The last summer

My eighteen year old son reached into the drawer and picked up the tiny figurine.  I watched his mannish face dissolve into the impish twelve year old that he used to be. “Do you remember the time…”, he began.

 High school had just ended for my first born. Pomp and circumstance was fading and I was helping him to begin the dreaded task of packing for college.  

Although not intentional, my son and I shared that last summer before college with an emotional grace that still leaves me breathless. Sharing memories paved the way for us to move forward. Cementing his childhood in an emotional exchange  prepared both of us for letting go, giving us a strong foundation from which to jump to the next stage of mother and son.  And it eventually served as a roadmap for navigating our relationship for many years to come.

A tremendous amount is written about that last summer with your children before they go off to college. It is often described as a difficult  time filled with a roller coaster ride of emotions and behaviors that explode from an irritable, yet sometimes loving, child who on the brink of independence, is still  trapped at home.  It’s enough to make parents go mad. 

As a fairly deliberate  parent, I wanted that summer to be more than what I had read or heard. I had already decided to make some physical changes to the house so that when my children came home from their first year in college, the stage would be set. These subtle alterations included their childhood bedrooms. I knew that even modest modifications would help me to move forward and accept the fact that my children were now young adults. My role, just like their bedroom, had  to shift and revamp, even though we would still be there to hold and protect them, giving them refuge as needed. But beyond my emotional needs, I  hoped it would help them to recognize and accept this new relationship as well. So it was with this in mind when I asked my son if we could “clean his room together” before he left for college.

We started with two bins – one to keep and one to give away, as well as a giant  trash bag.  We kept the bins and the trash bag in the upstairs hallway all summer long, directly outside of his bedroom door.  And while that was an annoyance, it was a way for me to respect his space. Anytime he had an hour or two to spare, I would sit in the hallway at the bins and he would bring forth items as he sorted through his debris strewn bedroom. We would talk about those objects, especially if they invoked a strong memory for either of us.  Sometimes the attached recollection was so very different for him than it was for me, fodder which allowed us to share our very different perspectives on the events that constructed his childhood. There was something remarkably definitive to bringing both of our perspectives together in those quiet moments before he moved away.  This was the room that a lost chipmunk had gravitated to when it unknowingly entered our house during the spring of his freshman year.  Now it was an excavation site of years gone by, uncovering treasures, buried hatchets, and well kept secrets.

 Drawer by drawer, shoebox by shoebox, we examined, held, shared, and relived the past together, twining our own stories together to form one.  So many feelings, from tender to tough, flowed through us during those evenings of sorting and deciding into which bin his memories would go.  He was like me in so many ways and this one time summer routine brought those commonalities to the surface.

When my son called me one evening during his first two weeks of college and asked me to send his high school transcript to our local university, I felt a little tingle of joy (after the initial wave of worry).  I knew he was telling me that he was homesick. As a mom, there was something secretly reassuring in his unease. But I also knew that the right thing to do was to remind him that he had made a commitment. One full year was our deal. He had to stay at the university he chose (which was an hour or so away from home) and next summer we could discuss a transfer if necessary.  

By the time he came home for Thanksgiving break, I knew by his demeanor that my son couldn’t wait to get back to his new home.  When I asked, he thoughtfully reassured me that while it was great to see us all again, he had another world calling for him.  With a giant lump in my throat,  I told him that I completely understood.  I couldn’t have been prouder or happier, because whether he was aware of it or not, I knew that we had reached a new milestone and there was no looking back.

It’s that time 

It’s that time of the year again.  School supplies, new anxieties, and demanding rhythms clutter our minds and displace our unhurried tempo.  The slow heat of summer evaporates as new challenges await us with intimidating taunts.  I both love, and abhor, this time of the year.

As I tumble toward this conflicting season, my final summer act is the annual family trek to the beach, doubled with moving our daughter back to college for her sophomore year.  But this year was so different on so many levels. Recognizing the passage of time caused an internal emotional collision, complete with wreckage everywhere.

