Launching notes: 30-38

It's been about a year(!) since I wrote an installment of launching notes and I think it's high time for another few. What are launching notes, you ask? Here's what I wrote in that first post: 

One day two [now three] years ago, I suddenly realized that Lauren (who's our oldest) would really, truly be leaving home for university at the end of the summer. What had been purely hypothetical for so long was quickly shifting into the actual. Do you know what you do when you think you have just three months left to impart what little wisdom about the world you’ve acquired? You panic a little. You wonder if you’ve done/said/explained enough. And then you realize: no. No, I haven't told her everything yet. 

Anyway, back on that day in 2011 I started writing down some of my observations about being a grown-up that I wanted my kids to know. I called it my liner notes because waaaaay back in the day I pored over the liner notes of CDs, curious to find the story behind the music. What I hoped to do with my liner notes (and still do) was to set down the story behind the music of growing up and setting off on your own, to school my kids in the lyrics of life. (I also interchangeably call them launching notes.)

I should add that now I know that there’s not just one launch day, one departure. Leaving for college is a huge milestone moment for everyone involved but there are still many more moments to teach and debrief and parent, especially during all the comings and goings of the revolving door of the college and young adult years. Now that we've been through that cycle several times with Lauren, my proverbial apron strings are getting all stretched out and frayed from all the tying and retying and adjusting. But I wouldn’t have it any other way.

See other liner notes, 1-29, here.

30. Find a place that brings you back to yourself, a geography of you. [I recognize we haven't made this easy on you, with our several moves around the world. For me it became my grandparents' cabin at Wildwood, a comforting, magical geographical constant in my life. In fact, this whole post is inspired by things I learned at Wildwood. My dream is to have a place like that for our family someday, too.

31. Know what's most important to you. Build your life around those things.

32. Speaking of building, build things that last.

33. Worship in lots of ways. At church. With music. In poetry. In meditation. When holding your babies. In nature. As the fireplace at Wildwood says (via Martin Luther), A mighty fortress is our God. 

34. Relatedly, be curious and conversant about other religions and points of view. Don't make assumptions but seek to understand and look for the good in each person.

35. There's something pretty magical about conversations around a hearty fire. Learn how to build a fire and stoke a good conversation.

36. Find excuses to make things with your hands. You choose: quilts? stained glass? wood carving? cabins? gardens? Find a passion and get good at it.

37. As Mary Oliver said, " I believe in kindness. Also in mischief. Also in singing, especially when singing is not necessarily prescribed." Sing often.

38. Get outside every day. Fresh air clears your brain and moving around in nature brings perspective and clears the sludge from your bloodstream.

I'm writing occasional launching notes, bits of advice to my kids about how to be a gracious, grown-up type person--both trivial bits and major advice. Do you have any launching notes to add? Keep 'em coming!  You can email me through the link in the sidebar.

What I would save

The Burning House asks if your house were burning, what would you save? I love this question--which is a new development, by the way. When I was growing up I hated that whole fire safety discussion. It gave me hives. It brought me to tears. I didn't want to talk about a gathering spot. I didn't want to wonder how I would get from my upstairs bedroom to the ground. I didn't want to think about what might happen. I was perfectly happy with my head planted firmly in the sand, thankyouverymuch.

Okay. Having said that I'll admit that I still don't like that glimpse around the bend of the path of what-might-happen. But I do like thinking about what I'd prioritize, what I'd save.  And I think what we choose says quite a lot about us. As Burning House puts it, "Think of it as an interview condensed into one question." It helps me see the big picture, which is this: I am lucky to have some things I like but, really, most things are replaceable. 

So here's an idea of what I would grab if I had slice of time after making sure my family crew were safe:

What I would save...

What I would save...

  1. My set of scriptures that I've had since I was 17. I've highlighted, I've made notes. It's a record of my making sense of the world. A map of my spiritual progression, complete with tear splashes on some pages. 
  2. My external hard drive with all of our family photos and many documents saved on it.
  3. A wedding picture of G kissing my forehead, snapped by one of G's best friends. I don't have the negative and I want to keep it forever.
  4. My flute. Because it's given me a lot of joy over the years.  And it's portable.
  5. My battered, soul-baring teenage journals (and more recent ones, too, now housed in a series of smaller Moleskines). 
  6. My good camera (certainly replaceable but well loved).
  7. The laptop containing my dissertation files and analysis (which I just realized I need to BACK UP, by the way).
  8. My super-secret red book of important information.
  9. My wallet (credit cards, drivers license, etc.), just in case. Sometimes it even has money in it. 
  10. Not pictured because they're in the US: the box of love notes and the library of audio tapes I exchanged with G when we were dating.

