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A Message from George Bailey

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Daily reports of hate-motivated violence, divisive rhetoric, threats to long-held racial, religious, and gender liberties, along with irreparable attacks on the Earth, have led me to limit screen exposure.  It’s not an effort to hide from reality. It’s just that discerning what is real has become so complicated, especially when people claim that because they think or believe something is true, that makes it true.  Not only true, but fact.

Lately, it feels like I’ve been transported to an altered state of existence, reminiscent of the sequence in “It’s A Wonderful Life” when George Bailey wished that he’d never been born and finds himself in Pottersville.  He discovers the people he knew and loved have degenerated into the worst versions of themselves, becoming bitter, greedy, and cruel. Lining the streets of the once charming town are businesses catering to all manner of human vice.   

In a world without George Bailey, Mr. Potter managed to destroy every shred of decency and humanity that had characterized Bedford Falls.  In the absence of George Bailey, Potter capitalized on people’s fears, distrust, ignorance, anger, and desperation, thereby establishing complete dependence on him.  Without the conscience, courage, empathy, and lovingkindness of George Bailey, Potter’s quest for power and control went unchecked.

Whereas George looked for the best in people, appealing to their strengths, and inspiring them to discover these in themselves, Potter relied on people’s insecurities, preying upon their weaknesses, which more readily served his selfish purposes.  George discovered that in the presence of genuine caring and relationship, people strive to live up to your highest expectations of them. Potter preferred to operate in the absence of genuine caring and relationship counting on people to be satisfied to live down to his lowest expectations.  

These two opposing approaches to wielding personal influence have been readily observed over the past year.  What is abundantly clear is that if we allow ourselves to become disillusioned, when faced with disappointment, it is easy to slip into self pity and despair.  By doing so, we make ourselves vulnerable to those who would guide us down a destructive path.

This is not the time to retreat into darkness.  Now’s the time to rise up, determined to stay alert, be smart, take action, and work harder to create the conditions necessary for the preservation of a healthy future for our children, ourselves, and our planet.  We have reached a critical time in our history when we must choose between what is best and what is easy. In choosing to do what is best, we must think globally while living locally. We must live in the present while being mindful of the future.  

When my younger son became overwhelmed by challenging situations, he attempted to alleviate anxiety by declaring, “I don’t care!”  Instead of trying to convince him that he did indeed care or excusing him from trying, I would say, “I guess I’ll have to care enough for both of us until you feel strong enough to care again.”  This response, combined with guided practice and encouragement, generally invited a spirit of cooperation rather than antagonism. Eventually he felt confident enough to resume caring.

It’s easier not to care.  It relieves any sense of personal responsibility for improving the situation.  But not caring creates a false sense of security that can be dangerous. Not caring leads people to do and fail to do things that may have devastating consequences for all of us, such as pollution, climate change, food waste.  Therefore, it is necessary to care more and do more to make up for those who choose not to care. Hopefully, in time, they will find the courage to care.

Anger has become the prevailing emotion in our current social climate.   Anger is an emotion that appears powerful and strong because it is often loud, even violent.  But anger is based in fear, ignorance, insecurity, and emptiness leading to hate, cruelty, and division.  Anger may be a strong emotion, but it is not an emotion of strength. Love is an emotion of strength. Love comes from a place of courage, awareness, confidence, and fulfillment lending to growth, compassion, and unity.  

It’s easy to hate.  You don’t have to give up anything to hate.  Loving is much harder because you have to give something up.  You have to give up putting yourself first. Love is powerful.  Love can be fierce, as well as tender. Love is patient and kind.  It sacrifices and protects. It challenges wrongdoing and defies injustice.  Love endures hardship and dares to hope. People yearn for love in their lives.  They want to be loved fiercely. Choose to love, in hopes that it will serve as a beacon guiding others to discover the power of love within themselves.  

George Bailey discovered he had a wonderful life, not because of what he had, but because of what he gave.  The care and love he unselfishly shared inspired hope, giving others the courage to care and love as well. George’s wealth was measured in devoted family and friends.  May we all seek such riches in the New Year.

 

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Satisfying, Not Stressful, Holidays

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As parents we long to create magical holiday memories for our children.  While their heads are filled with “visions of sugarplums,” we’re overwhelmed by what we’re convinced has to be done and spent to make those memories possible.  Perhaps there is another way to make this holiday season memorable and meaningful while minimizing the hassles.

