Surviving my son’s first year in college

My oldest son is coming home tomorrow. It’s hard to believe he’s finished his first year in college. When he left last August to enroll in school on the opposite side of the country I really didn’t know what to expect. How would I cope without my first-born? What would family life look like with only one child at home? How would he do? I’ve learned a lot in this past year. Mostly, I’ve realized my past 18 years of parenting has taught me a valuable lesson: take everything a day at a time and be ready for lots of adjustments.

The first weeks after Miguel left, what I most missed was his companionship. He’s the type of kid who would actually ask me, when he came home, “How was your day Mom?” He really meant it and would listen attentively. At meal time, we would occasionally cook together, using recipes he found on the internet. Over the years, he found many great recipes that became staples on our table. We also watched a lot of cooking shows, our favorites being “Diners, Dives and Drive-ins” and “Chopped.”

Of course, living with a teenager isn’t complete bliss and there were a few things I didn’t miss much about his being gone. I didn’t miss his staying out late and worrying about where he was or why he hadn’t texted us. I didn’t miss his laundry or piles of stuff. And I didn’t miss some of the difficult decisions, like whether to allow him to have a party at the house.

The first couple of months I fretted about how best to communicate. How often should I text or call? So many things reminded me of him. A song he used in one of his videos came on the radio and I thought about him. I found a great new Chinese chicken salad recipe by Bobbie Flay and I wanted to tell him. I read that James Patterson, an author he had read, was canceling his book about Stephen King, and I thought he might be interested. I realized though, that I needed to give Miguel his space and let him settle into his new life. Fortunately, It didn’t take us long to fall into a nice routine. Sometime in October, he began to call me a couple of times a week when he was walking back from his girlfriend’s dorm. I was happy with the arrangement and the best part was that it was his idea.

There were some difficult milestones the first few months—my birthday, his brother’s birthday. He had never missed our birthdays before. The saving grace was that we had an exchange student living with us during that time and having an enthusiastic, eager guest made those celebrations manageable. I could forget that Miguel was missing—but just temporarily. As soon as I arrived home from those dinners I looked in at Miguel’s room and his perfectly made bed and realized he was really gone. I felt a sadness remembering the late night banter we used to have and his insistence that I tuck him in even as he towered over me.

The good thing about parenting is that change usually happens gradually. Miguel had begun claiming his independence his last two years of high school, spending more and more time out of the house with friends. During his senior year we got a taste of college life as he often ate dinner with his friends’ families and took off on the weekend for day-long hikes. I probably mourned more for his absence that year than this year, truth be told. Then I had the expectation he might be around the house more, but this year I knew he wouldn’t be coming home.

Miguel adjusted well to college life. I’d like to think this was a result of good parenting. But I think this was only part of his success. It certainly helped that he had always felt supported, loved and encouraged—and occasionally disciplined—at home. But being naturally outgoing was probably a key factor. He made a lot of friends and tried new activities, like writing for the school paper. Certainly, he had his share of luck. He was paired with easygoing, likable roommates. He was blessed with good health all year and a caring girlfriend. All this made his absence easier.

It’s funny how as parents, our targets change rapidly. Last year, we were so focused on sending off our son. It seemed so final. Would this be the end of our parenting years? The answer is a decisive no. Now that this milestone is behind us, I realize parenting never ends. Miguel will be home for the summer. He’ll want our help as he looks for his own apartment next fall. Next year will bring a whole new set of challenges as he gets deeper into his major, starts thinking about internships, and copes with the fact his girlfriend may be studying abroad.

I don’t think I’ll ever truly adjust to Miguel’s absence. My own mother says she still misses my brother and I. The silver lining is that I get to see him grow, develop new interests and navigate the world. In college he’s developed a taste for NPR podcasts and books and that’s opened up new conversations between us. He has a passion for his classes and it’s exciting to hear him talk about them.

At his core, Miguel hasn’t changed. This was what I was most worried about—that somehow his essence would change. This summer, what I’m most looking forward to is hearing that simple, caring question: “How was your day Mom?”

First steps on the path to spiritual direction

“Spiritual director? What’s that?”

I hear that question a lot when I tell friends that I have started a program to train to be a spiritual director. Most people have never heard of spiritual direction, even though it’s been around for hundreds of years. It’s understandable. Spiritual direction was a practice confined to Catholic monks and nuns for most of its history. Only in the last few decades or so has the practice been adopted by lay people and Protestants.

I was fortunate to learn about spiritual direction almost 20 years ago from my Protestant pastor. At the time she was leading a group of us at church in doing the Ignatian exercises, a 30-week period of intense study of Jesus’ life and Saint Ignatius’ writings. Over the course of the 30 weeks we met regularly one-on-one with Pastor Helen or her husband Pastor Max. The one-on-one meetings were a revelation to me. Never before had I participated in a conversation solely focused on how God was working in my life. I had been in lots of Bible studies and prayer meetings but nothing like this. To talk with someone uninterrupted for one hour about spiritual matters changed me and my whole outlook. I began to see things, even ordinary things, through spiritual lens.

Once our Ignatian group ended, so did my meetings with Helen. I could have continued I suppose, but with a baby to take care of, I didn’t think I had the time. Many years passed and I longed for the type of spiritual conversations I’d had with Helen. In the meantime Helen moved to Chicago. Then, about three years ago, as I was surfing the Internet, I came across the web page for Mercy Center, a Catholic retreat center in Burlingame. Through a program there I started meeting with a director again, and then one thing lead to another. My director moved to Seattle, I started meeting with Helen again (over Skype), and last summer I decided to apply to a program where I could study to be a spiritual director. I recently completed my first two months of training at the Journey Center in Santa Rosa.

