by Conlee Ricketts
I’m sure most of us can point fingers and blame someone guilty of taking us for granted at one moment or another across our life. That isn’t what this is about.
I was dissecting the phrase “taken for granted” the other day over and over in my head as I have a habit of doing. There are so many things that I simply had the assumption of “continuous presence” in my world. I had an expectation of permanence. A completely unrealistic expectation that is so obvious on the surface, yet I clung to the expectation blindly without question, and I neglected to enjoy something or someone or some moment. I neglected to savor it, say thank you, smile and breathe.
What started this was visiting friends and watching the couple who had been together for maybe ten years or so navigate the kitchen of their home, talk, joke, roll eyes, misunderstand one another, be irritated, laugh, brush shit off, and move on to the next task.
I was envious.
Had I ever had a relationship like that in my life? Of course I had, but I don’t now, and I think I took it for granted.
When I was in high school, my mom told me, “All relationships end.”
She was very matter of fact and followed up with, “It will happen at some point no matter what; the longest relationship with anyone ends with death of course.”
She wasn’t sad, she was just being realistic, stoic, no nonsense, basically her charming self. Not that I really want to argue with her now, and yes our physical relationship did “end” with her death 20 years ago, but that was just the physical in-person relationship. She is still around in my emotional and cerebral world so, as expected, and not at all surprising to anyone who knew us….we disagree :-)
I’m pondering the words of wisdom I want my daughter to remember, and I am leaning heavily toward appreciation. Appreciation of the presence of anything in the moment it is present. Beginning with a list of a few things I took for granted back in the day:
I want my daughter to attempt to appreciate her moments now while she’s in the middle of them. Her joy and her pain while still in high school. I want to tell her to “enjoy” any heartbreak that might come her way in the next ten years, as well as the love that she thinks will never come her way; to enjoy the friendships, laughter, and drama that is part of the everyday. Because these next ten years or so will be when she is most likely to truly feel everything the deepest. I don’t want her to take any of that joy or pain for granted and assume she will have an endless supply of these intense experiences throughout life. While we continue to have experiences throughout life, the good and the bad, the way they feel in intensity changes over time. It's just the way the brain is wired to "grow up." The deep, raw feelings she experiences now are at a level that her brain will grow out of over time. If she's in love, she's IN LOVE. If she is hurt and disappointed, she is HURT and DISAPPOINTED. If she is pissed at Mom, believe me, she is PISSED AT MOM.
How will I handle these extreme ups and downs of joy, pain, happy, sad? For starters, I won’t take these moments with my daughter for granted. If I’ve done my job well, she will be ready to navigate the world without me in a few short years. Next, I will do my absolute best to be the person that I needed when I went through all of that: quiet, open-armed, without judgement, and un-angry. “Un-angry” is such a rough, unpolished word, but I just remember a lot of anger during my high school years—both from me and towards me, and it was difficult to navigate. I am 50% of our relationship equation, and I have learned that not engaging with the anger typically will result in the quiet comforting mother/daughter hug that I had always wanted from my own mother.
There are certainly things I miss in my life, and sometimes I think it isn’t the “thing” but the “intensity of the thing" I miss the most. Yes, I took people, places, things, and feelings for granted and was certain they would “always be available.” My goal is to enjoy things again. I will enjoy what I have while I have it, and if I can, I want to help my daughter do the same now while the intensity exists to create a habit of appreciation and understanding.
by Conlee Ricketts
One year during college—a long, long time ago—I remember buying myself a humorous and mildly inappropriate coffee mug for Valentine’s Day. I was so desperate to have a loving relationship in my life, the kind that would make me feel whole, complete, and loved, a relationship with a person who would have walked by this same window—spot the coffee mug—and immediately know that it was perfect for me.
I didn’t have that person. In fact I had recently been humiliated by the relationship I had just been through. You know the kind of thing, walking in on your boyfriend in bed with his old girlfriend. Actually, I hope you don’t know this kind of thing. It hurts like hell. A punch in the stomach so hard replaying itself over and over for weeks every time your mind quiets or your close your eyes.
I’ve had two boyfriends and two husbands since I bought that mug, and for each relationship there’s always been that moment of explanation, “No I’m not saving a gift from an old boyfriend. I bought it for myself. Really—I did—Promise.” Typically my explanation is met with that raised eyebrow, cocked head, and a stare that implies I had some strangely erotic encounter with someone other than them. I can assure you I did not.
Having this conversation does makes me laugh though. I think that is part of the reason why I keep the mug. There are other reasons why it's still here, but those have taken me awhile to uncover. I realize that my mug is a reminder of my old insecurities, my old loneliness, and my old sad self. In an instant I’m standing outside that store window in my mind like it was yesterday—I feel twenty again. I barely had enough money to eat and buying that five dollar mug seemed like a crazy extravagance, but I did it anyway, and the mug has remained with me for thirty years. There are times when I wonder why I’ve hung on to it for so long. It seems contrary to my life journey, letting go of my past, and my goal to accept all moments as they are. I wonder if I keep it because it’s the only Valentine’s Day gift I still have—or even remember. I’m not sure how to feel about that.
I think its tireless existence in my life says something about the one relationship that matters most, before we sprinkle in the other people—in fact it’s the only relationship that can make me feel whole, complete, and loved—the relationship I have with my Self. I am challenged often to nurture it, love it, and tend to it, because whether I like it or not, it’s the only one I have that will actually last forever.
My mug? Oh yeah, it says: “I’d walk a million miles for one of your smiles. And even farther for that thing you do with your tongue” -Dale
by Conlee Ricketts
It’s difficult to start writing something that I know many of you will disagree with or dismiss without finishing or giving me a chance. It’s difficult, but I can’t stop having the conversation in my head until I try. I’m thankful for my freedom to do so.
Try not to assume you understand my feelings without taking the time to hear me. My frustration this week, next week, last week, has not been about politics. My concerns are not about being a member of one party or the other, the economy, policy—foreign or domestic. For me it is about turning away from the ugliness. Or pretending not to see it. Or choosing not to see it, and by doing so subtly condoning it.
The concepts of “President” and “Role Model” and “Respect” have always been fairly synonymous for me even when I didn’t particularly care for the individual in the role.
This is my struggle.
I am unable to point to our newly elected president and say “there’s someone to look up to.”
