Choosing Words to Live By

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on August 27, 2017

Call them slogans, mantras or sayings. Chosen thoughtfully, they can reflect a personal moral code. If your actions, words or even thoughts don’t jibe with your moral code, don’t waste time deliberating. Variations of “Do unto others as you’d have others do unto you” probably tops the list of universal sayings. Other slogans, however, are specific to a person, family or community.

Years ago, my graduate adviser told me to pick one word as a guiding note when writing my thesis. It was a travel memoir about the cross-country road trip I took with my three sons the summer I told their father I wanted to separate. One word for what ended up a 13-chapter book took some thinking, but not so much as you might expect.

“Rooted” gave spine and structure to my thesis. That may sound odd for a story about traveling thousands of miles with three boys in a five-speed Matrix, but the time and space clarified my decisions. Having quit my supporting role to my ex-husband’s starring one, I declared what I needed in a marriage.

And, perhaps more importantly, after more than 40 years of peripatetic living, in 2007 I solidly planted my flag in Akron, a city my ex never wanted to live in and could not wait to leave.

The divorce was a tedious 39-month passage from who I was to who I became. Repeated readings of William Ury’s books on mediation guided me in choosing a phrase for saying no. When I learned my ex regularly drove all three boys in his Tacoma pick-up that seated only three, I told him, “I’m not comfortable with that.”

It’s also what I said the final time I found him in my home, against court orders.

“Just what do you think I’d do?” he said, trying to change the subject.

“It doesn’t matter, I’m just not comfortable with that.”

When he sneeringly mocked my words as he pushed his way to the door, I recognized how much they’d empowered me.

Finding values

Perhaps all slogans empower, because in order to have one, you must know what you value.

My parenting mantra is “push and lift, push and lift.” Push your kids to work hard on what’s important, including their personal goals. Lift them by showing up and supporting their efforts. And sometimes parents do best by letting children fail.

Helicopter parenting has taken off in recent years. If the goal of parents is to act as agents for their children in perpetuity, then, by all means, they should hover over their children. And lest you think I’m being cheeky, the New York Times recently published an article on the rise of parents insinuating themselves into their children’s job interviews, salary negotiations and even on-the-job disciplinary actions.

My goal is to raise competent adults who can take care of themselves and enjoy life based upon their own definitions of success.

Like a magpie, 20-year-old Hugo has long been drawn to everything interesting on his path. At Firestone High School, he took academic courses in the summer because he couldn’t fit them, or even a lunch period, in during the school year. An instrumentalist who sang his freshman year, Hugo graduated a singer who plays instruments.

The fall of his senior year, Hugo was section leader for the marching band, applying to colleges and preparing for vocal competitions. By October, he’d lost 20 pounds and complained of indigestion. I quietly monitored his health while waiting for him to realize something had to give.

When his indigestion turned into chest pains, I took him to the emergency room. His heart was fine; he had stress-induced GERD (acid reflux). The ER doc said the band could figure out how to live without Hugo as he was, after all, a senior.

A few days later, Hugo decided. I sat next to him when he told the band directors he was quitting and why. It was tough. He felt he was letting down his section and the band. The band directors all too willingly seized on his fears and tried to guilt him into staying. Hugo politely, but firmly, stuck to his decision.

I’d like to say that’s the last time Hugo bit off more than he can chew, but it’s not. However, from that failure and the painful solution, Hugo understands himself better. He now recognizes sooner when his schedule starts spinning beyond his control, making dialing it down easier.

Embracing differences

Personal slogans that work for one person may not work for someone else. “Have a soft plan” is one I live by. When taking a trip, I plot out the journey, yet leave things open for serendipity. I don’t want to miss talking with an interesting person, taking a sublime hike, eating a fabulous meal, meandering in the funkiest antique shop because I’ve scheduled things so tightly there’s no room for chance encounters.

Ha! Did that make me sound cool or what? The flip side is I eschew details. Not only did I never properly pack a diaper bag, but also I rarely carried one. A diaper and a Ziploc of wipes easily fit inside a purse.

