Grappling with life through the lens of a college-visit tour

Photo by Constante Ken Lim on Unsplash

When I don’t write, days slide by all a-jumble. At first, it’s somewhat manageable. I can track and remember what’s going on, what’s “up,” if you will. What I’m noticing, what moves me. In my head, I keep an informal list of rough ideas to write about.

Then, work subsumes me. At least, that’s what I tell myself.

The truth is that if I were more disciplined, more confident, ambitious — more ferocious, determined, dedicated — I would write every day. Nothing would stop me.

I do write most days in my journal. But, my effort there is so lazy and so pidgin that I don’t count it as writing. My handwriting is cramped and spidery. I can barely hold a pen. After two pages, my shoulder aches.

No one ever told me that the reason to do your best work in your twenties and thirties and maybe early forties is because physical pain begins to curtail effort.

It’s difficult to work all day at a desk, commute up to three hours round-trip a day, and then sit down again at home to write. I can’t bear it. My body cries out for relief, and I go walking or get on the floor to stretch. Or collapse on my bed. On good days, I go dancing.

Once a goodly number of days has accumulated without writing, life becomes a blur. I begin to stumble through my days, semi-conscious.

Yesterday, I staggered into my bedroom after arriving home. Bright, late-March early evening sunshine flooded my room. I lacked energy even to shut the curtains. I collapsed on the bed, pulled the covers over me, draped a sock over my eyes from the clean laundry pile beside me, and slept for an hour.

I titled this post “Through-line.” That’s because I’m trying to find it, the elusive gold thread that runs through my story, my life story. What is it I notice? What is it I want to communicate? What is it I can’t help but notice and communicate?

Sometimes — most often, in fact — it’s simply the most recent thing.

So, it’s the little bird I will write about now. The little bird I encountered on a cold Berkeley, California street this morning, tucked defensively into a concrete corner of an alcove of a big building. The bird huddled in the corner of what has become an altar for the five Irish students that fell to their deaths from a crumbling balcony a few years ago.

The altar has been carefully tended ever since. This morning, I noticed that the names of the victims painted on the sidewalk had been covered by a small round nylon mini-umbrella of sorts to protect the lettering from the week’s rains. Candles, flowers, and photos of the victims decorated the altar.

I watched the panicked bird. Each time it tried to fly, it rose about three feet into the air, then plummeted back to earth, wings ruffled and bedraggled. I looked up to see if I could spot a nest.

A girl stopped beside me. She had red hair and wore headphones. “Aww,” she said. “I think it’s a baby. Did it fall from a nest?”

“I know,” I said. “I was just looking for that. I’m not sure, it’s kind of a big baby…”

After a pause, I said, “What kind of bird is it, anyway? I’m not sure… Could it be a chicken?”

The girl laughed and said, “No. Definitely not a chicken. Maybe a penguin.”

We watched the bird for a while longer as it beat its wings against the concrete and descended again, then began to stumble along the wall one wing drooping on the pavement.

I said, “Thanks for stopping and commiserating.” I walked to my car. The girl continued on to school.

My daughter and I are traveling to Los Angeles next week. We’re visiting colleges, something I didn’t do with my son and didn’t do with my parents. It will be a first for me.

I’m being tested. By myself, by the universe, by my daughter.

We’re visiting Claremont McKenna, Pomona, USC, Loyola Marymount, UCLA, UC Santa Barbara, and Cal Arts. My task is to find our way to these seven schools smartly, without waiting in traffic for hours. To get us to our appointments, to remain calm, to inject a little fun along the way, to manage my anxiety.

My task is to notice and remove, time and time again, the chip on my shoulder at these places. To notice, and contend with, my anxiety as I process and try to maneuver through the enormity of this vacation for me and my daughter. To not become sarcastic and aggrieved when I hear a four-year UC education now costs $140,000.

My task is to forgive myself for the times I’ve failed my daughter, to make it up to her in our time together.

Yet, my task is also to be tough, in a sense.

My son tells me, and my daughter has said this herself recently, that I’ve coddled my daughter. That I baby her. That I over-protect her.

Yet, how can this be so, when I’ve pushed her harder than she wants to be pushed more than once. I think now of the time I literally pushed her out the cabin door at Tahoe Meadows a couple of summers back to attend “Teen Night.” She didn’t want to go. She fought me.

I wouldn’t take no for an answer.

I said I was tired of her holing herself up in her room on her phone, that she needed to meet other teens and hang out, that it was unnatural for her not to want to do that.

She left in a huff, eyes blazing.

She was back 45 minutes later.

What happened, I asked.

She glared at me and said, “What do you want, mom? Do you want me to smoke pot, get drunk, and get pregnant? Is that what you want?”

Obviously, I said no. Chagrined, I apologized. But later, I decided I’d been manipulated. I wished I had thought to say, you know, you can perambulate with other teens without descending to those depths.

You’re a helicopter parent, mom, my daughter tells me.

Yet, how can this be, when I’m pushing her out, and she’s digging her heels in?

Why do I feel like I’m doing too much and too little at the same time?

Next week will be about navigating this terrain.

How do I empower my daughter, and support her?

I need to walk this line, tread this balance of pushing her to claim her own victories, yet set her up for success.

Why was it me that made all the appointments with the admissions offices, for example?

Was that helpful? Or hurtful?

Why are we even visiting colleges, when it’s become a world of privilege that I am not familiar with, that I did not come from.

Is it helpful, or hurtful, for my daughter?

I told my daughter today, if you’re not studying for the SAT yet, if you’re not looking at colleges yet, immersing yourself in this process, if I’m the one doing it, I think we can safely assume you’re not interested in going to college.

I have no intention of spending thousands of dollars so you can go to parties or hang out on the beach.

If that’s what this is about, you can take a gap year and work and think about why you might want to go to college.

I’m casting about, much like that poor bird against the side of the building this morning.

The trip feels freighted to me. Important. An opportunity to forge memories. Mother-daughter memories. That scares me. Her need, her love for me, scare me. Her fragility scares me. My responsibility in helping her become scares me.

It’s not about her and me, of course. The jumble of complicated feelings is about me and my mother, long unresolved feelings around our relationship, or lack thereof.

It’s so important to me, this time together, that I wreck it.

Just as my mother did every Christmas, every birthday. Every occasion that arose where she could and should have showed her love, she crumpled under the pressure. I understand it.

Every holiday without fail, she’d drink herself silly, way past the point of no return.

She ruined every holiday, every outing, every special event. The last one I remember was attending “Camelot,” a musical that meant a great deal to her. She spoke of it for years. She bought tickets for my birthday and got so drunk at dinner that she passed out in the theatre immediately and was impossible to rouse — a scenario I knew all too well.

The last time I took my daughter to L.A., for her 16th birthday, I was so restless I couldn’t sit on the beach. Everything we did, I questioned. I was unhappy, dissatisfied. It wasn’t good enough, it wasn’t the right thing, we were in the wrong place. I was doing it wrong.

I was doing it wrong.

There it is, in all it’s glory.

This ugly, destructive, self-defeating belief that I’ve done it all wrong. That I’ve always done it all wrong.

I didn’t thank my mother for the beautiful green coat she gave me when I was 20. I didn’t wear it. Instead I continued to wear a ratty, torn, red coat. Why? The green coat was too pretty. It embarrassed me. Her love embarrassed me. I was too angry. I could not accept it.

My job next week will be to get me and my daughter where we need to go with a modicum of drama, to let my daughter lead the way, to accept and delight in her decisions, to think and speak carefully. To forgive myself, and thus free myself to love her, unconditionally, the way I truly do at my core, but rarely reveal.

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