she’d played in my life.

Dorothy could be difficult and moody, relentless and rigid. I know this because these are the exact qualities I recognize in myself sometimes. She could also be exceedingly thoughtful and generous, loyal and wise. I was a recipient of her wisdom, but usually didn’t appreciate it in the moment.

When our firstborn was six weeks old, she and my adored father-in-law came to visit. In my stellar first month of mothering, I’d figured out a schedule for the baby. We put him to bed at night, he cried for exactly one hour, and then snoozed for eight hours. I don’t know why, he just did. And for a sleep-deprived new parent, those eight hours were platinum.

I told our guests before bed how this would happen—the baby would cry for an hour and sleep for eight. But no sooner had he commenced his nightly sobbing, than my mother-in-law crept out of her room, picked him up, and began rocking him.

I was furious. I knew what would happen. She’d put him back to bed in awhile, and he’d cry for an hour and then sleep for eight. She was prolonging the inevitable, and I was in charge of the baby, not her. I laid in bed and seethed.

I was right. Things played out exactly as I suspected they would. What I couldn’t see through my blinding rage, and only realized years later is, she was the one who was right. It was a triumph of her hard won experience over my confident youth. Babies should be held and rocked, even if it takes all night to soothe them—and it often does.

Each of us, although it may be unintentional, will cause hurt and pain to another human being. At the time, we might rationalize, justify, and maybe even feel a little smug about our stand. The trick is for others (including ourselves, when it’s our turn to be burned) to get over it.

We can’t ever really know why someone says or does something. But we don’t have to let it harsh what could be our peaceful existence.

So, thank you Dorothy, for those soft, green walls in your home you dubbed “Yummy.” Thank you for teaching me how to take fun road trips with young children, for letting me sleep in the blue room when I came to visit, for showing me how to make piecrust, and raising a boy that would become a kind father to my children.

I harbor no darkness, no awkwardness, only gratitude for what I learned from her—and that includes all of it.

And with that healing thought, I choose to remember the good things, and lay all others to rest.

Choosing Hope

Published in the Ferndale Record, December 14, 2011

We’re in the middle of what’s been called the season of perpetual hope, which often brings out greater kindness and generosity in people than they normally exhibit. This phenomenon produces delight in a dismal world. Even if we require nothing else, we need hope—and a whole bunch of it, please.

Within recent weeks, a friend was diagnosed with breast cancer, a married couple I’m close to separated, a friend’s home is just a tweak away from foreclosure, someone else has ongoing serious health concerns, and another’s child is involved in a destructive relationship.

I remembered something written by Anne Morrow Lindbergh: “My life cannot implement in action the demands of all the people to whom my heart responds.”

That’s it. Within my small reach, there’s not enough time, resource, energy, or ability to meaningfully assist everyone I care about. Starving children and abused animals shown on TV make my heart ache more. Our troops, keeping us and other nations safe, veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress, missing children, the mentally and physically disabled, the elderly—the list continues.

Apathy broods. It all feels so immediate. I can’t take care of everything now, so why help with anything at all? I know of people who just sort of go away somewhere in their minds while in the middle of circumstances that don’t concern them. Sometimes, I wish I could do that. The ability to turn numb or a deaf ear could be useful. On the other hand, being fully engaged at every moment would be exhausting and futile.

What I can do is create hope and tiny bits of light in my own corner. Today, I can’t build a hospital in Haiti, or send clean drinking water to a third world country. But I can visit a sick friend. I can send $20 to a struggling student. I can share my experience with an aching soul that might help them look forward to a brighter day.

I know this is true. Not so much because of what I’ve done, but because of what’s been done for me. A contribution of very small consequence by the world’s standard has, more than once, provided me with hope to get up another morning.

Here’s the deal—we all have hard luck stories. Every single one of us. And if we don’t have one yet, we will. It’s not just because we’re bad tempered, poor money managers, unlovable, flaky, were born under a certain sign, or didn’t vote in the last election (although some of those could apply at any given time). It’s the nature of life.

Anyone who reads what I write knows that I believe in God. I also believe that we’re here to help each other, and that doesn’t necessarily mean emptying my 401K for a worthy cause. It does mean more listening and less talking, a little more sacrifice and patience, a little less instantly getting what I want.

If we stop blaming others and ourselves, and keep moving ahead, no matter how slowly, hope will seep into and fill up the pockets and pores of our lives like maple syrup in thick, earthy pancakes. I promise.

And Just Like That, It’s Over

Published in The Ferndale Record, June 8, 2011

It’s interesting how the big build-up to something is usually more painful than the actual “something.”  Except maybe childbirth.

I’ve known for eighteen years that this particular month was coming and now that it’s here, I notice something I didn’t expect—it’s not so bad. Yet.

My youngest child graduates from high school in a couple of weeks. There’s still a lot for him to accomplish before he turns eighteen years old at the end of June and tensions are at their peak. I’ll be grateful if we simply make it through up-coming days without a major incident—like circling each other in a bloody death match.

I figure my job is to straddle that precarious line between me jumping in to wrap up everything he needs to get done and pretending I don’t care. Mostly I stand back and offer support.

He’s so ready for the next phase of his life. Any parent that’s lived under the same roof with a graduating high school senior knows the feeling.

On the way to a drop off for a two-day trip with his senior class, I told him I knew how much he’d miss me and be homesick, but to stay strong and try to enjoy himself anyway. He barely cracked a smile and when we pulled up to the waiting vans he almost bailed out before I stopped the car.

I didn’t take it personally.

The boy takes classes at Whatcom Community College and has a bunch of other responsibilities and friends that keep him occupied. Lately I’ve realized that after work, there’s no one waiting at home wondering where I am.

At first, I was a little sad about this. Then, out of nowhere, I loved it. I keep thinking I’m the one who’s eighteen and I’ve just moved out of my parent’s house. I make dinner when I want it, or not at all. I come home when I’m ready. And no one is tapping toes and looking at the clock in anticipation. I decided that if I were really in trouble, someone would care. I know people.

And letting go of the boy? Someone told me once that teenagers are supposed to be annoying, defiant, and obnoxious so that when the time comes for them to leave home it won’t be hard for parents to say goodbye.

I know the drill. I know about individuation and defying authority. But this is the absolute truth: No matter how difficult those times have been, I’ve never felt like celebrating when a child left home. I’ve been lucky, I guess.

What’s different this time is me. Before, there was always another child waiting in the wings, needing me like young children need responsible adults. There were school supplies to buy, lunches to make, dirty clothes to wash, and booboos to kiss.

Not this time. And oddly enough, I’m OK with that.

Of course, being a parent is never officially “over.” But those first eighteen years are—often in what seems like a moment. The day he was born doesn’t feel like that long ago.

This time it’s not just me giving birth to a new life—it’s both of us.