Before you leave, or you angrily ask me about all the criminal things that didn’t make the other candidate a role model either, I need you to stop. As I said this is not about politics for me, never has been. It is about hate. It is about words and behavior that are aggressively hateful. It is about abuse. It is about words and behavior that are aggressively abusive. And finally, it is about a sliver, of a portion, of a handful, of the smallest amount of our population—on all sides—who just needed permission to be openly hateful or violent. I am terrified that permission was just granted. When aggressively abusive, violent, or hateful words and actions are ignored and even championed—permission was granted.
One hate crime is one too many. One act of violence upon another human being is one too many.
I can remain friends will all who know me; I can agree to disagree with you without it “becoming a thing.” My life proceeds even when I can’t quite understand why you think the way you do. I don’t force feed you my beliefs hoping you will change your mind and I don’t call you names. I do me. You do you. But I need my friends to know, especially if you are a parent—when the topic of rape, abuse, or violence comes up in connection with our new president, and you respond with a quasi-agreement/rebuttal like, “Yeah, but he…..” then my conversation with you is likely going to draw to a close. As a survivor of sexual assault, growing up with the training that “good girls stay quiet and don’t tell” it is my wish that you will never “Yeah, but he…” to your child, or worse “Yeah, but you…” somehow implying you’re your child was at fault for being a victim of violence and/or hate. There is absolutely no way to finish that sentence that can absolve or erase that violence for your child.
When you try to console me, or compare this situation to any other situation, or talk to me like I’m a child, or talk down to me like I “don’t understand politics,” or tell me this is ridiculous, or that I’m a whiner and you can’t wait for me to get over it and move on, without first considering that a double standard came into play here, and a dangerous precedent of permission was just granted here, you hurt my feelings. I don’t need consoling. I don’t need “I understand what you’re saying, but…” because clearly you do not understand what I am saying. I need much more than “Yeah, but he…”
by Conlee Ricketts
photo by Rachel Phillips
These days my “students” are college students. What is special about them is that they want to be middle school teachers like I was for 23 years. It is part of my job to help these college students figure out what it really means to “Be a Middle School Teacher.” It’s a difficult job. I see my students through three very emotional and rigorous semesters that increase in intensity from 1 day a week to five days a week of “being a middle school teacher.”
Things I tell my students that I wish they would trust:
1. There is no one right answer
I know this drives you crazy, but when you ask me, “What do you do when as student won’t…” I can ask you back, “What time of day is it?” “Was it at the start of class, middle of class, end of class?” “What just happened in the hall?” “Was it before lunch?” “Was it after lunch?” “What do you know about this student?” “What is the daily expectation?” “When did you make that known?” “How did you make it known?” “Is this the first time it has happened or the twentieth?” This list of clarifying questions I can pose to you is endless. The reason why an adolescent does what he or she does is not consistent. You may feel at times there is no rhyme or reason to their actions, and you would be correct—you have to be okay with that. If I could import my 23 years of experience teaching math, managing students, and creating lessons, into your brain it might still be useless in your classroom. My personality and way of working with students won’t work for you. You need to develop your own way. I will continue to pose these questions and offer example after example of ways you can try to solve your problems, but it’s really all up to you to find your voice and make it work. AND what worked yesterday may NOT work today. Welcome to working with humans during puberty.
2. Worry less about making mistakes and worry more about building relationships
You stare at me like I am full of B.S. every time I say this. You are nervous the students won’t respect you, listen to you, follow your directions, etc. I have news for you—they won’t (in fact some of you don’t with me either). You need to earn the right to be in their world and the only way to do that is to ask them, listen to their answers, learn about them—their lives, likes, dislikes, be consistent, trustworthy, and care. Each and every one of us makes mistakes. That is the built in device to help you learn, assuming you choose to learn from the mistakes. My advice: use mistakes as a moment to be a role model of vulnerability for your students of how to handle screwing up or how to handle disappointment in a productive and healthy way. Be thankful you can do that for your students. Please, focus on knowing something special about each and every one of your students and talk to them about it, especially when you see on their face that need some extra attention and care.
3. You think you're working hard now? You have no idea
You are the guest in your mentor teacher’s classroom, and while you are wanting to spread your wings and fly, remember that while they may not do things the way you would do it in the future, they are still protecting you from so many layers of the job you can’t even fathom. Say thank you. There is always an invisible layer of “work” that goes on that you will never see or understand until you are alone in your very own classroom. It is difficult to describe these intangibles but being alone in a classroom with 35 students requires much more energy, concentration, decision making, and observation than when the two of you are in a room with 35 students together. Your mentor teacher is probably fielding hundreds of student, parent, and administration interactions that you aren’t even aware of, and they do it so seamlessly you can’t even see it happen or realize that you are reaping the benefits of their intervention. Say thank you.
4. Your students will treat you the way you tell them to…and it isn’t through your words
Actions speak louder than words—cliché? Yes. True? Yes. Adolescents have the strongest Sincerity Sensor you will ever experience. They know when you are being sincere, when you are nervous, when you are pretending to be in charge, when you know you are in charge, when you waffle before deciding, when you mean it, when you don’t, when you are being honest, when you are coming from a place of caring, or not…the list is amazing really. Because your middle schoolers are hyper aware of how the world might be perceiving them, they are keenly perceptive of you, and they will tell you. "You smell like coffee," "I don't like your new hair cut," "You have no sense of style," "You're confusing," "You aren't fair," on and on. Do you want to avoid being under this microscope? You can’t. But you can minimize the chances of negative moments: See #2.
5. When you complain about me, other instructors, or professors, I wonder if you fully understand what you signed up for
You may not know it, but a teacher is always listening. In the halls, before class begins, as students leave, it should never stop if you want to know what your students are experiencing in order to help them succeed. Just because you are in college doesn’t mean I stopped being a teacher. I see you roll your eyes, use your phones, read your timelines, and I know you just missed my instructions to that assignment. I hear you complain about your instructors, professors, and me. I wonder: if you are complaining near me, are you complaining near your mentor teacher, or near your students? Is that the example you want to be? If you are struggling you need to learn to talk about it with the person you are in conflict with. Part of my job is to help you learn this skill. Come see me and we can work together to deal with disappointment and frustration. Ultimately I know that what will happen to you is this: the way you are treating me or others, the heavy sighs and eye rolls I see and receive, is the exact same way your students are going to treat you some day—and it might hurt your feelings.
