It’s been almost a year since I’ve written anything, and a lot has happened since then. Some heartbreaking moments – we lost my mother-in-law, Gammie, last September to cancer, and have just finished the last of the holidays without her. Things were not the same without her presence, but I guess we are finding a new normal. Then in January, we […]
It’s been almost a year since I’ve written anything, and a lot has happened since then. Some heartbreaking moments – we lost my mother-in-law, Gammie, last September to cancer, and have just finished the last of the holidays without her. Things were not the same without her presence, but I guess we are finding a new normal. Then in January, we had to put down our black lab, Maggie. She was with us for almost 14 years, and I miss rubbing her velvety ears for comfort. There were some scary moments, too. I was in two car accidents – neither of which were my fault, but the sequence of events has caused some “anticipatory anxiety” when I drive. I’m hoping to become a telecommuter soon. It may be safer! However, there have also been some real positive moments, too. My stepson, Alex, returned to college after successful heart surgery, and my son Sean is now taller than me and will be starting high school in September. These are just a few of the major events in my life over the past year, but there are many other things going on in the world. America is currently in the midst of the primaries, and I have been dismayed by the candidates running for the office of President of the United States. There have been several large scale terrorist attacks with seemingly no solution to global terrorism in sight, and people in our own country have been poisoned by something as simple and necessary as water. I spend a lot of time shaking my head and wondering how we seem to being going backwards rather than forwards.
I don’t believe I have the answer to all the problems of the world. I am actually writing again because my cousin, Paul, reminded me that writing is something I enjoy and find relaxing. As I begin writing again, I may just have random posts for awhile until I decide which direction I want to take. Do I want to focus on memoir? I have thought about writing one for many years and perhaps this would be a good forum to start organizing my thoughts for that. Do I want it to be editorial where I can vent about the world around me? Maybe. I do have a lot to say about what is happening in our world, but as I said, I don’t presume to believe I have the solutions. Do I want it to just be reflection on parenting? We are heading into unchartered territory in the coming months – we will have three in college and one in high school, so I’m sure the stories will be many. For now, this is going to be a simple journal to put down my thoughts, find my voice again, and perhaps find the direction that means the most to me. For those of you who choose to follow along, thank you for taking the time. There is much to read out there, so taking time to read what I have to say is very much appreciated. I’ll talk to you soon!
Well, it’s been a while since I sat down to write. In fact, we’ve started a New Year since my last entry. In all honesty, between the new job, the holidays, and finding out my 19 year old stepson had an irregular heartbeat and needed surgery, I got distracted from writing regularly. Now that I’ve gotten into a normal routine at the new job, survived the holidays and spent a day in the hospital waiting for and then hearing the words, “Everything went well,” I am going to try to get back into a writing routine again. Hopefully, I can get back on track.
There have been a number of things on my mind since I stepped away from the keyboard, but I guess there’s one that has been a primary concern. My son, Sean, turned thirteen in December, and despite his protestations that he didn’t want to be a teenager, I see him becoming a teen who will eventually be a man. Thankfully, he is still very affectionate with me and continues to kiss me and say he loves me when I drop him off at school each morning; however, I am starting to see him change, and even though it’s perfectly normal, I feel a certain sadness knowing that he is closer to being a man than a boy. I guess like every mom I never want my baby to grow up. But he is growing up, and one thing I’ve noticed is that he doesn’t realize his own size and strength. In fact, there are times when he tries to roughhouse with me as we’ve always done, but he doesn’t understand that he actually can injure me if he’s not careful. He’s almost the same size as me now, and he is strong. I guess we both have to get used to that and I’ll have to avoid the humiliation of an arm wrestling challenge next time out.
Additionally, as the youngest child in a “blended” family, Sean has always been a bit quiet around his stepsiblings, but now that he’s 13, the age difference seems to be vanishing and he is starting to join in the craziness that is part of the regular interactions between my stepsons and husband. This weekend, part of that fun included using some translation app on their phones to translate the word “balls” and other equally mature words to have them spoken out loud in various language. Peals of laughter echoed through my kitchen as the four male entities did this multiple times and I was left shaking my head wondering what I did to deserve being outnumbered by so much male goofiness. The reality though is that I enjoyed watching Sean finally break into the ranks of the men in the family. Until now, the age difference was probably more of a barrier than I realized. Even though everyone has gotten along for the most part, the truth is there was always just enough of an age gap that Sean was a bit too young to get the same jokes, watch the same tv shows and movies, or play the same video games. At 13, the gap has narrowed and he is able to hold his own a bit more. I’ve seen him grow more confident among the men in the family and he is laughing more among them. He has always been an old soul, but it’s been fun to see him lighten up a little and start to enjoy some typical “boy” humor.
