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?”

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.

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.

 

 

Sounds and silence

Sound.  What does your house sound like? I can tell you what mine sounds like: a dog barking as he monitors the front window. A teenager chatting with friends over Skype as he shoots down an enemy in a videogame. Another teenager watching election news on CNN.  The occasional chirp of a cockatiel. A laundry machine swishing around. A dryer buzzing.

It’s amazing how we become so accustomed to the sounds around us. What might seem like a cacaphony of chaos to someone else is normal to me, even soothing. I’ve learned to work and play, read and write, with a variety of sounds. When any of them are taken away, it becomes unsettling.

Many years ago my beloved dog Susie died. I missed her companionship a lot but what I most noticed was how quiet the house was. There was no clicking of nails across the hardwood floor as she ran around. There was no barking when the mailman approached or someone rang the doorbell. The whole atmosphere of the house changed without her sounds. Several years later we got a new dog and it was interesting how quickly the house became full of dog sounds again. I welcomed it.

When I moved to Madrid for a year in 2011 I experienced big changes in my “soundscape” as well. Transitioning from suburban Northern California to urban Madrid meant I heard more horns honking but less birds chirping. Our apartment came with its own collection of beeps and buzzes. We quickly learned to tell the sound of the dishwasher cycle ending apart from the washing machine ending. The apartment walls weren’t thick. We could hear animated arguments in Spanish from our neighbors next door who had teenage children. (We once even heard plates smashing.) On the other side, we would hear an elderly couple’s cuckoo clock regularly sound. In the quiet of the night I would hear the elevator going up and down and wonder who in the building was out so late. On Sundays we could hear the shouts of the Ecuadorians and Columbians playing soccer on the sand lot down the street. I would say it took me a good month to get used to all those new sounds.

Some sounds are so engrained that they even show up in our dreams, years after we have encountered them. When I was growing up, I could often hear the fog horns on the San Francisco Bay at night. I don’t know why I noticed the fog horns more at night. Maybe there was more fog then? Maybe the horns stood out in the quiet of the night? In any case, one night in college, when I was living thousands of miles away from any fog horns, I stayed up late studying and fell into a half sleep. Suddenly I woke up, convenced I had heard a fog horn. Was it a dream or was there maybe a truck outside that reminded me of the sound? I’ll never know for sure but I was convinced I heard a fog horn.

I have to admit, pure silence is difficult for me. This week my kids both started after school sports teams and for the first time in many years neither of them is home or needs a ride anywhere after school. This means the house is quiet for several more hours than normal. It’s uncomfortable. I like the sounds of other people, even if we aren’t interacting. I find I turn the radio on more frequently. I know the NPR schedule like the back of my hand. Who knows, maybe I’ll even start listening to podcasts. On the other hand, silence could be good for me. It’s Lent after all, and maybe my discipline this Lent can be to embrace the silence.

Last night I attended our church’s Ash Wednesday service. The atmosphere was solemn and prayerful, with candles and soft music. Several times our pastor asked us to prostrate ourselves (kneel) on the floor. At the end of the service we received ashes on our forehead as we were told, “For dust you came and to dust you shall return, for God gives life.” It was and is a reminder that we owe our existence to God. He gives us life and allows us a short time on this earth to enjoy the wonders of living. I appreciated the quiet service to stop and ponder that thought and I look forward to more quiet this coming season.

Techno dreams and cell phone addictions

I had a dream last night that I was being attacked. I was in an airport restroom and four or  five tough-looking teenage girls surrounded me and started insulting me. I realized they wanted to hurt me. For what reason I don’t know. Just then, one of the girls took pity on me and lifted me up and carried me out of the bathroom. Somehow though, one of the girls managed to steal my purse on the way out and there was no way I was going to go back and get it. I strode down the airport corridor quickly to find my family. Feeling safe again I started to get angry. Someone needs to arrest those girls. What right did they have to threaten an innocent person? Soon though, I panicked. They had stolen my phone as well. That was the worst part of the whole thing. My phone was missing! Was the data saved? Would I ever get it back? Suddenly I woke up from the dream, wondering what would happen if I ever did lose my phone. That was worse than being threatened.

