Care Packages

Our church has a tradition of sending care packages to college students as a way of continuing to share love with them even when they cannot be with us. Over the years I have enjoyed writing notes to kids I know, encouraging them to hang in there and that, yes, we do notice you’re not here and we care.

This year, just as my kid would be on the receiving end, the project almost fell by the wayside. I stepped up to save it since I knew just how much real mail could mean to kids weathering tough transitions. Truly, any college kid.

When I attended college, I got mail from my mom and my church. The church sent postcards for events I couldn’t attend because I was out of town, which felt insulting: did they not notice my address? And if they did, why not write a quick note? Or at least take me off the list? My experience fueled my desire to encourage other college students.

I’ve written previously that I have never before been to the Post Office so regularly as I have been since the Big Kid started college out of state. And while I am great at writing notes, and encouraging others to write notes, or cheerleading people acting as encouragers, I stink at administering details.

The project became one more stressor in an already stressful season. I often said, “I could use a care package!”

A few weeks ago, I went to visit my college kid. Minutes after we arrived at his dorm room he said, “Oh, Mom, I wanted to show you this…” He held up a reusable plastic envelope filled with cards. He explained, “It’s every card I’ve received since I arrived at college.” The notes from his dad and me, his grandparents, friends, church members and Scout leaders, the cards I was sure were being skimmed and recycled… No, they were being read and reread, treasured.

I should mention: he didn’t know I’d taken up this project. He shared because he knew it would touch me to know how much those cards meant to him. I took his picture, better that than welling up with tears.

Eventually it came together. We gathered 75 college addresses for kids who grew up in our church, or whose parents/grandparents attend our church. We collected donations of microwave popcorn and Halloween candy, and lots and lots of encouraging notes: many written to kids people knew and others written generically to kids no one knew well enough. We also collected dozens of home-baked cookies to send study break packages to small groups organized by our church’s mission partners working on college campuses—and included plenty of hand-written notes to those kids, most of whom we will never meet.

On a Saturday morning, about fifteen volunteers came together to assemble USPS flat-rate boxes, to write yet more notes, to stuff popcorn and candy and cookies into boxes. My morning had not gone according to plan (of course not, because life), and I arrived late and frazzled. Yet there they were, faithful helpers already on task loving on kids away from home.

It had felt to me like details enough to drown me, yet one dear gal said, “We’re like water, settling in to our well-worn spots.” Yes. My spot is encouraging, not organizing. But I stuck it out, I told the story, and people filled in their places in a beautiful whole.

When we finished in less time than we’d allotted, we gathered around the boxes to pray. And there it was: my care package. These friends and servants prayed for our kids, for strength and perseverance and guidance. They prayed for professors and mentors to come around them. They prayed for roommates and suitemates and hallmates, boyfriends and girlfriends, all of whom might wonder why a church would send care packages to college kids. They prayed God’s love and peace would shower over these precious young people. This time, I couldn’t hide my tears.

I couldn’t have imagined the impact on our postal workers. It took two of us making multiple trips with arms full to carry in all the boxes: their eyes went wide. I sensed their initial shock, then overwhelm, then deep breaths as they settled into a rhythm of typing in zip codes and printing labels, restacking boxes along the way. Eventually, they began to laugh, thanking us for supporting the US Postal Service.

They asked what we could possibly be mailing to individuals all over the country; when we explained, they grew visibly happier to have a role to play in this big act of encouragement. When after almost an hour we were done, they were also done for the day. One postal worker declared, “Since everyone should have a little something for joy, here you go!” He reached under the counter and pulled out two Dove chocolates for Guy and me.

Last night I received another care package: my kid, home for the first time, three months to the day since college move-in. Happy Thanksgiving indeed!

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Thankful Thursday – Road Trippin’ the American West

The longest road trip I remember from childhood took me to Disneyland, which seemed So Far Away, though now I have to admit that the hour-and-a-half drive from San Diego to Anaheim doesn’t truly count.

Guy’s family did real road trips: six weeks coast-to-coast in a Volkswagen Vanagon, a different route each way, every summer.

Our family has been road trippin’ since Guy and I honeymooned, driving from the Washington-Canada border to California’s central coast. We set a precedent on that trip, and most every vacation since has involved a drive (or many) of some length.

