I’ve seen this article, “Former Stanford Dean Explains Why Helicopter Parenting is Ruining a Generation of Children,” highlighted several times this week by different folks and I have a few thoughts:


1. She notes that “incoming students were brilliant and accomplished and virtually flawless, on paper…” Could it be that this is part of the problem? That we expect kids, in order to get into college, to be absolutely perfect? When I was a kid, our hobbies were just that – things we did in our spare time because we enjoyed them. We played organized sports seasonally, not to get a college scholarship, and we didn’t specialize in one sport starting at the age of eight. We played multiple sports, joined scouting, learned to dance or knit or cook because it was part of our culture or our friends were doing it, not because it would look good on a college application.


2. This former dean of Stanford writes, “I’m interested in humans thriving, and it turns out over parenting is getting in the way of that.” Really? Or is ‘over parenting’ as she puts it simply trying to accommodate for the fact that our culture asks our kids to be busy and accomplished 24/7 which leaves little time for thriving, or finding joy and purpose, or learning life skills? Could it be that the ‘Race to Nowhere’ generation has bought into the cultural notion that their purpose lies somewhere outside themselves and the parents have jumped on board the competition train to help their kids get into college and succeed at all costs?


3. “She cites reams of statistics on the rise of depression and other mental and emotional health problems among the nation’s young people.” She doesn’t connect any of that to ‘over parenting’ so how do we know that it isn’t related to our hyper competitive culture that tells kids they have to know where they’re going to college by the time they are freshmen in high school? When I was in high school in the 1980s, we took the SAT. Now, kids not only take the PSAT, but this year, my daughter’s high school tried to get the sophomores to take a pre-PSAT to practice for the practice test so that they would all be good enough at it in their senior year to get into top schools and the high school could tout their scores as something they were responsible for. That’s just one example of the pressure put on kids by high schools and colleges. Perhaps if they don’t have enough bandwidth to learn how to cook their own meals, it’s understandable.


4. I am definitely not in favor of judging anyone’s parenting style (unless it results in physical or emotional harm to a child), and I find this whole college-level slam on ‘helicopter parents’ curious. As part of the “least parented generation,” isn’t it possible that the pendulum is simply swinging, and many of those parents are reacting to their own childhoods of latchkey kids and spending ten hours a day during the summer without any parental/adult supervision at all? No, my parents didn’t swoop in and solve my problems. They didn’t shield me from uncomfortable situations and try to ‘coddle’ me, but I could certainly have used a little bit of that. Instead, I grew up knowing that I was on my own and that if I asked for help I would either be told to ‘suck it up and quit whining’ or roundly ridiculed. I’m not sure that was much healthier. But I know that my parents were doing the best they could. Could it just be that parents everywhere are simply doing the best they can with the tools they have and the pressures they face right now?


5. Last but definitely not least, the notion that an entire generation of kids is “ruined” per the headline of the article is absurd. Even if an entire group of students doesn’t currently know how to manage the details of their own lives, that doesn’t presuppose that they won’t be able to learn those lessons at some point. And many of these students have spent time in high school doing the kinds of work my generation never even considered – starting their own business ventures, volunteering with nonprofit organizations, inventing solutions for some incredibly challenging problems – so pronouncing them “ruined” based on their inability to navigate the social-emotional stresses of the first year in a tough, prestigious university seems a little short-sighted. Basing this sweeping conclusion on a subset of students who were admitted to an elite, Ivy League college ignores all of the other kids out there who are going to community college or joining Americorps or putting off their college education because they can’t afford it right now.


To all you parents out there I say, go forth and love your children. Continue parenting them the best way you know how and listen to your own instincts. There will always be folks out there ready and willing to criticize your choices and catastrophize about what you might be doing to your kids (and their entire generation – no pressure). Time marches on. Kids grow up. The most important thing for any kid’s parents to do is show them that they are loved and valued.

From time to time, at least once a year, I find myself parenting with grinding teeth. Generally, it takes me a week or so to recognize it for what it is. I begin with irritability. Things that haven’t bothered me for months or years suddenly piss me off at every turn and a cranky inner monologue starts up. The next step is passive-aggressive fantasies. I am not, by nature, someone who leaves ‘signs’ for other people. I am generally very straightforward and can ask for what I need or want, so when I start imagining scenarios where I follow the Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle school of parenting, I know something is up.* I am really in trouble if I start acting on those fantasies. 