6. There is never a time when you are a finished product, nor should there be
Good teachers are always learning. I want you to be a good teacher—a great teacher even—not a mediocre teacher. I can’t package up this career in an easy “how to” manual and send you on your way. It doesn’t work that way. Every year is different, every group of students have different needs, each class has its own personality, and each child is an individual. You have to learn to live with change, ambiguity, and take comfort in the unknown. You need to find your own answers, and you do this by reading research, looking at what others have done successfully and tweaking it for this year’s students, observing others, attending workshops, and never giving up the desire to “be even better next year.” At least that’s what I keep doing.
7. I don’t judge you when you cry
When you are in my office, face flushed, voice trembling, trying to hold back tears and appear strong, I will likely ask you to just cry if you need to. I say this because I understand what it means to “be strong” for my students for an extended period of time. Being strong for so long can wear away at our stamina, which leads to exhaustion, poor concentration, and weaker decision making skills. Sometimes a good old fashioned “cry” relieves the precise amount of stress needed in order to be able to pull on our teacher pants and go into the job another day tough as nails—strong, supportive, and caring for our students. Teaching is hard. I say it a thousand times, but learning to handle the personalities of our students, other teachers, the tragedies of losing a student to violence or suicide, and knowing what to “do” in any of these situations does not come without experience, pain, and sorrow. I can be as strong as I need to be for a twelve year old in the face of losing a parent because I can go somewhere private and cry.
8. You will survive if you want to
Teaching middle school isn’t for everyone and that’s okay. You enter my class with an “ideal image” of the way “teaching” is supposed to be in your minds. For some of you it resembles your own fondest memory of a teacher or a school year. For others of you it resembles the opposite of your own experience or worst teacher, because you are certain you can do better. Beware of these expectations; they are dangerous; I can say that falling short of your expectations is inevitable when you are just starting out. Teaching is hard; anyone who walks in saying “I want to make a difference in my students’ lives” quickly finds out that what they expected teaching to be and what it actually is are two very different things. In order to be the person who “makes a difference” you need to work hard—very hard—and that work occurs outside of the classroom time frame you are spending with students. Middle schoolers are a lot of fun, but they take a special kind of teacher who can be ready for what they serve up. They are emotional, hilarious, insecure, blunt, unpredictable and above all fragile. They need your guidance and patience to learn. In order to be ready for all that and make your 50-80 daily minutes with them successful and safe, takes about triple that time preparing, planning, and creating. If you aren’t ready for your time in class with them, they are. And they will know exactly how to use that time for their own self-interests. If you find yourself driving into your placement all white-knuckled and nauseous then perhaps you need to re-think this career, or start working harder to be ready for those class periods; your students deserve the best.
9. You may never know how much you meant to a single child or classroom of students, and that’s okay—just know that you did
You’ve chosen middle school. The quintessential years of flux, poor decision making skills, puberty, egocentric behavior, and you want a thank you? What are you thinking? Your students are in the middle of stress=emotional decision making=what’s in it for me=silliness or outburst, or who knows what. Your consistency, stability, sense of humor, and calm is the anchor that they hold on to in the midst of their storm of predictable unpredictability. Whether or not they can understand that you do this on purpose for them, and that saying how much it means to them that you are always there, is something that you just can’t worry about. You just need to keep showing up. There are rare moments when lightning strikes during the hormone driven tornado and someone says thank you, or a student returns years later to let you know you mattered, but you can’t pin your self-worth on those moments. You do matter, so wake up, grab the coffee, and get going!
Why is this list only 9 and not 10? That’s the point; teaching is messy. It is either 9 or infinity—there are far too many things to learn about working with middle schoolers to fit into the 42 weeks I spend with you. You have to roll up your sleeves and learn some things the hard way it like I did. I share what I share because if you could learn from my experiences or my mistakes, it would ultimately save you time and heartbreak.
Author’s note: What I share here is solely my own opinion and doesn’t necessarily reflect the opinion of any other individual or institution. I share through the lens of my own experience with students and student teachers, and considering it to be 100% accurate and true for everyone would be foolish. If you happen to agree with my thoughts—wonderful! Please share. If you don’t agree with my thoughts—feel free to enter into a respectful discourse with me. -Conlee
by Conlee Ricketts
The quality of my life on any given day is really what I consider to be “good.” I have my basic survival needs met on a daily basis. I smile often. I love my child and my child loves me. Every once in a while though I will have a day that creeps in while I’m not looking and I feel sad. It will follow me around for a day and I let it. I don’t put a happy face on it and try to push it away; I let it teach me something.
Why am I sad today? Because I want things. Things that I may or may not ever have. Sometimes when it’s quiet I can feel myself physically aging, and I see a future minus some things that—for the moment—I “want.” If I were able to be content and not imagine my life in its previous forms over the past 50 years I don’t think I would be as sad. Is amnesia a gift?
The future I see for me today has me alone. I am neither frightened nor sad about that, but the word “alone” makes me ponder moments long ago when I wasn’t “alone.” Then I mourn the loss of the energy, fun, and love I felt thirty years ago. I want love to feel like it did when I was nineteen, a boyfriend who could pick me up his arms as if I weighed nothing, someone to look at me and smile, time together talking and laughing until I almost pee. So here I am –not dissatisfied with myself or my future—just wanting. Today I want a cowboy again, a gentleman, a lover and a friend. This will pass, but for today…I want. I want for this to happen, and I want for that to never have happened.
I shake my head in disgust at my last failed relationship, and I box up my trust and dignity so as to not suffer again the pain, hurt, and shame of not trusting my gut sooner, of not saying what should have been said earlier, for accepting anything less than the level of honesty I had offered.
I push those memories aside and I think of other things I’ve wanted and never got. That may seem pointless but I let myself do it anyway. It may also be a waste of time to be sad about things I never got, or lost, or left behind, or let go, but feeling sad for a day doesn’t waste my time, and it isn’t as pointless as I tell myself it is.
It’s the want that creates the sadness—not the person, place, or thing that may be attached to it. It’s the want that makes me feel regret. It’s the want that sets me up for disappointment. Wanting things to be different then they are or were. Wanting things I can’t have right now, or wanting things just beyond my reality or reach. The truth is that I’m sad because I’m wanting.
When I take the time to understand the “wants” it makes it easier to set them aside after a sad day. It’s just a want—not a reality. It will be okay. It’s a single day.
