To My Son, Who is Turning Thirteen

Here we are, on the verge of big, bad teenagerdom.

I’m not going to lie, I’m scared. Not all the time, and not even about the big, bad things, but nevertheless, she persisted worrying. Have I done enough? Have I reminded you to please and thank you enough? Taught you how to tell a joke or to always deal cards to the left? Have I given you the confidence to do the right thing, even when the right thing isn’t the easy thing?

Most of the time I worry because I feel like I’m running out of time.

There are days when it seems you’ve already got one foot out of the door. I have to remind myself you’ve always had one foot out of the door, from the moment you were born. You were never mine, not really. You’ve always been your own. The universe merely placed you in my care for this dance, to make sure when you’re ready, you step through with both feet, confident and secure.

But that door? It will always open to you.

When you were an infant, swaddled like a baby burrito, you’d look up at me and I felt a million things surge through my blood all at once, like wildfire raging through my veins. Thirteen years later your eyes are nearly level with my own, but my blood still sings that same fiery song.

Those times you think I’m staring at you, looking for something to criticize? I’m really looking to see if the angle of your jaw has sharpened between dinner and breakfast.

When you catch me standing outside your door, it’s not to simply to tell you to pick your clothes up off the floor, it’s also to hear if the timber of your voice has begun to deepen.

I’m terrified I’m going to miss something, afraid one day I’ll look at you and that tiny boy, the one we fought so hard to bring into the world, is going to be impossible to recognize in the face and body of the young man you’re becoming.

In case I don’t tell you enough, I am proud of you, the way you treat everyone with kindness, the ease with which you saunter through life, your even-temper. Do you remember the night we sat around the dinner table and asked, who is the least likely to lose their temper? Without hesitation, we all pointed to you.

Keep your even temper. It will be your greatest gift in life, the ability to take a situation and diffuse it, to find the funny, or the good, the silver lining.

You are so unbelievably fortunate. You have so much opportunity at times it’s almost embarrassing. Use it. Use it to speak out for those who have less. Don’t ever take it for granted or feel like the world owes you more than what you’ve already been bestowed, because those invisible gifts you’ve been born into–the color of your skin, your sex, the opportunities we’ve been able to give to you? Those things are not due to you. You do not deserve them more than someone else. So use them. Stand up for those who walk through life with less ease, with less opportunity, with less help. Be aware of your privileges and of how you can use them for good.

Find something you want to be great at. It doesn’t matter if you are great at it, but it’s important to have something to work at, to dream about. Don’t take the easy way out. Get better. Be better.

Take time to settle into your mold. You don’t have to know who you are or what you want to do with your life. You just need to live your best life. Not everyday, no one lives their best life everyday. If someone tells you that, ignore them. If you’re batting one for ten you’re doing ok. Some days life hurts. Some days it’s tough. Some days it sucks donkey balls. It will get better. Don’t think it won’t get better.

No matter how many eye-rolls or ‘whatever’s, how many door slams or a thousand other stereotypes I’m remembering from The Breakfast Club and my own teenage years, we will be here. Sometimes you’ll feel like you don’t need us. That’s good. That means we’ve done our job. We’ll be here anyway.

You’re going to think we’re dumb and out of touch. You’re going to think you know better. You’re going to think every sneaky trick you come up with to fool us hasn’t been tried before. You’re wrong on all counts.

You won’t believe me. I know. I didn’t either.

We’re going to argue. I’m going to be wrong. You’re going to be wrong. If it’s truly important, stand up for yourself. But choose your hills wisely. Make sure it’s a hill you’re willing to die on before you dig in.

I’m going to embarrass you. Mostly accidentally but sometimes on purpose.

You’ll want to do things we don’t think you’re ready for. Sometimes we’ll screw it up. Sometimes we’ll make shitty decisions. But even when we do, try to remember it’s coming from a place of love. You won’t believe that either, but it’s true.

The world is out there waiting. There’s a lot of shit going down, a lot of bad stuff. But so much good stuff too. Don’t let the scary stuff stop you from experiencing the good. Don’t let the good stuff stop you from trying to change the bad.

Don’t let anyone else define you. If someone tells you that you have to be or do something? If they want to change you or set conditions on their love for you? Run the other way. Fast.

Life is going to hurt. Life is going to sing. It’s going to flutter and fly and sink and sometimes you’ll feel like you are drowning in your own breath. That is life. All of it put together is what makes it worth living.

Most of all I want you to know it will never be you vs. the world. We are tied together, you and me. For nine months your heartbeat tangled with mine until it was hard to tell where one stopped and the other began. Yours dances to a different tempo now, but mine? Mine will always skip a beat here and there, making sure there is a space for yours to return to when you need it.

Love,
Mom

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To the Girls Who Shared Their Aqua Net With Me

sheragroupFor the past few summers, I’ve been getting together with a small group of friends from high school. Each year we seem to add a friend or two, like charms to a bracelet. And though it’s been nearly thirty years since we threw our mortar boards into a cloudy, June sky, it’s easy to slip back into a friendship that is both comfortable and uncomplicated.

