It’s been a wonderful summer—our family’s trip to Iona, Scotland was over-the-moon wonderful—but it’s good to be back into a routine. I put my lastborn child on the school bus this morning. I won’t lie, there were a couple of happy mommy tears as he waved from the second seat and rumbled away.
I wrote earlier in the summer about creating a ”to-don’t” list, and have been working on identifying things that I can let go of, either by delegating or just leaving them undone. The idea is to free up time and mental space for those things that are more important.
Our family has a big to-don’t on tap this fall… we’re giving up Girl Scouts.
This one hurts. I am a big believer in scouting. I was a Girl Scout. My mother was my Girl Scout leader, and I was a co-leader for Caroline’s troop last year. Margaret has been patiently waiting for her turn to join. Instead, we will be a Scout-free household for the next year, perhaps longer. I won’t bore you with the reasons, nor with the list of what’s on our plates instead. Suffice to say, this is the right thing for us right now.
On one level it feels great: No meetings. No cookies. No weekends jammed with field trips and badge work.
But it’s also agonizing. No rocketry or horseback riding. No camping. No intentional leadership development of our girls. Yes, they could potentially get that kind of experience in other ways. But how? And what are the consequences if they don’t?
Time management experts (and Sabbath practitioners) sometimes make saying “No” sound simple, as if all that stands between you and a simpler life is to let the unimportant stuff go. But the values of the Girl Scouts are important.
Mark Bittman doesn’t mince words in his support of Mayor Bloomberg’s limiting the size of sugary drinks that are sold in New York:
If the mayor were to ban 32-ounce mugs of beer at Yankee Stadium after a number of D.U.I. arrests — and, indeed, there are limits to drinking at ballparks — we would not be hearing his nanny tendencies. (And certainly most non-smokers, at least, are ecstatic that smoking in public places — including Central Park — is increasingly forbidden.) No one questions the prohibition on the use of SNAP for tobacco and alcohol. And that’s because we accept that these things are not food.
Sugar-sweetened beverages don’t meet [the standard of 'food'] any more than do beer and tobacco and, for that matter, heroin, and they have more in common with these things than they do with carrots.
A high school commencement speech from David McCullough, Jr.
…do not get the idea you’re anything special. Because you’re not.
The empirical evidence is everywhere, numbers even an English teacher can’t ignore. Newton, Natick, Nee… I am allowed to say Needham, yes? …that has to be two thousand high school graduates right there, give or take, and that’s just the neighborhood Ns. Across the country no fewer than 3.2 million seniors are graduating about now from more than 37,000 high schools. That’s 37,000 valedictorians… 37,000 class presidents… 92,000 harmonizing altos… 340,000 swaggering jocks… 2,185,967 pairs of Uggs. But why limit ourselves to high school? After all, you’re leaving it. So think about this: even if you’re one in a million, on a planet of 6.8 billion that means there are nearly 7,000 people just like you.
It’s downright theological, the way it critiques an overly indulgent, everyone-gets-a-trophy culture… but then flips “you’re not special” at the end:
Like accolades ought to be, the fulfilled life is a consequence, a gratifying byproduct. It’s what happens when you’re thinking about more important things. Climb the mountain not to plant your flag, but to embrace the challenge, enjoy the air and behold the view. Climb it so you can see the world, not so the world can see you. Go to Paris to be in Paris, not to cross it off your list and congratulate yourself for being worldly. Exercise free will and creative, independent thought not for the satisfactions they will bring you, but for the good they will do others, the rest of the 6.8 billion–and those who will follow them. And then you too will discover the great and curious truth of the human experience is that selflessness is the best thing you can do for yourself. The sweetest joys of life, then, come only with the recognition that you’re not special.
Because everyone is.
Watch the video interview too, as he talks about privilege.
“You know what,” I heard myself saying, “I don’t think our work is right for you at this point.” He looked slightly stunned. In all honesty, so was I.
I couldn’t quite believe I’d let go of a potential client who had explicitly expressed interest in our work. But by the end of the evening, I felt lighter, as if I’d done the right thing for both of us.
Just because you can doesn’t mean you should. After reading this, I said no to an opportunity that had been shoulding on me for weeks. Wonderfully freeing.
After posting this sad story written about a mother’s slow, sad and (yes) expensive decline unto death, “The Good Short Life” is a wise and pithy “yes-and”:
No, thank you. I hate being a drag. I don’t think I’ll stick around for the back half of Lou [Gehrig's Disease].
