The most valuable lesson my mom taught me

Author’s note: while this story is one of my favorites about my mom, the writing and point of view are entirely mine as I remember being in fourth grade. My relatively recent discovery of profanity has merely allowed me to express feelings I have had since I was ten. This is not my mom’s fault—she really did raise me better. I just came out like this. Sorry, mom. I love you.

Also, Brian, if you’re out there: no hard feelings.

***

I got my most valuable lesson from my mom when I was in fourth grade. It was my first run-in with heartbreak, and she was the one to help. Not by taking my hand and assuring me my heart would heal. Rather, when I was the one thrust into doing some heartbreaking, it was mom who assured me that not only is heartbreak not fatal, but it’s not my job to clean up messes other people insist on spilling everywhere.

It started when my friend Sierra asked if I liked Brian after school. Liked liked Brian. Our class had collectively discovered what crushes were and were infatuated with getting our hands on one—either first-hand or vicariously through classmates.

My interest fell distinctly into the latter camp. Crushing was a fantastic spectator sport—which is exactly why I was determined to remain a spectator.

So when Sierra asked me if I like liked Brian I…panicked a bit. While I had no problem being the center of attention, I also preferred knowing I had an audience. But if she was asking me this, who else was asking? Who was already talking? How many romantic rumors did I need to preempt?

I laid out a fervent and thorough denial of all romantic inclinations anyone might suspect me having towards Brian and/or anyone else in our class. Brian and I were very close friends, only friends, and friendship is very important, more important than romance even, not that there is any romance, because there is zero. And I’m not really ready for a relationship right now, and even if I was, Brian was not my type. Not that I have a type. But even if I had a type, he’s not it. And if you could please tell anyone saying otherwise that’d be great.

Then I stopped. “Why do you ask?”

“Oh,” said Sierra. “Brian asked me to. Because he likes you.”

Oh.

Shit.

I did as much backpedaling as I could, but it wouldn’t be long before my all-too-clear feelings made their way back to the boy who’d just asked my best friend to ask me if I liked him. Laying bare heart and soul, fourth-grade style.

Sure enough, the next morning Brian moped theatrically past me into class, making mournful eye contact as he slumped into his desk.

I tried to smile and be friendly, because we were friends, God please tell me we were still friends, but he was having none of it. He’d put his heart on the table and I’d, apparently, crushed it.

I quickly decided the best course of action was Giving Brian Space. Everything I’d said was in an attempt to make drama Go Away; maybe acting it like it had would actually work. Plus I didn’t really feel like rehashing the devastating things I’d said, and suspected Brian felt the same way.

Brian…had other plans.

Every time he passed my desk it was with an anguished sigh. Every time we broke for lunch or recess he’d mope on his own, away from the rest of our fourth-grade conglomerate. I had Broken His Heart, and he was making that Very Clear.

And it was working. I was wracked with guilt. I had the power to destroy and I’d inadvertently used it. I was a harpy and didn’t even know it.

The straw that broke my harpy back was the song Brian started singing after school. I found him camped out, suicidally, directly under the basketball net, near the storage shed I was raiding to get a dodgeball. I got close, trying to smile as non-harpily as I could.

Before I could say anything, Brian started singing: “I’m feeling depressed / I’m feeling depressed / Annica doesn’t like me / And I’m feeling depressed.”

It would be another year (via a conversation with a very caring and very honest P.E. teacher) before our class learned what clinical depression was, but I inferred two things about Brian’s sudden-onset depression: (1) it wasn’t good and (2) it was my fault.

And so I started thinking. Not necessarily dating (whatever “dating” even meant in fourth grade), but something. Something to ease this heartbreak I’d unwittingly wrought.

My mom would know what to do. Mom, who’d been my unfailing coach and mentor in being caring. Who’d taught me how to share. Who knew how to strike the delicate balance between being honest and kind. Who’d succeeded and demonstrating and teaching the most valuable skill a fourth-grader could wield: Being Nice. Mom could fix this. Mom would know what to do.

