My Teenager Teacher

Acclaimed writer Joan Didion said, “See enough and write it down.” I’d venture a guess she wasn’t going through a pandemic when she said that because I’m not seeing much more than the same four walls these days. Or perhaps she was living the pandemic life and this quote is in reference to Netflix. Though, if that were the case, I’d probably be writing more.

I recently watched My Octopus Teacher on Netflix and was moved to tears. Then I thought to myself, if this guy can free dive in the ocean every single day for a year to document the life of one single octopus surely I can scrape myself off the couch once a week and go for a hike just to see something. So I did. And I brought my teenager with me.

Pandemics, as we all now know, are challenging in a thousand ways. That’s putting it lightly, of course. And we all have our own extenuating circumstances to deal with in and around the free floating anxiety and constant hand sanitizing. Look at us, each our own unique trainwreck.

Back in the spring when we thought this was going to last two weeks, a month tops, things were going well with the teenager and I. Yes, there were moods. His, driven by puberty. Mine, fueled by coffee and menopause. We had a groove, though. It worked. But now we’re seven months into this with no end in sight. I don’t even know who I am anymore. How am I expected to know him?

In My Octopus Teacher, a burnt out filmmaker asks the question, what would happen if I observed this creature every day? What would happen if he swam to her every day and just watched her? No expectations. No projections. What would he learn about the way she hunts, protects herself? Would she learn to trust him? Would they connect in some meaningful way, these two beings from different worlds?

I didn’t ask those questions when I took my teenager into the woods for a hike, but I was fortunate enough to learn the answers.

There wasn’t much he wanted to talk about except to tell me to calm down when I got excited about the view. It’s a lake. I think we’ve seen a lake before. Sometimes I walked ahead of him and stewed about his lack of joy. But then I let him take the lead and I watched, just observed to see what would happen, to see what he’d let me know.

He’s tall, taller than me. He’s a kid, but he’s no longer little. He doesn’t let me mark his height anymore, so I can’t remember when it happened. I only remember a summer of having to order more and more pants to cover those long legs. He’s growing and I’ve failed to acknowledge that.

His hair is curly and long, not nearly as light as it used to be when he was baby. He’s a darker blonde now, edging towards light brown. Like me, he hasn’t had a haircut in ages. I remember the sadness I had in seeing those curls fall to the floor with his very first haircut and here they are once again. He’s in there, that kid I once knew.

He’s been through a lot in these past seven months. His life is completely upended like everyone else’s. He doesn’t know when this ends either, but has only a very short life to draw experience from. Thirty-three less years than I do. Some days he handles it better than me. He has a grace I didn’t know at that age.

He’s quiet and seemingly unimpressed with our walk in the woods. It’s hot. Fall won’t quite give in today. There are only a few leaves that have begun to change. There’s nothing to look at that we haven’t already seen since this all began. He asks to turn around. For once, I don’t complain.

In My Octopus Teacher, the octopus does learn to trust the filmmaker enough to let him observe her. There is the occasional fleeting connection. It’s always on her terms. He respects that, never asking why. It’s an accepted dynamic of their relationship.

A teenager is my teacher today on this walk in the woods. He lets me watch, but keeps me at arm’s length. Occasionally we laugh, but it’s on his terms. I respect that and don’t ask why. I just observe and see what I can find.

I mutter as we walk back to the car, “I wasn’t crazy about this trail.”

“Well, at least we got out. That was good.”

That it was.

I don’t know this creature, the one who grew taller than me during a pandemic, but I observed and was thankful that he let me. As his mother, I’ve often decided I was the one teaching him. On this day, I watched without expectation and let him teach me. Now I ask myself, what would happen if I observed this creature every day?