Last week was a WEEK and I went to the cabin to regroup for a bit over the weekend. (I reference “the cabin” a lot but if this sounds like Fancy Person Vaguery — Oh, we were at the beach house, dahling *finger trill* — I’ll clarify by saying we don’t actually own a vacation home, we have use of a small house on the Umpqua River which is owned by John’s parents.) It was an absolutely perfect getaway, with cold foggy mornings and rich fall sunlight in the afternoons. I ate Triscuits and drank fizzy Polar water and I wore the same pair of sweatpants for two days.

I spent a lot of time just sitting in front of the big windows in the front room watching the water flow by. A hulking grey heron came and picked his way among the rocks, looking like a piece of origami that had floated down from the sky, all pointy paper blades. Tennis-ball-shaped fruit fell at an unsteady pace from the black walnut tree in periodic thumps and bounces. At sunset gusts of wind blew a confetti of bright yellow leaves across the melting orange river where light still danced on the ripples and waves and it was one of the prettiest things I’ve ever seen.

I drove to Reedsport, a nearby coastal town, and wandered in a dusty antique store that looked and felt exactly like someone’s long-forgotten attic, trash and treasure everywhere. I went to a drugstore and bought a candle that smelled the way your body feels when you look at a lit-up Christmas tee. I drove lazily, pulling over whenever cars loomed impatiently behind me, under a chilly blue sky and the thick tunnels of trees that arc over Highway 38 like protective laced fingers.

Eventually, I came home, and that was wonderful too. But it was so good to get away.

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We have been lucky with our kids in that neither has exhibited any major behavior problems at school. Each has received a single principal-visit-level writeup for making a boneheaded decision; Riley got in a bus line tussle with another kid in first grade, last year Dylan and a classmate absentmindedly strolled out of school together several minutes before the final bell rang.

This week, however, Dylan was involved in a pretty serious incident in his class. There is still a lot I don’t fully understand about what happened. I know Dylan says he said something in a joking way to a classmate, who later used it as an insult. When this classmate then got in trouble, he blamed Dylan, saying he learned it from him that morning. Dylan then claimed he’d heard it on a YouTube video.

I’m hugely unhappy that someone may have been saddened or upset as the result of something my child said, and I’m particularly frustrated that he tried to lay the blame elsewhere: while I have no doubt he’s been exposed to all kinds of stupidity via YouTube, that is no excuse.

There is no excuse, here. It was a bad choice, he knew better, full stop. No get out of jail free card for being ten or trying to be edgy or cool or simply parroting some despicable thing some shitlord gaming streamer said. He’s been disciplined, he’s been talked to both angrily and earnestly, he had a productive sit-down with our thoughtful and caring principal (albeit in a somewhat delayed fashion, because the scales of fifth grade justice are as overloaded and stretched thin as every other public school resource).

No one wants to be the parent of a kid who does a bad thing, but here is what is even worse: being the parent of a kid who is shaken to his core by the bad thing he did.

I had a long, weepy talk with him, lying in his bed surrounded by his stuffed animals, his Calvin & Hobbes books, his special blankets. In this little-kid place, talking about such big-kid things. His small freckled face, wet and shining. His regret and fear and shame.

I don’t want to be a bad kid
, he sobbed. I held him, so tightly.

Look at me, I said. Look at me. I have made bad choices. I have made so many bad choices in my life.

Do you think I am a bad person? He shook his head.

And I don’t think you’re a bad person. You made a bad choice. There’s a big difference between a bad choice and a bad person. When we made mistakes, we don’t let them define us. We learn from them.

You believe in me, okay? And I will believe in you.

Somewhere inside of me, I felt something shift. Like the tiniest crack in a heavy ice shelf. Bad choice, bad person. Not the same thing. Not the same. My little boy, not so little, still so little. My heart, filling up and breaking and repairing and beating on and on. My dreams for my children and my worries and my most secret fears and my surrenders.

The landmass of shame, the nearly unbearable lightness of grace.

This was a hard thing but he will be okay, he’ll have a deeper understanding of how words have power and how they can hurt and what it means to be a decent human navigating this tricky world with other humans. It was a fairly awful but maybe ultimately impactful learning experience. For both of us.

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