That meant I carried neither a cupboard of snacks nor a Santa sack of toys. A couple of times a baby of mine exploded beyond the boundaries of his diaper. That’s when I learned that carefully organized plastic grocery bags protect a car seat just fine. This go-with-the-flow approach keeps me calm, but can drive other people nuts.

As everyone knows, we recently enjoyed a solar eclipse here in Ohio. I put it on the calendar weeks earlier, lest we forget. No chance of that. A week before the event, it was the best nonpolitical news story to be had. Yet we never picked up eclipse glasses (and according to my Facebook feed, neither did anyone else I know).

That morning I showed Jules a website on how to build a camera obscura. He made three before the moon began soft-shoeing his way between Earth and her star. Hugo, who’d taken Lyra to speech therapy, called from the eclipse events at the Seiberling Nature Realm where we’d planned to meet, saying it was impossible to park there. So we stayed home, and soon decided we’d dodged a bullet.

Meanwhile, Lyra plays with the dogs

For not only was it a sunny day, but it also was doggedly hot. Going in and out of the air-conditioned house to grab icy drinks between views on our cardboard devices was refreshing. And with no rush, Max built one more camera obscura out of a 7-foot box. It required a small ladder to see through its peephole and provided a fantastic view.

So there you have some slogans that have helped me personally, as a parent and in general. In the months ahead I’ll share the one slogan that guides me when talking to my kids about the consequential subjects of money, sex and drugs.


Titles, Travel and Time

“A rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” said Juliet, referring to her lover’s surname, “Montague,” his family bitter rivals with her own, the Capulets. And while she is right—a name alone cannot change the odor of a plant—I suspect far fewer noses would sniff something referred to as, say, skunkweed.

For writers, titles are excessively important. We are compelled to come up with something catchy in order to capture the attention of our precious and elusive targets: readers. For while there are high-paying jobs awaiting every exceptional computer engineer in the world, the most talented writers are, I’m afraid, the cliché dime a dozen.

I once, for example, gave an essay the shocking title “Die with Me,” which sounds like it might be a piece on group suicide. Indeed, it was a death wish–that the dying in my life allow me to attend and midwife their transition, as I was unable to do for my grandmother. She died alone, not wanting to bother anyone with the business of exiting this life.

Newspapers, it turns out, relieve a writer from the tedious work of titling.  There, titles are called headlines and copy editors come up with headlines that physically fit the printed page and, for the online version, contain words their search engine optimizers tell them are terrific bait for clicks. It’s like in the film industry where one production company creates a movie and an entirely different company creates the “Coming soon to a theater near you,” make-them-want-to-see-it trailer (I love trailers).

Some writers have a knack for writing clever titles. The task, however, makes me anxious and several times I have changed titles of essays posted online (where I can edit in perpetuity).

But, like many things, it’s easier to be the critic than the creator.

The headline for my first column in the best daily paper in Ohio, the Akron Beacon Journal, introduced me and my “unusual family.” Hmm, if we are unusual, I wondered, what does a typical family look like? Our family has two loving parents, which is not as standard as it once was, I concede. Five children fathered by two different men? Blended families were common way back in the 1970s when I was a girl. Two sons with learning disabilities and a daughter with a chromosomal abnormality? Given the improvement in diagnosing several disabilities in recent decades, that puts us in league with about half the families I know.

While my family history is not common knowledge and some facts are a bit salacious, I doubt any of it makes us unusual. In fact, after 8 months of rumination, the only “unusual family” I can think of is the fictional one in the novel Geek Love by Katherine Dunn (check it out).

Other than that, the headlines have been mostly fine and happily not my province. Until June. That’s when I wrote about taking our kids up to their grandparents in Northern Michigan for a few weeks. Most years, either Max or I drove the 450 miles each way in two days because we had to hurry back to our jobs. This year, for the first time in our relationship, we both work for ourselves and, therefore, were able to stay a few days longer because we can now work remotely. Sure, we walked the dogs on the beach a few times, but I would not call it a trip that included “relaxation by the lake” as the headline indicated.