What does it say about me that my worst nightmare is losing my phone? Have I become too dependent on it? Only a few years ago I was a cell phone hold-out (hence the sign prohibiting cell phones which I placed in my house). Now, I can’t imagine life without my phone. Most people I know feel the same way. Is there any remedy for us who are addicted to devices? I think there is, but I’ll get to that later. First, a story about my friend Bruce.  

Recently my friend Bruce Wydick, a professor at the University of San Francisco, conducted an experiment with his college students in which he asked them to give up their phones for two weeks to show solidarity with the poor. For every student who gave up his or her phone a donor would give $50 to a non-profit organization working with the poor. Out of a room of 30 people, Bruce got about half to give up their phones. As you can imagine, the results were interesting. One student caved in after the first day and said he was going crazy without his phone. The rest of the group, including Bruce, lasted the two weeks and reported a mix of experiences. Some felt liberated without their phone and more engaged with real-life situations. Others felt more dependent on people and less “cluttered” in their thinking. Everyone seemed to miss the conveniences of their phone. One student, for example, had to make a collect call from a pay phone and found out that collect calls cost $25. Another student overslept without his cell phone’s alarm clock. Bruce got stuck in a bad traffic jam without the ability to use GPS.

While it’s certainly an admirable experiment to give up your phone for a period of time, most of us won’t do that willingly. Instead, I think we need to make an extra effort to spend time each day on low-tech hobbies, things that slow us down and make us appreciate life, like music or art. Maybe it’s been a while since you simply listened to music without also looking at your phone. When was the last time you leafed through an art book? We can also just observe our surroundings, wherever we are. For me on this January day, that means looking out my kitchen window and being dazzled by the white flowers on my ornamental pear tree. I take a moment to be thankful that I live in California and get to see a blossoming tree in the middle of winter! Out of another window I see my neighbor on top of his roof clearing leaves out of the gutter in anticipation of another storm. I’m thankful again for the abundant rain we’ve had so far this season. Slowing down our thinking means noticing our surroundings, appreciating the changing seasons and pausing between activities.

For a longer pause in the day you might try meditation, though in this age of constant communication that is a challenge. Sitting quietly without using a phone or other device is difficult. Another alternative is to engage your body while slowing down thoughts. I tried yoga for the first time last fall with a sense that I simply wanted to do something physical. Now I understand the popularity of yoga. You are in a room for an hour, concentrating simply on your breathing and following the instructions of the teacher to stretch your body this way or that. For that hour I am not thinking of worries or concerns or things to do. I can leave the outside world behind and enter a space that feels outside of time. I feel my muscles clench and tighten. I look forward to a particular pose. I wish we could skip another pose that is difficult. Am I getting better, more limber? Occasionally I get distracted by another person next to me, but then I come back to my own body and the teacher’s calm, soothing voice. Of course, my cell phone is turned off the whole time I am in yoga.

My kids are the first generation to grow up with smart phones as a staple of life. I wonder how life is different for them. I wonder if they notice everyday things in nature and the environment less. I wonder whether they would have given up their phones for two weeks if they had been in my friend Bruce’s lecture. Would they have simply replaced the phone with more time on their computers? Maybe the better experiment would be to go with no technology at all. Just about the only time that happens now is if we are on vacation in a remote place, which is very rare. Even last summer when we were camping, the campgrounds all had wi-fi.

I had another disturbing dream last night after the dream about losing my cell phone. (I guess it’s true you work out your anxieties in your dreams.) In this second dream my son, who is now 15, was a baby, and we were in a large modern art museum. I was holding him in my arms as we stood looking at a large room filled with undulating worm-like cylinders. The cylinders were lit from inside with flashing neon lights. My son got overstimulated by the lights and began to gag so I hurried away. Perhaps this was some kind of dreamlike warning to me to avoid technology? In any case, I’ll put my phone and my Ipad away a little earlier tonight and hope for better dreams.

 

The allure of TV in 2016

 

Watch more TV.  It sounds funny, but that’s my top resolution for the new year. I know most people want to watch less TV, but for me it would be quite an achievement to watch even one regular series. You see, I’ve resisted TV for so long that to even watch one series would be a big deal—and quite positive I think.

