A mysterious shipment, a hero, and a good deed.

A man named John Boettner recently received a box containing 36 copies of my novel, SHELTER US. Trouble is he hadn’t ordered them. He contacted Amazon, that renowned lover of books and humanity, and was told “just destroy them.”

An author himself, he couldn’t toss them like garbage. Instead, he took the time to find my website and contact me to see if I wanted to claim them.

I’m writing to publicly say, THANK YOU, JOHN BOETTNER.

Turns out Mr. Boettner isn’t only an author and book hero. He’s also a teacher hero, and a founder of Teen Press. Watch this short trailer about how he inspires kids, and you will hear advice from Oprah Winfrey, Al Gore, Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie. (Seriously, watch it. You know you crave good news.)

His book, HEY MOM, CAN I RIDE MY BIKE ACROSS AMERICA? is described as:

Dead Poets Society meets Stand By Me, as five real 12- and 13-year-olds ride their bicycles 5,000 miles across America. They want to see if their country is as wonderful as their teacher says it is.” (You can get it at Barnes & Noble, Goodreads, and public Libraries. And yes, it is of course available on the A-word site, too.)

Many of you know that I’m happiest on my bike, that I prefer kayaks to motor boats, acoustic guitar to electric. I’m an analog person in a world moving at warp speed, where Amazon will have your box delivered in an hour…even if it’s occasionally to someone else’s door. So it is wonderfully fitting that this teacher hero and bicycle guru was the unintended recipient of my books. The universe sometimes works in mysterious ways.

I have yet to solve the mystery of how Mr. Boettner received the box of books, or for whom it was intended. If no one claims it, I may ask him for one more favor if he’s willing — to offer them to his students, local non-profits, shelters, and libraries. I have great appreciation for the generosity you have already shown. And in that spirit of gratitude, thanks to Amazon for leading me to the work of this teacher/author/all-around good guy.

How My Baby (a Teenager) Taught Me that Puppies Are Like Babies

When I tell someone we have two new puppies, the reaction goes, “Puppies are so cute! Puppies! Puppies! Puppies!” Followed immediately by, “It’s like having babies.”

I grant that there are many similarities. They are crazy cute. I am more housebound than I would like to be. And they pee in inappropriate places. But that’s where the similarities end for me. I feed them from a bag not my body, baby wipes are only for their ears, and I can leave them in a crate in a pinch.

Last week, my 15-year-old echoed the “puppies are like babies” sentiment, saying that raising puppies will help prepare him for being a father. (Awww…!) There’s some truth there: caring for puppies exercises your patience, love, and forgiveness. It requires you to do or say the same thing over and over and over before they “get” it. And at setbacks and joys alike, you must remind yourself “this too shall pass.”

One moment with the puppies recently reminded me of a feeling I had in my early days with an infant. About 15 and a half years ago, in the wee dark hours of the night I sat in a rocker with my baby in my lap for a middle-of-the-night feeding. He was asleep in my arms, finished with his milk, and the crib loomed a mere four feet away from us. I had never yet managed to get this love out of my arms and into his crib without him waking and crying (I would later discover co-sleeping, Praise Be). Hoping this would be the first time, that I would soon return my groggy self to my own bed, I slowly rose, glided soundlessly across the room, leaned my body over the crib with his body against mine until the mattress accepted his weight, I ever sooooooo slooooowly stood up. I waited. YES! I had done it! He was still sleeping! I was ebullient! I felt like I’d scaled a mountain! Cured cancer! Could do anything!

My comparable puppies moment: that same son and I gave them a bath.

The puppies had been playing in the yard after the sprinklers had been on, digging a hole in wet soil. They were filthy. White paws were dark brown. We couldn’t let them in the house. A bath was mandatory.

We had never done this before. There was no special puppy tub, and the kitchen sink seemed too big for these guys. How would we accomplish this? Where to begin? We retrieved a towel, a bucket, and put two inches of warm water and soap in it. Good enough start. My son stood ready with the towel while I put the first dog in. With a little rubbing, the dirt came off. I handed the surprised, wet pup to the waiting, towel-holding arms of my son, and repeated. These two baths lasted less than 30 seconds, and we had two clean, dry puppies!

We were so inordinately proud of ourselves we high ten‘ed.

That was no small thing. My son is a great kid, wonderful to be around. But I’m the mom, the one who asks about homework and reminds about appointments, so sometimes it feels like we are moving in opposite directions, like friction is our default. Joining forces to give the puppies their first bath, exulting together in that new-parent feeling of accomplishment, reminding ourselves of our bond, was a priceless moment that made every other little puppy mess well worth it.

A lot like having a baby.

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Almost, but not quite

I can’t get my sister’s comment out of my head. The one I told you about, that she wished she had noticed the day before her daughters grew taller than her.

Maybe it was the setting in which she said these words — a 19th birthday celebration, the birthday girl-woman’s feet balanced on the tectonic plates of childhood and adulthood, bumping against each other.