Fortunately, I am a ruminator. Or, unfortunately. Once I notice that something is out of whack, I do my best to inquire about it. It isn’t often that those inquiries are friendly or compassionate (they generally go something like this, “Dude! What the f*#k is up? Why is this driving you so mad?”), but they do at least open the door to some sort of curiosity, which is a good thing. It usually takes a few days of observing myself and my emotional responses to get at the heart of what is bugging me and more often than not, it is some sort of judgment of my lack of good parenting skills that is throwing me off. Some generalized notion that I am doing this all wrong and screwing up my kids for life (!!!) that is pushing all of my buttons and leaving me feeling like a burn victim who bristles at every touch. Within 24 hours of that realization, I can relax enough to realize that I’ve been walking through my days with a clenched jaw and balled-up fists for a while and it’s pretty uncomfortable. Not as uncomfortable as the recognition that I think I’m a pretty shitty parent, but unpleasant nonetheless. 


I had a conversation with Bubba last night about some of the things that are making me crazy this time and was struck by how little he internalizes these things. He admitted to being bugged by many of the same things that our girls do (or don’t do, as it were), and then he said, “But I don’t read anything bigger into it. I don’t think of it as my fault or your fault or expect that it means that they’ll grow up to be horrible/selfish/fragile people. It just pisses me off.” 


I wish. And I wonder if it is a function of my own expectations of myself or a function of our cultural assignment of blame/credit to the mother of a child that I do internalize those things. That while sometimes I can go through my days feeling confident and peaceful about my parenting skills, at other times I am absolutely certain that if the world only knew, they would condemn my abilities as a parent at once. 


In any case, I am within sight of the daylight at the end of this tunnel. Now that I have identified the awful things I have been saying to myself behind the scenes, I can begin to turn them over, feel their edges, contain them in one place and see them for what they are. I can dissect them and try to understand where they come from and eventually set them aside and come back to myself. I try not to think about how many more of these hidden condemnations exist within me, although I know how to confront them, because I suspect I would feel overwhelmed if I knew. As a young parent, I wrestled with many of them and always assumed that there would come a day when I had tossed each and every one of them into the abyss. I never imagined how many would come back around with the same form, triggered by different things. While I embrace the knowledge that parenting is a forever-job, I am less enthusiastic about the aspects of myself it forces me to contend with over and over again. I do think I’m getting better at it, though. There’s something to be said for practice…

*For those of you who haven’t read the Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle books, I’ll try to explain. She was the neighborhood child development expert/grandmother figure to whom all of the parents turned when their children wouldn’t eat/clean their bedrooms/do their homework/go to sleep on time. Her solutions involved what a lot of folks would call ‘natural consequences,’ but are what I think of as very passive-aggressive tactics such as leaving a child’s room to become so messy that they become trapped inside with all manner of stinky clothes and dirty dishes and eventually come to physical harm (albeit minor) after tripping on a toy they forgot was on the floor. They then magically see the wisdom of their parents’ rules and start cleaning up after themselves.

Sometimes it’s hard to imagine that Eve and Lola came from the same stuff. They are so different in the way they approach the world. As a parent it is exciting and amusing to watch them and often, exhausting, because there are no shortcuts. Just because I went through one stage with Eve doesn’t mean I know how to handle it with Lola, but it has given me a new way to look at the world. I am reminded that the choices we make are rooted in one of two things: our values or fear. I am reminded that it is this that makes all the difference and that if, as a spectator, I choose to remove judgment, I can learn a lot about what makes someone tick.


My girls each learned to walk in very different ways. While there are some things that parents and caregivers can do to help a child begin walking, ultimately it is something they must do for themselves. And while Eve and Lola both had the exact same goal – learning to walk independently – their methods were distinct and reflected exactly who they each were.


Eve took it step by step. She practiced shuffling along the couch as she held on with both hands. She worked on pulling herself to a standing position in the middle of the room without any props. She spent days standing and clapping, standing and holding objects, standing and babbling loudly. It took her nearly two weeks to take her first steps. Her overriding values were safety and mastery. She was doing everything possible to ensure that she could walk without falling or, if she fell, that she could get herself back up without help. Two weeks of methodical preparation, exploring as many possible combinations and permutations as she could think of, led to her walking without ever falling. She never had that drunken-toddler gait that so many new walkers do and she was supremely confident.


