Tag Archives: change

Far & Away

Since the only consistent thing in life is change, it should be no surprise that once we adjusted to sending our child off to college, she glanced at the horizon and discovered she hadn’t ventured quite far enough from home yet.  One in ten undergraduates study abroad on trips that last anywhere from a couple of weeks to an entire academic year, and they don’t have to be foreign language or art  history majors to garner benefits.

I’ve seen the statistics.  Students who’ve studied abroad are twice as likely to land a job within a year of graduation.  They have 25% higher starting salaries and a sophisticated (and marketable) global approach to the world.  If they can hone or pick up a foreign language while they’re away, this increases job prospects further and makes them international citizens, able to transition more easily between cultures in our shrinking world.

A semester in Italy sounded glamorous and exotic.  She packed and repacked, trying to meet the luggage requirements (how can you fit three months’ worth of clothes, snacks and toiletries in one 50 pound bag?), and finally we waved goodbye at the airport.  If you haven’t yet had a child travel far and away, here’s a glimpse into what it’s like.

  1.  At least once before they leave, you will suggest an evening in for a movie night. This is a good time to watch Taken, and to rewind and give in-depth and animated analysis of the part where the naive American girls give out personal information to a perfect stranger at the airport.  Point out that while you don’t personally know Liam Neeson, you do have his speech memorized and are completely willing to make good on his threat.   While it probably won’t, things can happen (Paris, Brussels, Nice), so make sure everyone has emergency numbers, passport copies in multiple locations, and international medical coverage.

2.  Staying in one place while abroad is not enough for millennials with tiny attention spans.  Hopping a train or cheap flight to a neighboring country is common, usually fairly cost-effective, and an easy way to make the most of an extended study abroad trip.  Traveling in small groups works well and offers more security.  With any more than six opinions and preferences, more time is spent trying to herd cats than actually see a new city.  Whoever came up with the name “hostel” for cheap student lodging is just spiteful.  Why pick something that to English ears sounds patently unfriendly and scary?  Might I suggest changing it to cubby?

3.  You will be amazed at the child who consistently couldn’t manage to make curfew.  Suddenly he transforms into a person able to juggle international train schedules, Google maps, and changing time zones to be certain he makes it to Bono’s concert in Berlin or a street carnivale in Spain.

4.  Aren’t they supposed to be taking classes?   Yes, there is classroom time, but much of the education is outside a textbook.  The field trips, cross cultural experiences, and interactions with each other and local people are where real learning occurs.  Immersed in a different language, the brain actually creates neural pathways to adjust.  Having to live in another culture’s rhythms and pace teaches them to let down their social boundaries and stretches them to see others differently.  Often, they come home with friends across the map.

5.  Study abroad is a life-long lesson in managing expectations.  The trip that seems so glamorous on this side of the ocean won’t always live up to the visions in their head.  They won’t love every teacher, meal, museum, or travel companion.  It won’t be sunny and 80 degrees every day. Public transportation frequently goes on strike.  Outside American culture, the rest of the world operates on a more flexible time table. The word of the day is flexibility.  A tall order for some, this is a chance to embrace the unexpected, learn a different flow and become more tolerant, agreeable, and open to change.

6.  It will cost approximately the GNP of a small country to Fed Ex forgotten or emergency items to your student abroad, with no guarantee they will arrive.  Double check the packing list.  Pre-fill medications and have back-up credit cards.  If they’re traveling across borders while abroad, be mindful of different regulations for what’s allowed in carry-on’s or backpacks.

7.  Technology can be friend or foe.  Shop around for international data plans, and be sure to get something so your student is reachable without WiFi in case of emergency.  FaceTime or Skype is wonderful when you just need to put eyes on them.  It might take the whole semester, but eventually they will remember that the time difference means that while they may be riding elephants in the Thailand afternoon, you are in a deep, sound sleep in the wee hours.  Or at least you were.

8.  You aren’t going to want to know everything before it happens.  You should’ve already adjusted to this truth of college life, but sometimes it’s better not to know until  afterwards.  My friend’s daughter bungee jumped off a 440 foot platform in New Zealand while studying abroad, and to this day her mother cannot watch the video.   It’s the age of Vimeo and GoPro, and your millennial is going to want some choice post-able footage of their time away.  Squeeze your eyes shut, stick your fingers in your ears and loudly chant:  LALALALALA.