I still have time to find a cowboy. I still have time to laugh until I pee—and because it’s funny, not because I’m over 50. I still have time to find a room with a view and breathe fresh air.
Tomorrow I will wake up after having played with all my wants today, and I will be able to get back to the business of living my life as it is, not as I want it to be and the sadness will have gone away.
by Conlee Ricketts
The day before the final day of 7th grade my daughter hops in the car with two of the three girls I regularly take home.
“Where’s (Insert Girl’s Name Here)?” I say. It doesn’t matter who it was, because what happened next is really all too familiar in middle school. It happened to me, it happened to students every year I taught middle school, and it will continue to happen.
“I’m not riding with (Girl’s Name)!” my daughter says sharply. Notice the lack of information I have at this point. I can see the girl running toward the truck.
“That’s not nice,” I say, “I’m not going to just leave her.” This friendship has been dissolving all year but the carpool situation was established, and I only have one more day to get through.
“Well, we aren’t taking her tomorrow!”
“There's only one more day, c’mon. We are taking her to school tomorrow.” I still have no information at this point but I’m trying to de-escalate whatever has happened using my calm voice because there are two other girls in the truck.
“(Girl’s Name) said I was ugly!” and now the other girls in the truck are into the conversation, “How did you hear that?” “OMG I can’t believe she said that!” etc.
“Okay,” now I have something to work with, “did you tell her that was hurtful, or ask her why she would say something hurtful like that?”
“No! Someone else told me she said it!”
“Well I think you should address it with her but not now in the truck in front of everyone.” I say. (Girl’s Name) is now standing outside the truck door while friends in the back seat keep the door closed in solidarity. I have to say “let her in.” (Girl’s Name) gets in.
“I don’t appreciate you telling people you think I’m ugly, (Girl’s Name)!” my daughter blurts.
“I never said that! Who told you that?!” she says.
I look at my daughter and say, “We’re not doing this now in front of everyone.”
I drop everyone off in a mixture of awkward silence and the other girls conversing about random things that essentially exclude (Girl’s Name). After (Girl’s Name) leaves the truck, my daughter’s best friend is able to guess exactly who the boy was that told her what had been said. Then more silence. After the last girl leaves the truck my daughter bursts into sobs. As I reach home and shut off the truck, I sit with my daughter quietly while she cries.
Before I get much deeper into this story I need to explain that yes, Mother Bear does kick in wanting to save my child from all the hurt and evil in the world, but trained professional middle school teacher also kicks in wanting my daughter to learn how to handle these situations on her own. The mother/teacher in me wants her to understand that it isn’t about who said what to whom, it’s about whether or not my daughter is going to believe every bullshit comment someone else says about her and then absorb it as her “truth.”
We cannot control what others say or think about us; we can only control how we choose to react to it, and we control whether or not we are going to add it to the baggage we carry for far too long. I made the mistake of adding every “you’re ugly, you’re too quiet, you’re a crybaby, you’re too tall, you’re stupid” to my own baggage beginning in 6th grade, and I have had trouble putting it down for years. I don’t want this for my child.
When the crying slows I observe, “Wow, you’ve been holding that in well.”
“Since 5th period!” she sobs. Three hours.
“What happened? How did you hear this?”
The story is a familiar one unfortunately. I think an identical scenario happened to me at her age. In between classes while my daughter was at her locker, a boy walks by (typically this is the cute boy or the popular boy) and says “Guess what? So-and-so told me she thinks you’re ugly,” and then he keeps on walking. Now anyone standing around has also heard this, and since he has kept on walking my daughter is left standing there feeling the heat of the imaginary spotlight with no recourse.
“Wow, that’s hurtful. How did you handle that?” I asked.
“I just said ‘OK’ and acted like I didn’t care.” The tears are still dropping off her cheeks into her lap because her head is hanging so low.
“That’s the worst. I’m angry he felt the need to share that with you. What do you think he had to gain by saying that sort of thing to you?” At this point I’m hoping that I can help her to realize that people do and say mean things because of stuff that is going on with them, not her.
“I don’t know," pause, "(Girl’s Name) has been mean to him all year long. He knows that she rides home with me, so maybe he was trying to make me mad at her to stop giving her rides.” She finally lifts her head to look at me.
“Well, if you decide to talk to her about it, these things almost always go just like they did when she got in the car: ‘No I didn’t’ and ‘Who told you?’ So be prepared for the denial. You can think about just letting her know you don’t care if she said it or not, but that it was hurtful, and when she asks again for who told you I would just say ‘the person you said it to. It doesn’t matter anyway, it’s just mean.’ And then walk away. You don’t need to argue about it because now she knows you know. Even if you don’t talk to her about it, you've learned something about both her and the boy who felt the need to share it with you.”
My daughter nods.
“I’m so sorry you held that in all day and that you were hurt like that. It’s not fun at all, but it sounds like you handled it really well.” We leave the truck.
A quality my daughter has that I admire (except when it's directed at me because it's typically accurate) is her fearless approach to calling others out on their bullshit. If you upset her she will tell you; if you do something she doesn’t like she will tell you; if you hurt her she will tell you. She uses this to protect both herself and others. If she sees someone else being picked on or treated unfairly she will speak up for them; she can be direct and sometimes her tone brutal. What she hides a little too well is that she is also easily wounded. The last thing I want is for what happened in the hallway to stick with my daughter for years to come like it stuck to me. Her ability it speak up for herself is really part of what I was missing at her age, so I don’t think it will stick with her, but I can’t really be sure.
We each have choices about how we will react to things. I could have gone all 51 year-old-psycho yelling at 13 year-old-meanie who talked behind my daughter’s back, OR I could choose to help my daughter process the experience of finding out that yes, people talk about us behind our backs.
My daughter was hurt, publicly humiliated, and felt betrayed by someone she saw nearly every day of 7th grade. No amount of me telling her that she isn’t ugly was going to help her navigate what happened to her. It also doesn't really matter whether or not the other girl actually said this or not; my daughter believes that she has. What might have helped was having her think about what motivated someone else’s behavior, having her take time to think about how she might want to address it, and my silence while she cried.
She has heard me say it often: wounded people are sometimes better equipped to inflict more pain on others. I want to help her navigate being hurt by others in a way that sets her free from the pain instead of trapping her into believing that the pain is somehow deserved or part of who she needs to be.
