“An early morning walk is a blessing for the whole day.” ~Henry David Thoreau
The seasons have changed again without my expressed consent. Fall, with its kaleidoscope of colors and blazer temperatures and soup recipes, does have its allure. But it’s not summer anymore, dammit, and fall is the harbinger of the upcoming cold, grey suck of winter. It has been dark and rainy here for the better part of a week and a half, and my dog and I are tired of dampness and soaked feet. In Denver, fall traditionally arrives with blue skies punctuated by rippled cirrocumulus clouds, a landscape bathed in yellow rabbitbrush, and ideal hiking weather. Pumpkins come out, indian corn goes up, hay bales and scarecrows adorn yards swathed in fallen leaves. I often slip into fall with only a twinge of sadness at the loss of summer. This year with the rain landing me unexpectedly in the middle of seasonal affective disorder months earlier than usual, however, it’s felt like a 55-mile-per-hour rollercoaster descent into disappointment. Combined with relentless barrage of heartbreaking news over the past five weeks, from Harvey to Irma to Maria to Las Vegas, I have been living in a why-even-get-out-of-bed state in my head.
This morning the sun reappeared, not in a cloudless sky but more obviously than she has shown her face recently. I jumped at the opportunity to walk the dog in dry conditions before delivering our sons to school. As Ruby and I padded along, scores of butterflies scattered before us. Hundreds of them, migrating through on their way to the warmer climes of New Mexico and Arizona, flitted across our path making it impossible not to stop and stare. For the first time in weeks, the clouds in my head lifted, borne upwards on the wings of painted ladies.
When I need it the most, this planet slaps me with its marvels. The intricacies of our connections to the earth and its flora and fauna are miracles too immeasurable to overlook. It’s common to check out of the moment and to check into problems that are either too big for adequate and timely solutions or too meager to stress and belabor. In times like these, I always benefit by pulling a Henry David Thoreau and taking a walk to remember what beauty is and where peace lies. Turn off the television when the news is too much. Go find yourself again where you didn’t know you lived. The only certainty we have is this moment. Don’t waste it.
“There are moments when all anxiety and stated toil are becalmed in the infinite leisure and repose of nature.” ~Henry David Thoreau
Joe decided after his successful foray into track last spring that he would go out for cross-country this fall. A couple times during the summer, he received emails from his coaches encouraging training plans and providing workout schedules, emails which he deleted because denial ain’t just a river in Egypt. Once August hit after an entire summer of remaining exercise free, I suggested he do a few weeks of a Couch to 5K training app to dip his toes into the water again. Being a teenager dripping with disdain for anything requiring effort, he had less than zero interest in or enthusiasm for such an endeavor.
If there’s anything anyone who truly knows me knows about me, it’s that I don’t run. I think you should only run when you’re being chased by something bigger and heavier than you, like a large carnivore with sharp teeth or a runaway grand piano. While I have participated in a plethora of 5k events because I enjoy doing fun activities with people I like, I have not finished even one race where I ran the entire course because, as I mentioned, I don’t run. I. Don’t. Run. If you know anything else about me, though, it’s that I am doggedly determined once I set a goal. And this goal was to get Joe on his feet again.
To that end, being the super annoying mother I am, I downloaded the Couch to 5k app to my phone, waltzed into his room at 8 a.m. one oddly cool morning, tossed some socks and his running shoes onto his chest, and told him we would be leaving in 10 minutes. That was two weeks ago. I have been running with him every other day since then because it turns out I love complaining about running while running with Joe more than not running.
Today we were finishing up the last minute of our brisk-walk warm up when I noticed an elderly couple traveling side-by-side on the narrow path in front of us. He was moving along unsteadily with the aid of a cane while she held a walking stick in each hand to assist her. It was a bittersweet scene, at once a charming vision of long-term commitment to a life partner and yet a heartbreaking exhibition of the difficulty of aging. I couldn’t decide how I felt about it.
The gentleman heard us approaching, turned to verify our presence, and slowly moved behind his wife to allow us room to pass. Billie (our annoying, imaginary running coach) barked from my phone that it was time to jog. Joe sprinted off with his long, sixteen-year-old legs. I plodded along behind him and offered a polite greeting as I prepared to pass the couple. The gentleman replied in kind.
Then as I hit my stride next to them and began to leave them behind the way Joe had left me, she sighed and spoke.
“To be that young. Oh, to run again.”
That hurt. I mentally clutched my heart with my hands.
We spend a lot of time bitching about what we must do. Our monkey minds run a non-stop chyron of obligations through our heads, preemptively sucking the joy out of doing. I’ve spent considerable time the last two weeks bitching about running, mainly while running. It didn’t make the running any easier.
