On Your 17th Birthday

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Sunday, January 26th, 11:22pm

Oh hey there, Son!

Did I tell you I found my high school transcripts the other day? Well, If I didn’t, it’s because I was a little embarrassed.  And shocked, really, to see that I had a 0.50 at the end of sophomore year. Yep. You read that right. Nearly 3.2  grade points lower than your GPA was in 9th grade. One of the many reasons why I am so darn proud of you, you hard-working, motivated student, you. And, of course, you know the story…along came little you, and I was inspired to turn my slacker ways around and begin putting a little effort into my studies. Because I knew you were depending on me.

By the way, I want you to know, Elijah, I was not the only parent of yours who stepped up when you came to existence. Your dad did the same. Since day one, he worked for you. Even at the young age of 17, he diligently showed up for work at the restaurant down the street, so that he would be able to contribute to your needs. Not that that was a particularly easy task, as the job was tedious and boring at times and didn’t particularly pay well. But day in and day out, he worked-in that job and in many others….and continues to work to this day for your little sister, your step-mom, and of course, you. I read a quote the other day, in J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan…you may remember it: “There are many different kinds of bravery. There`s the bravery of thinking of others before one`s self. Now, your father has never brandished a sword nor fired a pistol, thank heavens. But he has made many sacrifices for his family, and put away many dreams.”  Putting aside one’s needs for the sake of another is no small feat. Yet your dad was able to put much aside in his efforts to be a good father to you. I want you to know that.

And so, you grew, and we grew, and suddenly I was in college, where I found out I was a pretty good student after-all. A 4.0 student to be exact, and I was getting rather confident. Except when it came to my math skills. I don’t know why, but I had a hang up with math. I thought I wasn’t cut out for it. So when it came time for me to take statistics to fulfill transfer requirements for the CSU system, I was a little freaked out. The first day of class, you were having a rough time saying good-bye to me as it was also your first day at the college’s preschool. Separation anxiety was in full effect. I lingered a little too long to comfort you, and was late getting to class. The instructor gave me the eye as I hurriedly seated myself while mumbling my excuse about having to drop my son off and I’m sorry it won’t happen again. But it was too late. I knew she wasn’t impressed. I was red in the face, and feeling quite intimidated as I flipped through the syllabus that day. “How in the world am I going to pass this course?” I wondered.

I vocalized my concerns to a gentleman I had befriended in another one of my classes…an older man by the name of Wayne. Wayne was smart and generous and well versed in the ways of the world. He listened to my concerns and offered to help tutor me, as he had taken the exact same course the semester before. But more importantly, he advised me not to doubt my ability to ace the class, if I so desired it. “But I’m not GOOD at math stuff!” I protested. “We’ll see, ” he responded. As it turns out, I didn’t need much tutoring…I took some of Wayne’s notes early on, and studied them furiously during class breaks and late in the evening long after you were asleep. And to my surprise. It all began to make sense. Not only did it make sense…I found that I loved it. Loved it. I began looking for statistics in everything I read. In the newspaper, in the magazine articles, and in the peer-reviewed research that was assigned reading in my other classes. I ate that stuff up. And I aced the class. I remember when the final scores were posted, and afterward we all stood in the hall comparing our standings…I had the second to highest grade in a class of 38 students. And I never had a complex about math again.

Statistics. I thought a lot about them back then…about who I was destined to be, and more importantly, what was in store for you. At the time, I was hyper-aware of what the statistics said you’d become, being that you were the son of teen parents. The cautionary tale went something like this: likely to be retained a grade, likely to drop out of school, highly likely to become incarcerated. That, my son, is what the statistics said.

But you’ve written your own story, haven’t you? I cannot take full credit for the young man you’ve become. You’ve been blessed with a community of people who have loved, encouraged, and supported you along the way. Your accomplishments are a reflection of all of them, and of your parents…but in the end, it all comes down to you. You’ve done this for yourself. And you’re not done yet.

For you, childhood is waning. You are doing amazingly well in all your courses. You are well read, thoughtful, and organized. You’re a dedicated baseball player, and a responsible sibling to your brothers and sisters. I’m so very proud of you.

And soon, you’ll be choosing majors, and schools, and careers…you’ll learn to juggle jobs and friendships, finances and hobbies…and there is much for you to learn.

But most importantly, I want you to remember that your success is not only for you.  As you climb the ranks, and make your way into adulthood, be ever-mindful of those around you who may need encouragement, or information, or support or advocacy. Life’s most humbling moments can often be witnessed in the little ways in which we help one another—in simple ways such as offering tutoring or notes, an encouraging word, a kind gesture, a friendship.

You, Elijah, were given the gift of a sharp mind, quick wit, and a compassionate heart. The three don’t always go hand in hand. And this is why I’m convinced that,

Someday…somewhere… someone may sit on their couch, late in the night, listening to the clock tick-tock away (as I’m doing now) and writing about the ways in which you impacted their life. You may never know the full scope of your actions. Or perhaps you will. But either way, it will have been worth it.