I initially began this blog with the goal of moving forward with dignity and intention as I was facing my fifties and the transitional period of empty-nesting.  I realized that big changes were coming and I wanted to be emotionally prepared.  What I didn’t expect, however, was that the naked truth would bring such travails. As I sank into my favorite beach chair with my morning coffee, I realized that while I had been emotionally preparing, the changes had already happened.  And they appeared to have no intention of stopping anytime soon.  My life was suddenly new again and I was floundering like a fish out of water. 

For the first time in eighteen years, the beach house remained empty of my children.  My son couldn’t leave his new job to join us and my daughter was already busy with her college friends.  My new wife and I were alone, and together we forged some new routines while I clung to empty boogie boards and forgotten sand pails.  Weren’t they little just yesterday? Here I was, literally standing on the beach where a million tiny moments had been washed out to sea, yet were burned into my heart and soul.  I felt misplaced in a changeless discomfort of loss that was constantly nagging.  No, I guess I wasn’t as prepared as I thought I was.

Like the start of school, I know that a new cadence will eventually take place in my life, only to change again. Life moves forward and I can only hold on for so long.   I have to give myself permission to let go and ride the surf with new eyes.  I also have to give myself the time to mourn and reminisce, to rejoice and to cry.  It’s all a part of accepting change. 

I watched my daughter’s image recede in the rearview mirror and I knew that we are all experiencing change.  I hope that I did enough “good stuff” as a parent to help my children travel successfully through their own adventures.   I just can’t go back and do it again with the insight that I have now – that’s part of the torture.  I live with knowing that I did my best and hope that the sum of all those  moments will have the same timeless impact on them as it does on me.  

Best wishes for a successful new school year!

Flooded

I’m flooded in memories.  Is this what empty nesting is all about?  Or perhaps this is a manifestation of menopause.  Everything is so unclear when these two forces come together simultaneously, leaving me vulnerable and assuming.   I grasp at fast and furious movies that flicker in my mind, leaving as quicly as they came.  Random and trivial moments catapult me to another time and place and I’m overwhelmed with emotion.  This madness is new and strange and I’m not quite sure how to manage it all. 

Memories sometimes leave me feeling washed in love and fondness. Especially wonderful are those that bubble up quickly, bursting through my consciousness with no time to examine it for flaws.  These stir my heart and soul, boosting my spirit or giving me new purpose.

Sometimes my memories bring questions and doubts, especially if  my children are currently struggling with some life issue.  Did I do enough?  Did I teach the right lessons?  Could I have done more?  Could I have offered something different?  Was I enough?  

And I realize that this is a part of getting older.  This is what letting go and being vulnerable looks like as I become open to change that will fill the gaps and give me new purpose.  I can examine  the past with nostalgia or a critical eye, because none of it will change the past.  I am creating my future.  And as I look for inspiration,  I often visit a place that my children have long outgrown, and surprisingly, the journey often veers to somewhere in my  own childhood.  The cycle of life is revealed.  

I remember car rides overflowing with chatter and awkward limbs.  Shaved heads on a dare, trampoline secrets, and ear piercings without permission litter my thoughts,  right alongside  melted Popsicles and lost gloves.  I loved those stormy nights when everyone slept in the same bed.  I yearn for sticky kisses and glittery hearts, messy backpacks and busy schedules.  I peer in to the now grownup looking bedrooms and hope to find piles of clothes strewn across the floor and a  collection of sticks under the bed.  It is all so neat now, so quiet, holding secrets of youth forever gone.

I like this part of my life.  It unravels and challenges me.  It gives me opportunity and time.  And I miss the past like crazy at any minute of any day.  I’m trapped in a time warp and never know where I’ll land.  My life is comfortable and trepadatious, like a bipolar teenager with a menopausal brain.  How lucky to have lived so fully that I can’t always let go of the past.  I am still very alive.  What more could I ask for?



What Are We Teaching Our Children?

