Four years ago, my youngest daughter and I flew to Italy to celebrate her 16th birthday. I’d been saving up frequent flyer miles for a decade. She’d been setting aside birthday and Christmas money from her grandmother to buy clothes. We couldn’t afford the couture houses, but my daughter wanted to shop in Milan, Italy’s fashion capital, before we took the train to Venice.
As our trip grew closer, I realized I’d never gone on a mother-daughter trip with my mother. Back then I never even heard of anyone taking what has become de rigueur today. But those were different times: My mother was born during the Depression; I was a late baby boomer. Unlike my citified daughter, I grew up in a family of modest means in a small rural conservative town. Even now, the rigid roles of parent and child are occasionally still evident between me and my own mom.
In fact, I didn’t even know she smoked until the week after my father died. It was the year I turned 30, and I’d stayed on after the funeral to help my mother organize papers.
I’ve got a secret, she blurted out one night as we picked at leftovers from the covered dish supper held at the church hall after the funeral, my mother breaking down to tell me she needed a cigarette.
How long have you been smoking? I asked, astonished.
Since I was 13, she said. A total of 43 years. My father had been a chain smoker, and Mom hid her smoke behind his during my growing-up years, lighting up only at night with a cup of coffee after I went to bed. Then again while I was in school.
“I knew smoking was wrong,” my Mom had explained. “I didn’t want you to do it.” Back then, whatever was considered dirty laundry was kept well hidden. And if not, it became a scandal. But Mom was distraught over Daddy’s death that night, and so desperate for a smoke, that she came clean.
When she did, I sat there transfixed, realizing for the first time that my mother was undoubtedly a more complicated woman than I’d ever imagined. She’d given me an opening by sharing her secret so I suddenly unloaded mine.
“I like to drink,” I said, spitting out the words. Drinking was against our Southern Baptist religion growing up, and I didn’t have my first taste of alcohol until college. I’d kept that fact from my mother, too. And although she still adhered to her childhood faith, I eventually became an Episcopalian, where drinking is allowed.
So that night I told my mother I had a bottle of wine in the car, and minutes later, we sat at her kitchen table breaking bread, Mom with a cigarette dangling from her lips, puffing and exhaling through her nostrils, me sipping wine from her crystal dessert goblet. Me, feeling closer to my mother at that moment than perhaps I ever had. Stunned that she’d taken my revelation equally in stride.
Both full-fledged adults, it had nevertheless taken alcohol, cigarettes and death for us to fully let our guard down. It was a turning point in the slow evolution of our relationship.
I flashed back to this moment more than two decades later as I stood with my 16-year-old daughter in the shadow of the Duomo, the magnificent 14th-century white marble Gothic cathedral in Milan.
Should we go in? I said.
Can we sit outside in one of the cafes first? she asked. The piazza in which the Duomo sits is the city center, and the squares porticoes are lined with shops and cafes.
“Sure,”I agreed. We’d just gone shopping, and I’d snapped photos of her in the dressing room, smiling even as I struggled to rein in my sadness. My daughter was on the cusp of womanhood. The full transition was inevitable, and once it occurred, irreversible. I was savoring my daughter’s last days of childhood.
“You know I’ve had this dream since I knew we were coming,” my daughter said as we stood in the piazza, hesitating before she continued her confession. “I thought it would be cool for us to sit in one of those little cafes and have espresso and smoke a cigarette. My daughter knew how I felt about smoking. The scientific research had become indisputable. And more than a Marlboro pack-a-day had undoubtedly contributed to my father’s too early demise. Maybe my own mother had even somehow saved me from a lifelong habit I might have come to regret.
I drew in my breath as I formulated a response in my head for my own daughter. Somehow I figured this moment in the piazza was a turning point for us, too. I was petrified to make a wrong move. This girl with her still developing brain needed a parent for the many transitions ahead. I would always be her mother and she my child. But one day I hoped I could also be her good friend. And that it wouldn’t take as long for us as it had between me and my own mother.
Mine had been a difficult divorce, too. As the custodial parent who attended to the nitty gritty, I was concerned that I fell into the role of bad cop all too often. It was hard saying no when part of me wanted to say yes.
“Sure”I finally said to my daughter. But you know smoking’s not good for you.
I’m not going to be a smoker like Grandma, my daughter said, giggling as she skipped over the cobblestones and into a tobacco shop to buy cigarettes.
After she returned, our waiter led us to a table. A soft breeze blew through the square during the several attempts it took for my daughter and me to light up. I coughed and mostly pretended to inhale. My daughter looked as expert as Marlene Dietrich as she held the cigarette between her index and middle fingers. “My friends are never going to believe this,” she said. I had to smile. Caffeine and cigarettes (and perhaps a bit of shopping), and for the moment we felt as one.
Beverly Willett lives in Savannah, Georgia after nearly a lifetime in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in dozens of magazines and newspapers including The New York Times, Salon, Family Circle, Prevention and Woman’s Day. She’s a proud member of the Peacock Guild writing group at the Flannery O’Connor Childhood Home.
Home from college a week, and the boy says he needs to go away, to any city, angry in ways the father cannot fathom. The boy’s mind dances around and around and inward and the boy barricades himself in his room. The father knocks with trays of food. Occasionally the food slips in. At night plumbing sounds through the walls. At night all the doors are locked and no one sleeps.
Soon after Christmas his parents drop him at the train station, right in town. It is noon and gray. They will not stand to watch their son ride away against a window, not watching back.
Soon, on official boards, photographs call him missing.
In some anonymous city he pays for a room. Unpacks his only bag. All his things: six pair of socks, four pairs of pants, two T-shirts, a flannel button down, boots. His parents brought him to the train station with all his things in his bag and that boy said thank you, said so long, said no: don’t stay in this car. No point in watching. I don’t plan on coming back. And angry, angry at his mind caving in, said, don’t think I am coming back.
Words haunt the father. Mornings find him digging around in his own mind to find a good reason why. Why put on clothing, go to work, go forward at all? This, he understands, is how a man fails: across an actual life. Not across a collection of minutes that turn to hours and then to days.
That boy, in his room, counting his small stack of cash, arranging his things. His dirty window shows this unfamiliar city writhing and waiting for him. Sorrow hits him, not for missing home, but for his isolation. Hallucinations fill his voids. At night, full of dim lights, bars call to him. A man buys him a drink, chats him up, is back in his small room. Sometimes this man is kind to him. Sometimes he wakes sore, and sick in the mornings, searching his face in the mirror to see if he is different yet, healed yet. If that thing he has been missing has fitted itself into place yet.
A morning in March: his father picks up the phone and finds the boy calling from Kansas. Too much banging, clanging, talking in the city. And now, Kansas, with its rows of stalks and blooms brushing up and against again and again is too noisy. A morning in March his father picks up and finds his son calling to say so long, such a noisy world, I’m out of money.
