Lessons learned at Boy Scout camp

Here’s my September ‘Life Lines’ column:

I recently had an opportunity to go on a Boy Scout camping trip with my son, Noah, who is within a stone’s throw of becoming a teenager. I hemmed and hawed when it came time to make the final decision about whether to pack my knapsack and head into the woods. It wasn’t just the thought of the semi-open latrines that caused me doubt. It was the possibility that my presence on the trip might somehow limit Noah. I didn’t want him to think I didn’t trust him, which certainly wasn’t the case.

Truth be told, I really just wanted an excuse to go camping. The older I get, the more I’m intrigued by the possibility of developing a deeper relationship with nature. And the Boy Scouts put on a great program. I’m also not so naïve as to think that Noah will always want me tagging along on his camping trips. So time seemed of the essence.

Noah was not only willing to have me in camp but enthusiastic. It touched my heart to know that my little boy, who is not so little any more, still enjoys having me around. My job, then, was to be present without being oppressive, which can be a fine line to walk when all your motherly instincts are telling you to reach out and wipe the remnants of an orange Slushie from around your child’s mouth.

It was such a treat to see Noah – as well as the other teens and near-teens in his troop — take on challenges they would normally skip in lieu of video games or TV. As I watched them venture out of their comfort zones, it reminded me that every day each one of us is given the option of choosing to stretch rather than stick with the status quo, of opting for new experiences over comfortable routines.

I watched from afar as Noah worked on his swimming merit badge. He had to jump in the lake fully clothed, remove his shirt and jeans and turn them into a floatation device. I stood in awe as I saw him struggle and succeed at something I couldn’t even dream of attempting. He caught a fish, he dissected a fish, he shot a rifle, he swam 150 yards without stopping, he snorkeled, he made a first aid kit, he waited tables in the mess hall, he walked back and forth and back and forth through camp, winding his way through mud and darkness without fear or frustration. And I sat near the campfire, waiting and watching for the glimmer of his flashlight shining in the darkness to signal that he was “home.”

Boy Scout camp is meant to challenge the boys. But as I made my own way at Rotary Scout Reservation, I realized that it was challenging me as well. First there were the easy challenges: letting go of the urge to go through my normal hair and make-up routine before venturing down to flag ceremony and breakfast, sleeping in a tent where animals were scurrying under my platform and grasshoppers were hovering above my head, using stinky latrines that didn’t even have doors. And then there were the harder challenges: letting Noah make his own choices and maybe even his own mistakes, inviting him to hike with me but giving him a wide berth, remembering that this was his week and he shouldn’t have to cater to mom’s every whim, trusting that even if I hadn’t been around to remind him he would ultimately do the right thing.

I may not have an opportunity like this one again. By next year Noah may want more independence, or at least some time out from under his parents’ watchful gazes. And that’s OK because if learned one thing on this camping trip it’s this: My son can handle a lot more than either one of us realized. He’s ready to stretch, and so, it seems, am I.

To read previous ‘Life Lines’ columns, visit my website by clicking HERE.

Remembering a day we can never forget

I remember exactly where I was eight years ago this morning, as we watched our world change forever. Standing in my bedroom, putting away laundry as my son, Noah, played in the next room, I received a phone call from my father-in-law telling me to turn on the TV. That moment is as vivid to me now as it was then, as are the events that followed. I had a cousin on a train caught in “the tubes” under the Hudson River between New Jersey and New York, although none of us knew at the time if he was safe or already under the towers and in the station. I had family living in Manhattan.

Moments of panic were wrapped around normal events of the day. I dropped Noah at art class and came home to find one tower gone. By the time I was ready to pick him up, the second had fallen and I was on my knees in tears in our family room. In the days that followed, I wrote one of my very first Life Lines columns about that terrible time in our country’s history. I thought today, I would share that original column, which captures those early feelings of fear, and reminds us of how far we have come. Here is the column that ran in Catholic New York:

By Mary DeTurris Poust

Noah plopped down on the floor next to me the other day and asked me to read one of his favorite books, “There’s an Alligator Under My Bed,” by Mercer Mayer. As we turned the pages and followed the little boy on his quest to capture the elusive alligator that kept him up at night, I had an eerie feeling that the story was an allegory for what I’d been feeling since that terrible morning a few days before.

The night after the World Trade Center attack, I lay awake in my bed staring at the ceiling, filled with a sense of dread that I could not quite put my finger on. I was scared, but not by the images of horror that had flashed before my eyes for hours that day. Instead my fears seemed frivolous, not at all unlike the little boy’s alligator: Had I left the dryer on in the basement? Was the window over the kitchen sink still open? Were the kids’ pajamas warm enough? I felt a childlike fear of the dark, of things no one else can see, things we parents usually try to hush with a goodnight kiss and a night-light.

When morning finally arrived, I realized that my sleeplessness wasn’t really about what might go wrong within my four walls. It was about what had gone wrong in our world. Long after I had wiped away the tears of sadness that fell as I watched the World Trade Center collapse over and over again on television’s seemingly endless loop of horror, I fought back tears of a different kind — as I rocked Olivia to sleep for her nap, as I kissed Noah good-bye at preschool, as I hugged my husband, Dennis, at the end of a long day. Those were tears borne of fear, tears for tomorrow, tears for a world we don’t yet know. And I didn’t like how they felt.

Despite the fact that I have spent almost two years writing a book on how to help children deal with grief, the events of the past weeks left me in the unusual position of struggling for words. On the day of the attack, when Noah, asked if “bad people” might knock down our house, I reassured him that they would not. When he made a logical leap – at least for a 4-year-old – and worried that they might knock down his grandmother’s apartment building in New York City, I told him he was safe, that no one was going to hurt him or the people he loved. All the while I found myself wondering if I was telling him a lie.

But that kind of thinking leads to hopelessness, and when we lose hope, we leave a void just waiting to be filled by fear and despair and alligators of every kind. Through stories on television and in newspapers, I had seen unbelievable hopefulness in the face of utter destruction. How could I not believe in the power of the human spirit and the ultimate goodness of humanity and a better world for our children?

That night, as a soft rain fell, our house seemed wrapped in a comforting quiet that was interrupted only by the reassuring hum of the dishwasher. With Noah and Olivia asleep in their rooms, I lay down and looked up. For the first time in days I didn’t notice the enveloping darkness but saw instead the tiny glowing stars that dot our bedroom ceiling, a “gift” left behind by the previous owners. As I finally closed my eyes to sleep, I whispered a prayer of hope, a prayer for a world where the only thing our children have to fear are the imaginary monsters hiding under their beds.

Copyright 2001, Mary DeTurris Poust

Catch me on the archbishop’s show Thursday

Tomorrow (Thursday, Sept. 10) at 1 p.m. Eastern time, I will be a guest on Archbishop Timothy Dolan’s weekly radio show, A Conversation With the Archbishop, on The Catholic Channel on Sirius/XM, to discuss my book, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to the Catholic Catechism.

The Catholic Channel is on Sirius 159 and XM 117. Please tune in. If you don’t have satellite radio, you can get a seven-day free Internet trial HERE.

An unofficial hiatus

Obviously, considering I haven’t posted in more than a week, Not Strictly Spiritual is on a brief hiatus. I just can’t keep up with the work deadlines, kids at home (still) and other general responsibilities. I’ll be back (I hope) soon. Maybe next week. There’s a chance I won’t be back at all (or at least the blog won’t be back), but you’ll be the first to know if I decide to pull the plug on this thing. It’s been a struggle these past months to keep all the balls in the air at once. Thanks for your patience.

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