Rest now, little one. The world awaits you when you wake. And there is so much for you to do…

With Love,

Mom

P.S. Mr. Wayne Maytum, if you ever get around to reading this…thank you, sir, for believing in me. The image of your warm smile stays forever in my memory.

Service

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Somewhere between his requests for more coffee & his reminding me to check the air in my tires, my dad always manages to slip in a pearl of wisdom or two during our weekly breakfast date

This morning, he rustled his paper and cleared his throat the way he always does before launching into fatherly advice…and he began reading aloud from an article on one community’s upcoming day of service, in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday. Halfway through he pauses,

“You remember what I always used to tell you girls as you were growing up? I’d say, ‘Do what you can, where you are, with what you have.”

yes dad. I remember.

“I’d tell you that because you three would sometimes get these ideas in your head that the world’s problems were just to massive to tackle. It’d overwhelm you. But if everyone were to focus on one small way in which they can impact their communities, we could all do more than we ever realized possible….Is there anymore coffee?”

yes dad.

As I  got up to refill his cup, I thought about the various times throughout my life that I saw my family LIVE this advice. Through volunteering. Through mentoring. Through service.

It’s infectious. It’s a way of life.

And it’s importance was brought home once again this week during my attendance at the CCRWF’s Women’s Policy Summit in which 70 young women from throughout California were given an introduction to policy & advocacy. One of the speakers said simply, “Mentoring should be like breathing. Not an option…each one, teach one.”

For several years now I’ve considered getting involved in a young parent mentoring program. The opportunity has just been presented to me, though it would require significant organization & leadership on my part (more than I had originally intended on taking on), and the need for dedicated volunteers to make it successful. It’ll also require funds.

I’m not sure what my next move will be, but in the meantime I’m researching grants and putting the word out for dedicated and willing volunteers.

It’ll take more than a vision. It’s going to take thorough planning, constant maintenance, and a clear purpose.

But if it gives even one young family a place of support,

non-judgement,

and hope….

Would it not be worth a shot?

Rules of Engagement

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2014 has begun, and many of us are prompted to reflect on the personal changes we’d like to make in the coming year. I’m hearing talk of fitness & organizational goals among other things, but I’ve spent a good deal of time thinking on my communication habits and how I can improve all daily interactions, especially at home.

The past couple of months, I’ve noticed a rash of relationship advice posts going viral. Interestingly enough, all of the most popular ones are written by men, and shared mostly by women. (Personally, I think that speaks to the infamous male/female communication gap highlighted by John Gray in his well-known book Men are From Mars, Women are From Venus). I can just visualize it: Ladies across the nation, clicking on links while juggling nursing babies, sinks full of dishes, a pressing work deadline or perhaps, all of the above. They are met with the eloquent musings of a thoughtful male, and quietly nod in agreement, hoping that their partner may read the words and change a few of his ways. Very feminine mystique-ish, don’t you think? Anyway, if you’ve somehow missed out on these little online gems, I’ll do you a favor and offer a brief synopsis of each:

1) Marriage Advice I Wish I Would Have Had (AKA: Divorced man’s marriage advice):  Basically, a list of 20 things guys can do to be the epic husband that every woman desires. Loving, light-hearted (but not lackadaisical), selfless, attentive to detail, romantic…you know, the kind of spouse that Bruno Mars would be if he lives up to everything he croons about in his songs. Hindsight gives a clarity that cannot be achieved when we are caught up in the eye of the storm, and apparently Mr. Rodgers now has 20/20 vision. I am really curious as to what his ex-wife’s take is on his widely shared, “How to Be the Best Husband Ever” post. But that’s another story, I’m sure. Moving on…

2) Marriage Isn’t For You (AKA: Guy gets schooled by his dad in Relationship 101): In short, a man expresses doubts regarding his upcoming marriage, and is given some strong advice from his father—advice that quickly became internet viral once it was published on his blog. This guy (Seth Adam Smith), basically concluded that marriage is not for YOU, but for the person you marry. “You don’t marry to make yourself happy, you marry to make someone else happy,” Smith recalls his dad telling him. “More than that, your marriage isn’t for yourself, you’re marrying for a family. Not just for the in-laws and all of that nonsense, but for your future children.” Um. I’m sorry. But I kinda think that marriage should be for you, in addition to all those other wonderful folks mentioned. Is that selfish? Never mind, don’t answer that. Next…

3) Brad Pitt’s Love Letter to Angelina (AKA: Fake love letter that has been circulating around the internet since 2009, but has suddenly resurfaced with Brad Pitt’s name attached to it): This one is truly silly. Full of grammatical errors and lacking any real substance, it’s claim to fame seems to be the closing line which states, “And then I realized one thing: the woman is the reflection of her man. If you love her to the point of madness, she will become it.” Oh my goodness, people. How gullible can we get here? Obviously this letter was not written by Brad. It’s been discredited  by Snopes and several other sources, but even then…obviously. Okay. Well, apparently not that obvious, because it was shared millions of times by people who presumably thought it was legit. sigh. I guess that madness/love talk really moves us, huh?

