Category Archives: parenting

Pilot Light of Patience #Parenting


We were on our daily walk to school this morning. He was quiet. Noticeably so. He almost forgot his backpack, he was so distracted. About halfway down our driveway, I asked him, “You’re quiet, you alright?”

“No.” He said.

“What’s up?” I asked.

“Art. I don’t want to do it. We have a stupid assignment using stupid scratch paper.”

“What’s the assignment?” I asked.

“Abstract art. We have to make something out of nothing. I hate abstract art. I hate scratch paper. It’s all so stupid.”

I suggested that he draw a dog. He loves our dogs.

“No. I stink at drawing dogs.” He said, his voice becoming more pressed and uneven by the syllable; each step we took got us closer to his school. His breathing was shallow. He was in the art room, with the scratch paper, his heart speeding up, his face beginning to pinch in places so it wouldn’t betray his feelings of failure.

Failure before he even began.

Failure before we were even in the school.

Failure before he even considered it.

I could feel my own body tense up. My walls were going up. My brain started down its familiar path of “Oh no. Oh no. Oh no. Can’t do this. Can’t do this. He’s going to get emotional. He’s going to get emotional. Must stop him from crying… I CAN’T HANDLE HIS DISTRESS….” I started to fail him.

I began to fail him before I even spoke.

I began to fail him before I even got in touch with my own feelings of failure and the fear of disappointment.

I began to fail him because I couldn’t face myself and those sticky places in the heart where we feel absolutely worthless.

I said, “Nooooo, you’re GREAT at drawing dogs… why that cat you drew from those books you love… that turned out GREAT! You can DRAW a DOG….”

But before I even finished … I knew that was wrong. I was dismissing his pain. I was failing, even though I had heard him, I was still failing him.

I realized, I had to go back to my first days on the couch. I had to mirror him. Quick, I had to do something that told him I heard him, that I felt what he was going through, that it was OK, and that he was safe. That’s all we need, to feel safe expressing ourselves.

I had to access my pilot light. Somehow, I remembered my pilot light.

I told him to take a breath and I could feel my own body do the same.

“Let it out slow this time… Can you breathe in 3-2-1…?” I suggested as we continued our walk. “Let it out 4-3-2-1…” My body relaxing as I unconsciously (mostly) joined along. I needed to come down from the wall I was building.

We were almost at school. Quietly talking and quietly breathing together.

As we crested the hill, where all the student patrols gathered, and the sun was shining, no longer obscured by the leafless tall trees surrounding our path, I realized: He doesn’t want to fail this assignment. He doesn’t want to disappoint me. He wants to please his teacher, me, his father… his bubble of society.

I stopped us in our walk and I put my hands on his shoulders, gently pulling down to help him unfurl himself.

“Look at me.” I told him.

“Ok.” He sniffled.

“You’re feeling pressure right now. You’re feeling like you have to get this right. Perfect even. Abstract art is not at ALL about perfection. It’s about your perception: how YOU see things in a different way…. There is no RIGHT or WRONG.” I said.

“Mmmmk, but our teacher says we can’t…” He started, and his voice began to tremble again. Fast and shallow breaths fighting their way out his mouth.

I had to think of something else. Another tack. Pilot light… Deep breath. Feel him.

“Ok. I want you to understand something. I don’t care what your final art looks like. I don’t care if your teacher says you’ve failed it or not. I don’t care. You’re twelve. You have a whole life ahead of you. I want you to NOT CARE about this assignment and to JUST get something down. Just start it, and you will be on your way. Can you do that? Can you NOT care about it? I love you no matter what…” I said, defiant. I wanted to protect him.

“Ok. So you think I can just use shapes to make my drawing? That it doesn’t matter if it doesn’t LOOK like what it’s supposed to?” He asked.

“Yes. Remember when we studied Jackson Pollack… That dude DID NOT CARE about ANYONE’S opinion, and people loved it. He was fierce in his art. Be like that. Own your art. Who cares what anyone else thinks?” I said.

“Ok.” He said, standing taller and his eyes a little brighter.

“High five. Fist bump. Be bad.” I said.

I almost blew it. I almost sent him to school with this knot in his belly and a sense of woe and failure before the day began. I almost checked out. It was a balance. I had to check in. I had to hear him, all of him, to help him. In the end he helped me.

We do this all the time, forgetting to check in and remember what it feels like to feel small, worthless, fearful, and so alone. If you’re a parent, you know what I’m talking about. If you’re not a parent, try to remember those feelings and honor them: checking in is the way out.

