Foreign Languages

        I don’t have a natural affinity for foreign language. Six
years of publically taught French, a semester of college Italian and I can confidently
say in both languages: Je parle français; io parlo italiano.

But I don’t.

In either.

I do, on the other hand, speak a wide variety of Kid.

When they were little, I translated body language and
syllables into needs and wants. As they got older, I inferred meaning from
actions.  And alongside them, I learned the
varied languages of their newfound interests.

Pitch, box, yellow card, red card.

Horse stance, knife strike, sensei, gi.

When Alex started playing soccer, I had to learn an unfamiliar
game with its own lexicon. Same with Michael and Karate. My limited knowledge of
his sport had been gleaned from the first Karate Kid. Nothing in that flick,
though, had hinted to the forthcoming acrobatic practice strikes performed in my
kitchen or the proudly growing pile of hand-broken boards in his bedroom.

These were new and odd languages, but I soon became fluid.
Adapted. Got interested. Because my kids were.

I didn’t speak baby or toddler until I did. And I
certainly had had no effective tutelage to teenage.

That language, in particular, was set in code. Especially
as (not) spoken by my son. Years of incessant chatter had given way to sullen
and sometimes seething silence. There were piercing looks and shoulder shrugs.
Grunts, monosyllables. I had to master intent and outcome from a whole lot of
words not being said, decipher a new vocabulary without translation guide or
codebook.

But like the results from a language immersion class, I
got it. Because I listened. And because I was willing to follow the instruction of native speakers.

Michael’s been teaching me again. A new vocabulary, a new
language. Hookups and pickups (not the kind you think), capacitors and
compressors, reverb field and phase cancellation, C12s and Telefunken U47s.

It’s his language.

And if I listen -allow him to be the teacher- I’m in.

It’s not so much a difficult lesson, as it is one that can
be a bit disorienting. Dizzying, even.

But it is learning and I still love to learn.

I actually don’t understand how others do not.

I learn a lot from my students. I think it’s supposed to
be the other way around. But if that were the only paradigm I was willing to
consider, I also think I’d be worse off. We all would be.

Although most buck the concept, some of my students understand
the merit of peer evaluation. They get the idea of learning not only from their
professors, but also from their classmates. A few of them, anyway. Fewer still
believe that their own ideas can be instructive; that they can be both student
and teacher at the same time.

As parents, maybe we should embrace a bit more of this fluid
concept of instruction. We’ve got a lot of lessons to teach, wisdom to impart.
But we can also learn from our kids and the other children in our lives.

We just have to listen and be willing to twist our
tongues around a new syllable or two.

 

It Could Always Be Worse

 After pounding rains hit the area a few years
back, I casually commented to a neighbor –It could be worse.
Not for me, she replied. 

From that single statement, I knew. We would
never be friends.
 

Her home had been severely flooded, much of
her basement’s furnishings ruined. But seriously, it couldn’t have been worse?
 

Of course it could. 

It could have been sooo much worse. 

Regardless of how little may be in my glass,
I always regard it as half-full. And generally, so do the people with whom I
surround myself. Even when my friend plays out every imaginable scenario to
reach worst-case, she comes to the conclusion that it’s something with which
she could live. It may be horrible –but it could be worse.
 

I sometimes deal with students whose vision
of the world is so narrowly focused that they cannot see a bigger picture. When
they find themselves lost in a battle on campus or at home, rather than fortify
their efforts to strengthen a position, they crumble.
 

To a large degree, I believe that resilience
is something with which we’re born. When the parenting experts were not long
ago penning books teaching resilience, I passed on a purchase. My friend noted
the resilience in my own daughter and asked how’d
you do that?
I quickly admitted –It wasn’t me. Alex came that way.
 

And she had. 

Those first few hours of her life were some
pretty powerful foreshadowing of things to come. Regardless of the challenge –she
would meet them—and succeed or fail—move on to the next one.
 

I can’t teach my students resilience, but I
can sometimes talk them off the ledge. With my just-outside-their-lives
perspective, I can usually prove that the reality with which they’re dealing
isn’t quite as bad as they think it is. Or –sometimes it is. And then, I can
only offer assurances that they will come out the other side of it. It’s
interesting that the ones who have been so fully tested by calamity seem also
to be those with the most positive life view.
 

My friend is again dealing with one of those
real calamities of life. In a ten minute conversation she expressed a range of
emotions usually associated with the stages of grief: denial, anger,
acceptance. And one most wholly associated with her: resilience.
 

She will come out the other side of this. She
knows. Not because she’s been handed some guarantee, but because she sees the
glass as always half-full and she still believes -it could always be worse.