Sexual assault is a big deal. It’s a hot topic on college campuses and I want to join the conversation. As the parent of young adults, and as a counselor in a large public high school, I am deeply worried. What message have I given to even my own children about sexual assault? What messages have they heard? And have any of these kept them safe? The answer scares me tremendously because I know that I have not done my best job on this topic. The mere fact that our culture still hasn’t changed the conversation from what the victim did to deserve such abuse to why did the perpetrator behave that way is a sure sign that we have done something terribly wrong. Why are the countless victims that I speak with asking what more THEY could have done to prevent this rather than expressing rage at their abusers? And why are these casualties feeling like THEY are the “bad guys” when they block their perpetrators from social media because these abusers just keep going along like everything is normal and fine? Yes, we have done something wrong for sure and I am ready to make some changes.

And so, as we sit on the verge of Valentine’s Day, I am torn. This holiday, which focuses on cheap romantic expressions of love like flowers, candy, and jewelry, is being paired with the opening of Fifty Shades of Grey. A book that has caused controversy for its audacious employment of what many view as emotionally abusive behavior is taking cinematic flight on our national holiday of love. To me, that’s a horrible pairing, especially if it’s delivered without a critical conversation with young men and women. Just what messages ARE we sending our sons and daughters?

Now let me be perfectly frank. I’m not a sexual prude, nor do I have any personal ax to grind on this book. I believe that sex is personal, and well, we all have our different tastes. I am concerned, however, when I talk to young women about this book and they tell me that it is all okay, because in the end, Christian really loved Ana. Do they realize that the book inaccurately portrays a consensual BDSM relationship with scene after scene of interactions that reflect real life signs of emotional abuse? Christian’s use of isolation, threats, intimidation, and stalking are emotionally abusive in nature and should be red flags for anyone entering a relationship like this. Shouldn’t we be worried that this book, despite its poor literary qualities, has moved from “mommy porn” to wide popularity among teenage girls and college women? Aren’t we appalled that the lead female character has such little self respect with no voice of her own? What kind of healthy relationship role models do these characters represent? I will certainly never wish that my own daughter eventually finds love in this way.

We continue to send a confusing message linking true love to sexual and romantic violence over and over again. And then we scratch our heads, wondering why sexual assaults on high school and college campuses are at an all time high. I need to do something different. I want to start the shift in my world.

I will not be going to see Fifty Shades of Grey this weekend, or ever. I will, instead, donate the money that I would have spent in tickets and popcorn, to my local women’s shelter. And I will speak out. I will talk about the signs of sexual assault and violence to anyone who will listen. I will not be afraid to speak the truth, to seek understanding of victims, and to hand over full responsibility to their abusers.

Giving up a book or movie to save just one young life from having to make the journey down that long road of recovery from sexual assault is worth it to me. Can you say the same thing? Life at fifty allows me to peer forward with contemplation, which in turn, opens up endless options for the choices I make in the future. We can make a difference every single day. Please do your part.

New Resolutions

I am on the struggle bus. For the first time since keeping a journal in elementary school, I can’t seem to nail down the handful of realistic resolutions that typically escort me through the months of every new year. Reaching my fifth decade of life has expanded my view while simultaneously congesting the traffic that roars through my mind everyday. I have become wiser and more confused all at the same time. I often fight to stay in the present while memories from the past flicker on and off as I meander through a house that was not too long ago filled with the energy of my children. Transitions are hard.

I was out with friends for dinner the other night. I asked how their first year of empty nesting was going and I saw the same strained look appear on their faces. It’s the I know I should be happy but I have this empty place in my soul feeling that I too, experience every day. “It’s hard” they said, and the conversation ended there.

This empty nesting stage calls for patience. Patience and practice at replacing guilt with relief when you realize that you no longer have to rush home and perform those magic tricks of being everywhere and doing everything at once. Practice at replacing eagerness for fear when you realize you can hang up the cape and find a new hobby, even if you don’t know who you are anymore. Practice at allowing yourself to stop and stand, if even for just one minute, to relive a memory that came flying out of those empty rooms that hold such sentimental yearnings.