Lola just wanted to walk. Her overriding value was speed. She wanted to get from Point A to Point B as fast as she possibly could and so her method was to use the wall or the furniture or a toy or her big sister for support. She toppled over constantly. She was covered in bruises for weeks, but she never cried about it. She kept her eye on the prize and just did it. She jumped in with both feet and once she figured out walking, she moved immediately to running. She careened into walls, tripped over toys, leapt before she looked, and never gave up. She was driven by the need to keep up with the older kids, to just get somewhere. She didn’t care about safety or looking goofy or falling over. She was just thrilled to be moving fast.


As I look at my girls now I see that they do, indeed, still share many of the same goals, but their everyday lives are vastly different because of the values they live by as they head in that direction. Instead of comparing them to one another, I can choose to step back and see each of them in light of what their journey is telling me about who they are as individuals. Once I know the driving force behind their decisions, I can figure out how to support them along the way and perhaps steer them away from being motivated by fear when it shows up.  I am reminded that, once again, remaining curious about the girls is a much more interesting and nurturing way to parent.


Eve took Driver’s Ed this summer and I watched as she pulled out all of her cautious, process-oriented tricks once again. She is a very conscientious driver and is living true to her values of safety and precision. I can only hope that Lola approaches driving differently than she did walking, because in this case, speed is not something I can support. Fortunately, I have two years to work that out with her.

There are so many examples in my life lately of the
power of simple. The more I witness disagreements on social media, the more I
retreat inside to my own quiet authority. Everything from the Kentucky court clerk who refuses to issue same-sex
marriage licenses
 to arguments about immigration reform and how
we treat US immigrants; refugees desperately fleeing their homeland only to be
shunned in other countries when they reach the shore and the Pope offering absolution for Catholic women who chose
abortion
 tempt me to enter the fray. And when I sit and think
about why and how, I realize that countering arguments is batting at paper
tigers. 
I am increasingly horrified at the use of religious
writing to prop up acts of selfishness (often couched as “good
policy”) or terror. I am ever more disillusioned with statistics and
studies and numbers that justify treating human beings as problems to be
solved. 
I continue to know in the deepest core of my own
being that there is no external authority – religious text, political or
spiritual leader, or otherwise – that will ever lead me to act in the way that
expresses my best, highest, most human self. If a leader or book encourages me
to get very quiet and still, to look at the photos of the human beings drowning
and starving and fleeing their homes to save their children and really see,
that is something. If I am prompted to read about people who are suffering and
struggling no matter the circumstances or the choices they’ve made, and to open
my heart to them, that is something. Because when I do that, when I acknowledge
the humanity of each and every person on this planet without judgment, without
moving from my heart to my brain that wants to categorize and problem-solve and
blame, I am closer than ever to doing what is right. When I am driven by a
shared humanity as opposed to data or someone else’s interpretation, I am
certain. There are no conflicts, no pros and cons, no licking my fingertip and
flipping back and forth between pages that contain charts or someone else’s
words. The day that I can look upon another being who is suffering and only see
“the bigger picture” is the day that I will have lost myself, my own
internal sense of what is right. 
This doesn’t mean that I don’t disagree with
others, it only means that I wish others could do the same. If Donald Trump and
Jeb Bush and Kim Davis can see before them someone who needs their help and
deny it based on some external notion of what is right and just and moral, I
can’t change that. If soldiers in another part of the world are convinced that
raping and torturing women and children is justified by their religious
beliefs, I can’t change that. I can attempt to speak in the language of
scripture, find citations and passages that call for mercy or implore us to act
out of love. I could consult data and past precedent to counter a politician’s
words, but it is easy to twist words and numbers. It quickly becomes a question
of whose authority or perception is “more real,” and, ultimately, if
I am going to act from a place of certainty and clarity, the source isn’t a
book or a data set. I can only hope that in some quiet moment somewhere, each
of us is able to look within and find a connection, any small spark, that
reminds us that words and prophets are not our true authorities, that at the
end of the day, all we have is our own internal sense of what is real and right
and human, and that to not reach out and help goes against everything that we
are.