I’ve always loved that Sean has been “mommy’s boy,” but I never wanted him to be a “mama’s boy”. Growing up, I had one particular group of friends and among us there was one boy who never became independent from his mother’s influence, and as we grew older it became apparent that his social skills were negatively influenced by this, so I have tried to be aware of this with Sean. The good news is that I think we’ve maintained a balance, and I think this newfound ability to understand and interact more with his stepbrothers and my husband will really be positive for Sean. I just wonder if it will be equally good for me. There’s a part of me that is finding all of this just a touch bittersweet. I have always been Sean’s “go to” person and I wonder how much longer that will continue as he grows older. Will he still look to me or will he be looking for more insight and guidance from the men in his life? I’m hoping he continues to come to me, and for the most part I believe he will, but in all honesty, I would miss our closeness terribly if he does not.
It’s funny, I had two conversations recently, one with my mother-in-law and one with my dearest friend expressing some ambivalence over the unexpected need to travel for my new job because I felt a certain degree of guilt about leaving both Sean and my husband to fend for themselves. I was struck that both my mother-in-law and friend said they thought being away would be good for all of us and that I might even enjoy it. If I step away and try to look at all of this with an objective eye, perhaps they are right. Perhaps there is a certain synergy in Sean turning 13 at the same time that I have started this new job. Perhaps the timing is right for both of us. As he begins to grow up and become more independent, perhaps new responsibilities at my job will provide me with some distraction from feeling a little lost during his transition from boy to man.
In the meantime, I will continue to hold fast to the moments when he is still my little boy. I will memorize each time he tells me he missed me, snuggles up with me on the couch, or reaches out for a hug when I wake him up in the morning because I know those moments are now limited. Sean will eventually become one amazing man, but I have to admit that a part of me will miss the little boy.
On Monday night, I decided to make some chicken soup for dinner. It was pretty good, but near the end of the meal, I had an experience that made the soup a little bitter for me. You see, my son is twelve years old now and will be thirteen in December. Like most boys his age, Sean takes great pleasure in standing next to me to see if he has outgrown me yet. So far, I’m still taller by an inch or two, but I’m starting to realize this won’t last much longer. In fact, as we sat around the kitchen table at the end of dinner, Sean decided he wanted some more soup, and went over to the stove to refill his bowl. As I sat looking at my son, my eyes welled up as I realized that he was tall enough to stand over and stare down into the big pot of soup I had on the stove. For a moment, I saw the little boy he once was, too small to even see over the counter, but now, I don’t have to get more soup for him or warn him when a pot is hot. He is old enough to fend for himself and knows better than to touch a hot pot. He has grown. I suddenly had an image of him as the teenager in high school he will be in a few short years. While I know there is no greater gift than to see our children grow up and be happy, the years have gone by much too quickly, and it both startles and saddens me in some ways.
In fact, a few weeks ago, I had planned on taking Sean to our regular orchard to pick apples, grab an ice cream cone and choose our pumpkins for Halloween. It is one of those traditions I look forward to each year. Unfortunately, it rained the first weekend we were supposed to go, so instead, we planned to go the following weekend. On that rainy Saturday afternoon when we were supposed to be at the orchard, we found ourselves waiting for a table at Bertucci’s with my husband and stepson. As the four of us sat in the restaurant, my husband mentioned that he saw an ad for a sports autograph and card show the following weekend. Well, as soon as my son heard the name Pete Rose, pumpkins were no longer important. There is nothing Sean is more passionate about than baseball, and Pete Rose is one of his idols. So, we spent the following Saturday at the Greater Philadelphia Expo Center and had a wonderful day together. We saw an original Honus Wagner baseball card that was sold for several million dollars to Wayne Gretsky a few years ago. We wandered from table to table looking at other baseball cards and signed memorabilia, and split a Sprite and chocolate chip cookie. It was some “just the two of us” time, and the fact that he still wants to spend time with me makes me grateful, but a small part of me still missed taking a hay ride around the farm together. However, I did learn one important lesson as we made our way around the Expo Center; I learned that even though he is growing much too quickly, my son is becoming the type of kind, thoughtful person I would like him to be.