Actually, I should say I am exploring becoming a director. The idea of directing anyone in spiritual matters is daunting. I don’t feel like a spiritual giant or mentor. I am not particularly rigorous about my faith nor do I feel like I pray enough, read the Bible enough or practice charity enough (unless you consider lavishing attention on my pets charity). I like to think I’m a good listener, however, and this is a key component of spiritual direction. Mostly the director offers a sacred space and listens deeply to the directee, It’s a type of listening we don’t often encounter in everyday life.

Here’s how my last session with my director started:

First, my director lit a candle and prayed that the Holy Spirit would be present in our conversation.

Director: What would you like to talk about today?

Me: There are so many things, I’m not sure.

Director: Well, how is your writing going?

Me: Oh, I feel like I’ve hit some roadblocks.

Director: Tell me about these roadblocks.

Me: Well, I wanted to write an article about grandparents so I decided to call some people–my aunts and uncles and brother-in-law–to interview them. But I kept putting it off. I think I feel shy about calling myself a writer and enlisting others to take part in that.

Director: So, how could you move past these roadblocks?

Me: I don’t know.

Silence.

Me: Well, encouragement from other people helps. I could talk to other writers I know.

Director: You could do that. But tell me more about the roadblocks. Can you go around them or over them?

Me: I was thinking over.

Silence.

Me: Actually, this reminds me of a roadblock I encountered before I started the spiritual direction program. I was talking with a friend of my father’s, a man who works in a seminary and has been in Christian circles his whole life and he didn’t know what spiritual direction was. I was so surprised. I realized then that if I pursued this direction thing I would have to explain it a lot. But in a strange way that made me more zealous about doing this. I really want people to understand it, maybe even try it.

Director: I hear that word zeal. Is that something you need in your writing too?

Me: Yes, I think I need to feel like my writing is important, that I have something worthwhile to say. I need to be zealous about it.

It’s notable that neither my director nor I mentioned God directly in that conversation. Instead, before beginning we asked God to be present, to direct the conversation. In fact, these conversations don’t happen in an isolated way, as no conversation does. The word “roadblock” was on my mind because another friend had used that word a few days earlier describing her own struggles. And “zealous”—that may have been lurking in my mind because my Bible reading that morning was about the apostle Stephen, one of the more zealous apostles. Perhaps spiritual direction is a place where all our percolating thoughts get mixed together and graced by God’s spirit to help us move forward, sort of like a purposeful dream.

While I don’t know for sure if I’ll become a spiritual director, the program has so far borne fruits, even in the first two months. For example, we learned about praying the “examen,” a prayer that helps you look back over each day and consider God’s movement in your life. While the examen wasn’t new to me, I learned two new aspects: one, identifying something you are proud of during the last day, and two, naming something you need God’s help with the following day. I’ve added those two components and it’s been good. Some days I initially feel like there’s not much to be proud of, but after a few minutes, God always brings something to mind, even if it’s something small. Praying about the next day has helped me take initiative in some areas I would have ignored. Some are spiritual; some are mundane. Two nights ago during prayer I realized I was really missing practicing Spanish. I prayed that the next day I would have the discipline to listen to a Spanish podcast I’d recently discovered. I made a point to do that the next day and ended up listening to two podcasts!

Another fruit of the program has been reading thoughtful books about prayer and the practice of listening. In one book I discovered a wonderful prayer written by Hafiz, a fourteenth-century Sufi mystic and poet:

In the morning
When I began to wake,
It happened again—
That feeling
That You, Beloved,
Had stood over me all night
Keeping watch,
That feeling
That as soon as I began to stir
You put Your lips on my forehead
And lit a Holy Lamp
Inside my heart.

Is the God of the universe watching over us even as we sleep? Most days I wholeheartedly believe this. But there is infinite mystery in this and I’m a long way from understanding it. If I listen closely, though, to my life and to others’, I begin to see the outline of God’s movements. Seeing this more clearly is my hope in becoming a spiritual director.

Drawn to depend on God through Lent

“A bad day for the ego is a good day for the soul” — a pilgrim walking the Camino de Santiago in Spain (in the movie “Walking the Camino”).

Last week marked the halfway point for Lent, the Christian season that prepares believers for the celebration of Easter. When I was growing up, my evangelical church didn’t celebrate Lent. Perhaps it was seen as too Catholic. It was only when I came to my current church that I began to learn about Lent. We begin each Lent with a beautiful candlelit Ash Wednesday service, where we receive ashes and are reminded “from dust you came, to dust you shall return.” Then, for forty days the large gold cross on our altar is draped in black. We remember Christ’s sojourn in the desert for forty days, when he fasted and was tempted by Satan. Some in our congregation give up chocolate or alcohol. This year our pastor encouraged us to skip one meal a week and give the money we would have spent on that food to the poor.

I confess that I rarely give up anything for Lent and though I liked my pastor’s suggestion, I didn’t follow through. I suppose part of the reason is that I know I am bad about things like following New Year’s resolutions so I also doubt my ability to follow through on commitments for Lent. Maybe I don’t want to fail. Or maybe I’m just lazy or pretty attached to eating every meal and having my chocolate and wine. I think, eventually, I’ll understand what is means to fast and someday experience how that turns my attention more to God.