Time and time again, we hear stories of people who have had incredible
moments of insight – generally when they thought they were about to die. The
majority of them talk about suddenly realizing what is important, eschewing
external motivators and measurements of success and happiness. Instead they
strive for human connection, more time with family and friends, and a deeper
understanding of themselves. We are all born with a need to be connected to
others on a very basic level and as we move toward independence, we lose
something. I love Dr. Dan Siegel’s idea that instead of raising our children to
be independent, we raise them to be interdependent,
that is, to never forget that we are all connected and rely on each other. That
is the world I want to live in. The world where everyone sees the pictures of
the small boy drowning as he flees for his life and feels an enormous tug on
their heartstrings. A world where that pull of love, of connection, leads us to
talk and think about how to reach out, where we lead with our hearts instead of
our heads, where instead of distancing ourselves from the pain by closing our
eyes or explaining why that could never happen to us, we open further. A world
where we are not driven by numbers and statistics and policies, but where those
things become merely tools as we work to alleviate suffering and create support
instead of walls we build to keep us from listening, from seeing, from feeling.
It is in feeling where I find certainty. I don’t always know where to go from
there, but for me it is always the best place to start.

I have been thinking a lot about expectations lately and how often we see them as concrete scenarios that drive our actions and emotions.

It started with watching my girls this summer, observing times when they would hatch plans with friends over text, going so far as to figure out movie times and counting their cash on hand and solidify the details only to be foiled by me when I reminded them that I’m not available to drive or they were already obligated to a babysitting job or day of camp. Oh, the disappointment and frustration that ensued! Often, I was the target of anger for simply pointing out that they hadn’t thought through the whole thing or asked the right people for input.

Then last week, Bernie Sanders came to Seattle for a few events and I watched the rage unfold on social media as he was preempted by two activists addressing the crowd about the Black Lives Matter  movement. Despite your personal feelings about the tactics or the movement or Sanders’ presidential bid, I am curious about how much of the anger and frustration was as a result of the expectation of the crowd that they would hear Sanders speak. I suspect that, had the two women been on the program, people would have received them warmly and openly, but since they had stood outside in the hot (for Seattle) sun waiting for hours to hear Sanders and then were disappointed, many of them reacted poorly to the fact that he left without speaking more than to the message of the activists.

I think that, generally, there are three kinds of expectations we have, positive, neutral, and negative.  Positive expectations represent our hopes – calculating the hours on our paycheck in order to know whether we’ll have the money to purchase the thing we really want, killing it on a job interview, giving birth to a healthy baby. They can be big or small, but these are the ones that really slay us when they don’t come true. Negative expectations represent our fears, and instead of disappointing us when they don’t come true, I think they often keep us from taking the kind of leaps that will help us grow or push boundaries that maybe need to be pushed. On more than one occasion, I have had to talk myself into approaching someone and asking for something that I think I deserve because my expectation is that I will be laughed at or turned down simply because I am not male.

Neutral expectations are those that are typically placed on us from the outside, either our family or friend groups or culture and, often, they aren’t expressed specifically but we internalize them all the same. It can be a strong feeling that our parents expect us to do well in school and get into college, that as young women or men (because of our gender identity) we will act and speak and dress a certain way, but it can also be our way of placing expectations on other people – that because someone looks a certain way, they will act in accordance with our expectations.

As I was puzzling through this train of thought, I saw this headline:
JURY SELECTED IN NEW HAMPSHIRE PREP SCHOOL RAPE TRIAL
When I clicked through and read the very short article, I experienced such a toxic stew of feelings – sadness, anger, disappointment, fear – and I wondered about the accused and whether the culture in which boys about to graduate attempt to ‘score’ with younger female students” (specifically, that they ‘take the virginity of a freshman girl,’ sets up an expectation that this behavior is normal – even desirable. In no way does this excuse or justify his behavior (this aspiring DIVINITY student), but could it be one more example of ways in which we human beings trick ourselves into believing that expectations almost always equal reality? That they somehow ought to come to fruition or that there is nothing we can do about it? 


It is terrifically hard to walk through a day without having any sort of expectations. But I wonder what would happen if I practiced noticing them and challenging them a little? What if, the next time I assume something positive is going to happen, I take a minute and acknowledge that things could go horribly awry and pledge to be flexible if they do? Or what if the next time there is a negative expectation, I ask myself where that comes from and what might happen if I dismantle that notion? I’m getting to the place where I think that all of those external expectations ought to be challenged and dissected so that I can decide whether they limit me or raise me up. 

First of all, I think that the way we generally talk about the entire concept of “work-life balance” misses the mark. All too often, I hear it spoken of as though it is a fixed point, something to achieve and then rest in. As I creep ever-closer to middle age, I am cognizant of the fact that assessing the time and energy I put forward into different areas of my life is an ongoing process. Before I was married, there were certain goals and values that drove how I spent my time. After marriage, they shifted. When Bubba and I bought our first house, they shifted again. Having kids threw a huge wrench into how I saw the minutes of every day, and now that they are older and more independent, I am re-evaluating again. There is no such thing as a fixed target to shoot for.