How bout you? What would you save?

A Guide to Growing Stately Trees

In honor of Father's Day this weekend I'm sharing a gem from my very own dad--who is, himself, a gem. I've always been curious about people--especially the whys and hows of human development and the ways parents and families can support that process. Knowing this, several years ago my dad wrote down for me his own philosophy of parenting, set in the form of a poem and rooted in the imagery of growing trees. 

painting by Grant Wood

painting by Grant Wood

A Guide to Growing Stately Trees Comprised of Two Instructions and an Admonition

Instruction: Bend the Twig
If you want to grow a stately tree
You usually start with a tiny sapling,
Although some people grow their trees from seeds.
This is not an easy thing to do.

They say that as the twig is bent so grows the tree
And I think this is probably true.
So young saplings are snipped and pruned to give them shape and character
And staked out to give them rectitude.

And I think this is good and important to do,
Up to a certain point.
But who hasn’t seen and pitied dwarfed and stunted trees,
Crippled as saplings to please the grower’s sense of beauty, or ambition, or convenience.

Oh, and one more thing:
You can’t make an oak tree out of a willow sapling
No matter how much bending or binding
No matter that you desperately want an oak tree and you’ve been given a willow twig 

Instruction: Hug the Tree
And then of course at a certain point,
Which admittedly varies from species to species,
The twig cannot be bent or staked out further to any good purpose.
It has become a tree.

It has become shade to someone weary from the road,
A refuge to those seeking solace, or a place for visionary youth to pray.
It has found its own reason for its existence
Fulfilling the promise of the seed and the shaping of the sapling.

What then? What more does the tree need from you?
Well, and this is important, trees never lose their need for warmth and belonging.
They need support to brace their sagging branches from the burdens of too much to bear,
And time-tested remedies to fight the infestations and blight that will surely sap their souls.

They need to know that they are part of a forest,
That they belong to a family of trees,
These graceful willows, flamboyant maples and sturdy oaks,
And that this kinship of family extends forward and backward beyond the reckoning of time.   

Admonition: Bend the Knee
Finally, a gentle word of counsel to you who would grow trees.
Give thanks to the Lord of the Forest.
Give thanks for the seeds.
For the soil and moisture that nourish them;
For the seasons that refine them,
And for entrusting us with their care.
For the forest in its majestic splendor,
For the music of the breeze in its leaves,
Its diversity of colors and shapes that give it beauty and purpose;
And for the Sun, its eternal beckoning call to seeds and saplings
To leave the frozen ground and reach for the warmth and light of the heavens above. 

M. T. Bentley (my dad)
February 2008
Logan, Utah

My dad and me, NYC, 1971ish

My dad and me, NYC, 1971ish

A few more father gems:

Happy Father's Day weekend, US folks! Here's to the dads and the father figures who've nurtured our growth and tended to our needs. 

What would you say?

If you have been hanging around here for any length of time, then you know that Annie and I both have daughters serving missions for our church. The mission itself requires hard work, perseverance, and a good deal of moxie -- since a missionary's main occupation involves approaching complete strangers to talk to them about their religious beliefs. In Jordan's case, she has to do this in French. When I think about her chatting up random French people about such personal topics, I can't help but chuckle since prior to her mission Jordan was reticent to tell a fast food employee she'd been given the wrong order. "Can't you just do it Mom?" Those words still ring in my head.

I wouldn't necessarily call myself a helicopter parent, but I'm definitely hands on and Jordan thoroughly enjoyed me navigating the red tape of her life. Often, I encouraged her to work out her own issues -- like selecting classes, or fixing personal misunderstandings, or negotiating work schedules -- but I was always available for lengthy consults and planning sessions. If she was sick? Shoot, her freshman year in college I flew all the way to Utah to take her to the dermatologist (although, in my defense, her hair was falling out). The weeks before she left for her mission I laid awake at night trying to plan for every last contingency -- umbrella, boots, over-the-counter medications, lotions, prescriptions, bandages. Maybe she'd need antibiotic ointment and bandages! You just never knew.

And then she was gone. LDS missionaries can write letters home, and they have 1.5 hours of computer time per week to send e-mails. Oh, and they can call home for one hour on Christmas and Mother's Day. Jordan left home in the beginning of June 2013. We talked to her for an hour on Christmas day. Also, we knew this Mother's Day call would be our last before she returns home in November. So, last Sunday, at 12 pm central time, my little family huddled around the computer, waiting anxiously for Skype to ring. 