When planning our holiday celebrations, we might ask ourselves, “What do we want the holidays to mean to our children?  What kind of memories do we want them to have? What feelings do we want them to associate with the holidays? Are we effectively communicating the meaning this holiday holds for us through our celebration?”  Revisiting our own favorite childhood holiday memories can be a place to start. What kinds of things did our families do to make those memories possible?

Oftentimes, when we recall favorite memories, they have little or nothing to do with how many gifts there were or how much was spent on them.  Specific gifts may not even be remembered. Typically, our memories have more to do with the atmosphere of the holidays that existed in our homes – the aromas, the music, the voices, the feelings.  Jo Robinson and Jean Coppock Staeheli remind us in their book, Unplug the Christmas Machine, that no matter what cultural or religious holiday you are celebrating, “What children want and need is more time with their parents, an evenly-paced holiday season, traditions they can count on, and realistic expectations about gifts…Most people spend more time and emotional energy on gift-giving than anything else, and yet gift-giving is consistently rated as the least valued aspect of the celebration.”

Here are a few tried and true strategies for creating the meaningful holiday memories we desire:

View the holidays through a child’s eyes.  Children experience the holidays differently at different ages.  For example, the infant who rests calmly in Santa’s arms may become the toddler who shrieks in terror at this bearded stranger.  The very young child for whom we carefully shopped may be more interested in the package’s wrapping than its contents. Pay attention to and respect each child’s reactions and avoid taking their preferences personally.  By demonstrating respect for their feelings, they learn to respect us and others. Our responsiveness to their needs and feelings leave a more lasting impression than any picture with Santa.

Make family time a priority.  Let decorating the house, making and wrapping gifts, and preparing meals be family activities.  Delegate tasks according to age and ability. Everyone can do something. Having a special job to do makes everyone feel they are making a valuable contribution to the family’s celebration.

Pull out your collection of holiday books or check some out from the library and read to each other!  Listen to holiday music! Get out the art supplies and create! Take a walk in the neighborhood and enjoy the sights and sounds of the season.  Limit television viewing to holiday specials that the family can watch together. These are opportunities to discuss the portrayal of the holiday and whether or not it is in agreement with our values.  Spend time exploring the meaning of the holiday being celebrated and its religious and cultural significance.

Simplify the social calendar.  Attend only those functions believed to be absolutely necessary.  Maintain a flexible, realistic schedule as much as possible. When children are attending events that may last past their bedtime, take along their pajamas.  If an event involves a meal with lots of unique or unusual dishes, taking along foods we know our children will eat can prevent an unpleasant scene. Feeding them ahead of time is another option.  Take along a few quiet toys, books, or art supplies in case the entertainment is geared toward adults. Our children will remember our efforts to make these experiences pleasant for them.

Schedule quiet time.  Listen to soothing music and use soft voices.  Institute a “whisper hour” when everyone is asked to speak only in whispers.  Family members may spend this time in whatever way they find most relaxing – reading, drawing, doing puzzles, resting, or writing letters.

Limit wish lists.  By limiting our children’s wish list, we help them learn to make choices and identify what they really want.  Encourage them to make choices that are within the family budget. Making the list is part of the fun when they write it themselves, draw pictures of the desired items, or cut them from catalogues and glue them on a piece of paper.  (These become treasured keepsakes.) Remember more is not necessarily better. Knowing someone cared enough to get what they really wanted helps make the recipient feel special.

Avoid taking children shopping.  Arrange to let them stay with trusted relatives or friends.  Set up a babysitting co-op for the holidays so that everyone gets a chance to get some uninterrupted shopping done.  When taking our children along is unavoidable, planning several, short trips when they are at their best – after meals or naps – can prevent meltdowns.  Involve them in the shopping when possible. Let them hold the list and help look for items. Make the most of whatever time is spent with them. It all becomes part of their memories.    

Involve children in the joy of giving.  Ask them for gift suggestions.  Encourage them to make gifts whenever possible.  It helps to start early. Close friends and relatives will treasure simply framed original works of art, homemade calendars using children’s artwork or photos, or treats children helped bake and decorate.  Never underestimate the value of a handmade gift, for they come from the heart.

Include children in a holiday tradition of giving to those less fortunate.  Involve them in collecting for food, clothing, coat, book, or toy drives.  Let them put money in the Salvation Army bucket and explain how the money is used.  Prepare a meal for a lonely individual or needy family in the neighborhood. We can teach our children the lesson that Scrooge’s friend, Jacob Marley, learned too late – ‘humankind is our business.’