An extremely talented therapist walked me through the darkest days of my divorce and taught me that it is important to always honor my feelings, no matter how ugly they are. So now I stand at a threshold where honoring all of my feelings feels like an overwhelming task of selfishness after so many years of putting everyone else first. It is a requirement in order to go through, not around, this extraordinary period of my life. If I want to live fully and consciously as I forge new ground, I will have to embrace this challenge.

I think I need to be extra kind to myself this year. Personal growth isn’t clear. Wanting to develop with intention may call for keeping the concept of this metamorphosis in mind, but allowing other forces to direct the course of my journey. Climbing into your 50s and having your children leave the nest at the same time is a cruel trick, but I don’t intend to succumb to the ploy. I will approach every day with an upbeat attitude and positive expectations, knowing that auspicious transformations are taking place within me.

As for the New Years resolutions, well, I clearly have enough on my plate this year. I think I’ll just wait until December 31st and reflect on what I believe I have resolved in 2015. If I live my life with patience, practice, honor, kindness, and positivity, I’m sure it will be amazing.
Happy New Year!

We are all healing from something.

I recently took a trip that wasn’t really planned because I felt it was my calling. It was an answer to my own hurting heart and what I envisioned to be the best possible way to demonstrate my unconditional love. Now in retrospect, I think I was destined to take this journey. It was time for me to learn some parental lessons, time for me to drive with my suitcase full of fears and memories with the sole purpose of being there for my child. At first this trip felt like a daunting task, but it grew into a beautifully satisfying passage of time. It was an act that spoke words that I may never be able to fully articulate, an occasion that passed without judgement. It was an opportunity to be seized. 

 We all hurt sometimes and we are all healing from something. This statement applies to our children, whether we want it to or not.
I have always thought of my children as the absolute best reflection of myself. I see them as beautiful, intelligent, creative, funny and good human beings. I love looking at them because they seem so pure, so unobstructed by all of my parental mistakes. They soar despite my failed relationships, financial stressors, and countless unhinged emotional tailspins. Fights, tears, and disappointments have never stood in the way of being proud of all that they have accomplished and become. And at the end of the day, I know that I have always, always loved them with all of my heart for exactly who they are at any given moment in time.

 But like all parents, I have not been able to always keep them “safe”. We all suffered childhood tantrums and lessons of disobedience. We endured adolescent growing pains and awkward years of sitting on the edge of self-loathing and unpredictable identity crises. But as a parent who is also a counselor, I just assumed my kids would tell me when they were really hurting. At the very least, I figured I would be able to tell.
But that’s not always how it played itself out. They often struggled alone, sharing their most intimate secrets with only the family cat. My best parental intentions and carefully chosen words served only to hurt them more, while my inability to see inside of them made them feel invisible and worthless.

Knowing this truth hurts. Accepting that I did my best and always made decisions with good intentions is a salve for my own guilt and helps to ease the ache in my soul. But really knowing that your children hurt and that you can’t save them from this pain is about as hopeless of a feeling as it gets. I understand that it’s a part of the parental process, but it’s not something that I will ever comfortably embrace.

 I have learned, however, that there are some powerful things that I can do as a parent.

First, It isn’t always developmentally appropriate to save our children from things that may harm them. As a matter of fact, helicopter parents often snuff out their children’s sense of ability and accomplishment. Just “taking care of things” for our children sends the strong message that we think they are incapable of taking care of themselves. We give them doubt when they need reassurance and support.

Second, of course, is that all of this parental guidance must be dished out in ways that are developmentally appropriate. This means that there is a lot of guess work and that often makes parenting akin to walking on a wire, thousands of feet above the ground, on a windy day. It is scary and we make mistakes, lots of them.