When I left my paying job to stay at home with my kids, there was this assumption that I had no “work,” and to be completely honest, I bought into that idea for way too long. The fact is, because of my inability to compartmentalize the different aspects of my life, what really happened was that my work became my life. That is, everything mothering and household-running was so important and so pressing that I did it 99% of the time, but because I didn’t consider it my job, I didn’t fully acknowledge that I had ceased doing so many of the things I enjoyed doing before that I considered my “life.” I had allowed everything to bleed together and become one which meant that I had very little that was just mine.  Because very few others recognized what I was spending the majority of my time doing as “work,” it was hard to justify my frustrations with this dynamic, which made me all the more unhappy.

Prior to having children, I had lots of ideas about the kind of work I wanted to do, things I might find meaningful and worth spending 40+ hours a week doing. I wanted to enjoy my work, but I also wanted to be able to fully enjoy those other parts of my life like working in the yard and hiking with Bubba and having dinner with friends. As soon as I quit to stay home and the hours of “work” were not  clearly delineated, the shift was monumental. When I was at my office, I couldn’t empty the dishwasher or fold a load of laundry or fix the bathroom toilet because I wasn’t physically at home to do it. Now, suddenly, at home, it felt as though I were cheating if I chose to sit on the couch and read instead of doing any of those things because my home and my children had become my work and it was staring me in the face all the time.

Over the past fifteen years, my level of freedom from parenting and household work has ebbed and flowed, and I have had the opportunity to make choices over and over again about what other kind of meaningful work I can do – paid or not. I have obviously chosen writing as one of those things, but I have also found volunteer positions with organizations I want to support. I have come to understand that the most important question I can ask when I consider doing any kind of work is not “do I have time for this?” but “how will this feed me?” If I choose to spend my time engaged in activities that align with my passions and interests, even if they are intense and challenging, I know from experience that I will ultimately end up feeling energized and sated. There will be times when that work means I won’t cook dinner from scratch for the family or the dog won’t get his customary three to four walks a day or the laundry will pile up, and that’s okay. The freedom to schedule my own time, to float between different types of work is something for which I am immensely grateful. Being the primary parent to my kids means that my work is often a reaction to something else – hunger, dirt, transportation needs – and it is generally satisfying, if only until the next meal or pile of laundry or basketball game. Having the ability to engage in other work that is proactive and creative is something that feeds me in a different way, and that is just as important. My work and my life are very closely intertwined and it is often hard to see where one leaves off and the other begins, but I’m not sure that it is important to discern those boundaries.  Knowing that there are some tasks I will engage in that I really don’t enjoy is okay as long as they are part of the bigger picture and the larger goals I have. For me, the trick is to make sure that I am mindful of the tasks that ignite a fire in my belly and I find a way to do them with regularity. Often, emptying the dishwasher again can feel like a slog, but if I’m doing it because I know I will be able to sit down and write or read or go to a meeting without wishing I’d done it, I have more mental freedom to fully engage with what I’m doing.

The typical way that we talk about work-life balance sets up a dynamic where the two are pitted against each other in some surreal tug-of-war where one necessarily ends up losing and the other winning, at least for a while. But the fact is, if we are actively choosing to spend time not working for pay (at least not full-time) and staying home with our children, the most important thing is not to parse out bits of time for “work” and “life” but to recognize that within this setup, we can actively choose to engage in things that we find fulfilling and interesting. When we do that, we are enhancing our lives and, by extension, our children’s lives because what they end up with is a happy, energized parent. This notion of some elusive “balance” between the energy we put into working and the energy we get from living is wholly false. If we are lucky, the two overlap in a Venn Diagram that allows us to find compensation and purpose and a sense of enjoyment without guilt. And as our children grow up and become more independent, we will have given ourselves the gift of meaningful work that we can continue to engage in more and more.

Bubba and I have recently begun having conversations about what our life will look like in five years when Eve and Lola are both gone to college. At that point, it will be important for both of us to have some shared purpose and some individual interests. If we apply this particular way of looking at “balance,” and are able to identify the things that we enjoy doing together and apart, and fully support the others’ need to engage in both, perhaps the shift to this new lifestyle will be smoother. (Not that I won’t cry a big, ugly cry when my last one moves out, but, hey, it’s a start…)

There are times these days when my gray hairs appear in clusters – both on my head and in my soul. The times when something comes up that, for a split second, I think I cannot possibly endure or deal with gracefully or with any sort of competence. Times when the temptation to curl up beneath the covers with a cat at the foot of the bed is overwhelming and comes in waves.