Life is not about what you have to do. It’s about what you can do, even if you haven’t found your way to enjoying it yet.
Once upon a time, in the days before voicemail or texting or the Internet, I kept a box filled with handwritten letters from boyfriends. The box was inked red and white and once contained a small, boombox from Radio Shack that played my New Wave cassette tapes. The empty box became the depository for letters I received from boys, and it housed them safely until I needed a walk down memory lane or a reminder that I was worthy of love. Some of its contents were pages long, penned in perfect cursive and detailing elaborate stories as if letters written by a soldier during war time to his sweetheart back home. Some pages were filled with song lyrics or poems. Some were hastily scrawled notes on scrap paper recalling someone came by to see me. Some were actual store-bought cards with a sweet handwritten sentiment inside. And some were missives written from all the way across country that arrived weekly in the mail because writing was far less expensive than long distance phone calls and miraculously made the 1500 mile separation seem shorter. As a collection, those letters told a story of a young woman I didn’t recognize, a young woman who somehow garnered attention she didn’t understand.
When I became engaged to my husband and we were in the process of moving my things into his house, he asked me to get rid of the box. In his youthful insecurity, he felt there was no need for me to keep letters from old boyfriends; after all, he was my future. And in my youthful insecurity, I decided to acquiesce rather than risk a fight over a past that was long gone and could not be recovered. At 26, I had no idea tossing that box into the dumpster that sunny afternoon would be one of my only regrets and, at 47, my husband feels miserable for having asked me to do so. We live, we learn.
Even though that box and its beautiful expressions of youth were buried in a landfill in 1994, pieces of those penned creations had been read often enough they were indelibly etched into my memory. One sentence from one letter in particular struck a chord.
“If you came across a beautiful peacock with its feathers kept tightly closed, exposing their brilliant iridescence to no one, would you not exhort it to do so?”
He had written it while sitting at the main desk in the University Memorial Center on the University of Colorado campus during the Odyssey of the Mind conference, noting with humor that the youth in the competition might be better termed the “oddities of the mind.” He had been trying to coax me out of my shell, and I had been railing against the notion that I even was in a shell. He was an incredibly bright, friendly, funny, and confident young man, and I thought he was the greatest thing since the invention of the Sony Walkman (look it up, kids). That he liked me enough to spend any time with me was an anomaly. Yet, he sat there, writing this note to try to convince me of my worth while I sat in complete denial and thought to myself with naive pride, “I know damn well what I am worth and there is nothing wrong with me the way I am so stop telling me how to be.”
As I continue to inch my way towards my fifty year milestone, I find myself drawn once again to that unforgettable sentence. It has taken me almost thirty years to understand that young man was attempting to hold a mirror up to me, to force me to look into it, to see how much I had going for me, and to help me understand what I was missing. Alas, I was not ready for that message then. Hell. Even though his sentence runs through my brain on a loop these days, I’m still not sure I’m ready to hear it. I spent so long being afraid of failure that I couldn’t even fathom reaching for success. It’s a sobering thought made worse by the current understanding that my inability to hear what he was saying cost me decades of ignorant struggle against myself. Some of us are slow learners, indeed.
Still…I’ve been thinking about the peacock I’ve been hiding and I’ve been working on relaxing those feathers a bit, fanning them out a little at a time before pulling them back in to keep them safe. Every time I sit down to practice my drums, they open. Every time I allow myself to entertain the notion that I could write a book, they unfold a bit more. When I think about going back to college and pursuing a new career, I feel them display a little more. And each time the sunlight hits them, I come to becoming the me I was destined to be before I learned to be fearful instead. With each flash of their brilliance, I get more encouragement from those around me and I warm to the notion maybe there is something to me worth appreciating.
So, if you ever come across a stubborn peacock who is acting like a chicken, please write them a letter and exhort them to embrace and display their beauty. You never know when those words might be just the thing needed to open their eyes to their own possibility — even if it takes them nearly thirty years to get there.
Back to school has changed me. When my sons were younger and full of ill-advised helpings of sugary treats with food coloring, I could not wait for the school year to start. Sure it would mean I’d have to wake up early, cart them across town in my SUV school bus, and go through the dreaded rigamarole of homework, but the house would be quiet all day. I would have time to myself again. I’d be getting my life back, jumpstarting my summer-neglected workouts and my writing, and revisiting my peaceful hours in SuperTarget wandering the aisles of things I didn’t really need but felt helplessly attracted to all the same. Lately, though, my mood about back to school has gone from Yippee to Oh crap.
