Our oldest child is leaving his elementary years behind him very soon. And it got me to thinking, tangibly, about commencement, beginnings and fresh starts. Because it’s all-amorphous until it’s upon you. This is the child who grew me up. And with each passing year, his arms get longer, he gets taller and I…have become wistful.
Because it’s what I do, I decided to write to him. And when he read it, he asked me to share it with you. I was a little startled to do it, and Joe clarified, “not all of it Mommy, just some parts. It might help someone else you know.” Well, Joe, it’s an amazing thing, wondrous and powerful—who you are. You’re absolutely the best possible thing –only God could have dreamt you up.
So here, excerpted from my love letter to my oldest child (and embellished as appropriate for this audience), are some ideas/thoughts/advice that he wanted to share with you. Congratulations on your Summer—we hope it is all kinds of amazing.
“Joe, you know what is weird (other than you are now leaving elementary school)? They have coloring books for grown-ups now! Sophisticated and large, they have loops and swirls and intricate patterns.The theory is that you can relax and allow your brain to stop if you concentrate on just putting color to black and white.
I have so many of your old coloring books. In the beginning you colored just because you could. You could grip a crayon and you could make Snoopy look how you wanted him to look. A flower didn’t have to be pink when it could be orange. And it never, ever adhered to the dark black edges that defined it. Color creeped out right and left and above and below. I love those pictures the best. In school you were told to color inside the lines. To be careful not to get it too close to the edge. You came home once so sad because your art teacher didn’t like your work.
You don’t remember, but I do, because it reminded me of a day in the library at Franconia Elementary when Touré Hutchinson and Rob Beauregard were seated at my table. I’d had a crush on Rob forever. But he didn’t return it. I started sketching a girl in a meadow. To me she was so clear. But they both criticized it and made fun of it. (Touré was really, really good at art.) ‘How can you do that?’ ‘It doesn’t even look like anything!’ The snickers started and I just kept looking down. Touré whipped out a very clear girl in a meadow holding flowers. ‘See,’ said Rob, ‘that’s how it should look.’
As that scene fades another at high school comes to mind, or maybe it was in the horrible halls of Junior High. I brought a scene of Venice back to science class with me. It was in oil pastels. I didn’t know the term, but I loved the waxy easy feel of it. How it slid across the paper. I didn’t know a lot about Venice, but I made my sky brilliant with oranges and green blues. I blended and blended. I can see it Joe, so clearly. But Rob and Billy King made fun of it that time. ‘No sky looks like that.’ I see their hands, white and clear, knuckles on my shared desk, pointing to the azure and the tangerine. It felt like those hands crumpled that picture in just words. Their task completed, class started and they left. I don’t know what happened to that picture, maybe I wasn’t brave enough to bring it home, but here’s the thing Joe. Skies do look like that. Northern lights look like that, and I’ve been to Venice with the cutest boy ever and Dad can tell you that the sky looks unbelievably just like that.
People bring all sorts of vision with them. They can see what you may not be able to. You see something broken, they seesomething that can be repaired and made beautiful. That’s what’s so great about people. Maybe just maybe, if they see you’re willing, they’ll let you in on the wonderful they see. Be that guy. And be the one who is always ready to just choose a color beyond the wheel and make his mark right outside of the line presented to him.
Resist the urge to plump up the cushion. One of my favorite authors is L.M. Montgomery. She gave the world Anne of the Green Gables. But so much more than that, even though your reading takes you as far away from Prince Edward Island as possible, for me her books gave me ground in hope, in friendship, in family and in faith. That’s why they stay, completely marked up and in tatters, near my desk. In one of those books, Anne of Ingleside, the heroine has had a rather unwelcome houseguest come to stay. Aunt Mary Maria is just awful. And her awfulness resides in her inability to be happy, an acute resistance to anything that would or could make her that way. Because of that, perhaps, she’s determined to make sure others aren’t happy either. Anne says Aunt Mary Maria is ‘always coming into my room without knocking…always smelling smoke…always plumping cushions I’ve crushed…always picking at the children’ (67). You know Joe, it’s always been the bit about the plumping up a cushion that’s gotten to me, even all these years later. Because LIFE IS MESSY, and I’ve since thought that it is divided with those who are cushion plumpers and those who leave them completely contorted on the sleep-inducing sofa.
I just think if we rush to fix what we need for comfort, or if we are too quick to erase every moment of our complete lack of perfection in favor of a house that looks showroom new all the time—well if we do that, I think it adds more stress to present an image that isn’t real. (This divide is not permanent, mind you. I am married to a plumper.) Nor does resisting rectifying the cushion to its grandly square shape absolve you of cleaning your room. I mean, really. Just let yourself be who you are. (I think you're definitely a non-plumper. Look at that room. Gah.)