Following up on the false equation of Time Away = Relaxation, the headline of my last column read: “Camp allowing family to relax, refresh.” To call our Buddhist family camp relaxing is like saying your Jewish neighbors relax each year at a kibbutz in Israel. Hauling gear and small children up and down a mountainside several times a day while sharing bathrooms with hundreds of other families is not relaxing. Nor is the six hours of work each camper has to do while there. That’s on top of the daily ½ hour of cleaning areas assigned by the class your child attends. It’s all good, but hardly relaxing.

Practicing kyudo archery for rites of practice at Karmê Chöling’s family camp
I’ve spent a good bit of time at Buddhist meditation centers over the years and the truth is people go a little crazy when there. Meditation divorces the mind from the pell-mell busyness we are all so accustomed to, if not addicted, in our modern lives. Quiet the mind and things arise that are easily avoided at home. Family camp is particularly crazy as kids never stop moving and, three days in, they begin melting down all over the mountain. The dates for camp used to change each summer until it was decided to always schedule it as late in the summer as possible. Why? So it occurs when the sun sets a little earlier, helping the kids to sleep more.

This year, I was in the dorm bathroom rather late one night when it was blessedly quiet. Only one other woman was there with her two small children. Her daughter, who was about six, fussed at getting her breathing treatment, after which, she resisted inhaling her Flonase. “Oh, I love Flonase,” I said, trying to distract the child, “It smells like lilacs!” Her weary mother, whose husband could not attend camp because of work, was still cajoling her daughter to cooperate when I left the bathroom. A few minutes later, she walked by me in the main house living room, carrying her son in her arms while her daughter followed behind, repeating chant-like, “I’m sorry you’re my mommy.”

Look for the fishies at the KCL pond
The next morning when the kids were in class, I ran into the mom and asked if I could hug her. Needing no more encouragement, she fell into my arms where I held her long and tight. When we released she looked like Roy Lichtenstein’s “Crying Girl,” tears pooling in her eyes and cascading down her face. “I know she’s not sorry I’m her mom, but I just wish I could be more patient with her.” Ah, what parent hasn’t said that out loud? The truth is, this woman was patient with her daughter. And frustrated. And deeply human. Little kids are tough, man.

Relaxing with young children is like the proverbial butterfly that cannot be chased. I relax best at dinners with my family. But vacations? Never. Sitting with a book on the beach makes me feel sweating and itchy just thinking about it.

I have no interest in climbing Mount Everest, but I’ve climbed a mountain in Michoacán, Mexico at dawn one winter’s day to see the monarch butterflies awaken and flood the air.

For several days, I walked alone on the streets of Rome when I was seven-months pregnant with Jules, finding ancient, medieval and Renaissance structures around every, and I mean every, corner.

Ten summers ago, when I was still the only one with a driver’s license, I took my three boys on a cross-country road trip in my 5-speed Matrix. For many reasons, that journey has become a pivotal memory for all four of us. I packed carrots, apples, cheese sticks, bread, peanut butter, jelly, Nutella, and Red Bull. My pact with the boys was if we could spend less than $20 at restaurants each day during the week, we’d splurge on weekends at a fancy dinner. They were game and we all lost weight, even Jules who was air-fern thin before we left Akron.

Three summers ago, I joined my eldest son, Claude, in Spain after he’d studied in Granada for a term. Madrid-Toledo-Valencia-Barcelona-Bilboa-Madrid, we circled that lovely Iberian country seeking art and tapas. Gracious Spaniards, delicious food (shout out to Marta Diaz Valderas at Casa Aurelio near the cathedral in Toledo!), fabulous museums and architecture greeted us at each stop along the way. The entire trip, including my airfare and all our trains, cost $3,000.

Life is like a bull I want to grab by the horns, throw down, cut open, drink the pulsing blood from its veins and the marrow from the bones I crack open. For even if I am the healthiest 51-year-old alive, and also the luckiest, that still only leaves me with 40 more good years of life.

Relaxing vacations are for those who watch life pass by. I will not wait for death because I know he waits for me.