In his room at such and such a cheap motel in such and such a town an A/C unit clangs and hums and the boy says he will die from it, from the noise. His father, copying down this information, calls bus stations, trains, and calls him back. Bargains. Instructs.
His parents, back at the station in town, standing hand in hand to watch for the approaching train. It is starting again, the mother says. Yes, the father agrees. Again. But he cannot hide his flooding relief, the joy of recognizing the line of his son’s body stepping onto the platform, even in the face of this grim sentence.
Erin Sullivan is a writer who lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Her work has been published in Salon, Literary Mama, the Independent Weekly, and elsewhere.
I crawled after my fifteen-year-old daughter into the back of a dilapidated van that was designed to carry eight passengers but already held almost a dozen. It was parked in a rutted lot that passed for a bus station in this tiny Sumatran village. Lizzie and I had just hiked a couple of miles from our thatched jungle hut and, although it was still early morning, my cotton shirt was soaked. Even my knees, jammed into the vinyl seat in front of me, were sweating. I fantasized about polar bears and ice floes.
“It’s a little squished,” Lizzie said, fanning herself with a packet of cookies. Then an Australian backpacker hopped in next to me just before the driver slid the door shut. “At least we’ve got a bit extra room,” I said, pointing at an empty seat as the van bumped along a potholed dirt road to the next town. A few minutes later, our driver pulled up to a corner, rolled down his window and called out our destination: “Parapat, Parapat!” A young Indonesian man got in and crawled over us to the last remaining seat.
There’s nothing like travel to forge mother-daughter closeness. Especially when you are wedged together in the tiny backseat of a dubiously maintained van for an eleven-hour ride.
Lizzie and I started taking trips together when she was ten, though all our previous getaways had been only a night or two and a short ride from our home. We’d never done anything remotely like this—backpacking for two and a half weeks through Sumatra, Indonesia’s largest island. Lizzie had been volunteering in Cambodia and, after her program, I met her in Phnom Penh where we caught a budget flight to North Sumatra’s capital, Medan. She seemed excited about the idea, although the van ride dampened her enthusiasm a little. I was used to challenging road trips having spent much of my twenties and thirties traipsing around the world, going wherever my backpack and a cheap plane ticket would take me.
I’d lived in Jakarta as a kid, and I wanted to show Lizzie “my” country. I also wanted a chance to test-drive my Bahasa Indonesia, which was so rusty it had corroded to the point of uselessness. We’d stay in $6-a-night huts without running water and with electricity only a few hours a day. We’d sleep under mosquito nets, eat nasi goreng and absorb Sumatran culture. We’d trek through the jungle and see orangutans and elephants and, with luck, avoid contracting malaria and dysentery. It would be an adventure. Since there weren’t many summers left until Lizzie was off to college and into her own life, it was, I reasoned, now or never. And I much prefer now to never.
Travel is a lot like parenting: you can’t really plan what will happen. Instead, you just have to roll with it. In this case literally, on a bad wheel and lackluster suspension. We rode through the jungle and endless palm oil plantations, past small towns with silver minarets gleaming in the sun. Then we hit a massive traffic jam. We’d been warned that travel during Idul Fitri, the holiday celebrating the end of Ramadan, is especially difficult. We watched with equal parts awe and horror as our driver swerved onto the sidewalk to inch past stalled vehicles until we were out of the worst. Driving in Sumatra can be like a game of high-speed chicken, passing other vehicles in the oncoming lane with drivers leaning on their horns, waiting until the last second to see who will lose his nerve and back off.
And just like parenting, with travel sometimes it’s better to close your eyes and desperately hope you and your child will make it to your destination—and adulthood—in one piece. But even though you’re not always sure what you’re doing on that road, you’re glad you’re on the journey together. At least I was.
At home our lives are busy. There’s work and school, track and debate, movies and meals with friends. We eat family dinners most nights, Lizzie and her dad and I chatting about our days. Life has a hectic but predictable rhythm.
But one of the great things about travel is how it shakes up that routine, even if it’s temporary. On our trip, Lizzie and I were forced to live in the moment, a compulsory Zen of sorts. We didn’t know where we would stay, what we would eat for dinner or how we would get from point A to B.
During meals in Indonesia, Lizzie and I lingered over generous portions of spicy Padang chicken and finger-sized fried bananas, veering from the usual topics of classes, friends and sports. She asked me about my childhood, curious about the time I’d spent in Indonesia as a child. She told me her tentative plans for studying psychology or English or history or library science and perhaps joining the Peace Corps or traveling after graduation. Our conversation was without boundaries and borders. Time, it seemed, temporarily slowed.
I began to see Lizzie in a new way, through the eyes of strangers. At the airport in Kuala Lumpur, a young customs agent who appeared to be in his early twenties said something to Lizzie in Bahasa Malaysia as he stamped her passport. She smiled politely, not understanding a word. Another agent looked at me and said, in English, “He thinks she is pretty. How old?” I told her and she translated. Neither Lizzie nor I had any difficulty understanding his response as he handed her the passport: smiling while backing up and calling out “Ohhhhhh!’
“He was flirting with you,” I said to Lizzie as we tucked our passports away.
“Mom! Stop it!” Lizzie said, proving teenage embarrassment of a parent can span continents. Then she looked at me and burst out laughing.
It’s an odd feeling watching your daughter get hit on. At fifty, as I become less visible to the outside world, Lizzie is becoming more so. Each year I blow out my birthday candles and it’s as if a tiny bit of me is being exhaled along with the carbon dioxide and oxygen. I watch, both amused and ready to jump in, if needed. It’s as if I glanced away for twenty seconds and Lizzie had metamorphosed into this lovely and confident young adult. I suspect this isn’t new for her, but at home it’s sometimes as if we live in separate countries, Parentlandia and Teenageopolis and only occasionally set foot across each other’s borders. While traveling, we’re outsiders, together.
Seeing Lizzie in a different way in a new place makes me realize, yet again, that she’s on adulthood’s fast track. Soon we won’t share a house or even a city, but we’ll always have our trip backpacking through Sumatra and that cramped eleven-hour van ride we thought would never end. But, like childhood, it did.
Author’s Note: I loved traveling with Lizzie, who was an intrepid traveler and embraced new experiences like squat toilets and cold showers. Back home in Portland, we occasionally go out for lunch and relive our trip. “Remember how a tree fell across that road up the volcano? It was lucky that man on a motorbike had a chainsaw!” We’re planning another backpacking trip together.
Sue Sanders’ essays have been published in the New York Times, Washington Post, Brain, Child, Real Simple, Islands, Parents, the Rumpus and others. She’s the author of the parenting memoir, Mom, I‘m Not a Kid Anymore.