Fortunately though, God works with us where we are, fasting or not. A few weeks ago I took a walk to my local library. It was a beautiful spring day and I stopped to admire the daffodils blooming outside the entrance. I went in, returned a book and upon exiting, noticed a young homeless woman seated on a bench talking to a man. Instantly, I recognized this woman. I had seen her before. She was a regular client at the homeless meal where I used to volunteer regularly. She had always stood out to me, being much younger than most of the other clients, and she seemed clear-headed and sharp, though somehow homeless, always carrying many bags and a large backpack. In that brief moment when I saw her outside the library, I froze. I didn’t smile, didn’t say hello. She looked right at me. Was there a slight hint of recognition in her eyes? Was she waiting for me to say hello? After a moment she returned to her companion and kept talking. I stared ahead and walked away. I felt ashamed. I could have at least smiled. What kept me from making contact? Was it fear I would be pulled into an awkward conversation? Was it fear I would be asked to give something? I felt an emptiness. It was a difficult moment, a humbling moment, but it drew me to God and his grace. Lent was breaking through.

A week or so later I had a similar moment. I was scheduled to meet two new friends to carpool to a spirituality program we were participating in an hour away. These women had graciously offered to let me join their regular carpool. Stepping into the car with them, I felt a little nervous. The program we are in lasts two years and meets every other week so I would get to know these women pretty well. Who were they and what would we talk about on our long rides? These women were older than me and had more life experience. Would they sense my lack of experience in some of the things we were learning about it? As it turned out, the drive passed pleasantly enough, as we made small talk about our children, work and travel plans. It was only after arriving that I suddenly remembered that one of the women had just lost her father—and I hadn’t said a thing about it. In fact, she had left our last meeting in a big rush because she received news that her father was dying. Perhaps my memory lapse was a simple oversight. But I realized I had been so focused on small talk and giving the appearance I was a pleasant traveling partner that I forgot the bigger picture. I take pride in being a caring person but I felt very uncaring in that moment. God, I said, help me learn to do better next time, but in the meantime, I see I’m fully human and capable of mistakes.

Perhaps the biggest lesson of Lent is to highlight our dependence on God. We depend on God not only for our daily necessities like food and water but our capacity to work, play and especially to love. I realize that many days I take this all for granted. I depend too much on myself and think about God as an afterthought.

In our modern world, nobody wants to be dependent or humbled. Self-sufficiency and independence are valued. But God’s kingdom has different values. Christians look to God for their needs. Our Ash Wednesday service beautifully highlights this when we recite the ancient prayer of St. Ephrem. It’s a prayer of three stanzas and in between each one we either kneel or lay prostrate on the sanctuary floor. It’s powerful to see the whole congregation in a posture of humility and respect for God, praying words that were written more than a thousand years ago.

Yesterday I went back to the library to return a book and I was hoping the homeless woman would be on the bench again. This time I would smile and say hello. I would depend on God for whatever came next. Alas, she wasn’t there but I knew my awareness of God’s world had increased just a tiny bit. And I knew God would give me another chance to show love to someone. Indeed, I did have a chance to ride in the carpool with the two women again. This time I asked the one who had lost her dad how the funeral had gone. She said it was a wonderful but somber service. Since it was Lent the church didn’t allow flowers in the sanctuary. All the flowers people had given had to be displayed in the church foyer. I pictured a mass of colorful bouquets and arrangements crowded into an entrance hall, like a crowd waiting for a concert to begin.

Soon, Easter will be here. We will again decorate the sanctuary with flowers and remove the black cloth from the cross–but not before we finish the lessons and winding journey of Lent.

Prayer of St. Ephrem

O Lord and Master of my life, keep from me the spirit of indifference and discouragement, lust of power and idle chatter.

[kneel, prostration]

Instead, grant to me, Your servant, the spirit of wholeness of being, humble-mindedness, patience, and love.

[kneel, prostration]

O Lord and King, grant me the grace to be aware of my sins and not to judge my brother; for You are blessed now and ever and forever. Amen.

[kneel, prostration]

Strolling around my neighborhood, through the years

There’s a four-block stretch of road in my neighborhood that I’ve traveled on hundreds of times in the last 20 years. It connects my house with my church and, next to the church, the preschool the kids attended. I’ve walked or driven this road to and from church nearly every Sunday and, when the kids were in preschool, daily. Until recently, I thought I knew this road, its houses and its inhabitants, fairly well—or well enough. That changed, but more on that later.

There is something soothing about this stretch of road. It’s actually a zigzag of three different streets—Fresno, Sonoma and Colusa—and it cuts through the heart of our North Berkeley neighborhood, filled with charming bungalow houses from the 1910s, ‘20s and ‘30s. Each house is unique and long ago I picked my favorites. There’s the handsome wood-shingled bungalow with perfect symmetry–two big picture windows framing a lovely entranceway. There’s the formal-looking two-story stucco house with a beautiful stained glass window on the side. Then there are various gardens I admire with their carefully chosen native plants and flowers.

I flashback 19 years ago and I am pushing a brand-new little baby in a brand-new navy blue stroller up the street. It’s December and we are both bundled up. He’s all zipped up in a flannel onesie, white with blue polka dots. And of course, he has on a hat. I was always worried he would catch a cold. It’s almost Christmas and the neighborhood is especially lovely with all the sparkling holiday lights. Every Christmas since then when the lights go up in the neighborhood I think of the magical feeling of showing my new baby the world.

I flashback 15 years ago and I am chasing my toddler down the street as he rides his big wheel. Meanwhile I’ve got my new baby strapped to my back and I’m gripping my dog’s leash as he darts around. An older neighbor passes by and says, “good luck,” while another slightly younger and sweeter neighbor tries to engage my four-year-old in a conversation. “How old are you now?” “You are getting so big!” I welcome her cheerful interaction.

