Take a Hike

Last week I piled the kids into the minivan for a simple mission to buy water socks. We pulled into the parking lot of the flagship Seattle store of REI, the retail outdoor mecca. The front doors of the building are supersized and opened by gripping ice axe-shaped handles that create the mood for adventure. The grand, oversized entrance is flanked by a gurgling brook and Swiss-style clocks with time zones named for famous mountain peaks like Denali and Everest. Upon entering REI, one is greeted by a giant rock-climbing wall and 20-foot glossy photos of fit, tan and well-outfitted men and women frolicking effortlessly through perilous mountain passes and white water rapids.

While my outdoor ambitions are much more modest–after all I grew up in Southern California, where the L.A. river is actually a concrete flood-control channel –I was nonetheless inspired. As a young girl I got my wilderness fix each summer from Girl Scout camp, a few family trips to Lake Arrowhead and reading Jack London novels. Now, living in Seattle I have plentiful access to the real thing. Summer is in and school is out and filling my lungs with the sweet scent of the forest floor is on my mind.

Who would not be tempted to fill a water bottle and head out for a trip when surrounded by inviting trail names such as the Wonderland Trail, Enchantment Lakes and Chocolate Gulch?IRJ mountans

 

Nothing renews me more completely than communing with nature. It doesn’t need to be an extreme adventure to make me happy, but I enjoy it most when hiking with friends. A four-hour getaway can do wonders. What I love best about hiking is:

1. Being off-line: The beauty of being in the woods is that even if I am carrying a cell phone for emergencies, it most likely won’t work, which is a huge positive. I can be at one with nature rather than my smart phone. Cell phone conversations would also garner grave stares from fellow hikers.

2. The scenery: The vastness of nature is a conundrum. On the one hand it makes us feel small in the continuum of space and time. On the other hand, it makes me feel a part of something much bigger. Perhaps this is the Zen of hiking.

3. The rewarding workout: Hiking with friends is social and enjoyable. It is exercise with visual rewards that change with the time of day and the seasons.

4. The gear: I’ll admit I love to wear my insulated, seemless, ventilated, partially zipped, lightweight “summer berry” raincoat that folds up into the size of a napkin.

5. The smell: No household pine-fresh cleaner is a match for Mother Nature.

6. Long talks without interruption: Unlike having coffee or a drink with a pal, out in the woods there are absolutely zero interruptions. Not a waiter, not a phone call, not a single city noise to divert attention. Whether it is idle conversation or deep thoughts it is complete focused friend time.

I am eager to go and looking forward to my upcoming mini-breaks. Take a hike, too, and then tell us about it.

–  Carol Lewis Gullstad, 27 June 2011
PermissionSlips1@gmail.com

On Fathers and Father Figures

One Saturday morning a few years back, my husband looked dejected as he nursed his thick-as-mud coffee. When I asked what was wrong, he explained that the prior night, when he had entered #1 Son’s room to “chat” at 11:00, he had received the cold shoulder.

“Wouldn’t you have reacted the same way when you were 16?” I asked.

“Yes, but things were different then,” he said.

What ensued was a conversation about how “things” really aren’t different now, and very few 16-year-old boys would welcome the opportunity to “rap” (the old definition) with their dads late at night. It has been that way since the Stone Age.

Most teenagers need just one adult – and preferably a non-family member – to turn to for guidance and advice. The Big Brothers/Big Sisters organization understands this concept, as do youth group programs world-wide.

I’m grateful that my own kids have other caring adults in their lives, and, as my youth-group’s reunion draws near, I’m grateful that I had similar influences.

For my first son, great mentoring has come from coaches who understood how to channel his considerable energy and provide guidance regarding life priorities. Whenever I see Coach Mac, who led the select baseball team for four years, I’m filled with gratitude for his role in my son’s growth. Stephanie, a patient, kind and brilliant fifth-grade teacher, recognized and encouraged my son’s academic strengths, and helped turn him into the confident college-bound student he is today.

Young Life leaders play a critical role in my second son’s life. They have provided a safe community in which he can develop as a young adult. High school girls often show up at the female leader’s doorstep at night to discuss boy trouble, and I’m sure that my son asks the male leaders about faith, parties, relationships and sports.

My third son is fortunate that a cool 30-something Ferrari-lover lives down the road; he is always willing to share his knowledge about gears and wheels, as well as his time. My daughter will probably turn to her dance-studio owner for boy-talk and mentoring in the future; I know the older dance-company members do.