For one thing, I see that TV viewing brings a lot of pleasure to certain friends and family. They seem positively exuburant as they ask whether I’ve seen “House of Cards” or “Homeland.” (I always have to say no.) And then I watch them connect with someone who has seen their show and they relish the conversation, comparing notes on the various plots twists and character developments. I feel left out of a major part of routine social interactions.

I trace my TV aversion partly to the guilt I feel about having spent so many good hours of my childhood hooked on TV. Of course, I was like most kids of my era. Growing up in the 70s and 80s kids like me found their main source of entertainment in TV. After school I watched “Brady Bunch” reruns and other fluff. Within 30 seconds I could tell if I had already watched a particular Brady Bunch episode–but even if I’d seen it before, I’d watch it again. At night we watched “family” shows like “Eight is Enough” and “Little House on the Prairie” and comedies like “Golden Girls” and “Happy Days.” What innocent times those were! And maybe it wasn’t such a waste of time after all. Like TV viewing now, those times were social. I always watched TV with my brother or parents and we laughed a lot.

Later on, in the 90s, I became a big fan of  “Seinfeld” and watched every episode. I still remember the fun I had recounting episodes with my co-workers the following day. Sometime after that, however, I stopped watching TV altogether. I became busy with other activities, I went back to school, I traveled, I read more, and I had kids. Plus, there wasn’t a lot of good TV being produced. “Friends” just didn’t appeal to me.

They say that today TV is experiencing a golden age, with so many great series on Netflix, HBO and Showtime. The writing is great and acting is superb. I wouldn’t know. Instead I either spend my time reading a book or flying through the netherworld of the Internet. Somehow those activities feel more free. I can stop reading or surfing the web whenever I want whereas if I watch a show I’m commiting myself to something for an hour—or maybe many hours, as those who binge watch can attest to.

Maybe I can start this TV thing small. If an hour seems too long I can watch half a show each night. It’s easy enough to start and stop viewing on my Ipad. That should still leave plenty of time for other activities. Plus, I have the perfect show. That was a problem before. I didn’t want to watch a show about drug dealers (“Breaking Bad”) or scandal-ridden politicians (“Scandal”). But recently my son introduced me to “Newsroom,” a kind of updated and more sophisticated “Mary Tyler Moore.” It seems like the right amount of serious content, i.e. news, circa 2010, mixed with social manuevering among the staff. I’ve already watched three episodes, so I’m on my way.

I know that to really be successful about watching a TV series I have to make it a habit. In his book “The Power of Habit,” Charles Duhigg talks a lot about how to change or create certain habits. (Anyone thinking about new year’s resolutions should read Duhigg’s book.) He says that habits are best cultivated by establishing a set routine. For example, doing the same thing at the same time every day. In my case, I could watch my series at the same time every night after dinner. Duhigg also emphasizes the importance of linking a reward to a habit. My “reward” for watching my show might be to enjoy a cup of my favorite tea. This is already sounding appealing. Duhigg goes on to say that certain “keystone” habits have a domino effect in influencing other behavoirs. For example, someone who stops smoking is also likely to start eating better and exercising more. I can’t see that TV watching would provide more benefits than simply existential happiness, but who knows? Maybe the characters will influence me to try something new. Maybe I’ll change my mind about some issue. At the least I can sound intelligent when social conversations turn to TV. I know that books can change me, so I don’t doubt that TV will too. I’ll report back in 2017.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Power of Story–from Edgar Allen Poe to Nancy Drew

I sat cross-legged on the hard floor of the library, a chill running down my spine. It was nearly Halloween and the usually cheerful librarian had decided to give my eighth grade class a scare by reading us “The Tell-Tale Heart” by Edgar Allen Poe. In case you don’t remember, in this gruesome story, a man is haunted by an older man’s pale blue eye and sets out to kill him. Every night the man peers in at the older man sleeping until one night he literally scares him to death and proceeds to dismember him and bury him under the floorboards of the room. Unfortunately, the old man’s heart keeps beating even under the floor. The police arrive at the scene, called by concerned neighbors who heard a scream, and the murderer at first remains calm because there is no evidence of the deed. (He has done the dismemberment in the bath tub.) But the sound of the beating heart overwhelms him with guilt and he admits that he has killed the old man.