For the most part, my neighbors are friendly but keep to themselves. A few, those who I know from church, are good friends. Others I am content to simply say hello as they are tending their gardens or walking their dogs. Still others in my small radius I’ve perhaps never seen and wouldn’t even recognize on the street.

Fast forward to last spring and my teenage son begins dating a girl from his high school who happens to live right next to my little four-block stretch of road. She’s not exactly the girl next door, but close. Her family falls into the category of people I wouldn’t recognize. But it turns out they’ve been there for years. They live in a Mediterranean-looking white bungalow with a wide front porch. The view out their front window looks down on Colusa, the street I’ve traveled up and down so many times. The first time I was in their living room, looking out at that view, it felt strange to be on the other side of things. At the same time, I felt an instant bond with these people I was just getting to know. Their view of the world in our little corner of Berkeley has been similar to mine all these years.

Now eight months into their relationship, my son and his girlfriend’s romance is blossoming thanks in part to the very unplanned and unexpected way life unfolds. Both Miguel and Olivia chose to go to schools in New York City. They had already decided that when they met last spring, so what might have just been a summer fling limited to Berkeley continues in New York. They see each other practically everyday and over the past months at school have forged a new life in a new place. I often wonder how strange it must feel to them to walk crowded city streets all day and hear traffic all night outside their dorm rooms. The city is exciting and non-stop in a way Berkeley, especially our little neighborhood, is decidedly not. They enjoy it but also like to escape from time to time. Like seasoned New Yorkers, they’ve already made several weekend trips outside the city. This weekend they are in Amherst, Massachusetts.

As for me, I’m happy to visit New York once in a while; it’s thrilling to walk those lively streets. I can’t think of a better place to be as a young person. But at this time in my life, I’d rather live in Berkeley. And this time of year is especially sweet. The plum trees along Colusa are beginning to pop with pink buds, daffodils will soon make an appearance in various yards and the ferns in front of my house are a healthy deep green from all the rain. Between rainstorms, I like to get out and walk around the neighborhood. These days it’s just me, no kids or dog—I take him to the dog park instead—and often I’ve got my headphones tuned into music or an audiobook. Late afternoon is my favorite time to walk. I take in the aroma of coffee roasting down the street at Roma’s. I catch the red hues of the sun setting in the west, on the bay. I see the moon rising over the hills to the east. Occasionally I can hear the sound of the campanile chiming far off in the distance.

Love of place runs deep. I sometimes wonder if Miguel will return to Berkeley someday or whether his younger brother, not yet launched, will settle here after college. What memories will they carry forward of this tranquil neighborhood? Will they remember those frequent walks around the block we once took? Will they look forward to coming home? And what new discoveries might we all make in the meantime? This answer lies just around the corner…

Of roscas, kings and friends

rosca-de-reyes

“Welcome. Bienvenida. Come in and have some rosca,” said my friend Stephanie.

I stepped into Stephanie’s tidy El Cerrito house and followed her into her kitchen, where we could sit at her table and enjoy a view of the bay.

“What’s a rosca?” I asked.

Stephanie grew up in Colombia. She explained that a rosca is the traditional oval-shaped pastry that Latin Americans eat on Three Kings’ Day. It is supposed to symbolize a crown, like those worn by the kings who visited Jesus twelve days after his birth. Candied fruits represent the jewels.

I bit into the sugary rosca. “Muy rica!” I said.

In Mexico, and much of the rest of the Hispanic world, Three Kings’ Day, January 6, also known as Epiphany, is the day when children open presents, not Christmas day. This makes perfect sense. This is the day when Jesus received presents from the kings.

I had gotten to know Stephanie because her daughter was classmates with my son at his Catholic elementary school. Her daughter came to the school in fourth grade, the year I was a room parent. I helped organize a back-to-school reception and met Stephanie and her husband Hugo at the event. I was immediately drawn to Stephanie and enjoyed practicing a little Spanish with her. We went for a few walks and had coffee together. As it turned out, Stephanie was very intentional in her Catholic faith, unlike many of the parents at the school, and she observed Saint’s Days and other holidays. I remember once that we talked about the new Cathedral of Light in Oakland and she was so excited. We decided to go together for a tour, but somehow never did.

A couple of years after meeting Stephanie, and sometime after our rosca together, she started having pain in her leg. Stephanie went to the doctor and learned she had a hole in her knee. She had cancer, non-Hogdkins Lymphona in the bone. She immediately started chemo and her mother came from Mexico for several months to help. My son’s class parents organized us to deliver meals. I visited Stephanie a few times during her treatment and she was amazingly positive and always smiling. Instead of complaining about how she couldn’t walk or had lost her hair, she would ask me if I liked her newest hat or she’d want to know how I was doing. And she was so touched by the outpouring of support. I can’t remember how long Stephanie’s recovery lasted, but at the end of it her bone had healed and she was cancer-free.

**

Just like Mexico, Spain celebrates Three Kings’ Day with presents and roscas. The year we lived in Spain we happened to be visiting Gibraltar on Three Kings’ Day. Gibraltar is one of the strangest places I’ve ever been. It’s a strip of rocky land off the coast of Spain owned by the British. The one small town on the rock looks like an English village with narrow streets, traditional architecture and pubs serving fish and chips. Besides eating at a pub tourists are told they must take a tour of the caves. A driver takes you up to the caves, where you can see beautiful stalagmites and stalactites. Next, you can tour long tunnels dug into the mountain, which were once used for ammunition. If that isn’t enough, you can also see many wild monkeys who roam the rock. They aren’t shy. Several crawled on top of our vehicle or blocked our path, hoping for a free snack.