She picked me up an hour or so after Brian went home. She asked me how school had gone. I started telling her about Brian’s broken heart and how it was my fault and that I was trying to figure out a way to make things right.

I hadn’t even gotten to the singing bit when she cut me off.

“Brian will live. You shouldn’t be doing anything for Brian.”

I sat there, stunned, trying to wrap my head around my second shift in reality I’d encountered in that day: not only was I a fourth-grade harpy, but my wonderful, caring, well-spoken, kind-hearted mom…didn’t want me to do anything. Didn’t tell me to be nice.

In horror and indignation, I reiterated that Brian’s heart was broken, that he was singing a song about it, that he was alone under the basketball net waiting for death to take him via an athletic middle schooler.

And she laughed. She laughed and sighed and then said, as if I were the one with an incomplete, childlike grasp on the situation:

“Well I’m very sorry. He’ll be fine.”

My wonderful, caring, well-spoken, kind-hearted mom might actually be a stone-cold bitch.

I spent the evening ruminating on my mom’s dismissal. She talked like I’d done nothing wrong. Like there was no actual problem here. Like this was a playground game. Was she right?

If she was wrong, then I had the power to hurt or heal some very real wounds.

But if she was right, I was off the hook from actually having to do anything.

I decided to give her the benefit of a doubt.

I stuck to my cool-calm-collected space-giving strategy the next day. Brian stuck to his slumps and sighs. I did my best to tell myself: Brian will live. You don’t need to do anything. Brian will live. Brian will be fine.

He was still living awfully unhappily by the end of the day, so I pressed the matter with mom again.

The same laugh-sigh, the same amusement and annoyance and dismissal of my (his?) problem. Then she laid her cards on the table.

“Listen,” she said, “I talked to Brian’s mom. He’s fine, I promise you. He’s just doing it for the attention.”

Two moms! Two moms with two collaborative stories that confirmed this was Not A Big Deal.

I was equal parts relieved and indignant. All that guilt had, indeed, been for naught. I didn’t cause this. “This” wasn’t even a real thing. It was a performance. It was a ruse. I wasn’t just off the hook, I had no stake in this claim to begin with.

I was not a harpy. I was not responsible. I was in charge of my reaction, and that was all the care I was required to provide.

And Brian’s heartbreak did, indeed, fade with some calculated-but-not-too­-calculated coolness and avoidance. We were back to being (just) friends by the next week. Heartbreak, as it turns out, isn’t fatal. It’s not even chronic.

It wasn’t until I was an adult looking back that I realized the amount of trouble my mom’s advice saved me. Turns out manipulative theatrics is hardly limited to fourth grade boys. I would go on to watch boys in high school, college, do the same song and dance. To ask girls why they attended dances with them if they weren’t interested in something else. To guilt trip their exes into a second chance—they didn’t mean to do those things, say those things, they were just so impassioned they couldn’t think straight.

I was lucky. I sidestepped toxic relationships because I could still hear my mom’s words. They will live. You don’t have to do anything. They will live. They will be fine.

Not every girl learns that from her mom. Not every girl walks away from their mopey suitor. Some go their whole lives convinced all love, lust, heartbreak directed at them is their cause, and therefore their fault. That they need to clean up the mess they caused. That they’re the harpies.

My mom imparted more wisdom than she realized navigating me through that first bout of unrequited affection. Fixing Everything and Being Nice are two different projects. And you don’t have to fix everything to be nice. You do not have to respond to guilt trips. You can—you should—walk away from manipulation. You have your own problems to solve.

You will live. You will be fine.

Happy Mother’s Day, Mom. Thanks for assuring me I’m not a harpy.

***

EDIT: I told my mom I was writing this and got her side of the story: as she remembers it, the reason she went to Brian’s mom wasn’t that Brian or even myself was in any great distress. It was because the rest of our class was talking about his theatrics and my staggering non-responsiveness.

Which means, in her telling of the story, I was the stone-cold bitch.

I’m…I’m a little proud.

“How’s Married Life?”