I was perusing my news feed this morning and found myself buried in a wave of photos of moms jumping for joy (quite literally in some cases) at the prospect of divesting themselves from their offspring for six hours each day. I was that mom once, gleefully depositing my children at school before heading for the hills for the first transcendent hike of fall, feeling liberated at the prospect of rediscovering the me I had left behind when school let out in spring. So while I scrolled through the endless display of children in first-day-of-school photos this morning, I remembered all too well that joy of potential freedom. I just didn’t identify in quite the same way.
My sons start 7th and 9th grade next week. And, as enticing as the notions of getting our house and my life back on track are, I feel like the mom dreading dropping her child off at full-day kindergarten for the first time and acknowledging the impending loneliness. My buddies are leaving me. It’s an end-of-days feeling. I spent my summer staring wide eyed at my sons, floored by their minute-by-minute growth both in height and in maturity. They are the same kids who once left me for kindergarten, but they are so much more now. They are their own people. They are no longer mine. And it sucks. Well, it’s great and amazing and incredible and awesome and it still somehow sucks. Life is weird that way.
When I decided fifteen years ago to quit working my paying job and focus my plethora of natural energy on my infant son, I didn’t give much thought to where it would lead me. I only knew that I had a newborn who seemed hell bent on never sleeping or napping or giving up colic who would probably drive me to an early grave if I attempted to maintain a career and figure out his sleep schedule if he even had one. He didn’t. I had no idea where this journey would take me. Today, though, as I sit here contemplating back to school with a middle schooler and a high schooler, my chosen path makes sense. All the sleepless nights, endless testing, and struggles to figure out how to help them, all the missteps, flubs, and pitfalls of parenting, all the little milestones, the small steps forward, and the minuscule personal triumphs, they were all worth whatever sacrifice I made in savings, earnings potential, and career advancement. I’ve got the tears of gratitude to prove it.
How lucky am I to have had this experience, to have been able to stay with them, suffer alongside them, search for solutions with them, and monitor their progress? To have been able to catch them in the first few minutes after their school day and see their disappointments and triumphs before they faded? And how fortunate am I that I have had them for 13 and 15 years and been able to witness their transition into actual human people when some parents are tragically robbed of that opportunity? I have no idea what path I will take if I get to see Joe graduate from high school in four years. No clue what career I might find or how I might re-enter the workforce after a 20-year hiatus. No sense of who I might yet become. All I know today is that I wouldn’t take nothing for my journey now. I don’t just love my children. I actually like them, even when they are acting like little creeps with skills I am positive they honed while watching me not have my best moments. I’m going to miss them in the coming weeks when I am once again wandering aimlessly through SuperTarget in a dress rehearsal for my life without them. Still, I wouldn’t take nothing.
Parenting is sticky business. There are days when I am acutely aware that I may not be cut out for this gig. Those are the days when I blow my parental gasket and slam doors and caterwaul with unbridled enthusiasm at my children over socks left on the floor right next to the laundry bin or half-empty cartons of yogurt stuffed behind a couch cushion. Those are the days when I am the very definition of insanity, once again doing the same thing that has failed before to achieve the desired result. Then there are the days when, through the grace of some unforeseen divine intervention, I pull it together long enough to do something that is nearly the right thing in the right situation. Like, for example, on the day when my fourteen-year-old son came to me fresh off watching a PG-13 comedy video on You Tube where he learned a new word, a word describing a sexual act that makes many grown adults shudder (or tilt their heads not unlike a cocker spaniel after hearing a word unfamiliar to their floppy ears). On that day I managed to swallow my shock long enough to offer a generic explanation of said act hoping to delay for him what would be an eye-opening if not wholly disturbing Google search on the NC-17 subject matter. On the days like that one, when I manage to keep my wits about me, I celebrate the alignment of the stars and enjoy it because I know moments of parenting clarity have, in the past, been few and far between, and my next ill-conceived, epic, parental meltdown could be right around the corner if I get too cocky.
A couple of days ago, my youngest son presented me with an opportunity to rise to the occasion again. After doing some more unboxing and cleaning in the basement family room the boys have designated The Teen Zone, I turned on one of those flameless, scented candle warmers to try to defunkify the place in their absence. (Teenage boys are smelly.) Not long after they had returned from a friend’s house, a panicked cry emanated from their space. Through a pained whimper I managed to make out phrases like “this is bad” and “oh no.” You know those moments when you think your child might be bleeding profusely and there is a fear of what you might find when you come face-to-face with them? That’s where my brain was. My son was about to present me with a mostly severed appendage or a head wound so deep I would be viewing his bony skull. When he made it to me, though, I could see no visible signs of trauma. Simultaneously relieved that he was okay and terrified at what that meant with regard to his cries, I asked him what was going on. The words came through breathless cries…spill, wax, accident, sorry, mistake, carpet, bad.