Light as a feather, stiff as a board. It was a girlhood game we played at slumber parties, but it describes these friendships too. The responsibility for maintaining them doesn’t weigh heavy upon me, but I know, without having to think about them too much, that they would bear weight as well. Together we have a shared past of acne and baby fat, of crushes and teenage heartbreak. Of all the good and bad that make up the exquisite pain of adolescence.

I don’t try to impress these women when we visit. I throw some chips in a bowl, open a tub of ready-made dip and make sure I have enough wine. That’s about it. These are the girls that have seen me at my gawkiest, my gothiest, my geekiest. These are the girls that snuck wine coolers at the bridge with me, who gave me endless rides, who slept out on the sidewalk with me for Duran Duran tickets. They are the girls who shared their Aqua Net with me, who let me primp in the magnetic mirror on the inside of their locker, who stood in a circle and danced to We’re Not Gonna Take It.

Once you’ve white-girl danced together to Twisted Sister in a sweaty cafeteria it’s hard to impress someone.

Sometimes it’s hard to get past the past. In my head (and often aloud) I still refer to them by their maiden names. It’s difficult sometimes to think of Kelly as a well-respected veterinarian instead of Kelly who adored Howard Jones. It’s hard to think of Joanne as the mother of two adult women and not Joanne whose house we always hung out at.

We’ve all chosen different paths. Some work, some don’t have kids. I’ve moved abroad. Some live in the same town we grew up in. But we have this core, this commonality that draws us like moths to a flame, a history of having survived the same hallways and the same classrooms, of growing up.

crimper

We still talk about boys–though they are our husbands and sons. We still talk about our parents, but now we talk about the plans in place as they age. We still gossip about who did what to who in high school and a few long-held secret crushes have been shared over the pinot-grigio.

We trade memories like baseball cards. We tell stories, because that is how women connect, through stories. Often we have different recollections of the same event. We were so caught up in our own heads, so focused on the girl in the mirror gazing back, that we often didn’t see past the cloud of hairspray to the girl standing to the right or left.

In thirty years the conversations haven’t changed too much, but we have changed.

Diane has a new hip, her old one worn down by juvenile arthritis–and Tammi is a grandmother. I am softer around the edges. And the middle, top, bottom and sides. Laura’s hair is streaked with gray. Amanda is caretaker to her family, the equation turned upside down, the child turned parent.

Despite the loss of collagen, despite the need for reading glasses, we all look better than we did in high school. Not simply due to hairstyles and a better dress sense, not due to filling out or even tightening up, but because on the other side of the girlhood door we all found the woman we were meant to be.

These are the girls who witnessed my transformation from tall geeky girl to tall eyeliner goth. With them I am not Dina, the writer or Dina, the expat, I am the gawky girl who had a crush on the quarterback. I am the girl who didn’t get asked to the prom, the one who, even at 16, was railing about the injustices of high school life in the school newspaper. I am the caterpillar who didn’t manage to blossom into a butterfly until well after high school.

These women know from whence I came. They ground me.

Aqua NetAt a time when I have felt so untethered to the world around me, as I try to figure out where to go next, I rather desperately needed that grounding. I needed to know that even though I don’t look the same, the girl I once was is still present in the woman I am. As I get ready to go through another metamorphosis, it is comforting to know I won’t lose myself–but instead I will take the girl and woman I am with me into the next phase of my life.

To the girls that shared their Aqua Net with me, thank you for the reminder.

Love,
Me

You Don’t Have To Be Cool To Rule My World

prince-800-468x351In the dark of a sweat-soaked night, poured into a pair of jeans with zips at the ankles, a half shirt riding my midriff, I stood. With other uncoupled girls, backs against the cool tile wall, I listened as the unmistakable guitar notes of Purple Rain echoed through the cafeteria.

As a young teen, Purple Rain was a song for fetishes. It was the song you fantasized to, the one where the boy you had been following between locker clangs and lunch tray thumps all semester strode over to ask you to dance. That long, guitar strum anthem was four and half minutes in which to bury your nose in the scent of boy crush. Ten if they played the album version.

Prince, like the smell of Drakkar Noir and Aqua Net, the stickiness of bubble gum lip gloss and the snap of grape Bubblicious, was part of the soundtrack of my adolescence. His music was there, new and adult. For many of us Darling Nikki was the musical equivalent of Judy Blume’s book, Forever. A song which you knew was down and dirty without knowing how you knew. That song sounded like lust. It sounded illicit and secret and thrilling and as teens, our parents had no clue we were grinding to those notes until Tipper Gore came along and ruined everything.

