I was reminding my 7 year old to put back dirty clothes in the laundry basket, when he snapped in a frustrated voice – “Why do you always keep repeating instructions, mommy? I got it already!” And then he added, mimicking my voice, “Don’t forget to drink enough water, talk to your teacher if you have doubts, don’t be late to school…yada..yada..yada.. I’m so tired of hearing this every day.”
Well. It was one of those parenting moments – when your mental image of yourself as a trailblazing mom giving her children ample space and wise guidance, gently nudging them towards their responsibilities is flipped in an instant to a grim nag, frustrating her son.
As I sat sipping my tea thoughtfully after the kids left to school, I thought back to a time when I had almost snapped similarly at another person for rattling instructions at me ad nauseum. It was a few years ago – a time before kids and parent duties. My husband and I were on vacation in Portland, Oregon state. As a young couple raring to explore exciting experiences, we signed up for our first white water rafting trip on Level 4 – never mind that we neither of us knew how to swim. We defiantly boarded the bus that took us high up the mountains for the launch point at Level 3 (rapid flow waters), merging ahead with Level 4 (rapid flow on very snake-like curly paths leading to a waterfall).
At first, I paid close attention to the guide standing in the aisle, as she undertook our education on this popular sport.
“If you fall out of the boat,” she said, “it is very important that you pull your feet up so that you don’t get a foot caught under the rocks below.” She stressed again, “Think toes to nose,” and gave us a precarious demonstration, bracing herself and hoisting one foot toward her nose, “then look for the boat and reach for the oar or the rope.”
From then on, our guide kept repeating these instructions, like a mantra, till all I could hear was “toes to nose” ringing in my head, as we bundled out towards the river. We had been on the road since 4 AM and were in a mesmeric sleepy state, lulled by the rocking of the bus.
“Toes to the nose,” I heard again. And then, “look for the boat.”
By the time we arrived at the river’s edge, I had heard the two phrases so many times I felt slightly crazed. We put on our wet suits, gathered our equipment and stood in a circle for our final instructions. Needless to say, there came the phrases.
“If you fall out of the boat, what do you say to yourselves?”
“Toes to the nose and look for the boat,” everyone chimed.
Someone here is mentally challenged, I thought as we climbed on to the boat and started downstream.
In minutes, surging into the only class 5 rapids of the journey, I vanished into the wall of water that rose up at the stern of the raft as into a black hole. Under water, there was no up and down, neither water nor air nor land. There had never been a boat. There was nothing at all. For a few moments, I was completely, utterly lost, as in a great big void.
“Toes to the nose.” The words emerged from the void. I pulled together into a ball. Now there was Air and Sounds. “Look for the boat.” Did that come from my head or was someone calling? The boat appeared and an oar. “Reach for the oar.” I did… and found myself in a world, inside a boat on the water. Yes, not something you forget too soon.
Since then I have realized the power of repetition. Whenever you are “out of the boat” in a lot of different situations in your life, when you are fully shaken up, you cannot think your way back in. You have no point of reference. You must call on something that has been established in advance – and sometimes, all it takes is a catch phrase – like “toes to nose” – to re-orient ourselves back on track in life.
The trouble these days of course, is that there are too many catch phrases – too many things that media throws at our kids. So many messages vying for their attention. So many influences forcing themselves down children’s subconscious minds that sometimes mommies have to shout to make themselves heard. And pray hard that when the time comes, the right message comes out of the void.
I wrote this story down. And that night, I read it out as a bedtime story to my son – which then started conversations at length about how some phrases become our points of reference through life, in different situations like being in a hurry to school, being nervous in class when the teacher teaches new concepts, getting diverted focusing on playing with friends etc. He seemed thoughtful. Did I reach him, I wondered. Only until the next day, when I overheard him tell his little sister – “Hey not there – dirty clothes to laundry basket.” Hurrah! Did I tell you, my trailblazing mommy hat is back on?