 

Ownership




    Shouldering responsibility even when it may not be fully mine to carry (see previous post) may seem a throwback to an earlier and wrong-minded blame-the-victim philosophy. In some ways, maybe it is. The mindset, however, could be a generational thing. My parents, my peers and I have generally held to the belief that we are fully the authors of our own lives. Responsibility, ownership –these are the beacons to which most of us charted our courses.




    It’s an admirable ideal. The flip side of it, though, may be that in addition to accepting our own failings, we sometimes take on the failings of others –especially our offspring. A dangerous habit. Certainly the practice has the potential to be difficult for us, but its cost to our kids may be much more damning.




    Because we’ve allowed it, too many of our children are quick to place blame outside their own sphere. The trajectory may start at home but it follows them out and up into the world. It’s the teacher, the coach, the professor, the boss. Not them.




    This it’s-everyone-else’s-fault mantra sets them on course to an unsustainable climb. Eventually they may find themselves at a precipice without a parachute. And the climb down from such inflated heights can be treacherous, a fall disastrous.




    But it’s our fault.




    Hmmm




    I once opined in a newspaper column that we spend the first years of our children’s lives placing them at the center of the universe and then are shocked when they turn into teenagers and start to agree with the positioning.




    This isn’t to say that our kids aren’t wonderful.




    They are. They have so much to offer. All of them.




    They’re just not all wonderful at everything.




    And when we pretend that they are, and then they fail, it’s pretty easy for them to grab to a life ring of blame; it just has to be the fault of someone else. Because we’ve told them too many times -they’re wonderful.




    The thing is, just like we probably learned a whole lot more from our missteps than from any of our easier accomplishments, our kids would likewise benefit from the occasional reality check. After all, how exactly are they to identify success if they’ve never considered failure?




    My own kids have stumbled on occasion. I’ve had opportunities to step in to soften the blows. A phone call, a small intervention, a push in an alternate direction might have changed the outcome, averted a full-out failure. It was hard to watch my kids hurt, difficult to resist the temptation to intervene. Usually, I did it anyway. It’s too early to tell if it was the right decision.




    Michael will soon to be out of high school. His road has been a much different one than his sister’s. From an outside perspective, it may appear that he’s suffered more failures. But not necessarily. His choices, as misguided as they sometimes appear, have been his own. If he hasn’t exactly excelled at an endeavor, it’s usually entirely of his own choosing. Seriously.




    This isn’t to say that I haven’t seen Michael brush blame from his own shoulders and onto another’s. He’s hardly perfect. On the other hand, he usually acknowledges his shortcomings, owns up to many of his mistakes. 

    
Michael is off on an alternative journey and passionately so. His climb has been a whole lot rockier than those of his peers but he knows every inch of the terrain. And because he’s forged such a unique path, when he does stumble –as he will- he may be better prepared to pick himself up, reassess his direction and continue on.

Freudian Foreshadowing



    They make it to the blog frequently enough so you probably get that I work with college kids (oops, I chastised one just the other day for using that term; I mean adults). And also that I like what I do. And that I like them (most of them, most of the time).

    
What may not be clear, however, is that I haven’t really been working with them all that long. In fact, my first batch of babies (adults) will be leaving this spring. Flying out of the nest, so to speak, off into the great beyond.




    And I have mixed feelings about their noteworthy transition.




    Many of my own friendships are older than these students I tutor, so I get that four years can be but a blimp in a relationship’s foundation. On the other hand, I’ve spent some serious “quality time” with these young adults. They’ve shared much with me. Way more than you’d think. Way more than I ever imagined they would.




    When I recently found out that a student of mine had cut class before she’d had a chance to fess up to me, I asked her if she would have been forthcoming with the info.




    “I tell you everything,” she said.




    And she just might.




    Not in the every-detail-of-every-day sort of tell, but in a kind that matters a whole lot more. She’s been through a lot in these past four years. And the thing is, I’ve been through most of it with her.

    
Now, she’s at the threshold of the other side -where she should be, where she deserves to be.




    She’s arrived with grace and resilience and I’m proud of her and who she is today. I am proud of my other students, as well. They’ve turned from teenagers to adults, and as they graduate, they seem to be truly prepared for the next phase of their lives.




    I’m happy for them.




    I’ll also be sad to see them go.




    Changing the subject (not really).




    I’ve been, on occasion, technically challenged. The combination of an utter lack of knowledge about what it exactly is that runs the computers that run most of our lives and a sometimes senseless sense of speed are  often a poor mix. 

    
Case in point.




