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.

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