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Commencement: A Mother’s Guide to the Extra Stuff

cap tossas seen on mamalode.com

I can never remember if the word “commencement” means beginning or ending. My knee jerk reaction is to think that it means ending, though my writer’s mind quickly corrects it.

That’s probably because graduation ceremonies are called Commencement, and I think of graduation day as an ending– leaving the known behind: a good reputation, dear friends at a stone’s throw, families whose refrigerators and bikes and kitchen tables are yours for the sharing… the dismantling of decorated walls soon to betray you for guests, or someone else with new photo collages, new tapestries, new blue ribbons. I have never been good at leaving the familiar, and I usually mark it with a little hidden graffiti—Laura Munson lived here, and the dates.

But it’s not my turn this upcoming Commencement. It’s my daughter’s. Now it’s she who is dismantling her room, coming down to the end of her check list, five more days of school to go, graduation invitations in the mail, college deposit in, orientation dates in stone. There is a new timber in her voice; something dire. “Mom, can you do something with my Breyer horse collection?”

“Can’t you just leave them on your shelf?” I ask, vignettes reeling by of mock horse races on the lawn and barnyard feedings with tiny plastic apples, and that one coveted palomino paint that became real one Christmas.

“I need room for my stuff.”

“What stuff?”

And then I realize that the stuff that has been strewn all over her room for the last four years of high school actually could have had a home in her bookshelves if we’d been more able (or willing) to pack up her plastic horse collection.  I’m not sure whose job this is. Please Lord, not mine.

I look into her eyes. And I see…it’s my job. Some things are just too hard.

Suddenly, I feel a desperate need to give advice in fast forward. “Have I taught you how to make hospital corners? And to never leave a wet towel on a bed? Or leave a glass directly on wood?”

“I know. Respect the wood. You’ve told me.” She’s tolerating my Mom-ness much more than usual lately. She’s in the bittersweet of Commencement while I am bursting into tears in pathetic public places, like at the bank drive thru, catching myself in the video screen looking miserable. Will her roommate know that when she needs a hug but is too shy to ask, she makes tea? Will she know that she likes to sing in harmony and that all those eye-ball rolls don’t really mean anything? Will she know that she acts street-tough sometimes, but is deeply sensitive and if she’s playing the ukulele along with Jack Johnson, something pretty rough probably happened at school that day?

“Mom, why are you crying?” she says, bringing me back to the grim task of packing up her happy childhood.

“I’m sorry. I’m just going to miss you.”

Last week was when it really hit. I was doing laundry and I heard from her room in that new dire timber, “How do stamps work?”

Stamps? Like postage stamps?”

“Yeah.” This from a 4.0 student.

I went into her room. She was sitting on her bed addressing graduation party invitations. “Really? You can program a computer, but you don’t know how stamps work???”

“My generation doesn’t really use them.”

I was sure she was playing a joke on me. Stamps? But she wasn’t. She really had no clue that you use the same stamp for a local letter that you do for one that goes all the way to New York City.

Geez– what other glaring omissions have there been in my mothering? I’ve tried so hard to fill in every blank, taking every single second possible as a teaching moment. “Maybe I should write you a survival handbook for college and beyond. Would that be helpful?”

“I know all the basic stuff. But yeah…maybe the extra stuff.”

I wracked my brain, taking inventory. The extra stuff. If stamps are “extra” this could get ugly! I decided to do it room by room, compartmentalizing life in cross-section, like the dollhouse we spent hours decorating and playing in.