    I don’t delete the emails and text messages most normal people might. There’s a history here which I won’t go into. Anyway, among the non-deleted text messages on my cell phone were a few (several) from my students.

    
The messages weren’t left merely to clutter the inbox; they’d been intentionally undeleted.




    And then, in a too quick moment of parsing the list, I said yes when I didn’t mean to and every message was gone.




    Poof!




    I wonder how long they would have remained, had I not make the mistake.




    I don’t know. But now they’re gone –for good.
    
    
And soon too, will be the kids who texted them.




    Because they are ready, perhaps even more than I am, to separate. From their school, from their roommates and college friends -and from me.




Fleeting Encounters, Lasting Impressions



    I told Kelley that I’ve finally stopped looking for answers as to where my students fit into my life and exactly how I belong in theirs –or for how long. I’ve foregone analysis in favor of acceptance, and given into the strange arrangement that has linked our lives.




    She needs, now, to do the same.




    Hers may be a taller order, though.
 
    
While odd attachments are a particular specialty of hers, this latest connection comes with an enormous weight –and an ongoing obligation. 

    
And yet, it’s one that has been placed upon her before. Perhaps that’s why she understands the fullness of the responsibility and shuns its forever commitment.




    She’s reluctant to take it on.




    But I know her.
 
    
She will.

    
She has no choice but to accept the weighty request. And we both know that. I also know that she will, as expected, rise to the task. 

    
We’ve covered this territory before –this interconnectedness which doesn’t always make itself immediately apparent. It’s an attachment of one life to another like the thread of a web, barely visible, but for the glint of sunlight that shows itself only from a certain afterward perspective. It’s often difficult to see where one span meets another, where filaments cross and then connect. Only sometimes, and at just the right moments, from an exacting vantage can you see how the fibers fit and that they do indeed belong together. 

    
That of course they do.

    
Somehow.




    Even if only briefly.

    
The students with whom I started at this little college are now seniors. They’ll be graduating in May, going off to their lives.

    
As they should.

    
A couple of them will keep in touch.




    For a little while.




    And then they won’t.

    
Kelley’s young charge will likely be a part of her life for a bit longer.




    But she can’t know that for sure.

    
Still, she’ll make the full investment in another’s life, and ask nothing in return. Because she can’t not. 

    
We both take our unanticipated roles as mentors more seriously than we should. With sincerity, we offer them “forever” and don’t expect a reciprocal return. It’s a one-sided arrangement.

    
In a good return on our investment, we’ll receive a thank-you. In a better one, we may truly make a difference in a life or two. In the best scenario, though, someday our young friends will give back. To someone else. If only briefly. 

    
To another person, they’ll promise to be there always, unconditionally, and not ask or expect the same in return.

    
And our invisible legacy will live on.




    Even if we never know that it does.




It’s a Long Story

    That’s the precautionary statement I often use with my students to forestall a sidetrack that will delay the work at hand. It’s also effective at keeping the already blurred lines of our relationships in check.



    I know they’ll shun a long story, so the simple statement erects an easy and unnoticed barrier.




    But they do all seem to be long stories these days.




    Perhaps because I’m getting old.




    Or maybe it’s just a creep of color into the gray backdrop of a life spent trying too hard to see all sides. 

    
Still, all my stories seem to have stories within them now. They can’t be told in a few sentences.

    
I always used to opt for the short answer. An easy explanation to extricate myself from further questions.




    (Hmmm. I wonder from where my son gets it.)




    But now, it seems disingenuous to answer with yes and no when the real story is so much more complicated.




    We’re all so damn complicated.




    And without a bit of background, a lot gets lost in translation. Sometimes I feel compelled to fill in the blanks with the brush of color.




    We are, after all, a pretty colorful bunch.




    Still, I resist.




    When my student happily shared her covert plans to burn scented candles in her room, I told her not to. I pointed it out as the obvious dorm violation it was. I extolled the dangers. I asked her to reconsider.



 


    Nothing.

    
Then, I told her that I’d lost a friend in a dorm fire.

    
A moment of stunned silence. 

    
She acquiesced; the candles weren’t worth it.

    
But see, there was a time I would have opted out of sharing that info, avoided the memory. Easier for me, really.

    
But not worth it.

    
There’s a perception, I think, when I line up behind administration, that I’m just another of them. I’m worried, I’m cautious, I’m careful.

    
I’m none of the above.

    
But they don’t know that. Because I don’t generally tell them.

    
So when I give them the longer story –they listen. A little.

    
I can’t always teach them, though, of the interconnectedness of all of our lives. I can’t make them understand the Disney-esque message that it really is a small world. 

    
I understand the tapestry of people and their crisscrossing lives. I can see where the woven threads link, how they connect each to the other.

