Wednesday, December 29, 2021

Piano Lessons

At the beginning of COVID my daughter Lucia quit piano. After two zoom lessons, she chucked it. Lucia was never a classical pianist. Her teacher taught her to play songs that she wanted to play. That meant that our house was filled with John Legend, Bruno Mars, Adele, Katy Perry, and leagues of other hip hop, pop and rock songs. Lucia would learn the music and then sing along. 

I’m completely biased but I think Lucia has an amazing singing voice. When she plays and sings our whole house takes on a magical vibration. The piano corner lights up and everything else fades into the background. Lucia is in conversation with the piano — singing along to what she plays — but she is also communicating with us. As we listen to Lucia sing, we can hear her as herself, that deep part of her being that only she knows, that only she can unleash. 

For years it’s been a running joke in our house that when Lucia plays, my partner Nancy, regardless of what she's doing at that moment, starts to cry with emotion.

When Lucia made the decision to stop lessons, I had to let her. She was fifteen at that time and ten years of lessons would have to sustain her. For the first year after she quit piano Lucia hardly played. The stand-up piano sat quietly in the corner decorated with the random assortment of beach treasures and plants, her marked-up music and yellow pencil resting, as if frozen in time, on the upper panel.

I was sad when Lucia stopped playing piano because I felt like her music was a good balance for the other parts of her life. It felt like something deeply internal, something that came from within her. It felt like she transported herself somewhere else when she played. I wanted that for her. And it transported me too. I had taken for granted all those years of hearing Lucia play and sing. During that music drought in our home, I’d occasionally ask Lucia to play, but she’s not that kind of person; she doesn’t play on demand. In fact, she actively won’t play on demand.

For a while, to fill the void of Lucia’s playing, I tried to learn piano myself. I had a few years of lessons growing up and Lucia helped me learn how to use the pedal as well as some strategies for positioning my fingers on the keys. With my ragtag collection of skills, I chose a favorite song, “Shallow” by Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper, and learned the piano part. Once I’d mastered that I added the voice. It took me over a month of practicing to produce a crude, condensed version of the song.

I couldn’t believe how hard it was to play and sing at the same time. It felt like rubbing my stomach and patting my head at the same time while balancing a spoon on my nose. Each time I got through the song I felt exhausted and accomplished. The experience gave me a new appreciation for this talent that Lucia has mastered. I envy her ability to find a song, learn it, play it, and sing. What a gift to be able to produce that combination of sounds.

A few months ago Lucia started playing again. At random times of the day, she’d sit down and scroll through her phone to find the list of songs she keeps, and look up the chords. Within minutes she’d be playing Beyonce, Amy Winehouse, or Brandi Carlile, singing along in her beautiful voice. Oh, how I’d missed this! And at the same time, it was like no time had passed. Lucia wasn’t rusty or frustrated. She played and sang beautifully. All those years of lessons were in her. She still had it!

These days Lucia plays more regularly. Last night when she was working through a list of chores I had given her she said, “Can I just play piano for a minute, and then I’ll finish?” 

“Of course,” I said, without hesitation. The answer is always yes to the piano. If she’d asked me if she could just put on mascara and then finish her chores I would have replied with a hard NO.

During her chore break, Lucia spent some time figuring out songs on the newest Adele album. I pretended to sweep the kitchen, holding onto this moment, absorbing it with the knowledge that this could go away again. 

Lucia is seventeen now. In a few years, she’ll be out of the house and our piano will become dormant, taking on the role of a glorified plant stand again. Maybe when she comes home for visits she’ll light up the piano corner again. I hope that’s the case, but I know my days of hearing Lucia play are limited.

I wonder if Lucia will find other pianos in her future — in the lounge of her college dorm, at a friend’s house in a city far away from here, in the quiet corner of a restaurant, in the home she creates for herself one day. For my sake, and for hers, I hope so.

Friday, December 24, 2021

All Kids Lie

Photo by <a href="">Ben White</a> on <a href="">Unsplash</a>

I’m fortunate to have a close-knit group of friends who all have teenage kids. I call them my Mom-Friends. Yesterday I was talking to one of my mom-friends about her kid lying to her. “All kids lie,” I said.

One of the things I ask of my teenage daughter is that she always tell me the truth. I want to know everything, even the stuff that’s bad. I want to know the ins and outs of her life so I can support her, guide her, comfort her through whatever happens in her life. But I know my daughter lies to me. She has to. 

Kids lie because they have to.

When kids are little they are perfect. They are so perfectly molded by our perfect parenting that we look at them with adoration and see everything rainbows and fairies. My mother used to tease me because I’d send her photos of my daughter sleeping. She was perfectly perfect all the time, even when she slept, especially when she slept. She was a perfect sleeper.

But as kids grow into teens and young adults they begin to self-actualize, to become who they are and not a reflection of who their parents want them to be. 