Thank you.


When I Miss My Mom


I was reading a post the other day written by Candid Kay who shared her memory of her own mother, which was ushered by food: the preparation, scent, cooking and savoring of a sauce, into a wholesome meal. The sensorial combination evoked the tenderness of the past to transmute a challenging moment in the now.

I’ve also been reading Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club, which is her first memoir, and a bestseller. Karr writes a lot about her mixed feelings about her mother, the fear and chaos she encountered as a child at the hand of her increasingly unstable mother, and her identification with her Nervous mother as she ages. Karr’s ability to be honest and yet nonviolent in her recollections is not only a gift to me as a writer to witness, but also a gift to me as a child of similar steps who also treads those hallowed spaces.

It’s Christmastime. My memories of Christmas as a child are what I call “uppy-downy”; we had some pleasant times which I can only describe as being sprinkled with Mom’s eccentricities and idiosyncrasies. Sometimes those moments were flurries or squalls.

One certain memory of Mom is her truly vexing requirement that we were to gently peel back the tape and never tear through the wrapping paper. Once we managed to extract the gift from the wrapping paper, akin to a “Hurt Locker” scene, she would request that we hand it back to her or gently fold it back up for her to use again.

There were also more than a handful of times when we also had to wait for her before Christmas could “begin.” One year, I said the hell with it. I tore into my wrapping paper and crushed it into a ball. I think she almost had a stroke. Her horrified gasps and frantic reaches to end my blind yuletide debauchery were cartoonish. Over the years, she managed to dial it back a bit. We also decided we weren’t always going to wait for her to get out of bed. Karma.

I found myself missing my mother, after reading Candid Kay’s post. Due to the urgency of the holiday season, Mom had a way with glibly waving off controversy or panic (yet she could stir it up without notice). Often these dismissals would materialize in a clever cartoon, a quote from Neil Simon, “Cool it, Mimsy!” something from Moliére, Shakespeare, or her own observations about the “virtues of being beige,” or her frequent recitation of Julie London’s “You’re Blasé” … “You’re deep just like a chasm  / You’ve no enthusiasm / You’re tired and uninspired / You’re blasé / Your day is one of leisure in which you search for pleasure / You’re bored when you’re adored / You’re blasé.” I suppose in her own way she was venting off the nervousness she was fighting. I find myself doing that now, only my song is “Bohemian Rhapsody.” MaaaaMaaaaa OooooOooooo… I didn’t mean to make you cry… 

She had tons of energy when she was spun up into a cause she admired. I’m involved these days in the crafts for my youngest son’s winter holiday edutainment party. I missed skipped the meeting about how to run these parties because I’ve been at this for 13 years. Because I abstained from the inanity, I missed the running commentary about how our craft was not only too ambitious, but also likely to be poo-poo’d by these erudite 12-year-olds. (This from the primary grade moms.)

There is a reason I don’t attend many of these meetings. I simply don’t have the bandwidth to appease Other Mothers. When I’m volunteering at school, I’m there to work with, for and on behalf of kids. I hear Mom reminding me to be beige when serving the kids, it’s for them… If the Other Mothers can do it better, they may be my guest.

The moms in our class are thrilled with the level of intensity and ambition being applied to this craft. What is the craft? Snow globes.

“SNOW GLOBES?! WHAT?! WITH SIXTH GRADERS?! A CRAFT?! JUST GIVE THEM COOKIES AND A GAME FOR PETE’S SAKE…” a couple of them apparently snort-laughed and nod-chanted a lá “Am I right or am I right?” Should I get them cigarettes and a couple beers while I’m at it? How about some power tools or some Dylan Thomas? These kids are so advanced and jaded. I’m so glad I blew off the coven meeting. (I’ll write about making the snow globes later.)


I get our craft is sweet and fun and a little complicated. In that way, it’s a lot like I am. I also get that our “choosing” something “for the kids” also requires that we put aside our needs and wants, and consider their fancies. I don’t have 28 iPod Touches to bring to the classroom. I don’t have 28 Hover Boards for them all. I don’t have to. I have an idea which I think the kids will enjoy and it’s a keepsake, should they decide as much.

Could it end up in glittery shards, sparkling the macadam on the pathway home? Totally. Might they end up on the floor of the bus? The little fir trees and snowmen crushed and sullied? Completely possible. But I don’t really care about that. Once we give up the craft, it’s up to them.