Now, this house is new to us and we have been working to make it our comfortable home for months. And, to that end, we had the worn basement carpet torn out in mid-January and replaced with fresh, super plush carpeting that is a bit like walking on heaven when your stocking feet touch it. As Luke and I hit the threshold of the family room, I could see why he was panic-stricken. Directly in front of the bookshelf where the candle warmer sat, still glowing innocently and without any sign of guilt or remorse, there was a sizable splattering of eggplant-colored, cinnamon-and-vanilla-scented wax. A flurry of words escaped my mouth, most of which were interrogatives and none of which (surprisingly enough) were screamed, but I never listened for the answers because I knew none of them would help. I knew I needed a minute to get my mind in order before I said or did something I would regret. I turned and walked up the stairs, Luke trailing on my heels. He kept talking and explaining while my mind reeled and I muttered my disappointment quietly. I got to the door of my room.
“You stay out here. I need to be alone for a minute,” I told him as I began to close the bedroom door behind me. “Don’t touch the wax. It will only make it worse,” I added as an afterthought as the door clicked solidly shut.
I paced for a minute trying to get my bearings. I whipped off a quick text to a good friend to get my feelings off my chest silently. Luke just spilled purple candle wax on a big spot of our basement carpet. Huge stain. Heartbroken. I took a deep breath. The one thing I knew for sure was that the mess would set with time, and I didn’t have the luxury of a full-scale devolution into parental disgust. Through the door, I could hear Luke talking to himself under his breath. I knew it was an accident. I knew he was simultaneously horrified, frightened, and wondering if the $100 he had earned at the craft fair would get him very far in his soon-to-be life as a hobo. I stood for a moment registering his feelings. Suddenly, I wasn’t an angry parent freaking out about a stain on recently installed carpeting. I was in Luke’s soul, scared and sad and feeling worthless. How many times had I been in his shoes, wondering what punishment would be meted out after my colossal error in judgment? My heart ached for him. I opened the door.
“Come on, Luke. Let’s see what we can do.”
A text came through from Heather. Try ironing it out? Put a rag or old t-shirt down and then iron over that. Medium heat. Then try rubbing alcohol to get the color out.
It sounded like a plausible solution. A quick Google search yielded the same advice. Luke, desperate to make amends, asked how he could help. I had him fetch items for me while I labored to free the new carpet of its unwelcome waxy coating. As I worked, I talked to Luke and reminded him that we all do things like this. Accidents happen. Most of them matter very little. I could see him begin to relax, his hobo life fading into the background for the time being. Little by little, after some icing, scraping, ironing, and blotting, the wax seemed to be coming out. I began to exhale too. This might be fixable after all. After about thirty minutes of triage, the carpet looked only slightly stained. I was hoping that some form of chemical solution could ameliorate that condition. Sure enough. An hour after the tragic incident, the carpet looked nearly uniform or at least good enough that someone might not even notice if they weren’t directed to search for a stain in that area. The carpet, Luke, and I had all survived, only slightly worse for the wear.
In the past, I’ve been too quick to anger in situations that warranted no anger at all. I’ve cried over spilled milk. I’ve fussed over holes in new jeans. And I’ve had full-fledged tantrums over doors left open while the heat was on inside. But as time with my sons living under our roof dwindles, I’ve become more aware of how big my “little” meltdowns can feel to my sons and how little even the “big” things in life are in the grand scheme. If our carpet had been permanently stained, would that have sucked? Absolutely. But I’ve been thinking about how much worse things would be in my life if I had created a situation in which my son no longer felt comfortable coming to me when things went wrong. I know I was that kid…the one who was afraid to be honest about accidents and mistakes. The one who would rather hide things and lie to escape censure. The one who spent far too long avoiding challenges, afraid to make a move lest it make me appear foolish or, heaven forbid, human. As an adult, I continue to work to overcome these fears and embrace my humanity. I’m not sure what grace intervened Sunday when Luke came to me, but all week long I have been hearing the phrase “wax on, wax off” from The Karate Kid in my head. Mr. Miyagi has been speaking to me, reminding me that patience, presence of mind, and repetition are the keys to success. My ability to go more slowly, tread more lightly, and think more carefully in difficult situations with our sons is improving. I have hope that these skills will someday transfer to other situations in my life as well. I’m not quite skillful or patient enough to catch a fly with chopsticks yet, but I’m feeling a bit more Miyagish with each small parental success.