I am not proud of this, but I can see where I’ve forced my own daughter into lying. When I’m completely honest with myself I can clearly see the judgment I have of my daughter. I’m not judging her for who she’s become but because she’s changed; she’s not who she used to be. She’s not who I knew so well. 

Because I am still looking for that person — the little one who was perfectly perfect according to all of my standards of perfection — my daughter has to lie to keep my image of her intact. 

Lying is my daughter’s way of preserving her process of individuation. It’s her way of keeping me content, giving me enough of the old her to hold onto while forging ahead with her independence and autonomy. 

Maybe lying isn’t such a bad thing after all.

When I look at lying as a means of self-preservation for kids and parents, I think maybe it’s a good thing. I know my daughter doesn’t tell me everything; that often she lies by omission. But would I really want to know everything? I think I do, but I wonder if maybe it would be too much for me.

Her friends now, the people she’s forming this newfound independence and young adulthood with, know her in a fundamentally different way than I do. These friends don’t know her as she was when she was my perfectly perfect little girl. And my daughter doesn’t want them to know her that way. She wants them to know her as she is now; as the young woman she is creating. 

Occasionally my daughter and I will have a spontaneous conversation where she’ll share a lot with me. She’ll come into my office and talk about a boy she likes. If I sit there quietly with a calm expression she’ll elaborate and share details that, while inside I am clamoring for, on the outside I am completely neutral. It’s important in those moments that I monitor my reaction, that I don’t have too much of an opinion. 

Sometimes after dinner while doing the dishes my daughter will share her feelings about one of her friends. I can feel my “there’s a lesson here” mother rearing her ugly head, wanting to give my poor daughter a lecture about fairness and patience and friendship, but I quell that pollyanna and quietly listen. 

I know in those moments of sharing my daughter is not telling me everything. She’s sharing just enough to connect with me and preserve her budding sense of self. And it works. Those moments of sharing are like gas in the tank. I feel like I know my daughter a little bit more. I have the sense that she’s okay because she’s still sharing who she is with me. 

But by lying, by sharing just what she wants to share, my daughter is taking care of herself too. She’s making sure that her new path forward isn’t burdened by judgment, by the baggage of who she once was. I respect that. I remember feeling the same way when I was her age.

This process that our teenagers are going through, the process of becoming adults and separating from their childhood image, is hard work. Teens are in a perpetual state of exploration and reinvention. They are discovering who they are and that’s why they don’t tell their parents the whole truth.

Lying has such a negative connotation. We think of liars as bad, even evil, conniving and manipulative. When we use the word “lying” to describe this behavior of individuation in our kids, we’re deepening the divide, assigning a negative element to something perfectly normal and natural. 

I’m going to rename this behavior. Instead of “lying” I’m going to call this teenage privacy and information-sensoring behavior “becoming.” All that action behind the scenes that parents know nothing about is our kids becoming who they are. We’re just a small part of that process and, as hard as it is, we have no place in their inner sanctum of evolution. 

For now, our job is to stand at the sidelines and watch. At some point, maybe in a few years, maybe longer, our kids will feel ready to bring us in again. And that will feel amazing!

Saturday, December 18, 2021

Up Your Ass with Christmas

Photo by <a href="">Markus Spiske</a> on <a href="">Unsplash</a>

I’m not sure when this happened to me. I didn’t always feel this way about Christmas. I used to love it — setting up the tree, keeping lists of gifts, making cookies and toffee. But this year I truly cannot wait for the holiday to be over. I just want to move on to next year, whatever that looks like. 

When I was a kid my stepfather Al used to sing an improvised Christmas carol he wrote around the house for most of December. “Up your aaaassss with Christ-mas,” he’d bellow as he rounded the corner from the dining room to the living room where the big tree took over the front windows.

When my mom started talking about a holiday event he’d close his eyes and softly sing his tune, as if to invite in a momentary respite from the constancy of Christmas conversation.

Al was Jewish and he grew up in the Bronx. He never celebrated Christmas until he met my mom. Mom grew up in the midwest with a rich Scandanavian culture filled with beautiful Christmas traditions. She shared them all in our household and growing up I loved it. As an adult, I carried many of them into my family culture. 

We always laughed when Al sang the “Up your ass” song, but I never really understood why he felt that way.

In my house now, Christmas isn’t actually that big a deal. I’m the one who gets most excited. I decorate the tree. I bake the cookies. I prepare the holiday treat boxes to deliver to friends and neighbors. And I like that stuff. I really do. I enjoy the community nature of this holiday — the fact that everyone decorates, that people send cards, and have gatherings. 

But this year I find myself singing Al’s song in my head. I bristle against the expectation that Christmas should feel a certain way, that we should be joyous and light; that we should be filled with cheer. 