What I won’t submit to, however, is the supposition offered by Other Mothers that the kids won’t enjoy a craft or being creative. Might this project get shot down by the snarky sarcastic kids? That’s entirely realistic. However, I also warm, very sincerely to the smiles and kindnesses offered by both of my older children when they say they wish they were making snow globes. (Read: I blew it with them when they were in sixth grade.)

But I miss Mom right now, because she would absolutely cheer this on. She would absolutely make fun of the Other Mothers with me; she would absolutely lap from the saucer, and sharpen her claws and wit on their banal brains and their pitiful propositions and likely envious eviscerations. She would make cartoons and puns and tell me, “The hell with ’em, Maal. You know what’s right. They’re just piffle.”

And she’d be right.

She’d also tell me to have a PB&J sandwich, reminding me that I’m at my worst when I’m hungry and feeling misunderstood.

I’d attempted to make a Peanut Butter and Jelly the way she used to: starting with the end of a loaf, a smear of butter, then peanut butter on that joined in holy deliciousness with a spread of raspberry jam on the other slice of rustic whole wheat bread. A fresh glass of cold milk on standby.


The sandwich filled my belly, but left my heart yearning for her wit.

What I also realized while enjoying this sammie, is that I understand her better now. It’s one of the worst traps of losing someone you love: when you’re with her, she drives you batty. Now that she is gone, and safe, I find myself commiserating with her. I find myself saying to my kids, “PLEASE ASK BEFORE (or return when) YOU TAKE THE SCISSORS!” or “WHERE IS THE ELMER’S GLUE-ALL?” I find myself on the brink of panic: WHATSFORDINNER? WHATSFORDINNER? WHATSFORDINNER? WHATSFORDINNER? — truth be told, I’m not sure she ever sweated dinner…

I find myself not wanting to come down at the break of dawn for Christmas. I find myself wavering on that one most of all: the space between giving them all they want after buying them what they want… can’t they just be a little more patient? Where are my glasses? Where’s the coffee? Why won’t someone at least put a K-cup in the machine, find a clean mug and press the damned button while I put on my robe? IS THAT TOO MUCH TO ASK?!

Am I being greedy? It’s such a delicate balance. I know, I know… Santa came last night. It’s a big deal this morning… ooooooooh look at the presents!…. Coffee….

I find myself lowering my glasses, looking for better lighting and leaning in to objects to see them better. I find myself taking my time, a little more, “WHERE’S THE FIRE?” which she never asked, she simply just didn’t walk too quickly.

I fear that my best time with my mother wasn’t supposed to be during my youth, which was fraught with so much chaos. Apparently I was made to deftly handle those times. But it’s my older years, these years, when I could call her and say, “HOLY SHIT, MOM, I’M SAYING THINGS YOU SAID TO ME!” and she would gently laugh or sigh or rattle on about Katie Couric (I know).

My kids got my mother’s best years. I was too bitter to see that then. To them, she remains a silly and sort of wispy older woman, a kind person and a gentle soul. They saw her as she likely wished to be. It wasn’t meant for me though; the water was too turbid and the filter was clogged with my memories. Just a recently as a couple years ago though, I would tell her something about how I found myself being like her, and she’d say some entirely random thing to me, and I’d lose the fugacious grasp I had on her.

So I have my PB&J. And the memories of her midnight puttanesca sauces clinging to al dente fettuccine, their aroma would waft up the back of the house, to my room above the kitchen. And I’d wake, like a starving cartoon mouse rousing on the vapors from a wedge of cheese. And I’d get out of bed, following the scent like that mouse, but knowing I needed to stay low. I’d hide in the back staircase and smell and listen for her to walk by to the front room. Then I’d leave that staircase and go to the main one, and sit on those dark green wool carpet steps, and rest my face between the thick, white-painted, hand-turned spindles. I’d wait for her to her power up the TV and retire to the green club chair to watch whatever was on Canadian television, likely Columbo. The picture would sometimes be static, but her silhouette would eclipse its blueish glow. And I’d just sit there, while everyone else was sleeping, and just be with her, in the quiet of the night. Even though she didn’t know I was there.

Maybe she’s like that now, with me. Visiting us overnight, checking in on her families. I like to think she’s hovering, watching me cook fajitas, or whispering “more garlic, more oil” during my own attempts at home made Italian sauces, or even helping me to glue the little snowman onto the painted cork pedestal on the center of the lid…


everything is going to be just fine.

Thank you.

When Mom’s the Child


I’m feeling a little blue at the moment; my youngest and I had a skirmish. He is newly 12. He’s in sixth grade. He runs late every morning… no matter how early I wake him, he never gets downstairs until 8 and then he drags around and we have not been at school on time in weeks.

