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Friday, September 02, 2005


This morning I began thinking of clichés to describe my recent mindset: “hanging on by a thread” and “at the end of my rope” came to mind. I fancied myself dangling from some psychological precipice, summoning all my might just to avoid falling into a rage because I can’t get time to write until the children go back to school in 120 hours, not that I’m counting.

Mostly the day was fine, not nearly as tragic as the clichés I had been rehearsing. More like treading water. Then, during an afternoon drive, Luke’s playdate taught him how to inhale buggers into the back of your nose so they can slide down your throat. “That way you can eat your buggers without tasting them,” explained Luke’s friend. (This is actually helpful advice since Luke currently eats his buggers the old-fashioned way, which annoys his sister and mortifies his mother.) Luke’s friend then advised him that when you feel a fart coming, you should run and try to sit on your sister.

With this type of conversation running in the backseat, I stopped to make a bank deposit for my mother at the drive through window. The checks flew up the tube, but nothing came back for an unusually long time, as the cars lined up behind me. I was too tired to get annoyed, so I zoned out, emptied my mind in a sort of accidental Zen way. And then what came into my relatively empty mind was a sudden feeling of compassion for the people of New Orleans, many of whom had to hold onto ropes literally to be rescued from their rooftops. My self-pity at not having time to write suddenly felt infantile.

This morning I had seen some footage of the desperate crowds searching for food and water. After street scenes full of African Americans, the report focused on a group of white tourists and three dogs who were sharing food and water on a rooftop. They were clearly terrified of the locals below and had barricaded the door. One woman sobbed that she just wanted to go home. (Being from Scotland, she still had a home to go to.) The report was sympathetic to the tourists’ plight, but in his closing remark the reporter noted, “And they don’t even realize that they’re better off than most people here.”

When I remembered that line in the afternoon, I felt humbled by my own whining and wondered how I would be doing after three or four days without water or food, like many of those stranded, with no way to find out if my loved ones were safe, with no home to return to. I wondered what I’d do if I had to choose between evacuating my children and leaving my mother alone. I wondered if I would barricade the door like the tourists, like most of the remaining white people, if the impression I’ve gathered from the news is accurate.

And then I started to wonder how my children would do and if my parenting style—which I hope teaches them to express their emotions and their creativity—would also prepare them for hardship. On our afternoon car ride home, both my children complained that the chips I had brought were stale. Later Megan got a paper cut, and you’d think she’d lost a finger.

Stories of my grandparents make it clear that they were much tougher than I am in their parenting. For example, when my mother learned that her father had died, she began crying, but her own mother reproached her: “Why are you crying? You had a good father. If your father had been a bum, then you’d have something to cry about.” That was their attitude about everything: deal with it. Things could be worse. I also remember the scene from the film Ray when, as a boy, Ray Charles was losing his sight, and his mother wouldn’t help him find something. She knew that a blind black boy was going to need to be tough to make it in this world, so she helped him by not helping him.

I tend to think that “toughening them up” is bad for children’s long term emotional health. I tend to think that listening to their feelings is important, even if the paper cut is too small to see. But looking at the pictures of New Orleans, I wonder if I should say, “Deal with it” to my children a bit more often. Between global warming and global terrorism, what are the chances that my children will have to face a major disaster at some point? Is it fair to assume that their lives will be as cushioned as mine has been so far? Most parents in most human societies have taught their children to survive. How privileged we are to spend so much energy teaching them to play piano.

For me, teaching my children to survive doesn’t mean teaching them how to lock themselves away with a loaded gun, like the white man on tonight’s evening news who said that it was “survival of the fittest” (apparently assuming that having a weapon and a standing house made him somehow more “fit” than his neighbors). For me, teaching survival means teaching my children to deal with adversity with patience instead of fear, with intelligence instead of panic. I don’t have a clue how to do this, except to take them camping in bad weather and try not to let them get too spoiled the rest of the time. It probably wouldn’t hurt to keep working on my own patience, to model “non-attachment” for them, to use the Buddhist term, which of course means I need to keep working on those things myself.

In the meantime, we can all work on openning our hearts to the people of New Orleans.


Anonymous Phil Jones said...

For some reason this post has stuck with me more than most, and maybe it's because of Luke's contributions. Have you thought of transcribing his stream of consciousness and creating a blog called "Wit and Wisdom of Luke (as told to his mom)"? I think it would be great, but then of course there's the danger of his stealing your thunder. Maybe better not. (I've wondered about Mary Can't Tell too!)

7:39 PM  
Blogger Eileen Flanagan said...

Thanks Phil. I do steal my best lines from my children, so I'm not sure I'm ready to give them a separate blog. However, I have thought that I should carry a pen more often so I can write down what they say before I forget it.

2:17 PM  
Anonymous Regina said...

My kids are my major inspiration. They say the best stuff!

10:41 AM  

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