Yesterday, on the high school Facebook page, someone posted something about how she'd disliked The Great Gatsby in high school, and that her son was hating it too. Why did kids have to read these old, boring books they couldn't understand, she wondered?
I (among others) commented, saying I believed great and inspiring teachers are needed to make books come to life for teenagers. That was certainly true for me--I'm a lifelong Moby Dick fan because of my amazing AP English teacher. He taught me how to read closely, and how to write about it. It was like a whole new wing opened up in the house of my reading life.
Still, I get it if you just don't like a book everyone keeps saying is a "classic." But someone else on the thread commented, "When will we just accept that some people simply don't like to read?" That just made me sad.
I know it's true. There are those who don't want to sit down and waste their time with words. Even these days, when people are probably writing and reading more than ever before. We text far more than we talk. The publishing offices where I sometimes work are silent; it used to be that the phones were ringing and people were talking, to sources, writers, one another.
What else? Kids don't really have "signatures" anymore, because they don't learn cursive in school. They most likely don't recognize their best friends' handwriting, because they no longer pass notes in the hallways. And as I learned recently as a chaperone on a Disney trip, most of the thirty-some tweens we asked to write postcards home to their parents didn't know how to address one. ("Where does the address go? What about the stamp?")
My kid did know how, for the record.
Okay, maybe old-school reading just seems too exhausting to some after a long day of staring at a screen. But it seems like the least we can do is ensure that kids have an opportunity to get excited about reading in school. I hope very much my girls' teachers are inspiring them. I feel like the middle school ones did, and do (I was jealous on back-to-school night; I wanted to take Sara's English class). So far in freshman honors English, Kate is loving To Kill a Mockingbird. So that's good.
But I was always a reading and writing kid, and my girls are, too. What about the kids who aren't, who really don't enjoy reading, for whatever reason?
I worry, because reading and writing are such important tools for knowing yourself, aren't they. And for expressing yourself so that others can know you. I want to do something to help ensure that kids understand how much power writing will give them, and that reading will help them be better writers--and better, more compassionate people, too. And that stories, in whatever form, bring us together. That our entire lives are composed of stories.
I think about teaching middle or high school English.
Is that crazy?
It's been so humid and dark this week. The air is heavy, and it feels hard to breathe. The weird wetness of the air plus the dip in temperature that hints at fall is an awkward combination. The whole thing has made me feel like I’m moving through water. It’s slowed me down, and maybe that’s the only good part. It’s made me take a moment and look around me.
I’m looking especially at my daughter Kate. She’s almost 15. She has long, curly blond hair and blue-green eyes, and she’s lean and graceful. She’s a dancer. She just started high school and somehow seems to be taking it in stride. She’s a student, after all—she appreciates the actual learning, at least in most of her classes, notably language arts and history, though she’s tickled by her French teacher, a sharp-dressed older Haitian man. I think she’s been more enthusiastic in the last few weeks about French than she ever was about Spanish in middle school.
She wears striped T-shirts or concert shirts that just graze her midriff, or big, cozy sweatshirts with hoods that say things like “Pink” or “Cape Cod,” and those teeny denim shorts teenage girls favor. Her legs are strong from dance. They are beautiful. But if you look closely at her thighs, you’ll see a series of horizontal lines on each one. They’re scratches that are healing. Really, they are cuts, and she made them herself with scissors in the past few weeks.
She’s been having panic attacks for a year. The cutting is new. When I noticed it the first time she said she’d fallen into a bush. Even though when I first caught sight of it, it instantly looked intentional to me, I chose to believe her, to remain in denial for a day or two. That was the short amount of time it took for her to disclose what had been happening.
I was scared. I felt guilty. I felt frustrated. I felt ashamed. Strangely, I realize now, all the feelings I felt when my now-sober husband was in the final throes of his drinking.
Kate was in fifth grade then, when things got so bad that really, if he hadn’t stopped, he probably would have died. She and I were confidants in anger and outrage; we both just wanted him out of the house. We wanted to protect Sara, her sister, who was only nine, as much as we could. But Kate was only eleven. She shouldn’t have been my cohort. I knew that, and I tried to protect her as best I could—I spoke to her constantly about how I would always take care of her, no matter what, and she believed me then, believes me now—but I was like a shipwreck that year, and she saw that, and she stepped up.
