Eleven Years of Tennyson

Last week I asked my oldest son to complete a chore with me. As he jumped from foot to foot on hot concrete, flies swarmed around us. He offered, “it’s stinky over here,” and “perhaps what you need, mom, is a kitchen shears instead of garden pruners.” But he stayed with me, humming, hopping and smiling. We finished the project, high fived and walked into the shade. He put his arm around me and said, “That was fun.” I laughed as tears rose in my eyes. He noticed, “Mom—how could that possibly choke you up?”

I have witnessed him accomplish remarkable things in eleven years that made me feel proud: piano recitals, choir performances, artwork, inventions, brotherly kindness, acts of compassion. But, I have never felt more optimistic a great future lies before him than when we cut the ropes off our old baby swing together next to the stinky garbage can on a simmering summer day.

Tenny is bright and likable. He has a winsome smile and an easy way with people. He excels in school and inventing things. He is a creative and quick learner. But resilience and willingness to face adversity will do more for him than any talent born or nurtured. I summed up my tears; “I am just so happy for you.”

Which, of course, made him giggle all the more. His giggle renders me weak at the knees with love and adoration. One of my favorite advances in our relationship this year is laughing together. We suddenly seem to crack each other up. Raising Tenny has been one of the greatest gifts of my life. I was prepared to miss each stage as he grew (ok not all of them). What I was not prepared for was how much more interesting, fun and unpredictable he is at every age.

Furthermore, how could there be a pre-teen living in my house? How could he know more than me about computers? And pancake batter? Solar power? How could this be the same little guy who could not sleep anywhere but attached to his parents his first eighteen months? How could he so surprise me? I once knew him better than he knew himself. Everyday, Tenny is less and less kid and more and more his unique self.

IMG_7824We have engaged a tradition for our boys called the “Ten Year Trip.” Instead of a birthday party or gift, they will each choose (within reason) a destination. Tennyson’s selection was an overnight Amtrak trip with mom. He did not care about the destination; only that we slept at least two nights on the train. It speaks volumes of him that he selected a timeworn journey with a balance of exploration and quiet. We had a remarkably good time on our ramble from Seattle to St. Paul, he in awe of the train itself and me in awe of my companion.

This is what the five of us had to share about Tenny at his eleventh birthday dinner:

“He is a great brother.”

“He makes me feel special.”

“He is adventurous.”

“He is confident.”

“He gives great hugs.”

As he said to me earlier this year, “Do you know what I try to do? I try to be optimistic. Just let it roll. Don’t fight the current.” After eleven years of Tennyson, I am certain of one thing. No matter where or how he lands, Tenny will find adventure and purpose in every leap forward.

My friends call me Ellen…

maryshadowI cried off and on for 24 hours after I saw Saving Mr. Banks; a mix of happy and sad tears.  From the movie, Pamela Lyndon Travers appeared to rectify the ugliest parts of her childhood by crafting Mary Poppins and releasing her to Walt Disney. We saw her catharsis at the premiere. She wept. She smiled. She changed.

Its not a true story. She loathed the film; that’s why she cried. In 1995 she released the rights to Broadway only after they conceded to portray the darker stories written in her books. The darker stories were about her former self, Helen Lyndon Goff, who she left behind in Australia when she became an author and actress named P.L. Travers in her 20’s. In her books, a magical governess saves Mr. and Mrs. Banks  from their misery. Though you won’t find this in the film nor book, the truth is that Mr. and Mrs. Travers Goff (Pamela’s parents) needed saving from stress, addiction, suicide, and influenza.

In her story the children did not need to be saved. They were fine. Always fine. Tough. Impermeable. The children did not start out that way. They were fun-loving and enjoyed the story-telling and indulgent illusions of their father. But after his tragic death by alcoholism and influenza and their humiliated mother’s suicide attempt, they no longer relaxed into fantasies like frivolous love, dancing penguins or spun stories. Mary Poppin’s role was to prepare them for a harsh world where they would always be safe, sober and under control.