Prince’s music was accessible enough to land in the Top 40, but edgy enough to make you squirm. For a young teen, his music was dirty. It was sexy. It was raw and lust and moan and grind. It was music to make out in a dark corner of the cafeteria to. It was boy straining at the crotch of his jeans music. Music that made your pulse throb with longing.

For a long time Prince found the perfect balance between commercial and cool. Androgynous, high-pitched and unabashedly sexual, he was the 80s answer to the 70s Bowie. Flamboyant enough to appeal to the fringes and talented enough to wrap the mainstream around his little finger. Prince was the man who made singing about a sorbet colored hat sound cool, the one who got away with singing about condoms on Casey Kasem’s radio show.

As adults my husband and I still listen to Purple Rain from time to time. We still know all the words to When Doves Cry. I can still do the finger gestures to I Would Die 4U as if I were dancing in a circle in a high school cafeteria, watching the boy I crushed on out of the corner of my eye, praying he noticed enough to ask me to dance.

For me, Prince will always be the music playing at the moment you understand what the adults are talking about behind their hands. The moment you realize the throbbing and the pulsing and flutters mean something. When the Drakkar Noir mixes just a little too well with the scent of flesh and male and the hum of your very self sings as high some of his notes.

It was the perfect soundtrack for the long walk from childhood to adolescence, a low thrumming baseline of lust which made you sing and wonder and feel those notes down below your belt.

Standing here now at forty-five, at the crossroads of yet another turn of life, his death has brought me full circle. But I will never be able to hear the opening strains of Purple Rain without feeling like a girl on the cusp of something new, something exciting, something they tell you is wrong but is oh, so right.

Tweenage Wasteland

kids-and-cardsI’m suffering a case of whiplash.

Not from an accident in the pedal or be killed bike lanes of Copenhagen, but from watching my not-quite-eleven-year-old waffle back and forth between being a little kid and teetering on the edge of being a teenager.

Has there ever ben a more apt slang term than tween? When I was eleven and trying to figure out if it was still cool to play with my Barbies, while I was busy dreaming about the boy down the street and meticulously cutting out paper dolls, while I was fantasizing about growing boobs while playing with my Spirograph set and Fashion Plates, those years between kid and teen were just called awkward.

Surely you remember those years a little bit. The exquisite pain of trying to figure out where you fit in, the uncertainty, the sensation of growing right out of your skin.

The years betwixt and between. Caught between ages, emotions, between height and breasts and dropped testicles. Between a stirring in the heart and still being reasonably sure the opposite sex has cooties.

The other day my son was quite happily playing with his younger brother with a bunch of trucks in the sand, reminding me of that sweet, quick-smiling toddler of yore. Then he stormed off in a huff because of…well, I don’t even know what he was storming off about.

Was it something I said?

I have a feeling I’ll be asking myself that question a lot in the days to come.

Photo: Mary Ellen Mark
Photo: Mary Ellen Mark

He recently devoured the Divergent series in the space of a week….and followed it up by whipping through a series about a hamster named Humphrey.

Every now and then he snuggles up to me, lays his head in my lap and asks me to stroke his hair. Or he stomps away angrily, embarrassed, unsure. Still craving affection yet not sure if it’s cool to seek it out.

He asked a girl to the dance….and then asked Santa for a Build-a-Bear. He is mature enough to cycle to his friend’s houses independently, and yet still will only eat apples cut up into slices.

On a Thursday he went to see Jurassic World, and on Monday he happily wasted an afternoon watching PacMan cartoons with his brother.

Not going or coming, but both simultaneously. Still years away from being taken seriously by most of the adults around him, but with far more to say than a kid. Forming his opinions and ideas, not knowing where they fit into the big picture.

He is in the no man’s land between kid and teen.

Kids are tolerated, they are forgiven, they are smiled at and have their heads patted. They get away with things because they are cute and chubby and little. They lisp their toddling way into our hearts. Teens are tolerated because most of us have a vague recollection of being a teenager, of what it was like to use all your resources for that final push into grown up ness, when your bones stretch at night and you wake up a young man or woman. Plus, they sleep a lot and can make their own lunch, so that helps too.

34-Street-Games-GettyBut those years in between? They’re tough. Awkward. Tweens still exhibit all the goofy silliness of kids, but at ten, eleven, twelve, it’s not cute to us anymore. It’s annoying. They spout nonsense as if it were on tap, but instead of thinking it’s adorable like we did when they were three, we think it’s smarmy. They want to cuddle and yet they’re starting to smell. Too old for many things, not old enough for the rest.

My son still half believes in the tooth fairy and yet we’re talking to him about puberty, prepping him for deodorant and jock straps. Kissing scenes in movies are just starting to make him squirm. And we’re starting to squirm because he is. No wonder why he’s confused.

Tweens have to take that final, frightening step from kid to adolescent. They have the space of a few years to do it in, but there’s a whole lotta wasteland to cover in between, in which to be a tween.

In the meantime, I’ll prep my neck for the inevitable whiplashing back and forth.