After our obligatory tour of the rock, we lingered in the town plaza and were amazed to find a large parade forming. The locals were celebrating Three Kings’ Day with floats of dancers, musicians, kings and camels. I felt like I was at the Rose Parade. Apparently, these Three Kings’ parades are common all over Spain. The participants even throw candy out to all the children.

To this day, I still receive messages from my Spanish friends on January 6th saying “Feliz Dia de Los Reyes” (Happy Kings’ Day) and they make me smile. We could always use more excuses to celebrate. I think this is something Catholics do especially well. I learned this year that, in fact, Kings’ Day doesn’t have to end on January 6th. Roscas are traditionally eaten all the way to Mardi Gras, the start of Lent. They are indeed a variation of the colorful purple, green and yellow King Cakes that are popular in New Orleans. One article I read said that some groups of people have a King party ever week until Mardi Gras. That’s one long party! In some traditions, a plastic baby (symbolizing Jesus) is hidden inside the cake. The person who finds the baby is in charge of either buying the next cake or specifically of hosting a party on February 2nd to celebrate the day Jesus was presented in the temple. Ironically, we hosted a Mardi Gras party on a whim a few years ago, complete with a King Cake, but I didn’t understand the traditions.

Usually I feel a bit of a letdown after Christmas and New Year’s. The excitement of the holidays has passed and there is not a lot to break up the cold, dark days of winter. This year, though, I may look at things differently. Perhaps I’ll have a Kings’ party or two and really celebrate Mardi Gras with zest. I may even get in touch with Stephanie and make a date to tour the Cathedral of Light. It’s a good time of year to celebrate life.

What I want for Christmas

img_1951

When I was a child, the month of December seemed to pass so slowly. I would count the days until Christmas and it seemed to take forever. I couldn’t wait until Christmas morning when my brother and I would get up early, rush to the Christmas tree and tear open the presents. What special gifts would be waiting there? In the picture above I am wearing overalls I got for Christmas when I was 10. I really wanted those overalls. I was serious about the overalls. I wore them every day for two weeks straight, right into January. It’s like that with kids and their favorite gifts.

These days the Christmas season rushes by. Thanksgiving is over and suddenly it’s Christmas season. Time to buy a tree. Time to decorate the house. Time to buy gifts. As an adult, there doesn’t seem to be time to fit in all the errands, shopping and preparations. In the background linger all the voices that tell you what you should be doing. Maybe this is the year you should write your Christmas letter early (if at all) or this is the year you should put up those Christmas lights languishing in the basement. So many shoulds can take the joy right out of the holiday. It’s a challenge to quiet the shoulds and live in the present moment.

That Christmas when I was 10 I had my first “boyfriend.” He was a cute strawberry blonde with freckles. A few weeks before Christmas break he gave my best friend a little folded up piece of paper for me. It said, “Will you go steady? Mike” Only a few of the cool kids were going steady so I was flattered. I wrote “yes” below the question and sent it back to him. I hardly knew him and we didn’t talk after our note exchange. Then Christmas break came and I forgot about him until one day he arrived at my door with a gift. I was so embarrassed when my mother told me there was a boy to see me that I refused to come to the door. He left the gift with my mother. I later opened the gift and it was a set of Snoopy stationery. I loved it and kept it for many years, unused in a drawer. After Christmas break I returned to school and saw Mike again. I don’t remember whether I thanked him for the gift, but I must have, considering I was always taught to thank people. One day a few weeks later it was rainy and we had to stay inside for lunch. The kids were restless. Pretty soon some of the kids decided to play truth or dare. To my horror, they dared Mike to kiss me. Not only did I not want to kiss Mike, I hated being the center of attention. Instinctively I ran under a table and hid. Everyone laughed. That was the end of our going steady.

With the small boyfriend drama behind me I could turn to my interests at the time, which included dressing up my miniature Schnauzer in old baby clothes and playing superballs with my friend Kim. I still have the album of photos I made of my dog in various outfits. I don’t have the shoebox of brightly colored superballs, but I trust some other kid somewhere is having fun with those. Kids generally have such simple interests and I take that as a lesson today. Yes, I do have adult responsibilities, but I can still savor simple things. In fact, in light of my responsibilities and the shoulds, I need to savor simple things. Simple things today can mean adding a little egg nog to my morning coffee or writing a little extra in my journal. At the top of my Christmas list is a “frother,” so I can froth milk to make foam for my coffee. Next is a new leather moleskin journal and some nice pencils. Simple pleasures to enjoy the moment.

Of course, what I really want for Christmas these days will not come as a present under the tree. It’s what most of us want—a happy family, good health, fulfilling projects—and perhaps a dash of adventure. One of my most memorable recent Christmases contained almost all of that in a comical way. All four of us, my husband and two sons, had driven out to Salt Lake City, Utah a few days after Christmas to celebrate the holidays with my brother and his family. We had a great time sitting around talking, watching movies and sledding on a nearby hill. The snow-covered Utah mountains were beautiful and a nice change of scenery from the Bay Area. For reasons I don’t remember, we left on New Year’s Eve to make the l2-hour drive back to Berkeley. We passed through the frozen Salt Flats and then crossed the desolate Utah/Nevada border where you can drive 50 to 100 miles without seeing a town. Just after speeding by Winnemucca, Nevada, the halfway point of our trip, our car began to making sputtering noises and losing power. Panicked, we pulled off to the side of the road and called AAA. Fortunately we were just miles outside of Winnemucca and a driver came fairly quickly. We were towed back to town and found out that our car’s timing belt had broken. The bad news was that, since this was a holiday, they wouldn’t be able to get the part for our car until January 2. We were effectively stuck in Winnemucca for three days! A little dejected, we checked into the Winnemucca Hotel, which boasted its own small casino and restaurant. We drove our loaner car around the town (which took about 2 minutes) and cheered a little when we saw there was actually a movie theater (playing the Muppet Movie) and a Basque restaurant. Maybe this wouldn’t be so bad after all. As it turned out, we spent a very happy couple of days in Winnemucca. Besides our outing to the movie theater and Basque restaurant, we sat in our little hotel room watching bad TV shows, writing thank you notes on Winnemucca postcards and reading and rereading “Of Mice and Men,” which my son had in his backpack. It seemed that time had stopped.

