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We left for Philly in the dark, carefully looking for black ice as we walked to the car and then shivering inside it while it warmed up. Our suitcases were packed for the adventure ahead—2,300 miles by air to Phoenix with more miles by car and foot, to Tucson, Sierra Vista, Sedona, Williams, Grand Canyon, Flagstaff and back to Phoenix.
In the northeast, March comes in like a lion and then hops around from beast to beast, before exiting as a lamb. And while our first destination would be warm, unseasonably hot in fact in the high 80’s, we were told that it was the elevation in Arizona that would determine the temperatures as we roamed the state.
Next to swimming suits and rash guards, I packed warm hats and gloves. I stuffed extra down vests on top of flip-flops and sundresses. And along with the no-nonsense hiking shoes and flannel, I packed a delicate good-luck silver necklace.
But it wasn’t until I spoke with woman on the reservation line for the grand canyon—hoping to inch closer to the rim and out of the motel left for those foolish ones who booked just four months in advance--that I got serious about packing. We’d have a ten-minute walk from the village to our modest room.
“Bring a flashlight,” she said.
How had I not thought of that?
It’s my pharmaceutical bag, though, that I am proudest of. The contents are inspired by our trip last year, when we were caught with a sick kid and too few tablets of children’s Motrin. Doritos and apple juice go a long way in providing euphoric distraction, but do little for long-term fever reduction.
So this trip, I packed fresh packs of junior strength Motrin, Tylenol, Benadryl, Claritin, Pepto-Bismol, Band-Aids, Neosporin, eardrops. I even stuffed a tube of Pringles into a suitcase in case Doritos were hard to come by.
Granted, we were in Arizona, where Urgent Care centers seems a plentiful as saguaro cacti, but hard-earned lessons are difficult to shake, and no one was getting between my emergency medication bag and me.
The one thing I didn’t pack was adult strength Motrin—and the throbbing headache I had after the twelve-hour trip drove me to consider my options. I could chew up a handful of the grape flavored junior strength tablets, or grab a diet coke and see if the caffeine worked some magic.
In the interest of preserving those tablets, I drank the coke. Had they been cherry flavored, perhaps I’d eaten them, but they are precious cargo, and it was only a migraine.
Still, as with most things in parenting, the disasters you prepare for rarely happen and the blood usually flies while you’re microwaving hotdogs with your guard down. (See, The time she needed staples in her head because big sister slammed a doorknob…)
Freshly showered and dressed for dinner, I heard the voice of my eight year old from the back seat of the rental car as we drove past the secluded resorts and the brown low shrubs of Tucson’s Oro Valley.
“I have a bloody nose,” she said.
I checked my purse.
“Kleenex,” I said to myself. “How had I not packed a tissue?”
All That is Good
We spend four years in college preparing for the real world only to return 20 years later to find everything real and beautiful was right there all along.
A university is an isolate haven, to be sure. But why is it we have determined that it is false and the ecosystem outside is somehow true?
The principles that guide a university—intellectual curiosity and growth, creativity and invention, knowledge and recognition of history, community and tolerance, integrity and accountability—are not just noble ideas. They are its life’s blood. Tested and attacked and weakened at times, but always vital and somehow resuscitated because they are what makes a place like this tick. And when a place like this ticks humanity benefits.
In the history of human progress, when has intellectual and thoughtful collaboration not made us better?
We started our reunion at the Gridiron luncheon, a room of old-timers given the attention they were due. Links to the past polished, not broken, in a symbiotic relationship that is too often neglected. Give us your money and your loyalty and we’ll give you more than respect, we’ll give you youth. I don’t mean in years, I mean in the heart, because youth is as much energy and sense of interaction with the world as it is a number.
That was the first message, followed by a transparent look at the major problems in collegiate athletics—that is the minor leagues to the pros. No, not here, we have looked at that problem and we have made a commitment to student athletes: Graduation rates and GPAs on par with the general population.
Then off to the campus store to stock up on purple, the rival was coming, and it was Indiana. No name-calling. No disrespect. We could show our allegiance without demonizing the challenger because in this place it is understood that a strong opponent makes us all rise to the occasion. We work hard on our own game, and the reward is showing up, doing what was practiced with devotion and discipline.
We visited the director of Residential Life, a source for a story I wrote a few years back, who is on the front lines of human behavior. William Blake may See a World in a Grain of Sand, but after twenty minutes with this man, you’ll see it in dorm assignments and the way students and their parents let go, hold on, bounce back and land when they fall. Resilience is the word of the day and this is where it’s tested.
There would be reunions with friends, a term widely defined now that years had softened the insecurities that once drew arbitrary lines. Wouldn’t it be nice if we walked down the street with the same acceptance, remembering that we do have something in common, not only with classmates, but also with every human who ever lived?