Yesterday on the radio I heard a woman talking about how supply chain issues are making it really hard to get speedy delivery of sports equipment and makeup so people’s gift plans are really getting screwed up. Really? This, right after a segment on how New York had record numbers of COVID cases that same day?

There is something wrong with this picture. Maybe if I had an eight-year-old I could rally more, get behind this facade that Christmas truly is a special time of year. But I have a seventeen-year-old whose school has been shut down multiple times in the last month for bomb threats and actual shootings outside of her school. I don’t care about Christmas. I care about gun control. 

And even if I had a younger child and felt the pressure to put on all the bells and whistles for the holiday, wouldn’t I still be aware of the fact that Antarctica hit record high temperatures this year? Would it be expected that I just forget all of this for a week in December to make everything gay? 

I am writing this on the same table where I am making holiday cards for my neighbors. I can see our decorated tree in the living room and the line of Christmas cards from people I love along the window sill. I have boxes of cookies in the kitchen behind me ready to deliver. I like this part of Christmas. I love this part. 

So why am I singing “Up your ass with Christmas” this year? I think back to when Al used to sing it. He wasn’t telling my mom to stop all her Christmas activities. He wasn’t trying to quell anyone else’s holiday joy. He was just keeping it real for himself. Al had other things on his mind, things that were important to him, things not necessarily related to Christmas.

Yesterday, when my daughter and her friend were sitting on our couch feeling hungover from their COVID booster shot the day before, reporting to me on the different social media threats and lockdowns at their respective schools, I said to them, “You know, for your generation there’s really no choice. You all have to be activists. There’s so much to change and make better.”

They both nodded in quiet agreement, but later I thought about what a heavy burden that is to dump on two teenagers. It is a heavy burden, but it’s the truth. It’s real for them and for all of us. The truth is that it’s all of our burden — the new uptick in COVID, rampant violence in schools, the climate crisis, racism, housing and food insecurity — all of it.

The media hype and societal expectations of Christmas invite us to forget about all of that and put on a happy face. I just can't do it this year.  I’m the age now that Al was when he used to sing “Up your aaaassss with Christ-Mas.” Like Al, I don’t want to kill anyone’s Christmas buzz. I don’t want to scrooge anyone’s vibe, but the truth is, I really do have more important things on my mind.  

Sunday, December 5, 2021

The Last Little Leaf

I just spent several days with my family — my two adult sisters and my mother. My stepfather died and we gathered together to move through the first few days after his death together. We wanted to support Mom and be in each other’s orbits as much as possible.

My mom and my sisters and I are close and not close at the same time. There was no question that I would hop on a plane as soon as my mom told me that my stepfather died; my sisters and I would be there for her in whatever way she needed. But we have complicated relationships — between each of us and among all of us.

I stayed for four days and then I had to come home. I went to a holiday party last night. I was sleep-deprived, sad, and adjusting to being out of the family-of-origin dynamic that I always fall right back into. At the party, I was awkward, negative, and unfocused. I felt like I was a terrible listener and a really boring talker. The whole evening felt a little bit like being emotionally seasick. 

This morning while walking my dog I called one of my friends Molly to check in. This friend is no-frills, amazingly insightful, non-judgemental, and wise. When she picked up the phone she said, “Hi. I was just thinking about you. You didn’t seem yourself at the party. Are you okay?”

I apologized for being so weird at the party and explained that being with my family had unmoored me. My equilibrium was off. My story is an age-old tale, one that many people experience — great love for my family, that is almost always accompanied by a hangover of confusing, unprocessed emotions after seeing them.

Molly said, as she and so many others have said over the years, “Laura, you have to stop going there.” She didn’t mean physically going to my childhood home. She meant emotionally. She explained the idea of getting out of the car on the freeway and getting in another car, one going where I wanted to go. “You have a choice not to go there Laura.”

As we talked I came upon a tree. There was one beautiful red leaf holding onto a branch on an otherwise completely bare tree. I stopped, took a picture of it, and texted Molly. “Why is that tree holding onto the leaf?” We laughed and continued talking for a while. A few hours later Molly texted me in response to my text about the naked tree, “I mean why is the leaf holding onto something that no longer provides any sustenance?”

She’s so smart! In my interpretation of the tree, the tree was holding onto the leaf, not allowing it to let go. In my friend’s interpretation, the leaf was holding onto the tree. There’s a big difference between these two versions. 

In my version, I wasn’t giving the leaf the power to let go. In Molly’s, the leaf was choosing to hang on. I was, and am, making the choice to hold onto those old patterns, those habitual reactions. But it’s possible to not do that anymore, to let go and choose another path.

It’s the lesson I have to keep learning in different ways — from my friends, from different therapists over the years, from my meditation practice, from the galleys of self-help books I’ve read, and today, from Molly and a tree. I don’t have to hang on to those branches that are no longer offering me sustenance. I can let go. I can float down into the earth where I will be absorbed into the soil and transformed into fertilizer for new growth next spring.

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