I hated feeling like a stranger in my own life.
Thankfully, I rarely experience that feeling anymore, but it used to creep into my psyche like an unwanted encounter with a mean girl from high school. I did my best to present as confident and competent, but I actually felt like a pretender and an invader in the lives of people who really belonged.
I have, after all, spent my entire life living in places where I don’t have a family connection. Or so I thought. Because sometimes, one tiny piece of information can change everything.
For me, that small shift was seeing a headstone at a park where I walk my dog on a regular basis. The last name on the marker is Mowen, which is my great-grandmother’s maiden name. Initially, I just thought this was interesting. After all, I live in the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia, wedged between Northern Virginia and Maryland. My dad grew up in Massachusetts, my mom grew up in Michigan, and my family moved several times when I was a child. I didn’t grow up around any extended family.
This is probably why I embraced genealogy with a passion and became the family historian. When my grandparents passed away, the treasures I inherited might have had little value for many people, but to me the old photos, ledgers, deeds, and birth certificates are priceless. I’ve done a DNA test, convinced my parents to do a DNA test, and spent hours trying to figure out the puzzle of my family tree. What I never expected was to randomly stumble upon a headstone of a distant relative.
And yet, I did. After logging onto my laptop and doing some simple research, I determined that I was indeed related to the Mr. Earl C. Mowen, who is memorialized by a simple marker on a forest trail in Poor House Farm Park. Granted, the relationship is rather distant as Mr. Mowen and my great-grandmother had the same grandparents.
My great grandmother’s family is actually from Washington County, Maryland, which is only minutes from my house. I have ancestors buried in cemeteries in nearby Hagerstown, and a few geographic locations actually bear the last name of some of my ancestors.
While all of this is fascinating, it shone a light on something even more important: having a family connection to the area where I now live hasn’t affected my feelings about being a stranger in my life. I rarely feel that way anymore not because I have historical ties to this area but because I’ve been able to build my own life. Instead of being a stranger, I’m a main character surrounded by people who accept me, and care about me, and support me even though we don’t share the same DNA or childhood memories. I don’t have to pretend or feel like an invader.
I can create the place where I belong.
Last October, as the pandemic dragged on, my mother-in-law passed away.
She was 87 years-old and had been in poor health for a while, so I wasn’t surprised. At the same time, I was very surprised. Maggie was larger than life to me. She was unique, quirky, and completely different than my own mother. She was also the best mother-in-law I could have ever asked for.
Because of the circumstances, and because my husband and his siblings are private about such matters, only our family and friends were informed. There wasn’t even an obituary.
But today is our first Mother’s Day without her, and I couldn’t let it pass without paying tribute to the feisty woman who I credit for raising the man I married.
If this were an actual obituary, I’d be expected to provide the basic facts about Maggie that anyone could find on a genealogy site. I might even sprinkle in a few of her significant accomplishments. But a traditional obituary isn’t fitting for a woman like Maggie. Besides, the only interesting nugget from her early life, which I find incredibly entertaining, is the fact that, according to my husband, she once won a beauty pageant. She’ll probably start haunting me now for even making that public knowledge.
My husband tells me that his mom changed quite a bit from when he was a child to the time when I first met her. She wasn’t even called Maggie until all of her children were grown. My brother-in-law, Keith, started calling her that, and the name stuck. Growing up, she was called Marge, and, at some point, was dubbed Muff after Little Miss Muffet, apparently because she was so tiny. I don’t get the connection, but I wasn’t around back in the 1950’s either.
She never told me she was called Muff. I found out when I was attending a large meeting when we still lived in Charleston. I was sitting next to another Grand Dame, Helaine Rotgin. Maggie had worked on Helaine’s campaign for the WV State Legislature in the 1970’s, and Helaine was quite fond of her. As we waited for the meeting to start, Helaine turned to me and loudly yelled (yes, she yelled as she was getting hard of hearing)”How is Muff?” Everyone stopped and stared at me. All I could say was, “fine?” Only later did I get an explanation.
I shouldn’t have been surprised that Maggie had supported Helaine, who was a die-hard democrat, and to my knowledge, the first Jewish woman in the WV Legislature. Maggie herself was a die-hard Democrat. Shortly after Trump was elected and Maggie was still living on her own, I stopped by to visit while on a business trip in Charleston. She proudly showed me the Obama button she still wore every day “just to piss people off.” She was addicted to MSNBC and spent the last few years of her life raging against Trump. Unfortunately, she died when he was still president. I can only imagine how joyful she would have been about the Biden inauguration.