If you could only speak with your child one hour every six months, what exactly would you say?

On one hand the sheer rarity of the situation seemed practically overwhelming. I mean, with only an hour I didn't want to talk about what's for dinner. But at the same time, it's not the moment for big decisions or deep, revealing conversations. My sister jokingly called it a 'proof of life' call -- we could see Jordan was happy and thriving and, at the same time, reassure her that home and hearth were patiently awaiting her return.

In the end she told us about the people she is teaching and what it is like to live in Bordeaux -- the food, the culture, and something about dropping a large, glass container of yogurt while getting on a city bus. Her brother and sisters told her what was going on in their lives here at home. We talked a little about signing her up for classes and where she would live when she returned to college. But mostly, I just sat back and marveled at the can-do woman she has become. She can cook. She can move herself all over the south of France. She is getting ready to renew all of the paperwork for her visa. I realized (shockingly) that she could even procure bandages should the occasion arise. Most importantly, she is happy, which means she knows how to find joy in life -- even without her momma. And while this thought gives me a sharp pain right behind my watery eyes, I'm proud of her. So, so proud.

Now. If I can just make it till November.

"Youth are not vessels to be filled but fires to be lit"

I love this TED talk where the late Peter Benson shares his vision and research on how youth thrive. (Thanks and hat tip to my friend Aerika for sharing this. She shows it to her adolescent development class each semester.) 

I highly recommend watching the whole thing but if you don't have 20 minutes right now, here are a few takeaways from his talk based on the youth research that the Search Institute has analyzed and assembled over the last decade:

Petrarch said "youth are not vessels to be filled but fires to be lit." When we ask youth "what animates your life, brings you joy and energy? What is your spark?" 100% of them get it--and most can name at least one thing that brings them meaning and joy. Some name a skill or talent (e.g., music, writing, leading), some a commitment (e.g., social justice, environment), and others a quality (e.g., empathy). 

Thriving = spark + 3 champions (at home, school, or community) + opportunity

Sadly, we don't often pay attention to spark, finding 3 champions is rare, and opportunities for many youth are scarce. When a young person names their spark to you, they are inviting you to be a champion. You can:
- say it back to them
- tell them you see it in them
- thank them for sharing it
- find opportunities and resources for them to kindle the spark

The spark may or may not be a part of their future work, but human development is about today, about now. The best development is from the inside out. Helping youth find their spark helps teach a life orientation for discovery. It's a way of being present and nurturing and naming what's internal.

In families we can ask our young people "What is your spark? Who knows it? How can I help?" And wouldn't it be amazing if parent/teacher conferences began with a conversation about the student's particular sparks first?!

"You shall know them by their sparks." Changing the focus of youth development to kindling their sparks will reframe how we, as a culture, view our young people and will help support them in developing from the inside out. 

Much more about sparks here. And there's a book: Sparks: How Parents Can Help Ignite the Inner Strengths of Teenagers.

What was your "spark" when you were 16? What is it now? 
Do you know the "sparks" that energize the young people you know? 

Guest post: Flying to the trees

I'm happy to introduce you to today's guest writer, Jennifer Blaylock. Jenny lives with her family in Maryland, where she is the mother of five children--four sons and a daughter. We happen to share a great grandmother (remember the one who said "go easy on the oldest"?) but even if we weren't related, I hope I would be lucky enough to still number her among my wise and true friends. She's currently in the throes of launching her second son, which prompted today's post. 

The spring of 2014 finds me with the second of my children getting ready to graduate from high school. Honestly, it is still a little surreal to me that these babies of mine have reached such a milestone. “The days are long, but the years are short” is no joke, I’m telling you.

Brock senior pic.jpg

As we get ready for all the busyness that surrounds the end of a senior year, I am making a more conscious effort to savor this time without becoming annoyingly morose and melancholic (you’re welcome, children)—to be joyful in celebrating this launch of my second baby (all 6’4” of him), while making sure he knows how much I have loved the ride. The good, the bad, the ugly, the sweet, the hard, the…well, if you’re a parent, you know. As I think back on my firstborn’s graduation, I am reminded of a little side story that accompanied and paralleled our whirlwind weeks before graduation, and how it poignantly nudged its way into the forefront of that whole experience of graduating a child from high school. I think of it to remind myself that it’s going to be okay.  Life is constantly moving. For everyone. And life is good.