According to the website we set up to collect wedding RSVP’s, Jordan and I have been married 124 days. Within those 124 days, I have been asked “So How’s Married Life?” 268 times.  That’s a rough approximation, but it has to be close. There’s one problem with this, though: despite being asked 268 times, I still don’t have an answer to this question.

I’ve been trying and trying to come up with one. “Good” isn’t quite accurate: it only encompasses one broad, vague aspect of what’s going on within this arrangement, and anyway it’s not a very interesting answer. But just because it’s not “good” doesn’t mean it’s “bad,” which of course is totally wrong and a terrible way to move forward with small talk.

Words like “Tricky” and “Enlightening” and “New” get a lot closer to the real answer, but the conversation rarely goes well after I say something like that—eyebrows furrow and a look of panic crosses the eyes of the poor sap who wasn’t really looking to have this conversation, and I wind up backtracking to assure whoever I’m talking to that my husband and really do love each other and are having a good time, really, and wondering once again why I don’t just stick with the answer “good” when people ask me this damn question.

“How’s married life?” is turning out to be the third-hardest question I’ve ever had to answer, right behind “So what do want to do when you grow up/once you graduate/after the wedding?” and “You’re Jordan’s girlfriend, right?” in between breaking up with one Jordan and starting to date another. (I answered that one with “Depends, which Jordan are you talking about,” and yes, my life is a sitcom, in answer to another question you were wondering.)

It’s not that married life isn’t good. It’s that a lot more than just “good,” more than can be explained quickly or neatly or, sometimes, in polite company. I can’t think of the right answer to this question because there are too many answers, all of them true but none of them fully encompassing the right answer in and of themselves.

Here’s a sampler of just a dozen. In the last 124 days, married life is:

– Sharing everything. Not just apartment space or chores or roommate stuff, but everything. A bed. A bedtime. A bank account. A laundry hamper. Weekly schedules. All the food in the fridge (including that slice of pizza that I thought was mine, guess not). I don’t think I’ve been this much in sync with another person since getting my driver’s license. I didn’t have to be. Now I do.

– Coming home to debrief from work and having someone there who will automatically take your side. They have to, because they don’t know anyone else from your work—or, even if they do, they love you best.

– Sleeping naked. Reading naked. Hanging about the apartment naked. This space is our realm now. We make the rules, and the rules no longer require pants.

– Hashing out the crush you have on that dude at work with your husband. So that’s different.

– Having zero secrets. See last two above.

– Feeling like your spouse is being ridiculous about this and just needs to apologize, dammit…then feeling petty and childish for being so worked up about this when they do.

– Experiencing an irrationally heightened sense of sadness when you discover the person who’s supposed to be your soulmate doesn’t share your appreciation for That book, game, movie, artist, or other Really Important Thing. I’m still wrapping my head around Jordan’s apathy towards the Muppets. And I’m grateful he didn’t divorce me upon discovering my “meh” attitude towards Firefly.

– Having a built-in date to every other event you’ll ever be invited to.

– Counting impromptu nights out as “dates that will ultimately strengthen your marriage” rather than just “spending time/money we may or may not have,” thus making the whole endeavor more justifiable.

– Gritting your teeth and bearing mostly terrible advice from every single person who finds out you’re a newlywed. (Protip: can you replace the words “wife” and “husband” with “mother” and “eight-year-old” and have your advice still make sense? If so, then you’re not giving marriage advice, you’re giving parenting advice. I’m not interested. Goway.)

– Having every decision you make affect another person. I guess technically, in the Butterfly Effect sense, that’s always true, but marriage makes that truth extremely apparent. This person is your family that you made, you two are responsible for this plus any other people you may make later, your well-being depends on theirs and vice-versa. No pressure.

– Having the day end with my favorite person not only still around in the apartment, but in the same room, in the same place, right next to me.

“How’s married life?”  It’s these things, plus a bunch of other stuff that I’m sure I’ll run into tomorrow, and next month, and next year. It’s an answer whose tone changes daily depending on what my husband or I did or didn’t say upon heading out the door. It’s not a very good small talk starter, really, unless you’re ready to listen to a detailed and all-too-personal answer.

