Setting Sail

or The Boy About To Leave

There’s a quote I love, about ships and harbors. Ships are always safest in the harbor, but that’s not what ships are made for.

The time left to Owen as a real kid is now measurable in months instead of years. Eighteen is leering at me. Not only will Owen turn eighteen in June, but about eighteen months from now he’ll be beyond high school and headed into whatever the rest of life holds. Headed out of the harbor.

Last night we had a long conversation about watches.  But not really about watches.

Owen sought me out as I finished up the dinner dishes to talk about the new watch he wanted to buy for himself. It was a hefty price for a seventeen-year-old. I said it was very nice. But did he really need it? Was it a good use of money? Didn’t he already have a perfectly nice and functional watch? I made all the points I thought a good mother should make. Did he ask me for my opinion? Hhmm…I always seem to think the request is inferred.

Most of our mother-son “discussions” follow a similar pattern: Introduction of subject; tension, stress, anger, and/or arguing; productive conversation; revelation of what the conversation is “really” about; resolution; humor. Once we’d moved through stages one and two, Owen explained calmly and rationally that he took my points but really wanted to make his own decision. In his estimation the purchase was a good use of money, because it was only a fraction of the money he’d earned over the summer and had in his savings account, and because he’d had a crappy year. All true. He is very careful about spending money.  And over the past eighteen months he’s experienced more than his share of school struggle, friend drama, loss, and now this everlasting winter. This purchase – researching it, deciding on it, anticipating it – was something meaningful and good feeling.  And he’d also probably wear it for, like, the next thirty years, “like Grandpa.” (Thank you, Dad, the legend Grandpa, who still wears his forty-year-old Seiko every day like clockwork!) Owen emphasized the thought and research he routinely puts into all his decisions, especially the ones about spending money. And that by the way, he was tired of his reputation for being what I call thrifty and conservative, and everyone else calls cheap.

I agreed all his pronouncements had merit. Then I reminded him that giving my opinion was and has always been not the final word but an invitation to discussion, to sharing information, to continuing to get to know each other as each of us changes through age and experience. That’s the kind of relationship I want to have with my kids when they’re adults. Right about now, every discussion feels like that mythic and magical thing – the teachable moment. Every talk feels like a chance to firm up life lessons so Owen remains healthy and whole, solvent, and hopefully a bit happy.

Owen confirmed that I could count on him to be thoughtful and conservative, that yes, I’d taught him those lessons well. He walked me through all the small decisions he’s been making and routines he’s putting in place – from his brand of shaving cream to what time he gets up each morning, to how he likes his coffee, to the importance of being on time, and how having a good watch is essential because you know those phones, they run out of charge and break or get left somewhere, so you can’t always count on them as timekeepers.  He explained that he’s cementing the little details of who he is so when he faces the big wide world, when he’s thrust into the middle of the unknown where everything unfamiliar, he’ll at least recognize one thing: himself.

He used the metaphor of a large ship about to put out to sea. “It’s like tying down all the small lines, all the loose ends,” he said, “because you can’t have them flapping all around you when you’re trying to get somewhere, when you’re not really sure what you’re going to run into. If I figure out all the little stuff now, then no matter what, I’ll always have me.”

There it is.  The conversation began with a watch.  It concluded with my kid showing me he’s figuring out what he needs to do to get ready for the world, and also that he’s discovered a nugget of true wisdom very early on. If you have yourself, know yourself, are sure of what matters to you, have practice listening to your inside voice and following your internal compass, you’re never truly alone. And if you get off course, you’ll always know how to find your way home.

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