I don’t know exactly what Christmas will bring this year but as long as I have loved ones near I expect it will be good. I just hope time will slow down enough to enjoy all the right moments.

PostScript: Last summer we stayed at the Winnemucca Hotel for a night on our way to a family reunion in Colorado. We reminisced about being stuck there a few years back. There was no time for a movie or a Basque meal but I have a feeling we’ll be back again.

Missing Miguel

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There’s something about a fall evening that makes me just want to curl up on my sofa and stay inside. Partly it’s the early onset of darkness, as the sun sets quickly, even before I’ve had dinner. Partly it’s the rain, filling the sky with grey clouds and making the streets slick. Partly it’s sadness that my older son is no longer at home.

I actually had a plan tonight, to go hear an author talk about her book profiling 100 women entrepreneurs and artists. The book is filled with short interviews of accomplished, fashionable and creative women who have forged their way in the world of art, fashion, writing and business. I was looking forward to an inspirational talk. Maybe this talk would fire me up to do some of those creative projects I’ve been meaning to do. But I couldn’t muster the energy to go. I felt like it might take too much energy to hear about all these energetic women. So instead I decided to stay home, heat up some packaged Indian food from Costco, and have a glass of wine.

Fall is a busy time for most people and it certainly has been for me. I sent my oldest son, Miguel, off to college two months ago and then welcomed an exchange student from Spain for the next two months. Sending Miguel to college in New York city was difficult–so many memories, so much love. Having an exchange student for a few months distracted me from my emptiness. Now that she’s gone I am more aware of Miguel’s absence. He filled the house with energy and joy, always ready to tell me a story, ask me about my day or try a new recipe with me. There’s nothing that can replace my son’s presence. Instead, I reminisce about the special times we had and look forward to new ones ahead. In the meantime, Facetime is great. We talk several times a week and text frequently. I am confident our relationship is on steady footing. He’s gained his independence, living on the other side of the country, but we’re still intimately connected. That feels wonderful, even unexpected. I really didn’t know what to expect parenting an adult child.

The truth is, this new season of parenting has been revealing itself gradually. Like the houseplant I bought six months ago that is blooming little purple buds for the first time (and I just thought it was a plain green plant), my relationship with Miguel has grown and developed in the last few years. His first year in high school, I remembered being worried that he wasn’t getting out enough. He still preferred spending weekends with the family, watching cooking shows with me or playing golf with dad. By his last year of high school those days were long over. He was out of the house constantly with a job, sports and friends, and I spent many nights waiting up for him to come home. I’d often be a little annoyed that he was so late and my bedtime was delayed, but then all those feelings would be erased as we chatted about the day. He may have spent less time at home but our conversations were often richer. When I finally dropped him off at college this fall and we went out to an expensive dinner, I realized we were talking as two adults. He shared with me some of his dreams (lots of travel, eating at nice restaurants and marriage someday were some) and he and I observed the other diners around us just like my husband and I sometimes do when we’re out.

As for Miguel, he seems to be doing well on his own. He’s been kayaking on the Hudson River, been to a few concerts in Central Park—one with Cat Stevens, taken trips to Philadelphia and Amherst, Massachusetts, and located some excellent late night food destinations. More importantly, he gets along well with his roommates and is enjoying his studies, especially his screenwriting class. His high school girlfriend is nearby at another New York city school and she’s been a good companion through it all. He misses home a bit—his parents, his brother and his dog—and sometimes yearns for the natural beauty of California.

I now calculate life a little differently. How will I make it through Thanksgiving without Miguel? Or his birthday right after that? How long is it until winter break? Fortunately, life’s response to these questions (or God’s perhaps) is often sweet. I have another son at home who fills my life with warmth and new adventures. In December he and I will be going to Austin, Texas to visit an online friend he’s known for three years but never met. It’s the second time my younger son has cultivated a friendship with someone from Texas. Meeting his first friend turned out to be a great experience–and they’ve continued to be good friends. Hopefully this one will follow suit. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from parenting, it’s that you don’t stay in one state of mind very long. You never know what new thing may come your way. I’ve grown to like that.

Consolation, desolation and the election

burning_candles_in_the_dark_199518For the last few years I’ve followed an ancient practice of the church, the daily prayer of the examen. Conceived by St. Ignatius of Loyola in the 1500s, the prayer of the examen has enjoyed a popular resurgence in recent years as people search for new (or old) ways to connect with God. The examen involves prayerfully examining your day and looking for points of “consolation” and “desolation.” Consolation may be a point in the day when you felt most grateful while desolation may be the point in the day when you felt least grateful. Another way to look at it is when in the day you most felt God’s presence versus when in the day you least felt his presence. I’ve found it to be a helpful and encouraging tool as I bring before God both my thankfulness and neediness.