You see, Sean did meet Pete Rose and got his autograph that afternoon; after all, it was the whole reason we went to the card show. He knows all about Rose’s gambling mistakes and how that keeps him out of the Hall of Fame, but he loves the man for playing his heart out every time he was on the field. Meeting Pete Rose was a special moment for Sean, and in all honesty, it was pretty cool for me, too. He was a very nice man who took time to ask Sean how he was doing in school and offered some advice about being a better baseball player. But while we were there, Sean also decided to get an autograph from Lenny Dykstra, the centerfielder for the 1986 World Series Champions: the New York Mets. Because we are initially from New York, Sean and I are both NY Mets fans, and he has frequently heard me talk about that 1986 team and how much seeing them win the World Series meant to me. But here’s the thing – that was way before Sean’s time. He knows a lot about baseball history; certainly more than most casual fans, and his favorite player of all time is Jackie Robinson because he admires what #42 did to break the color barrier in the game. However, what he enjoys most is spending time learning about the prospects who are coming up and he cares more about today’s players than yesterday’s stars. He likes the idea that the Mets won the World Series in 1986, but it’s not one of the things he most cares about in baseball. So, I was curious about why he decided to get an autograph from Lenny Dykstra’s. When I asked, my son’s answer, like that moment when he stood staring into the pot of soup, led to a mother’s tears. He said he knew how much I loved the 1986 Mets and thought I’d really like to meet one of those players. He got Lenny Dykstra’s autograph so I could meet him. Sean used the money he saved from birthdays, allowance and holidays, to pay for these autographs – including one he got simply to make his mom happy.
I know there will be more moments as my son continues to grow where time’s swift race saddens me and I will miss the little boy he once was. But knowing that Sean has such a big heart makes me look forward to the man he is to become. I hope the next time he looks into a pot of soup he will feel as proud of the person reflected within as I am.
What is forgiveness? I have struggled to redefine forgiveness for myself over the past week. I came home and opened my email early last week only to find an unexpected message from someone I hadn’t spoken to in almost two decades. In the message, I was damned to hell, accused of preventing a death-bed reconciliation, instructed to do things to myself and told to never again contact the sender. The irony is that I didn’t contact her. Instead, after all this time, it was her choice to reach out to me and spew vitriol like a Pez dispenser. I almost began writing an equally vile message in return, but stopped. There would be no point, and nothing I said would convince her that she was mistaken. After the initial shock, I spent several days upset, wondering what I had done wrong, but then I decided to continue as I had for the past twenty years. I blocked her ability to reach me again, offered up a small prayer of forgiveness and wished her peace, and then I walked away… again. However, I spent a great deal of time since then wondering about the meaning of forgiveness.
Perhaps I am a flawed human being, but for reasons of self-preservation, I have chosen to forgive and not forget throughout my life. After a certain number of injuries, I have chosen to walk away from those I can no longer trust in order to avoid opening myself up to repeated injury. Others might find me unforgiving for walking away, but that is not the case. It is not easy to walk away from the past. In fact, it can be quite painful. However, I would rather walk away and remember the good than stay and only have bitter memories remain. We’ve all heard common expressions like “forgive and forget” and “turn the other cheek,” but I cannot do either. Instead, I choose to forgive but protect myself. I cannot consciously choose to be someone else’s target or to allow those who purposely cause me pain access to my life or my family. I bear no ill will to those who have hurt me, and in fact, more than anything I wish them peace. However, I believe we must protect ourselves from those who do more to harm than to help us. My belief is that I have no place in their lives, and there is no place for them in mine. So I walk away.
And after I walk away, the one person I most frequently need to forgive is me. I wonder what I could have done differently. I wonder whether or not I made a mistake. I wonder if my life will ever be the same. The truth is that it will not be. There is no way to remove a part of ourselves without altering who we are. But sometimes, we have to remember that when we put the pieces back together we have made what remains stronger and more resilient…and this is certainly not something we should forget. Today, I again choose to forgive but not forget.
Apologetically, the young woman answered the question about what she does with the words, “I am just a stay at home mom.” The young woman was a contestant on The Voice last night, and she had a strong voice and a good stage presence, but when asked about herself these were the words she used. Stunned, I sat staring at the screen for a moment and wondered why such a talented, bright young woman would respond to the question in a way that diminished her role in our world. Why do any of us do this?
Taken on its own, the phrase, “I am just” means to be someone who behaves according to the principles of what is morally fair and right. Wow. Wouldn’t we all like to be defined as “just” when viewed from this perspective? Instead, we turn “just” into an adverb that means “merely” and we seem to say we are less than those around us. Many of us do this is in different ways; we don’t recognize our value, we don’t trust our judgment, we don’t think we are smart enough, we are shy about sharing our talents. We disparage ourselves by saying we are just a mom, just a wife, just a teacher, just a student, just a….whatever…the list goes on and on. I was reminded of my habit of doing this, too, during a short conversation with a friend of mine at work yesterday. I was telling her about my desire to have my writing published and made a joke about whether or not anyone would want to read what I had to write. Her response was to mention that I have a tendency of underestimating myself. I was surprised by her remark, but she is extremely perceptive, and I admit that I am in the habit of using humor to cover my own insecurities.