But 124 days in, it is interesting. It is enlightening. And it is good.

Marriage is whimsically posing in the grass. Okay maybe not. But that's fun too.

Marriage is whimsically posing in the grass. Okay maybe not. But that’s fun too.

Mopey Posts

Considering what blogging habits were before coming here, I guess 15 days between posts isn’t that bad. But considering how bad I am at posting pictures of my time abroad and how Thinking and Talking About Things often feels like the only way I can process or share this experience, I’m frustrated at myself. Both for not posting and for the reasons I didn’t post.

I haven’t felt very present in Lithuania these last two weeks. I graduate next semester and have a lot to do and some very big changes to look forward to once that happens, and those changes have been on my mind a lot since October started. As such, I’ve been going through my routine here with one (or both) eyes always focused on home.

Knowing this experience is temporary, that my next steps (and many of the significant players in it) lie somewhere else, makes me want to simultaneously squeeze all I can out of this semester and avoid (or maybe just not bother) getting too attached. I’m not sure how to best handle my time abroad—am I a student? A tourist? A part of this community, however temporary?—and in my confusion, I often feel like I’m squandering it. (Another study abroad, Buddy Hocutt, wrote a much more eloquent post about this the second week we were here. I don’t know if he’s still as confused as I am, but he explains the question on how to interact here well.)

Yet at the same time, I feel extremely blessed to have something to return to. I’m not having a hard time here because I don’t like it here; I’m having a hard time here because my identity isn’t here. If I were staying in Klaipeda, I’d throw myself into it the way I threw myself into Fox. It’s tough, because adjusting to a new environment is always tough, but it’s not miserable. LCC’s classes, company and city are all pretty good. But my friends, my family, my future are (currently) in the United States…and honestly, I’m eager to get back to them.

I’m glad I came, but I’m equally glad I didn’t know how it would feel before I got here. I don’t know if I’d have mustered the guts to do it then. But then, that in and of itself has taught me a little more about who I am and what I care about and how I might best handle the rest of my living in this crazy world.

If only I can figure out what how to best handle these next two-point-five months.

American President, Ukrainian President

Nothing makes me want to vote less than doing research on this season’s American candidates.

Nothing makes me want to vote more than talking to my Ukrainian roommates.

One of them caught up with me on my way back from putting my absentee ballot application in the mail. “You’re voting from outside the country?” My brief explanation of the American ballot system evolved into a conversation about what little about American politics we both knew. She asked my impressions of the candidates and shared her own; I described what I could out of my own (incomplete) observations and opinions.

The extent of my cynicism became clear even to me as I explained: “I think most Americans are voting for one candidate or the other not because they like them, but because they don’t like the other even more.”

She nodded, and mentioned no one is happy with the government in Ukraine either. But no one is going to vote, because voting isn’t going to change it.

The power structure in Ukraine is corrupt. About a week before putting my ballot in the mail, I and one other American student had sat stunned as we listened to my roommates describe the scandals, deceit and death knolls that plague Ukraine’s election season. The men in power have been in power for a long time, and will probably remain that way.

It’s dangerous to be a political newcomer in Ukraine. At best, your opponents will set you up to look foolish, then use their own paparazzi and media sources to condemn you in the papers. Serving drinks at a party, then leading guests into staged situations where they can’t react as sharply is a common strategy.

At worst, if you still don’t go away, accidents might happen. Car accidents, specifically: “They’re hard to prove it was intentional.” And even if someone did go seeking proof, legal cooperation would be hard to find: The KGB lives on in Ukraine. Under a different name, but with the same sort of relationship with the government—and the people.

And of course, the ballot box is more a prop than a tool for democracy.

“The people are hopeless,” my roommate reiterated. “They have no hope. They know their voting won’t change anything, and they don’t feel like they can change anything.”

I asked her what she thought it would take to change something in Ukraine. She explained the last revolution was in 2005, but it didn’t get very far and with such a “hopeless” population, it would take awhile before anyone could be rallied into stirring things up again.

