Transitions & Resilience: “Just do your best, then say ‘Amen'”

Today in Target I had one of those thoughts that I suspect you should probably not say out loud.  For the first time in my life, I thought, “I’m not sure if I should have had kids.”  Since I am not Jennifer Aniston, i.e. since people are not constantly querying me about my desire and motivation to have children, and since my children are already here, I’ve never spent much, if any, time thinking about whether I should have had them.  And I certainly think someone should have had them; I truly believe they add something to the sum of human goodness.  I just don’t know that that someone should have been me.

Me before I had kids

Things on the parenting front have been hard this summer.  Most of the time just the awareness of my two older boys slumped around the house, sullenly and defiantly doing nothing, just their slothful proximity to me, made me want to scratch their faces off.  Then they went away for two weeks and I really missed them. 

The oldest one is starting high school this week, and that is an unexpectedly poignant transition.  It has, unfortunately for both of us, brought my worst fears about his life to the surface—that he will become a drug addict and a plague on society, that he will die in a car accident when he gets his license (this child who does not remember that you need to put a stamp on a letter in order for the mailman to take it will be eligible for a permit next year), and/or that he will wallow in mediocrity and end up working at a convenience store in central Illinois, possibly with a live-in girlfriend with several tattoos, and a baby waddling around the front yard in nothing but a diaper hanging down to its knees.

All of these fears were aggravated when we registered him for high school today, and I immediately morphed into a radical right-wing conservative.  The signs in the school hallways are in both Spanish and English, and taped to the front desk in the main office was a flyer “for pregnant women.”  The office workers helping with registration were not, shall we say, enthusiastic, and the only thing I left being completely certain about (aside from the fact that I am not ready to be a grandmother) is that the school mascot is a tiger, because they had six large photographs of real tigers on one wall, a huge stained glass tiger on another wall, and a tiger fish in an aquarium in the waiting area.  The amount and variety of tiger-related space was completely out of proportion to its importance, especially in relation to, for example, the lack of access to the guidance counselors who were all in “an in-service meeting” and therefore unavailable for actual education-related questions.

Things did not improve when we drove to Target, which is currently crammed to capacity with weary parents buying school supplies and self-absorbed college students buying color-coordinated desk lamps and waste paper baskets.  On the way there, Noah and I argued about why 16 is not “the normal age” to have sex, why texting in the guidance counselor’s office is not appropriate, and why folded up into a 1-inch square in his jeans pocket is not the best way for Noah to transport his class schedule.  All of this was playing out to the soundtrack of Gabe in the backseat, and his Batman motorcycle toy barking out, in a loud electronic voice: “I’ve come to save the city, I’ve come to save the city, I’ve come to save the city.”

So I was not in my best mental or emotional health when we were at Target—when I had to watch Noah ricochet unpredictably from clothing rack to clothing rack trying to find the right pair of jeans, when I had to explain to Gabe why there are no Batman costumes available in August because Halloween is not in August, when my phone rang and it was Jacob telling me that he was “in Henry’s tree house shooting cans with a BB gun,” when I decided that I was simply NOT EQUIPPED for the sheer variety of the tasks of mothering, the scope of worry involved—and when I realized that I really, really wanted to give the job to someone else and would never, ever be able to.  Ever.

I’ve been working almost non-stop since Sunday morning, helping many, many international students to register for their university classes.  I’m numb from the fatigue of having to help so many people in such a short period of time with details that are of extraordinary importance pretty much only to them.  But this kind of work brings issues of what one needs to be “successful” to the forefront of one’s mind, and raises questions about how to handle transitions, how to navigate unfamiliar situations, and what really equips you for the unknown circumstances you will undoubtedly need to handle in life.

It’s been a summer of transitions, and we’re coming up on the transition from summer to fall which is never really easy.  My parents both retired this summer; my husband’s grandfather is living out his last weeks; one of my friends’ sons graduated from high school and moved into his own apartment; my boss just brought his daughter, a college sophomore, to the airport so she can fly to Ecuador where she will be spending the semester.  For years, while having small children, I have been waiting for the parenting stretch that would be less exhausting, less demanding, less all-consuming than the one I was in, and now, to my almost unspeakable alarm, I am afraid I missed it.  I think it might have passed, one day last week, or last month, or last year, when everyone was okay, when the danger they could cause or fall victim to was not so great, when you’ve done all that you need to do, and all that you need to do is solidly within your capacity.

I believe that there are two experiences that bring the larger, common human experience into sharper focus; parenting is one of them, illness is the other.  These experiences seem to highlight the transitional nature of life, and serve as reminders that we are never free of ambivalence.  They of course also remind us that life is not within our control, and that lack of control feels very unsettling, if not to say even dire.  With my sons, how will I know if I’ve done too much or too little?  If I’m raising them to be discerning but not judgmental, motivated but not neurotic, confident but not entitled?  How will I know that they’ll be happy, safe, okay?  I won’t.  And it sucks.

But the word that keeps surfacing in my head right now is resilience.  [1 :  the capability of a strained body to recover its size and shape after deformation caused especially by compressive stress;
2 :  an ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change].  When I talk to a student from Beijing about what’s really going to help him the most in his studies, I hear myself talking about resilience, not test scores.  When I talk with my friends and with my parents about the changes in their lives, I think about resilience, not security or certainty; and when I talk to myself about not being sure I should have had kids, I am talking about resilience, and my fear that I don’t really have what it takes to do this job. 

