My Facebook and Instagram have been filling up with former students posting about heading to their first year of college. I have strong memories of my emotional state that summer after high school graduation and during the first semester of college. A good measure of excitement, but mostly fear.
Of not being smart enough. Of getting lost. Of looking like an idiot. Of not knowing how to behave in social situations like parties or class discussions. Of not making friends. Of learning how to live with a roommate. (Thankfully, Tina was the most accommodating and sweetest roommate I could have been paired with: you rock!) Of all the unfamiliar things a new phase of life brings.
What I wish I could have told the me from 20 (yikes!) years ago is this:
Be willing to take risks. The moments I regret are those where I did not attempt something because I was afraid. The capacity to be vulnerable, to expose oneself to failure or uncertainty, is one of the greatest traits we can cultivate in our lifetime. College is one of the safest places to do that, because you’re surrounded by peers who are similarly vulnerable, and by staff and community members who have experience helping students grow in this transitional time.
I’ve heard that old supposedly edifying question: What would you attempt if you were not afraid?
And my response was always: But I am afraid. I cannot imagine what it would be like otherwise.
So this summer, inspired by Mary Elder’s resolve to face many of her fears, I decided to face some of my fears. What would happen if I had the opportunity to do something that scared me, and did it anyway? Could I turn fear into curiosity, which is involves far less judgment and makes vulnerability an asset rather than a liability.
- I tried a new yoga class that my sister-in-law signed me up for. Fear: that I wouldn’t be able to do it, that I would look foolish. Fact: It was not all that different from my regular yoga class; it just had a different name. Bonus: I now feel more confident about taking different yoga classes at my own studio.
- I went kayaking off the coast of Chatham with my cousin. Fear: great white sharks (obvs); that my arms would get tired and it would be hard to get back to shore. Fact: we didn’t go far enough for sharks to be a worry; it was not a strenuous workout; and it was relaxing and awesome to be out on the water with Brittany.
- I signed up for karaoke with my cousin Kirsten. Fear: people would boo me because I’m not a very good singer. Fact: they didn’t call us, but I think I have worked up enough courage to try “American Pie” in her honor the next time we have karaoke (though I do have a stipulation that the audience needs to be people I won’t see again or very soon).
- I tried waterskiing. Fear: that I would look as awkward as I perceive myself to be as a snow skiier (not super physically coordinated); that face-planting into the water would really hurt. Fact: I never made it fully upright, but I also didn’t hit the water as hard when I fell. I tried three consecutive times, then took a break. Maybe next time.
- I took all three kids shopping for a week’s worth of groceries by myself. Fear: of meltdowns, of disobedience, of inconveniencing or disrupting other shoppers. Fact: I talked to the kids beforehand about what to expect, and our system of turns in the cart vs. helping put things in the cart worked well. Bonus: granola bars were close to the entrance, and they got to pick out a Clif bar to hold on to and eat in the car on the way home. Bribery? Maybe. I’ll take whatever works.
Contrary to my anxiety around transitions, my kids started kindergarten Jump Start last week with enthusiasm and little apparent reservations. Today, though, one of my kids handed me a booklet my parents gave each kid as a back-to-school present: a journal of writing prompts with space to practice writing simple words and a space to draw a picture of the sentence.
This kiddo asked Alan to write the word. He declined, saying it was for the kid to practice. Then the kid asked me. Persistently. I finally found out why: the kid said, “I don’t know how [to write or draw a picture] and I might mess it up.”
Oh man. What has taken me decades to learn I want desperately to have my kids avoid if possible. Can this kid be resilient in the face of vulnerability? Can this kid learn to turn fear into curiosity? Or will this kid follow my heartachy path of perfectionism and anxiety?
In helping them, I will continue to help myself. Talking to them about doing what I’m afraid of. (Next step: going down big slides!) They–and anyone starting college, returning to college, or doing anything newish–will find their own path.
May we all continue to dare greatly.
- Why don’t my kids yawn when I do or when I read the word “yawn”? When do yawns become contagious?
- I am so grateful for my kids’ safety awareness when they ride their balance bikes or scooters with me almost a mile round-trip to get our CSA veggies. They know to go slow on hills, especially hills that lead to busy streets; they know to stop at the corner, and I know they will never bolt into traffic. They might not be good listeners all the time, but they are when it counts.
- Why is it so hard to be motivated to exercise? I like being active. I like running and yoga. It used to be guilt at time away from my kids. It used to be choosing to accomplish other things on the to-do list. Recently it just feels like my resistance can be summed up as: “Meh.” But some of my hiking and outdoor pants no longer fit, so I need to figure out a way to overcome the Meh.
- I am also so grateful for our neighbors, who welcome our kids into their yards and homes, who accept being emergency authorized pick-up people for school, and who genuinely love and care for our whole family.
- Our kids got bikes with pedals for their birthday, and have been practicing riding bikes the past few weeks. I think they will learn well before I did. (I finally got it when I was 9 or 10. I refused to let my dad help me, because I knew from other examples how that was going to work: he’d promise not to let go, but then he would–as parents teaching their kids bike riding do–and I was terrified of that uncertainty. I’d rather teach myself than trust someone else. Oh, little Michelle…how much more you had to learn than riding a bike.)
