The day after Sam turned thirteen, we were going through our usual hormonal transformations together, which is to say, sometimes the house gets crowded. There was Sam at thirteen-usually mellow, funny, slightly nuts. But when the plates of the earth shifted, there was the Visitor, the Other. I called him Phil. Phil was tense. Also sullen and contemptuous. There was me at forty-eight-usually mellow, funny, and slightly nuts-and there was the Menopausal Death Crone.
Some days were great, because Sam and I at these ages were wild and hilarious and utterly full of our best stuff; but other days, when Phil and the Death Crone dropped by, were awful. We sniggered impatiently, and sighed and gripped our foreheads, and we fought. We fought mostly about homework and church, neither of which works for Sam-but then again, neither does flossing. It's hard for him to sit still for school and church when he'd rather be hanging out with friends or playing at the computer, and I hate to make him sit still, because I want him to be happy and to find an authentic spirituality, and because his resistance pollutes my home and my worship.
The usual things helped: some distance, prayer, chocolate. Talking to the parents of older kids was helpful for me, since parents of kids the same age as yours won't admit how horrible their children are. There's a great book on adolescence that I can turn to, Get out of My Life, but First Could You Drive Me and Cheryl to the Mall? by Anthony Wolf. I taped things to the wall that give me some light to see by. One pink card says, "Breathe, Pray, Be kind, Stop grabbing." Another card says something I heard recently, that you can either practice being right or practice being kind. Screaming in the car helped.
But what helped most of all was walking. I had been going up on Mount Tamalpais to walk and be quiet and pray nearly every morning for years. I started to do this because I had heard that Jesus did so, although my friend Father Tom recently clarified this. He said that we are not sure whether Jesus actually did this; people had to explain Jesus' absence by saying he was going up to the mountain to pray, but for all we know, he went off and had a few beers. Then he may have gone bowling, slinging the ball bitterly down the alley until he felt better.
"What would he have done with thirteen-year-olds?" I asked Tom.
"In biblical times, they used to stone a few thirteen-year-olds with some regularity, which helped keep the others quiet and at home. The mothers were usually in the first row of stone throwers, and had to be restrained."
I wrote this down and taped it to my wall, next to the pink card. Every parent who saw it laughed and felt better; nothing helps like letting your ugly common secrets out. And it came in handy during a recent fight.
I was driving Sam to his friend Anthony's house, where he was going to spend the night. I would pick him up for church at ten-thirty the next morning. He was furious about having to go to church, although he has to go only every other week. The Visitor, Phil, had been with us all morning, petulant and put-upon-what we called "bratty" when I was young. When I'd asked Sam to wash his breakfast dishes, you'd have thought I had ordered him to give the kitty a flea dip.
I didn't try to get him to want to come to church; I didn't try to bribe him, or get him to like it-or me. I am not here to be his friend. He was awful in the car, mute and victimized.
It was one of those long ten-minute car rides. Living with a teenager can feel like living with an ex, or with a drug addict who has three days clean and sober. I tried to think about how nice it would be not to see Sam for twenty-four hours. We both sighed a lot. When I pulled up at Anthony's house, Sam got out of the car, and without saying good-bye, slammed the door and walked away. And I blew up. This is one thing they forget to mention in most child-rearing books, that at times you will just lose your mind. Period.
So I lost it, and I shouted for him to come back and get in the car. He couldn't believe his ears. He gave me a withering look that turned to desperation. "No, no, please," he begged.
"Get in the car," I said. "You do not slam the door and walk away from me."
I made him get in the car and close the door, and I drove away. He was furious, then teary. He tried begging for mercy. I hate that.
I parked where the road dead-ended near Anthony's, and I got out. I said, "You will not treat me like shit. I'm going to sit by that log. When you're ready to apologize with a contrite heart, you can get out of the car."
I went and sat down against an ancient fallen log, and smoldered..