We are all alumni of the hard knocks and joys of life.
But then, the image forever fixed in my mind, the most delightful intersection of all that is good: the Nobel Laureate and his research team riding on a float in the homecoming parade. The sun had set, the chill had arrived, and the crowd was scattered and almost unaware that the parade had begun and Fraser Stoddart, the pioneer in nanosystems, rode in on a homemade chariot, here to be celebrated.
We can celebrate achievement in nanosystems and the football game, our desire to learn and our common humanity
That, to me, is as real as it gets. And it felt like coming home, indeed.
Thank you for reading. You can check out part I and part II, or send me a note. And I post my blogs on my FB page, and would love you to join me.
PS. Before the reunion, I wrote about the 9 classmates who had died before the milestone. Here is the story.
Getting out House
There are a few things that must be done before any trip. But going on a trip without the kids requires planning for two trips in parallel universes.
There is the adult version: tickets, clothes, cell phone chargers and gum.
And there is the kid version: everything else in the f-ing universe.
It does not matter if you are leaving the kids for 12 hours or 12 days, the demands are essentially the same. I prepared by doing 8 loads of laundry, going to three grocery stores, stocking up on “fun” crafts at Michael's, ridding the pantry of spoiled food, removing sharp objects from reach, and refilling the toilet paper rolls.
But the essentials, the things I could turn to in a pinch from a few hundred miles away, the answer to any problem, the balm to any confusion: the list of emergency contact numbers. And a variety pack of sugary cereal.
“I have no idea where your other green sock is,” I could say to my eleven year old should she call in a panic, “but have you tried the Cocoa Krispies?”
As far as I am concerned there is not much that a good bowl of Frosted Flakes can’t make better. My oldest, in fact, seems to share my opinion. Even before I left town she took one tiny box from the pack and hid it in the back of the pantry.
“Just in case,” she said.
It is, after all, the prerogative of any big sister to hoard favorite snacks. The youngest had not yet seen the variety pack and would surely be left with the Corn Pops by the time the older one was already moving in on the Fruit Loops.
Knowing there was a selection of cereal in the house was a great comfort to me. Sure, there where other incidentals I might have focused on before leaving town: replacing the batteries in the carbon monoxide detectors, actually making a will, hiding my fifth grade diary. Anything that might be pertinent in the event of a “worse case scenario.”
But to be honest, between the emergency contact list and the fortified cereal, I felt good.
My husband wasted his time printing our boarding passes and making sure we had cash. I’m not sure if it’s a “guy thing” but we have very different ways of preparing for trips.
I will add that part of the power of the Kellogg Fun Pack, the official name for the collection of cavity-creating junk food I so lovingly left for my offspring, is that it’s not something we have on a regular basis.
As a concept, this makes sense. As with the overuse of antibiotics, casual and unnecessary consumption of Frosted Flakes—or Apple Jacks for that matter—diminishes the effectiveness.
In my own youth, anytime my parents went out on a date and left us in the hands of an irresponsible babysitter (most were in the 1980’s), we were allowed to have Hungry-Man TV dinners and Pepsi. We were also allowed to stay up late, watch The Love Boat and Fantasy Island and fall asleep in front of the TV.
Times have changed but packaged food with high sodium or sugar content is still the next best thing to mom and dad.
Truth be told, it wasn’t the kids who had anxiety about our leaving. But I knew my own anxiety could only be dealt with in two ways: practice, or acclimation by leaving them successfully enough times that I didn’t worry; or by preparation. Forget practice, it was too late for that, I had to double-down in the only way I knew how.
And so my husband and I headed out of the house and out of the state to join my friends at the 20th college reunion. The laundry was done. The house was clean. The car had gas. The mums had been watered. The fridge was stocked. The crafts were ready.
My parents were in charge and the kids would be fine.
I put my faith in the universe.
And in the all-soothing power of Frosted Flakes.
This is Part II of III on Homecoming. Thanks, as always, for reading.
I had no doubt about the importance of heading back to campus. It was a deep calling home, as if something in me as instinctive as the flight of a bird, knew to migrate, if only for 3 days, back to the place and the people of youth.
They say the adolescent mind is on fire. There’s a neurological reason for the photographic, visceral connection to the events of that time. Even as we’ve changed, learned knew skills, mapped new cities, made new friends and created our own families, the mind of our college days is etched into the brain. Take a piece of paper and pencil and gently rub—and the memory and identity of that time is brought back, like the words written on a soft wood table, careless scribbles that never knew they’d made indelible impressions.
The campus of Northwestern lines Lake Michigan. But it’s the trees that welcomed me back first, as they always did each morning I started on the meandering path towards class. Maybe it’s the wind off the lake that makes the trees talk, their leaves, while they still have them, rustling and setting a brisk pace: get to class--there’s something new to learn. Take a deep breath of cool lake air and it is a new day.