The phrase “your vote counts” is a popular one in the States. But that phrase never clicked with me until I talked to someone whose vote doesn’t.

The men vying to become America’s new president are not stellar candidates. They’re both tweaking statements to appeal to whatever majority they think they’ve found. They’re both making promises they can’t keep. They’re both making a mess and inheriting a mess, and no matter who wins, they’ll remain entrenched in the power plays and politics that make up running a country (whether in the leading role or as a supporting character).

But they are not tyrants either. American voters are not afraid of their leaders. Our presidents don’t use force to keep the control they’ve seized once their contract is up (and despite the alarmist rhetoric out there, I don’t think they’re about to start). Our candidates are eliminated by primaries, not car crashes.

Our system isn’t changing, but it’s for reasons very different than the ones in Ukraine.

I can’t say I feel optimistic about casting a ballot this season, but I’m certainly more grateful and humble than I was when I arrived in Eastern Europe. Whoever wins this election, it’s at least going to a candidate aware of his limitations, accountability and responsibility to the people.

Not every citizen is that lucky.

Chatter Chatter Chatter

This post comes with a disclaimer: I’m writing parts of it in a room full of other LCC students, all of whom have washable marker mustaches on their faces. It’s the hall rule this evening: step foot in the common room, get a mustache. Eight of us are currently here; two more are roaming the halls with Crayola-colored facial hair, and a few fast-moving (or knife-wielding) individuals managed to escape clean-shaven.

About half the floor has made an appearance, and the camaraderie is good this evening. It’s a good night for camaraderie to be good, because I actually walked in to write about something that’s been frustrating me even before I went abroad: how hard camaraderie between international students can be.

Chinese students come to the States and hang out with each other. American, Ukrainian, Russian, Belarussian, Latvian and a whole host of other nationalities come to Lithuania and do the same. Everyone speaks the language they know, to the people they know, from the culture they know.

It’s a natural reaction, gravitating to the people you connect with. And when things are already so different and foreign, it’s all the more comforting to just be comfortable with someone like you, someone who understands both the place you’re coming from and the words coming out of your mouth.

But when everyone’s doing it, it makes making friends outside those boundaries pretty hard.

I’m hardly immune. Before being shanghaied into the mustache gang late this evening, I was doing homework and walking around the city with another American student. Most of our conversation involved processing our states of culture shock and weighing the probability and consequences of spending our time here with peers from our own country.

On the one hand, we came to Lithuania to be in Lithuania — to meet and talk and learn with eastern Europeans, not North Americans.

On the other hand, when in Lithuania, do as the Lithuanians (and Russians and Latvians and Moldovans and Ukrainians) do. And by that I mean speak your own language and congregate with your own kind.

It’s frustrating, but I don’t know the solution. I mean, on a grand scale, that’s kinda how the world works. Most people live their whole lives within their own “group,” speaking one language in one country, one culture. No one “owes” each other to speak a second language or seek each other out. Even within a single country, people subdivide themselves: monolingual campuses have cliques or subgroups, even if the divisions are more subtle. They’ve got the same mother tongue, but even they aren’t exactly speaking the same language.

But as someone who wants to meet people outside my own group, and someone for whom talking is an important vehicle to achieve that goal, I’m feeling a bit stuck. And yes, I recognize one solution: roll up my sleeves and learn a second language already. But which one? If I want to meet the “locals,” I need Lithuanian (which I am learning, albeit slowly). If I want to talk to my roommates, I need Ukrainian. If I want to talk to the guys down the hall, I need Russian. I haven’t quite pinpointed what language I need for my Thursday afternoon class.

Even if by some miracle I mastered two of those languages in four months, I still wouldn’t understand half the people chattering in my classes. Plus I’ve only got four months here. I don’t expect to get immersed in a culture in so short a time, but it would be nice to at least make some connections with people who don’t own passports from the same country I do.