So. The Big Kid needed to get to college. With All the Stuff. And we wanted every member of our family of four to participate. Of course we drove.

We made a quick trip out, two days, because Kid needed to just get there. On the way back, we made it a vacation for Lil Bro. We made at least one fun/view stop each day, arriving home with barely enough time to pick up our farmed-out pets, do laundry, and regroup for the start of school.

The first few hours of our trip were beautiful, familiar NorCal roads. Guy and I talked. Kids wore headphones and stared at screens. Once we pulled out of Tahoe/Truckee, I realized we were in unfamiliar territory.

Before we left home, I’d done some reading. Years ago we visited Donner Memorial State Park so our kids knew that story. Our route east took us through historic landscapes, like the 40 Mile Desert, a portion of the Emigrant Trail which saw heavy traffic from 1848-1869. I read the linked article aloud as we drove, a humbling reality as we looked out our windows to the parched landscape.

What surprised me was the beauty. I hear the smack of “boring,” “desolate,” “lonely,” “bleak,” but I appreciated the changes in color and texture. I am so intrigued by the unheard stories of those who live here and there, by circumstance or choice.

Spontaneously, I began taking pictures. Hightailing it down the highway, through my spotty passenger window, click click click. The view, to me, seemed continually remarkable.

The view mesmerized me.

I know, taken via iPhone at speed through a dirty window, that these won’t be great pictures. But they help me remember how much I like road trips, and our country.

The Good Ol’ US of A may be a friggin’ hot mess. But I saw beauty as we drove, and kindness in the smiles and small talk of strangers. Beauty inspires hope. As a people, we are as diverse as our landscape. Others may see us–ahem, we may see each other–as “boring,” “desolate,” “lonely,” “bleak,” [insert your adjective here…]. But we are so much more than labels.

Fallon, NV

Lovelock, NV

Coalville, UT

Fort Bridger, WY

Hannah, WY

Idaho Springs, CO

Rangely, UT – and yes, the “highway” became a dirt road!

Talmadge, UT

Wendover, UT – The Bonneville Salt Flats/Speedway. Snapped as the minivan hit 100mph!

Truckee, CA

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Not Alone

I have been to the post office three times in eight days. Four, if you count the trip I made to pick up boxes, which made for two trips in one day. I set a personal record.

So what? you ask.

What seems a normal act of adulting is An Event for me. You have no idea how bad I am at mailing things! We‘ve lived in our small NorCal town for eleven years and I’ve been to the PO, hmm, three times? (Yes, Guy is a rock star, actually, for putting up with me and handling All the Details). Unless we pay a fortune in postage–which we do, annually–only our hand-delivered Christmas gifts arrive on time. I’m bad at erranding in general, and mailing in particular.

So why this sudden run on the USPS? I sent a kid to college!

And he’s sososo homesick! He called after his first class ready to come home. Not that the class was hard (it wasn’t) but, after a weekend of trying to get to know as many people as humanly possible, he realized that the one person he wanted to spend time with–his roommate–had no time for him.

Roommate’s girlfriend also came to college (that would have been nice to know in advance), and they only have time for each other.

I bet my kid could overlook the sloppy mess invading his space if Roommate’s kindness also overflowed boundaries. But no. And he’s not sleeping because he doesn’t want to make things worse by asking that Girlfriend leave their room after midnight.

Easy enough to say, “He’ll get through it,” or “Transitions are so hard,” or “Everyone feels like that at first.” Yes, he can do hard things and we believe he can get through it. This is the biggest transition of his life and my drama boy takes it so hard. And no, not everyone feels this but yes, most will at some point.

The adults in his life have endured transitions. We all know he can do it. But he’s in it, and that makes his experience real-er than ours for the moment. Don’t you remember? The drive-thru car wash (mundane adulting) = dark, loud, and scary!

And the stakes are higher than ever. This was his #1 college choice. We believe this school is a perfect fit for him–in The Wizard of Oz “…if ever there was there was there was [because the college because because] sort of fit–overflowing with Emerald City potential for great opportunities! And he is not sure he’s going to make it. Because of a stupid roommate.