Or maybe it was the wide blue ocean behind my sister as she spoke matter of factly about this milestone going unnoticed, that taunted, rolled its eyes and shrugged at this infinitesimal, irrelevant tendency of children to grow up, that impressed her words on me.

Or maybe it’s because, as my friend Monica told me, once they start high school everything speeds up. It’s the last measurable stop before adulthood.

They are rare, these concrete ways of measuring maturity. I know one more:

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Almost, but not quite.

 

 

 

 

Letting Your Kids Get Hurt, and Watching Them Heal, From a Loving Distance

Disclaimer: As I’ve mentioned other places, I opened up to the idea of Torah study only when I realized that you didn’t have to believe it is the literal word of God, or even believe in God, to get something out of it. When I learned that I could consider it a literary gift from generations before me who wrestled with the big, human questions that I wrestle with now, then I could freely read and see what there might be to learn from it. Some weeks my mouth opens and my eyes tear up at how pertinent it is to me.

So…a little bit of Torah and motherhood, coming up.

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When I told a friend that my two favorite appointments of the week are CardioFunk and Torah study, he responded, “That’s a good balance.” He’s right. Because balance is not about finding a moderate, static, placid lake to float on and stay there; balance is about sometimes riding the biggest wave, pushed by their power and danger, and other times reclining on the beach with a book.

Where dance class is joyful, fast, breathless, soaring and sexy, Torah study is careful, patient, thoughtful, peeling back layers of meaning, an inner adagio. After dance class, I am spent, dopamine-brained, and mellow, wanting nothing but a shower and a nap. After Torah study, I have learned something, if I’m lucky I’ve had a new insight, however small it might be.

 

This week Torah study was, for a mother of teens and a tween, a lesson in launching adolescents into the world. 

We are at the end of the Torah’s tale, before we re-roll the scroll and start again at the beginning. It’s a story we read at the time of year when we are thinking about the kind of person we ought to be, how we have measured up over the past year, how we are going to try to do better.

In the story, Moses tells the Israelites that he’s not going to go with them into the promised land. He knows they’ll be worried to bits about going without him. So, like a good parent, he tells them (in my words) “You can do it on your own. You will be fine. I trust you. And God (or perhaps that true compass in your gut that guides you) will be with you. You can do it without me.”

I think of the baby I saw a few days ago on the verge of sleep, perched on her father’s lap, her head leaning against his chest, and her little hand resting on his arm. Gently, with two fingers her father stroked her cheek, her eyebrow, over and over, until she let go of wakefulness, content and secure.

I wished I could still soothe my kids with just that touch now. But their world has bigger concerns. Friends can become distant — or worse — without explanation. Teachers can unwittingly be harsh. The world can feel unwelcoming. I stand behind them whispering encouragement. “Go for it. You can do it. I trust you. God is inside you. You are so loved. You are so loved.”

I recite a silent prayer for balance, to be more loving and to let them go without me.

I remind myself that life is filled with hurts and with healing, with hard times and coming through hard times, with celebrating the safe passage to a promised land, and all that is gained in the difficult journey: The confidence born of seeing your own resilience. The dawning certitude that others do not define your worth. That your acts, the ways you treat people, define you. 

I stand back in awe as I watch them walk into uncharted territory, into the world’s hurts and its bounty, with courage, forward motion, sometimes sadness, and ultimately with optimism that they will find the promised land they so deserve.

 

 

 

#IWishMyTeacherKnew: Teen Edition

If you’re one of the sage people who avoids Twitter, you may not have seen these striking statements by one 3rd grade class in Colorado. So let me tell you: a teacher, wanting to understand her students’ lives better, assigned them this sentence to complete. “I wish my teacher knew…”

Holy heartbreak, the responses that came back. She, and a gazillion websites, have been sharing them on Twitter. Take these two:

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When I taught kindergarten in Watts, months after the ’92 riots, I didn’t have to assign that sentence to understand the world my kids lived in. They offered up their innocence on the altar of the classroom carpet, sitting crisscross applesauce, hands raised obediently: “They shoot a lot at night here.”

I can’t help but imagine what a high school teacher would learn if they assigned this sentence, “I wish my teacher knew….” Even in our gleaming public high school, kids face all kinds of stresses: poverty, abuse, brokenness. Perhaps: “I wish my teacher knew I have nightmares every night,” or “I wish my teacher knew I woke up at 4 a.m. to ride the public bus to get here,” or “I wish my teacher knew I haven’t seen my parents in over a year.”

But what difference would it make for teachers to know this? Their job is just to teach, right?

Half-right. As educator/humanitarian/visionary Chaim Peri writes in his book The Village Way, contrary to conventional wisdom, adolescence can be a time of great healing. And kids without loving adults at home need to look elsewhere for their mentors: to teachers.

Peri, founder of Yemin Orde Youth Village in Israel, works with traumatized teens — orphans, immigrants, exiles, and survivors of war in their home countries. They succeed like crazy, becoming productive adults, by re-creating the sense of “village” that Hillary Rodham Clinton brought into the American lexicon a few years back.