When I was twelve my mother gave me an instruction that was to stay with me in a most annoying way for the rest of my life. I was waiting at an airline gate about to take my first plane flight alone, thrilled at the prospect of my first experience at air travel and this undeniable leap toward adulthood.
Finally, the door to the ramp whooshed open. This was it. As I stepped forward to board my mother, who had been standing quietly at my side, turned toward me.
Her face was unusually serious. “As the plane is about to take off,” she said, looking at me intently, “I want you to say the Shema.”
This caught me by surprise. Although my mother lit Shabbat candles most Friday nights, and attended High Holy Day services each year, I did not think of her as a particularly pious person. Hebrew prayers were not something commonly invoked in our day-to-day life. Yet here she was instructing me to say the most sacred declaration in the entire Jewish liturgy—not only an affirmation of the sovereignty of God, but also, an explicit statement of the existence of one and only one God, thereby defining Jew as apart from Christian. It was proclaimed at every service: “Hear, Oh Israel, the Lord Our God, the Lord is One.” Accompanied by a full throttle organ blast of major chords, Shema never failed to induce a huge shiver like icicles coursing down my shoulders as the congregation sang out, each word almost its own triumphant declaration: “Shema! Yisrael! Adonai! Elohenu! Adonai! Echod!”
I was impressed. Did air travel really merit a gesture so profound?
It occurred to me then that my mother’s command might have had less to do with reverence than superstition. My mother was of that generation for which air travel was still regarded as somewhat perilous. When she had stuffed quarters into the flight insurance dispenser in the terminal earlier, I was quite certain she was aiming for insurance of a different kind. To ward off “the evil eye,” no doubt, and deliver me safely. In any case, I imagined her thinking, it couldn’t hurt.
Even at age twelve I could recite the Shema from memory. But I had learned it in the unlikeliest of places: Girl Scouts. I had been chosen as one of three, along with a Catholic and a Protestant girl, to recite our respective religion’s prayers at the opening of a huge convocation of Girl Scouts and Scout leaders from the Greater New York area. So I had the odd experience of proclaiming the Shema aloud for the first time before a microphone and few thousand Girl Scouts, mostly Christian.
I did not forget my mother’s instructions as the plane, engines roaring, began its acceleration down the runway. At the very moment of that heart-stopping miracle in which a huge machine lifted into the air, I obediently whispered a quick Shema. And then turned my attention to the astounding first sight of tiny cars crawling along slim, winding ribbons of highway; of perfect squares of green and rust laid out like a giant, undulating checkerboard; and most breathtaking of all, the sudden surprise of rising through grey mist to a blindingly bright blue sky above a snowy floor—the most perfect depiction of heaven I could ever imagine. Now this, if anything, spoke to me of God. Not an ancient Hebrew prayer that reminded me mostly of our great stone synagogue with its worn velvet seats.
Over the years, as I grew older and air travel became commonplace to me, the Shema had a habit of popping into my head at that very moment in which the plane’s wheels lifted off the runway. To be perfectly honest this became, more often than not, irritating. I meant no disrespect for this sacred declaration. But when flying to Mexico on college break with not much more than a bikini and a bottle of Bain de Soleil; or off on my honeymoon in Paris; or even, during my young banker days, when flying to Pittsburgh with a pile of annual reports on my lap, the last thing I wanted to think about was religion, or four thousand years of rabbis in black coats. Least of all did I want to be reminded of martyrs of the Middle Ages uttering the Shema with their last breaths before being burned at the stake. But there it was, every time: the Shema. Seeming almost to utter itself with some odd power of its own. And suddenly I would become, once again, the obedient daughter. A Good Jewish Girl—dutiful, reverent, and chaste. It has been that way ever since.
My first born son David was eleven when he flew alone for the first time, to Space Camp in Florida. At the airline gate, neither of us spoke as David waited to board. Ostentatiously nonchalant, David scarcely glanced out the large observation window onto the runway, as though air travel was nothing unusual to him.
Should I do it? I wondered. Should I tell him to say it? I wasn’t the slightest bit superstitious. But, well—it couldn’t hurt. And it was tradition, after all. I hesitated, and then reconsidered. Should I burden David with this annoying instruction for the rest of his life?
I was caught in a small panic of indecision as the plane was called to board. It was now or never. Maybe I should just tell him.
I took a breath. No. Let him think about Space Camp, and adventure, and the view out his window. Boy stuff. Not religion.
With barely a “Bye, Mom,” David stepped out the door to the tarmac where a row of gleaming airplanes waited in the distance. A flight attendant at his side, David walked briskly toward the farthest plane, which seemed to grow larger as they approached it. And then, as David’s figure became smaller and smaller, a strange kind of reversal in time took place. David seemed before my eyes to change back from confident almost-teenager to small boy to toddler, and then to that baby boy whom I once never let out of my sight.
And then I understood. It hadn’t been superstition at all that had been in my mother’s mind when she told me to say the Shema. It was the knowledge that she had that day been putting me in the hands of her God, entrusting me to His safekeeping. Delivering me not only to the sky, but to this first step toward adulthood and that inexorable journey away from her. The words of the Shema—her words, but spoken by me—were the link of their hands as I passed from one to Another.
The small black speck that was my son disappeared into the plane. I remained at the window, and the words came easily. Shema Yisrael Adonai Elohenu Adonai Echod.
Like so many families this week, ours will hit the road. We kind of know just how many families, because we have to drive through New Jersey with about three-quarters of them. Thanksgiving in Philadelphia at my mom and stepdad’s house is not just a family tradition, it’s one of the specific reasons we bought our van.
Because, we were, most definitely van avoiders. Although we spent a dozen years in not one but two pretty big vehicles—a Volvo station wagon and a Ford Explorer, we clung to the no-vanness of our lives. The van, to us, felt like a white flag of surrender, although what, exactly we’d imagined we hadn’t already surrendered to, I’m no longer able to pinpoint. It was more a feeling, since we certainly had already ceded our vehicles to baby buckets and boosters and cracker crumbs and Playmobil figures wedged between the seats. The van felt like some final fall from the grace of how we’d started our parenting years, in those cars.
The first guy liked Alice in Wonderland and never met a vehicle he could work up even a little “vroom” for so when the second guy came, the transportation/construction phenomenon hit our family in a most unexpected tsunami of so many wheels. The best line of his little toddler life, uttered from the backseat whilst chained in five-point harnesses: “Zeez, when we grow up, you take the Volvo, I’ll have the ‘Splorer.” His big brother nodded rather dumbly. He couldn’t have told you the makes of our two green vehicles. I don’t know that he knew they were both green or practically that we had two of them.
