The motionless dragon in deep waters becomes the prey of the crabs.
– A fortune in a cookie in Valeria Luiselli’s The Story of My Teeth
My mother is taking a Spanish class. This is her retirement. She also teaches ESL several days a week and is active in two book clubs. Each spring, with a gaggle of bibliophiles, she travels to the UK for a mystery writers’ conference. She goes to church, putters in the garden, cooks a meal almost every evening to share with my dad, and shows up at Bug’s school events. She even pops by my house to give Noodle a daily walk while I’m at work.
All of this, and now Spanish.
“I need to do something to keep from being bored,” she says.
In all seriousness. Bored.
Now twice a week, she jets over to the community college to sit in a class with a bunch of undergrads and learns to conjugate haber, tener, estar, ir.
Retirement is still a baffling new chapter in her life. Her own mother passed away a little over a year ago. She has no crises to pull her into action, no daily demands. It’s a change, and it’s disorienting.
My mother has her ways. When she is unmoored, uncertain, or just plain bored, this is her default.
I would love to join her in that Spanish class. Someday? Perhaps, but we won’t bank on it. By the time I retire, it will be too late to practice with her.
Here I am now over the finish line of my nine days with the kiddo. I am catching up at the office. He is off in the Midwest with his big-kid-Grandpa, cannonballing into the pool and cruising to the ice cream shop on his borrowed bike. As I catch my breath here, I am, like my mother, unmoored. Uncertain. Not bored — it’s hard to imagine that — but a little uneasy.
Also determined to make a change.
During nine day stay-cation my son and I spent together, the scope of our dysfunction was bright as razors. Yes, yes, it’s true we played hard. We covered the water park, the neighborhood park, the state park. He helped cook dinner. Cuddling at bedtime, we wound our way through dark magic to the end of Hoodoo. He mastered backgammon on his second shot and creamed me on his third. I wasn’t even letting him win.
Also, we fought.
Angry, spiteful, name-calling battles punctuated our days. In my attempts to keep us moving forward through the week, I announced the schedule rather than including him in the plans. Is it any wonder he resisted going pretty much anyplace at all? (Unless, of course, that place featured cheeseburgers or video games.)
In the face of my boy’s cold refusal to board my train, I screeched and roared and blasted hot steam. The old helpless rage rose up in me and I let it take over far too many times. Even having banked enough sleep, even without the pressures of the office — my usual excuses for a short temper — my reactions were sloppy. They intensified the friction and multiplied the stress.
My family dynamic is a motionless dragon. Our patterns are stuck in one place while growth and circumstances course past us. The waters are deep. We are being devoured.
My boy deserves better. Our family can do better.
As I’ve written here a number of times before, I have no idea how to proceed. It doesn’t matter. The only choice choice is to proceed anyway.
I am my mother’s daughter, of course.
So I will learn.
Parenting with Love and Logic is the first of the books I’ve cracked open. While its Christian flavor is a bit heavy for my taste, it comes recommended by several folks with admirably healthy families. The first few chapters were a cold shower. I already knew that much of what happens in our home models and reinforces the very behaviors that put my boy at risk for poor choices down the line. I knew. . . but this lens helps me see the picture in precise detail.
Adults must set firm, loving limits using enforceable statements without showing anger, lecturing, or using threats.
– Foster Cline and Jim Fay, Parenting with Love and Logic
The L&L approach is only one among many. Nevertheless, as I read, I try to work the concepts into my lexicon, to carry the statements from page to voice.
Meanwhile, my mother sits in her dining room reciting her vocabulary. Learning requires far more than reading. It is also observing. It is practicing, then failing and reflecting. My mother listens to audio and perfects her pronunciation. I pay attention to the families around me. At the pool, how are those moms speaking with their kids? How are the dads playing? What questions do they ask?
Learning is also showing up ready for change. While my mother was at her class yesterday, I called my son’s dad. He and I worked out a couple of unfinished details of the summer schedule. With a clear path, I am now registered for an intensive parenting course with the PEP program. This is a win. PEP’s values resonate with mine. Less dogmatic, more loving. While the class is ain’t cheap — I dropped nearly $300 for two daylong sessions — any improvement is worth ten times the price.
My son will be off on his own adventures for seven of the next nine weeks of summer. Earlier this year, when this open season was resolving into focus, bright images danced through me. What would I do with this vast swath of time, what goals would I achieve? I might join with others and build on momentum to stand up for racial and economic justice. Or maybe I’d offer a voice of sustainable sanity at the regional I-66 development hearings. Could I could drop into the local MakerSpace and figure out how to cobble together my dream green lunchbox using a 3-D printer? Or maybe write that piece on improving graduate education access for first-generation students?
Or I might take up piano again. Show up at a Bachata class. Oganize a cookout in my neighborhood.
Or learn Spanish.
But that’s for another summer.
Now, my way forward is clear. This deep dive into healing family relationships, this is my Spanish. It is also an unmooring all its own. I take hold of the dragon where it’s planted in the muck. I shake loose the crabs, I pull her free.
Now we learn to swim.
Image: Christina Yen, “Eternal Spring” at Sixth Leaf Clover