Fortunately, I have learned from experience that there is always a way through. That someone will grab me by the hand, the wrist, the back of the neck, and march me onward, matching my steps with their own, one at a time until we have made it. Or that the notion of not moving forward is a bigger horror than stopping in place – generally because at the other end stands a loved one – a child or a parent or a partner who needs me to keep going for one reason or another.

Fortunately, I have also learned from experience that there will be imaginings of worst-case scenario outcomes that are more akin to Alice in Wonderland stories than real life. I have been reminded over and over again that humans live life in the middle almost always, either because something major shifts like a giant boulder landing in the stream of our lives around which we forge a new path and keep going or because our worries are so magnified by adrenaline that they don’t resemble what could really happen. As long as I hold on to the remembrance of the times when I forecast doom and nothing even remotely close to doom cast its shadow over me, I can take the  next step. And when I feel the warm grip of a friend and hold on, it helps me to find my center and remember my most closely-held values and act on them. And generally, even if there are dark, messy stretches of time when I feel unsure or panicky, I come out the other end wiping my brow, exclaiming, “Whew!”

“You get an A+ in parenting this weekend,” Bubba said to me last night, and it meant a lot. That despite the fear and anxiety of the last couple of days, staying rooted in love, acknowledging my fears all while doing my best not to act on them was the best way to go. Despite the new gray hairs I am sure sprouted overnight, we have found the middle again and added some mortar to the bricks that form our family. We have reaffirmed that our most important value is love and dodged another bullet.

Teenagers spend lots of time alone in their room.
Introverts spend lots of time alone in their room.

When you have teenagers who also happen to be introverts, you absorb every spare drop of time that they are willing to spend outside of their room in the presence of others as though it were the most exquisite wine.

And, assuming there are only a finite number of minutes that they are willing to spend around other people, engaging in fun and entertaining activities, letting them go spend summer nights with friends at street fairs and cool bodies of water means that it might be days before you get any of that wine for yourself.

It would be altogether unfair of me to not let them go hang out with friends.

Right?

Away from home is such a mixed bag. Time together with three of my favorite humans – Bubba, Eve, Lola – with nothing to do but enjoy each other is something to be so grateful for. Very little is asked of me in the way of my normal home-based duties. There is no chauffeuring, no cooking, no dish-doing, laundry perhaps once a week in some local, worn-formica-and-linoleum coin-op. And, frankly, I enjoy it. After togetherness all day (even sharing a hotel room with these three loves of my life), that 90 minutes of solitude in the laundromat is welcome. I get to see the natives as they do their wash, take note of the water-logged magazines and who brings their kids with them. I have fantasized about making a photo collage of the facilities and the characters who inhabit them – the rusty machines and change-makers on the walls, the folks who walk in barefoot (in Hawaii, anyway) and the tiny Asian men who shuffle in to wash their boxer shorts full of holes.

Summer vacation is a pleasure that flings me altogether out of my routine and nearly out of my skin. I read and read and, while I am often inspired, the only writing I do is to scratch out ideas on a fluorescent pink pad of paper, the threads of which I hope I can retrieve when I return home. By the time I set foot back on my own worn hardwood floors, I am torn between lying down with the pets on the floor and snuggling or restocking the refrigerator with our favorite things and simply retreating to my room to type, type, type. It takes a few days to slog through the email and the mail mail and the ever-present laundry (why can’t I just do it once a week at home? Is that some magic of the vacation? That everyone is judicious with their clothes because they only packed so much? Would it be wrong to just ask everyone to wear their bathing suit every day all summer with some flimsy cover-up instead of shrugging on shorts and t-shirts?).

I am full of ideas and also full of children and pets. There are walks to take, camps to drive to, meals to fix and extra kids to entertain and every summer I hope to stumble on the elusive perfect balance that will allow me to write all I want and soak in every drop of sunshine with my family. I have learned to accept this unease, this tension of desires. This morning, Bubba and the girls all went to the gym together and I asked him, “Is it wrong to say that I can’t wait to be here all alone for an hour this morning?” Walking the dog in the cool morning air, I avoided the route that would put me in chatting range with any friendly neighbors and when I reminded myself to breathe and just acknowledge what I am feeling, the image that came to mind was of a taut guitar string that had just been plucked. I vibrate with it all.

