I get it now…

My mother was not like other mothers. Looking back, I can see that she was actually living in a cosmic sphere that only casually intersected with our suburban life. And the cryptic sayings she imparted, that sounded so ordinary, held uncommon wisdom.

To look at her, you wouldn’t know what to think. 

She was supposed to have a bouffant hairdo; instead, she sported a pixie cut. Instead of a having matching outfit for every occasion, she wore what she pleased whether it matched or not. Instead of occupying a regular pew at the local church, she did yoga before there were special pants for it and learned how to cast a genuine natal horoscope when people still got astrology mixed up with astronomy.

Her quick mind was impossible for others to track, and she was the queen of the non sequitur. We children teased her for it all the time, but she didn’t seem to mind, because typically she was already thinking of something else.

“The universe is unfolding as it should.”

— Mom, in answer to something entirely unrelated.

Behind her back, we rolled our eyes and compared notes about our crazy mom. Now I know she was crazy like a fox. Maybe that was her spirit animal. I wouldn’t be surprised.

Yes, it’s me. Did you write your thank you notes yet? Photo by Cristina Anne Costello on Unsplash

Velvet glove in a fist of… well, aluminum, at least

Despite her dreamy, unconventional demeanor, she raised us five children on a flinty, practical foundation that I’ve only recently come to appreciate — and not just because I see her hands when I look down.

These days, it appears that some people didn’t have the benefit of a cosmic mom like ours. So I’m sharing her teachings — channeling her voice, in a way, which I can still hear in my mind after all these years — and you can make of them what you will. These three utterances, in particular, may be the bedrock of my character today:

1. “Go clean your room.”

2. “What did you do to them?”

3. “One person divides, the other chooses.”

— Mom

These things hurt like a bastard when you step on them. Markus Spiske on Unsplash

“Go clean your room.”

Our mother did not allow boredom in our house. To this day I don’t understand what “being bored” even means. As we five stairstep children grew up, each of us witnessed what happened to the one right ahead of us if they tried the “I’m bored” line on Mom. It would be immediately educational.

“Mom, I’m bored.”
“Fine. Go clean your room.”

“I DID clean my room.”
“Then go pull weeds.”

She wasn’t cruel. She’d pay us a nickel a basket for the weeds. And we’d do it — even in 100-degree heat — for a nickel. (It was a long time ago, and we were suckers for suckers.)

The obvious lesson, of course, was to entertain ourselves, for heaven’s sake. Television was off-limits in the daytime, but we could grab a book, draw, make stuff, or disappear outside and dig in the dirt.

We understood that even children can learn to care for their own things and contribute to a community. We could do things; we could be useful. A kid can get some bona fide self-esteem that way.

On the other hand, we were discouraged from taking too much credit for doing ordinary things:

“Well, don’t break your arm patting yourself on the back.”

— Mom

I’m still pouting a little over that one. I’m not very good at self-promotion, which is the reason I am not President.

On the other hand, she drove us to all our activities and went to all our shows. There’s the phony “support” of cheap compliments and then there’s the real support of real effort. With real support, you get good at what you do, and you learn to keep your room clean, whether you like it or not, and you can then keep a job. It’s a win-win-win.

The neighborhood. Photo by David Clode on Unsplash

“What did you do to them?”

Let me explain this one. Mom was not blaming the victim. She just knew that people generally report the side of a conflict they care about the most, which is their own side.

Here’s how it usually went. A breathless, crying child rushes into the house, screen door slamming behind them:

“Mom! MOM! She hit me!”

Mom coolly looks for blood; sees none; and then asks:

“Well, what did you do to her?”

Strangely, even though we must have known that would be her first question, we hardly ever had a prompt, truthful answer.

Sometimes the first response was an immediate, indignant, “Nothing! She just HIT me, for no reason!”

She’d usually just wait, and the truth would eventually come out.

Or the child would pause, with a faraway look as they mentally replayed the incident. They might realize that a full investigation might reveal certain other behavior better left unreported, so… they’d mumble something and slide out the back door.

Her laissez-faire approach was quite unlike the intense, therapeutic work-over some parents initiate at the first sign of trouble. She wanted to teach us how to recognize our own part in conflicts and then work them out for ourselves.

I now believe there were times when she should have intervened to protect the younger ones against the older, more aggressive ones. I’m not sure she noticed when normal fights became bullying. She might have been something of a bully herself; it takes energy and will to resist conforming to the powerful forces at work in the world.

In families, as in the neighborhood, as in the world, the stronger will prey on the weaker if they are allowed to, and it’s painful when we learn that sometimes even our mother will not protect us.

Then, it seems that the only way to forgive that failure in her is to do better than that, and know we have done better than she did.

If I’m right, and we have done our work and forgiven our cosmic mom for not being a perfect mom, then the wheel has spun and the cosmic mom approves.

Ellen van der Mollen on Flickr

“One divides, the other chooses.”

This principle is the simplest concept in the world, and people just don’t seem to get it.

The only reliably fair way to distribute any valuable commodity — like turns riding in the front seat, or Lincoln Logs, or pie — is to have one person divide the lot and the other choose the portions.

This method teaches children the vital concept of equal distribution as well as the fine motor skills needed to cut pie with absolute precision. Including the filling, which everyone knows is the trickiest part.

A pretty good division of pie. Photo by Jonathan Farber on Unsplash

Our society seems not to understand this simple solution to the fair distribution of the common goods we need in order to have a civilization. Are we that stupid? Did we never have to divide pie as children?

Maybe you’ve heard faint echoes of this logic applied, for example, to questions of racial justice. Sometimes a white person will assert that racism is a thing of the past, and everyone should just move on. But just ask that person: all right, everything else being held constant, would you rather be a black person or a white person? Watch their face. They might try to bluff and say it wouldn’t matter, but there’s usually a nearly imperceptible wince. They don’t mean it.

They know the pie isn’t fairly divided. My mother could have told them that.

And it’s no good saying it’s all too overwhelming to change. Mother didn’t want to hear that, either.

“You can’t do everything at once. But you can do ONE thing at once.”

— Mom

Unlikely legacies

Sometimes things we encounter in the world are exactly what we seem; we can become pretty good at assessing our environment in a flash.

But the people who formed us are, paradoxically, the most difficult for us to understand. For years, it was difficult to see past my mother’s flighty surface to the practical tactics she was teaching us.

We all wanted to please our mother and father, whose standards were high. But if we got all wound up over something, and it wasn’t helping our outcome at all, we might hear this come out of the blue:

“If at first you don’t succeed, try something easier.”

— Mom

At first glance, that looks like a lazy way out. But it’s not. It’s actually a strategy toward breaking down a difficult project into manageable steps. You can pay thousands of dollars for a seminar to learn this. Or you can learn this for free if you have a cosmic mom.

Cosmic moms don’t stay forever.

My mother is somewhere else in the universe by now, doing God knows what. Probably casting horoscopes for the angels.

But if you need to borrow her cosmic legacy of practical tips for living, she’d be delighted.

Just don’t make her have to stop this car.

Photo by Matt Seymour on Unsplash

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