Ellen is my very own Pamela Travers; as tightly wound as Pam’s pin curls. Ellen has her other defenses too; self-deprication, perfectionism, fear, care-taking–all drives to distract from the toughest parts of my childhood. Ellen is a joke among my friends, as she should be. Our defenses aren’t who we are and I am all for poking fun at them, needling them, forcing them to dance with animated penguins. When my friends call me “Ellen,” its a reminder that the better parts of me deserve their fair shine. It doesn’t really matter they don’t know where Ellen came from; they know the real me. Ellen is at war with humor, softness, emotionality, spontaneity and lightness. Like Pamela, she wants to go to the bar and have friends. But if her guard goes down, the pain surfaces, and Pamela mustn’t allow that. I wish not to become Ellen the way Helen Lyndon transformed herself into Pamela. She left behind the little girl behind who laid eggs on the steps and road horses like the wind.

But that also successfully stamped out Mr. Banks, the alcoholic, and Mrs. Banks, his distraught wife. After the movie, I  thought perhaps crafting an adorable children’s story to repaint the harder years of my childhood would be therapeutic for me too. But here, again, is the truth of her story; Pamela was never super happy. Helen Lyndon surfaced enough for her to author whimsical children’s stories, study Zen Buddhism, fall in love with her flatmate, and live for a year with a Hopi tribe. But sadly, Pamela won. According to Emma Thompson and the New York Times, her grandchildren claim she died “loving no one and with no one loving her.”

And here is my truth: I value love and happiness.  My dad, who fought depression for decades of my life, is absolutely heroic for surviving and for helping others who hurt like him. My mother, who remains at his side, is absolutely My Hero.  Fiction couldn’t paint a better story. Given the tools they had, their dedication to parenting, their commitment to joy, and the effort it takes to parent at all, I am blown away by their ability to raise two happy, stable, thriving teenagers who felt loved and supported by their parents. My dad carried that burden, and as a psychiatrist he fervently and brilliantly served the needs of thousands of depressed and anxious people, and still managed to love his wife and his kids to pieces.

I am happy to say that Ellen is not always present in my life, especially when things are smooth, and definitely when things get busy. I love busy. I love exciting. I love stress. We all do, us adult-children-of-parents-with-miscellaneous-battles. When my guard falters; when I have pain, grief, disappointment or limbo, I am surprised by my resilience, but I am also surprised by my anxiety. I am surprised by Ellen’s attempts at toughness, control and safety. She fears friends knowing she has weaknesses. She’d rather appear angry than sad. She craves stability. She wants to throw a pillow over her head and unhear the arguments at night that plagued some yucky years of her life. She wants to run away. Ellen actually believes people are angry with her when she feels down and exposes wounds. Some of them might be, especially the ones with a little inner Pamela, but we all have our better sides.

So please, call me Ellen. I want to remember she is there. I want to remember to subdue her; to remind her that I am fine. I don’t need her help anymore. I want her to hear my friends laugh at her; the ones that call her out, and love the real me.

I am amazed by my mother’s levity during the hard times. Her sense of humor, overarching love, and willingness to talk made everything ok. I see everything that is wonderful in my dad, without hesitation, and find inspiration in his tenacity.  I hope they feel incredibly proud of the adversity they overcame and the life and love they gave me. I am delighted to say that I am not really Ellen or Pamela, though I cried buckets for them both. In the end of my story, I choose happiness and love. And on the very hardest of days, I sneak a spoonful of sugar or two. See my list.

Spoonfuls of Sugar:wtie
1) Hugs
2) Sunsets/sunrises/sun on snow/warm sun/all things sunshine
3) Snowfall in trees
4) Kids in ties at inappropriate times
5) Handfuls of 
chocolate chips
6) Kids outside with rosy cheekssunsetmpls
7) All songs, Paul Simon
8) Inexplicable things in nature
9) Poems by Mary Oliver
10) Puppies and babies
11) Brightly colored fabric
IMG_0001_312) Hats, all types
13) Singing
14) Swimming in lakes
15) Snow days that force people to help each other
16) YMCA camps
17) Young people listening to old people
18) The things kids say, e.g., “do you think I could be the next Michael Jackson?”
19) The OlympicsKidsbooks
20) Tea
21) NeighborlinessIMG_4126
22) Falling into deep snow
23) Whiskey with honey
24) Down comforters
25) Friends
26) Family
27) Reading 
28) Theater
29) Evergreens
30) Mary Poppins

What are your spoonfuls of sugar?  Please comment.