However, four children and two parents cannot go to Philadelphia with luggage in a Volvo station wagon. I mean, I guess technically they could if they were willing to have one kid ride with just that much luggage in the third seat facing backwards for all those hours and hours. Maybe, they could get a Thule bin atop the wagon to hold the stuff, but how do those things even work? I live in Thule-land (it’s like Vermont, only it’s Western Massachusetts) and I just cannot comprehend them. The stroller alone would have been our nonstarter. And the big kids and their friends were getting way too big to fold their lengthening legs into pretzel form enough for that smaller, third seat anyway, which was a problem for carpools. This is all to say that we can blame it on the baby’s arrival and whatever—we made it to the minivan, the you-can’t-avoid-it-moment-of-truth.
I’ll be totally honest here about two things and that van. One, it’s a super fine vehicle. It drives well; it’s got precisely fourteen cup-holders, which has become my shorthand version to explain everything that’s wrong and right about our American society these days, and it’s so much better for carpools than the alternative would have been. Plus, we have heated seats and smartly opted for leather not fabric. I will get to that last bit soon. Two, it’s very much not cool and I do not for the life of me understand why anyone would willingly get one if it wasn’t a necessity. I do not love driving it alone or with one or two others. I feel wasteful, although the van gets better gas mileage than either the Explorer or the Volvo did. Our second car is now a Honda Civic, and although we didn’t spring for a hybrid, it does get good gas mileage and for all this I’m telling you about the cars we don’t drive all that much actually.
To bring all this seeming meander back to the point, which is that we’ll take a road trip to Philly, I want to say that our pinnacle of a road trip disaster occurred in this van on the way to Philadelphia with four kids in tow. It’s a story I have to remember at this time each year, because I can then tell myself the drive can’t be worse than the one we already had and thus I screw up my courage—and go. Picture two parents and four kids in a van late on a Tuesday night and picture that van hitting the standstill of the George Washington Bridge. Even before you get there, you see its majestic self ahead and you are awed—but then you are stalled and you rue it just as sure as you are amazed by all these bridges New York City’s got going around it. It’s about 11:30 PM. You have to wonder why are you stalled to a standstill on the GW Bridge at nearly midnight not the night before Thanksgiving anyway. You do wonder that, especially a minute later.
A minute later is the perfect time for your second guy, then in fifth grade, to throw up. He’s in the third row, of course. You cannot go to him. He’s stoic enough but then the next guy, the kindergartner, pees in his sleep—and wakes up. So the toddler wakes up, too, and cries because it’s the middle of the night and she’s a toddler and no one can do more than hand her a bottle, which the kindergartner—a.k.a. toddler whisperer—does. And the seventh grader, the one who hasn’t thrown up or peed or been woken up, is generally freaked out by the whole mess. In my memory, he’s the loudest of all.
Anyway, that’s that. It’s a moment. It’s the moment when the parents start to laugh that punch drunk David Bryne-channeling laugh of how (the hell) did we get here? And we do mean, here, as in on the George Washington Bridge stuck with this vomit and pee and these tears and this freak out and us. How did we become the people in the van, the parents of four, the children of more than four altogether, the sandwich generation, the whole freaking thing?
Obviously, there were no answers just then. Suffice to say that we’ve never found the Vince Lombardi rest stop on the New Jersey Turnpike a more welcome sight before or after that night. What ensued: a bunch of cleanup—and a (poopy) diaper change, of course. And on we went. The rest of the ride (and for days, really) we repeated to one another how glad we were to have shelled out a little more for the leather seats. Our lyric choice may not have been quite apt. Perhaps, the better way to describe family road trips in vans with debacles and New Jersey to larger family gatherings has a little more “road to nowhere” to recommend. You do need music on the road that much is for sure. And, in fact you do need to earn a few badges of honor here and there, if only to have some stories you can tell forevermore. Without those, you wouldn’t know you’d truly made yourselves into a family.
My parents both grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area. A liberal area, with conservative (Chevron-refinery-working) parents. My mom was never a hippie, but has always been pretty open. Open in a conservative way, if that makes any sense? That is, go organic, believe in and practice reiki and the healing power of oils, homeopathy, acupuncture and all that good stuff. But use your own spoon! Don’t be naked! No premarital sex!
One of the things I’ve admired about my mom is her leading by example. She wanted a different life for us than she had. She didn’t want us growing up in the Bay Area – and so she and my Dad – both city kids! – started a sheep ranch. A sheep ranch!How fun and how huge.
What an impossible task, and how impossibly courageous!
Then, after a rather brief move into town, she and my Dad decided to move to the Fiji Islands in the South Pacific to become Baha’i pioneers (- “pioneer” is a Baha’i term for missionary).
Fiji! Tiny island nation with enormous mosquitoes, big diseases and few jobs for foreigners!
Fiji! Tiny island nation with lovely people, strong culture and a lilting rhythm in life.
Fiji! Where swimming can be an actual form of transport! – where cockroaches fly and spiders smaller than a hand span are small.
Yes, Fiji. Pre-internet. Fiji, when moving there from California necessitated newspaper and micro-fiche searches for information, books and enormous leaps of faith.
We want so much for our kids, don’t we?
We want them to have what we wanted when we were younger, we want them to participate in life and enjoy every waking moment.
We want them to learn, grow, thrive.
We want their dreams to be sweet, we want the world to be kind to them.
I think we end up feeling that if we throw money at our bag of wishes and wants for our children, someone it will come to fruition.
If we buy the “best” toys, if we send our kids to “progressive” schools, if we clothe them in organic ware, if we pay for sports participation, camps, activities. If we spend time shuttling them to and from these scheduled things, if we arrange “playdates” with like-minded parents and friends, if we provide full-on “therapy” for our children with ‘special needs’/disabilities, if we all go to Music Together.
Ifwe do all that, any of that, more than that, then our kids will learn, grow, thrive, have. The world will be kind to them, their dreams will be sweet.
But see, I – the kid who was dragged kicking and screaming to the tiny island nation of Fiji where there were enormous flying cockroaches, the tiny island nation where there is actual breadfruit, where prawns live in streams, where avocados are the size of American footballs – well, I don’t buy it.
I think all that “if-then” will buy gloss and comfort. Gloss and comfort can be really great things, so don’t get me wrong here, I’m not dissing it. But I am questioning it. I’m questioning how necessary it is, I’m questioning our cultural obsession with it because you know what? In Fiji – that tiny island nation where I’d sit outside after school with my friends and dip the mangoes we picked into a blend of vinegar, raw cane sugar and freshly chopped chillis – in Fiji nobody I knew had any of of all this and people I knew were content in a way I’ve never seen people in the United States content.
People in Fiji had time for relationships. People.
Us kids had time to just ride our bikes around and free play. Go swimming. Sit and eat mangoes.