Now she’s finally acknowledging her anger at having to do that. She’s mostly angry at her dad, I think, but I was at fault, too. I’m not indulging myself with mother guilt here; it’s just the truth. She took on more than she should have, than she was capable of. She was amazingly strong. But she shouldn’t have had to be.
The panic attacks have been painful to witness—I have never experienced one, my pain always having been more depressive than anxious—but they make sense to me, that she feels out of control, out of herself, not herself. The cutting takes that to another level, and I’m trying not to get too alarmed; I’ve read about it and it’s not generally a gateway to suicidal tendencies, more a way to find some relief from your anxiety and pain. I understand that, even though the part of me who is her mom, who thinks she’s the most beautiful and amazing and perfect person in the universe, is heartbroken by the thought that she would harm herself even that small bit, that maybe there will be scars on those beautiful legs. The cuts aren’t that deep, they really are more like scratches, so hopefully, no trace will remain. And we’re taking all the measures we need to take, together, to get her professional support, so we can confront it now.
But it’s a powerful lesson in restraint, I have to say. I want to panic and scream and cry and just wallow in the unfairness of it, that she has been made to feel this way by the circumstances of our life, and the imperfect way I handled some things. But she’s not a little girl anymore, and I can’t fix everything, I can’t make things go away. She’s a young woman with her own feelings and thoughts and her own reactions to them. It won’t help her if I freak out or tell her to “just stop.” What I need to do is be with her and behind her and just…there.
To that end, I’ve been treating her a bit like a china doll, at least in my mind. When we’re apart during the day, I text her more. When she’s with me I find myself touching her and petting her and hugging her more.
I know she’s going to be okay, but I also know that there’s not a place where okayness stays okay forever. Not for her or for any of us. I just need to be her mother, and make sure to love her and adore her, and also give her the space to be herself.
1. Some things are easier to practice than others. I’m running a half marathon in Philadelphia in November. It’s my fourth. Once again, I made a training schedule for myself, based on programs I found online. All I need to do is run the allotted number of miles on the Monday, Wednesday, and Friday of each week until that weekend. As my wind gets better and the weather cools down, I’ll get slightly faster and slightly more efficient. I’ll be able to run 13.1 miles. Not because I’m a superhero or even particularly good at running. But because I put in the time. And there’s pleasure in putting in the time, feeling and seeing the progress. In getting to the point where it actually feels good, where stopping feels worse than going.
2. Yoga is probably the thing that best taught me to practice. To slow down, breathe, not jump in blindly but take my time, to see the beauty in staying in a moment and moving to the next not with fear or obligation but with curiosity and an open heart. And not coincidentally, it’s the physical exercise where I can most obviously see and feel my progress.
3. God knows motherhood is a practice. From the earliest days, once you feel like you’ve “mastered” something, it changes. Every phase (the word you only realize in hindsight) feels like it will never, ever end, and then once it does, you can hardly remember the details, because there’s a new challenge to grapple with. When my two girls were babies and then toddlers I felt like the biggest failure at it all, because I could not give each of them 100 percent of my attention at the same time. Of course I couldn’t. But I considered that a personal failure, not a literal impossibility. I’m gentler with myself now, but as they become teenagers and the challenges are bigger, more serious, and there are fewer ways I can actually “fix” and help because they need to do more of it themselves…there’s a letting go that feels impossible, as well. All there is to do is practice.
4. I’m trying to practice feeling my feelings without taking some desperate action to feel better. I’ve prided myself on being able to feel deeply (I used to be ashamed of it, and then one day realized it wasn’t actually a curse, but a strength of sorts), but in the past few years I’ve realized that feeling things acutely, not being someone who can deny or avoid feelings, doesn’t mean you’re good at sitting with them. I have fallen into a pattern of feeling something uncomfortable and then taking questionable actions in an effort to feel better. And it doesn’t always lead to feeling better; sometimes it leads to more of the same, or worse.