9.  They’ll learn a measure of independence.  While you may be footing at least some of the bill, they’re having to manage logistics, relationships, and emotions from far away.  They have likely done this already just in their regular university situation, but being thousands of miles overseas forces the issue somewhat. They learn to work it out, tough it out, or cry it out on their own.  They realize they are capable.

10.  The student you dropped off at the airport likely will not be the same one who greets you several months later.  He will seem wholly different somehow in a way you cannot at first pinpoint.  She will be morphed by confidence and distance, transformed by her experiences, more worldly and seasoned person.  You will burst with pride at his accomplishments and feel his joy as he describes moments with breathless excitement.  Except the part about paragliding over the Alps.  Then you will clutch your chest and demand to know what she was thinking.

A final note:  once they arrive safely at home, don’t forget to Tweet Liam Neeson and tell him you will no longer have him on speed dial.



Waiting in traffic on drawbridges was a fact of life for me as a kid.   Unaware of the adult time pressures of schedules and to-do lists, I’d sit in the back of the car watching the stately sailboats gliding like royalty through the raised roadway that halted our progress.   Stuck at a standstill, I could get a closer look at the pelicans perched on the watchman’s tower.  Once the drawbridge was lowered, I was amazed that we could drive right over a stretch of road that had just a second ago been pointing toward the sky.

Somewhere along the way, that leisurely contentment on bridges gave way to more nervous crossings.  I’ve driven over the Golden Gate and Brooklyn Bridges, clomped echoing steps over wooden covered bridges in New England and Madison County, Iowa, hiked across hanging suspension bridges on trails here and there, and cruised over the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers crossing over into neighboring states.  There were jaw-dropping views from the Bixby Bridge in Monterey, California, and white-knuckle moments across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge in Maryland.  (This bridge is so scary, some people actually pay $50 a day for a service to drive them to work and back!)

Mostly, bridge crossings have been uneventful, but not always.  Our car broke down in the middle of the 5-mile long Mackinac Island Bridge in Michigan.

Royal Gorge Bridge
Royal Gorge Bridge

I lost power steering and acceleration and had to coast the last part of the way off the far side.  In Colorado, I rode in the back seat hyperventilating as we crossed the Royal Gorge Bridge, the world’s highest suspension bridge, dangling 1,100 feet above the Arkansas River.  It was so narrow that passing cars had scant inches between them as they crawled along, and pedestrians walking across had to plaster themselves flat against the railings to avoid being run over.  Then there was that one time in a haunted house with my brother where I wet my pants when we crossed a wooden bridge rigged to fall out from under us.

People build bridges, after all–fallible people.  Maybe the fact that I hold my breath across them and wince as they sway is more of a flagging trust in human capabilities than an innate fear of bridges themselves.   Many of our bridges are aging and need repairs, over 60,000 of them, in fact.  So there’s that.  The old London-Bridge-is-falling-down nursery rhyme doesn’t really help either.  Or those stories about trolls and such living underneath.

Bridges often are the only means to get from here to there, and the truth is, sometimes transitions are just hard.   And, oh, goody, life is chock full of these vulnerable, hold-your-breath, learn-to-trust moments.   I envy those people who can cartwheel across those bridges with no trepidation.   While new and exciting things might wait on the other side, leaving the familiar soil of this side, where my feet are on solid ground and the scenery is just fine, can cause excessive hand wringing.

I have a salt water aquarium in my living room. One night, just after its lights had turned off, I witnessed a hermit crab exchanging its shell for a bigger one.  It carefully measured the bigger shell with its antennae.  Using its claws to hoist itself up, in one swift move, it hauled itself out of its shell, scuttled across the sand to the new shell, and edged in backwards.  Voila!   But I was stunned!   All we usually see of these crabs is the legs and head, the parts that stick out from under their comfortable shell.  When it moved from one shell to the next, its body was revealed.  It was a gray comma-like stub, an unformed Voldemort creature.   How brave it was to scuttle out from its familiar house, unprotected and exposed!