Schools – we didn’t have textbooks in the schools I attended in Fiji – we’d all have notebooks for each subject and we’d copy out what the teacher wrote on the blackboard. We would submit our notebooks for checking and we’d be marked according to our penmanship and drawings (- because we’d draw out the skeleton and so forth). All of that writing was reinforcing every.single.thing we were learning.
Those schools in Fiji were far, far from fancy by American standards but coming out of them, I easily jumped two grades when we moved back to the US. Easily. Schools in Fiji are that good and schools here are that easy.
I look at the courage of my mother and I admire it. I admire what she did, the chances she took. Even knowing what I know now, knowing how some of those chances did hurt, I still admire that she did it at all.
Because now… well, now I’m faced with the same chance. My knees are shaking and I am experiencing first-hand how hard huge leaps like this can be. I thought it would be easier than it has been. I grew up in Fiji, right?! Giant flying cockroaches! I counted bugs at night on my mosquito net like other kids counted sheep. This should be easy.
I think of my Mom and how she led by example. She showed my brother and I how to grab life by the balls and really do the scary things. I want to be that way for my kids: I want to show them by my example – lead them by example – in a way that shuttling them to and from camp, school, progressive activity-upon-progressive-activity – never will.
I want to show them how to have courage in a world in which we can choose our destinies.
I want to show them that they can be and do whatever they want: that there is no end to the learning and growing in our lives, there is no limit.
That at age 40, my own mother graduated from University (- it took her 2 years for her BA! Working full time! Caring for two teenagers!). And at age 40, I am embarking on a massive adventure.
There is no limit.
The learning will never end.
The adventures will never cease.
We can choose our destiny.
We can be, do and achieve all that we truly desire.
There is no limit: Lead by example.
Meriah Nichols is a third culture kid, former missionary child. Deaf. Mama to 3. She is leaving soon to drive with her family from San Francisco to Argentina, along the Pan Am Overland. Follow their trip at With a Little Moxie (www.withalittlemoxie.com)
I know what the answers will likely be. Still, I ask, “Would you let your 16-year-old fly thousands of miles alone, stay in hostels with strangers and pretty much do what he wants?”
Mostly, parents stare at me in disbelief.
And this is before I even mention (in case they didn’t know already) that the 16-year-old in question has Asperger’s syndrome). That’s when they glance at each other, perhaps betraying an unspoken question, “Who’s calling social services, you or me?”
“I wouldn’t.” They add quickly, “but that’s just me.”
No, I say, it really isn’t just you.
“Of course, it depends on the kid,” they say.
That’s true. It depends on the kid.
Still, almost none of the parents I know, it turns out, would allow their 16-year-old to do these things, regardless of the teen’s developmental or neurological status.
Even for me, the obvious response, when my elder son Hugh started asking to do this, was no. “Why exactly?” he wanted to know. Why exactly? Because you’re too young. “Too young for what exactly?” What exactly? You’re not even old enough for a gap year. High has two more years of high school.
In a New York Times article about preparing any age child for school, Arthur Levine and Diane Dean, authors of Generation on a Tightrope: A Portrait of Today’s College Student, point out , “It’s never too early for parents to start being careful about not being too careful with their children.”
My own high school classics teacher told my class decades ago that she’d left her teen son alone in the middle of nowhere with just a map to find his way home.
I needed friends in the mold of my classics teacher.
I sought out an indomitable mother I knew whose son finagled European citizenship, moved to Amsterdam and got himself into university for zero tuition and zero risk of being busted for pot. “Look,” she told me, “A hundred and fifty years ago these boys would have been sent out west at fourteen with nothing but the expectation that they figure it out.”
Another friend had just dispatched her 17-year-old to Washington, D.C. for a six-week internship. He was staying in the home of some lawyer they’d found on Craigslist.
These were my people.
It must be evident that I am not a helicopter mom by temperament. Still, I felt like one in the early years. When your child has developmental differences, even play and basic tasks become scheduled: social groups, occupational therapy, counseling. It’s one appointment after another, enforced helicopter parenting even for moms and dads who never felt comfortable in the chopper. By the time Hugh outgrew his need for most of these appointments, I was ready to dump the helicopter in some distant, humid jungle and let it rust. These last few years, both Hugh and his younger brother have preferred that weekdays wind down around 3 p.m., soccer exempted. If I scheduled tennis and Russian and basket weaving I’d have to schedule a family breakdown too.
Like every person who has autism, Hugh is required to inhabit a world that wasn’t designed for him. Its proportions and expectations are all wrong. When his developmental differences became noticeable at two-and-a-half, I asked our early intervention consultant whether he’d ever be able to find his own way in the world. She didn’t know: “Ten years ago we weren’t picking up these things in preschoolers. There’s no precedent.”
With years of appointments and services, some smaller classes, and support maneuvering through the world, Hugh grew up even more supervised than most kids. Yet now, when he sets out for a trip from our home just outside Boston, he won’t accept rides even to the subway station, where he hops on the Green Line to the airport..
Hugh made his first solo trip last July to Washington DC. “I’d never felt so free as the moment I stepped off the train,” Hugh reported from the hostel the first evening there. His second trip was to Edinburgh, with a layover in Dublin for the National Museum and two days with friends in England. His third, an unexpected gift from Dad, was to San Francisco. And in October he was lucky enough to swing a long weekend in Iceland — an earned reward from his indulgent father.
I haven’t parented other teens so can’t be sure of this, but it seems to me most have other stuff on their minds. As a Brit, I’ve noticed that travel is intimidating to many Americans, expensive, and not widely perceived as a solo adult endeavor, never mind a teen sport. Europe, though an ideal learning arena for young travelers, with its intricate rail system, hostel network and feckless gap year tradition, is far away. Consequently, it doesn’t tend to pop up as an option. Most US parents aren’t faced with the decision about endorsing solo teen travel. Instead they spend nearly every day and night with their kids until those kids go to college, and then the parents, bereft, freak out.
That might be how it goes with my 12-year-old, who has no interest in world exploration and regards family vacations as a heinous burden. The boys’ father and I moved to the US from the UK fifteen years ago, and later divorced, so they’re used to back-and-forth between two continents and two parental homes . Ours is in Massachusetts, Dad’s in Manhattan; and the boys tend to fly together as unaccompanied minors. Because of this regime, our younger son is prematurely travel-weary, whereas Hugh’s expeditions have barely begun. (His plans extend to space, which makes my head explode.)
It isn’t easy, judging when to step out of his way, and how far. Our negotiations are at times anguished. Hugh’s persistence is a mighty force in the universe, or at least our universe — a priceless asset when he’s excited about math, a challenge when he’s into coffee and action at 2:00 a.m. His passion for travel is tricky, exciting, and admirable, and I’m grateful for it. Many adults with varying forms of autism face colossal obstacles getting out into a world largely indifferent to their needs. Some spend decades in their parents’ basements.