But Maggie, didn’t just watch television. Up until the last couple of years of her life, she was a voracious reader. I actually met her at the bookstore where she worked for years, and I didn’t leave the store empty handed. She picked out several books that, according to her, I “had to read.” That pattern continued for decades, and I spent many hours on the phone talking to Maggie about books. Her recommendations were always stellar.
Other than reading, Maggie’s favorite hobby was going to thrift stores before thrifting was cool. She had a talent for finding the coolest clothes and jewelry then gifting them to just the right person. Generally, her gifts were random as she wasn’t one for dedicating time and energy to celebrating holidays, with the exception of Halloween. I’ll never forget taking my then three- year-old son to her house for Halloween to find her dressed up as Eminem. No that’s not a mistake. She wasn’t dressed as M&M candies. She was dressed as Eminem the rapper.
That wasn’t the only time Maggie left me speechless. My husband and I had just started dating when Maggie struck up a friendship with her neighbor, a flaming gay guy at least thirty years her junior. I adored their friendship, but I became worried when he convinced her to start breaking into empty houses that were for sale just to “have a look around.” Thankfully, they were never caught and arrested.
Don’t get me wrong. Maggie was far from a criminal. In fact, she spent a good part of her life caring for her others. In addition to raising three children, she took care of her sister for years. She also cared for both of my children after they were born. In fact, she and my son had a bond that I never experienced with my own grandparents. Of course, the fact that he could cuss around her and she would cuss right back probably helped cement their relationship,
My children were her only grandchildren, and she adored them. My husband and I must have been arguing one of the only times I witnessed her get angry with him. “Trina will always be right,” she said. “She gave birth to my grandchildren, so I will always side with her.”
Oh how, I loved that woman.
As I as writing this, my husband walked in and asked what I was doing.
“I’m writing about your mom,” I said. “You know she’d hate that,” he replied.
He was right. Maggie would hate it. But she also deserves it.
On Friday afternoon, my 16-year old daughter and her friend giggled as they insisted I look at a picture from earlier that day.
In the photo, my daughter, who wears her glasses more than she wears her contacts, had placed several of her friends’ glasses over her own.
She was laughing with delight at the image of all those glasses perched on her nose. But just looking at the picture made my head hurt because trying to see the world through multiple lenses can be painful.
It’s so painful, in fact, that many of us avoid doing it.
But we should.
I was reminded of that this week when I begrudgingly attended a continuing education program that I needed to keep my social work license. The licensure requirements recently changed to include at least two hours about mental health issues for veterans, which was the topic of the workshop.
As soon as I entered the classroom, I realized that not all of us were there solely because we wanted to keep our licenses.
When I sat down, the older gentleman sitting directly across from me explained that, even though he wasn’t a social worker, he was interested in the topic.
He was a veteran he said as he gestured to a woman sitting near us who was wearing a hijab.
“I was taught to kill people like that,” he said to me. “Now I’m being told to accept them.”
I’m not even sure what hackles are, but I immediately felt mine go up. His words were in direct opposition to everything I’ve been raised to believe:
- America was founded on the principle of religious freedom.
- Christians aren’t supposed to judge people who are different than we are.
- Good people don’t want to harm others based on their beliefs.
With only a few words, this man who had spent most of his life in service to my country, made me question both his ethics and the agenda of our country’s military.
Only hours later, after listening to a presentation about military culture, hearing from family members of veterans, and getting bombarded with statistics, did I realize the man was crying.
A colleague was trying to comfort him as tears rolled down his cheeks. He was explaining how difficult adjusting to civilian life has been for him.
That’s when I realized the entire purpose of the continuing education requirement: I needed to understand that lens through which Veterans like him might view the world. He isn’t a bad man. He’s actually a good man who is living in a culture with conflicting message and ideals.
That was only one of the many reminders about different lenses that I’ve been getting recently.
For example, I had to change the lens through which I saw a childhood friend whom I’d envied for having everything I didn’t: a sense of style; easy popularity; a beautiful bedroom; horses and even a boat. She recently revealed that her stepfather had molested her for years in the house where I’d spent so many hours. In fact, she had envied me for my ability to express exactly what I was thinking and feeling while she kept everything bottled up.