All of us have our secret underbellies, like the crab, and it’s the worst thing we can think of to crawl out of our comfortable corners and move–grow–into something new.  Worse still is to admit to anyone else we might be afraid or unsure of ourselves.  Many of us may flinch and wince as we cross bridges of transition—into new careers, empty nests, or life without someone we love.  Sometimes, I admit, I cross those bridges trembling on my knees, clinging to the railing and afraid to look down.  It helps to have folks around who are no less fearless, but who have made those transitions already.   They beckon from the far side, offering encouragement and extending a hand.

Once we make it through our transitions, we can become bridges, of sorts, ourselves.  We can span gaps between generations coming along behind and those ahead of us.  We can be connectors between old ways of thinking and new.  We can extend our hands and assurances that this far side is different, yes, but not so frightening.  There are lots of us over here, and we get it.

Twain said that the only person who likes change is a wet baby.  Like it or not, change is a constant.  Sometimes it demands small alterations, and sometimes it requires of us a full metamorphosis.  It’s almost always a surprise and usually terribly inconvenient.

I’m grateful for those who have been on the far sides of my bridges so far.   A life that is static and fearful is no life at all.   I am learning, slowly, to embrace the change and growth that transitions bring.  Sometimes I still squeeze my eyes shut and take hesitant steps, but I have faith that grace will eventually get me where I’m supposed to be.   None of us can predict what’s coming down the pike next.   But, focusing on the far side, I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it.

Tipping the Balance

I have a gun hanging over my bed.  Make whatever you want of that as a marital symbol, but several years ago, my father gave us five siblings a choice of some inheritable items and, rather than the set of china or some jewelry, the Civil War muzzle loader was what I chose.  I’ve never shot it.  I’m told by the Civil War experts by the Battlefield near our house that it’s valuable, but that’s not why I wanted it.  It was my grandfather’s.  He was a man of such integrity and gentleness that I just wanted it as a reminder of his kind of character.

In his younger days, he actually engineered rifles that he used in competitions for pheasant hunting in Wisconsin.  I have some dated black and white photos of him with my dad, their dogs, and the pheasants they’d bagged for the day.  A different time.

Last year for Christmas my then twelve-year-old son received a shotgun from his other grandfather, my husband’s dad.  He couldn’t have been happier.  It was a generational “moment” where the three of them could now share a skill and experience that is passed down from man to man.  I was the skittish mom in the room, picturing my baby boy as a soldier with a deadly weapon in his hands.  A few weeks later, we all piled into the car and drove to the grandparents’ farm, where multi generations assembled in the back pasture.  My son learned how to safely and responsibly handle the shotgun, watching and listening to his grandfather and great-grandfather as they showed him what to do.  We spent an afternoon shooting skeet, enjoying the camaraderie of the day.  And it turns out my son was pretty good.  Over the next year, he ended up taking a gun safety course not once, but twice, as preparation for participation in his school’s trap shooting team.

I didn’t grow up with guns being a weighty presence in our house.  Although my father undoubtedly had some, I never saw them.  When my brother got old enough, I suppose my father was the one who eventually taught him to hunt, because I do remember him bringing home a deer once, and he would often rid the henhouse of foxes and weasels that raided our small flock of chickens.  I never had much interest.  I fired the shotgun once or twice, but it always left a bruise on my rookie shoulder because I didn’t hold it snug enough to inhibit the recoil, and I’m not a fan of loud noises.

In my husband’s family, however, it was a pretty regular thing for them to go hunting.  Some of his cousins count on their deer quota to fill their deep freeze for the year.  His family had their own deer stands in their woods, and they’d head out early on a frosty morning to sit quietly in nature, watch the sunrise, and hope a deer crossed their path.  It wasn’t the blood sport that became ingrained in my husband.  He loved it for the solitude and the beauty of the woods.  Eventually, he ended up taking only a camera with him on these mornings instead of a weapon since they didn’t really need venison for dinner.  It was in one of these deer stands that he eventually proposed to me, sans gun.

Full disclosure:  my family has a solid military history.  My father is a retired USAF Lt. Col., my sister is a USAF brigadier general, my step mother was in the Army, and two of her sons are military officers as well, one of them a Special Forces soldier.  One Christmas he gave his fiance a sniper-type rifle to use in the shooting competitions she enjoys.  Not exactly a diamond ring, but she was thrilled.  So I get the military angle on weaponry.  I see the necessity of it in our country’s defense.  My exposure to the military has only given me respect for the soldiers who defend us.  Growing up on multiple military bases, I have never witnessed one person, all of whom are required to know how to handle a gun, whip it out to impress someone or increase their swag.   Military weapons training is ingrained with other words like respect, honor, discipline, and sacrifice.