The one thing we can do is that we can always be there for them, giving them the message that we trust them. I have an undying faith that my children can eventually do whatever it takes to save themselves. I can offer tools, advice and support in many ways, but the underlying message will be my credence in their very own abilities.

 Dignity may sometimes be the only thing we can offer and I tend to think of it as love in its rarest form.

We can actively express our compassion even if our children must walk their paths alone. But keep your bags packed, because you never know when you will have to take an unexpected journey.

Life Saving Changes

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This bridge saved my life. Of course, it truly didn’t do anything out of the ordinary other than provide a dry path over the little stream that trickled beneath it, but it was a life changing force at a desperate time.
I was transitioning out of a long term relationship and found running to be my escape, my rescuer, my best friend. I would break free into the small park near my house and lose myself on the twisted, uneven trails. But inevitably, I would leave the park over this same foot bridge, always pausing to pick up a leaf and drop it into the water, watching to see how far it would travel before being lodged between rocks or stranded on mossy, tangled branches. It never made it very far. And each day I would hope that the leaf I picked would miraculously jump through the clutter and break free in the flow, but it was always stopped, unable to go any further.

At some point, I began to relate the journey of those leaves to my life. I was stuck in my transition, still finding myself caught up in ugly webs of frustration, anger, and loss. Like so many other times in my life, change was hard and there was resistance, holding me back from sailing free and finding new ways to live my same old life.
Sometime in the spring, when the waters ran swift and deep, a leaf finally broke free, rounding the bend in the stream and out of my sight. I was elated and then in the next moment, I knew what that meant for me. It was time to move forward.

Finding and listening to the signs around us, as well as listening to the voice within, is a gutsy challenge. After twenty-nine years as a school counselor in the same district, I find myself facing unexpected professional challenges. While I am told that my perspective is valuable, I am also viewed as an obstacle to change when I extrapolate problem areas from new mandates or initiatives. With conflicting feedback, I sense that I am standing on the threshold of a professional remodeling. The change may be behavioral or just in my own mental approach, but nevertheless, it will demand my respect and attention to confront these changes with deliberate intention. Some days I will be an obstacle, challenging the constant pushing and nudging of change with questions that are born from experience and insight. On other days, I will be like the water, aiding in the forward flow, uninhibited by any obstacles in sight. Both roles are necessary for progress and I now find myself able to audition for all. Dinosaurs may be old, but their vision is multi dimensional. It is a new and curious place to be, but feels seriously misunderstood by educational leaders who are pushing new mandates. Time and experience are on my side, however, so I know I’ll work it through. But if you’ll excuse me now, I have some more paths to run and leaves to find.

The Business of Education

I am very worried about the future of education in the United States. Unlike my first twenty years in education, I feel as though I am now working for a business, not an educational institution. And without the much needed support (financial and in terms of basic respect) for our educators and the public education system, I’m not so sure that I will see any changes in the near future.

Decisions are now being made from the top down. Mandates, accountability, initiatives, transparency and lack of budget are the buzz words. Gone are the days of new ideas being generated from within the institution because we knew our needs and our strengths. We don’t talk about responsibility anymore, we talk in figures and accountability. Teachers are now being partially evaluated on the outcomes of student testing. School board members (chosen by popular vote and who have little to no knowledge of educational systems and teaching) make the final decisions along with top officials who don’t even “live” in the school buildings. Really? Does this sound like the best way to “know a system” and “grow an understanding” of it?

My teacher friends are exhausted. Like me, many of them have not seen an increase in pay for years due to the very small raises and the increasingly higher cost of medical insurance. Knowing that many others are in this same boat, they don’t complain. Class sizes are larger than ever, student needs are vast and heterogeneous, and more teaching solutions are demanded in each class in order to meet every individual student need. At the end of the day, teachers are overwhelmed and creativity is stifled as they sit down to do the several more hours of grading that is also a part of our jobs.

Yet we know that we will continue forward with new initiatives, new ways to evaluate us, and to work under new leadership models that are taught to us by the distribution of a book that we need to read in our own spare time. We didn’t enter this field for anything greater than to make a difference in the lives of others. But honestly, even that is becoming difficult when we are increasingly deluged by the demands of the “educational business”.