Stress is a major obstacle to satisfying holidays.  We reduce stress by keeping the focus where it belongs.  By focusing on our families, beliefs, and traditions, we create the magical holiday memories we desire for our children.   

 

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From Thanksgiving to Thankful Living

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Joseph, at age 6, creates Pilgrim and Native American snails for place markers on the Thanksgiving table.  He is grateful for snails.

Have you ever noticed that Thanksgiving is the only holiday that actually tells us what to do?  Give Thanks! Unfortunately, all too often the only thanks expressed is, “Thank goodness it’s over!” Through the years, Thanksgiving has become an excuse for all manner of overindulgence.  Consequently, it is not surprising to hear reports of a holiday characterized by out of control children, marital discord, alcohol-related conflict or accidents, and disastrous family gatherings.

H.U. Westermayer observed that the Pilgrims built seven times more coffins than cabins.  He notes that, “No Americans have been more impoverished than these who, nevertheless, set aside a day of thanksgiving.”  Here, the word ‘impoverished’ refers to the Pilgrims’ inability to satisfy even their basic needs for food, clothing, and shelter.  Currently, the tendency is to consider ourselves impoverished if we do not have the newest version smart phone, an ultra-wide screen television, and an individual serving coffee maker.  Considering this shift, one might be inclined to conclude that we are confused about what constitutes a necessity, have lost perspective on what it means to be impoverished, and forgotten what being thankful looks like.

This need not be the case.  We can do it differently. We can choose to leave our children a legacy of thankfulness by creating new traditions designed to serve a feast for the spirit as well as the palate.  We can reclaim this national holiday as the call to action it is – Thanksgiving!

Set the Stage.  Spend the weeks leading up to this holiday refamiliarizing your family with the story of the first Thanksgiving.  Maybe the theatrical members of your family would like to recreate the experience in a skit for Thanksgiving Day. Spend time contemplating and discussing the meaning of the word thanksgiving. Invite everyone participating in your celebration to bring one interesting fact about Thanksgiving to share. You might also encourage them to come prepared to share a favorite Thanksgiving memory.

Establish Realistic Expectations.  Avoid the ‘Extreme Holiday Makeover’ syndrome. Unlike the hosts of these shows, most of us do not have 50-100 people to help us prepare Thanksgiving dinner.  Rather than attempting to replicate an entire magazine layout menu for the perfect Thanksgiving, just try one or two new dishes. Any recipe looks simple when someone else does all the preparation. Remember that it is not what you have on your table, but who you have around it that makes the difference.

Invite Everyone to Give.  Make a list of everything that goes into preparing for Thanksgiving and let each family member, as well as invited guest, choose what they will be responsible for providing.  It could be preparing a favorite dish, arranging and setting the table, decorating the house, supplying holiday music, or supervising the younger children in their tasks. Collect and have materials ready for making holiday items.  A centerpiece may involve filling a basket with colorful leaves, acorns, or pinecones (real or cut from construction paper). Older kids may use wooden mallets to pound the color from leaves onto pieces of muslin for a tablecloth, placemats, or napkins.  Find ways for your kids to assist in the preparation of Thanksgiving dinner. Sure it may take longer, but remember you are not just cooking a meal, you are making memories. Involve everyone in the giving. People of every age enjoy the feeling that comes from making a contribution.

Express Thanks.  Let everyone know ahead of time that each person will be asked to share at least one reason they are thankful before partaking of Thanksgiving dinner.  Provide a list of suggested themes – something in nature, something about their family, something they have learned, an ability they have, an experience they have had, or an activity they enjoy.  These may be spoken or written on slips of paper and read by one of the youngest readers. It might be fun to try to match the thanks with the person who wrote it.

Transform Thanks into Giving.  Take some time during or after dinner to explore how the thanks expressed could be taken beyond words and put into action.  The person who is thankful they learned to read could volunteer to read to patients in the children’s hospital. The person who is thankful for the flowers in their garden could collect seeds to share with neighbors.  The person who is thankful they can sing or play an instrument could volunteer to perform at the local retirement community. The person who is thankful they can knit or crochet could make caps to donate for cancer patients.  The possibilities are endless.

Fortunately, Thanksgiving is not exclusive to any particular group and does not have to be restricted to a single day.  We may discover that the more thankful we become, the more we find to be thankful for. As parents, it is our responsibility to help our children make the connection between thanks and giving.  By adopting a grateful attitude, we acknowledge that it is not enough just to say we are thankful, we need to live it.