We sleep-trained Teen as an infant. Guy would throw his arm across me to prevent me from running to my crying baby, until the baby sobs tore through his own resolve, at which point he’d strap Baby-Teen into his car seat and drive around until the kiddo fell asleep. This made no sense to me (although I trusted him entirely and sank deeply into quiet/sleep!) because as soon as he took Baby out of Car Seat, Baby woke up and resumed crying.

Parents are crazy that way.

I feel like we’re at it again. Teen needs to learn to do this for himself, to self-soothe in whole new (and hopefully, healthy!) ways. And we’re learning new crazy.

Throughout his adolescence, we fought about Snapchat. He downloaded it–and I demanded deletion–every few months. During drop-off weekend, Teen asked his brother to create a Snapchat account for the cat, and to Snapchat him every day (he *loves* his cat). Since my phone is better, Snapchat resides on my phone…and I find myself Snapchatting my kid. Often. When I asked for a “1st day of school picture” he replied: “Absolutely not!” But he snaps pictures to “his cat” every day…

To add to the crazy parenting moves, I commented in the college-specific parents’ Facebook group that my kiddo is lonely. Other moms with freshman sons in the same major sent me pictures of their kids so I could send them to my kid; I did the same. OMG: I am setting up ‘play dates’ for my college kid (DS, Darling Son, to use the lingo)! He hasn’t mentioned if it’s helped. [I hope it is helping… Life is all about connections, right?]

I’m happy for these parents that their kids are getting to know one another, hanging out and making plans for Labor Day Weekend. Meanwhile, Teen will be alone in his dorm since Roommate and Girlfriend are going on a couples-only camping trip.

He will be fine. He will be fine. He will be fine…

So I send care packages. I didn’t take my own college transition nearly so hard (freshman roommates as they are, I investigated leaving, but couldn’t stomach another round of college apps), but I still remember my mom’s signature care package ingredients.

And I encourage my kid: what he knows (he chose this school for so many good reasons) and what he feels (I can’t do this) are in competition. He lets his heart lead most of the time; he needs to keep his head this time.

I encourage myself: he is strong, and he can do this. He feels alone, but he is not. I feel alone, but I am not. I rejoice with others, and they hang in there with us.

We are not alone, even when we feel it.

[P.S. As I wrote this, he texted: “Going to dinner with the boys.” No idea who “the boys” are, but hope. Always hope!]

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Thankful Thursday – Gentleness

I slapped off my alarm Monday morning, the one I set so I could have coffee before yoga. Eh, maybe the later class.

I missed the later class. Eh, I’ll go to the gym.

I had no energy for the gym. Not even for a run around the neighborhood.

So I used the dog as an excuse and took her for a slow and ambling walk around the block.

Thoughts spinning in no discernible direction, I felt crazy. One week, exactly one week, and I will not have time to slap off the alarm. I’ll hop out of bed, wake the kids, take a quick shower, and rush everyone out the door into a fully loaded out-of-state-college-bound car.

Walking helped. Just some gentle movement and I felt my mind and body reconnecting in synch. As if body and mind had had an argument, followed by a long wrestling match, and an eventual compromising decision—without bothering to tell me—that this week I need to go slow, to be gentle with myself.

This week, I’m rejecting all the shoulds. I’m eating healthy when it also sounds good, and what sounds good even if it’s not the healthiest choice. I’m sleeping when I want to sleep, reading what entertains, saying no as necessary.

I’d like to be more productive than I have been, but bare minimum feels like what I’m capable of for now. I’m sure I have more and other things to do; I can’t for my life think what they are. [I’ve been waking regularly from stress dreams: former employers have left me binders of task lists that I should have memorized (but don’t), scattered over a large and crowded room. I have to find and integrate the lists in some comprehensible form to know how to proceed…]

I turn on the computer and get lost down the social media rabbit holes because I can’t recall why I turned on the computer. Maybe habit. Or that most of my work lives on my computer. Either way.

Teen seems to have settled into acceptance that he is leaving, and soon. He is slowly finishing up his details, slow being better than the complete denial he devoted himself to so far this summer. Mainly, he’s spending every minute with friends. That’s good, too.