- My kids LOVE helping me cook, which is such a blessing. Except when I’m trying to make something quickly, in which case it is not a blessing. Cooking with three five-year-old helpers slows the process substantially. But I do love that they see helping in the kitchen as fun and exciting. I hope it leads to their love of food and love of making their own.
- In picking up size 5T pajamas, I realized that I will soon be shopping for them in the Kid section rather than the Toddler section. Had a little heart-squeeze.
A cool morning run. Snails on the sidewalk. Simon and Garfunkel playing in my head:
Slow down, you move too fast.
You’ve got to make the morning last…
Life, I love you.
All is groovy.
–“The 59th Street Bridge Song”
Tonight the rain nearly poured down on the class of 2016. Thankfully, it stopped before we had to walk onto the football field.
I didn’t get pictures of all of my students but they all have a place in my heart. They are extraordinary ordinary human beings: resilient, creative, empathetic, curious, and compelled to make a difference.
I love you guys. As Garrison Keillor says at the end of every Writer’s Almanac: “Be well, do good work., and keep in touch.”
The headstone at my grandparents’ grave bears witness to at least five generations of my family who lived and died in the same few cities north of Boston.
Having spent his whole personal and professional life in the same city, my dad knows everyone. Students who had him forty years ago in junior high hail him at restaurants. He went to high school with former mayors and my childhood soccer coach. He met his two best friends in first grade, and all three still live within a couple of miles of each other.
When I graduated from college, I did not even think about going home.
Never mind actually living with my parents. I wanted to see what else was out there: live in a different part of the country for maybe a couple of years and then settle within an hour or two drive from my hometown. I don’t consider myself adventurous or risk-taking or even brave. My gut told me that someplace new was the right choice.
Through my post-college years, I’ve discovered my inner West Coaster. Despite my deep and abiding love for my family, I feel like I belong to a place far away from where most of them live.
For a while I felt like I didn’t belong in my hometown. I didn’t fit in. I felt like a black sheep in my family. (Hormonal teen angst may have had something to do with this.) I chafed against the old familiar streets, houses, sights that were so much part of my early life.
In early adulthood, when I went home for a visit, I returned to the same house just like I returned to the same habits and behaviors I had worked hard to move on from. I became 8 again. Or 12. Or 16.
Now, having established my identity elsewhere, I have discovered that my fondness for my hometown increases as I get older. Each time I go home, part of me still feels like a little girl again. Especially with my extended family–and especially in the past six months for my two grandmothers’ funerals.
Except this time, that little girl cherishes the sense of belonging to family that has always been there, rooted deep beneath the blooming of individual identity and self-discovery. The little girl who adores her aunts and uncles, who is teased by her cousins and brother, who trades sarcasm with the best of them, who knows that her tribe started with them.
That little girl misses her Nana and Grandma, Grampy and Grandpa.
That little girl is also the woman who has heard the wheels of time shift: that my little girls and little boy are now the kids growing from the roots of this family, that we are the parents, and my parents and aunts and uncles are the grandparent generation.
When I visit the cemetery, I can see the line of my grandparents, great-grandparents, and on carved into concrete. My name will not be among them.
Instead, that place is in me. The person that I have become can go home again–not to stay, but to remember, and appreciate, and love the place for its part in who I am.
My kids turn five on Tuesday.
There have been some rocky times around here, behavior-wise. We’re working on things. Like anger management. Like impulse control. Like “the grown-ups are actually in charge here.”
Yesterday and today got a lot better. Here are some gems:
- Theresa: Mama! I made you a fruit salad [drawing]. It has spinach, chocolate, strawberries, and blueberries.
- On Jamie getting excited about various forms of transportation: Audrey, sighing: “My brother. The elevator man.”
- Alan imitating Theresa, who mispronounces “hoisin”: “Would you like some ha-wa-zin?” Jamie: “It’s wa-zin. The H is silent.”
And finally, a conversation in the car:
Jamie: I have two god-dads. [Uncle Jeff and Uncle Colin]
Theresa: Jamie, when you say ‘god-dad,’ you really mean ‘godfather,’ right?
Audrey: It’s okay to say god-dad in the house, but in public it’s more polite to say godfather.
Last Thursday, I delivered a eulogy for my Nana, who died at almost 96 after suffering with Alzheimer’s for 15+ years. I wanted to share it here in case anyone wanted to get a sense of who she was or what she meant to me and my family.
On behalf of my family, thank you for being here. Even if you did not know my Nana well, if you know any of us, you know her. Nana and Grampy shaped a large part of who we are, and we come together today to celebrate her.
In the Jewish tradition there is a saying when someone dies: “May their memory be a blessing.” After she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and started living at the Atrium, I asked family members and friends to send me memories of Nana. They used words like warm, caring, compassionate, loving, thoughtful, welcoming.
She would be the last to accept this praise, just as she was always the last to eat the holiday meal that she had prepared, spending most of her time leaping out of her chair to get something from the kitchen. She would probably instead say “Glory be!” and “Now, dahlin’” as she recited another rosary.