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Calling for a #NotMe Movement

I generally refrain from commenting on social media and news outlet posts.  Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that I don’t have opinions, just ask my husband.  I simply choose not to engage in the public debate, which all too often turns ugly and counterproductive.

However, as a female, daughter, sister, wife of 33 years, mother of two sons, and aunt to 14 nieces and nephews, I cannot stand by and fail to react to the statement made on September 20, 2018 by Gina Sosa during an interview with Randi Kaye on CNN.  Ms. Sosa, sitting alongside four other women, all supporting Brett Kavanaugh’s appointment to the Supreme Court after his testimony following the sexual assault allegations by Christine Blasey Ford, made the following statement: “We’re talking about a 15-year-old girl, which I respect.  I’m a woman, I respect. But we’re talking about a 17-year-old boy, in high school, testosterone running high. Tell me what boy hasn’t done this in high school? Please, I would like to know.”

Regardless of political affiliation or position on Kavanaugh’s confirmation, this is disturbing.  It is a statement that was casually made as if it were absolute fact. In actuality, it is merely Ms. Sosa’s personal opinion.  While that, in and of itself, is worrisome, what is more worrisome is the lack of public outcry or reaction. I have been waiting nearly a month now, to hear from someone, anyone, who is as irate as I am at the notion that all 17-year-old males are perpetrators of sexual assault.  This unfortunate declaration normalizes behavior that is not merely unacceptable, but, in fact, criminal.

What does this suggest to 17-year-old boys?  It suggests they are incapable of exercising self control due to the presence of testosterone in their bodies.  Not only does such a suggestion invite dangerous repercussions, it is utter nonsense. And what does this suggest to 15-year-old girls?  If they are around 17-year-old boys, they should just expect this to happen? I don’t think so!

With all we know about the devastating consequences of sexual assault, this kind of attitude must not prevail.  Surely, we have not become so immune to the depiction of violence and sexual assault in the media that we are willing to accept it as expected behavior from our sons.  No thank you! Not me!

Where are the males bold enough to stand up and proclaim, “Not me!  I did not at the age of 17 or any other age commit sexual assault”? Where are the men willing to challenge their peers and declare the sexual objectification of females was not, is not, and never will be okay?  Where are the men who are confident enough to say, “I don’t need a woman to be less of a person so I can feel more like a man?” If we truly want to prevent future generations from belonging to the #MeToo Movement, then we must include the voices of those who can proudly say, “Not me!”  The grounds for starting a movement seem clear. Gentlemen, consider yourselves challenged.

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Journal of an Everyday Parent: Final Fledgling Launched

That our boys have been the center of our lives, since the day we learned we were to become parents, is a well-known fact among our family and friends.  For days following our return to a sonless house, we received numerous phone calls and texts to check on our condition. One neighbor brought a plate of freshly baked baklava.  Another brought plants for my friendship garden. The outpouring of caring and concern has been heartwarming and prompted me to put pen to paper, (well actually, fingers to keyboard, but pen to paper sounds so much more literary), to give an honest account to those who have thoughtfully inquired as to how we are doing.  This is the story behind the, “We’re fine.”

Knowing our younger son was going to leave home was a very different factuality from having him actually leave.  We were fully aware that he was going to college. Last year was a flurry of writing essays, completing financial aid forms, submitting applications, and waiting for acceptance letters.  The final decision was a huge relief and cause for celebration.

We took him to freshmen orientation.  We attended parent informational meetings and mock classes.  We toured dorm rooms and ate lunch in the cafeteria. He had a student ID made and picked up his course schedule.  Throughout the day’s activities, I discreetly observed him. Witnessing his decisions, the manner in which he conducted himself, the way he interacted with and treated others, filled me with a satisfying sense of reassurance and validation.  He was ready.

When Joseph invited me to go shopping for college, I jumped at the chance to accompany him.  Walking alongside his graceful, 6’ 2” frame, I recalled those long-gone days, pushing him in the cart where my list was held tightly in his pint-sized fist, his gold-flecked, green eyes intent on my face as I named items and compared prices.  It was gratifying to watch him looking for bargains, rather than popular trends; making selections based on recyclability and environmental friendliness; referring to his list and checking off items as they were added to the cart. A growing stack of neatly arranged college supplies occupied the corner of his room all summer.  Of course he was moving out.

Throughout the summer, I took advantage of every opportunity to be with him and do things he enjoyed.  We prepared his favorite meals. Vacationed on our favorite beach. Rewatched favorite TV shows and movies.  All the while, my husband and I secretly collected items for a care basket to be left in his dorm room to be discovered after our departure.  There was no use pretending. He was leaving home.

