And it was so worth it.
Because in that moment, as his little chest was near-to-bursting with anticipation and pride, I unrolled a beautiful piece of his artwork that was lovingly prompted and laminated by his teacher. And in doing so, I unrolled myself.
My son didn’t just give me a gift. He gave me myself. Laminated.
There it was – there I was – all boiled down to words and phrases that expressed how he saw me. The things I knew and took pride in – the fact that I’m creative, own my awesome (or “osum”), and make a mean chocolate chip cookie. Then there were the things I didn’t tend to see in myself – my beauty, my compassion and the degree to which I care for those I love.
But as I read through all this on that morning with him by my side, one-line shimmered brightly through my tears:
“My Mom always says be careful (or carfl)”
Long after we had snuggled and marveled over the color choices in his art and the heart-felt words he chose, I stayed in bed and thought about that one particular shimmering phrase. I wasn’t simply belaboring a short-coming, beating up myself again, or fretting over the past. I wasn’t discounting all the other thoughts and sentiments on his card. There wasn’t any harsh judgment or charged accusations in the bed as I held his card. It was different this time. This time I was I was seeing myself more clearly as a result of looking through his eyes. He was mirroring me. For me.
And the thing was: it was perfectly timed.
He couldn’t have known it at the time, but he was delivering to me yet another story that I had outlived. More than something I had moved beyond in my past, this particular phrase was now getting in my way of living into my future. Here it was – the thing that had been getting me hung up in my underwear – that constant caution I carried in my psyche. In my body. In my heart.
I read that phrase, and I winced. Because I knew if I were to unpack that particular phrase, I would find an infestation of words that had me playing small, living in doubt, feeding my fear. Inside that phrase there would be things like “get it right”, “don’t take risks”, and “you’re not _____ enough”. I knew them all intimately, but never before had I seen them together so clearly, presenting such a united front. Staring me down boldly from behind the safe cover of lamination.
As I sat there that morning, I reflected on how often I had uttered that phrase, “be careful” to my kids. My eldest joked about it with me, saying that if I had my way I’d wrap them both in poppy paper. Now my youngest had it laminated. I could make a case for that being a patent and perfectly standard caution that comes out of most parents’ mouths without us even realizing it. But that would be an excuse for me not to look closer at what was being shown to me in that moment.
I thought of what I valued and what I wanted to teach my kids: my legacy to them. Did I want them to be careful, to mitigate against risk, to proceed through life with caution and a guarded nature? This is not a trick question I was presenting myself, but a genuine reckoning I was having with myself as a parent. And the answer, not surprisingly, was a resounding “NO”. I thought of my most treasured values (learning, growth, courage) and mantras (figure it out as you go, launch and learn) and people I admired who inspired me (Anne Lamott, Danielle LaPorte, Cheryl Strayed), and realized – with crystal clarity – how that “be careful” story I had been carrying around so diligently (sometimes absently unaware) for most of my adult life was in direct opposition to what I wanted. What I loved. To the process of living, really.
I wanted to be the mom who said “Go for it!”The next day, I pulled my littlest aside and thanked him for his gift. I told him about my discovery and my new-found desire to leave “careful” behind. Then I enlisted his support, having learned years ago that my kids were rock stars in little sneakers when it came to holding adults accountable. He listened with a glimmer in his eye as he heard my plan to replace the majority of “be careful’s” in my life with “go for its”, and nodded with wisdom beyond his years when I said it might take me a while to break the habit. A deal was struck in that moment. In witnessing my proclamation,
it was if he was saying, “Go for it, Mom.”
Since that day, I’ve been reflecting just how much those two stale words “be” and “careful” have soured my life’s ambition. To be honest, I’m proud of the risks I’ve taken personally and professionally. Thankfully the sail of my spirit of adventure has been vast enough to hold a fair amount of wind and weather some storms along the way. But there is more. More wind, a reserve sail I’ve been saving, and much more of me that has been cowering in the wings, waiting for it to be safe enough to come out and play. Of that I am certain.
My decision to write a book that would put more of me out further into the world is the most recent example, and seems to have created an opening for “be careful” to take up residence in my sinews once again. It leads me to creep and lillydip, taking one step forward, and two steps back, instead of plunging into this new creative endeavor with wild abandon. “Be careful” has been a downer, a buzz-kill, and a drag, kind of like inviting an actuary, an insurance adjustor and an accountant to join you on a long road trip to who-knows-where.
It’s fear I’m facing, really.
Anne Lamott wrote about it last week in a Facebook post. She spoke about how “perfectionism is the great enemy of the writer, and of life, our sweet messy beautiful screwed up human lives.” She writes that it will “keep you very scared and restless your entire life if you do not awaken, and fight back, and if you’re an artist, it will destroy you.” Yup, I’ve got that, Anne. Laminated and everything.
So it seems I’ve been “careful” of the wrong thing…It’s not making messy art or plunging into the unknown I ought to fear, it’s the call to perfectionism and way it lulls us to sleep, whispers sweet nothings about safety, and keeps us from going for it – our dreams, the discovery, the experience, the journey. Living. Life.
So I’m going for it. And I have a witness, now many, if you’d be so kind. No need for lamination this time, I’ve got it committed to memory.
Thanks to my little mirror and his gift.