Kitchen:
I started with How to boil water, tell if pasta is ready, smell a gas leak, turn off the water main…but suddenly it turned into a different kind of “extra.”
• If you’re having a bad day, leave the dishes. But do soak them, or you’ll really be in a bad mood when you get around to cleaning them.
• If you’re having a really bad day, don’t adhere to the utensil slots. Just chuck ‘em all in and let them fall where they may. Actually, if it’s a really bad day, just leave the dishes alone. They can wait.
• No matter what kind of mood you’re in, make yourself a nice meal, especially if you’re lonely.
• Always eat some fruit in the morning and some veggies at some point in the day. Keep bananas, carrots, apples, and potatoes around. They do the trick when you’re not feeling inspired.
• Keep a granola bar in your purse. (Tip: Use only small purses—lest you end up with a Mary Poppins carpet bag, coat rack and all. Read Nora Ephron’s essay on women’s purses.)
• Splurge on really good jam and really good bread.
• Always have a flower or a piece of greenery in a vase on your kitchen windowsill. It really helps.
• If you see evidence of mice, set traps immediately. This probably will not apply to 99% of the places you’ll live, (we live in Montana), so take it metaphorically: See s*** for what it is and get rid of the source before it gets out of control.
• If you use To Do lists, get rid of the word “goal” and replace it with “possibility.” You’ll be nicer to yourself that way.
• If you find yourself writing down something that you’ve already done on a To Do list, just so you can cross it off, you might want to stop making To Do lists.
• Allow yourself to grocery shop without a list, but not when you are hungry. You might surprise yourself by what ends up in your grocery cart—like rhubarb or radishes or kale or pistachios!
• Always smell fish before you buy it. If it smells like fish, it’s no good. Also, look into its eyes. They should be clear. This also applies to boyfriends.
• To cut goat cheese, use dental floss. (Unflavored! Duh. Don’t roll your eyes.)
• To make Deviled Eggs, put boiled eggs into cold water/ice bath. When cool, cut in half, shell ON, with sharp knife, then scoop egg out with spoon. Magic!
• Learn how to make homemade chicken broth. (Ask your mother)

Living room:
• Splurge on nice candles. Light them for yourself daily. Light the not-nice ones for guests. Not the other way around.
• Lie on the couch and do other things than watch TV. Like read a book or listen to classical music.
• Watch old movies. You know…back when people used stamps, and women dressed for travel. There’s a lot to learn from the “olden days.”
• Limit TV.
• Listen to NPR. Especially opera on NPR. Pretty much everything you need to know about life is in operas.
• Make sure to have musical instruments and keep them within eye-range so you’ll actually play them. Guitars and pianos welcome group jam sessions.
• Always have a drum somewhere for that person who claims they “aren’t musical.”
• Have board games and cards in a drawer or on a shelf. Play them. Especially Scrabble, backgammon, gin rummy, Farkle, and Scattagories.
• Have guide books and binoculars. It’s good to know your birds and flowers and other critters. Even in the city, there are hawks.

Bathroom:
• Have nice hand towels and nice soap in your powder room. Your guests should feel special.
• Use your powder room. You should feel special too!
• Always have an extra roll of toilet paper in each bathroom.
• And a plunger. (Replace plungers every-so-often, unless you are the type to wash and disinfect toilet plungers. Dirty secret: I’m not. That’s what the second flush is for.)
• Don’t forget to wash the toilet flusher handle when you wash your toilets. They are dearly overlooked. (Try not to think about that too much in hotel rooms.)
• Put nice art in your bathrooms. And magazines. You can learn a lot about a person from their bathroom.
• Supply room spray.

Bedroom:

Don’t be a slob.  Pick up your clothes.  If they’re not dirty, put them somewhere to wear again during the week, like in a hamper in your closet. NOT on a chair. And definitely NOT on your treadmill. Like your mother. Who then forgets she has a treadmill.
• Wash your sheets at least once a month.
• Splurge on nice sheets and feather pillows.
• If the person/people with whom you are sharing your room snore, make sure you have earplugs by your bed.
• Supply your nightstand with books that you want to read when you grow up: a book of poetry, a spiritual text of some sort, a classic novel, something on the best-seller list that is not written by a celebrity.
• If you eat breakfast in bed, use a tray. Crumbs are worse than bed-bugs in some cases, especially if you’ve listened to your mother and splurged on good bread.
• Eat breakfast in bed, but not lunch or dinner. That means you’re depressed.
• Do not let your dog sleep with you. Or your babies. They need a bed of their own, and so do you.
• Sleep in every-so-often. Like till eleven. This will get harder and harder the older you get.