Lest you think I am painting an idyllic gun-loving picture here, I am not immune to the kind of tragedy and violence that the misuse of guns can wreak.  When my husband turned 20 in college, he went on a memorable European tour with a childhood friend.  A couple years later, that friend stopped taking his medication and shot both his parents in their home one winter afternoon.  His sister was out that day, which is the only reason we still get a Christmas card from her every year and are able to see updates of her children on Facebook instead of her being counted with her parents as fatality number three.  This will forever haunt my husband and his family.

Fast forward a few more years, when a very dear friend was doing an internship for college.  She came back to her apartment one night only to be hijacked by four punks with a gun, who, it turns out, had previously murdered someone.  She spent the evening being terrorized just because they wanted some drug money.  By God’s grace she was freed, and I get to enjoy her friendship and she gets to be a great mom.

Then there’s my friend who’s divorced, who’s more than a little creeped out by her ex-husband parking a few houses down and watching her house.  She’s just recently started going to target practice with her handgun so she can feel safer alone in the house with her two daughters.

All that’s personal.  But I see the news like everyone else.  I witness the horrors of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Virginia Tech, Aurora, Columbine, Sandy Hook Elementary.  I weep for those families and my own school-aged children who have to know what a Code Red is and whose school regularly goes on lockdown because there may or may not have been a shooter seen at the university just a few streets away.  I am angry as I take my 16-year-old daughter to a police department rape defense class because I know the statistics, and she is a year away from college.

I am sad that my children must grow up like this.   Our society seems to lie in shards, and we no longer pass along values from grandparent to grandson because all too often, families are fractured or too busy to spend any real time with each other.   As we add more and more convenience and technology, we lose connectedness and gentility.  We trade family conversation for video games and cell phones.  We trade empathy, service, and sacrifice for entertainment and gratuitous sex and violence.   What else do my children grow up with?  Isolation, bullying, the quick-barbed quip at someone’s expense, boredom, and rage.   Images in the media and music videos that tell girls they are objects for someone else’s pleasure and that tell boys it is their right to take that pleasure.  An environment that makes them ill, with rampant allergies and disorders being diagnosed right and left.

Desperate or mentally ill people don’t need a gun to inflict harm.   The same day as the Newtown, CT incident, 22 children were stabbed in a school yard in China.  YouTube will gallantly show you how to construct homemade bombs out of hardware parts.  Visit any domestic violence shelter, and the residents can tell you bare hands can be all too damaging.  As our country knows too well, box cutters and airplanes can be pretty effective.   Such pathetic grabs for imagined power, respect, and importance through the use of fear and domination will continue, I suppose, just as they have since Cain and Abel.

In the aftermath of Sandy Hook, I saw the seed of our nation’s compassionate impulse.   We saw it so clearly in the nation’s mourning after 9/11, when neighborhoods and states came together to help and to grieve.  It was clearly visible in the Amish response to the Lancaster school shooting, where members of the Amish community visited the shooter’s family that same day, in forgiveness.  We need to tip the balance.  We need to teach compassion and empathy to our children daily, not just in 26 random acts of kindness, but always.  Yes, get help for the mentally ill.   Yes, befriend the loner kid who’s not popular.  Yes, consider decreasing the availability of rapid-fire weapons and increasing the penalties for illegal ownership.  But mostly, love, respect, honor, sacrifice.  We must do this in our families and for strangers.  We must teach these things to our own children and to other people’s children so that they feel important in their own right and will not need a gun or violence to make them feel it.

The muzzle loader still hangs over my bed.  I don’t plan to take it down.  I know my gentle grandfather would be sad and bewildered to know what happened in Connecticut.  He used his hands to raise three amazing sons and to create beautiful things from wood.  If he thought his hands holding a gun could ever cause such devastation, he would literally cut them from his body before that could happen.   For those beautiful kids and teachers in Newtown, and for all the others who daily have gun violence change their lives forever, let us make it our mission to regain the best of what our society has lost.  Let’s make it matter.