5. To that point, does it count as practice when you do the wrong thing again and again, even with full knowledge that it’s pointless, and it will only hurt you?
6. Accepting other people. Not as you want them to be or wish they were, but as they are. Trying hard not to wallow in sadness that they don’t feel the way you want them to feel or do what you want them to do. Trying to remember that love means acceptance. Meeting a person where they are, as who they are, scars and all, and loving them still. Even if they’re not in your life the way you want, or even at all, even if they don’t want to be or just don’t know how. That’s actually loving a person.
7. Letting the past go. The cliché is that it only hurts *you* to hold on to anger, resentment, bitterness, disappointment. That’s so clear and obvious, you’d think it would be easy to let go of things, because who wants to feel all of that? What is it about holding on that feels like some sort of protection, some insurance that the other person won’t get to inflict all of that on you again? It makes no sense. Still, it’s frightening to think about letting it go completely. It feels like giving up. It feels passive and meek, even though it’s actually an act of self-care. I definitely need to practice this, in small ways, perhaps, so I can allow myself to do it in the big way.
8. I am someone who appreciates structure, schedules, plans. Setting goals and making to-do lists. Feeling like I have all the information I need. Feeling in the know, not in the dark. I do what I can to set things up this way.
9. Things don’t always go to plan. Another practice is getting more comfortable with that. You can create some foundation, structure, boundary, but it won’t always remain stable.
10. Still, I think it’s worth doing. Creating structure. I absolutely believe that the more I write, the better chance I have at getting to the heart of things. I am completely on board with the idea that you have to write a lot of "bad" stuff, a lot of confusing, indecipherable stuff, before you get at what you really want to say. In fact, it may be the only way to find out what you want to say. Also, I keep forgetting, when I start to feel a sense of dread that I “should” do this—it feels great. It feels amazing.
11. So I’m trying to make a new mantra out of what a friend and teacher wrote the other day: “We’re here to practice.”
I made friends with the waves last week.
I truly love to be near and on the water, and especially the ocean, a Midwestern girl who still finds the saltwater new and exciting after half a lifetime living near it. But I'm sorry to say I've been one of those moms who stands on the store and lets the surf nip at my toes while watching my girls dive under the crests, waving at them when they pop their heads back up.
I've been constantly impressed with their lack of fear, neither of the tide nor of the cold. They just jump right in with glee, and stay in for hours.
I never learned to do that in the Wisconsin lakes of my youth. Or even Lake Michigan. We didn't go swimming anywhere but the town pool very regularly. And my mother wasn't one to go in very far, either. I never had a chance to embrace it.
This summer I decided I had no more excuses. There was no reason not to stride right in. The water is warm(ish) in August, and in Ocean City, where we go each summer down the shore (that's Jersey talk for "going to the beach"), the water stays fairly shallow, even when you walk pretty far out.
My family was already 50 yards ahead of me the first day, but I kept moving and let the small waves slap at me. The soft sand below the surface was uneven, undulating in small hills that made me imagine a tiny dessert down there. I had to pay attention so I wouldn't stumble, while slowly starting to move myself in time with the rhythm of the water.
I looked back to shore, or out to my girls, I don't remember where, and a wave pushed at me and knocked me off balance. I landed on my rear end in neck-deep water. And I laughed.
It felt like a nudge of "let's do this, already!"
It also made me think of the way my cat bops the side of my head when we play.
And I realized I'd been looking at the ocean all wrong. It's just a big cat who wants to play with you. It's stronger than it thinks it is, and sometimes you feel such affection for it that you forget how strong it is, and it can hurt you. But what it wants to do is engage.
My new tattoo was in the process of healing while we were down the shore. It's the Sanskirt word "spanda." It's the pulsation of the universe, the up and down, the contraction and expansion. It moves like the ocean. The universe undulates. And we don't have a choice about whether to play along. I chose to put it on my arm to remind myself that everything that goes up will come down; everything that recedes will crest again. And our work is to ride the waves.