Education will and must change. The world has changed and the needs of our student learners has changed as well. Should we allow politics to call the shots? Should state testing drive the institution? There is so much to consider and like the application of makeup, each institution needs its own personal foundation for desired outcomes. There is no one right answer or approach.

I find educational leaders increasingly asking educators to jump into the stream and go with the flow, supporting new mandates and initiatives without any proof of their worth or rationale. During this complicated push and pull of educational reform, however, I resolve to keep my eye on the students that I work with. I have never been afraid to swim upstream if it’s the right thing to do for the students that I represent. So hand me some flippers please, because I think it’s going to be a hard swim.

Stories

Everyone has a story. I have the good fortune of listening to personal stories for a living. Of course, that doesn’t necessarily mean that I always hear “the truth”, but believe me, listening to adolescent stories never gets boring.
My own parents always taught me that there are at least two sides to every story and my experience as a counselor has proven that to be the case over and over again. Sadly enough, I don’t seem to often have the opportunity to work with families who live by this motto anymore. More and more parents see their children as innocent bystanders, failing to see that the educational model actually requires their child’s participation.

Everyone wants to be heard and every story has its own individual perspective and flavor. From my own therapeutic adventures, I discovered that I could rewrite my trajectory. By choosing attainable and realistic goals, I could work to find the life I wanted to live, especially when it meant accepting some harsh realities about my own stupid behaviors in the past. I know nobody really wants to pay good money just to get a bird’s eye view of your own ugliness, but thank heavens for therapy.

Adolescents can especially tell their stories from a convincing, single frame of reference. They are almost always convinced that they are right and that, therefore, means that someone else must be wrong. And who can blame them? Most teens lack the life experience to see things from other points of view. Helping them to tilt their window in order to see their story from another angle is my job as a counselor. But merely listening to them can convey the message that their story is the final “truth.” And so, I am often seen as the bearer of bad news; the face of stark reality. It is only by being an active participant in the listening process that I can have an opportunity to teach them that they can actually change their stories just by changing their point of view. By asking challenging questions about the things they tell me, I can help them to realize that they are not just victims of life. We are all in a symbiotic relationship with the universe and we do hold culpability for the stories we tell and choose to believe. We, as individuals, have to make the necessary changes to make our own stories manageable since we often have little to no power over making those around us change.

This message of personal responsibility can be very empowering. But, for the love of God, parents, please let your children know that they are not powerless victims of the big bad world…or better yet, of the big, bad school! Yes, as parents we have a duty to protect our children from harm. Making sure that the protection we offer is developmentally appropriate, however, is our responsibility as adults. Blaming others for a teen’s lack of success does not usually empower that child to discover or wield their own strategies that are necessary to dig themselves out of negative circumstances. Blaming the school (or anyone else) only reinforces a lack of voice and encourages a victim story. In other words, when your 15 year old comes home and tells you he failed his Math test, ask him what he could have done differently to prepare for it, rather than allowing him to blame it on his teacher by saying it was a bad test and “everyone” failed it.

Help us educators to help children grow up to be responsible young adults. Teach children to write their own stories, not just tell them.

Change is in the air

Welcome to my first attempt at blogging.

My intentions are to to share my experiences as a dedicated public school counselor, parent, and experienced woman in a way that will propel me forward. To remember and to cherish what has already happened can be a powerful way to slip in to the future. My goal is to move forward with dignity and with intention, a goal I embraced at the age of 49 when phrases like “over the hill” and “empty nest” that had once seemed so far away were suddenly staring me in the face. I want to act before I am acted upon.  So I gathered up my courage to enter therapy once again and resolved myself to a new way of looking at my old life. Two years later, I feel like I am living an intentional and fulfilling life. Blog followers are not of concern, but will always be welcome. It is the journey, not the destination, that I intend to relish.