A few feet away was a rock that looked like an altar, a huge mottled stone head, like a happy Buddhist god with leprosy. It also looked like a lumpy manhole cover, put there to keep whoever's inside from getting out. I tried to breathe beatifically. I thought of Tom, and wanted to ask, "What on earth did Mary do when Jesus was thirteen?"
Here's what I think: She occasionally started gathering rocks.
But at the same time he's blowing the elders away, how is Jesus treating his parents? I'll tell you: He's making them crazy. He's ditched them. They can't find him for three days. Some of you know what it's like to not find your kid for three hours. You die. Mary and Joseph have looked everywhere, in the market, at the video arcade. Finally they find him, in the last place they thought to look-the Temple. And immediately, he mouths off: Oh, sorry, sorry, I was busy doing all this other stuff, my father's work. Like, Joseph, you're not my real father-you're not the boss of me. I don't even have to listen to you.
And what is Mary doing this whole time?
Mary's got a rock in her hand.
I turned around. Sam sat grimly, and I fixed him with gimlet eyes, pinning him to the seat until he could see the error of his ways.
It seems idiotic for Sam to challenge me so often, since he has no income to speak of, and he can't drive. I looked at the face in the altar, toothless and muckled, with its folded-over mouth. In the alder branches above me, a little gray bird flitted about, modest but melodious. The leaves of the alder quivered. I started to miss Sam. He's every single good thing, including honest, and openly questioning, and angry, that I love so much. The other day he said, with enormous hostility, "We are the only family I know that doesn't display its china." I responded nicely that we don't have any china, and he said, "That's my point."
I looked over at my bad boy. He was staring out the window with resigned misery, as if he were on his way to the dentist. I thought about stoning him. Jesus would have said, "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, and tax collectors, and thirteen-year-olds," which means, "You are totally pissing me off." And he'd have said this right before he picked up a rock.
I bet he had a good arm, being a carpenter and all. I bet he could take a kid out at 150 yards. I thought of Sam's most infuriating habits; how snotty he can act, how entitled, his clothes and towels always dropped on the floor; the way he answers the phone, sounding like Henry Kissinger and only pretending to take down messages.
What a mess we are, I thought. But this is usually where any hope of improvement begins, acknowledging the mess. When I am well, I know not to mess with mess right away; I try to let silence and time work their magic. You don't get far through grinding your teeth and heavy breathing. You noodle around, to warm up, and you meander, to find out if there are any improvisations that call to you. In this case, that meant for me to get up and move around.
I decided to get out from under the weight of his gaze and discomfort, and so I lay down beside the log. There were small, antic wildflowers in the grass beside me. I closed my eyes and listened to the little birds, to the alders and the grass. I breathed in the hay smell of the grass, toasty, with the hint of distant forest fires, and lots of sweetness, like clean laundry.
I was still and attentive and I prayed, and eventually some of my anger dissipated. After a while, I heard the car door open. It was as if, once things were more peaceful in me, the deer or the bobcat could come out of the thicket to case the joint. I heard his footsteps approach, and I sat up. When he came over, he was both, deer and bobcat, tentative, dangerous, and teary. He stood a few feet away, looking back at the car.
He sighed and began to speak. "I'm sorry I was such an asshole," he said.
I'd sort of been hoping he'd say something I could report back to my pastor, but I saw how bad he felt, how lonely.
"Okay?" he said.
I shook my head and sighed. "I'm sorry I was such an asshole, too."
He sat down in the dirt, and we talked in a stilted, unhappy way. I practiced being right for a while, and he was sullen; then I practiced being kind. Things improved a bit. My friend Mark, who works with church youth groups, reminded me recently that Sam doesn't need me to correct his feelings. He needs me to listen, to be clear and fair and parental. But most of all he needs me to be alive in a way that makes him feel he will be able to bear adulthood, because he is terrified of death, and that includes growing up to be one of the stressed-out, gray-faced adults he sees rushing around him.
"Now can we go back to Anthony's?" he asked, petulantly. We got up and walked to the car. I draped my arm around his shoulders like a sweater.