Tween must be growing for the number of hours he spends in bed. I could wake him, but considering next week we will drive states away to drop off his brother and return the night before he starts school, why? He should rest, and when he wakes, he should play—the point of summer when you’re thirteen years old.

A college professor once told me that her creative husband could only tackle one creative activity at a time. When he wrote or edited, he couldn’t paint. When he painted, he traded dabbling in words for dabbling in color. His creativity faucet could only handle one temperature at a time. His total being became engaged in one form of creation.

And I think that’s the key: this week is a creative transition in our lives. Teen is on to a new and exciting phase of life. We are so over-the-top excited for him. But it means a transition for all of us. We are recreating the reality of our family: who we are together and separately.

I need to stop fighting, trying to force myself to do something else, and instead gently go with the flow of this new creation. Like transition in childbirth: for now, it is all about this baby…

The rest—productivity in working and writing, yoga, healthy eating, the (for me) ever-illusive organized home, all the things—will be waiting on the other side.

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Orientation

Orientation [awr-ee-uh n-tey-shuh n]
noun 1. the act or process of orienting; 2. The state of being oriented; 3. An introduction, as to guide one in adjusting to new surroundings, employment, activity, or the like: New students receive two days of orientation; 4. Psychology, Psychiatry. The ability to locate oneself in one’s environment with reference to time, place, and people. Synonyms: direction, location, adaptation, assimilation, bearings, coordination, familiarization, position, lay of the land, sense of direction, settling in.

I awoke with vague dream recollections: three of my former professors (college? grad school?) had pulled me aside to say that I needed to go back to school. Apparently my Ph.D. awaits me, in some area of study at some school.

Do I have college-envy? I’ve heard other parents of college-bound kids say that college visits evoked similar responses in them, that they wish they could go back to school at this stage of life.

Last week Guy and I accompanied Teen to his college orientation. As we walked across campus I thought: “This is the exact right place for my kiddo, but I would have gotten lost here.” Something like 30 of my private, liberal arts college would fit on his university campus.

I do feel a tinge of envy at this exciting stage in his life: for all the things he will learn, experiences he will have, friends and mentors he will meet. But that’s far from my only feeling…

He is our first-born. I am grateful he’s found his place, and anxious for him to transition well. After helping him maneuver life for eighteen years, it is so hard to let go, to cheer him on from a distance, to know that he will succeed and he will fail and somehow it will all work out.

His departure will change the day-to-day reality of our family’s operational structure. I will carpool Tween to places Teen has shuttled his brother. We will redistribute his chores. Our grocery bill will decrease. I will miss him like crazy, and sometimes I will (quietly) exult in the new quiet his absence will create. We will hope that he will fit in time to communicate on occasion beyond “Dad, I need money!” (To which we could respond, “So do we!”).

None of us understood why the college required orientation prior to the days just before classes begin this fall. In fact, Guy almost didn’t sign us up for the parent-family track. We’re both college graduates—how much can have changed? Teen just wanted to register for classes online and spend every minute of summer with his friends at home. Turns out, we didn’t know how much we didn’t know!

We dropped Tween at sleep-away camp on Sunday and left for college Monday. Teen was quiet (tired?), then visibly angry (“I’m not carrying that bag!”), sullen and snapchat-focused, dismissive (“Stop trying to be funny!”), and finally, candid: “I don’t want to go to college!”

He does want to go to college. He knows this is his school, his program, his time. He knows that, even though his friends will mostly attend schools on quarter-system and it seems now that they have longer summers, they will leave eventually, too. He doesn’t want to be the one left behind. He just doesn’t know how to manage the biggest transition in his life thus far.

Thankfully, Session 1 of parent-family orientation addressed the emotional transition in which we currently find ourselves. The Associate Dean of Students referenced William Bridges’ book, Managing Transitions. Here’s the model:

And here’s the synopsis: It isn’t the changes that do you in, it’s the transitions. They aren’t the same thing. Change is situational: the move to a new site, the reorganization of the roles on the team. Transition, on the other hand, is psychological; it is a three-phase process people go through as they internalize and come to terms with the details of the new situation that the change brings about.