“We need to offer [teens] an aura of togetherness,” says Peri in his book, “a sense of inner coherence and emotional solidarity that defies the swirling chaos around us. We must recreate, intentionally, through the messages that we constantly broadcast to our children, the sense of belonging and togetherness that once defined human existence.”

“If I could tell every educator just one thing, it would be that each hour of the teenage years is precious, each experience as potent in its capability to heal or to wound as countless hours of childhood experiences.”

His call to action: each of us has it within ourselves to become a mentor and heal a child.

My husband and I heard Chaim Peri speak when we were in the midst of deciding whether to become stand-in mom and dad to an 18-year-old unaccompanied minor from Guatemala. His talk sealed the deal.

Between stepping up and her move-in date we were scared as hell, worried that we were going to ruin our family’s happy life. We have never more wrong.

I’m not saying you have to welcome a stranger into your home to do a world of good. You can go to 826LA. Big Brothers/Big Sisters. Jewish Big Brothers/Big Sisters. It takes a village, and we are the village.

What other groups do you know that offer the chance to mentor? Share in your comments.

 

 

Hanging Up the iPhone

Knowing your gut and standing by it is the holy grail of parenthood.

As a mom of two boys, twelve and eight, there are some circumstances where it’s easy to follow my gut: swimming lessons, completed homework, good manners. Other times I waver, caving to pleas for junk food (why must Gatorade be so red, Cheetos so orange?).

Right now my gut tells me to bury my twelve-year-old son’s smartphone in a cement grave. But do I have the fortitude to do it?

Last year, in anticipation of him becoming a middle schooler, we gave him his Dad’s old Android. We thought we were being moderate, in a neighborhood where kids get iPhones for elementary school graduation. We wanted to be able to get in touch after school — and Dad wanted a new phone. We should have given him a no frills, just-for-calls, flippy deal. Because that old clunky Android still had games and texting, giving him his first addiction to tech, and leaving us nagging him about Putting The Damn Thing away.

Mistake number two came less than a year later. As The Damn Thing got slower and older, our sweet, mostly-responsible son asked if he could buy an iPhone with his own money. We were caught off guard. We consented, sliding down that slippery slope.

Pay attention, learn from my error. Don’t take your eye off the ball like I did. It doesn’t matter that he used his own money. Because buying a kid an expensive gadget is only part of the problem. The other part is a kid having a sleek, user-friendly pocket full of video games, 24/7 social interaction (and attendant hurt feelings), instant gratification, and increased addiction. Add to that my saying Yes to Instagram under the naïve misimpression that it was an outlet for artistic photography, not a Facebook alternative, and we had ourselves a problem.

It’s not that he’s using his phone to search for porn (yet). He uses it for appropriate things – checking scores, keeping in touch with friends, playing a few games. Even if (hypothetically speaking) he screws up and sends a less-than-kind text, it provides life lessons – how to make a sincere apology and take responsibility for your actions.

It’s not that it’s inherently evil. It’s that it’s always there. It has become another member of our family. It comes with him everywhere, and if it’s not with him, he is jonesing for it.

I’m no saint with mine. I get the addictiveness. But at least my habit started at age forty, not twelve. That’s forty years of having to find other solutions to boredom, like books and bike rides and conversations. Forty years without radiating reproductive organs. (He may want children someday.)

The first generation iPhone was released on June 29, 2007, six years ago. In my defense, in the scheme of things that’s not much time for us parents to have figured this stuff out. Here’s my dilemma: if my gut now tells me that my child should not have an iPhone, one I gave him permission to spend a lot of his own money on, how do I take it away? How do I extract him from the social connection he feels from texting or “following” his friends? Have I gone to a place from where there is no turning back?

I hear the voice of the Mommy and Me facilitator from toddler years: You are allowed to change your mind. You are not stuck with every mistake you make. It’s not all fun, after all: having an iPhone bought us more rules, more bending the rules and more nagging about following the rules. And it brought me the unease you feel when you are going along with something that feels wrong.

Now that’s a feeling that a middle schooler can relate to.

I know what I should do. If I can work up my nerve, I should explain that we tried something, I made a mistake, and my gut is telling me this isn’t working. The added benefit is modeling how to listen to your own values, not your peers, when figuring out the best way forward.

I’m not expecting this to be easy. The tantrums of a two-year-old who had to give up my keychain-as-toy is going to be a delightful memory when facing the tantrum of a middle schooler asked to give up his iPhone. If I work up the bravery to take this step, you’ll know from the sound of wailing wafting from our direction.

A Reluctant Goodbye to the Incomparable Catherine O’Neill

There are sounds you treasure from your childhood, as insignificant as they are reassuring. The sound of the back door opening, the screen door double-bumping closed behind it, followed by a loud shout of “FRANNY???” My parents’ friend Cathy O’Neill … Continue reading