I’ve had to change the lens through which I view some of the frustrating low-income clients who walk into our office after continually make poor choices. New medical findings show how poverty and childhood stress literally change brain structure.
I’ve had to change the lens through which I perceive people who allude to Fox News or share clips of Sarah Huckabee Sanders citing a recycled email. I have to remind myself to try to see the world through their tinted lens colored by dogma, lack of information, priorities, fear and their beliefs about their own circumstances.
Unlike my daughter, I’m not going to subject myself to a headache by putting on several pairs of real glasses that will make the world blurry. But I am going to try a little harder to look through the lenses that other people choose to share with me.
And in return, I hope they take time to look through mine as well.
I was hanging out my office window, which is on the second floor of a rehabbed old house, when the thought struck me: “Is this really going to be my legacy? Is this the way people will remember me?”
To provide some perspective, my office sits directly across from the Catholic church, next door to the Presbyterian church, catty corner from the public library, and less than a block away from the town square. Since I have a corner office with two windows, I almost always having a view of something interesting happening
From nuns doing the Macarena on the front steps of the Catholic church, to numerous political protests, to pedestrians being hit by cars (yes – pedestrians and cars plural – it happens more often than you might think), to the priest wearing a skirt (he swears it was a kilt), I have a great vantage point – and some pointed commentary – on all of it.
I also have an insatiable curiosity, which means when I have questions or concerns, I simply fling open my office window, lean out, and yell to whomever I think will answer.
My colleagues and the regular passerby have come to consider this normal.
But on the particular day in question, I was yelling at a stranger whom I’d never before seen. He was walking an adorable, large, white fluffy dog, and I felt compelled to meet him (the dog – not the man). So, I opened the window and asked.
The dog looked around confused. The man looked around confused. And, realizing that neither of them knew from where the request was coming, I told them to look up. They did, and I was invited to come on down for a meet and greet.
That’s when the thought struck me. “This might be how some people will remember me – as that crazy lady who was compelled to yell at a total stranger in order to meet his dog or who shouted questions from a second story window at the church custodian across the street.”
And then another thought struck me – “Who cares? At least that is an interesting way to be remembered.”
I’ve been thinking more and more about such things recently.
That’s because today is my 50th birthday.
I am now a half a century old.
Statistics show that I have more years behind me than I have in front of me. My potential to accomplish great things will become more and more limited as the next years rush by me.
In other words, dreams of becoming the next great American novelist are now fading in the same way that hopes of suddenly blossoming into a great beauty faded at age 25.
But these superficial desires have been replaced by something far much more realistic.
Fifty years of living have taught me that life isn’t about my being embraced, or even appreciated, by the rest of the world. Instead, it’s about embracing and appreciating the world I’ve been given while, at the same time, never accepting that it can’t be improved.
It means I will probably always laugh too loud and talk too much because my enthusiasm can be overwhelming. It means my innate desire to share everything I’m thinking and feeling will always require my friends, colleagues and acquaintances to tolerate listening to yet another “Trina story,” and it will mean I will always break into song whenever a song lyric is used in conversation.
It also means I will cry too much, defend the underdog, rally against injustice and never, ever let someone else make me feel guilty about my beliefs.
And if all of that, along with penchant to make friends with every dog I encounter, yell out of office windows, and constantly stop to take a photo every time I think the sky looks amazing, then so be it.
That is my legacy, and I consider my life well spent.
I have a confession.
While I am quite happy to have my son home from college for a few weeks during the holidays for the simple pleasure of having him close, I’m also appreciating a side benefit.
I have an additional chauffeur for my very busy, always doing something but not old enough to drive herself 15-year old daughter.
Such was the case on Monday evening when she needed a ride home from school at 5:30.
My husband, who had to get up and go to work shortly after midnight, was getting ready to go to bed, and I was still at my office on a conference call.
Thus, my 18-year old son was dispatched to get his sister, and I was able to get home without any worries.
Or so I thought.
I had just walked in the door and taken off my coat when Giles came running down the hall in a panic. He was wearing only his underwear and waving his phone wildly in one hand while attempting to shove Crocs on his feet with the other.
It was not a pretty sight for so many, many reasons.