    
They can’t.

    
Not yet.

    
I could tell them. From the lessons of my own life, I could teach them much about the path they’re on and where it may lead.

    
Sometimes, I do.

    
More often, I take a pass.

    
I could try to explain why. 

    
But it’s a long story.


Firefly Light

firefly light   I’ve been going about it all wrong.

    I keep looking for the light at the end of the tunnel, some blazing sure sign that everything’s going to work out for the kids I know.

    As if life comes with that sort of guarantee.

    It doesn’t.

    Instead of allowing myself to be engulfed by the darkness, then, maybe I need to embrace a little night vision. As if I’m stepping in from the blinding white of snow, perhaps all it requires is an adjustment of perspective.

    Because the light is there, even if I can’t always see it.

    So I’m going to start looking for small flashes of light -from wherever they may come.

    When my student agrees to lay off the partying for awhile and seems to be following through, there’s a blink of light. And when I see the little girl who clung to her mommy’s leg as if she were gripped there with adhesive, now self-advocate as a teenager –again, I see that spark of light.

    My son’s hits of light may seem more moth-to-fame to his mother. Maybe with Michael it’s a little more difficult because he’s mine. Too many of the traits that frequently frustrate are those which are also too familiarly my own.

    But still there are flickers.

    Even if I sometimes have to be reminded when they occur.

    When I recently started a story with my sister-in-law, “Michael and I had a conversation-“ she stopped me mid-sentence. She wanted me to note it for the pleasant anomaly that it was.

    We had a conversation.

    They’re fairly infrequent. And should be appreciated.

    I might have missed it for the glimmer of light that it was.

    So here-on-in, I’m looking for light, however brief and undramatic. It likely won’t hit with lightning bolt clarity; I’ll have to pay attention.

    I’m not going to look to be bedazzled by the ten thousand degree flash from a star. Instead, I’ll lay in wait for those pinpricks of light, like the eye-catch of white that comes with firefly flight.

    So when Michael exits the car and leans in to give me a kiss on the cheek as if it’s still habit, I’ll note the spark. But I’ll also remind myself not to reach out for the flutter of light, lest I risk dousing the flame and turning it to ash.

 

Pay It Forward


    I’m translating her advice into my words: better to do something more than you should, than to not do enough.


    And so I blame Kelley, in part, when I perhaps did again –more than I should have.


    Because it’s still good advice.


    I think.


    I’ve been warned to the contrary.


    Kelley and I both have been scolded for being “too nice.”


    Sometimes -maybe.


    Not such a horrible moniker, though, is it?


    Kelley is also one who tells me frequently that I’m doing just what I was meant to do. Finally. With the whole writing thing, of course, but also at the little college where I play life coach and tutor to semi-adults trying to navigate through their lessons and their lives. And it’s in this setting where I inch too close to that more-than-you-should.


    I don’t care.


    I can handle the consequences of too-much much better than I can the what-ifs which arise from not doing enough.


    My guess is that the roots to the philosophy go pretty deep.


    Our holiday dinners offer apt metaphor. You might see it all as too much food; I see it as always enough. No chance of us running out of anything –ever.


    And you gotta love the leftovers.


    Maybe human interactions can also result in the spillover of thoughtfulness, with ample to share.


    So when I do for my students –even if admittedly more than I should- I don’t look for payback in reciprocal reward. I don’t really require return on an investment of kindness.


    Maybe what I hope for, though, is a sharing of leftovers.


    Paying it forward.


    It wasn’t a literary gem or a blockbuster movie. But what a blockbuster message. And so simple.


    But the concept was ingrained in me as ideology long before the book’s publication. I think because there was always that lesson of reciprocity. You were given a gift, you gave one in return. You were invited to dinner, you invited in kind.


    But when the deed was immeasurable –and the thank you a trifle for its intended worth, the return impossible, how to repay?


    Not.


    So then to the answer of paying it forward.


    Not a bad responsibility with which to shoulder a younger friend.


    Or legacy to leave in the corner of one’s life.


    So if I do for them, perhaps they’ll do for someone else –some day.


    Maybe.


    I don’t know.


    I get a lot from these young adults I’ve come to know too well.


    I’m not entirely sure what.


    It doesn’t matter.


    I know I teach them a bit, too.


    I wonder, though, if they’ll understand the lesson of leftovers if I leave it to instinct instead of instruction. When they’re out in the world, as real grownup adults, will they intuitively sense an ongoing obligation when it’s their turn to act in kind, and in kindness?




Revenge



    Revenge is in vogue. At least by way of the new ABC nighttime soap bearing its name.