The seven and a half years between when I turned 40 and today have been the best seven years of my life. They have not been the easiest. During this time, I learned my oldest son has ADHD and my youngest has dyslexia, and I struggled to gain acceptance and create a better situation for them at school and in their lives. I had a devastating falling out with a person very close to me that caused years’ worth of complications in my family. I began experiencing the unpleasant side effects of early perimenopause. I was depressed for a while. And I went into counseling for the first time in my life as I wrestled with the external changes messing with my reality and the internal battles being waged in my head as a result of aging and staring straight into the face of the midlife beast. As a result of all these things, however, I am more at peace than I ever have been. I live in the moment. I have greater perspective about what is important to me. And I couldn’t be where I am now if I hadn’t trudged through the quagmire of muck that now lies behind me.
This morning I saw a meme that riled me up. It said, “Addicted to Bettering Myself.” I’ve seen that saying before, but it has never elicited as strong of a reaction from me as it did today. Today it just didn’t sit well. So, I have been reflecting on it, and I think I finally have it figured out. When I turned 40, I was concerned about being 40. How in the heck did I get so old? Is this the beginning of the downhill slide that comes with being over the hill? How can I make 40 better? What do I need to do before it’s too late? I was consumed with answering these questions. I became addicted to bettering myself. I became more concerned about my physical appearance as I noticed more readily the effects of having lived 40 years. I became intensely interested in physical exercise. I monitored my workouts and chided myself when I fell short. If I put on weight at the holidays, I hated myself. I took classes in things I thought I teetered on the edge of being too old for, and I did things that were out of character because I thought my time was running out. I expected more of myself at a time when the events in my life were requiring more of me as well. I stressed myself out racing against a clock I could never stop.
Then an amazing thing happened. I let go. I can’t say when it happened or why, and it doesn’t matter. Suddenly I was grateful more often than anxious. I was tuned in more often than tuned out. I stopped letting others tell me what was best for me. I stopped taking myself and everything around me so goddamned seriously. I chose to let go of control more often. And I stopped looking outside myself for acceptance. I decided that trying to be “better” was more harmful than helpful to me. I accepted that my existence has power, worth, and value even if I never do anything other than breathe. It sounds Stuart Smalley of me, I know. But I decided I’m good enough. I’m smart enough. And, doggone it, people like me.
I am positive my friends who have escaped the clutches of the midlife monster are nodding their heads knowingly at me now. You were right, Leanna. Things did get better. I’ve let go of the situations, misconceptions, and lies that tortured me for years when I felt time was running out and I needed to be more (whatever that means). I’ve learned to not give a flying fig about most things because most things are background noise we choose hear over the symphony we could be enjoying if we let ourselves.
I don’t mean to belittle people who are addicted to bettering themselves. We’re all on our own journeys, and there is no right or wrong way to travel our individual path. And there’s something to be said for making the most of the time you are given, for being restless and ambitious, for wanting to age with grace and in good health. I have zero intention of going gentle into that goodnight myself. The Grim Reaper had best be prepared for a wrestling match when he comes for me. The difference for me at 47 than me at 40, though, is that he’ll be coming for a woman who doesn’t want to leave because she’s too happy to step out and not a woman who feels she can’t leave because she’s not finished becoming something she never realized she always was…good enough.
“It never even occurred to me that David Bowie *could* die.” ~Michael Ian Black
Yesterday was a weird day for me. Like many people my age, I imagine, I spent the day steeped in memories, stunned by the loss of David Bowie. David Bowie has been part of my life for as long as I can remember. Literally. One of my first memories is waking up hearing Fame on the radio in my bedroom. I was seven. I remember it so vividly because I’d been dreaming and that song was playing in my dream. When I awoke and heard it playing in my room, I honestly thought I had some sort of psychic powers. It was much later that I learned that happens to everyone and I did not have the gift. Oh, how it sucks being average.
David Bowie was the anti-average. He was the coolest man who ever lived. That is how I will always think of him. He was bold. He didn’t apologize for who he was or what he did or what he created. And he did all this without being a self-absorbed, self-serving jerk. He was talented, elegant, handsome, enigmatic, and yet somehow accessible. His music made me feel and reminded me that I belong to the universe. It made me think of things beyond myself. And that is just so damn cool.
Right after I saw the news of his passing, I was scanning my Twitter feed and I saw this tweet from Michael Ian Black. It took everything I was feeling and put it into a convenient package. It never occurred to me that David Bowie could die either. Legends don’t die. And they certainly shouldn’t pass away quietly from cancer at the relatively young age of 69. My big takeaway yesterday was a kick-in-the-gut reminder that we all die. Every last one of us. Even the coolest man on the planet.