Closet:
• You’re on your own on this one, but do get nice hangers if possible.
• Oh, and do accept that your “skinny” clothes are probably a thing of the past if you haven’t been able to fit into them for a few years…

Office:

Virginia Woolf was right—you need a room of your own, even it’s in an eave, or a closet under a stairway, or (if you’re lucky enough) a whole studio over your garage, or an unoccupied bedroom, or a renovated garden shed.  Claim space for yourself!

• Don’t allow people to come and go without knocking.
• If you have children, always have an available chair in it for them. It’s important to have your own space, but it’s also important that they know that your work does not take away your motherhood.
• This one is really really important: Whatever it is that you do in that office, whether it’s a vocation or avocation, make sure it’s something you love. NOT something that you are necessarily good at. If you happen to be good at what you love, then that’s a bonus, but not a rule!

Outside:
• Have a communal outdoor space that feels like a room in your house, but isn’t exactly…like: A screened porch, fire escape, hammock, hot tub, front stoop, garden or terrace. It doesn’t have to be big. Just a place where you sit at least once every few days and dream a little.

A few extra extras:
• Write handwritten notes on nice stationary to people you love. That’s where the stamp comes in…
• Try not to kill bugs. If they’re inside, put a mason jar over them and take them outside. They do elegant things like lick the wax off the peony buds so that they can bloom. (I’m sure there’s a metaphor in there.) (Mice are a different story. If you’ve had one die in the walls, you’ll know what I mean.)
• Practice Yes and Possibility instead of No and Not Possible. Positive begets positive and negative begets negative. You don’t want the latter.
• Have fun, for crying out loud! Life is beautiful and heartbreaking any way you slice it so you might as well enjoy the ride!
• There is no such thing as cool.
• Judge not.
• Don’t mistake a full schedule for a full life. If you find yourself saying, “There’s never a dull moment,” you should probably make it a goal to have at least one “dull moment” every day.
• Take walks. (especially in the rain)
• Sing.
• Dance.
• Read poetry.
• Have dogs.
• Grow a garden.
• Travel.
• Create the sacred wherever you are.
• Be kind to old people and remember they know a lot more than you do. Ask them to tell you their stories.
• Know that there are saints everywhere. Look for them. They’re often where you least expect it.
Call your mother. Texting is a challenge since she can never find her reading glasses. Plus, she likes to hear your voice. It reminds her of lying in bed with you when you were little, reading books, singing, praying, watching the moon, dreaming. And she loves you no matter what, which is hard to find.
DRINK WATER

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Commencement Speech– David Foster Wallace

I love this bit of genius. It’s all in how we look at things…
RIP, DFW.

Commencement, Kenyon College. 2005

(reproduced from the Wallstreet Journal)

There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys, how’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”

If at this moment, you’re worried that I plan to present myself here as the wise old fish explaining what water is to you younger fish, please don’t be. I am not the wise old fish. The immediate point of the fish story is that the most obvious, ubiquitous, important realities are often the ones that are the hardest to see and talk about. Stated as an English sentence, of course, this is just a banal platitude — but the fact is that, in the day-to-day trenches of adult existence, banal platitudes can have life-or-death importance. That may sound like hyperbole, or abstract nonsense.

A huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded. Here’s one example of the utter wrongness of something I tend to be automatically sure of: Everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe, the realest, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely talk about this sort of natural, basic self-centeredness, because it’s so socially repulsive, but it’s pretty much the same for all of us, deep down. It is our default-setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth. Think about it: There is no experience you’ve had that you were not at the absolute center of. The world as you experience it is right there in front of you, or behind you, to the left or right of you, on your TV, or your monitor, or whatever. Other people’s thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real — you get the idea. But please don’t worry that I’m getting ready to preach to you about compassion or other-directedness or the so-called “virtues.” This is not a matter of virtue — it’s a matter of my choosing to do the work of somehow altering or getting free of my natural, hard-wired default-setting, which is to be deeply and literally self-centered, and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self.

