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Tuesday, November 15, 2016


As a kid, I was a stickler for “the rules”.  I was that stock character, familiar to anyone who has as ever watched a film centered around children, who would be labelled “the killjoy”.  My constant refrain was “Guys, we’re going to get in trouble!”  Yes, I said it whiny, too.

My parents were incredibly supportive of us and our various differences—we were not compared to each other and as the family book worm there was no pressure on me to perform well at sports.  Likewise, my more athletic siblings were not expected to bring home straight A’s.  The only thing my parents insisted on uniformly was that we be compassionate, moral people.  That we treat each other well and be generally polite and respectful.  My Mom tells a story of attending a luncheon where the ladies she was with were voicing their dreams for their sons; while the others stated material goals like a doctor, lawyer success story, my Mother simply said, “I want my son to be a kind man”.
She got her wish on that one.  What she didn’t get was another invitation to lunch from those particular women.

Kindness being our only mandate meant some of us were a bit rebellious when it came to following the rules-of-law.  There may have been beer hidden, cigarettes smoked and curfews broken.  There may have been some escapades taken that would have been missed out on if everyone had been shackled down by “the rules”.  But that was only me.
I found the rules very comforting.  Partly because I love structure and knowing what is expected of me—I will never be one to “fly by the seat of my pants”.  But also partly because I got a lot of my self-esteem from being a “good girl”.  I mistakenly believed this would make me more lovable, more acceptable.  If I never broke the rules, no one could ever have a problem with me.  Yeah, I was young and naïve.

By the time I went away to college I was the quintessential goody-two-shoes.  Good grades, no boyfriends or experimenting with drugs; I did drink once at a party but immediately confessed to my parents when I was dropped off at home.  They seemed more amused than angry.  Possibly even a little relieved that I was normal-ish.
I was blessed in my freshman year with a roommate who had been raised with values similar to mine who also happened to be, as luck would have it, a bit of a goody-two-shoes.  She and I were birds of a feather and spent our first semester away from home not going to parties and acting out, but instead embarking on what we called “adventures”.  These consisted mainly of driving around the area looking for new restaurants to try and going to the movies.  We were having quite a marvelous time, honestly.

But at the end of that first term, during our exam study period, we took a leap I will never forget.  It was nearly ten o’clock at night and we were bleary eyed from pouring over materials when she looked at me and asked, “Do you want to drive down to Rockefeller Center to see the tree?”  Crazy talk!  Who does such a thing at ten o’clock at night when there are exams to be studied for and sleep to be had?
We did!  Recruited a carload, actually.  And as we drove for 2 hours down the Taconic Parkway my predominant thought was this—for the very first time in my life, my parents have no idea where I am or what I am doing.  It was exhilarating!  I was certain that if I had asked permission for this particular lark, I would have been turned down cold.  As tame as it all seems in retrospect, I felt a little mad with power.

This story of my first grand taste of freedom ends rather anti-climatically.  We must have pulled up the curb to look at the tree at 11:59 precisely.  Because after about 60 seconds of blissful observation, the tree lights went dark.  Two hours for 60 seconds of splendor.  Of course, a bunch of sleep-deprived 18 year old girls couldn’t help but find this hilarious.  We turned around and got right back on the road to school, btw.  Good girls to the core.
But I have always thought of that night as a seminal moment in my life.  It was the first time I had really considered that my happiness, my authentic self might exist somewhere outside of the rules, outside of those neat lines.  The experience changed me.  I was still a good student, still didn’t do drugs, still essentially followed the “straight and narrow”.  But I became a braver human in general; braver about using my voice, braver about pursuing the things that truly interested and mattered to me, braver about being myself. 

Now I am a mother and I’m raising my son much in the way my parents raised my siblings and I; less emphasis on “achievements” and more on core values.  Learning from example I figure if I too bring up a kind man, I will have done the world the greatest parenting service possible.  Especially in these times, when my son is unfortunately exposed to unkind men in positions of great power, I tell him not to be impressed by status but instead by conduct towards others.  I am teaching my child that a man is never heroic by virtue of title, fortune or power; heroism can only be defined as willingness to help those in need.

When I look back on my life so far, I see that some of my greatest learning experiences and most indelible memories are those times when I took a chance "the rules" would have advised against.  The guidelines they provide, while not without merit, are just a starting point in life.  There is no great accomplishment without some risk;  it is impossible to fully realize who you are without making some mistakes. 
I am teaching my son not to live for anyone's approval, but instead to take action and speak words that he is comfortable with and proud of...there will be times in his life when "the rules" are at odds with his core values but to be fully alive is never to be contained by the mandates of others.   I will tell him that there really is only one rule that must always be followed: treat others as you wish to be treated yourself.  I read that somewhere, and it seems solid to me. 

Golden, actually.

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