In light of all these wildly popular advice posts, I’ve decided to take a little ride on the relationship advice blog bandwagon. Not because I’ve had a wonderful track record in these matters…I haven’t. Or perhaps I have, depending on who you ask. In any case, I was in a long-term relationship for 14+ years. I’m now in a fairly new relationship, with someone who happens to be an excellent communicator—in addition to being open-minded & well read —yet even he steers clear of these viral columns. Why? Because, in the end, the advice they contain is quite arbitrary.

Our relationships are so wildly varied that it’s impossible to create a list of do’s & dont’s that applies to each and every one of us. This goes for marriages, friendships, and parenting roles. Naturally, there are societal norms that are agreed upon, and for good reason. Infidelity, BAD. Physical & mental abuse, BAD. Open communication, GOOD. Honesty, GOOD.  But aside from all the obvious, there are infinite grey areas that cannot possibly be generalized and remedied by any one help list or another. All of us have behaviors we will tolerate, situations in which we will compromise, and things that will prompt us to back off completely. Sometimes relationship issues will resolve themselves beautifully, other times they will fall to pieces despite our efforts to hold them together. I believe in commitment, in nuclear families, and in giving it all that you’ve got. That said, I also know that life endures should these things fail. Families carry on. Love may whither, but can be reforged and recognized in new ways in the wake of sadness & hurt.

Here are some of the relationship observations that I’ve made over the course of past years:

1) Do not ever assume you know what is going on inside someone else’s relationship/marriage. Chances are, unless you live with them, you don’t. And even if you DO live with them, you probably still don’t get the scope of it. How many times has a couple announced they are splitting, and the reaction has been, “But they seemed so happy together!” People have a way of masking their issues, even from those they know best. And the inner workings of a couples private relationship-especially the negative aspects- are not something they are likely to parade around at the neighborhood block party. Sometimes issues are hashed out for years, away from public sight, until it finally comes to a head which is usually when outsiders begin to catch wind of it.

2) When a loved one is going through a break-up, set aside your judgement and surround them with support. If you can’t put aside your judgement and personal feelings toward the split, tactfully say so, then step aside. Pretending to do otherwise can cause harm, even if you don’t intend it to. People naturally take sides when a break-up happens. Heck, look at the whole Team Aniston/Team Jolie fiasco that surfaced during Brad Pitt’s overly publicized divorce. We can’t help but to silently judge others on their decisions, even if we may not have the slightest idea what was behind the break-up in the first place. Relationships don’t just fail. There are typically a plethora of issues behind the decision to split. Most of the time, each person comes out of it with their own version of events. And who’s to say whose truth holds more validity? This is not the time to play jury. If you are a true friend, this is the time to be a listener. To be a supporter. A tear-wiper and a hand-holder. Regardless of the circumstances, breakups are an extremely trying time…add the burden of being subjected to other’s opinions and gossip, and it can truly take on the feel of a public trial. And no one wants to be subjected to that.

3) Men, treat your women as you would hope your daughter’s husband will treat her someday. Women, be the wife that you would want your son to marry. This one is a no-brainer. What our children witness in their homes in regards to parental relationships, is what they will go on to seek and mimic once they begin relationships of their own. Growing up, I watched my parents argue diplomatically, negotiate fairly, and forgive liberally. Though their union eventually ended based on other issues, these were the key lessons I took away from my childhood. Sadly, at the time of my divorce, I barely recognized myself, as I was not holding true to the manner in which I was raised. I intentionally used words to hurt, and I held grudges. In addition, I also found myself repeatedly tolerating behaviors that I never thought I’d put up with. We had become different people than those we had set out to be, and together, it made a poor example for our children.

4) Hindsight is 20/20 (But only if you allow it to be). If you are honest with yourself, you can learn valuable lessons from your past relationships, as painful as they may be. For a while there, I seriously thought I had done everything right. Well, almost everything. Little by little, I begin to slip off my high horse as I contemplated my role in the desolation of the marriage. It literally took sinking to the lowest of lows, and coming back up again, to realize just how flawed I had been. In my current relationship, I have been able to gain clarity on the harmful habits and shortcomings that are characteristic of some of my interactions. Now that I can see them for what they are, rather than hiding behind my own justifications, I have begun making a conscious, dedicated effort to correct myself. It’d have been easier to just blame it all on my past relationship, but that kind of outlook provides no room for growth.

I hope that, for you, 2014 brings closure where needed, growth when welcome, and peace in all areas of your life. If you are like me, you begin your days  contemplating ways to bring about a more positive world, for you, your loved ones and your children. But at the end of the day, serenity is bred and taught at home. If we can not find refuge in our relationships…then where?

Carry on with your public resolutions, those which focus on your health, your career aspirations, and your financial goals…but I urge you to silently make a pact to yourself, and use the coming year to improve on the interpersonal bonds you’ve been meaning to strengthen. Hold yourself to a higher standard. Communicate, reach out, connect, forgive. I think we’ll be surprised at how much improvement we can make in our own little lives, without ever having to read through another self-help link again.