I can’t say with confidence that the pain hasn’t stuck with her. I also can’t say I handled it the best possible way. A month later I can see that the remnants of the sting of the comment have shaken her confidence, and I know that the close of 7th grade has wounded my child. My heart is broken. What I do at this point is the only thing I can do—I simply need to stay available and listen more than I talk.
by Conlee Ricketts
My Dad cracks me up and this is one of the many reasons I love him. On my recent visit the following occurred:
“Hun?” he asks while staring at the end table that displays two family portraits of my brother and his family and a school picture of my daughter.
“So you don’t feel neglected, pictures of you are in the closet.”
I start laughing and tease, “Not exactly the best sentence in the world Dad.”
I don’t feel neglected. He has recently moved into this house and the items unpacked are exactly as I remember them. I walk around the house and find little tidbits that send me back to 8 or 12 or 17 and it feels both good and sad. My daughter listens to me say “this reminds me of my childhood” or “oh my god this has to be over 50 years old” because I remember whatever it is I’m showing her from my childhood which never feels so far away but chronologically is so very far away.
Every shelf and every space of wall is full. Where would a picture of me go anyway?
I always tell myself after a visit to Dad’s that my daughter and I will get portraits done like my brother’s family. They are a good looking bunch!
But I never do. I don’t know why I don’t. There’s a list of subconscious reasons I go through to see if I can self-diagnose my resistance:
Wait a minute—I may be onto something there.
Jealous of my brother’s success and what he has been able to provide his children that I feel I am failing to do? Perhaps we have a winner. There’s no need to fall down that rabbit hole today; I think I found what I came looking for.
What I have realized, as I rest from our sightseeing and car trips, is that no two children have the same parents. Within the same family we like to think the experience of “our parents” was the same because we sat at the same table, shared the same traditions, and listened to the same stories, but who I experienced as “Mom and Dad” and age 12 were completely different people than my brother experienced at his age 12, and it is through our own eyes and hearts that we filter our parents. For this reason alone it would be impossible for us to have “the same parents.”
So do I feel neglected that there are no pictures of me out?
I hadn’t even noticed until he said something.
I was busy looking at the beautiful picture of my own child.
by Conlee Ricketts
I’ve been talking to my mother a lot lately. Wandering from kitchen to living room to bedroom to bathroom. Asking her if it’s normal for the 51 year old body to betray you so much—even without cancer. I laugh out loud comparing the shitty things I said to her, to the random ostracism I receive from my daughter about to exit her first year as a “teen.” My daughter’s firm belief at one moment that I have no clue will flip to her needing to be stuck to me like Velcro. Then in the span of a day there is a loud ripping sound of the Velcro as she snaps ferociously at me for something she didn’t mind less than 24 hours ago.
It’s all normal. I don’t get my feelings hurt (that much) anymore. She has to pull away, she has to solve her own problems, she has to stand on her own, she has to fail, she has to succeed, and she has only one way to do that—with her intellect. What that looks like is that she points out my flaws, she criticizes me, she rolls her eyes, or glares, or heavy sighs, and she isolates herself behind the YouTube videos, homework, and books. It will be okay; I know she will come back to me.
It makes me wonder though. It makes me think about my mom a lot, and how I “see” her in my mind, how I remember her. My mind holds three distinct women: the 70’s mom who looked like Mary Tyler Moore to me; the 80’s mom who I remember as Maude, and the 90’s mom before she died that looked like Jane Fonda does now. The mom I remember, who visits me in my dreams, mostly resembles the mom I had in the 70’s. Free spirited, creative, firm and frightening at times, a little cold but also loving enough to sew doll clothes for me. I understand that version of mom much better now, and those clothes she sewed have become a memory that ties together the mother I had with the mother I think I had. It turns out she was absolutely doing the best she could.
I wonder which version of me my daughter will remember. The picture that will reside in her mind. The list of words she would come up with to describe me, what would those be? I’m sure it will depend on how well she knows herself, because if she were to make a list right now it might actually reflect more of the insecurities she has about herself and her overall life. She sees me as “fake” sometimes. I see myself as socially awkward, and trying to be friendly. She sees me as annoying. I see myself as doting. She sees me as embarrassing. I see myself as hilarious. She sees me as frustrating. I see myself as creative and perhaps overly helpful.
The beauty of all this, and the painful part I guess, is that she won’t appreciate all these things about me until she successfully separates from me and finds her independence as a woman. Then she will understand that the crazy, erratic, worrying lady that dotes, asks too many questions, and is socially awkward, is also a woman who has experienced love, pain, joy, defeat, shame, sadness, redemption, and so many other things both wonderful and horrible.
I used to think my parents protected me from their humanity, but I think it is really more of the fact that as a child and adolescent, we really can’t see our parents as fully human. We are so self-absorbed and worried about what is going on with us that parents are simply supporting characters in the movie of our life. The fact that my mom had “things going on with her,” during my entire childhood was completely lost on me. As I guess it should have been; I was a child.
But, I can say that I now understand why Mom cried when she broke the “scrambled egg bowl” that was her mothers, why she felt under-appreciated, why she wanted me to be able to take care of myself, why she had regrets, and why she took charge. I understand the layers of her life that kept her emotionally distant from everyone, what made her furious, what made her laugh, what caused her pain, and what brought her joy. So much of the time as a child I thought I caused all this, that I was somehow responsible for evoking all these emotions in my mom. That is the purest example of the egocentric nature of children. Our parents spend so much time caring for us that we simply believe we are the center of the universe. The truth however is clear to me now; I was not responsible for my mother’s humanity—she was. Her past, her life experiences, her choices, her movie. Her history shaped her actions and reactions, just as mine has shaped me, and my daughter’s will shape her. There are countless things my mom would have protected me from if she could have, and I would do the same for my daughter, but I can’t, just like my mom couldn’t for me.
So, I will suit up with my emotional armor and enjoy this ride called Motherhood, because while I didn’t get a chance to tell my mom that “I get it now,” I know that someday my daughter will get it too, and she will be a better person because of it.
Art work by Mary Anne Radmacher. Author, Artist, Actionista I Adore!
I am ending day three of re-organizing, cleaning, examining, thinking, and discarding in my writing and creating space. It’s an “office” but I like to fill it with promise and hope of the great creations to come; creations of all kinds –both the written word and the messy artsy kind.
I think I’m going to need a day four or even five. I had saved a lot of “what if” kinds of things: what if I need this someday; what if my daughter could use this for school; what if I have a great yard sale. The new sidewalk construction in front of my house has sent a clear message: NO YARD SALE, so I hauled three big boxes to Goodwill today. That created about four square feet of new floor space.
