Saturday, July 14, 2007


It is the perfect day.

The air is so dry and clean it brushes my cheek like a feather. Closing my eyes, I breathe in deeply the smell of the salt water. The sound is sea gulls and lapping waves, children’s’ voices muffled and laughing. The sun is set to exactly the right temperature. The sky above is so blue and Grass Island across the water so green that it doesn’t look real.

The responsible voice in my head nags at me to study, to work, to write; I assuage her by stuffing a text book into my beach bag; this is a day too delicious for the computer, for work, for test preparation, for anything else but this. I wiggle back and forth on my blue faded beach chair until the aluminum legs settle snugly into the warm sand, my mind sliding into Traveling Mercies by Anne Lamott. How is it I have not yet read this book?

I am on a reading binge, sneaking reading in and behind and around all of the other things I really need to do. Reading and writing are normally like breathing; in balance and reliant on one another. Breathe in, breathe out, read and write. I realize from time to time, for reasons I don’t understand, I hold my breath, taking in every bit of mind nourishing oxygen and holding it. Reading is my breath in and I cannot seem to get enough, it has been a long stretch since I exhaled my words, but I give in to the habit without understanding or self condemnation.

My boys are no longer beach happy. The only form of summer activity that appeals to them is biking or boarding with their friends around town, “hanging out.” They are separated from me now in the way of boy-men, tethered by cell phone only. Cadence is still mine for now. Everything to her is a summer activity and she blows in the wind like a piece of dandelion fluff, ready to land wherever the day takes her.

She begins her trek into the tide pools, happy with the receding tide; the ocean obliging by exposing its tiny wonders in the muck and grass. I read with one eye in the book and one on her sun-browned back, spine curved into a C as she squats on the muddy bank to visit tiny crabs, snails and fish. There are two brown Cs now; yes, she has found a friend!

I force myself to be in my body as I read; to continue to smell and feel and listen and glance at the blue and green so as not to miss the perfection of this day. An hour has passed and the tide pool friend is gone. Cadence takes to the other side of our little beach where the crabs are plentiful at low tide and new friends are a possibility. Eventually, a little girl comes to find me with the news that Cadence is crying with a cut on her foot. I make my way too her, hushing the selfish voice in my head that did not want to put down my book.

We make our way to the lifeguards, Cadence with a Broadway performance of the damsel in distress. I know the event was quite satisfying, in spite of the sting, as the young men sat her in a chair, cleaned and dressed the wound and even wrote her name down in a notebook log. We make our way back to the water full of rocks and shells.

“Ow, Ow, Ow, it still stings,” she says stepping gingerly across the rocky surface.

“Do you want to sit on the blanket with me or should we leave?” I see the difficult choice running back and for the behind her eyes.

“No, I’m fine. I want to stay…Ow. Mom? Ow, Ow, I know you don’t like to get wet when you’re reading, but if you just come in right here to your ankles, there are millions of Hermit Crabs!”

My reader voice is annoyed and loud inside my head, determined to get back inside the cover, but I argue that I cannot be really in this day if I am not in this low tide muck full of wonder. “Okay, but where did your leave your sandals? You need to wear them or you are going to get more cuts on your feet.”

“I don’t know, Ow, Ow, I looked everywhere.” she sands like a stork, twisting the bottom of her injured foot up to examine.

“Let me look back at the blanket.” I say, trudging back to search. I stuff my book under my blue, faded chair to hide the temptation and find Cadence’s sandals under the beach bag.

She looks into my face as I hand them back to her, unable to see my eyes through the sunglasses, but she knows she has reeled me in somewhat against my will. Oh, so perceptive, she reels the line in tighter and I take the squatted C formation next to her as she proceeds to point out the difference between the tiny crabs and tiny snails. She shows me little clear gelled eggs beneath the surface that have a dark spot just off center and they roll around in your hand if you hold very still. She scoops up teeny weenie shrimp and fish too small to notice.

“There are Producers, those are the plants that make their own food like this seaweed, and Consumers, like these fish that eat the plants, and the crabs are the Decomposers, they are bottom feeders that eat the rotting stuff. Oooh, look, Mom, the tiniest hermit crab ever!” She holds her water-logged wrinkled palm for me to see the tiny dot racing across her hand.

“How on earth do you know all of that stuff?” I ask, truly impressed with her eight-year-old knowledge.

“School,” she answers flatly, “See Mom? I knew you would like it! And you hardly had to get wet!” Her eyes meet mine over the tops of my sunglasses and I am so glad she pulled me out of my endless inhale. As if she knew what she had done, she added, “I know Mom! You can write about it! You can say…And they finally found her sandals and as she quickly whipped them on she went cheerfully back to finding little sea creatures.”



