When it comes to writing, I’ve been in a literary desert. It’s been months since I’ve written anything beyond a grocery list or Facebook status and even though I’d like to think I left it all on the field to get The Ground Beneath Us finished and released last fall, that’s kind of a convenient excuse.
It’s not writer’s block. I’m not out of ideas. In fact, my head feels too full which, I’ve found, can lead to a mental paralysis of sorts. What’s ink worthy, what’s not? What should I write about, what should I keep to myself? This has been a season of concentrated processing of all sorts of life situations and sometimes, when life comes at you at hyper speed, the best (and wisest) thing to do is to shut your mouth. Step away from the keyboard. Let the mental mayhem settle before trying to decide what to put into words and what to leave unsaid.
So last week when I was using my old standard Finding Nemo to teach the basic essay form (intro/thesis, body, conclusion) to my Jr./Sr. high class of homeschoolers, one of my students said, “Mrs. Allord, you should write this essay.” After groaning I realized his request was valid. Everyone knows the first rule in calling yourself a writer is that you must write. And I hadn’t in over three months. Thinking about writing and talking about writing and teaching writing is not writing. Only writing is writing—only what is transferred from head to paper or screen.
I needed a swift kick in the pants. I needed someone to tell me, “You should write” and I needed to sit down and do it, even if it’s not good or original or important. Like I tell my students, you gotta start somewhere. You can’t fix a blank page.
So here’s my start, my warm up after a long break. My five paragraph essay complete with thesis statement, quotations, and supporting evidence that I read to my students to show that yes, even teachers need a shot of encouragement now and then.
Parenting is hard. It’s hard to rock a screeching newborn in the dead of night, to keep your cool when your toddler’s screaming in the grocery store, to thwart selfishness when you yourself fight against it every day. But nothing, in all of parenting, is as hard as letting go. How do we know when he’s ready to walk to school on his own? When to refrain from stepping in and let the kid take the hard consequence? When to hand over the car keys and pray like life depends on it because, suddenly, you realize it does? But let go we must. That is, ultimately, the call of all parents. No other parent exemplifies this struggle so well as Marlin. Marlin. The fish. Otherwise known as Nemo’s dad, or the little clown fish from the reef who can’t tell a joke to save his life. Yes, Marlin is computer-generated and Finding Nemo is a kid’s movie but it’s a gem of a kid’s movie with a rich admonishment for us parents, fish and human alike.
It isn’t any wonder that Marlin is a terrified little fish. He’s lost everything, everything but Nemo. Consequently, he becomes the poster dad for helicopter parenting. Marlin’s afraid of everything in the ocean and this fear undergirds his every word and action. Yet the irony, of course, is lost on him: in his desire to keep his son out of harm’s way, Marlin’s over protectiveness becomes the very thing that harms his son the most. It’s Marlin’s control that sparks Nemo’s rebellion. (“Nemo touched the butt!” See the movie if that doesn’t make sense.) It isn’t until Nemo is separated from dear old Dad that he finds out what he’s made of; he realizes he can do the hard thing, swim against the current, put the rock in place to save himself and his buddies from tankhood. And because of their estrangement, Marlin finally has to grapple with his debilitating pessimism. “You think you can do these things,” he mindlessly blurts out to Dory in a moment of panic, “But you can’t Nemo, you just can’t.” And suddenly it seems to hit him. His fear is crippling his son.
If letting go of fear is part of parenting, letting go of our kids is the point of parenting. There are a variety of circumstances and special needs are just that—special needs, but under normal circumstances, if our children don’t eventually fly from the nest or swim from the anemone as the case may be, we haven’t done our job. How do we know when they’re ready? I’m not sure. I’m not quite there yet, but the closer I get the more I experience these frantic pangs of all the things I have yet to teach them. How to use Draino. How to clean out the fridge. And then reality reassures me, He’ll figure it out. The pipes will clog, the fridge will begin to reek and he’ll figure it out. Because at some point, we won’t be able to figure it out for them. At some point, fly or fail, we have to let our kids go.
For us parents it’s all about protection. From the moment the nurse let us (us?) take that red-faced bundle home or from the moment that precious child not of our blood but who’s captured a piece of our heart is placed in our arms, our job is to protect. But day by day, year by year, our role morphs from protecting to preparing, and in order to prepare them, we must stop protecting them from everything. We know it’s asinine but we want the impossible. We want to give our kids the impossible: that nothing bad will ever happen to them. Yet deep down we know from experience the fallacy of that thinking—we know that those bad things become the fodder from which character sprouts and blooms. Marlin doesn’t let Nemo swim to school on his own, hang with his friends, go on the fieldtrips because, he believes, he must at any cost protect him from anything bad. When Dory tells Marlin it’s time to let go of the whale’s tongue in order to be shot out into freedom he cries, “How do you know nothing bad’s going to happen?” Her answer is poignantly simple: “I don’t!” The truth is, we know something bad is going to happen to our kids at some point in their life. Heck, something bad probably happened the second day they were alive. But living in spite of our fear is living, living in fear is merely existing.
Pixar, genius company that it is, embeds a powerful message to parents in stunningly beautiful medium, in the character of a humble little daddy fish. And goodness knows we get him. We are him, to some extent. We know how scary that vast unknown is. We understand how the fact that we can’t control the ocean in which our children live can leave us in a cold sweat. But even when fear overwhelms us like a tidal wave, we can choose to take a breath, say a prayer, and send our kids on their way, gimpy fin and all.