At any given moment, any of us can be at any stage of transition: not necessarily the same stage, and it can all turn on a dime. I had been feeling so excited for Teen’s new beginning (less so for ours, but it has its highlights as well); his fear and anger evoked in me both sadness that he was having such a difficult go of it and a panic that he might ditch the opportunities before him.

With a travel day on either side of the two-day orientation, over four days we watched Teen ride an emotional roller coaster, moving at break-neck speed through All the Big Feels related to this transition: loss, grief, loneliness, anger, denial, resistance, despair, excitement, hope, doubt, fear… We saw him wipe away embarrassed tears, endured his angry barks, listened when he overflowed, all in snippets of time that our orientation tracks intersected.

We asked if he wanted our opinion (sometimes yes, others no). We asked questions he sometimes answered. During one conversation I admitted that I, too, had been on the verge of tears throughout the day. He responded, “But Mom, the difference is you will never lose me. I will always come home to you. But things will never be the same with my friends…”

We encountered so many moments confirming his choice of school, from conversations with staff, to the presentation by his major advisor, to watching him make friends. And our conversations with other parents confirmed that our experience was far more common that we could suspect. One dad said, “I am so grateful for that transition presentation, because I’m watching my son live it out before my eyes.” Yup, us too. Another dad said, “To look at people, they seem like they have it all together. But when you talk to other parents, you realize that we’re all dealing with the same things, the joys and fears, anxieties, situations…” So true.

Teen had a great roommate for the dorm overnight. At a different stage in his own transition, they talked from 9:30 pm to 1 am, helping Teen process in ways his parents could not. That next day Teen was like a different person, calm, tip-toeing into the excitement of all to come. But later that day he talked with friends from home, one who was freaking out and another who was currently at his own college orientation. They’re all on this crazy ride and they’re jostling each other this way and that.

Back home we are orienting to the present moment, enjoying summer and friendships and down-time. The college shadow looms, but for now he wants to stand firmly in the sun. And that’s fine. Orientation introduced us to new surroundings both physical and emotional. We’ve done a lot of healthy processing of emotions and details. Settling in will take time.

 

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Sifting Shifting Sands

I look at the calendar and question whether I must be in a state of deep denial: Teen has only a handful of school days left, then a few days of finals, before he graduates high school. Fifteen days, including weekends, before this long leg of the journey comes to an end.

Oy, I just choked back tears. Not for the first time, certainly not the last.

Obviously I knew this end was coming. In a vague sense, since January I’ve been counting the months, the weeks, now days. I’ve been spending more time at home—more work-at-home afternoons, more nights in on weekends—intending to be present for those unpredictable times when he suddenly overflows with information. I never know what will turn the spigot, and whether it will trickle or gush, but I’m ready to catch the flow.

Sometimes the flow smells more like sewage than good, clean water. Undoubtedly, Teen could tell you more about the biology behind the term for this, called soiling the nest. Fledgling birds apparently make a mess of the nest so their birdy mamas will kick them out. The nasty stench makes it easier to say goodbye.

By refusing to get out of bed, or go to school, or contribute in any meaningful way to a positive home environment; by making me want to scream in place of fruitless nagging, and clench my already-aching jaw, go for a power walk, and come home to a glass of wine consumed in the privacy of my bedroom, we both become ready for a separation. The ridiculous part: by being his worst at home I’m supposed to believe he’s ready to show his best to the world?

I’ve reminded myself: he’s afraid. Everything he’s known and counted on throughout his lifetime is changing, and change is never easy. Sure, the adventures ahead are so exciting. He’s going to his #1 college choice to study his life’s consuming passion and play his sport. A few weeks ago he got a text from an Olympian who recently graduated from the school, congratulating him on his choice and looking forward to working out together. So cool!

Still, he feels vulnerable, unsteady as the sands shift beneath his feet. And I am a safe arm to grab hold of, to catch all the junk he doesn’t know how to process. He can actively push away because he knows we will always be his soft landing spot. Push and pull, shove and yank. Some days it feels like a fistfight; others, a cling-for-your-life embrace. Hard, and normal.