Thursday, July 12, 2007


I like my lessons to be predicable. This is not to say that I like predictability as a course for life; on the contrary, I am easily bored and thirst for change regularly. And yet, when it comes to being taught, I prefer to choose when to define myself as the student. Control issues? Perhaps. And my student takes many forms.

On Sundays, I sit in the third row anticipating the sermon. Familiar arched wood and stained glass hold me in a space where even my breath feels softened and comfortable. Heart and mind open, I am ready to be enlightened, deepened, and infused with the Holy Spirit!

I arrive early for my appraisal classes with virgin notebook, yellow highlighter, sharpened pencil and large coffee. I slide into the small hard chair in rows of people ready to process conversions and formulas, definitions and concepts.

I slip silently into writer’s workshops, incense and candles float through gentle music. I choose a safe seat, tightly twisting my Kleenex; ready to be inspired, broken to tearful bits and rebuilt; strengthened in my purpose.

I even look for lessons in eight year old girls, baby blackbirds and ants when I am searching for the greater meaning. When I am searching for it. I have a difficult time when my role as student is not clear; when God thrusts a lesson in my lap and it is tightly wrapped and taped and tied for me to peel layer by layer to discover its relevance.

I was unsuspecting as I arrived at the field. It is an annual ritual like no other. Droves of people, young and old, families and friends, make the pilgrimage with varying degrees of preparation. The town fireworks are indeed an event not to be missed. They are set off on the fairgrounds, displayed directly overhead and it is not unusual to leave with a swell in your heart and bits of ash in your hair.

The heat of summer lifts off like a morning blanket at the beginning of day. Folks line up cars in neat rows, setting up chairs, tables and spreads of food; enjoying the preparation perhaps even more than the twenty minutes of flash that is coming. There’s wholesomeness to hunkering down on the ground in a field of cars and neighbors to share a brief and brilliant moment … the ramparts we watch, so gallantly streaming.

Ten years ago we planted our family tree here, its roots now stretching deeply into the soil that holds us; Smalltown USA. We have evolved since that planting and the experience here in the field has taken many forms. Our early ventures here toting squirmy toddlers, strollers and watchful eyes set us many rows back in the field; less crowded, safe distance. We were surrounded by parents like ourselves who were young and fresh to the scene.

The young and fresh parents never forget the sunscreen or bug spray, always have a change of clothes and Band-Aids in the car, and use phrases like “Eyes on me” and “Use your words.” These parents tend to avoid late night events as their children have actual bedtimes, but even they clamor to the field in the dark for the dazzling display.

Moving up in time and in rows, we became parents of middle-schoolers; parents of the “seasoned variety.” Seasoned parents possess a confidence in their Smalltown offspring and extend a retractable, onsite tether to their preteens as they group together to enjoy the social game of cat & mouse. The boys strut, the girls gather & giggle as the parents smirk and shake their heads.

Today, we see parents we have known for ten years. We all embarked on this journey together as “young and fresh” parents; kindergarten room moms and micro soccer coaches. We met through school open houses, play dates and little league games.

We grew together, bearing more offspring and venturing our firstborns into
the real world of middle school. We nervously inched our tethers longer, as
one of our tightly bound unit eagerly pulled for the horizon…for freedom.
We glanced at one another for reassurance and guidance and seasoning.

Now, however, we come here knowing that our older children will disperse and return at the end for a ride home. We decide to come early to enjoy the local talent, as three high school bands warm up the evening. Driving across the bumpy field, our car settles into in the second row. We set up our blanket in front of our car, arrange a small rustic wooden table, two chairs and top it off with a candle in a jar. Brad sets out the coolers and discrete bottle of wine as I sink into my blue soccer sideline chair.

Our youngest sits with us on the blanket for a while, but spies some friends and moves to a different blanket several cars down. The bands play as the crowd thickens and we sit. Row Two begins to fill with groups of teenagers roaming back and forth in a social runway marathon. Girls in clusters flirt and laugh, boys strutting indifference and longing at the same time. We have never sat this close and it is clear now that Row Two is reserved for the youth.

Dusk settles over the field and I am in uncomfortable awe by the scene rolling back and forth in front of me. Some are smoking; all are cursing, most toting cell phones. Brad and I eat our dinner in near silence, commenting here and there about kids we knew as kindergartners.

A group to my left catches my eye and locks me into a stare. There are six of them. They look to be about sixteen and pulsing with rough-edged attitude. They form a testosterone semicircle around a boy of similar age who lacks the “edge.” I cannot hear the words, but their bodies show the pack mentality; coyotes circling a frightened rabbit. The rabbit shakes is head, nods his head, shakes his head again while the coyotes leer, chins forward, fingers pointing, angry words I cannot hear.

Finally, they release their victim who turns and walks nervously in the opposite direction. They proceed to laugh and shove each other, pleased with their victory and they come closer. I hear them clearly now, snickering about the weakness of the rabbit and they change course to follow him.