Last night I was a bit more circumspect than usual. I could not look at my husband or my sons without acknowledging what we all know but bury deep inside. Death happens. It’s the only guarantee life presents when you are born. You will die. People you love, people who inhabit your soul, will die. I stood in the doorway to my sons’ room last night, staring at them while they slept. For a few moments, with teary eyes, I remembered things outside myself. I remembered to breathe and to feel and to take it all in.
“There’s a starman waiting in the sky, he told us not to blow it ’cause he knows it’s all worthwhile.”
Ever since the tragic events in Paris last Friday, my mind has been tempest tossed. Coming immediately on the heels of the deadliest bombing in Beirut in 25 years, the senseless murder of innocent civilians in the City of Light was a tough blow, the second poignant lesson in the fragility of life in two days. It seems I can’t sift through the news anymore without reading about another heinous act. While I know that countless acts of murder, rape, and violence have been perpetrated for as long as humans have existed, the constant barrage of stories about the dark side of humanity elucidated by the news media over the Internet and forwarded around the globe via social media can take a toll on even the most hopeful souls.
As a mother, I have struggled with what to share with my sons about these events and what example to set for them with my words about them. When they were younger, I cautiously shielded them from gratuitous details about natural disasters, shootings, and suicide bombings, proffering just enough information to make them aware but not enough to cause them sleepless nights. Parenting is a non-stop balancing act, and I regularly walk the high wire between too much information and not enough. Our sons are 12 and 14 now, plenty old enough to be aware of world events and form opinions about them. At school they watch news clips from CNN, an education I am grateful for because it provides an opportunity for open discourse at home about the world. I welcome the invitation to engage with our sons and answer questions and concerns as they arise. I like to think that in doing so my husband and I are raising informed, thinking, and engaged citizens of the world.
Today, during my daily run through of my social media news feeds, I read that governors of 27 states have declared they will not welcome Syrian refugees due to security concerns after the Paris attacks. I scratched my head. Regardless of the fact that states do not have the right to refuse refugees our federal government chooses to accept, I marvel at the naiveté of leaders who presume that refusing refugees is the surest way to keep their citizens safe. But many people in this country harbor the illusion that security is an entity we can guarantee and enforce because, well, we’re the United States of America, dammit. But we can’t. We never have been able to and we never will be. We can’t stop bad things from happening. Bad things are as certain as the sunrise, and security is merely an illusion we cling to as a means to mitigate our fears.
I live in Colorado, one of only seven states that has said it will welcome refugees displaced by the atrocities in Syria, which have left over 250,000 civilians dead and nearly half of its population of 22 million seeking a safe haven elsewhere. While many are against this, I am pleased with our governor’s proclamation. I don’t believe that turning away victims of terrorism will keep us any safer than we are now. Could an ISIS sympathizer be among the refugees who end up in Colorado? Probably. There have already been arrests of suspected ISIS militants and supporters in the US, and there is no reason to imagine we will be able to stop more from seeking to harm us if that is what they intend. Even our best attempts at national security will leave unexpected holes for terrorists to slip through. We are not capable of squelching every plot. We didn’t foresee the attack on Pearl Harbor or the attacks of 9/11. Is that a reason to turn away hundreds of innocents who are displaced and suffering, seeking a better, safer place for their family? I don’t think so. I like to think that we are a better nation than that.
The truth is that life is tenuous and fraught with peril, and there is little to nothing we can do about it. This is what I tell my sons daily. You could lose your life to a terrorist suicide bomber in a crowded cafe or to a mentally disturbed individual in a movie theater, to a drunk driver on their way home or to an incurable cancer. You could be the healthiest person out there and keel over from a heart attack. You can do everything right, take all the proper precautions, but you will still fall someday. Not one of us is getting out of this life alive, and we can’t guarantee that security to our children either. But the legacy we leave with our actions can and will make a difference in the lives of others. I would like my children to witness from me love, generosity, and bravery in the face of life’s sometimes scary realities rather than fear, isolationism, and cowardice disguised as protectionism. I would rather my sons learn to take a calculated risk for the sake of goodness than to shun others for an imagined sense of security.
Right after I read that article about the governors unwilling to welcome refugees, I found this video of a Parisian father and his young son being interviewed at the site of the Bataclan attacks where citizens were gathering to leave flowers and light candles in memory of the lives lost there. The father tells his son that there are bad people everywhere and that the flowers and candles being placed are there to protect him. I won’t lie. I get weepy every time I replay that video, and I have watched it at least a dozen times already. In the most beautiful way possible, this father is teaching his son that bad things happen but we don’t need to fear them. We need to accept them, focus on the good we can do, and go on with our lives. If we operate from a place of peace and love and hope, we are freer from fear than if we barricade ourselves in to hide from it. Fear can become an inescapable prison or our impetus to live in the present.