Piles of old receipts, tax papers and other stuff from 10 to 20+ years ago have all been shredded. I set up my shredder the kitchen. Every time I went out there for water, snacks, making lunch or dinner, or to let the dogs out, I stood and shredded pages. I had to pace myself so I wouldn’t burn out the motor on the shredder. There was a lot of paper! It feels great to release all that paper. There’s no reason to hang on to those documents of some younger married woman living a life I don’t even recognize anymore.
I threw out a stash of cards and notes that were a piece of my life I no longer want hanging around. At the time they were saved because I cared. Now I don’t. That sounds brutal but having those memories around now only serves to remind me of something I’m actually humiliated by, so discarding them gives me permission to release the humiliation as well.
I also found a stack of letters my daughter had written me. It was refreshing to read her perspective on our life and my mothering skills. Apparently I “give her so many wonderful things” and I am “the best Mom ever!” I will accept that endorsement. I saved this little stack as my mini pep talk whenever I beat myself up for not being a better, richer, prettier, skinnier, more successful…etc. mom. You get it.
So many times my fear of lack or my fear of never having enough to offer her gets in my way of remembering that the only perspective of childhood she has is hers—and that’s the only perspective that really matters to her. What my parents were able to give me is completely irrelevant to her. She could care less because my childhood was an ancient time of dinosaurs and cavemen—it was 1965-75 after all.
I can see the floor once again and now I have those tiny stacks I didn’t know where to put to tackle tomorrow or the next day. I even found a great place for that outdated, ridiculous, Jenga tower of music CD’s that has been nervously stacked on top of a two drawer filing cabinet for 13+ months. I hated that tower, mocking me whenever I opened the drawers, threatening to fall on me.
The site of my office, which I couldn’t even walk into, had me near tears. I knew the only answer was to roll up my flippn’ sleeves, find the floor again, and get rid of needless shit and painful memories that met me at the door whenever I tried to get inside. I realize now that I was avoiding the work and not the pain. The “painful memories” really weren’t that painful. The problem (or pain) with some of the stuff that got tossed was the humiliation and shame I felt being reminded of the fact that I had made these mistakes here and there—either financially or emotionally, but I am on a journey to improve how I speak to myself. The rest of the world usually benefits from my kindness, generosity, and careful word choice long before I extend that love to myself. So my trip down Shame Lane was more gentle than usual. I think it’s because I believe that I keep some things because for some crazy reason or another I think I deserve this reminder as a kind of punishment for believing in the wrong person, or for being so “stupid,” or for making such a poor decision.
I no longer feel the need to be reminded of my past goofs. They no longer belong here in my room. I have learned many lessons from my past experiences; I licked my wounds long enough; I am ready to move forward.
Make room. It helps.
I laughed when I searched “single-minded.” The Merriam-Webster On-line Dictionary gave me these fun words:
· determined, devoted, tenacious, having only one purpose, goal or interest
BUT scroll a bit more and it says that “Related Words” are:
· bitter, cocksure, hardened, pigheaded, and rigid
Talk about words for some self reflection!
The phrase “single-minded single mom” came to me in a flash and for some reason I liked it, even though I have problems with the two halves separately--together they are me.
The phrase “single mom” has always rubbed me the wrong way, and—being brutally honest here—I have never used it once over the past five years—ever—probably because I felt that using it somehow publicly announced a failure on my part. So I have stubbornly refused to describe myself this way. One reason was because of my previously mentioned “failure” announcement feelings. The other reason is a crazy self imposed belief that people would perceive my using it as way of screaming “poor me” while subtly asking for support, or pity, or a pat on the back for “making it work” all alone in the world, and I didn't like thinking that people might assume I needed pity for my “struggle.” My view has always been that everyone has to “make it work” and how you do it has very little to do with a marital/parental status. In fact I may even be struggling less now than during other chapters of my life.
But I love all words because of their beauty as descriptions not labels so I knew I had some thinking to do. Yes—I am a mom; I am unmarried; therefore I am a single mom.
So in the past I resisted, but I’m okay with it now; it describes me, it doesn't label me or define me.
What about single-mindedness? Yes, I’m determined to find my way. I’m devoted to my growth and my child. My interests are happiness, creativity, and love in all the varied forms they show up.
Whoa—what about those related words? Believe it or not this required less inner work than “single mom” did because I accept my truth; I humbly admit to personifying each of those related words at one time or another.
When I am rigid it’s because I’m afraid.
When I am pigheaded it’s because I’m afraid.
When I am bitter, cocksure, or hardened, it’s because I’m afraid.
Each of those results from a much larger fear that rests inside. Excavation, exploration, and honesty are my only tools to provide comfort for these fears. Working with these tools is where I am today. The quest for happiness and joy is my path.
Choosing to be happy takes practice after years of old habits of self-loathing, feeling broken, lost, and inadequate, but it’s possible, and I am “determined” to walk that path of happiness, creativity, and love.
My daughter popped this conversation on me about a month ago and it really made me reflect on my choices while I walk this path, because I want my daughter to walk this path too before her path might harden with inner negativity like mine already had. I know that my choices influence her life by my example and my words. Thinking before I speak is a skill I sometimes forget to use, but thankfully at moments like these I speak slowly and choose my words carefully.
“Is there something you want me to be?”
“What do you mean?”
“Do you want me to be anything?”
“Oh…well…as corny as it sounds, all I really, really want for you is to be happy.”
“Oh c’mon. Parents always want something from their kids. A lawyer, a doctor, or something for them to be in the future.”
My daughter clearly thought I was bullshitting her; although she would never actually say “bullshitting.” She’s not so thrilled to have a sailor for a mom.
“Well, I have to admit when you were younger I wanted…or thought maybe that you would be an artist of some kind because of the way you use your hands and the way you draw. But I've changed my mind—now all I want is for you to be happy. I want you to choose whatever it is that makes you smile. I can tell you what I don’t want though.”
“I don’t ever want you to stay in a job that makes you unhappy. I don’t ever want you to stay in a relationship that makes you sad. I don’t want you to make a choice that feels uncomfortable in your belly. Don’t let anyone make you feel less than you know you are, or stay where you feel unhappy, unloved, or uncomfortable. Long story short—I want you to be happy.”