    Never mind that the eye-for-an-eye premise from which it stems has been around for as long as time. Or that the show is an admitted rip-off of The Count of Monte Cristo.


    Revenge has come to the Hamptons. And to those of us who may be willing to wait out the plot twists that it will surely require if it is to survive beyond a single season.
    


    Judging by the wait-and-see temper of its reviews, Revenge stands a chance.


    Maybe I’ll watch it.


    Revenge as entertainment is easier for me to understand than its lifelike sister.


    My mom used to say forgive, but don’t forget.


    Doesn’t really sound like forgiving then, but I think it was a cautionary mantra. And unintentionally, I may have taken the credo to heart. Some slights, try as I might, I can’t forget. Especially as a parent, when the mark they’ve hit is my kids. 

    
But revenge? Not for me. Nor do I understand a range of other emotions like jealousy and envy. I don’t get them.


    It’s not that I can’t relate to the anger at the root of revenge; it’s just that I Ieave its carryout to karma. What goes around comes around.


   Truth is, I haven’t the stomach for vengeance. Raw emotions are hard enough when they’re fresh. I can’t imagine holding onto them as they fester and grow.

    
I’ve known many people who’ve been tested in their lives and when I think to those who have come out the other side most intact, they’re inevitably the ones who’ve been able to let go of their anger.


    I liked my mother’s friend. She always treated me well, adored my parents and my family. But beneath the smiles she offered to us, there was always the trace of a muted rage. I didn’t know the full breadth of the backstory. All I knew was that the bile of her anger tainted most every part of her life. For her entire life. I wonder if she could have overcome her illness if she had found some sooner peace. Probably not. Happy people die, too.

    
My own friend could also have hung onto her anger. For a short while, she headed down its path. Her rage sometimes spilled over on nights out when her vocabulary was colored with curses.
 
    
But at decision time, she opted out of anger. Took a pass on revenge of any sort –even the legal, court-ordered kind.

    
It wasn’t worth it. 
    
    
Not to her.


    Not to me either.



    This isn’t magnanimous gesture on my behalf. It’s not a concerted or conscious effort to take a higher road. It’s more an energy thing. And a life-is-short sort of thing. I don’t have the energy to waste on an emotion I don’t like.
 
    
And life is short. Too short to spend it plotting revenge. Maybe even too short to spend watching it.


A Perfect Son



    He is the perfect young man.

    
I can say that without hesitation. For two reasons.

    
First, he isn’t mine.




    Second, he isn’t actually perfect.




    But then that makes him more perfect, still.




    He’s made his share of bad choices. He’s done things for which I am sure he is not proud. Some of them not quite legal. But he always comes back around to who he always was.




    In kindergarten, when the teacher allowed circle time to be about the children’s requests to Santa, his peers were likely asking for Furbies and Beanies, games and gadgets. He had bigger needs. 

    
Perhaps he already had a sense of how the world worked. In his little kid view, Santa must have loomed large as the go-to guy. Santa had connections.




    So when it was his turn, he had a simple request. He didn’t want a toy or a game. He didn’t want anything. The gift he wanted wasn’t even for himself –it was for his friend.

    
He must have figured Santa was high in rank on God’s payroll because he had a favor to ask of the big G. He wanted Santa to ask God to give his friend one chance, one moment, a single phone call –to the boy’s dad.  More than anything he wanted for himself, he wanted his friend to have the chance to talk to his father, a man whom the boy had never met, who had died just before he was born.

    
Santa didn’t come through. Neither did God.

    
Apparently he forgave them both. He still prays. He still believes in a higher power.

    
He and his faith have been often tested –too many times for someone so young. 

    
The college at which I work doesn’t have too many hard-knock-life stories. And most of the kids seem to get it that they’ve got it pretty easy. But I find that even here, it’s those who are asked to shoulder the most who seem most able to gather the strength to handle the weight –same holds true for the adults I know. It’s the sentiment of a saying my mom hates –that God only gives you what you can handle.

    
I understand why she takes umbrage at it. Doesn’t seem fair to me either that a benevolent God would punish you for being strong. My mom’s pretty strong; she’s be duly punished.




    My young man is also pretty strong and he’s again being tested, being asked to step up.

    
Mother Teresa was quoted as saying, “I know God will not give me anything I can’t handle.  I just wish that He didn’t trust me so much.”

    
The boy who is now an adult is too well trusted.



    By powers beyond here and by those of us who know him well. We know he will meet this next challenge as he has met so many in the past –with inner strength, quiet grace.




    I just wish he didn’t have to. It isn’t fair. And he shouldn’t be punished for being a good person.