I showed my sons the video of that father because it speaks more eloquently about security than anything I’ve seen on the Internet since the attacks on Beirut and Paris. I’ve felt my heart shrivel as I scanned comments from friends about why we should not open our nation and our hearts to those who seek peace because we might regret it. While I understand their concerns, I can’t believe that this is what we have come to. We citizens of the United States forget how fortunate we are to be here and the sacrifices made by previous citizens that afforded us the luxury of birthright and the illusion of security. We forget that most of our ancestors arrived on these shores disillusioned, frightened, and clinging to hope promised by a lady standing in a harbor, the same feelings the Syrian refugees now hold. My husband and I are supporting our governor as he opens the doors to our incredible state. We are talking to our sons and teaching them that the inscription on Lady Liberty does not have caveats. It’s not “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore but only if they aren’t coming from a war torn Middle Eastern country or from a south-of-the-border neighbor with drug problems because we don’t want any of THOSE.” We are telling them that life is scary. Bad things do happen. But the more good we put out into the world and the more we focus on that, the better things will become. My silent parental prayer today and every day is that our sons will grow to love this world despite the negatives and to live boldly in it without fear for as many days as they have.
As our children grow, most of their changes occur imperceptibly. One moment you are gazing into their chubby, little cherub face and the next you are looking directly into the eyes of a slender-faced, high-cheekboned teenager and wondering what wicked sorcery changed them overnight. And while their adult appearance seems to develop in the proverbial eye blink, the transformation in their personalities as they mature from tantrum-tossing toddler into too-cool-for-school teenager seems to take forever. My sons both pitched fits in public places that I swore would last longer than the Cenozoic Era. I watched with grateful glee as the tantrums decreased in duration over the years, evolving from epic, hour-long fuss fests into eye-rolling disgust lasting two seconds from start to finish. It was marked forward progress and it was much easier to notice because it directly impacted the level of peace and quiet in my daily life. Over the years, I have become guardedly optimistic about my sons’ potential to become respectful, open-minded, kind, and decent adult humans because I have witnessed their emotional growth firsthand and been present to overhear other adults as they remarked on it too.
On Halloween evening last weekend, our oldest son did something that proved he is more mature than his meager fourteen years might assert. Right around 6:30 pm, as costumed children began serenading us with Trick-or-Treat calls from our front step, our sons finally decided to get their teenage acts together and get into costume for what Joe proclaimed would be his last year trick-or-treating. For the auspicious occasion, he had chosen a demented, shiny skeleton mask in his first-ever attempt to dress in a costume that could potentially unnerve small children. As he was donning his scary costume, however, there was a wardrobe malfunction with the mask that required last-minute triage with super glue. He put the mask on after the quick-fix solution and discovered the fumes from the not yet dried glue made his eyes water. Not good. We waited a few minutes for the glue to dry and he tried again. Still no go. Everyone else in the trick-or-treating party was ready to hit the road, but Joe’s costume was suddenly out of the question. I immediately apologized for not foreseeing the potential sticky situation in my instant glue fix, but he brushed it off without another thought.
In years past, our ADHD son would likely have in the same situation devolved into a weepy mess and declared the holiday a total loss. He might have thrown himself on his bed and cried in frustration. This year, though, was different. I was the one who was irked and disappointed about the worthless $25 mask that could not be worn. He was calm and collected. Reasoning that he was already dressed in full black, he decided he could easily transition his costume from scary death apparition to scary mime with some white face paint. (Mimes are a freakishly scary Halloween costume, you have to admit.) I dug around in the costume bucket only to discover there was no viable white makeup to use for his transformation. Dammit. Joe and I started brainstorming. I ran to the basement to my containers of old Halloween costumes and searched for something he could use in a pinch. The least feminine item I was able to turn up was a headband for a skunk costume. I brought it to him.
“What about this?” I asked, adding, “I also have a black cat headband, but the ears have a glittery, bright pink in them.”
“I can be a skunk,” he announced confidently and without the slightest hint of teenage embarrassment or disappointment.
“Are you sure?” I asked. “I can probably figure out something better if you give me a few more minutes to dig around,” I explained.
“Nope. The skunk is good. I can be a skunk.”
We found some white felt fabric in my office and safety pinned a stripe down the back of his otherwise all black outfit. I pulled out a black eyeliner pencil and drew a skunk nose and whiskers on his face. He put on the headband and checked the mirror.
“I look a little bit like a girl,” he assessed, “but I don’t care. I’m not missing trick-or-treating. Luke and Anthony might make fun of me, but I can deal with it. I’ll just tell everyone I’m doing the stanky leg,” he said, giving a nod to Silento’s Watch Me song.