The few days before his departure, he went through the house looking in closets, searching shelves, rifling through drawers, deciding what to take and what to leave behind.  Hopefully, he collected an abundance of pleasant memories as he wandered from room to room in this house where he’s spent a lifetime. Memories to sustain him, to remind him who he is, where he comes from, and how he is loved.  

The eve of his assigned move-in day arrived.  I sat on his bed keeping him company while he sorted and packed his belongings.  Some of the things he chose to take surprised and moved me – several plush sea creatures, a little pocket knife keychain his brother gave him, his grandfather’s old worn cowboy hat.  When he noticed the look on my face, he said, “Well, I want to make it feel like home.” He seemed to be putting a bit of each of us in his pocket to carry along with him. And we will be.  With him. Always.

Filled to capacity with his plunder, the car was further laden with ambivalent anticipation during that early morning drive to campus.  In spite of our attempts to create a cheerful atmosphere of normalcy, there was a lingering sensation that something momentous was afoot.  Flashbacks to a comparable trip taken ten years previously, while providing some insight into what lay ahead, failed to diminish the magnitude of the current reality.  Once again, we were traveling toward an inevitability that would leave each of us changed forever.

When we pulled up to the dorm, a host of friendly volunteers descended upon the car rendering the frantic unloading a jovial affair.  Standing like islands in the midst of a sea of overflowing boxes, baskets, and bags, there was a moment of mild panic. How would all of this stuff ever fit in this little area?  Putting his organizational skills and artistic eye to work, we went from ‘where do we start’ to ‘all done’ in record time. The final result was a space reminiscent of the one he occupies at home – a reflection of his combined passions for marine biology and the arts, a blend of mementos from the past and reminders of the present.  

The remaining hours passed in somewhat of a blur.  One minute we were companionably arranging his room and the next we were standing in the parking lot awkwardly avoiding the obvious.  It was time to say goodbye. For weeks I’d been planning all the things I wanted to say at this moment. But all I could manage as we hugged, gazing up into his sparkling eyes was, “I’m honored to be your mother.  I love you,” and sealed the sentiment with a kiss. As we pulled away, he stood there waving before turning to go back to the dorm. I watched him recede in the rearview mirror. When he heard the familiar beep, beep, beep (we love you), he turned and smiled raising his hand one last time before disappearing from view.  

Suddenly all those things I’d intended to tell him came rushing back.  Be good. Be mindful of your choices. Be both cautious and courageous.  Seek the company of those who encourage you to be your best. Do the same for them.  Avoid those who delight in your adversity or the misfortune of others. Beware of those who degrade and would destroy that which they do not have, just to prevent others from having it.  Be a blessing to others. Look for the good in them. Treat them the way you want to be treated. Work hard. Use your time wisely. Ask for help if you need it. Aim for excellence. Enjoy yourself.  You have a healthy conscience. Listen to it. Make yourself proud. Choose to be happy. Then I realized, he’s heard those messages all his life. Now it’s time for me to have confidence that he was listening.  

I enjoyed imagining him finding the care basket we’d left in his room.  Tucked inside was a message saying, “…what an emotional roller coaster it is to start something new.  Take a deep breath, stand tall, and just keep moving forward. You are on your way to doing even more amazing things and becoming a more complete version of yourself.  Enjoy the process!”

The return trip seemed to take twice as long.  My husband and I attempted to lighten the solemn mood by commenting on trivial matters – the weather, traffic, gas prices – but our efforts were strained.  Distracting ourselves from the conspicuous vacancy in the back seat made it possible to keep our emotions in check. Struggling to maintain our composure became more challenging when we finally arrived home.  

Never before had we entered that house quite so alone.  The silence was deafening. The sound of our entry magnified by the emptiness.  For over twenty-eight years our lives had been filled with the noise, blessed noise of two growing boys.  There was never time to imagine life when our sons would no longer be with us.

The Joseph-sized void was palpable, accentuated by his signature touch evident everywhere as we moved from room to room.  The power-washed, meticulously organized garage. His clean, neatly arranged room. Pictures, artwork, seashells, music still open on the piano.  Reminders of one of the two greatest gifts resulting from our coming together. From prior experience, we know the gnawing ache will eventually mellow, but never disappear entirely.  For now it is fresh, raw, genuine. The person who wrote, “To become a parent is to choose to have your heart walking around outside your body,” comes closest to describing the hollowness, the actual physical sensation associated with discovering that those you’ve grown accustomed to seeing every day are no longer where you expect them to be.  No other absence compares with it. No other presence fills it.