Her mother died when Nana was 18. Although she was not the oldest in her family of eight siblings, she was the one to take care of them all, including her father. When she told me about this, she said,
“And my pa came to me, and he said, Anne, you’ll help me, won’t you? And I said, sure pa, that’s just how I said it. Sure, pa, I’ll help you. And I did.”
She devoted the rest of her life to taking care of others. Having lost her own mother, she found one in her mother-in-law and cared for her until the end of my great-grandmother’s life. Her three daughters-in-law called her not Anne or Mrs. Ruth, but “Ma”: a symbolic syllable of deepest affection. When my brother discovered that he and AJ were pregnant with their first child, my mom asked them if she could be called “Nana”: the best tribute we can bestow.
My Nana’s children and their friends remember her as the neighborhood mother. Everyone was welcome in her yard and, maybe more importantly, in her kitchen.
She loved children. When my cousin Michael was brought home from the hospital, Nana held my hand and practically dragged me down the back stairs to run down the driveway to see the newest member of our family. Many babies in Lynn and beyond were warmed by her crocheted baby sweaters or blankets.
For each holiday, Nana sent each grandchild a card with two one-dollar bills and “Love, Nana and Grampy” scrawled with thin Palmer penmanship on the inside. When I was in college and brought home friends for Thanksgiving, she started sending them cards, too. My first-year roommate said, “I remember when I first met her and she just welcomed me as if she had known me for years. And every time I saw her after that, it was like I was one of her grandchildren.”
She nurtured the Ruth competitive spirit playing board games with us and Bingo for quarters. She read books from the child-height bookshelf in the main room. Her cookie jar perenially held peanut-shaped cookies that I thought only came from Nana’s kitchen–it wasn’t until I was in college that I discovered you could buy them in a store. She made sure each of us never forgot that she was proud of us, that we were loved unconditionally.
She and Grampy were the center of our extended family, the Celtic knot that wove us together. They showed us what a solid, faith-filled and faithful marriage looks like. Neighbors, friends of friends, parishioners at St. Pius were drawn to them. The mailman, delivery person, construction workers doing street maintenance: they loved my Nana. She brought them cold drinks, cookies, and friendly conversation.
She spent her entire life giving to others. Now she has entered heaven to embrace her parents, her siblings, and her husband, and to be embraced by Christ and Mary and all her beloved saints. She is free from suffering and at peace.
She leaves some tangible things: Aunt Rea’s eyes twinkling with generosity. Uncle Bill’s red(ish) hair and good humor. Uncle Jim’s bear hugs. My dad’s smile of pure joy as he plays with his grandchildren.
She also leaves the intangible: the bond we have as Ruths. Hers was a strong, centering influence in our lives, and that influence holds us together even without her presence. She turned everyone she knew into her family; so we too take the memories and love from 214 Maple Street into our own lives, sharing Nana’s generosity, her fairness, gentleness, and patience, with everyone we meet.
May we love as fully. May we serve as selflessly.
May her memory be a blessing.
I’m traveling alone. The last time I flew, I met Elise in Denver and we drove to Aspen to visit Paddy and co. There were so many joys of that trip, and sadness.
Traveling alone is weird. I’m used to running an odd errand alone, or commuting alone, or even from time to time connecting with a friend without my kids in tow. But flying alone feels a little like missing a limb. My carry-on backpack is so empty without the three days’ worth of snacks and books and extra-things-just-in-case.
When I was a new mom, other new moms would tell me they felt weird going out without their babies. They were so used to having to check on or hold or address the needs of their babies that when going solo, these moms felt like something was missing.
I felt guilty, sure, but also free. Like my old self.
Becoming a parent rocks one’s world in a way I could not have anticipated and still have trouble describing. Yesterday I met my college friend Pete and his wife and their eleven-month-old (super incredibly adorable) baby. Pete and I connected briefly about the weirdness of getting up in the morning and having one’s child dictate the routine, rather than having our old adult agenda.
When I went back to work, there was so much chaos around my new job: crammed into the only available office space, lacking a phone number (or phone), starting a week into the school year. Still, the instant I set up for my first class, I had an overwhelming sensation of being home. Where I am meant to be. Where people know me as a professional and not as “the mom of triplets” (which of course I am proud to be, but it’s odd to have that become my defining quality after over a decade of teaching).
Now my identity is so bound to my kids that I miss them like crazy already, and I haven’t even gotten on the plane yet.
My mom identity also has helped me look at others differently. More compassionately. Last weekend, we went to the crowded Tulip Festival and people-watched. Today I walked the length of the airport to get to an empty security line, and noticed. The people I used to silently mock for their pretension or their disorganization or their tackiness.
I mean, how do people look at me, corralling my troupe or in my Value Village playground-friendly fashion?
My new identity has become, simply, my identity. More complex than it used to be. At first it brought confusion and instability; now it is its own stability and comfort.
I’m glad I miss my kids now. It makes me appreciate solo travel and people-watching and working. And flights without negotiations over Mommy time are refreshing when they happen.