I think it’s important to say that. We obsess in this country about how to eat and dress and drink, about finding a job and a mate. About having sex and children. About how to live. But we don’t talk about how to die. We act as if facing death weren’t one of life’s greatest, most absorbing thrills and challenges. Believe me, it is. This is not dull. But we have to be able to see doctors and machines, medical and insurance systems, family and friends and religions as informative — not governing — in order to be free.
It’s an uplifting article, really. I discovered it while reading this post, about seeing life’s most profound challenges as not debilitating, but “interesting.” Easier said than done, but…
I’m on vacation next week, and The Blue Room will be closing up shop while I’m gone. Be good, and savor your life.
We’ve had a lot of new visitors to The Blue Room lately, so by way of orientation: every Friday I post a variety of links to items that interested me over the last week, most of which require little commentary. We cover everything from art to faith to brain chemistry. Some weeks it’s lighthearted stuff, some weeks not.
And now, for all your Friday procrastination needs… Link Love:
Theresa is a rockstar in Presbyterian world. (Yes, I realize the cognitive dissonance there. Work with me, people.) She’s also a righteous babe.
In my ninth week of pregnancy, I had the most vivid dream. My family and I were vacationing in a cabin. While my son and I were hanging out in the backyard, a black panther appeared and began to circle around us. I screamed for my husband to save us, but he couldn’t come. That dream haunted me for months after I found out I miscarried.
After several months had past and I had experienced another miscarriage, I decided to see a therapist for a completely different reason than the miscarriages. But somehow that dream entered into our conversation. After telling her about the dream, she asked me to close my eyes and have a conversation with the panther. Are you kidding me? Talk to the panther? I decided to humor her. The conversation went something like this…
Read the rest. It took my breath away.
This article is part of a series by Mihee Kim-Kort, who is also a righteous babe. I’ve been pondering my own motherhood mantra and hope to participate in this great project at some point.
When he was 12 years old, the boy did something he only later realized probably hurt his seventh-grade teacher. It was minor — he was, after all, a kid — but in time, when he was older and wiser, he wanted to find this teacher and apologize.
But the teacher seemed to have vanished. Over the decades, the man occasionally turned to the Internet, typing the teacher’s name into the search box. He never found anything. He never quit looking. A few months ago — by now nearly 39 years after this happened — he got a hit.
The owner, Joe, who seems to either have some decent design skills or an easily conned friend with said skills, is offering a 1995 Pontiac Grand Am GT for the low price of $700, marked down from the expected price of $199,999. His hyperbolic rhetoric about the car has an intoxicating effect, and I’m actually feeling like I want– no, I need– this Clinton-era example of what Americans can build at their absolute unfettered best.
We tried calling Joe, but of course his line was busy. Duh. There’s probably a line around his block of people hoping to look at the car, or maybe just lick the oil pan to cure cancer or have their baby breathe some holy exhaust. We’ll update if he gets in touch with us before he’s raptured to Heaven.
He did get in touch with them, and there’s now an interview up at this site. Silly post, silly ad. A bit PG-13. Don’t send me letters.
And the obligatory posts from my favorite art site, Colossal:
This article, called “The Hunger Game and How to Win It,” resonated with me on many levels: the fact that the author David Gessner has a self house, for one, which is something I covet. But also in this tangled-up stuff about achievement and possessing stuff. And hunger:
We have turned [our] insatiable hunger on our own land, swallowing, goring, fracking, drilling so that we can have more and so that we can fuel the vehicles and machines that transport us elsewhere. One of the reasons I find it hard to be too fully moralistic about this behavior is that I share it. In my own work –which is writing — I am always hungry, wanting more and better, and I recognize in my own ambition the same never-sated animal that I see in others. Long ago, I sent a letter to a neighbor on Cape Cod who had built a monstrous trophy house. I wrote: “You’re obviously an ambitious man and in that we are alike. While your workers hammer away up on the hill, I hammer away at my keyboard. Like you, I dream of creating something big, something great, and like you, I sometimes feel that my passion for this controls me, and not me it.” So you see, I am not writing about hunger as an outsider, not Spock looking on puzzled at a world full of Kirks.
And yet that does not mean that I believe that this gets me, or us, off the hook, that we can let our inner Kirks run wild and shoot phasers in the air and make out with every Nurse Chapel they run across. The next sentences in my letter to my neighbor were these: “But we are more in control than we admit, than it’s fashionable to say these days. I don’t suggest the laughable premise that we are rational creatures, or that reason controls our lives. What I do suggest is that our imaginations can be nudged, and work best if nudged earthward.”