I wish someone had said this to me when I was eleven.
So I have decided to embrace the title A Single-Minded Single Mom for me and my blog, and I am forever grateful for the phrase making itself known to me.
I’ve noticed that a few of my recent articles have been fairly serious and perhaps a bit heavy and emotional for some visitors. I wouldn’t call them “dark” exactly, but they follow the path of how I explore my reality, my self, and my purpose. I truly do write to learn about myself. It sneaks out through the pencil and then even more during the edits.
It may be comforting to know that I do not sit around in the dark--scotch on the rocks in one hand, cigarette dangling from between my fingertips with a twisted pained expression on my face--mainly because
A) Quality Scotch is not in my budget
B) I quit smoking because of my daughter
C) My face hurts when I do that, and my daughter says, “What are you doing?”
I live a “normal” life and I thought it might be refreshing to share a few random things about me, my thoughts, and my life.
1. Bananas: I recently read that wrapping plastic wrap around the stems helps them last longer. It WORKS! I am a slow banana eater--and NO, I don’t mean in the sexy, erotic, banana eating contest kind of way. It’s just that I buy small bunches, maybe four, but after day two I’m bored and need a break from all that “healthy” and they sit for a day or two. Then by the time I’m in the mood again for a banana they are all aged an soft--damn you metaphor--Yes, I just saw it--me and relationships. I told you; I learn a lot about myself while writing. These metaphors for my life just creep in. I digress. Wrap up the stems and they last longer.
2. Perimenopause: I’m in it. It’s a ride let me tell you. For both me and my daughter. My moods used to be fairly predictable. Normal week—irritated week—over the top, edgy, emotional week—happy week. So yes, I only had about 10-12 good days a month. Now I seem to stand outside my body and watch a Joan Crawford “No more wire hangers!” moment move into Gothel singing “Mother Knows Best” to Rapunzel, which might then switch to Julie Andrews singing “My Favorite Things” for my daughter during a tornado warning. This can all occur within an hour; my daughter just stares at me with this expression I haven’t quite named yet. It’s a mix between “Are you done yet?” and “Why does this keep happening to me?”
3. I signed my daughter up for the swim team because she was so excited about trying it this year--but I haven’t joined the pool yet. Do you think that’s a problem? I'm too embarrassed to call Parks and Recreations to ask.
4. I think I will grow out my bangs and just keep letting my hair grow down to my butt. I hear that once you pass 50 you really don’t give a shit what people think of you. Is that true? I might already be there. Thoughts?
5. I love moss. I also love that single day in spring when everything is that one shade of green that you never see again until the next spring.
6. I love love love The Carol Burnett Show!
I was a quiet obedient child. I would cram into my closet and secretly wish I could visit Mr. Tumnus in Narnia, and when I was alone I would talk to the imaginary studio audience and cameras filming my life as if my every move was on T.V. Back in the 1970’s long before “Reality T.V.” I was the star of my life.
I have found myself on a journey to rediscover that star. There just isn't a “right” way or a “fast” way to get there. So I sit; I write; I have a laugh usually at my own expense. It works for me.
I love noticing the crazy things my mind hangs on to. It’s really my ego that clings to certain notions, but I find watching what “she” does humorous. That’s why I enjoy sharing it. Perhaps we all do this sort of stuff, but understanding how my mind works and processes the difficult days is what makes me tick—and laugh—at myself.
This past month when I fill the coffee maker I keep reflecting on how my mind acted when my husband left—what rules I had for my behavior during that difficult transition. I’m sure my mind has gone here a lot lately because I’ve been thinking a great deal about all my relationships (past, present, and future) and my place within them.
After my husband left I would come home from work and clean the kitchen—a lot. It was the only area of my life at that time that I knew I could control. The very first night I knew he wouldn’t be returning I was very purposeful in my evening coffeemaker preparation. We had this awesome coffeemaker that ground the beans and started brewing before we woke up. Bean grinding had become my alarm clock.
I remember carefully measuring out beans and water for only half the pot. I told myself that there was no way in hell I was going to forget that I was alone and mistakenly make 12 cups—coffee for two. I though the ultimate punch in the gut of loneliness would be to mindlessly pour two mugs of coffee and then realize I was alone. Duh.
I search myself, my past, and my heart for the answer as to why in the world I was so hell bent on not letting myself slip up and fall into “married mode.”
All I know was I think I didn’t want loneliness to sneak up on me and surprise me. I wanted to keep it at bay—controlled—on my terms. Feel lonely at the appropriate Conlee-pre-approved moments—no other times. I had a daughter to take care of after all—her Kindergarten year to finish up—my group of 6th graders to teach—I was too busy to be lonely and stupid enough to forget that he was gone. My ego had it all under control and no amount of coffee could convince me otherwise. I was so funny.
The reality is that loneliness snuck in anyway and ironically—or not—it was usually in the wee hours of the pre-work morning while I drank my coffee—alone. My ego told me that I was okay though because feeling lonely was much easier to handle than forgetting I was alone.
This memory is over five years old and has resurfaced to teach me a lesson. Not about marriage or divorce because just last night the whole gang was here—me, daughter, her dad, his girlfriend (one of my closest friends) all watching Frozen, eating, talking, supporting each other, and laughing—a lot. It’s teaching me that surviving my difficult moments involves looking closely at my feelings and letting myself feel them, but to do that I have to let my ego play along by letting her set some of her ridiculous rules. I’m learning to keep her busy while I explore the new tidal wave of emotions that splash through my mornings over coffee.
Over the past three years I’ve entered a few essay contests. I haven’t won but on a personal level each is a huge victory.
This is another one of my losing essays. I proudly share them here basically for the same reason I write them—it makes me happy and it feels good. This particular prompt was to write about our most courageous moment—and once again my life doesn’t fit into the “all-or-nothing” experience.
I hope you enjoy.
As I look back over my life, it is marked by bravery. Each triumph is very different and more importantly no less brave than the triumph that lived before. I’m certain we each have such milestones. I am inclined to celebrate them equally.
In my first ten years I remember bravely grasping the handlebars of my shiny green bike, charging ahead, determined to ride over that enormous gravel pile left near the new house construction next door.
Bikes and gravel don’t mix—lesson learned.
Knees and palms bloody. I cried.
Ages ten to twenty I buried the secrets of abuse at the hands of people I had trusted. It followed me for years as I navigated life in silent torment.