Hugh reads travel guides and schedules, saves money, learns languages, studies how societies and cultures evolved: ancient migrations, genetic patterns, language families, the unexpected presence or absence of certain links. (Did you know English has more in common with the Sri Lankan language than with Hungarian? Or that the Basque people are genetically distinct, descended from Europe’s earliest inhabitants?)
His travel itineraries are filled with museums, galleries, national parks, noteworthy buildings, historical sites, restaurants offering abnormally large burritos. I can hardly complain that he’s not putting these travel opportunities to good use. To the cynics who suspect he’s sneaking into bars and brothels: I think not. Hugh sends photos and detailed reports, is faithful to the rules, and highly motivated not to screw up. Independence is earned, I remind him every time he acts immature. (Note to self: maybe stop doing that? No one can be mature all the time.)
I do think about safety, of course. Hugh is six feet tall, and broad; he doesn’t project vulnerability and is conscientious about minimizing risk. I worry most about unanticipated social situations, especially sharing a dorm with strangers, so this is what we’ve emphasized in the prep (“You’re discriminating against me because I have Asperger’s!”). He knows to be cautious in expressing his strong views on politics and religion, how to get through jetlagged nights without pacing the dorm, and his conversations with fellow travelers have mostly all been friendly. Hugh checks in several times a day via text, phone, Facetime and various social media, and hasn’t yet traveled anywhere we don’t have friends on call for emergencies, except for Iceland, where he joined a guided tour each day, so was fully supervised (the highlight of that trip was climbing the volcano that shut down international flights in 2010). Right now I’m urgently cultivating email relationships with friends of friends in Slovakia and Poland. Our one problem so far is his teen debit card account, which has been so unreliable I end up wiring Panic Cash. I’m in the market for an alternative.
Although Hugh’s solo trips have so far been to English-speaking destinations, I don’t see that as essential. Where he’s an obvious visitor, Aspergerian differences can become just an indistinct piece of the foreignness. He’s navigated an alien culture his whole life: travelling is his escape from the everyday stress of trying to pass. That’s why part of me is saying, “Go! Run!”
And while I’m cautious about attributing his characteristics to autism stereotypes, some classic Asperger’s strengths are much in evidence: his fascination with maps, his meticulous research and fidelity to planning, that all-consuming motivation and analysis, his independence, his unconventional vision. If my typically developing younger son ever changes his mind about travel I’ll face a different set of angsts (who are you going with? what exactly is the plan? you know I’ll have you shadowed?)
Flying back from San Francisco recently, Hugh started writing a travel guide: “According to St. Augustine, the world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page. I couldn’t agree more, but would go even further. I would say the world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page, but also cannot judge that page or critique it. … Travel helps us understand other cultures, which is an important thing, because without comparison to other cultures we cannot truly see our own.”
This time, I insisted on meeting him at the airport. (Please. It was midnight.) I waited in baggage claim, reading. Looking up, I took a moment to recognize the tall, smiling man striding towards me with the backpack, and the confidence that the world is after all, becoming his.
The year we lived in Costa Rica, our kids’ school had a year-round calendar. Hannah, Harry, and Ivy got a month off at Christmas and one in June; the rest of the year, school ran in six-week sessions with a week’s break between. This worked out brilliantly for traveling purposes, getting us down the mountain and out to explore Central America at regular intervals.
We’d been in Monteverde six weeks and a day when, in early September, the kids, their dad, and I headed out of Costa Rica for a week of intensive Spanish in Nicaragua. My criteria for selection had been “the least expensive school in Nicaragua that we can reach by bus in a day.”
By then, we’d lived in Monteverde just long enough to get a blast of what many Ticos—a friendly, non-pejorative term for Costa Ricans—feel toward Nicaragua and its people: disdain at best, hatred at worst. Ticos we knew seemed to feel that Nicaragua, with its poverty and its dictators and its poverty and its lack of infrastructure and its poverty, poverty, poverty, was an embarrassment to all of Central America. They wished Nicaragua would get its shit together. They wished Nicaragua would educate its citizens, brush its collective teeth, and stop being so poor all the time. They despised the Nicaraguan immigrants who sneaked across the border to steal the crappiest Costa Rican jobs, use Costa Rican social services, and molest Costa Rican women.
The kids’ Spanish tutor in Monteverde, provided by the school to help them until they were fluent enough to get by, scolded anyone she caught lazily dropping the terminal s from words:“No somos Nica!”
Ticos say “Nica” the way Arizonans say “wetback.”
We’d come from Seattle, where two full-time jobs plus three full-time kids had equaled a joyful yet frenetic life. My husband Anthony and I wanted to slow it down. Plus, there were things we wanted our kids to know that our current life wasn’t going to teach. Everything from “happiness is attainable without Select Soccer” to Spanish. A few months back we had quit our jobs, crossed our trembling fingers, and jumped. The money part wasn’t easy but it was surprisingly doable. Cost-of-living differences worked in our favor, and we were able to rent out our house for more than our mortgage payment. If we could keep our expenses to that difference, we’d come out of the year even (jobless, yes, but even). And here we were.
Going into the year, I’d wanted us to learn, learn, learn. Our vacations would be fun, natch, but also educational; we’d use these one-week stints to learn the history, current events, and culture of Central America. We’d see what needed changing in the world, and we’d be on fire to start. Possibly, we’d have Central America fixed right up by the end of the year. Nicaragua seemed like the perfect kickoff.
And so, against the advice of our new Tico friends, we went.
We left Monteverde at dawn. A rickety public bus bounced us down the rocky mountain road, dropping us at a small, unlabeled bus stop along the Pan-American Highway. We waited there for the air-conditioned, higher-end coach that would take us across the border at Penas Blancas. With the help of a boy about ten years old, we negotiated the border process and changed our Costa Rican colones for Nicaraguan Cordobas. As soon as our bus got under way, it was clear we were somewhere else. Nicaragua seemed hotter. Dogs ate garbage at the side of the road. Back among the trees, we could see houses constructed of tarps and scraps of tin.
Ivy had climbed on to Anthony’s lap. “Look! Doggies! They’re so cute! I want to pet them!” she said. Anthony looked at me, but I didn’t know what to say, either. The dogs looked exactly the way I’d always imagined the rabid dog that Atticus shoots, just a little to the left of right between the eyes.
“Sorry, Sweetie,” Anthony told Ivy. “But the bus doesn’t stop for another little while.”
We arrived in Masaya, in Southern Nicaragua, in the late afternoon. From there a taxi took us to the school. Harry had just enough Spanish to tell the taxista where we wanted to go.