“The kids were in a car wreck!” he yelled at me while bouncing unstably on his left foot while trying to shove a Croc on his right.
I am ashamed to admit that, while I did have a flash of concern for my kids, I was primarily focused on one thing: I could not let my husband leave the house looking like that.
And so, I took charge of the situation.
“Where are they?” I asked.
“By the hospital!!!!” he shouted still charging down the hall in all his almost-naked glory.
“I’ll go. You stay,” I said not even bothering to put my coat back on or wait for his response.
Before I continue this story, I must say one thing. Everyone thinks Giles is the calm one in our marriage. While I admit that I am high-strung and have a tendency to worry, I am the proverbial woman who will choke on a flea but swallow a camel. In other words, when I have to deal with a tough situation, I just deal with it. My husband, on the other has, has one extremely irrational fear: he does not trust anyone, except himself, behind the wheel of a motor vehicle.
When we are on a long trip, he practically hyperventilates if I suggest he take a break and let me drive. I don’t think he’s even been in a car when my son is driving. He left the responsibility of driver’s education to me and a paid instructor. That’s why I knew that Giles was in such a state of anxiety that he wouldn’t have thought twice about jumping into my car to drive to the scene of the accident. In his underwear. And his Crocs.
Now back to the story.
Since we live in the neighborhood right behind the hospital, I arrived on the accident scene in less than five minutes. A quick assessment told me several things:
- No one had been hurt
- The accident appeared to be the fault of the other driver
- A hospital security guard was handling the situation until the police arrived
- My husband’s car didn’t seem to be badly damaged – unlike the other car
- I should have worn a coat as the temperature was well below freezing, and
- My daughter was crouched down in the passenger seat talking into her cell phone and looking thoroughly disgusted
After hugging my son, who seemed in complete control (unlike the other driver who was almost in hysterics), I checked on my daughter. She informed me that she was crouched down because the whole situation was extremely embarrassing and she didn’t want anyone to see her. She also told me that she was on the phone with her dad, but the phone battery was almost dead. I told her not to waste any more power and to hang up. I would call her dad to let him know what was happening.
But here’s the thing about me. I like to talk. A lot. And I talk to my husband all of the time. The accident scene provided a whole new set of characters with which to converse. I tried to calm the other driver by talking about her TARDIS hat. I had a lengthy discussion about music with the guy who had been behind my son and stopped to help. I even talked with the security guard about keeping the area safe. Then the police arrived. In other words, despite my promise to call Giles back, I didn’t. Which is why he had again called my daughter, insisting she stay on the phone to keep him informed.
I took the phone from her, tried to ensure my husband that the situation wasn’t that dire, and told him his car wasn’t very damaged.
“It’s mostly superficial,” I said.
“How would you know?” he asked.
“Because I can see it,” I replied. The grill is a bit broken, and there are a few dents. Other than that, it’s fine.” The music-loving guy chimed in.
“Yeah,” he said loudly. “I already checked it over. Nothing is leaking.”
“But is it safe to drive?” my husband asked. At this point, I know I rolled my eyes. After all, the entrance to our neighborhood was only a few yards away, and our house was less than a mile.
“Yes,” I said. “It’s fine.”
When Giles continued to express concern, I handed my daughter’s nearly dead phone to the police officer, who assured Giles that our son could drive the car home – once the other car was pulled out of his way by the tow-truck.
When the officer gave me the phone back, Giles immediately said, “That was embarrassing.”
I almost told him that it was much less embarrassing than if he had actually shown up on the scene, but I restrained myself.
Later, when we had all arrived safely home, I didn’t protest much when he tried to convince the kids that I had been as freaked out as he had when we got the call. They humored him by nodding in agreement.
Because they, like me, didn’t really care who had been freaked out. Everyone was safe, we had another family story to tell, and there was no long-term damage to anyone or anything.
In some ways, that car accident was like a strange Christmas gift wrapped up in torn paper and a wrinkled bow. It might not have been what we would have ever wanted, it certainly wasn’t bright and shiny, and it cost more than we would wanted to spend emotionally or financially. But it reinforced the bond that makes our family unique, special and, most importantly, always ready and willing to support each other… no matter how embarrassing each of us can be.
Please humor me as I write this.
Even though you are as concerned as I am about the direction in which our country is headed, you are living your life with a positive attitude and a pocket full of possibilities.