He goes on to talk about the ramshackle cabin he built, and how a nest of wrens took up residence thanks to the fact that he neglected to screen up a gap between the door and the roof:
My life feels better, more intense and elevated, having this new family around…
For my part, I am not ready to retire like a Zen monk to my shack. I am still hungry for things. A Pulitzer Prize would be nice, for instance, and after that maybe a Nobel. But right now I am enjoying a different sort of prize, and I can’t help but think this is a prize I’ve won by not doing something.
That is a wonderful characterization of Sabbath, so the quote grabbed me. That’s grace, isn’t it? The goodness that comes to you when you’re not pursuing it.
But I also related on a literal level: our family, too, hosts a family of birds. I wrote about them in Sabbath in the Suburbs. They live in the exhaust vent of our range hood, and they show up every year. Because every year we forget to plug up the dang hole.
I try to be honest in the book about the difficulties of choosing a day of rest over so many other things—things like installing a finer mesh over a hole, so our stove’s exhaust fan doesn’t blow out because the duct is clogged with twigs and leaves and baby birds.
But I like the way David Gessner thinks about it. After all of this time spent Sabbath-keeping, I still have a lot to learn.
As I mentioned on Monday, Caroline is at Girl Scout camp this week. The weirdest thing for me is not even being able to talk to her. Camp is one of the last experiences in which parents and children are in complete radio silence from one another. Robert and I went overseas several years ago, and were on an island inhabited by 200 people, and still we talked regularly to the girls. (James was in utero.) Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s great and necessary, just weird.
Some other random thoughts I’ve had this week as I think about her often, miss her very much, but feel confident that it will be the experience she needs to have.
Notice I didn’t say I was confident she would have a good time. I’m not confident of that. This is her first camp experience, so we’re in uncharted territory. The odds are in her favor, though. And that’s the calculation we made when we (and she) decided she was ready for a week of camp: she loves Girl Scout activities, she has been camping a few times and likes it, she’s been away from us overnight many times, and it’s a water- and swimming-themed camp, which is her thing.
Not to mention that the Girl Scouts have been at this for almost a hundred years.
But it’s true. She may have a not-great time… and it will still have been an important experience for her. She will have learned that you can have a not-great time and it will not kill you. That bad times come to an end and she can survive them. And as long as the week might have seemed, she will know that her parents will be there at 8:15 on Saturday morning to fetch her and to hear all about it.
I am certainly not rooting for a not-great time, but aren’t those fantastic lessons to learn? That you can survive a nasty girl in your cabin, or chigger bites, or food that’s not your favorite, or homesickness, or the bad thunderstorm we had on Monday?
I say this because not everyone I’ve talked to this week has been supportive. “A WHOLE WEEK!?!?” one mother shrieked when I told her. Geez, you’d think we were sending her to Glass-Chewing and Chainsaw-Juggling Camp. Another was relieved to hear that the camp was so close by should something go wrong. Then there was the mom who told me about the friend-of-a-friend whose kid had to be picked up because she wouldn’t eat. Or the kid whose parents had to pick her up because she cried constantly with homesickness. And look, it does have to be an individual decision with your own kids’ personality in mind. But really? Those aren’t horror stories. Those are stories of taking a risk and realizing it wasn’t the right time or the right fit. Those are learning experiences. You can make all the right calculations and things still go wrong. I say it’s better to take a chance.
Remember this Atlantic article about parents who smooth over their kids’ childhoods to the point that they don’t know how to deal with setback and failure as adults? (I talk about it here.) I don’t want to do that. “Will they be homesick, or could something go wrong” seems to be some people’s lines in the sand. Well… yes they will be homesick. And yes, something is likely to go wrong. And unless you think the homesickness or the something-wrong is going to be severe and debilitating, those aren’t reasons not to do it.
But here’s the other thing I realized about moms who shriek and tell horror stories:
There is such pressure around here to be the perfect parent. Keeping up with the Joneses in my leafy suburb of NoVA has nothing to do with cars and TVs; it’s all about giving your kids every opportunity to succeed, excel, be enriched, etc. So at first I heard these comments and thought, “They think I’m irresponsible, making her grow up too fast. They’re judging me.”
And they might be.
But it’s just as likely that they’re judging themselves—that they feel inadequate as a parent because their kid’s not ready and “should” be, or because the parents can’t bear the thought of their child being away from them, or they can’t afford to send their kid to camp and they feel he or she will miss out. Realizing this allows me to hear their feedback, consider what part of it is useful, and not take on what’s not.
Yes, lots of learning and growth for the mama… but I’m still running to the mailbox every day wondering if there’ll be a letter from her.
Image: Caroline’s home this week. It’s cool how close the shelters are to one another. I remember when I went to GS camp, I was in a tent that was back in the woods such that you couldn’t even see the other tents! Which was a little creepy, though I still liked camp. And get off my lawn.