I used to have this fantasy about vacations – that you could go away and leave everything behind, and I think when I was a kid, that was true. Growing up in the 1970s, I didn’t have access to the news unless my parents turned on the TV at night when we got home from whatever adventures we had embarked on during the day. I certainly wasn’t going to pick up a newspaper to learn about what else was going on in the world.  I didn’t have to spoon out the smelly canned dog food on vacation, and I didn’t have to make my bed (unless we were camping in the pop-up trailer, in which case I had to completely dismantle it every morning). I didn’t have to take my turn doing dishes except over a campfire-warmed pot of water which was an adventure in itself, and I didn’t have to do homework.

As an adult, my first realization that vacations were different came when Bubba and I started traveling with the girls. As my brilliant friend, Sarah, put it, for a mom, a vacation was simply “parenting in a different place.” And it was often more challenging when you didn’t have all of the things you needed at hand, plus there were often strangers looking at you and judging your mothering decisions when the kids cried or acted bratty.

Even though the girls are now both teenagers and fairly self-sufficient, I have been reminded on our most recent trip that life is life no matter where you go.  Lola started complaining of a toothache the night before we left but I didn’t do much beyond imploring her to floss really good and swish with salt water.  By the time we landed in Honolulu, she was inconsolable and I knew something was really wrong.  After one altogether sleepless night and several doses of ibuprofen, we found ourselves at a local dentist on Saturday morning. And there we stayed for the next two and a half hours, getting her an emergency (half) root canal. It’s a long story, but they were only able to do start the procedure and put her on antibiotics, and we were told to wait until we get home to have it finished.  She was amazingly resilient and bounced back to engage in all sorts of fun activities within hours – paddle boarding and shadowing a dolphin trainer for five and a half hours. We have had a few rough moments of pain, but other than hoping the tooth holds on until we get home a week from now, it seems to be okay.

And then there is the news.  From the strange (reports of a naked, drunk woman in our area driving her car into a power pole and knocking out electricity to 4000 customers) to the horrifying (the shooting in Charleston), we have access to it all via Facebook and smartphones.  And as I sit on the lanai looking out at the waves crashing on the reef and the families playing on the beach, I am reminded that life is life. That no matter where we go, we are still called upon to be our best selves, that there is no vacation from being human. We may choose to disengage from news reports or work emails for a week or two, but it is the interactions that we have with all of the people around us that make up the entirety of our lives. I could no more ignore the incredible sadness I feel inside as I think of the people who lost their lives inside that church in South Carolina than I could stop breathing.

The dentist who cared for Lola was a lovely, smart, funny woman. Despite her packed schedule and the fact that she was the only dentist in the office that day, she took care with Lola’s tooth, encouraging her, and patiently taking the time to ensure that she did as much as she could do that day. I know that her other patients were forced to wait, but despite the dental assistants who periodically came to remind her that there was someone else waiting for an exam in the other room, she never got angry or frustrated. She kindly acknowledged that she was needed elsewhere, and continued doing what she was doing with Lola meticulously until it was done. She explained everything clearly and that evening, as we lounged near the pool with ice water, my cell phone rang. It was her, calling to check on Lola, to make sure she was feeling okay and to see if we had any questions.  She has checked on her twice since then, each time making sure to tell us to enjoy the sunshine while we are here.

Even though we are on vacation from our home, from our normal routine, we are not on vacation from who we are. The kindness of the dentist and the tragedy of Charleston are a stark reminder to me that each and every interaction I have is important. Several journalists have pointed out the pervasive attitudes of racism and hatred that exist in the face of people in South Carolina – from the streets named after Confederate Generals to the flagpole outside the capitol that proudly displays the Confederate flag, not to mention the racist slurs and comments many people hear every day in that part of the country. There are more subtle, but no less harmful, examples in my part of the country, and it is up to us to challenge them, to find ways to be better to each other in small ways every day. Like building blocks, these kindnesses all stack up to create something we can be proud of, instead of tearing down our communities.

We are off to another island for one more week of bliss and beauty and, while I am hoping that we have no more surprises – dental or otherwise – I will do my best to live by the values I have at home; kindness, compassion, love for others, and be grateful for a vacation from the dishes in the kitchen sink.