This last week since the election I’ve felt both consolation and desolation. My feelings of desolation are not surprising, and they look like classic desolation—a mixture of hopelessness and despair. I ask, how can a man who has said so many hateful, thoughtless and damaging things possibly be our next president? How could so many people look past these dangerous statements and still vote for him? Moreover, how can so many people who share my faith think so differently than me? There is no ready “fix” for desolation. I simply bring to God my heaviness of heart, my fears for the future and my grief for the present. I believe God can bear my burden (“love bears all things” Corinthians 13:8). I take comfort in the fact that Jesus himself lived in an oppressive time, contending with an all-powerful Roman government, and he understands my despair.

I don’t really want to write about desolation though. What I want to write about is consolation. Because even in times of hardship, God supplies consolation. Despite what I perceive as bad news, God finds a way to bring moments of grace and blessing. One of the blessings of this post-election season have been some of the honest, heartfelt conversation I’ve had with people. There is a genuine interest in discerning how to best shape our future. How can we get involved to stop potential injustices and support the changes we want to see? I see people online calling their representatives in congress and signing petitions. This seems to be a first step to what could be a larger movement of activism. I’ve never been a particularly political person, but I feel hopeful, maybe even energized, as I consider how I can get involved.

What will God do with all this? What I do know is that God works at a very personal level to encourage us on whatever path we are on. Recently at work a woman named Judy joined our staff. She sits next to me and about a month ago we began to eat lunch together. At first glance, I thought Judy and I had little in common. She is twenty years older and single, with no kids. With the election season at hand, however, Judy and I discovered we shared similar views and it was a great “consolation” to process the news of the day with her. Several nights, when I prayed the examen, I thanked God for the consolation of my new friend Judy and our conversations.

In a more dramatic way, God consoles through healing. One of the harder conversations I had after the election was with a family member on the other side of the fence. It would have been easy to dispatch quickly with the election results in our conversation, but I made a point to tell him how truly sad and disappointed I was. He said he was sorry about this and asked me why I was so disappointed. We proceeded to have a calm, honest conversation about the election. We ended by both saying we loved one another. We can’t heal all the divisions everywhere, but it’s a start to face the ones right in front of you.

I’d be dishonest to say that my consolations don’t sometimes get overwhelmed by my desolations. It’s easy to feel like any small efforts (like calling a congressperson) or even bigger efforts (like volunteering for an immigrants support group) won’t amount to much when compared with the juggernaut of power our president and his advisers will command. I wish I could say I had an answer to deal with this type of discouragement. Simple platitudes and Bible verses don’t always help much. I can only say that I must be a person of integrity and do whatever small or large thing is asked of me. In the meantime, I’ll keep praying the prayer of the examen nightly. In this crazy and tumultuous time I need more space for reflection and quiet than ever. And every day, I commit to seeing God’s consolation.

 

 

Finding wonder in the journey of life

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Sometimes so much happens each day it can make our head spin. Those are the days I feel most compelled to write. It helps me slow down and reflect on things. But also it helps me remember and observe.

Mostly I want to remember good things, of course, like anyone would. Take last Tuesday, for example. I had to drive to Santa Rosa, over an hour away, for a meeting. There was lots of traffic and I didn’t know where I was going. However, the meeting itself was happy, as I saw an old friend and met some new ones who are involved in an organization I admire and may join. The best part of my excursion, though, was on the way home. There was still some traffic. But there were a few stretches of beautiful countryside, with rolling brown hills, planted with grapevines. This was unexpected. It seems that vineyards in California have expanded even to Santa Rosa, miles away from the heart of the wine country in Napa and Sonoma. I loved seeing the grapevines, heavy with fall’s harvest. Every time I see grapevines I remember the years I used to drive to Sonoma to visit my brother. During those years my kids were small. I would pack them up in the car and head up to Sonoma for a day with my brother, sister-in-law and her kids. I always looked forward to seeing the landscape, changing from busy, urban Berkeley to bucolic Sonoma. I could always tell what season it was by how large the grapes were on the vines. September is the peak month. The fields are abundant with clusters of lovely red grapes.

I was close to my sister-in-law at that time in my life and her warm, friendly reception was intoxicating. I found myself relaxed in her presence—here was another mom like me, with whom I could share my ups and downs, struggles and successes. In the meantime, she would ply me with homemade goodies, special coffee and her latest finds at Trader Joe’s. One time it was yogurt-covered raisins. The next it was Chai tea. The hours passed slowly as we watched the kids play, walked to the park behind their house, and laughed at random memories. Funny, in all those times in Sonoma we never did drink wine together…but I guess we didn’t need it. Sadly, my brother and sister-in-law moved to another state a few years after those years and later they got divorced. It was the end of an era. Still, I’ll always remember those sunny Sonoma days.

***

A couple of days ago I noticed there was a full moon in the sky. It reminds me that life is always pregnant with possibilities. I didn’t know, starting out last Tuesday, that I would see vineyards in Santa Rosa and they would bring back memories of my sister-in-law. I also didn’t know I would encounter the flip side of unexpected joy—unexpected sorrow. I felt that on Tuesday too. The old friend I saw in Santa Rosa is suffering—though bravely and optimistically—because her husband has cancer. She and her husband are good people—some of the best I know. In a few years, when they retire and move back to the Bay Area, we plan to see a lot more of them. I never imagined that one of them would get cancer. I find myself now, in the midst of writing, offering a prayer for God’s healing and grace. Please God, allow my friend to live a long and healthy life.