In this day and age, with religious leaders regularly crossing the line of appropriate behavior with young people, and even some teachers making foolish choices (remember Mary Kay Letourneau and her 13-year-old student-lover?), it’s understandable that some parents would fear or bar mentoring relationships. However, they could be closing the door to critical positive influences.

So, in the aftermath of another Father’s Day, let’s remember to support and celebrate the “father figures” and stand-in moms who impact our children’s lives:

– The coach who gives your awkward, growing-too-fast child the courage and confidence to keep trying;

– The teacher who assures your daughter that although the words are spelled incorrectly, the story reads beautifully;

– The neighbor who gives your child his first work experience through yard work or child care, and praises him for being on time and cleaning up;

– The former babysitter who comes back to visit your kids during college breaks, and asks questions about their lives;

– The youth group adviser who so freely gives his time, simply because he cares about kids.

I’m so glad that my own parents enabled my relationships with adult mentors, especially Marge and Hortie Kellogg, who helped guide me and hundreds of others through high school. My parents never questioned our youth-group activities or the leaders’ intentions. They never seemed jealous of the time I spent talking with other adults, and didn’t pry into my personal life.

My relationship with my parents was fine, but I don’t recall confiding in them; instead, I leaned on Hortie and Marge, who offered consistency, support and wisdom during the confusing yet exciting teen years. They led youth-group meetings several times a week, chaperoned three weekend retreats a year, accompanied groups on week-long summer service projects and kept their doors and hearts open at all times for one-on-one discussions.

On snow days and other school breaks, groups of us would take the “el” train downtown Chicago and head to Marshall Field’s, where Hortie worked, for impromptu visits. He always stopped whatever he was doing to meet with us, and occasionally treated us to Frango-Mint Pie in the store’s café.

Hortie and Marge’s influence and availability meant so much to me, and established a model for my own parenting. I may be a few decades late, but I plan to thank them at next week’s reunion.

-Linda Williams Rorem, 20 June 2011
PermissionSlips1@gmail.com

The Graduate

The Graduates

This past week my oldest child received her high school diploma. The graduation ceremony took place in a large event center where the scale of the building seemed to emphasize the milestone nature of the function. The cavernous space was filled with over 2,000 proud parents, giddy graduates and grandparents, cousins, aunts, uncles, friends and just enough school administrators and faculty to hold it all together.  

With nearly 2.9 million graduating high school in the U. S. this year, this type of formal ceremony is one of the rare universal American experiences. I pondered the complete egalitarian nature of the affair as it takes place in dense cities, rural settings and remote locales from May until June. The occasion and the multi-generational milieu provided a great opportunity for reflection as I sat in my seat.   

High school is really the demarcation of a hard line. The story of the individual becomes less entwined with the narrative of the family and marks the beginning of an independent tale. Perhaps this explains the bittersweet nature of graduations for parents.

In his commencement address at Rice University in May New York Times columnist David Brooks said, “I don’t believe we fully exist until our story is well under way. That is, I don’t believe we are people who then form relationships and set off on journeys through life. I think the journey and the relationships come first and our personhood emerges slowly over decades out of them.”

Thus, I was left to reconcile the genuine excitement I had for the emergence of my daughter’s life adventure and my own letting go. The 18 years of “heavy lifting” in my role as mother was essentially done. Not that I won’t have some measurable impact on my young adult’s development going forward, but it will be on her timetable, not mine.

This led to serious self cross-examination.

“Did I tell her everything she needs to know?”  

“No.”

“Will she make good decisions?”

“Most of the time.”

“Will she make mistakes and learn from them?”

“Yes.”

“Will she be able to pick herself up from life’s highs and lows and be happy?”

“I hope so.”

Perhaps high school graduation should also require a promotion ceremony for parents. As one dear friend counseled me, “Your relationship with your daughter will definitely change. You will miss some things terribly but you will also gain great things you never thought possible.”

Realizing time is of the essence; my goal in the remaining months before she departs for college is to impart some final pearls of wisdom to ensure that she is happy in life:

  1. Prioritize the relationships of family and friends.
  2. Find a grander purpose for greater fulfillment and meaning.
  3. Be your authentic self.
  4. Perseverance can be your greatest asset.

Or perhaps I should just simplify the message: “Do your best, we will always be proud of you.”