I am a survivor—lesson learned.
Heart and soul betrayed. I cried.
Years twenty to thirty I watched my mother fight cancer. I sat with her as she spoke of her life, her dreams, and her wishes for my future.
Sometimes all you can do is be fully present for another human being as they retrace their past—lesson learned.
Inner child frightened and lonely. I cried.
Thirty to forty I watched my fifty-nine year old mother take her final breath and I sat for hours with my father in her presence as her soul lifted to heaven. I also had my first and only child six years later that she never got to meet. I was a motherless daughter wanting to call my Mommy and ask questions about my newborn.
Parenting is learn as you go, and you do the best that you can with what you have—lesson learned.
My heart filled with a new kind of love. I cried.
Forty to fifty I calmly watched my husband leave me, and I smiled every day in front of our six year old to show her that she would never have choose between her parents; that she could always be free to think of her Daddy as her Hero. Just like my Daddy is to me. I also left behind a twenty-three year teaching career to begin my own business. It’s not the spectacular success I dreamed it would be.
Sometimes the things you think are going to be so perfect turn out sad and disappointing—lesson learned.
My heart broken and my ego bruised. I cried.
Bravery or the price of being alive? Which is it? I can’t answer that without remembering something my Mom would say to me when I was little and things didn’t go my way, “Into each life some rain must fall,” and today I’m sitting in a torrential downpour. Hell, I’m feeling brave and impressed for just getting out of bed this morning.
Next year I will be fifty. Every day I wake up. I put my feet on the floor and I face the day. I smile as I pack a new 5th grader’s lunch. I know I need to find a new career—well any job really. I call my dad to say “I love you.” I talk to my Mom while I’m folding laundry. I forgive myself for abandoning my inner child, and for failing at a marriage and business. I still hate riding a bike.
Being alone in silence, learning life lessons, knowing when to cry, and knowing how to brush myself off and try again—these are the bravest things any one of us can do when we are given the beauty of another sunrise.
I think my mother was right; to be fully alive is the most courageous thing we do for our soul; rain or shine, but my favorite Longfellow poem this week is Loss and Gain because it is my anthem to bravery and to my decades of courageous living:
Loss and Gain by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
When I compare
What I have lost with what I have gained,
What I have missed with what attained,
Little room do I find for pride.
I am aware
How many days have been idly spent;
How like an arrow the good intent
Has fallen short or been turned aside.
But who shall dare
To measure loss and gain in this wise?
Defeat may be victory in disguise;
The lowest ebb is the turn of the tide.
For me mothering is a non-stop, learn-as-I-go adventure with no one to call for help. My mom died when she was 59. I was 32 and it would be another six years before my daughter Skye was born. I wish they had met.
I remember once sitting on my mom’s lap with my hands wrapped in hers—she looked down and said, “Oh God. These are my mother’s hands.” I didn’t understand the tone of her voice at the time. It was almost a mixture of matter-of-fact sorrow, resignation, and exhaustion. Nearly forty year later I finally understood—completely—as I stood flipping a pancake and there she was--her hand—holding my spatula.
My own reflection even surprises me these days. Sometimes I will pass a window and I will have to do a double take because I think my mom is staring back at me. It makes me laugh.
I am sad sometimes that my mom never got to meet my daughter, but I realize now that her hands have. It’s my mother’s hands I see holding Skye’s hand, or face, or brushing her hair. Folding her granddaughter’s clothes even; it makes me smile.
Mom died with typical regrets of not being a “better mother” no matter how much I would try to convince her otherwise. She did crazy little things that made me feel special. She sewed a box full of Barbie clothes, let me “run away” (to the basement), take apart my bed and put it on the floor, and leave my room a holy mess as long as I shut the door. She also taught me to finger paint on the glass top table, to bake, and how to enjoy summers on the patio.
I’m sorry Mom, but you aren’t remembered for putting me through college, although you did, or for the arguments we had during high school, or for any of those harsh words we may have spoken to each other. You will always be remembered as the woman who set up her own mother’s ancient sewing machine to make teeny tiny jackets, skirts, and dresses for my Barbie. It is all these little things that happened in the course of the days that are my lasting memories of “motherhood”.
Sometimes I even have a dream with my mom in it, and I get to watch her with her granddaughter; her face looks like the mom I had when I was ten—before grey hair, before cancer, before regrets.
As I hold my daughter’s hand I know my mom is here—I see it in my hands. She gets to be a part of Skye’s life by proxy. My hair is now turning grey, and I make mistakes, and Skye’s room is a holy mess, but I try not to have regrets. Thirty years from now, when my daughter notices her hands have started to look like mine, I pray she knows just as I have come to understand, that she has four generations of good hands holding her, guiding her, and loving her—always.
This article originally appeared on May 7, 2013 on The Brown Falcon and each year near Mother's Day it needs to be revisited by me, so here it is :-)
is for Zest
It feels like a hundred years ago, but one Christmas I got a gift from my grandmother wrapped in holiday alphabet paper: A is for Angel, B is for Bedtime, all the way to Z is for Zestful. I memorized that list that year and had my parents quiz me constantly. I recited the list so many times that year waiting for Christmas morning when I could finally unwrap my gift that my mom, dad, and brother also knew the entire list: R is for Rocking Horse; S is for Stocking.
My dad saved that paper and it became a Christmas tradition when the decorations came out to see if we could remember all the letters. My mom used to enjoy this the most. I can still remember her being the first one as the holiday approached to start the list, “A is for Angel…” she’d begin, “Let’s see…B is for…boxes?”
Over the next twenty years as would be expected the paper started to tear so my dad, able to find three A to Z panels, had them framed; one for me, my brother, and Mom. It was always a grand accomplishment if we could all collectively get to Z is for Zestful without any cheating and peeking at the paper.
The best part of still having my forty year old framed wrapping paper is the fact that although my mom died when she was just 59—a mere ten years older than I am today—I can still hear her voice prompting us all, “Let’s see… A is for Angel…” and laughing as we would all compete to see who came up with the next letter/word combo fastest.
So here’s a toast to me, my mom, my memories, and to anyone who has made it from A to Z with me on my 26 Days to Practice Peace for even a portion of the journey. I’m feeling a bit zestful having made new friends through your comments, and I have learned a lot about myself by reading those comments.
This was a wonderful month for me and I owe it to the people in my life and in my comments that helped me learn, grow, and get to this final letter.