The fear is that my head will explode from frustration, or—infinitely worse—that all of me will shatter if something really terrible happens.  And the fact is that it might.  The fact is that it does all the time, and people are forced to cope with things beyond imagining.  Sometimes it works for me to tell myself that “for this moment, everything is okay.”  But what actually works way better is asking myself if the choices that I am making are helping me to strengthen my resilience.  Choices that leave me stewing in fear and hiding from life as it is (obsessive worrying about Noah, for example) eat away at my resilience; choices that lean in the direction of hope and participation in life (talking with Noah about what we both believe is important and why) help to build my resilience.

Another thing that helps me is poetry (sorry for the awkward segue, but it’s true), and also this line from the chorus of Carrie Newcomer’s song, “Where You Been?” which I offer to all of us, because it is tremendously comforting.  It’s God, through a well-disguised version of Jesus, saying to each of us: “Brother, where you been?  Hold on if you can.  Just do your best then say ‘Amen.'”

I see Carrie Newcomer as sort of a musical poet, or a poetic musician, so here are the lyrics to her song, “Leaves Don’t Drop,” which is about transitions, letting go, and a firm belief in resilience.  As always, I urge you to listen to it instead of just reading it. 

And with all that might be happening in your life right now, just do your best, then say, “Amen.”

“Leaves Don’t Drop”

The truth I knew when I was eight.
My dad swam the length of Spirit Lake.
It must have been a million miles.
This I knew was true.

My mother sang while hanging clothes.
Her notes weren’t perfect heaven knows.
But heaven opened anyway.
And this I knew was true.

Leaves don’t drop
They just let go,
and make a place for seeds to grow.
Every season brings a change,
a seed is what a tree contains,
to die and live is life’s refrain.

I left her with some groceries,
Said, “Check the oil and call me please.”
She said “Hey Ma, I’ll be just fine.”
This I knew was true.

Leaves don’t drop
They just let go,
and make a place for seeds to grow.
Every season brings a change,
a seed is what a tree contains,
to die and live is life’s refrain.

I’ve traveled through my history,
from certainty to mystery.
God speaks in rhyme in paradox.
This I know is true.
And finally when my life is through,
I’m what I am not what I do.
It comes down to you and your next breath,
and this I know is true.

Leaves don’t drop
They just let go,
and make a place for seeds to grow.
Every season brings a change,
a seed is what a tree contains,
to die and live is life’s refrain.

 Carrie Newcomer, “The Geography of Light”

[Note: It may look like I’ve fallen behind on my Heart of the Month project, but the truth is, I cheated a little bit on July, and made my dad, who just retired, July’s Heart of the Month.  The only thing is, I did it by creating another page for his friends, family and colleagues so that they could post comments, wish him well, maybe tell a few jokes about him, etc.  If you’re interested, please visit: http://donsretirement.wordpress.com!

7 Comments

Filed under courage, parenting, poetry

7 responses to “Transitions & Resilience: “Just do your best, then say ‘Amen'”

  1. Cynthia

    Thank you for the Carrie Newcomer poem, Leslie,and your musings on resilience. Those words touched my heart as I sit by Mom’s bed at the hospice center in the early morning light. Cynthia

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  2. Rose Buckner

    Leslie Dear, I hope this works and that my message will be delivered to you by computer. I love you so very much. Thank you for making me laugh. What a delightful piece. And wait a minute…Noah………talking sex??? Does he know that in the olden days kids his age had to slosh soap in their mouths and try not to swallow it when they talked about such things? Oh girlfriend you are brave indeed, and wonderfully talented and I am so proud of you and your writing and your persistence and your….resilience. Amazing. Blessings, Rose

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    • LCS

      Thank you, sweetie! Thanks for reading and writing, and for your good thoughts. I am feeling much more resilient today than when I wrote this…works in progress, right?! Always works in progress.

      Love,

      Leslie

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  3. Last year, my neighbor told me after a play day, “I now understand that it’s much harder to parent your 2 boys than it is my 3 girls.”

    I’m still not sure what evil they were up to that afternoon, but what I do know is that each child adds another layer of complexity – but also of richness that can usually only be measured in hindsight.

    So I applaud all you’re doing with your kids (and all the “kids” that you coach at university)!. Someday, when they are old enough (!) to have children of their own, they’ll look back at your words and understand the true heart of it.

    Cynthia, my thoughts are with you and your mom. And to your dad, Leslie – best wishes for a happy and healthy retirement.

    Love,
    Barbara

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    • LCS

      Hi Barbara!

      Thank you for reading and writing, and for the thoughtful words. It’s important to remember to take those moments of reflection (hindsight) so that things are in their proper (i.e. not blown out of control) perspective. Thanks for the reminder!

      Love,
      Leslie

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  4. Colleen Crowley

    Hi, Leslie: I regret taking so long to respond. A great piece! My first thought was, “Oh, no! If Leslie (of Leslie and Martin fame) does not think she should have had children … well who should?” Oh, you should have had children and you have those three wonderful boys who are behaving normally. They should resist you, they should argue with you because they are working to establish autonomy, they dare to experiment (with fire arms!) and to argue-BUT you know this is true. It is difficult and yet true; they are well adjusted. I remember it all: I found my girl more difficult than my boy. It never ends. She still does ridiculously dangerous things, like dirt bike. My two children are the greatest work I have ever done despite the days I did not think so. In two days, my well adjusted, talented and hard working son is coming with his wife and son from Oregon to see me. He now says of being a father, “There is nothing better; this is it!” He waited till he was 32-not 16! Yes, High School is so difficult to witness. I am both anxious and excited to see them. I love the song by Newcomber regarding “moving from certainty to mystery.” Live with the questions. I find music as well as the beauty of words such as poetry to be my salvation. I must have some music daily. I think one of my favorite lines is from Bob Dylan, “I was so much older now, I’m younger than that now.” You and I are resilient if only for one day at a time. Keep questioning, live with the doubt and stay resilient. Continued blessing, Colleen

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