Today, I packed his lunch bag in his backpack. It was 8:25. We had a chance… we could’ve been out of the house by 8:30. But I discovered he’d pulled it out of that space and was trying to jam it into another compartment.

It wasn’t fitting, and he was snarfing and huffing to get it in. He was also completely bitter that I’d put it in a place where it just went “phoomp” into place. (But we all know he wasn’t mad at me, he was frustrated at his conundrum.)


I was putting on my coat and looping my scarf. The clock beamed 8:30. I stepped over to undo his efforts and redo mine: putting the lunch bag back where I had it. He’s snarfing and snarling.

As we were walking down the steps out front, he was still bitching about it. About how it was fitting just fine when he was putting it in. About how the delay was my fault because I put his lunch in “the wrong place.”

But where I put it wasn’t the wrong place. Where he was trying to jam it was the wrong place. The zipper simply wouldn’t zip around it; it wasn’t going to fit in the backpack. Plus the lunch bag was not going to stay in the backpack all day. The moment kids get to school they take it out… I disagreed with his protests.

Step step step.

Huff. Grumble. Step.

Dragon’s breath plumed from our faces in the cold frosty air. Mittened hands flopped and flapped, gesticulating and emphasizing our perspectives. Muffled voices pointedly pressing through the scarves.

We shared twenty more steps in relative embattlement.

So we were about 1/2 way down our pipestem and he was still grumbling about it. “I’m going to be late because of YOU…”

That was it. I was done. I turned to him and said, “Ok. you’re entirely wrong about this. You were late to begin with; this is a daily thing with you. No matter when I wake you, you don’t seem to appear before 8 am. With your shoes missing most of the time. The lunch bag simply wasn’t fitting. It fit the way I put it and where it is now. It might not be where YOU want it, but it works. It’s 8:33, the late bell is in seven minutes. You MIGHT make it if we dash. ”

Then he starts to tell me how wrong I am. He’s 12. I’m 48.

I get it.

I’m arguing with someone one-fourth my age. So what do I do? The mature thing:

“I’m out. Goodbye. Go on.”

He swiftly looked at me with huge eyes: half scared, half stunned. Then a mental shift and a set of his jaw: he got a cocky look on his face and kept going.

I then turned around to go home. I decided right then and there, after nearly 13 years of consistently walking at least one of my children to school every day, to pack it up. We were having a moment. We each needed to be alone.

I let him walk himself to school, hoping he would use the crossing guard. His little body, behooded and scarved kept going.

He didn’t look back.

I didn’t say anything else.

No “I love you.” Or “I love you.” Or even “I love you.”

Now I’m sitting by the phone hopeful it won’t ring with an absentee notice from the school. I’m hopeful he didn’t run into assholic Scary Cretin on the path with his giant shit-dropping dogs.

I’m sure he’s fine and he arrived without a scratch; he’s in 6th grade and younger kids with far sterner parents walk all by themselves from as far as a mile.

But I’ve never done that: I’ve never sent him out on his own because I was fed up. We have had far worse irreconcilable differences and walked all the way to school, usually cuddling halfway there.

So now it’s gnawing at me, because of my filter, from when I was a kid. On days when we were too late waking up and we couldn’t get rides with our neighbors, my mother made us walk to school, probably about a mile and a half away. A brother and me, alone all the time in all sorts of weather through Buffalo’s tougher city streets, crossing big-time, city-express, 4-way traffic intersections where metro buses and 18-wheelers traveled and pounded. I’m sure she drove us a handful of times, but she didn’t get her license until she was in her 40s and her unpredictable sobriety created a challenge for us to get there safely if she was a driver. So I have this huge rut of guilt and shame of making him walk on his own.

He used the crossing guard. I’m sure of it. It’s a vow he’s made. We might be angry at each othe, but he’s not crazy stupid. The rest is all path amongst the trees.

I fought the urge to run after him. I was like a magnet fighting off its polarity, forcing myself to stay in the house and not chase him down like Scarlett running after Rhett.

He’s fine. Right?

Am I?

Thank you.

Why Words Matter; Don’t be a Dick


Last week I read some comments after an article about Oliver Sacks, the recently late brilliant and influential neuroscientist and physician, and his lifetime of chastity and abstinence.