I’ve always felt a communion with the campus. I am humbled by the architecture, the Midwestern grace of classic and modern, formidable and approachable, old and new, and what it stirs inside, the sense that you are alive as an individual and as part of this organism of thought and thoughtfulness.
Then, the people. More than the football game, this was the Homecoming. There must be some physiological connection as powerful as the one in the brain, that senses these are your siblings, hatched at the same time, fed by the same struggle, and kicked out into the world at the same time not only in history but in your own life stories.
It was good to be in their presence. And it was even better to say how good it was to see them again, to learn, just a bit, about where life had taken them. But it didn’t matter what they did now, or what they’d lost, or what they’d won. It mattered that many years ago, when they were young and striving, and confused, and determined, that we’d been there together.
Something in the memory and script revealed on the table was made together. Now, because we where in the same place and with the same souls, we could feel that those memories were not distant dreams, but a real part of who we are today.
And those not with us at Homecoming, we missed you. You are part of that story, too.
This is part 1 of a 3 part series on Homecoming.
Thanks for reading. Click here for parts 2 and parts 3.
This month, the entire country is focused on suicide prevention. But as the theme “Be the One To” (#BeThe1To) indicates, this is about one person at a time making a difference in someone’s life.
What I love so much about this campaign is that it asks us to relate to one another with open eyes and compassionate hearts. If we can use social media to reinforce that type of interpersonal connection, then we’ll heal a lot of pain and isolation.
And maybe save a life.
It’s also significant that this awareness occurs just as we head into autumn and move into a new season, school year, succession of holidays, and final months of 2016. It’s a time full of heighten expectations and the very real emotional pain that often follows.
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, known as Lifeline, is helping us all “be the one” to reach out. Their campaign, part of the larger outreach by Mental Health Association of New York City, offers five key points.
When I interviewed project director Dr. John Draper on Tuesday to ask him about the campaign, it was clear to me that he wants to change the conversation about this epidemic.
"There is no life to lose," he told me. We must talk about the effective ways to prevent suicide and remind people that they have the ability to do a great amount of good. It starts by reaching out to those who may be in need of some support and asking them the very direct and honest question.
"Are you thinking of killing yourself?"
Dr. Draper puts this first step in context in the Facebook Live interview we had on Tuesday, launching an entire month of suicide prevention awareness that I hope extends into the months and years to come.
One of the most moving aspects of this interview for me was something that happened after the interview. I read the comments from people who were watching. They shared their pain, their hard work to make it through another day, and their support for one another.
Here's a recap of the 5 essential points in the #BeThe1To theme for suicide prevention.
Don’t be afraid to ask the tough question. If someone you know is in emotional pain, ask them directly, “Are you thinking about killing yourself?”
#BeThe1To: Be There.
If your friend is thinking about suicide listen to their reasons for feeling hopeless and in pain. Listen without judgment and with compassion and with empathy.
#BeThe1To: Follow up.
Making contact with a friend in the days and weeks after a crisis can make a difference in keeping them alive. Check in with the person you care about on a regular basis.
#BeThe1To: Help them connect.
Help your friend connect to a support system so they have others to reach out to for help: whether it’s 800-273-TALK (8255), family, friends, clergy, coaches, co-workers or therapists.
#BeThe1To: Keep them Safe.
If your friend is thinking about suicide, ask if they’ve also thought about how they would do it. Separate them from anything they are thinking of using to hurt themselves.
Lifeline, launched in 2005 by The U.S Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, (SAMHSA) and The Mental Health Association of New York City, provides free and confidential emotional support to people in suicidal crisis or emotional distress 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Additionally, veterans, active military, and their families can be connected to a veteran suicide prevention hotline specialist through the Lifeline number.
As I’ve spoken and exchanged emails with people who face their own mental health challenges, I’ve heard a recurring theme: it’s hard to find help, and even harder to find it when you are suffering. It’s essential that we make the Lifeline for help as readily accessible as possible.
*Share the Lifeline Number: 1-800-273- TALK (8255)
*Share the MY3 App
* Learn about the Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube features to report or flag suicidal or content. Click here for information on these and other social media safety teams.
You can watch the interview by clicking here. You'll learn a lot in the first 5 minutes. And even more by watching the full 30. But most important, Be The One to...Ask, Be There, Follow Up, Help them connect, and Keep Them Safe.
Please share this. It's time to talk about suicide prevention.
Sarah's notes is edited by Sarah Vander Schaaff and features thoughtful moments in the lives of smart people. I want this to be a place of through-provoking calm in the busy world of "trending now" distraction. Send me notes from the road of life.