At this very moment, you are out pursuing one of your many passions in a theater only a few miles away. That’s not difficult for you. Your love and enthusiasm for music, books, theater, science fiction, writing, art, and collecting odd and random pieces of information are inspiring and contagious.
But as your mom, I’m obligated to tell you that harnessing those passions is a challenge, and achieving your dreams won’t be easy.
As you’ve witnessed this past week, not everyone will agree with you or even want the best for you.
In other words, life can be tough. But so can you.
Which is why, even though I’m sure you’ve “got this” with or without your mom, I still have an obligation to share some incredibly important lessons that have taken me nearly five decades to figure out:
- Don’t believe all the hype about needing a relationship to make you complete. You are already complete. Relationships are great, but so are you. Gain your self-worth from doing anything and everything on your own. Carve your own space in the world instead of waiting or depending on someone else to help you create it.
- Never underestimate your abilities, your intelligence and your inner voice. Doubt is the enemy, and you can’t let it be part of your life.
- Ignore your critics. There will always be people who disagree with you, who are jealous of you or whom you might even intimidate. Don’t measure yourself by what they say about you. Measure yourself by how you treat them despite their efforts to undermine you.
- Surround yourself with people who are smarter than you, and let them inspire you strive to learn more and to be curious. Curiosity is incredibly underrated.
- Travel as much as you possibly can. You can’t make good decisions when you are making them from a limited world view.
- Study different religions. Faith shouldn’t be something you are spoon fed in order to make you feel better about your life. It should be something your embrace only after you explore other possibilities.
- Go with your gut. If you don’t, you will spend countless hours defending a decision out of guilt.
- Don’t use memes or trite quotes to express your opinions or feelings. No one will take you seriously if you steal the thoughts of others. Use your own words to share your most important thoughts and beliefs. If you can’t come up with your own words, then maybe you should question your own beliefs.
- Look directly at yourself in the mirror at least once a day and see only beauty and strength. Weakness only makes its way into the cracks of our lives if we let it. You are too strong for that.
- Spend at least one year of your life living by yourself. There is nothing more empowering than paying your own rent and your own electric bill while simultaneously answering to no one but yourself.
- Always have a back up plan and always make sure you are the hero in it.
- Never, ever stop learning and never, ever underestimate the power of a good education.
- Do as much as you can and go as many places as you can by yourself. Depending on others to go with you is a crutch that will always hold you back.
- Love your family but build a network of smart, strong women around you. Men are great, but they will never truly understand your struggles or perspective like other women can.
- Never forget that other people haven’t had the same opportunities as you. What some of us perceive to be weakness or ignorance might actually be a strength built out of struggles we will never truly understand.
So there you my amazing, wonderful, spirited, and talented 15-year-old daughter. I’ve handed you information that no one ever told me – I had to learn it all on my own.
So don’t take these words lightly. Treasure them, embrace them, and, most importantly, use them.
Our Country’s future depends on that.
During all of my nearly 50 years, I can recall only one time that I literally stopped to think “This is one of the moments that I need to treasure. I need to store it in my memory right next to my heart so I can pull it out when times are tough. I need to remember how the sun feels on my skin and how I’m surrounded by people who only want the best for me. I need to capture the absolute essence of happiness that is permeating all of my pores so I can remember that life’s most important moments aren’t always big events but sometimes rather uneventful instances that actually mean everything.”
These thoughts came to me on a warm spring afternoon my senior year in college. My friends and I had skipped class to spend time at the lake at Strouds Run, a state park near the campus of Ohio University. My future was a complete unknown, and I had absolutely no idea where any of us would be in just a few short months. I had little if no money and no prospects for a job. And yet, I was completely happy to focus on enjoying an absolutely perfect moment.
It was so perfect that now, nearly 30 years later, I still remember how I wanted to hold on to it forever.
After that, life got more chaotic and often more serious. New people entered and exited my life. Circumstances changed often and significantly. And I changed.
Amid all that, I never again stopped long enough to recognize the importance of pausing to breathe in then hold on to a simply perfect moment.
That’s not to say I didn’t appreciate such moments. I did.
But there is a difference between appreciating something and treasuring it.
And lately, the person I used to be has been sending that reminder to the person I am now.