(Thanks to Joe, I spent the entire evening with the watch-me-whip-watch-me-nae-nae chorus running through my head. And now it is probably in yours. You’re welcome.)
I handed him a flannel pillowcase and he was off, taking on the mantle of leader of the pack with confident aplomb. We’ve spent years working with Joe, both explaining and demonstrating ways to transform lemons into lemonade and chicken shit into chicken salad when things did not go his way. While Luke has always been capable of adjusting quickly when things went awry, Joe has struggled for years, full of sulks and things-always-go-wrong-for-me woe and hours of perseveration. Each meltdown has brought with it an opportunity for growth, and we’ve watched it occur slowly. But this time was markedly different. This time there was zero meltdown. This time he pulled a page out of my fix-it-on-the-fly handbook and adapted to the unfortunate change in plan without a second thought. I’m not sure I have ever felt prouder than I did as I witnessed his determination to jump over this pothole on the greatest of all kid holidays. He did at fourteen something I was not able to accomplish until my mid forties. He made a conscious choice not to take himself so damned seriously. And he rocked it.
As for me, I am going to follow Joe’s example and continue to work at not taking myself quite as seriously. Also, I will never again hear that ridiculous Watch Me song without thinking about the way inspiration and strength can come from the oddest things…like the stanky leg.
I recently had the good fortune of marking 47 years off the calendar. After so many journeys around the sun, I’ve become much more adept at celebrating in a way that suits me. This year that included a hot, uninterrupted shower, a venti latte accompanied by a cinnamon roll, some light shopping followed by a leisurely drive into the hills, a pedicure, and a picnic and concert at Red Rocks. And while I could not keep Mother Nature in line (the cranky bitch caused a thirty-minute storm with extreme lightning and heavy rain that delayed our outdoor concert and forced us to seek shelter in our car), overall my day was damn near perfect, securing my position as my number one, all-time-favorite, personal birthday-party planner.
The 1980s sex symbol, Bo Derek, recently said in an interview that aging is not for sissies. Although Bo has about ten years on me, I concur with her assessment. While 40 freaked me out seven years ago, what has happened to me physically since that reaching that milestone makes me shudder. I’ve acquired floppy arm syndrome, crepe-y neck, and sagging knees. Stray chin hairs pop up like wretched dandelions that require immediate plucking under the magnification of a lighted mirror to aid my tired eyes. The gal who used to roll out of bed and attend her college classes somehow managing a bright complexion without makeup is gone. It takes twice the effort and the bankroll to maintain half the fresh-faced appearance I exuded a decade or two ago. I try not to think about it too much, but the reflection in ubiquitous glass reminds me anyway. My inescapable doppelgänger follows me everywhere. Damn her.
As I drove up into the foothills the other day, though, I had something of an epiphany about my age. Even with all the physical changes in me that are less than grand, I like myself. So much. I am more genuinely me now than I have ever before been because I have stopped putting other’s agendas for me ahead of my own. I have accepted my negatives and begun acknowledging and owning my positives. I no longer heed the caterwauling of naysayers. I spent my first forty years becoming what I thought I was supposed to be. I will spend the next forty years excavating the me that lies buried under the sediment of other’s wishes. I grew up a closed-off, fearful Chicken Little, but that’s not who I was meant to be, and it’s not who I will stay. While I am good as is, warts and all, I am open to growth and positive change. If others don’t approve of my new direction, I will leave them in the dust as I speed away and watch their figures fade in my rear view window. Moving on.
To my friends who are a few years ahead of me on this journey, thanks for talking me through my midlife insanity and reassuring me that I would emerge better for it. You were right. It does get better. Little things are easier to let go. There’s freedom in relinquishing baggage and traveling light. And the more baggage I drop, the happier I become. To my friends who are a few years behind me, hang in there. I go before you as proof that the stress, change, and angst you’re experiencing are survivable. The slow, steady climb at midlife is the precursor to the feet-off-the-pedals coast that follows. And, yes. I know you don’t want to hear it. I didn’t want to hear it either, but that didn’t make it any less true.
I’m in life for the long haul, for as long as I’ve got, through the messy and the beautiful and the complicated and the serene. I am not afraid of getting older, anymore. I am afraid of not getting older. There is so much of life I was uncomfortable about experiencing when I was young and chicken-hearted. I am braver now. Oh, sure. Doubt still finds me, but now it comes in the muffled whisper of a pesky librarian rather than the soul-shaking shouts of a doomsday soothsayer. I know the potential for growth still exists, and I know it ain’t over until the Fat Lady sings. I’m not going out quietly. Look for me. I’ll be the old lady laughing too loud, hugging too long, and crossing things off my bucket list. I’m many things, but I’m no sissy.