I can still remember studying the floor of the library as I listened to this story. Was it really possible to bury someone under a floor and not leave a trace of evidence? Would a heart really keep beating? Could there be someone under this floor right now? I wanted to get out of the library fast and onto the sunny safety of the playground. I never again entered the library with a completely neutral mind.

If you are like me, you can probably remember times as a child when a particular story made an impact. Did you cry when Charlotte in “Charlotte’s Web” died? Were you sad and incredulous at the brutality of humanity after reading Anne Frank’s diary? Were you jealous but captivated, like I was, by the adventures of Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys? As humans, we seem to be drawn to stories from childhood on. In her most recent book, researcher and storyteller Brene Brown says we are “wired for story.” She cites the work of neuroeconomist Paul Zack who says that “hearing a narrative with a beginning, middle, end causes our brains to release cortisol an oxitocina. These chemicals trigger the uniquely human abilities to connect, empathize and make meaning.”

It seems that now, more than ever, our lives are filled with stories. I find it interesting that my son will often ask a friend, “Have you seen my story?” He’s talking about his latest post on SnapChat, the app that teenagers favor over Facebook. Similarly, sites like Humans of New York let us read brief accounts about the lives of everyday people and their remarkable stories.

In the last few years I’ve become a fan of audio books. Thanks to technology that allows me to download books onto my phone, I can easily listen to books while I’m driving, walking my dog or waiting for an appointment. There is something powerful about listening to stories that makes the experience different from reading or watching them. A particular actor can only use his or her voice to convey the drama of the story. In some cases, an actor nails it. Sissy Spacek does a great job reading “To Kill a Mockingbird,” for example. Her soothing Southern accent works well in capturing the voices of Scout, Jem and Atticus. Likewise, the actress who read my version of “Wuthering Heights” (Patricia Routledge) perfectly captured the Yorkshire accents of Heathcliff, Cathy and the others in Emily Bronte’s classic. She was so good, in fact, that I could not understand her rendition of the thick brogue of one of the servants in the novel. I didn’t mind that though; I felt it was a realístic potrayal. On the other hand, Toni Morrison does an almost too good job of reading her novel “Beloved.” The story itself is already heavy, focusing on an escaped slave and her new life trying to escape the ghosts and violence of her past. But Morrison reads with such a breathy, slow and downcast tone that the story became utterly depressing. I had read the whole thing in college and liked it, even found it transformative, but I only made it about halfway through the audio version before deciding to find something more uplifting.

Of course, great literature, and all stories, aren’t just great entertainment or the source of emotional connection. Sometimes they have the power to change. About a year ago I listened to a book by a Catholic priest named Greg Boyle called “Tattoos on the Heart.” In this book Boyle recounts his decades spent working in innercity Los Angeles with hardened gang members. Boyle is a great storyteller and he tells story after story of the lives of inviduals he helped navigate away from the world of drugs and crime into a productive life working for his organization, Homeboy Industries. He treats each person with respect, love and care and they begin to believe in themselves with his friendship. Boyle doesn’t shy away from reality, however, He recounts how several gangmembers couldn’t escape the life they had once led and even though they had left their gang, they were shot and killed for their one-time association. There is no completely happy ending or simple solution to this book. Still, the book made a deep impression. I was amazed with Greg Boyle’s connection with his work. He perfectly fit his calling, much like Atticus Finch fit his as a lawyer and father. His compassion, perservance and creative solutions with people were extraordinary. It made me think about my own calling in life and what gives me joy. I realized, for one thing, the value of doing creative work, such as writing, and sharing ideas with others. Sometimes creative work seems superfluous (like creating art or writing a blog), but this book taught me it may be necessary.

I’m pondering what I’ll listen to next. A classic or a new book? Non-fiction or fiction? With Halloween around the corner, maybe it’s time to return to Poe.