I often marvel at the things I have to teach my kids. The overwhelming majority of our conversations involve repeated instructions about things that seem, to me at least, to be common sense: “Flush the toilet,” “Wash your hands … with soap,” “Put your dirty clothes in the hamper not on the floor,” “Clear your dirty dishes,” “Don’t interrupt me when I am on the phone,” etc. Either I am the world’s worst teacher or they are the world’s worst listeners or humans develop common sense very late in the game (and, judging by a few people I’ve met, some never do). I can only hope that, at some point, these lessons that punctuate the lives of my young children eventually sink in.
I often wonder if I will not have the opportunity to pass along many of life’s more important lessons to my children. In some ways, there’s a certain advantage to never having the chance to impart one’s wisdom along to somewhat less than appreciative recipients. While I may never have conversations peppered with admonitions, I will also not have to hear replies such as, “Mom, you already told me that” or simply the exasperated, “Mom!” with the accompanying eye-rolling. When my father imposes his advice, my canned response is “Dad, I’m not looking for an opinion,” which he generally accepts with surprising graciousness. Then again, he’s just that kind of person. My mother in contrast, dispenses with advice altogether, preferring threatening, cajoling, and guilting as her modes of behavior modification. She is an Italian Catholic, after all.
For my children, a laundry list of “Dos and Don'ts” may have to suffice, nicely preventing me from ever being called a nag (by my children at least).
To my dear children:
In the event that I am not available to dispense advice on an as needed basis throughout your life, I am taking this opportunity to share my thoughts on some of life’s lessons both grand and small. I hope that somewhere in here you find something useful. It is not an exhaustive list (the computer has only so much memory), but it should at least give you a foundation until you channel your own inner Buddha.
1. If I had to share one great truth about relationships it is this: Be yourself. You simply cannot sustain a relationship in which you are trying to be someone or something that you are not. The sheer energy required by such a charade renders it implausible for the long haul. If you find that you are putting on an act for someone, it’s time to get off the stage.
2. Perhaps my biggest fear is that I will not be there to pick up the pieces when you first experience heartbreak. I wish that I could tell you how to survive the loss of a love without suffering, but I don’t think it is possible. Heartbreak is as much a part of growing up as potty training and losing baby teeth. I can tell you that heartbreak does not last forever and that eventually you will fall in love again. This is really all you need to know. When you are in the thick of it and you don’t know how to keep breathing, just keep reminding yourself: “I will not always feel this badly and I will fall in love again.” Keep getting up every morning, go to work or school, continue to have a social life, and it will get better.
3. Love is not butterflies though I highly recommend that experience. Love is enduring just as the vows state, “in good times and in bad,” “in sickness and in health, “for richer or for poorer.” I never dreamed that my husband would nurse me through 6 surgeries and 6 months of chemotherapy before our 7-year wedding anniversary. But he is still here, just as he promised. Don’t cling to the mistaken notion that it will always be easy or you will be sadly disappointed.
4. Hearts are fragile. Be gentle with your own as well as others. Don’t trust your heart to someone who is undeserving of it. By the same token, do not mistreat someone who has entrusted his/her heart to you.
5. People will fall in love with you and you may not return the feeling. Do not feel obligated to do so, but do treat them with dignity. You will fall in love with people who will not return the feeling. Accept their feelings and move on. You cannot make someone love you.
6. Marriage is not a lifetime commitment; it is a daily commitment. You wake up every day and say to yourself, “Today I am going to stay married.” There are days when this commitment will be easy and others when it will be hard. But the daily commitment turns into a lifetime.
7. Kiss your spouse good-bye when you part. Say “I love you” before you go to sleep. Not to be morbid, but no one knows when it could be the last time and you don’t want to regret missing that one last chance.
8. When your spouse loves your children more than they love you, don’t take it personally. You children will eventually become annoying teenagers and you will once again be numero uno (unless of course you have a dog/cat/ferret).
9. Two words: personal hygiene. No matter how much someone loves you, they are going to have certain personal hygiene standards. Let’s face it: we all wake up in the morning less than ready to face the world at large hence the terms “morning breath” and “bed head.” Invest in a new toothbrush frequently and use floss. In severe cases (you know who you are), use mouthwash too. Men, while you are at the drugstore getting some floss, invest in some grooming scissors and keep those nose hairs in check. And for god’s sake, trim the ear hair before it threatens to overtake the entire outer ear. Ladies, if your spouse really does not dig underarm hair and you have no strong attachment to it, shave it off regularly.
