It’s nearing the end of summer vacation, and I’m out of ideas.
For my kids, ages eight and ten and fourteen, the early thrills of summertime have lost most of their thrill. Riding fast on a bike has turned into riding sweaty on a bike. Free time to read what they want has turned into free time to read Big Nate for the hundredth time. Sleeping in has turned into, well, sleeping in and then waking up to nag your siblings.
It’s all wearing a little thin for everyone.
So, on a Friday afternoon, I tell them we’re going to do an experiment, and if they choose to participate, there is ice cream in their near future. I tell them each to grab a piece of paper and a pencil. I grab a book, and out the door we go.
We drive to a local park, which sprawls out along a river floating by at the same languid pace that everything else seems to be moving during these dog days of summer. We choose our places on a bench, in the grass, and on a tree stump. The kids are itching with curiosity about what we are here to do.
When I tell them, they stop acting curious and start acting furious.
We are going to do a ten-minute breathing meditation, I am going to do a poetry reading, and then we are each going to write our own poem. Surprisingly, my oldest and youngest surrender quickly. The middle child resists but then gives in, angling more for ice cream than for peace. But, whatever. I’ll take it.
After ten minutes, I read the poem. It is from Mary Oliver’s Red Bird, and it is entitled, “Mornings at Blackwater.”
For years, every morning, I drank
from Blackwater Pond.
It was flavored with oak leaves and also, no doubt,
the feet of ducks.
And always it assuaged me
from the dry bowl of the very far past.
What I want to say is
that the past is the past,
and the present is what your life is,
and you are capable
of choosing what that will be,
So come to the pond,
or the river of your imagination,
or the harbor of your longing,
and put your lips to the world.
Then, for about fifteen minutes, we all wrote our poetry. This is what Caitlin wrote:
After a fight
you will feel sad
because you blamed it on
the other person.
But you always get a second chance,
once you go up to that person
and tell them you’re sorry,
everything will be alright.
I think about telling her that she may not always be the one who needs to apologize, but I decide not to. She has found a place of humility and bravery within her. She has learned enough for one day.
This is what Quinn wrote:
The kids threw sticks in the river.
As the sticks floated down to me,
a boat came by.
The waves gradually grew bigger and louder.
It ended up becoming this hypnotic sound.
I couldn’t think of anything else.
As the waves decreased,
I could hear the leaves rustling
and the kids again.
Quinn’s mind runs hot and fast, but for a moment, he could think of nothing. It is good to learn there is a space in the world where your mind can come to peace. It is even better to learn that the space is always here and now, if you choose to attend to it.
This is what Aidan wrote:
The boat passes by,
the ripples reach the shore, they
grow big and subside.
A mosquito passed
my ear, the buzzing grew loud
but soon subsided.
Sitting down, I ached.
The pain was unbearable.
Yet it, too, left me.
Aidan is a thrill-seeker. Thrill-seekers usually seek thrills in part because they are avoiding feeling pain. Down by the river, Aidan learned it’s okay to feel pain because if you don’t resist it and if you don’t identify with it, like everything else, pain comes and goes.
Then, we ate ice cream.
And as we ate, I thought about what I learned: our kids are always learning and, year round, we are their teachers. Whether school is in or out, whether summer is coming or going, they are always learning. They are learning the art of boredom or the dangers of distraction. They are learning to persist or to quit, to be passively entertained or actively engaged, to be caring or careless, to love or to hate.
They are always learning.
They are watching us and they are learning that mom and dad are hooked on their iPhones and their Facebook feeds and that this sort of addiction is acceptable. They are watching me snap at their mom and learning that when someone loves you they snap at you and they are lowering their standards for companionship. They watch us exchange shame or grace and they are being taught which one is true.
This year, they each have new teachers at school, but they will have the same teachers at home.
School is back in.
It was never really out.
They have more teachers than we realize.
The lesson plan is life.
The classroom is all around us.
It is a terminal degree.
the chalk is in your hand,
your home is the blackboard,
may it not terrify you,
may it inspire you,
to do the best you can.
we are, all of us, still learning,
even the teachers.
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Dr. Kelly Flanagan is a psychologist, author, consultant, and speaker who enjoys walking with people through the three essentials of a truly satisfying life: worthiness, belonging, and purpose. His blog writings have been featured in Reader’s Digest, The Huffington Post, The 5 Love Languages, and the TODAY Show. Kelly is the author of Loveable and True Companions.