One last hug. At the beginning of this school year, and perhaps because you’ve been here a decade, you seemed to have some attitude. It shook me up. I worried about how it marked a change in your behavior remembering my own
unwillingness to talk to my mother despite her
yearning for the same. So I told you
that I was worried, that I wanted you to be able to tell me anything first. Anything at all. That of course we’d fight, because of course I’m right, but still
you needed to talk to me. And because
of who you are, and how brave you are, you did. You keep asking me for one last hug. You aren’t embarrassed (yet) to acknowledge me in public. It takes a brave person to ask for the hug
first Joe. It’s a brave thing to offer
to reconcile. To put aside difference
and in the moment remember what made you love in the first place. Never stop asking for one last hug from
those who matter to you.
|John's screen shot of texts I sent|
Joe after a 'discussion' we'd had
Floss. It is awkward. It makes your gums bleed. But think of all the little tiny bits of cavity inducing material it takes out. That stuff left in can harden and turn yellow sure, but not before it makes inroads in your teeth and helps your breath make a sewer sweet in comparison. Fresh breath makes friends. Good friends, good mornings, evenings and everything in between. Floss dear child. Floss.
The Internet is a Sharpie. You asked me once when you could have a social media account, my thought was ‘this side of never.’ What you don’t realize is that everything you type has an imprint. It is indelible. Gone are the days of correspondence, both typed and hand-written, being cast into a fire to be lost. Even if you delete it, it can be traced and found. Everything you suggest, say, do, or search can be recovered. It is carbon paper of the worst kind. I know I won’t be able to stop you; so much, sadly, is done via social media, but remember:
If you wouldn’t say it to someone’s face, DO NOT TYPE IT.
Do not accept a ‘friend request’ of anyone you have not met AND had a conversation with.
Remember future coaches, admissions officers, human resources and that special someone you hope to know better will be looking at what you post and what you’ve shared to make a judgment call about your judgment. Do not
comment about anyone you are dating or hope to date. That can turn ugly, quickly. Do not post pictures at parties, vacations
or dates. Refuse any tags of any kind
of pictures like it.
For that reason, remember FSF only—post pictures only of your
Family, Sports, or Food.
Life is meant to be lived Joe, so many people I know, too many to count, have turned social media into social power. They exert it knowing exactly who they will hurt. They crave attention and instead of wielding power on the playground, they are doing it online. It isn’t enough to have a conversation in real time. The safety of being behind a screen allows them to say and do exactly what they want. To be exclusionary, to beoffensive, to ‘choose’ to like one post over another, knowing, all the while, that others will see what they’ve liked and make note. It’s insanity.
Like I said, I can’t stop you forever Joe, but you need to think, ‘Would I say this to someone’s face? Is this an opinion I really do agree with? Do I understand what this article is about? Does this matter to me today, tomorrow, a week from now, months from now? Do I know who heads this group, does it really exist?’ If you can answer these questions, engage with what you see. If you can’t or if it is too much trouble, only go on occasionally and even then only to FSF. It matters.
Everyone has a story. Ask about it. Choose to listen to it. I mean really listen. Hear what is really being said underneath the words. What’s theperson’s tone? What’s her expression? What are his hands doing? A lot more to take in than just words. Once you search for the second story, once you really hear what is being asked or declared, you can respond to it. But not before you decide to listen. Everyone is a storyteller; it is just the way in which they choose to tell you their story that differs. Art, music, poetry, film, a great serve, an awesome meal, all of these are stories. This is the way these people tell you who they are. Learn to listen to it. Tell them what it meant for you to see, hear, read, view or taste it. It’ll take you farther than any course you choose.
Worthy Friendship. To get a friend you have to be a friend. You are such a great friend Joe, you care, you listen, you ask, you show up. But here’s the thing. Not everyone you meet is worthy of you. To someone you have given the title of FRIEND should not harm you in speech or guide you against what you know is right. If s/he does, that person loses her/his right to be your friend—ever. At that
Love yourself first. Then find something to love about someone else. You know when you are upset with yourself about something. Your face contorts and you look so lost and scared. We talk, you’re reassured and you’re off doing something else. That lag time between loss and action begins to drag out as you get older until eventually, all you know how to do is focus on the negative about you. Never once thinking of the positive. The world will be critical enough. Don’t you go getting on that bandwagon. Every day, every single morning, you must say one thing you like about yourself. One thing you are good at, it can be trivial or serious. But one thing. Then, go out and find something nice/positive/amazing/good about one other person. Every day, you must do this. The first part is to reassure yourself because I won’t always be there to do it, and you need to know that you are important to the whole world. The second is to remind someone else that they are too.
This is getting pretty long, but did you know Joe that for many years parents wrote to their children like this? The fear was that they wouldn’t survive to see them enter adulthood. There have been books written about it. I don’t expect that to happen, but I wanted you to have something solid to go back to, when the world has been too hard and you felt like you couldn't face it.
So, just remember to always ask for one last hug. Consider what is really being asked. Flossing is just a part of adult life and romance that you need to conquer. And those lines, some of them, at least, are imagined. Color outside of them once in a while.”
From Joe (and his mom). With love.