I am at a four-day writing retreat with ten other women in woodsy, rural Wisconsin, while my husband is at a conference in New Orleans. Toward the end of the first day, I text my 22-year-old daughter, Louisa. She moved to Los Angeles two months ago and is returning home to Minnesota in a few days.
Thursday, 8:58 p.m.: Me: We had mini cheesecakes with butterscotch sauce, which I made. Tomorrow Krista and I are making our cheesy and potatoey lunch.
Louisa (responds within minutes): Oh man, sounds like a great time! Send me one of those cheesecakes. Kiss face.
Me: There are three left. I should make them again when you’re home — hey, like next week!
Louisa: Ooo, hey yeah! Smiley face smiley face smiley face.
What I think but don’t write: It will be so wonderful to see your smiling face in person. Even though I will have to give up my new office space (your old bedroom) for a few days. Winky face.
Friday, 2 p.m.: I check Facebook and notice my 20-year-old son, Sebastian, who is studying abroad in Jordan, has shared a post someone else wrote called “Why do millennials want to die?” The post expresses feelings of powerless and dread about climate change, staggering student loan debt, and exploding health care costs — and the unwillingness of politicians to take real action on these and other issues.
Sebastian wrote: I’ve been wanting to say something like this for a while, but I couldn’t really find the words. This is why thinking about the state of the world and my future is almost always damaging to my mental health. I’m really not sure I’m going to have a future, and I’m much more secure in support and privilege than is average for my peers … To be fair, this also makes me more determined to fight for change and has driven me to take a closer and more critical look at the actions of both myself and my country. Nonetheless, it’s not a happy time to be young.
Below Sebastian’s words, a thoughtful friend of mine from college has already responded.
College friend: No, Sebastian, it is not a time to be optimistic. Yet … as you suggest, this is a moment of truth. Those in power will not be there forever. And while some things are out of our control, everything is not. Generations have stepped up and rescued cultures on the cliff’s edge. I cling to my “life verse,” a line from Wendell Berry: “Be joyful, though you have considered all the facts.” If I allow my outlook — my hope or optimism — to rest entirely on what IS and not on what can be, then I am lost to despair. I also, of course, think of the famous scene in Moria between Frodo and Gandalf. Yes, this is only a story. But stories carry our culture and often speak more deeply than other ways of understanding.
My friend has attached a YouTube excerpt from the movie The Lord of the Rings: the Fellowship of the Ring, and because I am as much of a fan of the movie as Sebastian, I anticipate the words before I click on the link:
Frodo: I wish the ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had happened.
Gandalf: So do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us. There are other forces at work in this world, Frodo, besides the will of evil. Bilbo was meant to find the ring, in which case you also were meant to have it. And that is an encouraging thought.
I heart my friend’s response. I continue scrolling and see that my husband has also commented.
My husband wrote to Sebastian: You are smart. You are resilient. You mean the world to me. I love the compassionate, perceptive young man you’ve become. The ideas and energy that you and your generation bring to our world give me hope for a better future.
I heart my husband’s response, and I see that Sebastian has responded: Blushing smiley face, red heart.
What I write to Sebastian: We need your passion, your generous spirit, and your creative thinking and problem-solving skills. Keep seeking the company of other people who build you up and share your desire to make positive change. Big pink heart with smaller pink heart.
Sebastian responds: Red heart red heart red heart.
What I think but don’t write: Damn you, President Trump and your degenerate administration. Our country is failing its young adults. We must step up and do better, before it’s too late.
Friday, 9:33 p.m.: I text my 18-year-old son, Elias, who I have entrusted to take care of himself and the dog while my husband and I are both gone. I have not checked in with Elias all day, and he has not communicated with me.
Me: Happy Friday! Are you doing anything fun this evening? I’ve had a good day. I didn’t sleep well last night, so I will probably read a bit and go to bed early.
Minutes pass with no response.
What I think: He might be out walking the dog. He might have left his phone in another room. He is a capable and responsible person.
My parental worry alert doesn’t start to kick in until about the time he texts me back.
Friday, 10:37 p.m.: Elias: Yeah, I just got back from board game night at the high school. I’m probably going to head up to bed and read soon too. I hope you sleep better tonight!
Me: Thanks! Hope you sleep well too. Red heart.
Joy Riggs is the parent of a high school senior, a college junior, and a recent college graduate. She lives and writes in Northfield, Minnesota, where her apricot poodle mix, Waffles, makes sure she gets up from her computer occasionally to clear her head with a walk (good dog). Her essays have appeared in publications including the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Minnesota Parent magazine, Grown and Flown, Topology Magazine, Peacock Journal, and Mamalode. She blogs about her family’s adventures in making and appreciating music at mymusicalfamily.blogspot.com. Find her on Facebook (@MyMusicalFamily), Twitter (@RiggsJoy) and Instagram (riggsjoy).