People who can adjust their natural default-setting this way are often described as being “well adjusted,” which I suggest to you is not an accidental term.
Given the triumphal academic setting here, an obvious question is how much of this work of adjusting our default-setting involves actual knowledge or intellect. This question gets tricky. Probably the most dangerous thing about college education, at least in my own case, is that it enables my tendency to over-intellectualize stuff, to get lost in abstract arguments inside my head instead of simply paying attention to what’s going on right in front of me. Paying attention to what’s going on inside me. As I’m sure you guys know by now, it is extremely difficult to stay alert and attentive instead of getting hypnotized by the constant monologue inside your own head. Twenty years after my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand that the liberal-arts cliché about “teaching you how to think” is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: “Learning how to think” really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed. Think of the old cliché about “the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master.” This, like many clichés, so lame and unexciting on the surface, actually expresses a great and terrible truth. It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide with firearms almost always shoot themselves in the head. And the truth is that most of these suicides are actually dead long before they pull the trigger. And I submit that this is what the real, no-bull- value of your liberal-arts education is supposed to be about: How to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default-setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone, day in and day out.

That may sound like hyperbole, or abstract nonsense. So let’s get concrete. The plain fact is that you graduating seniors do not yet have any clue what “day in, day out” really means. There happen to be whole large parts of adult American life that nobody talks about in commencement speeches. One such part involves boredom, routine, and petty frustration. The parents and older folks here will know all too well what I’m talking about.

By way of example, let’s say it’s an average day, and you get up in the morning, go to your challenging job, and you work hard for nine or ten hours, and at the end of the day you’re tired, and you’re stressed out, and all you want is to go home and have a good supper and maybe unwind for a couple of hours and then hit the rack early because you have to get up the next day and do it all again. But then you remember there’s no food at home — you haven’t had time to shop this week, because of your challenging job — and so now after work you have to get in your car and drive to the supermarket. It’s the end of the workday, and the traffic’s very bad, so getting to the store takes way longer than it should, and when you finally get there the supermarket is very crowded, because of course it’s the time of day when all the other people with jobs also try to squeeze in some grocery shopping, and the store’s hideously, fluorescently lit, and infused with soul-killing Muzak or corporate pop, and it’s pretty much the last place you want to be, but you can’t just get in and quickly out: You have to wander all over the huge, overlit store’s crowded aisles to find the stuff you want, and you have to maneuver your junky cart through all these other tired, hurried people with carts, and of course there are also the glacially slow old people and the spacey people and the ADHD kids who all block the aisle and you have to grit your teeth and try to be polite as you ask them to let you by, and eventually, finally, you get all your supper supplies, except now it turns out there aren’t enough checkout lanes open even though it’s the end-of-the-day-rush, so the checkout line is incredibly long, which is stupid and infuriating, but you can’t take your fury out on the frantic lady working the register.

Anyway, you finally get to the checkout line’s front, and pay for your food, and wait to get your check or card authenticated by a machine, and then get told to “Have a nice day” in a voice that is the absolute voice of death, and then you have to take your creepy flimsy plastic bags of groceries in your cart through the crowded, bumpy, littery parking lot, and try to load the bags in your car in such a way that everything doesn’t fall out of the bags and roll around in the trunk on the way home, and then you have to drive all the way home through slow, heavy, SUV-intensive rush-hour traffic, etcetera, etcetera.

The point is that petty, frustrating crap like this is exactly where the work of choosing comes in. Because the traffic jams and crowded aisles and long checkout lines give me time to think, and if I don’t make a conscious decision about how to think and what to pay attention to, I’m going to be pissed and miserable every time I have to food-shop, because my natural default-setting is the certainty that situations like this are really all about me, about my hungriness and my fatigue and my desire to just get home, and it’s going to seem, for all the world, like everybody else is just in my way, and who are all these people in my way? And look at how repulsive most of them are and how stupid and cow-like and dead-eyed and nonhuman they seem here in the checkout line, or at how annoying and rude it is that people are talking loudly on cell phones in the middle of the line, and look at how deeply unfair this is: I’ve worked really hard all day and I’m starved and tired and I can’t even get home to eat and unwind because of all these stupid g-d- people.