So what does that mean for my time here? And on a larger scale, what does it take to really make cross-cultural connections? Language—more specifically, a common language—seems like an inescapable part of it to me. But then again I’m a talker, and not everyone connects through talking. It can’t be impossible to do it another way. The blue mustache on my face is at least a temporary testament to that.

Freshman Year, Take Two

“Dear Risk Taker…”

That was how the emails I received from LCC International University started. A small, private college in Klaipeda, Lithuania, LCC got connected with my home university this year, giving me an opportunity to study abroad there. The university appeals to applicants by building them up as adventurers: stickers reading “I am a Risk Taker” are given out during recruitment visits, and the program’s emphasis on change and travel is preached everywhere from its panels to its pamphlets.

When LCC greeted me as a risk taker, honestly, I dismissed it as flattery. I was going abroad, sure, but it wasn’t nearly in as “legitimate” a situation as students who, say, live with a host family or study (and communicate in) a second language. I was going to a private, Christian, English-speaking campus. I’d be in a different culture, sure, but it’s still Europe, still “western” civilization. I saw it as something new, something exciting, something a little nerve-wracking, but not something I’d consider a “risk.”

Now, I give the LCC and its marketing a little more credit. Lithuania may not be unmanageable, but it’s more of a risk than I anticipated.

Which isn’t a terrible thing. It’s a good thing, actually. Getting out of my comfort zone is something I need to do. I just didn’t expect it to happen quite so quickly. Classes start tomorrow and I’m actually ready for the routine, just so I can have something I know how to anticipate.

I knew I wouldn’t understand everyone speaking around me. I didn’t know it would be because they’re speaking Russian, Ukrainian, and Latvian in addition to Lithuanian. I knew I’d have to have some trial runs before learning to navigate the city. I didn’t know my first (and hardest) lesson would come sitting at a bus stop from 10:00 to 11:00pm, waiting for a bus that had stopped running 30 minutes prior. I forgot how freaking. exhausting. that first trip to the grocery store can be — and how that exhaustion is magnified when you don’t read the language, you’re waiting for other students, and you’re converting in your head trying to figure out whether the price for tomatoes is reasonable.

But the blessings come with the curses over here. My roommates who could speak circles around me in Ukrainian and Latvian are also know what it’s like to study abroad, so they’re happy to switch and let me into the conversation. The grocery stores are distinctly Eastern European, but their ingredients that are accessible and familiar (even if the fruit I like is a little pricier). And a lot of the unexpected is fantastic, too. A rave-style dance club as an orientation tradition, for example. Or a day trip to a fifteenth-century castle surrounded by a lake and accessible by paddleboat. In six days, I’ve visited four new cities and moved to one new town, albeit temporarily. I’m exhausted, I’m nervous, and I’m very, very excited.

It feels like being a freshman again. And it’s tricky being a freshman. There have already been days when I asked myself what the hell I’m doing on another continent, trying to make new friends and run errands in Lithuanian when I could be at home, speaking English in a town I know with people I know.

But it’s fun too. I’d rather be worn out than restless anyway. I know it’s not over. The tears are coming. They haven’t hit yet, but they will. And that’s okay. They’ll come and they’ll pass and classes will begin and it will be good. They always do. It always is.

Help!

For those of you kind enough to read this, as you can see, I need your help. In short, I need some sort of focus for my blog. But I don’t know what that focus should be.

When I finally broke down and logged on to WordPress, I wanted a place to talk about “bigger” issues, questions and ideas that I felt were too weighty for Facebook’s fluffiness but that I wanted to share & talk about anyway. Most of the time though, I find myself stuck for one of two reasons. One, my questions and ideas are so scattered not even I can focus them into a post. And two, once I start trying to get those questions and ideas into words, they start to sound pretentious. I think I need something a little less ambitious (and a little more regular) to write about. But I don’t want this to be a “Dear Diary” sort of site either. Sooooo…thoughts? Not to make you do the work for me, of course, but I’m feeling stumped, so I figured I’d ask. Heck, you’re the one kind enough to read this, I’d be happy to have your opinion.

Thanks. 😀