 We busied ourselves, seeking solace in the performance of mundane tasks.  Sensing the need for some time to privately examine the plethora of paradoxical emotions that have been accumulating for months, we each engaged in our preferred tension-relieving activity.  Jerry went for a bike ride while I rearranged furniture.

Alone with my emptiness, I was finally able to let the tears flow freely, uninhibited, unconcerned with how they might affect anyone else.  I was not crying out of some deep, unfulfilled longing or regret. The tears came as a release of the intense, complicated mixture of grief and joy.  Grief for the loss of the familiar, the loss of a clear sense of purpose and lack of direction, the uncertainty of how to proceed. Joy for all that has been accomplished, all there is to anticipate, and all there is still to do.  Suddenly, I recalled my advice to Joseph, ““…what an emotional roller coaster it is to start something new. Take a deep breath, stand tall, and just keep moving forward. You are on your way to doing even more amazing things and becoming a more complete version of yourself.  Enjoy the process!” Little did I know, at the time of its writing, how it would apply to me as well as him.

Once the tears subsided, I felt cleansed, invigorated, and surprisingly strong.  When my husband returned, I could see in his eyes that he’d had a similar experience.  We embraced one another, grateful to be together in our loneliness.

The irony of our current situation is not lost on us.  We planned, educated ourselves, and made ready for their arrivals as well as their departures.  And yet, while our efforts were invaluable, on each occasion, we found ourselves inadequately prepared.  The launching of our final fledgling has been a stark reminder that although we signed up to be their parents forever, they never agreed to remain children.   

Once again we are faced with adjusting our roles in order to become the parents they need and, hopefully, want.  Like any transition, this will not happen overnight. It’s been delightful to rediscover that being married to my best friend sure makes it easier. Fortunately, he concurs. There is nothing so simple, yet so hard, but so wondrous as love.

           

 

           

 

   

 

            

 

   

         

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Journal of an Everyday Parent: Back to School No More

boy in brown hoodie carrying red backpack while walking on dirt road near tall trees
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

The 2017-18 school year was a season of lasts, for me, punctuated by a progression of final events – the last first day of school; last prom; last musical; last choir concert; last awards ceremony; last, last day of school; and on the last day of May, the last high school graduation.  In all honesty, the backside of some activities was welcomed – homework, testing, group projects, fundraisers, and summer assignments come to mind. But after 24 years of getting somebody ready for school every day, there is much to be missed – rousting a couple of dark-haired fellows out of bed each morning; walking to and from school; snow days; decorating holiday cookies; school pictures; reading together; grade reports; open house; making costumes; producing shows; recitals, concerts, and theatrical productions; car-ride conversations; and kissing their cheek at bedtime each night.

Once again, back-to-school reminders have been posted everywhere.  It’s hard to believe they no longer apply to me. No more supply lists.  No more lunch bags. No more teacher gifts. No excuse for buying a fresh box of crayons.  Glancing out the window the other morning, I caught sight of a group of neighborhood children and parents gathering on the corner.   Suddenly, it occurred to me, they are heading off for their first day back to school. For the first time in 24 years, I did not have anyone to wake up, pack a lunch for, or ask if they had everything they needed.  Pausing to reflect on my tenure as a parent with school-aged kids, I’m so glad to have made the choices I did.

Read Together.  I sat down and read with the boys at some point during the day, every day, when they were little and regularly even after they learned to read, right up through high school.  Reading together promoted discussions about interesting, sometimes difficult topics. These conversations made it clear to them that we could talk about anything. They could ask me about anything.  Exposure to literature stimulated their imagination, expanded their perspective, encouraged their empathy, introduced them to characters they could admire and emulate. The careful, intentional selection of books for children and young people is especially crucial because, as Kathleen Kelly tells us in “You’ve Got Mail,” “When you read a book as a child, it becomes a part of your identity in a way that no other reading in your whole life does.”

Considered Teachers Allies.  Assisting a child in realizing their potential is an impossible undertaking for parents alone.  Teachers are essential partners in the process. Every year, I introduced myself to the boys’ teachers and communicated with them regularly – to offer assistance in the classroom, to address a concern, or to express my appreciation for their hard work.  While they started as teachers, many of them became friends.