Maybe that’s because, with my son in college, I’m thinking more and more about that time in my life. Or maybe that’s because in two weeks I’ll be going to my college homecoming and reuniting with friends I haven’t seen in almost 30 years. Or maybe (and this is what I choose to believe), it’s because I’m tired of always worrying about what will happen when those perfect moments end and the complications, heartache and struggles return.
Because they always return.
But I’ve now lived long enough to know that the return of life’s problems provides even more reason to embrace those moments when all seems right with the world.
And I had one of those moments today.
I hadn’t seen my son since the beginning of August when he left for band camp at West Virginia University. With the exception of a few texts and posts on social media, my husband and I haven’t heard much from him. But today, the Pride of West Virginia WVU marching band made a stop in our town in route to a game at Fed Ex Field.
We joined a handful of other local parents and fans as well as students from three schools to watch the band perform. When the show ended, we waited until the musicians had taken their instruments to the buses before coming back into the stadium for bag lunches.
And that’s when I saw my son for the first time in almost two months.
He broke into the same wide grin that he used to give me when I was picking him up at preschool. He doesn’t smile like that much anymore, and I don’t think it’s been captured on camera since he was a toddler. But he was looking right at me, broke into that wide smile and said “Hi Mom!”
And before I walked over to him for a hug and a photo opportunity, the me I used to be started whispering in my ear. She told me to treasure that moment. She told me I needed to store it in my memory and right next my heart so I can pull it out when times are tough. She told me I needed to remember how the sun felt on my skin and how I was fortunate to have people who care about me. And she told me that life’s most important moments aren’t always big events but sometimes rather uneventful instances that are measured by the smile on a child’s face and a love that is greater than any problem we will ever encounter.
And I listened to her.
My 15 year-old daughter hates when I write anything without her approval and her editorial input. (For the record, she is an awesome editor.)
But sometimes she’s involved in something so much bigger than her or her editing skills that I am compelled to write without her approval.
This is one of those times.
To fully understand this story, you have to understand my daughter.
She is the girl who cares about every single living being and will always root for the underdog. She is the child who Googled how to provide emergency care for a baby squirrel and made me drive to the drug store to buy Pedialyte and a medicine dropper so she could save the one our cat dragged in.
She makes me buy tofu because it never breathed, can’t enjoy shrimp because they used to swim freely in the ocean and notes that every hamburger was once a cow.
And that same love of every creature is why she saved a cicada that was struggling on the sidewalk.
We were walking our German Shepherd when I heard her gasp and tell me to stop.
“He’s struggling,” she said pointing at the cicada on its back with legs flailing helplessly in the air.”I need to help him.” (Personally, I have absolutely no idea how to tell a male cicada from a female cicada so I went with her assumption that the cicada was a guy.)
Kendall nudged “the guy” with her shoe so he could grab onto it.
And grab on he did.
Once he had flipped himself upright on her canvas shoe, he began to slowly make his way up toward the laces.
And that’s when the screaming started.
“Get him off!” my daughter screamed. “Get him off.”
The piercing quality of her screams gained urgency because I wasn’t acting quickly enough.
By the time the cicada’s tiny, spindly legs had begun to make their way up my daughter’s bare legs, I was convinced that one of the neighbors was calling 911 to report a murder in progress.
When I finally did locate a stick (because I didn’t want to actually touch the bug either), my daughter was almost in a state of panic. Thankfully, I was able to get the cicada onto the stick and then safely onto the grass.
Kendall almost immediately admitted her shame at not wanting to actually touch the bug she was trying to save.
I told her that was natural and she shouldn’t worry, but I couldn’t help but compare that situation to ones I witness almost every day.
I work at a social service organization with a mission of improving the lives of others, particularly those living in poverty.
On a regular basis, I see the generosity of others to help the less fortunate. And not a day goes by when I’m not in awe of individuals who don’t run screaming when they realize that a simple financial donation isn’t enough to raise people out of poverty.
Does the money help? Absolutely!
Is it the answer? Absolutely not!
While there will always be individuals in situational poverty who just need that one financial boost to get them back on the right track, most of the people who walk through my office doors aren’t on any track at all. Instead, they are stumbling through an obstacle course of life designed by people who live in a world that is foreign to them.
Some of them don’t understand the importance of education. Others were taught that arguing and fighting is the only way to get what they want. And some have never even experienced the security of being a priority to parents, caregivers or anyone else who wants nothing in return but their well-being.