Listening to this woman’s response last night underscored the need to stop underestimating my own worth. I am not “just” a mom; I influence my child every day and am teaching him the lessons that will help him to become a happy, successful adult. I am not “just” a wife; I am a best friend, lover, counselor, and more. My husband and I have both been divorced once, so we put a lot of work into creating a successful marriage. I am not “just” a teacher; I have touched the lives of hundreds of young people just starting out in life, older students returning to school to move up in their careers, returning service men and women who are trying to adapt to civilian life. I am not “just” a friend; I am honest, a good listener, and a support system. And I am not “just” a writer. I write about the meaningful moments in my life, topics I feel strongly about and about which I think others might care. I put in the effort to present something that is of good quality, well-written, and interesting. After thinking about this since last night, I realize I am not “just” anything. In fact, I urge each of you to no longer end the phrase “I am just” with some type of qualifying phrase. Instead, let us each use the phrase as it is best meant. I am just. I try to be fair and do what is right each day as a mom, a wife, a teacher, a friend, a colleague, and yes, even as a writer. I try to be principled in all I do. Therefore, I am just. I am certain each one of you is, too.
This past year was very challenging. I started a doctoral program last September while still working full-time and attempting to keep up on the responsibilities of being both a wife and mother. Attempting to balance all of that when my teaching schedule changes every eight weeks began to weigh on me, and I became endlessly exhausted and overwhelmed. If you ask my husband and our children, I’m pretty sure they would also mention that I was not particularly pleasant. I know I am not the only one who has had to deal with being over scheduled and stressed. In fact, my cousins came for a visit last weekend and one of them mentioned that she was constantly exhausted and found herself falling asleep at the wheel on occasion. How did we get to a place where this is normal? And trust me, it is normal, as I find that most conversations I have with others include some form of the phrase, “I’m exhausted.”
In the spring, I was initially asked to teach 14 credit hours for the looming session, and I was also scheduled to take a 5 credit course in my doctoral program. By that time, I was frequently attempting to write papers while sitting on the couch at night as my husband and son watched television, just to try to spend time with them; unfortunately, the reality was that I was simply a body in the room. It’s not like I paid any attention to them or engaged in conversation. In fact, more times than not, I’d start to doze off in front of my computer because I was just so tired. At wit’s end, I finally decided enough was enough, and I chose to take a leave of absence from the doctoral program. That was a good start.
Over the summer, I was on my “non-teaching” session at work, meaning I was not in the classroom but still required to work on university projects and student advising. I was also on my leave of absence from the Ph.D. program. It was such a relief. I was actually able to spend time with my family and to even read a book or two for enjoyment. I spent a day at the beach with my son, took him bowling and to the movies and was actually having conversations with him again. I also helped my husband rebuild our back deck and landscape our backyard…which was certainly a bit stressful, but in a physical way that allowed us to collaborate and discuss our ideas and to laugh. My husband is very funny, so being able to laugh together is something I love about our relationship. The stress of our mutual responsibilities over those previous twelve months had been getting in the way of that, but little by little, I think we remembered that laughter was something we enjoyed.
It is now September, and I’m back to a full teaching schedule, including one class that doesn’t start until 6:00pm on Wednesday nights. I am juggling again and trying to do a balancing act, but I spent a great deal of time over the past few months reassessing my priorities and trying to get a firm grasp on the boundaries that I need to set in order to stay connected to my family, remain healthy, and perhaps stop falling asleep in front of my computer each night. It will take time, and I’m sure I will drop the ball here and there, but I feel better knowing I no longer feel obligated to do it all. Instead, I will simply do my best.
I don’t think I’ve become a pessimist, but I am starting to wonder if there is any safe place anymore. We watch the news and see journalists being beheaded by ISIS. We read about the ever-increasing spread of the Ebola virus and doctors meant to heal these patients becoming infected. We recognize that politicians work to advance their personal agendas, which may include nothing nobler than simply keeping their jobs. We are dismayed, but not shocked, to see a video on social media showing a young woman entering an elevator with her fiancé only to be sucker-punched and knocked unconscious. It is difficult to remain optimistic in light of so much negative news.
Closer to home, on Sunday night my husband received a text from one of my stepsons reporting that there was a shooting at the park down the block from our house. An eighteen year old boy was shot in the chest in an attempted robbery while he and four friends were hanging out together. This wasn’t something that happened at 2am when teenagers should have been safely home in their beds; instead, it occurred at 8pm on a warm September evening when most people in my “safe” neighborhood would normally feel comfortable taking a walk or going for a run. I don’t know the group of teens that were hanging out, but one of my stepsons went to elementary school with the victim and was friends with him in 3rd grade. This incident was a reminder that this could have happened to any of our children.