Volunteered.  Whether in the classroom or for school-wide events, volunteering gave me a chance to get to know the boys’ classmates and their parents.  Being involved established a natural connection between home and school. Conscientiously avoiding behavior that might embarrass them made my presence at school more palatable.  I wanted my participation to be welcomed, not dreaded – a source of pride, not mortification. There have been countless mutual benefits of volunteering.

Established a Backpack Ritual.  From the first day of preschool, we made going through their backpacks a part of the daily routine.  This made getting forms signed and returned, staying abreast of their progress, and keeping track of upcoming events easier.  Establishing this ritual from the beginning made it clear that it was merely a way of checking in not checking up on them. It wasn’t an issue of lacking trust, because I trusted them completely not to have anything in their backpacks they shouldn’t, and they could certainly trust me to take appropriate action if they did.

Helped with Homework.  Our dining room table served as homework central.  While they did homework, I engaged in activities that kept me accessible.  Whether it was acting as a resource, quality inspector, editor, or source of calming support, I was available.  Accepting responsibility for their homework did not mean they had to complete it in isolation or devoid of assistance.    

Invited Curiosity.  Children are born scientists.  Their desire to know why, how, and what is limited only by the patience and support of the adults in their lives.  Giving the boys names for the things they observed was a starting point for further exploration. General information progressed to more specific, complex explanations.  Over time they developed an appreciation for both the tremendous diversity and commonality that characterizes our world. Learning about the world enhanced their ability to understand themselves and their place in it.  

Cultivated Creativity.  Children are born artists.  Their desire to create is limited only by the patience and support of the adults in their lives.  Providing access to the tools artists use combined with exposing them to the work of masters in visual art, literature, theatre, dance, and music allowed the boys to discover their own talent.  Taking classes and lessons in those areas where they exhibited the most interest and demonstrated the greatest aptitude led to some extraordinary experiences for all of us. Through the arts they discovered that life is both distinctly individual and utterly universal.         

Implemented Organization.  Creativity does not preclude organization.  Neither does gender. As far as I know an organizational chromosome has not been isolated.  Self discipline and personal organization are beneficial life skills for anyone regardless of age, gender, or circumstances.  Establishing organization was a tremendous time and energy saver. Since the boys knew where things belonged and learned at an early age  to put things away when they were no longer using them, time was rarely wasted searching for things and cleaning their rooms was quick and easy.  When they were little, making lists provided practice spelling and writing. As they grew older, lists gave them a sense of control over what otherwise seemed like an elusive tangle of tasks swirling around in their heads.  They relished the feeling of accomplishment that came with checking off items as they were completed.

Promoted Interests.  When the boys demonstrated a genuine interest in a subject or activity we provided supporting books, materials, and experiences.  While some interests were short lived, others grew into passions and eventually career paths. They have discovered that when you do what you love and love what you’re doing, it doesn’t seem like work.  And actually, if you find something to love about whatever you are doing, it seems less like work.

Encouraged Fitness.  Adopting a lifestyle that included a balanced diet, daily physical activity, good personal hygiene, and adequate rest, made it possible for all of us to keep up with the boys’ hectic schedules.  Establishing these patterns early on made healthy choices routine.

Nurtured Relationships.  Our older son was born during our last year of graduate school.  When we finished, we sought employment close to extended family. We arranged our work schedules so that he was always with one of us or a trusted family member.  The same was true for our younger son. Knowing they were with someone who loved them allowed complete peace of mind when we were unable to be with them. We diligently populated their world with people who had a genuine interest in their well being, whether family friends or relatives.  Including people of varying ages, races, cultures, and backgrounds made diversity the norm and established an early appreciation for how much we are all alike in spite of our differences. We figured the more people who loved them, who they could love in return, the better.

Stayed Connected.  When the boys started school, I would include a note in their lunch each day.  Before they could read, I used pictures to send simple messages. Over the years, the notes were designed to be commensurate with their reading and comprehension level.  When they were beginning to appreciate humor, I would find age-appropriate jokes to include. This simple practice served to remind them that even when we weren’t together, I was thinking about them.  Being the recipient of their regular emails, texts, and phone calls makes all those early-morning efforts worthwhile.

Parenting is neither consistently simple, nor easy.  From the moment of discovering we are about to become parents, our mandate is to nurture and cherish, shelter and protect, teach and guide, encourage and support in a lifelong succession of letting go.  Parenting is one of the few jobs where the better you are at it, the less necessary you become. What I am discovering, to my delight, is that becoming unnecessary does not mean becoming unwanted.         

