Walking with the boys
About 4:00 pm I start watching my phone. I turn it face up and switch from silent to a low hum. Just in case. And again at 6:00 ish. I know their schedules. This is when my sons might call. One is walking home from school in the afternoon and the other from work at night. The windows of opportunity are from five to twenty minutes and if I miss them, it might be a few days before the walking and the inspiration align again.
I have no illusions where I fall in a twenty-something’s order of priorities. Evening plans have been texted, playlists played, messages called back and messages left. But when all other forms of entertainment have been exhausted, and if they are walking, they will call mom.
One tells me about his ideas. We discuss concepts like disruption and narrative world building and color and heteronormative bias. I ask questions and connect images and stretch beyond my day of spreadsheets and slides to keep up with his whirling, brilliant mind. One tells me about his day. We discuss strategies like workload management and incremental development and facilitation and change response. I ask questions and connect phrases and stretch beyond my day of egos and politics to marvel at his openness and ability to read and manage people. To both I agree that life is indeed hard, but also full of wonder, and that they are extraordinary and will make meaningful change in the world. Then they arrive somewhere and hang up.
At some point I heard a lecture about the difference between how boys and girls communicate. I do not remember the speaker’s name, but the information she shared resonated. Girl talk face to face, they speak directly and seek for commonality. “You have a dress with blue flowers! I have a blue dress! We are friends!” Boys talk side by side, must be moving, and look for hierarchical comparisons. “I can throw a ball to that house.” “I can throw a ball to that tree.” “I could throw a ball to the moon!” I decided that my one consistent parenting effort would be to walk with the boys every day. After work, first in a stroller, then a red wagon, and finally side by side. One at a time or both together, their legs bringing to life the zombie with an “ok” day, replaced by a chatty human being who revealed every detail of what had happened in school. It was miraculous to participate in the transformation. Rules developed in the process however. I found that I could ask, listen and comment on what they told me. But no lecturing, no getting in trouble, no personal information–all them, all the time. The minute I launched into “when I was your age . . .” I could see the shifting shut down and dropped the story. “Tell me how far you can throw a ball?”
From baby to boy to teen to somewhere between 4:00 and 7:00 pm, we have been able to keep the conversation going. When they come to visit, one of the first things they want to do is go for a walk. It is not always a path strewn with sunshine. “Why are you always so strident?” one son asked me on a walk when he was about seventeen. I said, “I am only one voice amid a cacophony of voices. And I have a limited time to teach you our values. So we go on walks. And sometimes I challenge you. Also I talk loud.” Now as adults they challenge me back, their own discoveries and experiences pushing me toward wider, deeper thinking about the world.
When my oldest son first went to college, I was perplexed why he only called me when he was walking to and from places. I supposed literary attributions. Perhaps he called when he transitioned from one space to another like the metaphoric movement from one stage of life to another. Maybe it was the uncertainty of passage that caused him to reach out to a parent, the guide of his past life, to help navigate the future. Once he arrived at the destination he was in charge, empowered, no longer in need. It was in-the-in-between that his confidence waned.
Then I realized that my musings were grand and even silly. It is actually Pavlov simple. I conditioned them. When walking something nudges, what should I be doing right now? I wonder if mom is near her phone?
It was never an activity I thought would last, or was even important. Everyone takes their children on walks. But life is an accumulation of steps that we are barely realize we are making. We wander in the direction that seems best and look around us for clues as to what to do next. Every time my phone lights up with the name of one of my sons, it is a gift I never take for granted. One more step, one more conversation to add to the many we have shared over the years, moving in time to whatever pace we set.