May 22

One day, while we were sprucing up our gazebo attached to the deck with a little spring-cleaning and some new cushions, we found a nest.  The most perfect little bird’s nest you’ve ever seen. Inside were three gorgeous blue eggs.

The mama bird was quite put out when the weather turned nice and she found her secluded spot inhabited by a family wanting to enjoy their outdoor spaces.  The nest lies in a perfect spot, nestled between the outside of the gazebo screen and the tall evergreen bush that rests against it. We have an incredible view, and the nest, mama, and eggs are well protected from accidental touches from the humans. Yesterday our babies hatched! They may not be much to look at now. But they will be.

May 28

Birdie Update

Our little birdies’ rate of growth is amazing. Often, we check on them in the morning and by the evening they have changed. They are getting so big—and even a little fluffy now! Quite a difference from the squirmy, weak, naked-bald babies that came out of those gorgeous blue eggs.

June 6

Today after church I went out to the gazebo to check on our baby birds.  As I opened the door, I immediately froze. One of our baby birds was perched on the ledge next to, but out of the nest. He turned his head all the way around to look at me and then nervously took a few steps—hops really—back and forth; a few inches away from the nest, a few inches back. Time was frozen: me standing there, he making his decision. I watched silently, mesmerized. 

And then, he flew away to the trees.

I walked slowly to the nest. The other two birds were snugly inside and showed no signs of unrest. There they sat, perfectly content, looking up at me. I went around to the side of the gazebo where the nest was secured in the tall evergreen bush and I searched the ground next to the elevated structure and then all around a large nearby tree in our yard. I breathed a sigh of relief. He was not there. He was in the trees.

I had mixed emotions of sadness and pride that our little birdie was ready to fly so fast (only sixteen days!), and felt a strange comfort that the other two remained tucked safely in the nest. I wasn't ready to see them go just yet.

At lunch I told the kids I had been able to witness the little bird flying away. "It was exciting," I said, re-telling the story of his back and forth hopping before his decision to fly away. "But the others are still there." I said.

After lunch we all went out to look.

The nest was empty. 

I thought about it for the rest of the day.
And couldn't help thinking of my own emptying nest. 

Graduation night, a few days ago, was very unemotional for me.

This surprised me a little.

Maybe it was the after effects of such a busy swirl of events that was the month of May. (I am still reeling!) Maybe it was the 400+ graduating class sardined into a high school gymnasium with moms, dads, grandparents, and siblings. Maybe it was the woman sitting next to us who had maybe started celebrating a little early and stumbled and fell every one of the many times she trekked up and down the bleachers during the ceremony (or maybe the fact that she kept yelling for her daughter to turn around through the entire thing). Or maybe it was the heat.

Maybe it was because of the impersonality of it all or the quickened pace of names read and seniors parading across the stage.

A name called; applause, a yell.


I thought maybe I would be more emotional at home during our own little "after party." Seeing all of my children together. Watching Jameson read the sweet cards his brothers and sister had made for him. Fun, yes. Emotional? Not really. “What’s wrong with me?” I thought.

And then there were things to take care of. A summer job in a different state meant a flurry of last minute things: packing, flight check-in, good-byes to friends.

The mucking out of his bedroom. (Yes, son, I'm sorry, it is no longer yours. Twenty-four hours gone has found another's sleepy head in "your" space. Being the oldest, it happened to me as well, and is often the way in large families.)

And then, due to a planning oversight and major error, Bruce and I attended seminary (four-year scripture study) graduation ceremony alone tonight, with our graduate settling in far away on the other side of the country.

The chapel.
The quiet.
The peace.

The images of my son as a baby flashed on the large screen as part of a slide show honoring the seniors. The "awwww" from the crowd.

It hit me then. My son had flown away to the trees.

I was filled with that same strange mix of emotion I had felt for our baby birds: happy-sadness (is there such a thing?), and I no longer held back my tears.

I thought about the empty nest from earlier that day. I thought about how this is the beginning of the emptying of my own little nest.

My little nest that I have carefully, and painstakingly labored over. My little nest that I have kept tidy and nourished my babes in. My little nest that I have kept watch over and made valiant and vigilant attempts to keep predators at bay. And that image of the empty nest filled me with great sadness at what will inevitably come. Until…I had another thought. 

The nest at the gazebo's edge was empty. Completely empty. That mother and father had flown to the trees, too. They did not wait and fret over an empty nest. They had joined their children in a chapter of new adventures high in the trees.

And they sang.