“Those kids are trouble,” I say to Brad, tracking the coyotes with my eyes. I watched as they moved further, struggling to keep them in view in the sea of teenagers before me. I turned to Brad only to find that he was gone and looked back at the coyotes. Brad was trailing several paces behind. They found the rabbit and again formed a semicircle. “Are you laughing?” they taunted, pushing in closer, “Is something funny?”

Brad spread his arms like wings and placed them on the shoulders of the ringleaders. “Hey guys… How bout leaving him alone and moving along?” One coyote quickly grabbed Brad by the wrist and held his arm up in front of his face. In a second nature move, Brad spun his wrist under and over, now holding the coyote’s wrist in his hand. The coyote shook his hand free and pushed toward Brad, forearm to forearm.

I leapt from my seat grabbing my cell phone and dodged through the crowd, pushing myself in front of my husband and stood face to face with pierced aggression. Sweet and calm words of negotiation would have no effect here. I pointed to the two leaders and told them to take a walk before I called 911. One backed quickly down, eyes cast to the ground. The ringleader began to fire angry words about how Brad approached him. I let him know that I saw the entire scene and again told him to take a walk. “At least I’m not a stuck up, white, rich mother- #@^$%er!” He yelled and I proceeded to open my cell phone. “He put his hand on me first! I know my rights! I have the right to sue him!” He spewed as he turned to his pack and cursed some more.

I’m sure it took every ounce of will power in my normally passive husband not to grab him by the back of his droopy chained pants and hurl his angry little body out of the field. I convinced my husband to walk away with me as the rabbit was safely out of sight. Back in our seats, I kept my eyes on them as they stood in defiance, unwilling to move but no longer threatening anyone. The fireworks display began and I watched with a racing heart. Brad now ooooing and aaahhing at the brilliance in the sky and I hear my youngest screeching with delight. I find little magic in the explosions overhead, as I am fixated on the one that preceded.

On the way home, all offspring in tow, my husband urges me not to let the encounter spoil the evening. “Look at it this way,” he offers, “maybe it kept that kid from getting beat up and at least gave him a chance to get away from them.” My heart was heavy with the injustice. Celebrating “Independence Day” we are reminded of our freedoms through an elaborate display, and yet, the coyotes clearly missed the point. There was a time when a father’s intervention in such an event would have been met with a “Yes Sir” and respect seems to be a lost quality.

For days I hear the angry boy yelling in my head about "his rights." My mother reminds me that bullying is not a new practice. She tells me a story about her family growing up in a city where neighborhoods were defined by ethnic origin. Her large family lived on the third floor in an Irish neighborhood and fighting among the youths between neighborhoods was commonplace. Her older brother yelled something to a car full of boys driving from an Italian neighborhood nearby. The car screeched to a halt and emptied its passengers, equipped with chains and tire irons.

Somehow, my grandmother got wind of the situation and made it from third floor to the street in seconds, marching herself into the testosterone circle. “Don’t hurt the mother!” Yelled the leader. “And just what is going on here?” demanded my grandmother. Not waiting for an answer, she told the chained group to return to where they came from or they would be dealing with her. “Yes, maam.” They answered as they left. She then dragged my uncle in by the ear to the consequence that awaited him for his part in the drama.

The story only served to highlight my frustration. I was not met with the respect given to my grandmother because the young aggressor was high on “his rights.” Later that week, I sat with my son to review the Student Handbook for an art school he will be attending this year. At the back of the book was the STUDENT BILL OF RIGHTS AND RESPONSIBILITES.

As I read this bill, I understand the lesson to be learned from the night at the firework display. Rights do not exist without Responsibility.

1. Students have the right to be treated with respect, and the responsibility to ensure that others are safe from physical and verbal harm and harassment.
2. Students have the right to seek changes in the rules, and the responsibility to do so in a manner that will not interfere with the educational process.

The other side of ones rights carries a responsibility. Perhaps our founding fathers did not discuss responsibilites in the Constitution because it was inherently understood. Somehow, our politically correct society has created takers, not givers; claiming rights to everything and responsibility to nothing.

We do have the right to use the resources of this planet we call home, and the responsibility to take care of her.

We have the right to freedom of speech, but the responsibility not to harm with hateful words.

I have the right to live in this home, and the responsibility to work to pay for it.

Rights and Responsibilities in balance create Respect. The three R’s.

My lesson is clear and now I must teach.

“Yes,” I say to my son, “You have the right to ride your bike to the green, and the responsibility to call me in one hour."
"You have the right to clean clothes, and the responsibility to be sure the dirty ones make it to the hamper."
"You have the right to have a friend spend the night, and the responsibility to be sure you follow the rules and clean up after yourselves.”

If children are raised to see the responsibility attached to the right, perhaps respect will flourish.
I have the right to be a student, and the responsibility to let God choose the classroom.