The main school building turned out to be a large wooden house that overlooked La Laguna de Apoyo, a creepily warm, pondish kind of thing.. A concrete outbuilding would house our family for the week, bunkbeds in a bunker about twelve feet square. Given that the North American school year had just started, the school was virtually empty, and our family would be the major voting bloc. For the first two days we shared breakfast with another couple, who were replaced toward the end of the week with three backpackers.
Each morning, we practiced Spanish with individual tutors for four hours—although for Ivy, at five, “tutoring” was mostly learning perro and gato and getting piggyback rides around the grounds. In the afternoons, we went on school-sponsored excursions to see artisans and living conditions in the surrounding area. (The school either shared my vision for how rich tourists should experience Nicaragua, or they got a cut of whatever we spent.) After field trips, we swam in the awkward lake, or visited the sprawling mercado in the nearby town of Masaya. I had an uncomfortable moment when I encountered Danilo, my teacher in the morning, selling Chiclets outside the market in the afternoon.
On the first day’s field trip, we watched a twelve-year-old girl make a basket out of dried palm fronds in twenty-two minutes. She sat on a stool in the family’s living room, an area bound by corrugated roofing lashed between trees to form walls. I hated to think how long it had taken to gather the fronds—the surrounding area was largely denuded, most trees having been sacrificed to cooking fires. I watched Hannah watching; our eldest was exactly this girl’s age. If the girl noticed Hannah at all, I couldn’t see it. She finished her basket, set it aside, and picked up more fronds. Her brother was toddler sized, but he didn’t toddle; he sat quietly at her feet, scratching in the dirt with his hand. A fellow student snapped his picture. The boy seemed used to it. Ivy, who never met a small child she didn’t want to play with and generally treat like a doll, moved behind me.
That afternoon in the mercado, we saw we could buy a palm-frond basket for less than a dollar.
In the evening, an almost-cool came on the breeze, and for half an hour we were almost-comfortable. We lay in hammocks and marveled at the bats, swooping black shadows against the darkening sky. We cheered them for eating the mosquitoes.
But then the breeze was done. At bedtime, the five of us tossed and turned stickily in our sweltering bedroom. We stayed on top of the sheets. We tried to think about popsicles, and the chill of Lake Washington, even in August—and not about the spiders and geckos that would, if we snapped it on, scurry out of our flashlight’s beam.
Ivy whimpered all night, her eczema inflamed by the heat. Anyone thinking about what we’d seen that day didn’t want to discuss it, although Hannah alluded to it, once.
“At least this will end,” she spoke in the crawly darkness. “For us.”
In the morning, Ivy told me she’d dreamt about feeding people.
After the week of intensive language training, educational field trips, and the awareness of sweat pooling in our bodily creases twenty-three and a half hours a day, we taxied to Masaya and caught a bus to Nicaragua’s tourist gem, the colonial town of Granada. Not to be confused with Grenada, the tiny island off the coast of Venezuela that the U.S. “conquered” in the eighties, this Granada is the oldest European settlement in Nicaragua, established in 1524; it seems to have been conquered about twice a week during the Somoza/Sandinista troubles of the 1970s and ’80s. It is, even after those years of war, a beautiful town. The face Granada shows tourists is so darling you almost forget how hot you are. Granada is famous for meticulously restored Baroque and Renaissance buildings. Narrow, pre-automobile streets meander toward a central plaza filled with fountains and flowers.
As we got off the bus, Hannah said, “It’s like the rest of Nicaragua, but not.”
By the time we got there, the kids were so overheated, so exhausted, and their minds were so blown, we couldn’t bring ourselves to keep exploring. So instead of hauling them—or ourselves—through the Sandinistas’ network of underground tunnels, or learning about Francisco Cordoba, the Spanish conqueror who founded Granada and then later got his name on the currency, Anthony and I surrendered.
We gave up on history and architecture. We led no thoughtful, age-appropriate discussions about privilege and power and how we could justify our lives in the face of all we’d seen. Instead, we hung out at our hostel, a converted Colonial beauty with fountains and courtyards and air conditioning, and played in the pool. The kids shrieked and splashed. We dripped our merry way across the charming courtyard to the blissful cool of our two (!) rooms and watched (missing one quotation here) “La Vida de Jerry Seinfeld,” a weekend-long marathon hosted by the Nicaraguan equivalent of Nick at Nite.
It wasn’t bad parenting, though. For every episode they watched, Harry and Hannah had to write down three Spanish phrases they learned from the episode. (Estos bocadillos me hacen sed! = “These pretzels are making me thirsty!”)
There were bats in Granada, too, and as they began their mosquito-eating swoops, the only movement on our walls were the flickering shadows of Jerry and Elaine, George and Kramer. We lay between cool, smooth sheets. It was bliss, yes; but we were no longer ignorant.
Wherever we went that year, people were forever asking me about our motivations for moving to Central America. When you get the same question over and over, you tend to develop talking points. One of my favorite talking points was that I wanted to eliminate some of the lectures. Lectures are the absolute worst part of parenting. But if you don’t find ways to get the important messages across, you’re sunk and your children become awful.
Hang up your backpack. Manners matter. Here’s why we share.
My parental lecture series had many installments. In moving to Central America, I hoped to dodge a few, living them out instead of yammering on. First up: You guys have no idea how lucky we are.
Nicaragua did the trick.
Nicaragua was an onslaught. The troubling images and the huge questions were so numerous and so upsetting that my weak, defensive brain ended up blending them into a single desperate muddle. So much so that the only question I could muster was How was it that everyone we met there was so clean?
I never did figure this out. By no means did we get a complete view of the country, but the parts we did see were a living, groaning, sweating, Alan Alda-narrated PBS special on poverty. No running water, unless you count the rivulets through the living rooms when the rains came hard. Kitchens were outside firepits or cookstoves, and everything we saw seemed to be coated in children, chickens, dogs, garbage, and flies. Yet our teachers sparkled when they arrived at school each morning, their jeans dark blue and pressed (never shorts, no matter how thick, how hot, the air), hair still a little damp, shoes perfect and dust-free.
Back home in Seattle, our family was armed with two showers, a washer/dryer, and unlimited hot water. Our paved streets and sidewalks meant most of our dirt lived in the garden, parks, and the occasional sports uniform/detergent commercial. Nonetheless, at least one of our Seattle clan was as likely as not to start the day with a crunchy spot on some bit of hair or clothing.
But when we were taken to peer into classrooms at the elementary school near La Laguna, not a single white shirt had a smudge, although their owners had as likely as not walked a kilometer or two on unpaved roads to get here.
In English I have a decent variety of words at my disposal, but I still couldn’t form any of them into a tactful execution of my terrible question: How do you manage stay so clean when your country is so hot and so dirty, your house has no floor, and there are dogs everywhere?
