Thursday, November 10, 2011

Rite of Passage

Dan and I finally broke down and got Eiledon a cell phone. She’d first started asking for one when she was ten and we looked at one on another, incredulous, and laughed out loud. What on earth did a ten-year-old need with a cell phone? Sixteen, we told her. When she started driving, a cell phone would qualify as emergency equipment, like an escape hammer or a spare tire.

“Other kids in my class have cell phones.” Fifth graders? You’ve got to be kidding me. I guess that’s what you get for accidentally moving into a wealthy suburb. The argument didn’t carry any weight with me, of course. When I was a kid it was that everyone else had cable or a VCR or a television that wasn’t a hand-me-down from their grandparents. And I turned out just fine. In fact, I think it gave me a better sense of what’s really important. No dice, I told her.

“But I need one,” she insisted, and I used a tactic I’d heard from another mom. “Give me an example of when you would need to use it,” I said. Of course she couldn’t come up with a single situation where she wouldn’t have access to a landline, and she finally dropped it. For a little while.

It came up continually through fifth grade and sixth grade, the announcements of “I really want a cell phone,” coming more frequently. We blew her off, mostly, sticking to our original statement that she had to be sixteen, but I could tell it was really distressing her, as more and more of her peers acquired this totem of growing up.

I had heard horror stories: sixth graders sitting around a table texting each other rather than having an actual conversation, teachers despairing at their students’ atrocious spelling, pediatricians and other experts warning about increased screen time, higher levels of distraction and decreased intelligence. And there still seemed no real need for the stupid thing!

The first crack in my conviction came several weeks ago, when my Girl Scout troop had piled into my friend Rachel’s van for a field trip. Not long after we set out, my daughter’s voice sailed over the chatter from the back seat. “Mom! I’m the only girl in the troop who doesn’t have a cell phone!” Surely not, I thought. At least, not Rachel's daughter, Megan! I was pretty sure Rachel and I shared the same sentiment when it came to cell phones. I looked at her, mouth open. Rachel didn’t take her eyes off the road. She only grimaced slightly and said, “I’m so sorry, Rebekah,” and I laughed out loud. I didn’t argue. I didn’t ask for an explanation. I have profound respect for my friend and co-leader and just accepted her judgment.

Which, of course, caused me to question mine. Not that I’m so easily swayed. It’s just that I’m more willing to listen than I used to be, to consider more than just my own knee-jerk reactions. So I started listening.

And then my father-in-law—my father-in-law!—told Dan that he understood how important it was for kids to feel like they fit in. That if it were Dan who had been asking for a phone, his dad would have gotten him one. Well, color me surprised! I still don’t hold with that logic, but that doesn’t mean I’m right.

In the end, it came down to pure self-interest on my part. Eiledon now goes to school in downtown Minneapolis and we live way out in the southwest suburbs. In the past year, on more than one occasion, she has either taken the bus home when I was supposed to pick her up, or forgotten to take the bus home when I wasn’t going to pick her up as usual. In a few cases, she has been able to borrow a friend’s cell phone on the bus and let me know she’d made a mistake and not to come get her. But once I slogged through the afternoon rush hour, only to find when I got to her school that she was already on her way home. And more recently, she called me saying she hadn't taken the bus because she'd forgotten she was supposed to, and I realized that if she'd had a cell phone, I could have called or texted to remind her. Instead, I had to go get her and we were late to a commitment that evening.

So the realities of a disorganized child and the high price of gasoline tapped the last nail into the coffin of my convictions. I finally had concrete proof that she really did need a cell phone. That I needed her to have one.

It came in the mail yesterday and Eiledon loves it. It’s not a smartphone, but it’s has a touch screen and it can text and take pictures and play music. She walked around the house with it all evening, stopping now and then at the mirror and holding it up to her ear, exclaiming at how it makes her look like a teenager. The teenager she almost is, I thought. And I was genuinely happy for her.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011


I am forty, now, and hesitant. Overwhelmed by everything I haven’t read, seen, done. After years of convincing myself I simply didn’t have the time, I have begun reading again, tentatively. Afraid each page will confirm what I already know, that I have nothing to say that hasn’t already been said, and said better than I could ever hope to say it. Knowing that I don’t have the necessary tools—education, experience, enough reading—to express what insights I might actually have to a population beyond those friends and family generous enough to visit my blog.

I finally succumbed to the lure of Harry Potter, having resisted irrationally for a decade. I couldn’t bear the thought of J. K. Rowling, who unwittingly set an unattainable standard for successful writing, whose passion for the written word and gift for story has generated unfathomable wealth and a cultural phenomenon. It wasn’t really her success that intimidated me, though. It was hot, shame-filled jealousy that she got to spend a dozen years enmeshed and immersed in a world of her own making, a world full of humor and wonder and unspeakable evil, where of course purity of heart would win over soulless ambition, where beloved characters might die, but there was meaning in their deaths and proof of something after, and she had control over it all.

I have a world like that, too. Not as fanciful or elaborate, and not for children. I want to spend all my time there, like I did when I first wrote my novel in 1995. But I can’t justify it, because I don’t have the tools I need to be self-supporting through it. Not yet. And I’m not willing to live in an unheated apartment, and on welfare in order to get them. I guess I just don’t believe strongly enough.

And the real world compels me, too. I have learned so much in recovery, given up so much emotional and spiritual baggage, come to believe in life and love in ways I didn’t know how to, before. I acknowledge the messiness and pain in the world and feel called to do what little I can to alleviate it. Kerouac said, “I had nothing to offer anybody except my own confusion,” and in the microcosm of my family, my church and my other small communities, I sometimes think this is enough. That God can use this to motivate others and create good.

But I am reading Anne Lamott, now, and I’m busy not measuring up. Her faith and her politics astound me. She believes what I believe but has treadmarks on her soul I can’t, and wouldn’t want to match: broken home, drug addiction, loss of loved ones. She marches for peace, is brutally honest about motherhood, has beautifully diverse friends, and a quirky, powerful faith. I judge her sometimes for her self-confessed neurotic narcissism, but that honesty is what makes her work compelling. And my honesty may not be that interesting.

So there’s my neurotic, narcissistic reflection for the day, inspired by my trip, an hour ago, to the library, where I picked up God’s Politics, by Jim Wallis, Crooked Little Heart, by Anne Lamott, and a Turning the Mind Into an Ally, a book on meditation. Here’s to acquiring tools.