Or, of course, if I’m in a more socially conscious form of my default-setting, I can spend time in the end-of-the-day traffic jam being angry and disgusted at all the huge, stupid, lane-blocking SUV’s and Hummers and V-12 pickup trucks burning their wasteful, selfish, forty-gallon tanks of gas, and I can dwell on the fact that the patriotic or religious bumper stickers always seem to be on the biggest, most disgustingly selfish vehicles driven by the ugliest, most inconsiderate and aggressive drivers, who are usually talking on cell phones as they cut people off in order to get just twenty stupid feet ahead in a traffic jam, and I can think about how our children’s children will despise us for wasting all the future’s fuel and probably screwing up the climate, and how spoiled and stupid and disgusting we all are, and how it all just sucks, and so on and so forth…

Look, if I choose to think this way, fine, lots of us do — except that thinking this way tends to be so easy and automatic it doesn’t have to be a choice. Thinking this way is my natural default-setting. It’s the automatic, unconscious way that I experience the boring, frustrating, crowded parts of adult life when I’m operating on the automatic, unconscious belief that I am the center of the world and that my immediate needs and feelings are what should determine the world’s priorities. The thing is that there are obviously different ways to think about these kinds of situations. In this traffic, all these vehicles stuck and idling in my way: It’s not impossible that some of these people in SUV’s have been in horrible auto accidents in the past and now find driving so traumatic that their therapist has all but ordered them to get a huge, heavy SUV so they can feel safe enough to drive; or that the Hummer that just cut me off is maybe being driven by a father whose little child is hurt or sick in the seat next to him, and he’s trying to rush to the hospital, and he’s in a way bigger, more legitimate hurry than I am — it is actually I who am in his way. Or I can choose to force myself to consider the likelihood that everyone else in the supermarket’s checkout line is just as bored and frustrated as I am, and that some of these people probably have much harder, more tedious or painful lives than I do, overall.

Again, please don’t think that I’m giving you moral advice, or that I’m saying you’re “supposed to” think this way, or that anyone expects you to just automatically do it, because it’s hard, it takes will and mental effort, and if you’re like me, some days you won’t be able to do it, or you just flat-out won’t want to. But most days, if you’re aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-lady who just screamed at her little child in the checkout line — maybe she’s not usually like this; maybe she’s been up three straight nights holding the hand of her husband who’s dying of bone cancer, or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the Motor Vehicles Dept. who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a nightmarish red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. Of course, none of this is likely, but it’s also not impossible — it just depends on what you want to consider. If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is and who and what is really important — if you want to operate on your default-setting — then you, like me, will not consider possibilities that aren’t pointless and annoying. But if you’ve really learned how to think, how to pay attention, then you will know you have other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, loud, slow, consumer-hell-type situation as not only meaningful but sacred, on fire with the same force that lit the stars — compassion, love, the sub-surface unity of all things. Not that that mystical stuff’s necessarily true: The only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re going to try to see it. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t. You get to decide what to worship…

Because here’s something else that’s true. In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of God or spiritual-type thing to worship — be it J.C. or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some infrangible set of ethical principles — is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things — if they are where you tap real meaning in life — then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you. On one level, we all know this stuff already — it’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, bromides, epigrams, parables: the skeleton of every great story. The trick is keeping the truth up-front in daily consciousness. Worship power — you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart — you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. And so on.

Look, the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful; it is that they are unconscious. They are default-settings. They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing. And the world will not discourage you from operating on your default-settings, because the world of men and money and power hums along quite nicely on the fuel of fear and contempt and frustration and craving and the worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom to be lords of our own tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talked about in the great outside world of winning and achieving and displaying. The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default-setting, the “rat race” — the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing.

I know that this stuff probably doesn’t sound fun and breezy or grandly inspirational. What it is, so far as I can see, is the truth with a whole lot of rhetorical bullshit pared away. Obviously, you can think of it whatever you wish. But please don’t dismiss it as some finger-wagging Dr. Laura sermon. None of this is about morality, or religion, or dogma, or big fancy questions of life after death. The capital-T Truth is about life before death. It is about making it to 30, or maybe 50, without wanting to shoot yourself in the head. It is about simple awareness — awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, that we have to keep reminding ourselves, over and over: “This is water, this is water.”

It is unimaginably hard to do this, to stay conscious and alive, day in and day out.

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