At first I wasn’t going to do it – for reasons beyond my general aversion to wasting time on long odds. It was noon Sunday, and I had a million-plus things to do across my many roles in life: teacher, wife, mom, sister, daughter, writer, alpha dog. Especially teacher. It was the end of the semester, and I was behind on grading heading into semester exams. Cue the burial.
Add the fact that this contest had been going on for six weeks, and 11:59 p.m. Sunday was the deadline to enter, and not much could convince me to spend my limited attention even considering the idea.
Not much, except for my son, Isaac. He’d seen the contest advertised on one of his favorite television shows, Animal Planet’s Treehouse Masters, where a group of builders led by expert Pete Nelson build fantastical getaways in the trees – better-than-my-house structures with six-figure values. Isaac dreams of building his own private getaway.
And lately more than ever, Isaac has been dreaming of getting away.
A sixth grader, he’s had a rough transition to middle school – not in any big sense such as grades or friends or fitting in. He’s a straight-A student with good friends and a great sense of humor. Kids and teachers like him. Instead, he’s endured on-and-off anxiety, mixed with a little sadness, the cause of which is hard to pinpoint. At times, these dark feelings have felt big and hard for him to manage. “You know, Mom, I mostly get my personality from you,” he said casually the other day, as I struggled to keep my legs from buckling at his insight.
I’m sorry, I thought to myself. I didn’t want you to inherit my worrying nature, my tendency to over-analyze, my propensity toward self-doubt. But I didn’t say that. I told him something else that’s just as true and important: “Yeah, but when you and I learn how to fight through our worries, that makes us stronger than other people. And then we’re unstoppable. Don’t forget that.”
He nodded doubtfully.
A few days later, I was feeling my own gnawing anxiety – grading student work at the kitchen table, drawing papers from what seemed an inconquerable mountain beside me, when Isaac asked about entering the Treehouse Masters Ultimate Giveaway. The prize was a treehouse, to be built in the winner’s backyard for an episode of the show. Entering the contest required a video to be made and uploaded to YouTube.
I told him no. Too much to do. He tried to push past my objections a few times but gave up when it clearly wasn’t working. He returned to his bedroom. I tried to continue grading, but it only lasted a few minutes. I felt his disappointment burning in my chest.
Without debating the wisdom of my choice, I agreed to help with the video – and I persuaded my daughter, Carmen, to join in. A high school sophomore, she wasn’t hard to convince; Carmen has a few treehouse fantasies of her own. “I’m thinking a movie theater with walls that are totally made of bookshelves,” she proposed.
Isaac and I swooned, and we added in our own imaginings of cubbies for writing, and other spaces for playing and listening to music. An arts theme emerged for our treehouse, and a video trailer was born.
A video that took the rest of the day to make and edit. We even were shooting bits of video when my 84-year-old dad showed up for Sunday dinner. He sat at the kitchen table reading the newspaper, periodically peeking over the top at us as we mugged for the camera, played back our bloopers, laughed and reshot.
“Take five!” he shouted one time as the camera started rolling and we were having trouble keeping straight faces.
By nine p.m., we uploaded our video to YouTube and filled out the entry form with descriptions of us, our dreams, and our fantasy treehouse, and I went to bed as visions of bookshelves danced in my head.
I’m no fool. I wasn’t expecting to win. In other entries we watched on YouTube, people shared elaborate sketches and photographs detailing very specific and off-the-wall visions for their treehouses. Other people had touching personal stories that made them deserving of the prize.
I won something else. I gratefully received an afternoon of silliness and belly laughs and joy with my kids that opened to me like a perfect gift. The universe reminded me to slow down, look up, widen my view, loosen my grip, let go. I listened, and my son watched, and we spoke a language beyond words.
Oh, yeah. And here’s our contest entry.