Escape the Ordinary

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(ED NOTE: This blog was posted originally on the blog for Skirt Magazine).

“Escape the Ordinary!” urges the ad for the exotic vacation getaway, and for the fancy hotel.

Certainly I knew I was never destined to be ordinary.

When I was in college, I used to assume that I would be extraordinary. My best friend and I sat over greasy dorm cafeteria food, confidently forecasting our great achievements. I would end corruption as an investigative reporter and then write the great American novel. I don’t remember my friend’s dreams – like most college students, I was fairly self-absorbed and my own dreams were the only ones worth taking note of.

But what we both knew with a certainty was that we would never be ordinary. Like all those other college students around us.

No one wants to be ordinary. It’s why “all the children are above average” in Garrison Keillor’s mythical town of Lake Woebegone, formerly on National Public Radio.

But here’s the thing.

Every time I’ve tried to “escape the ordinary” into the amazing, it’s fallen a bit flat. Maybe it’s the pressure on each “escape the ordinary” experience to be so transformative. Oh, the wonders of the world are still wondrous. An island carpeted with slow-moving iguanas in the Galapagos was still wonderful. Renaissance art in sun-drenched Italy still moving and beautiful. The hordes of people filling the sidewalks of Shanghai still equal parts appalling and amazing. But, aside from some great vacation photos, they haven’t fundamentally changed who I am.

Which just may be ordinary.

The things that have changed me, really rocked me to the core? The birth of my daughter, and every milestone thereafter, including the discovery that I would enjoy this young woman even if she weren’t mine. Meeting my husband-to-be and feeling like I already knew him, or at least everything that counts. Marveling at how quickly a stray pup, neglected if not abused, trusts me enough to fall asleep on her back next to me, her legs akimbo.

I am not yet at the age when I’m grateful just to wake up every morning, but, after a long career of speed and stress, I am grateful now when that morning is slow and sleepy and sometimes sexy.

There have been a few times when the slow and the sleepy have been shaken by tragedy – ironically, the kinds that would make a terrific Great American Novel. At those times, the ordinary seems a haven just out of reach.

So, for me, average is okay. For me, maybe the ads should say, “Escape TO the Ordinary.”

Watching Over Little Ones

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When my daughter was little, I had a magical belief that my force of will kept her safe. I thought that if I just kept my focus, no harm would come to her.

Some people would call that focused intent “prayer.” I did not. I did not ask a celestial being to safeguard my daughter because I did not think a celestial being could ever love her as much as I did.

But here is the truth.

No mother – or father – can focus that intently all the time. And, despite what our children believe, we don’t have eyes in the back of our heads, so there will be times when we do not see our children.

All you can do is hope that, during those times, your community, or fate, or God, if that’s what you believe in, will watch when you can not.

A few days ago, a South Carolina mother at James Island County Park told police she looked down to pack up the family’s belongings and, just like that, her 3-year-old son was gone. She searched frantically, as did the police.

The story ended tragically. The body of the little boy was found, an apparent drowning, in a pond near the Spray Play sprinkler where he had been playing.

Immediately after, the news had interviews with other parents, parents who looked shaken and relieved that tragedy had missed them this time.

“You have to watch your child every second,” one parent said, or something similar, and maybe it was my imagination, but there was the slightest tone of “the penalty for inattentiveness is death.”

But you can’t. It is not physically possible and it is not even really healthy for the parent or the child to have that kind of vigilance.

And even if you do, things still happen. Lightning. Plane crashes. Cancer.

I can not imagine the heartbreak that poor mother is feeling, and I feel angry at even the suggestion of blame.

Hypervigilance doesn’t stop tragedy. Not even the magic of love can do that. Although now that my daughter is grown and living in a different state, I can’t stop myself from trying to cast that protection magic from afar anyway. And just hoping that it sticks.

Mother Comforting

Missing the Gold

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When I let my mind wander, I’m a crappy mom. Ask my daughter.

Now, to be fair, my daughter was a prattler. Driving along with her in the car seat in back was like being bathed in word vomit. She would tell herself stories, she would make up songs, she would report on every day’s events at the molecular level, and sometimes, she would ask questions that she already knew the answer to, just to make noise.

As a busy single mother, I learned to tune most out, my mind a sieve that sifted for only the nuggets of gold amidst all the verbiage. Sometimes, I would miss the gold.

Like the time she was sick and the nurse mentioned pneumonia as one possibility. It seemed a fairly remote possibility, so I immediately discounted it, which is why I wasn’t paying attention when she asked, “Mama, is pneumonia serious?”

“Oh yes,” I responded, probably thinking about what to make for dinner. “People used to die from it.”

It was the unaccustomed silence from the back seat that finally got my attention. A tiny little hiccupping sob. Oh.

“No, sweetie, you’ll be fine…”

But even that pales for my daughter in comparison to the time I told her she had an ugly smile.

For the second semester in a row, she had come home with a terrible school photo. My daughter was a cute little girl, but somehow she got it into her head that smiling for a photo meant grimacing and baring her teeth.

When she bemoaned her bad picture with the usual excess of words, I said absently, “You just have to stop smiling like that. It’s not cute at all.”

Again, silence. But I didn’t pick up on this one, didn’t pick up on what she needed me to say, and it wasn’t until later that I heard her crying in her room because her mother had told her she had an ugly smile. Not what I’d said exactly, and certainly not what I’d meant, but she brings it up to this day, and she’s 26.

And today, I still try to listen to what my very verbal daughter does not say…that’s where the gold is and that’s when I can redeem myself for the crappy mom times.

Panning for Gold