 

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Love Letter to an Island

grass beside the sea
Photo by Melanie Wupperman on Pexels.com

As a doctoral student at The University of Georgia in the Marriage and Family Therapy program, it was highly recommended that I become a member of the Georgia Association for Marriage and Family Therapy and attend their state conference.  The conference was held at The King and Prince on St. Simons Island, neither of which I had ever heard of before. Ever the dutiful student, I registered for the conference and made reservations to stay at Epworth By the Sea, another completely unfamiliar location.  

It was early spring, 1987, when my husband and I, along with a dear friend and fellow graduate student, first laid eyes on what are so aptly described as The Golden Isles.  At that time, the entrance to St. Simons included a toll road and a drawbridge. The anticipation was almost unbearable. For the first time in my life, I experienced the feeling of coming home to a place I had never been before.  

For the 31 years since, we have sojourned to St. Simons on a nearly annual basis.  The years we were unable to visit always felt incomplete. The elder of our two sons made his first trip at the age of five weeks – the younger was fourteen months. From time to time we toyed with the idea of vacationing elsewhere, and occasionally professional obligations demanded we travel to other shores, but inevitably the thought of not seeing our beloved island diminished the desire to go anywhere else.  

If anyone were to ask me, “What is it about St. Simons that keeps you going back?  Is it the great places to eat, the variety of accommodations available, the flora and fauna, the beaches, the wide range of activities, or the history?”  My response would be, “Yes, all of those reasons and more.”

St. Simons is more than a vacation destination.  It is a lifestyle. From the moment our car tires roll onto Kings Way, a calm washes over us.  Our burdens are carried away by a receding tide and left behind at the other end of the Torras Causeway.  Our breathing slows. The rhythm of the island seeps into our bodies. Our minds open to the natural beauty surrounding us.  On St. Simons, anything seems possible.

One of St. Simon’s most attractive features, to us, is that it is a residential island.  It is a place where real people live. There is a palpable sense of community. For one week out of the year, we have the good fortune to experience life on their island.  We get to walk their beaches; bike their paths; explore their history; watch nature unfold along their shores, in their marshes, and maritime forests; eat their delectable cuisine; shop in their uniquely diverse stores; and enjoy the work of their gifted practitioners of all art forms.  

In exchange for the marvelous hospitality, generosity, and patience demonstrated by the actual residents of St.Simons, we endeavor to abide by, not only the official rules and regulations governing the island, but also the rules of common courtesy and decency we would expect from anyone visiting our home.  Committed to assisting in the preservation of this island treasure for future generations:

  1. We dispose of trash properly, separating it into the designated garbage and recycling receptacles.
  2. We make sure to retrieve everything we take to the beach, since the ocean is not a giant garbage can, leaving behind only footprints in the sand.
  3. We collect only shells that are no longer inhabited and return living creatures to their natural environment after observing them.  
  4. We…well, if we had a dog, we would only walk it, leashed,on the beach, before 9am and after 6pm, because we would not assume that everyone wants our wet dog running up to them.  And we would clean up after it because we are certain no one appreciates stepping in dog waste while barefooted or in flip flops.
  5. We observe the posted speed limits.  After all, we are on island time. Since the roadways are shared by vehicles, bicycles, and pedestrians, we are especially cautious not to drive as though we are on the interstate or a racetrack.

Change is inevitable.  Over the thirty plus years we have been visiting St. Simons, we have witnessed considerable change.  Some welcomed, like the dissolution of the toll road. Some natural, like the shoreline. But some troubling, like the increased amount of trash and personal items we see left on the beach; the increased presence of pets on the beach throughout the day; and the increased number of recklessly driven vehicles.  The lack of consideration for the inhabitants, both human and non-human, whose home St. Simons is year-round, is frankly, disturbing. The prevalence of a theme park mentality seems antithetical to the natural picturesque serenity that St. Simons embodies.

Whether we get to call St. Simons home for a week or two, a month, or longer, our unwritten covenant with the natives is to leave it as we found it, or better.  Practicing proper island etiquette seems a small price to pay for the privilege of spending time in this extraordinary place. A place that has motivated our younger son to become a marine biologist.  A place that rejuvenates us and inspires us to do more of what makes us better versions of ourselves. A place with the power to transform the burdens awaiting us on the mainland into more bearable loads.  

Straining to catch a final glimpse of our treasured island getaway, we turn right at the end of the causeway.  Recharged and ready to resume our off-island lives with lighter hearts and clearer minds, we bid farewell. The memories we harbor, like the sand in our shoes, will lure us back to St. Simons again and again.