Carol Lewis Gullstad

June 13, 2011

permissionslips@gmail.com

The Kids are Alright

With graduation festivities underway for three of my kids (high school, middle school and fifth grade), I’m hearing and reading a lot about exceptional kids. Countless awards ceremonies honor those with impeccable grades, sky-high test scores, super-human athletic skills, artistic and musical talent, big ideas for saving the planet and indefatigable drive.

My brood won’t revel in the spotlight this week.

Now, let me assure you that this post will not taste of sour grapes, nor will it serve as an apology for my parenting skills (or lack thereof). It’s simply an acknowledgement that my kids are not considered superstars, and that’s okay. They are going to do just fine in life and I love them dearly.

An early clue came when one of my sons, back in second or third grade, needed to make a puppet based on a book he had read. He chose Mr. Popper’s Penguins, and completed the project without my involvement. 

A few weeks later, during a school event, I noticed the puppets displayed outside my son’s classroom.  The creations were truly amazing: intricate marionettes, papier-mâché characters, wood creations with working joints, dolls wearing machine-stitched costumes and elaborate felt-and-google-eyed creatures.  I was stunned by the parents’, I mean the kids’, assignments.

Then I spotted my own son’s creation: a tube sock with Sharpie-drawn “details” and an orange, construction-paper beak. His work definitely stood out.

Back at home, I asked my son about the project.

 “How did you feel about your work?”

“Good!”

“Did you think your work was the same caliber as your classmates’?”

“Yes!”

“Did you do the best you could?”

“Yes, Mom, I always do.”

And that’s when I knew for sure that I was raising “good-enough” kids.

A few months back, Parent Map magazine asked me to write about kids who aren’t super-driven or hyper-focused. Experts asserted that it’s okay for children to dabble in a variety of activities when they’re young; they said it’s actually harmful for kids to concentrate on just one sport or activity, unless they exhibit preternatural talent at an early age.

Less than one percent of them will use their athletic or artistic abilities for college scholarships and professional careers, I learned.

However, while researching the article, I ran across that oft-quoted statistic: 85 percent of parents believe their children are above average. (Do the math…)

I think we’re all predisposed to believe our kids are amazing.  We witness their development from tiny, rapidly dividing eggs to fully developed humans with toenails and eyelashes.  And then, under our tutelage, they begin to smile, roll over, sit up, take their first steps and process language. They are incredible!

We watch them learn to ride two-wheelers, swim across pools, ski black-diamond slopes and perhaps dance in toe shoes, make jump-shots or hit home-runs.

And then, in school, our children memorize math formulas, sections of the Gettysburg Address, rules for subjunctive verbs and the Periodic Table. We marvel at their minds, because we remember when they couldn’t even speak.

The danger arises when we believe we’re responsible for their abilities and achievements.  A good friend advised me many years ago: “If you don’t take too much credit for your kids’ successes, you won’t have to take the blame for their failures.”  I have definitely had occasion to appreciate that advice.

In my opinion, the kids who are truly spectacular have something extra inside, a certain je ne sais quoi propelling them. Parents can push all they want, but the kid who’s going to play for the Yankees, compete in the Olympics, resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, cure cancer or bring drinking water to the Sahara is probably exceptional from the get-go.  

Some of the best baseball and basketball players honed their skills on playgrounds, without private coaches, athletic trainers and $150 shoes. Some of you may recall that Zola Budd made it to the Olympics without super-cushioned Nikes; she ran barefoot.  As an Ivy League basketball recruiter I met on a plane once explained, “I try to stay away from communities with three-car garages.  I look for the kids who walked to the park every day for scrappy pickup games.”

That being said, truly extraordinary kids definitely benefit from strong emotional support, mentors and financial backing. After all, someone had to give Taylor Swift a guitar, sew sequins on Brian Boitano’s figure-skating outfits and pay for Justin Bieber’s haircuts.

My kids may be capable of greatness in the future; they started life with sharp minds, strong bodies, attractive faces, natural charm, stable families and supportive communities. If and when they set their sights on success, they may soar. 

For now, I am content with four “above average” kids who get good, not perfect, grades, who participate in, but don’t star on, sports teams, and who will all move on to the next grade in the fall.

Perhaps most important, my children are happy.  They have plenty of friends and the resources to participate in activities they enjoy. They smile more than they frown, make people laugh, work and play hard, demonstrate empathy, take pleasure in good deeds and tell me they love me every day.

So, while my kids won’t win any awards this week, they’ll always be superstars in my heart.  To paraphrase The Who: My kids are alright.

–          Linda Williams Rorem, 6 June 2011
PermissionSlips1@gmail.com

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