Letting such individuals people into our lives can be difficult and frightening. As my daughter stated after the incident with the cicada “My screaming didn’t indicate I didn’t want to help, but I just freaked out when he actually touched me.”
I understand her sentiment, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t step outside of our comfort zones.
Saving a life – whether it is that of a bug or that of another human being – often requires us to do just that. It can get messy and dirty and sometimes even scary.
But if we really want to change the world, we have to touch the world we want to change.
When I was about ten years old, I found a starfish lying on the beach and somehow convinced my parents to let me bring it home. I have no idea how I managed that, but I do remember my dad suggesting that we let the starfish “dry out” in his greenhouse.
Dad’s greenhouse was the latest in a series of projects he’d undertaken to pursue his avid love of gardening.
I don’t know why he thought putting the starfish in there was a good idea, but I’m sure he was thrilled with my interest in something involving nature. I’m just as sure that he regretted his decision.
I can’t remember if the starfish ever did “dry out.” What I do remember is the horrible smell that permeated the greenhouse only a few short days after the starfish arrived. I also remember being confused as to why my dad would make such a horrible recommendation.
When the smell was no longer bearable, my dad convinced me that the starfish didn’t belong in the greenhouse, in our yard or even anywhere in Central Oregon. We eventually discarded it, but the stench remained until the greenhouse was torn down. I hadn’t thought of the starfish or the greenhouse for decades until last week when I was out riding my bike and the hot, summer breeze brought with it the whiff of something horrid.
The memory came flooding back.
I shouldn’t have been surprised.
Science has proven that smell is the sense most closely linked to memory and the most likely to elicit strong emotions.
In this case, that emotion was guilt.
I felt guilty about bringing the starfish home. I felt guilty about the horrible stench it created in my father’s greenhouse. And most of all, I felt guilty for questioning my dad’s judgement or good intentions.
But the guilt didn’t last long. I was so very young when the starfish incident occurred. I’ve since made many more and much greater mistakes, all of which have taught me the importance of forgiving myself.
But even more importantly, I’m a mom. I now understand that parenting isn’t necessarily about trying to be perfect in the eyes of our children or about living a life with no regrets. Instead, it’s about teaching our kids that life is one big experiment. And, when things don’t go as planned, we all have to live with and learn from the consequences.
Even when they really stink.
Thirteen years ago,”Pomp and Circumstance” played as my son wore a red cap and gown to accept his diploma.
Because his class was extremely small, the formal ceremony was short. As the post-graduation celebration began, my son led his friends in a unique rendition of the “Chicken Dance.”
Throughout the afternoon, there were several other moments when he grabbed, or attempted to grab, the limelight. At one point, his teacher pulled me aside and whispered “All the world is a stage for Shepherd. Just enjoy it.”
But I couldn’t.
The next 13 years, starting in kindergarten, weren’t easy.
I worried obsessively about my son.
Even though my son was very smart and very funny, I worried that he didn’t have the same interests as his peers.
I worried that he was awkward and uncoordinated and would never find the place where he belonged.
I worried that he often seemed oblivious to what others automatically understood.
I even worried that he didn’t care that I was worried.
But somewhere between kindergarten and twelfth grade, my son taught me more than algebra and English literature classes ever could.
He taught me that going out on a limb will always be more interesting than standing on the ground hugging the trunk.
He taught me that winning a dance contest doesn’t necessarily require the best moves. It simply requires the most guts.
He taught me that more people appreciate the sheep who wonders off to explore new pastures than the ones who stay with the herd.
And he taught me that grabbing a mic and singing in front of the entire student body can never be embarrassing if you get everyone to sing with you.
On Monday, I will listen to “Pomp and Circumstance” while my son wears a red cap and gown to accept his diploma.
I wish I could guarantee he won’t lead his entire graduating class in a rendition of “The Chicken Dance,” but I can’t. Neither can I guarantee he won’t pull off one final, ridiculous high school stunt.
But here’s what I can guarantee: I won’t be worried.
Because I know that my unique, gifted, funny, ridiculous, smart, sarcastic son already has plenty of experience in finding his way in the often rocky terrain of life.
I also know, that his preschool teacher wasn’t entirely right. All the world is not just a stage for my Shepherd. Instead, all the world is HIS stage.
And I can’t wait to see his upcoming performances.