Humans of Motherhood

In honor of Mother's Day month, we wanted to do something special to acknowledge the collective & individual efforts of mothers around the world to raise good people. Given that we are both huge Humans of New York fans (see here and here), we could think of no better tribute than to take a page from that project--except wordier because we're writers--and present some Humans of Motherhood (HOM).

Because we are. Humans and human. Sometimes we forget to give ourselves--or others--that margin. There really should be a secret handshake, a wink and a fist bump that says "hey, I think you're a great parent, despite your utter conviction some days to the contrary. Despite whatever rotten mistakes your kids make along the way. Despite the shambles of the day around your ankles. Things are going to work out. We're all in this together." (This, by the way, is taken directly from a conversation with Sarah last week.)

Here's to the circle-the-wagons, we're-all-in-this-together club of mothers around the world.

I first met Khuld Alsayyad in junior high in Logan, Utah. Her family moved there for a few years from Iraq while her father earned his master's degree in Engineering from Utah State University. She moved away and I never heard from her again until the magic of Facebook brought us together again early this year and we've resumed our friendship. Trained as an engineer, Khuld now works as a Field Coordinator for the United Nations World Food Programme in Iraq, where she lives with her family. We were chatting yesterday and I couldn't resist asking her for permission to introduce her to you in our Humans of Motherhood series. 


Tell us about your kids. You have two girls, right?

Masar is 10--she's bright and creative. She is the smile of the house; she is our butterfly. She likes building things, doing things from nothing, from carton boxes. Kade is my older girl. She's 18 and is an angel. She's a smart, quiet person who loves music and speaks English fluently. She's fond of Korean culture--Kpop, movies episodes. I installed a satellite dish so she could see South Korean stations. Now she can talk continuously in Korean at home and can text Korean on her mobile, self taught.

What do you love about being a mom? What are your greatest challenges?

I feel so blessed--I want nothing from life, only to see them happy. They are good, obedient girls and have tolerated my not easy job where I travelled continuously from one place to another. At first I took them with me and they changed schools and friends each year. I was blessed by this job but I knew I had to sacrifice stability; my children and my man have accepted this fact and stood by me, never complained. My mother and father and siblings helped constantly. When my husband went out of the country to get a MSc in Biology, we were three years on our own. My brother came every night at 11 p.m. to sleep on our couch so we wouldn't be alone. (It's customary in our culture to not leave the women alone at night. At first I refused the idea but they said we don't want to let people think you're alone.) I am so grateful to them. They are in every breath. We're very close and now they are with me, step by step, cheering me, advising me, daily calls and visits to know how we are doing. I hope I can be a good parent like my mom and dad.

So your biggest challenge is balancing your family and your profession?

Yes, exactly. I'm also very lucky that my husband is very flexible and supportive. When I got this job, some people refused the idea, "working with foreigners" and this kind of talk. But then they saw that their kids were getting school snacks, widows getting help unemployed and displaced people were getting assistance, emergency operations launched as war fired up. I've been able to be a part of that, "an ambassador of assistance in my country," as our country director tells us. I've been very blessed and lucky with my job.  I cannot deny my man's role in all of this. He might just tell me sit home and be satisfied, I'll  bring home the bread. But instead, when I got promoted to a team leading another province, he encouraged me and said "don't refuse a promotion." He was right. I took it.

You sound like a good team. What is your family life like right now?

I've been busy working in another province, it's about 300 miles from home, giving assistance to displaced people from a province where fighting is taking place and flood affected their area. I'm home now with my kids. Masar is taking final exams now and doing excellent (I'm blessed) and Kade is preparing for her final big exams in June. She is studying continuously from morning til night with lunch and dinner breaks (God help her). She is exhausted but this is normal for good students in this grade in Iraq as exams are extremely difficult and the points she gets determine her future. So I'm praying that all this hard work from her won't go in vain. She's a good obedient smart girl. I took a leave from work to stay with her in this difficult time. She called me and said she needs me near so I'm back home cheering her up til she finishes her exams.

Passing exams is not difficult here but making an A is. You must get a 95% to make pharmacy, 96% medical, 90% engineering. To teach her at this stage at school is not good enough for her to make an A so I've been saving for some time. I sold my gold, which Iraqi women must have, to pay for her teachers. It's the least I can do. I wish there is more.

Isn't she remarkable? Thanks, Khuld, for sharing a bit of your life and heart with us. 

We're collecting photos and interviews for some more Humans of Motherhood posts. We've got some good candidates and if you have someone you'd like to nominate or hear about, drop us a line!