The article detailed that when he was quite young, 12, his mother excoriated him after she learned he was gay. This blast fell on the heels of a conversation his mother had with his father. It turns out his father had betrayed him after he’d promised he wouldn’t share Oliver’s confession that he made during an earlier discussion about the birds and the bees and young Oliver’s budding sexuality.

According to the article, the conversation went along the lines of:

Dad: You don’t seem to have any girlfriends. Do you like girls?

Oliver: no; not especially. I like boys, but I’ve never acted on it. It’s just a feeling I have.

The resulting excoriation from his mother, to Oliver’s face was, “You’re an abomination. I wish you had never been born.”

I admired Dr. Sacks, I didn’t know he was gay; it didn’t matter. Why should it? The man was a gifted and loving observer of humanity and his work provided immense insight into who and what and why we are.

The comments on the article were mostly sympathetic to Dr. Sacks and conveyed a sense of tragedy for his life; that his mother could be so hateful. Lots of people, cited an irony in Dr. Sacks’ inability to move past his mother’s comments: he was quite adept at psychology and through his study and life experiences he clearly might / could / should have been able to see his mothers’ comments for what they were: a projection of her self-loathing and rigidity. Her comments had nothing to do with Sacks himself, they were about her.

Then later on the thread, someone said that those who’d never been chastened by their mothers in the severity of Dr. Sacks clearly was, will never be able to understand the carriage and shame and weight from a mother’s words.

I found myself nodding softly in agreement, while I also felt a pull in my gut.

Mothers say some pretty mindless shit. My mother was no exception. To the people out there who knew my mother and were fans and supporters of her, I will repeat my refrain: she was complicated, you aren’t her daughter, you didn’t live with her and you really didn’t know her.

I had a neighbor who told me (without any irony at all) that her son didn’t know his name was James because she and her husband always referred to him as “boy” so when she was calling him one time when he was about FIVE(!), he never responded until she fumed, “Boy! I’m calling you! Don’t you hear me?” and he got up and said, “I only now just heard you call me; who’s ‘James’? Is someone here?”


Right? I also know someone who thinks that calling his kid “psycho” is a nice nickname. Yet they wonder why the child is so unpredictable and wild and summarily come down on him when he is.

I will concede that no one is all of one thing and none of another. We are kaleidoscopic.

I hear Dr. Sacks’ mother’s words in my head, it’s like they are large, black, heavy and broad: like the Chicago Daily Tribune’s “Dewey Defeats Truman” headline. Oops. While my mother never said things that severe, there were some pretty heavy contenders. But now I know the truth about my situation and her condition, and I don’t carry that stuff with me anymore and I’ve released it.

However, I am brought back, swiftly, to moments when *I* say really stupid and reactive things to my children. The level of things I say aren’t even close, but I do say stupid things like, “Please try to act like a normal person and _____ ___ _____.” Or, “You’re crazy, there is no ____ ___ ______.”

Why? Why do I say such stupid shit?

Do you remember when you were younger, a child? You wanted appreciation and acceptance from your parents; it’s the same for our kids from us. All our kids want is for us to see them. We don’t have to agree with them, we just have to see that they are their own people and to accept that they likely will think and do a whole bunch of stuff that we mightn’t agree with or care for.

That’s on us.

It can be exhausting to not be a dick. It takes awareness and mindfulness to not react like a horrible human being. If you’re unkind to yourself, you will become unkind to others. It’s only natural. And if you have kids, count on it that you will be unkind (a dick) to them.

“Until we have met the monsters in ourselves, we keep trying to slay them in the outer world. And we find that we cannot. For all darkness in the world stems from darkness in the heart. And it is there that we must do our work.”

― Marianne WilliamsonEveryday Grace: Having Hope, Finding Forgiveness And Making Miracles

If our kids end up doing things we don’t expect as a traditional (conservative?) thing: getting a tattoo, a piercing, eloping, coming out, making performance art, dropping out of ____ school, dating someone we don’t like, preferring another parent over us, marrying someone we don’t like, running for office, buying a gun, advocating pro-choice, canceling out our vote… our reaction is ours.

Some of this stuff comes out of us because we feel a certain way about ourselves, and that’s a deep habit we need to unbraid. Before saying something caustic and life-changing to our kids (or simply adding to the verbal crap we’ve unwittingly heaved on to them because we don’t hear ourselves) we need to take a pause and learn to watch the things we say not only to our children, but to ourselves. When we can hear what we say to ourselves and put into practice the art NOT saying it, then we will find we can be smarter and kinder with our kids.

Wake up…our kids are teaching us. Get out your red pen and edit yourself.

Thank you.