My friend who has cancer has a great sense of humor and wit. I hope this is helping him through these days. Years ago, he used to visit us frequently while traveling to California. The first thing he would do would be to seek out my children to “eat their toes.” The children screamed in delight and horror as he stomped around the house looking for their toes. Once he impressed us greatly by doing a full body dive down our stairs in search of the toes. This, from a man who is at least 6’4”. He had (and has) the great capacity to be completely silly at one moment and then engage us in a deep discussion of politics and religion the next. He is a Christian who has great faith but also thoughtfully questions dogma and the status quo.

If I do join the organization in Santa Rosa, I’ll be making trips there twice a month. (Ironically, the organization is called The Journey Center.) I dread the traffic but I also look forward to the scenery and ruminations along the way. An hour in the car counts as a small journey. It reminds me of the quote I’ve seen many times: “life is what happens to you as you’re making other plans.” Our plans appear to take us one place, but life has a whole, wide world to show us.

Sending off my son

 

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Sometimes life changes gradually and we hardly notice as one phase passes and another takes shape. Other times life changes abruptly and we can’t help but be aware of a grand shift. I am on the verge of one of those abrupt changes this week, as my first-born leaves for college on the other side of the country. This way of being I have known for the last 18 years is about to change in a big way. I am both full of anticipation and excitement for my son and full of loss at the idea he will be far away. It is a good time but a hard time.

When I was pregnant with my son so long ago I had no idea what parenting would be like. I did not have close friends with children. I hadn’t spent much time with children. I knew that, like most other parents, I would have to learn on the job. And learning I’ve done. Much of the learning is quite mundane, but utterly necessary. I had to learn how to feed him and burp him and when to call the doctor. I had to learn how long to make a time-out and how to regulate the Halloween candy. Everything was an education, and sometimes with an audience. The day I checked out of the hospital with my newborn, I had to take off the diaper the nurse had put on him so a doctor could weigh him. I had no idea how to put the diaper back on. I was so self-conscious. I thought the doctor might not let me take him home given my ineptitude!

It seems like the early years are full of so many decisions. At first my husband and I consulted guidebooks. We turned to three or four expert guides to weigh the competing advice. One said we should let our baby cry it out for 45 minutes. The other said we shouldn’t let him cry at all. We tried both. Gradually, though, we learned to make our own decisions that were right for us and appropriate to our child’s temperament. (We did let him cry several nights and he gradually learned to fall asleep on his own. Those were some painful nights!) Just when we thought we had figured things out, we had a second son who was totally different than the first. It took him much longer to learn to fall asleep. In fact I slept at a friend’s house during one of those sleep training sessions just so I could get a good night of sleep.

One lesson I learned early on as a parent was that I could never rest on my laurels. Just when I had figured out one age and stage, another stage would develop. Two naps a day turned into one, then none. A favorite food would soon be turned down in favor of another. Even now, I realize, the reality of living with a high schooler is morphing into that of living with an adult. Currently we check in multiple times a day with our teenager to know his whereabouts and when he expects to be home at the end of the day. In a few days, we won’t be checking in with him much anymore. He’ll be on his own. If he wants to come home at 3 am, that’s his decision.

Recently I came across a photo of our family room from the time our boys were 8 or 9. It looks like a disaster, with every couch cushion, pillow and blanket in the house arranged in the center of the room to create a fort. I realized I tolerated a lot of controlled chaos. Not only were there forts, but there were Thomas the Tank Engine train configurations that spread from one room to the next, 2,000 piece Lego creations, and a pet rabbit that left behind a trail of turds and hay. Then there was all the normal paraphernalia that comes along with kids—the strollers, car seats, high chair, mini kitchen, sports gear, bunk beds, books, and retainers. You learn to live with a lot of stuff and a lot of messiness. In a small way I actually miss those messier days and the way I was able to surrender to it all, get down on the floor, and play for hours on end.

At times it seemed like my son’s childhood would stretch on forever. There were the long innings of Little League games, the daily routines of getting him ready for school and picking him up, the playdates and birthday parties. More recently there has been the anxiety of waiting up late for him to come home and the angst of watching him suffer through the breakup of a relationship. Time slows down with kids. Other “important” work gets interrupted, put on hold. Just in the middle of writing this article my son came home and suddenly my time was his. We laid on my bed and talked for an hour about his day and his plans. It took me another hour after that to get back to writing.

Alas, childhood does not last forever, but certain memories are so fully etched in my mind that just thinking about them brings me pleasure. There was the day, just a year ago, when we had a rare mother and son outing to the beach. It was a perfect day, with no wind or fog (rare for a California beach) and we walked, laid in the sun and played paddle ball. There was another day, about two years ago, when we trekked to the Central Valley for a golf tournament. We played country music all the way there and laughed at the lyrics; that night we flipped through the channels in our cabin and laughed at all the bad late-night TV shows. I can’t hear a country song or see a late-night show now without remembering that trip.

People told me to cherish the time I had with my child and I am so grateful for their advice. I have tried to be mindful and thankful every day I have parented. I will miss the big and small joys and even some of the challenges. I will miss my son’s creativity, hugs and enthusiasm for life. How many kids do you know who organize their own Mardi Gras parties or who invite people over for a Spanish dinner and costume contest complete with awards? My son is never short of ideas.

I take comfort in the fact that my son’s presence in my life has not ended. He’s changed me for the better. I’ve learned from him how to relax and enjoy life, how to make friends and how to laugh. I know I’ll keep learning from him for years to come and I look forward to our ever transforming relationship.