In Spanish, I mostly smiled, nodded, and tried to tip very, very well. But by the end of the week, my tutor Danilo and I had covered enough topics in the course of our sessions that I thought I could broach the subject.
As I asked him about it, I shook my head and gave a slight laugh at how trashy many of the tourists, including my family, looked. I wanted Danilo to know that I had the sense to be embarrassed.
He spoke slowly, as always, so I could pick up the Spanish.
“When being clean is the way you can show your dignity … when being clean is how you show that you are worth something,” Danilo told me, “you pay attention to be clean.”
That made sense to me. I and mine, we had a lot of ways. My children never questioned their innate worth, and nor did anybody else—we didn’t need to worry about crunchy spots.
The desperate muddle of Nicaragua reminded me of what I already knew, what we all know: As a country, and even in recession, America is ridiculously wealthy. And Northwesterners are, by and large, ridiculously wealthy even for Americans. And while Seattle does know poverty, my family did not. If Harry needed new cleats, we bought them. We lived less than a mile from a library, but I’d buy books for Ivy four at a time for the convenience of not tracking due dates.
But our incredible wealth rarely resonated down to my bones. Lord, pretty much everyone we knew had a nicer house than ours. Friends went to Italy and the Galapagos and on safaris for their vacations; our family went mostly to the Oregon coast. Our lack of an island retreat or a yurt in the Methow valley set us apart among our closest friends.
Seattle, of course, had been packed with the so-legendary-they’ve-become-tiresome-even-though-many-of-them-are-lovely-people-high-tech jillionaires. Our family lived, quite literally, in their shadow—on the bottom slope of the hill that many of them live atop. We schooled, soccered, played, and worked with perfectly normal people who had amazing resources. If you hang in our circles in Seattle, having a very reasonable amount of money can feel downright poor.
The unreality of our situation had been driven home to me a few years back. Through the tireless work of many parents (many of them the at-home wives who spent Microsoft millions), the sweet little public school in our neighborhood had recently become attractive to the many high-high-high-end families in the area.
One spring day, Hannah was invited to play with a new classmate. In our ancient but entirely serviceable Toyota Previa, I drove her up one of the curvy, leafy streets whose homes overlook Lake Washington. Stunning Colonials and Victorians mixed with glassy ultramoderns, but even the diverse architecture came in just one size: Efuckingnormous. Azaleas and rhododendrons bloomed among Japanese maples in the artfully artless front gardens. Hundred-year-old oaks presided in the expansive parking strips. It was the kind of neighborhood you want to drive to just to take a walk. Birds chirped. Joggers were toned and tanned, and they wore fabrics that wick moisture.
Hannah had reached the age when I could drop her off rather than doing the whole mom-chat inside. I double-checked the address and drove into the circular driveway.
I leaned over and kissed Hannah on the head. Such a big girl, all of a sudden. “Have a great time, sweetie. I’ll pick you up at six. Be sure to help pick up.” I ducked down to see out the passenger window so I could wave a quick hi/thanks at whomever answered the door.
Hannah didn’t move. “Okay, but which one?”
“Which one do they live in?”
“Honey, it’s right in front of you. You’re sitting ten feet from the front door.”
Hannah’s voice took on the edge that meant she was being very, very patient with me. “Yes, but which apartment do they live in? I need to know the number, to push the buzzer!”
I explained that just Maddie’s family lived in this house. Hannah looked up and down the street.
“In all of these? No apartments? Every single house on this street has just one family?”
It’s one thing when your kids are surprised by that kind of wealth. More insidious, for me, was when mine started taking it in stride. Hannah was embarrassed by her mistake that day and would never make it again.
When your children think they come from a needy family because two of them have to share a bedroom, it makes you think a minute. At least, it did me. I’d been proud of the way we’d been able to live; still, in our neighborhood we mostly wore cotton T-shirts to go jogging.
I might feel middle class in the States, and even in our new home in Monteverde, where our growing community of friends included many who lived beautifully but hadn’t worked for years—expats one and all. But I could not avoid the truth in Nicaragua. Nicaragua launched a full-on truth assault until I couldn’t take it anymore. I hid away with my kids, from the flies and the dogs and the sadness and the air that you have to do the breaststroke through. Eating pretzels and watching Jerry Seinfeld reruns in an air-conditioned room, I hid from the truth of the poverty in which too many people live. And I hid from the truth of my own, unimaginable wealth.
I think that most of us who never go hungry (unless it’s on purpose) do know how fortunate we are. But I forget. Why do I keep having to remember and re-remember this thing I know I know? On the sweaty bus ride back from Nicaragua, I swear to God, I caught myself whining because we wouldn’t be able to afford to get to Ecuador at Christmas.
I’m confused by issues of having and not having and I’m not sure what to do. I know I want to raise conscious kids. Our Seattle was a dream world, where wealth was assumed and want was nonexistent. I would see it as a failure on my part to not expose us all to a bigger reality. But I want my children to be aware of suffering, not inured to it. What a terrible backfire it would be to raise children who have seen so much poverty that they think it’s unavoidable and unaddressable.
I’m pretty sure even Jesus had some class issues. On the one hand, He was clearly very big on feeding the poor, clothing the naked, and so on. On the other, there’s that one disturbing story, when Judas got so snotty about Mary Magdalene—that slut!—anointing Jesus with oil. Judas thought the oil should have been sold, and the money given to the poor. Jesus defended the extravagance, saying “The poor will always be with us.” I’ve always thought that was a fairly dickish statement on His part.
But I understood it better, in Nicaragua. Being anointed in oil was the Jesus version of an air-conditioned hostel.
So I don’t feel bad about letting my kids laugh at the television that whole weekend. They had seen a lot, and they couldn’t fix any of it. They’d lived the lecture.
What we saw in Nicaragua will percolate and distill, and become part of who we are. I want us to have the will and the energy for baby steps, and then bigger steps. Sometimes we’ll give deeply, and sometimes we’ll give ourselves a break. That one weekend, I surrendered my plan to learn and grow and be educated citizens of the planet, every damn minute of the trip. I shut up, and we all ate pretzels.
Author’s Note: Publishing this piece terrifies me. Is it nothing but a big fat rationalization? Sometimes I think the best thing I can do for the world is to grow loving, caring people who will enter and transform it. And sometimes I think anything short of giving all we have is a crock. And sometimes I think—this should come as no surprise—What’s for snack? I settle at last in a place that’s very centrist. Between hedonism and abstention, between fruitless navel-gazing and militant benevolence; that’s where I live, and where I want to raise my kids. With gratitude, humility and things that go crunch. There is nothing more perfect to me than a line in the Wendell Berry poem “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front.” Be joyful/though you have considered all the facts. Yes. Exactly. I start there. I move outward.