Thankfully, some days I see the man he is becoming. Some days my presence at home has been rewarded with pleas for advice, details of his adventures, arguments on real-life issues he’s working out in his head and sounding out in private. Just yesterday, he invited me to watch one of his favorite movie scenes with him. We laughed side-by-side on the couch, a tender moment (for me) until the scene ended and he said, “That’s it. You can go now.”

We have lived on the California coast his whole life. When he was little, we sat facing each other in the sand, kitchen items between us—colanders, slotted spoons, Tupperware—sifting sand, tossing out the rocks, turning the shells over in our hands, collecting water and building sand castles. Always ready, I watched as he toddled away from me, playing catch-me-if-you-can with lapping waves.

Now he strides into his future, leaving me behind on the beach sifting memories and moments; tossing misshapen ones, treasuring the intricate beauty of others. Long ago as the sand slipped between my fingers I daydreamed of who he would be, how his exuberance would develop into passion for something larger than himself. Now I have space to daydream of other shorelines—and mountain trails and jungle paths—where we will walk together, creating new memories, as he explores life.

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Meatless Monday – Birthday Mac & Cheese

The one who made me a mama was turning 18. Because his birthday gift is a 3-day trip to an out-of-town concert venue with family + seven teenage friends over New Year’s (yes, we might be nuts, but we also have a lot of experience chaperoning teens…), we decided to have a celebration dinner at home. And because on his Thursday birthday he had rugby practice while Brother had a band concert, we made Sunday his birthday dinner.

He asked for homemade mac & cheese.mac-n-cheese

And because he will only turn 18 once and I have only this year leaned hard into a (mostly) plant-based diet, I gave him what he asked for.

Not only that, but between four different lunch requests between three people and several courses for dinner, I cooked for five hours and made nine different recipes: boxed mac & cheese with veggie dogs for Tween; a big salad and a tuna melt for Teen; spicy coconut noodles for me; homemade mac & cheese, veggie meatballs, and coleslaw for dinner, and orchard crumble for dessert; and–since I opened a can of tomato sauce but only used 3 Tbsp–enchilada sauce which would provide the base for two more weeknight dinners.

Food is most definitely one of the key’s to this young man’s heart! (Not to mention the traditional gingerbread pancakes and homemade applesauce he devoured for his birthday breakfast…)

This has been a big week in our lives: Thursday he became a legal adult. Friday Guy and I designed a congratulatory ad for his high school yearbook (and yes, I cried just a little, admitting to myself that there is no one else on this planet with whom I have such a unique relationship). Saturday he got his first job (other than kid-, pet- or house-sitting): for almost eight hours of absolute downpour, he stood outside and helped people select and attach their Christmas trees to vehicles; Guy had to take him not one but two dry changes of clothes (he even stole the shoes Guy had on!), and he did it all with a big smile and great attitude. And today, four days into his nineteenth year, he found out that he got accepted to his #1 college choice: Colorado State University at Fort Collins, where he will study Wildlife Biology and play rugby. And yes, I cried just a little more. He even let me hug and kiss him more than once this evening as the news sinks in…

Go rams!

Go rams!

So, yes, I made him exactly what he asked for and more. How many more birthday dinners will I have the privilege of cooking for him?

Macaroni & Cheese

¼ c red onion, diced
1 ½ c elbow macaroni (I used whole wheat mac)
3 T margarine
3 T flour
2 c milk
½ t salt
1/8 t pepper
2 c sharp cheddar cheese
Bread crumbs (mix w/ a little extra cheese & Trader Joe’s 21 seasoning salute)

Boil the macaroni according to package directions.

Warm small amount of oil (veggie or olive) in a sauté pan, then sauté onions until tender. Set aside.

In a large stock pot, melt margarine and blend in flour. Add milk, cook, and stir until thick. Add salt, pepper, and cheese. Stir until cheese is melted. Mix sauce with macaroni and onions and put in a casserole dish. Sprinkle with bread crumbs and bake at 350 for 20 minutes.

Notes:
I use one large stock pot to cook onions and make mac & cheese.
You don’t have to use oil to cook onion; you can sub a tablespoon of water if onions start to stick.
The roux (margarine, flour, milk) always looks like it won’t work, and it always does. Seriously, it has never failed me. Just keep stirring and breaking up flour clumps by pressing them with a wooden spoon against the pot.