Sex (If my Roman Catholic mother reads this she’ll be mortified but here goes …)
1. Sex is a tricky issue. How you handle your intimate relationships depends on your own moral code. While I was raised to think sex should only occur in the context of marriage, that idea made little sense in a society where people postponed marriage until later in life. During my twenties, I had intimate relationships both with men I loved as well as men that I did not love. While the physical aspects of sex were satisfying in both kinds of relationships, I much preferred being in mutually loving and respectful relationships. I felt like I could be myself in relationships where I knew I was loved and cherished. I’m sure that many people would disagree, but I think sex is better with someone that you love.
2. Teenagers are too young to have sex. They simply lack the emotional maturity and presence of mind to appreciate the experience responsibly. I realize that this is an old-fashioned point of view; I don’t care.
3. Sex is not Love and Love is not Sex. The sooner a person gets this straight the better. For romantic teenage girls these truisms may help to explain why it doesn’t work well to try and get someone to love you by sleeping with him. If he didn’t love you before the sex, the sex is unlike to change that fact.
4. Don’t use sex to control people. This covers a lot of behaviors, including
a. Dating someone you don’t care about just to have sex
b. Having sex with someone because you want them to like you or you want to keep them with you
c. Having sex with someone as a conquest
d. Having sex to get pregnant without your partner’s consent
e. Forcing sex
5. Men need to shave before being physically intimate. There is nothing worse than making love to man whose face is abrading your skin.
6. Never underestimate the value of a shower before, after or in lieu of …
1. Never leave a loving or kind word unspoken.
2. Friends make you feel good about yourself. For some reason it takes women years to figure this out and some never do.
3. Don’t invest in friendships with people with whom you do not feel comfortable. You should be able to be yourself with your friends.
4. People cannot give you what they do not have – time, sympathy, understanding, etc. – don’t take it personally and don’t waste energy getting angry about it.
5. One of the most essential phrases in the English language is “I am sorry.” You will make mistakes and hurt people. Be willing to accept responsibility for your transgressions.
6. Some friendships are meant to last forever while others are only meant to last for a time. Both types of friendship are valuable and it is ok to let go when the time comes.
7. First impressions are not always on target. I have often developed strong friendships with persons with whom I did not initially “click.” Remain open to people; you never know when that seemingly ho-hum person will turn out to be exactly the person you need in your corner.
1. There are two types of fear: the fear that protects you and the fear that paralyzes you. I wish I could advise you on how to know the difference. I just know that for me they feel different in my gut, and it’s up to my head to listen accordingly.
2. If you aren’t a little afraid at least some of the time then you aren’t living life to the fullest. To live fully you need to take chances, which requires being scared.
1. You know your own body better than anyone else. Trust your instincts.
2. No matter how sick you are, in all likelihood there is another person worse off than you are. On days that I want to feel sorry for myself, I think back to my year on an oncology floor. In that one year, I saw so many people suffer and I try to remember them and realize that what I am experiencing is not so bad.
3. Coal becomes a diamond only under pressure. Illness is an opportunity for spiritual growth, a shitty opportunity at times but an opportunity nonetheless. Try and garner what you can from it. And even if you never recover physically, your spirit can survive even as your body is decimated.
1. Read. If you can read you can learn to do almost anything. Through books, you can visit places that you have never been or times that have long since passed. You can experience another culture and escape the everyday. And as C.S. Lewis once observed, you can also find that you are not alone.
2. Do not be afraid of failing. The only failure is in not trying. You don’t have to be the smartest or the best; you just have to want to learn.
3. Do not pursue a degree in a well paying field that you do not enjoy. You spend much of your waking life at work. You should do something that you love even if it means living in a smaller house and driving an economy car.
4. Learning does not stop when you receive your diploma.
5. Everyone has something to teach you whether they are an illiterate old man or a young child or a winner of the Nobel Prize.
6. Don’t judge people by their accents. When I went to college some of the smartest people I met had thick New York and Boston accents (not the Harvard kind). When I moved to the South I had to remind myself that a southern accent did not imply ignorance.
1. You only need three prayers: “Please help me,” “Forgive me,” and “Thank you.”
2. I believe the most humans crave the existence of the divine. Perhaps it makes us feel better to think that there is a universal benevolent force. Personally, I think we are all praying to the same God no matter what we call him/her or our prophets. Arguing theology is a waste of time; no one is every going to prove the relative or absolute veracity of their beliefs.
3. Whether you chose to join/remain a member of an organized religion is up to you. I am culturally Roman Catholic to the core. But I remained a churchgoer because in the Church I found some measure of solace, a sense of community, and a basis for my own moral code. I also found many of the teachings maddening but, fortunately for me, Roman Catholicism works cafeteria-style.
4. Life isn’t perfect and it isn’t fair. God did not “do” anything to you as a punishment or a reward. Bad things happen; good things happen. It’s unbearable to accept this as true but I honestly believe that it is. God may not be able to take away what pains you – physically or emotionally – but he/she can be with you as a spirit or a fellow human being in your hour of need.
5. God resides within you: act accordingly.