That night, I wrestled with how to explain what happened to my twelve year old son. The park where this happened is where his school holds its annual field day events. When he used to go to summer camp, this is the park where they would go to play kickball and capture the flag. I assumed he would hear about it in school, so I wanted to share the situation in a way that didn’t frighten him and might teach him a little about personal safety, even though it does frighten me and I don’t know that there was a way to prevent this from happening. How do you take a perfectly simple event that starts with teenagers being in a park at 8:00pm on a beautiful night and ends with a young man being shot in the chest and keep it from being scary to your child when it’s scary for the adults? Do you tell your child he must never go outside with his friends? Do we explain that no matter where we are, we may be targets? I just mentioned the situation in passing to him while getting his backpack organized for the school day ahead, but as he grows older, I wonder how I will prepare him for a world where it sometimes seems there is no safe place.
I shared this with my colleagues at work yesterday, but wanted to share this on my blog, as well.
During the first meeting of each of my classes, I usually do some type of ice breaker. I choose a few questions from a parlor game that the French novelist, Marcel Proust, conducted in his salon with friends because these questions are usually a fun way for students to get to know each other outside the basics of name, hometown, and major. “How do you define perfect happiness?” is one of the questions that I frequently ask students, and usually I get answers that include traveling around the world, winning the lottery and the like. The other night, one student’s response caught me off guard and made me count my blessings, so I thought I’d share it with all of you.
The student in question is a young, thin, soft-spoken international student from Vietnam. She is in our country alone. She explained that her idea of perfect happiness would be to never be hungry. She said it in such a way that it was apparent she had experienced true hunger in her life. I left work thinking about how lucky I am for all the gifts in my life. There have been some very difficult times in my life, and times when money was certainly tight, but I don’t remember ever worrying that I would go hungry. I hope none of you have ever experienced this either.
As we move through the coming school year, I just wanted to offer this up as a reminder to any of you who may be teachers that many of our students struggle in ways we may never know. I know there are days when teaching is tough. I’ve had bad days just like everyone else; however, in the future, I’m going to try to remember that my classroom may be the only means for students like this to acquire greater security in their lives. Sometimes, the best lessons are taught by my students.
On the news this morning was a story about three high school sophomores who were killed over the weekend in a car accident. I don’t know how the parents, friends and teachers of these students will be able to start the school year this week. At the bakery Saturday morning, the woman at the counter told me a story about her son who just started college last week. He went to a party at school on Friday night and someone spiked his drink. When the nurse called, she said that every September the seniors try to see how many freshmen they can send to the hospital despite every effort by the school to prevent these incidents. My own stepson moved into his college dorm last Friday and was back at our house on Saturday afternoon. He hated being in a dorm and his first week of college was a debacle, to say the least. As parents, we think those first months after they are born are the hardest as we try to figure out why our newborns are crying. Are they hungry? Wet? Overtired? New parents become exhausted and live life in a haze, frequently wondering when it will get easier. It turns out it doesn’t. In fact, the bigger they are, the harder we, both parents and children, fall.
When our teens and young adults struggle to adapt to “the real world” we wonder if we have done enough to prepare them. Did we teach them enough to protect them against the many dangers of our world? Are we giving them the guidance they need to make their decisions, and was our advice even the right advice? Many times, we are playing it by ear just as much as they are; we just have a little more life experience. When our children are younger, we talk to them about stranger-danger, drugs, alcohol, and sex, and many of them understand the basics, but are they really prepared to face a world where someone purposely sets out to harm them? Are they mature enough to choose a college major that will affect their career decisions for the rest of their lives? As parents, how do we protect them while still allowing them to become independent? Based on this past week, the answer seems to be as simple as talking to them and letting them know we will listen and support them. I know it wasn’t easy for my stepson to show up the day after moving into his dorm and admit he hated it, but I am grateful that he trusted us enough to keep calling and texting throughout the week. This allowed us to make a decision with him rather than for him. Unfortunately, as a college professor, I see many students who enter my classroom who lack this type of support system.
Many of the students entering my classroom this week will be the first in their family to attend college. Some do not have the emotional or financial support needed for success, and others are underprepared academically. They need someone they can trust just as much as my children do. As a teacher, my new year begins in September, so this year, my New Year’s resolution is to offer both my children and my students the time and patience required to truly listen to them because as the falls get bigger, I want them to have a safe place to land.