Trust the Sheep and Just Keep Whistling

I watched in horror as my prized Mayor McCheese glass shattered in the dorm sink. That rare non-plastic McDonald’s souvenir that I had protected since middle school from little brothers, drunken frats boys and my own chaotic energy was just one more thing I was leaving behind after graduation. The glass, now in a million tiny shards, that had encapsulated my college years. I felt my heart splinter right along with it as I watched all of the late night study sodas, early morning hangover waters, heartbreak spritzers and party cocktail concoctions circle the drain metaphorically.

Despairing in that distinct melodrama of early adulthood, I wailed, “So what CAN I bring with me?”

My favorite mug sat on the same shelf the Mayor had inhabited before his fateful plunge. I reached for it like I was approaching a feral kitten, tempting it closer and then snatching it up to wrap lovingly in a tattered sorority t-shirt. The mug’s cartoon sheep, chained to a wall, yet with hearts for eyes, exclaiming “I Love it Here!” grinned up at me in all of her Stockholm Syndrome glory.

I admonished her, “Don’t you dare start with the whistling!” (Her tune of choice naturally being, “Always look on the bright side of life” from Monty Python.) I reminded her, “We don’t know if we’ll love our next “here.” We have no idea what we’re doing.” 

I had gotten Sheep, the mug as a parting gift from my summer job at a company that was quite possibly the inspiration for the movie, “Office Space.” As a clueless college kid biding my time between semesters, I was blissfully unaware that most people don’t love their cubicle jobs, so I was delighted with my mug. Then I started my first real cubicle job and nope, we did not love our next “here.” 

I spent over a decade climbing the proverbial ladder, collecting both physical and emotional baggage, hard-won wisdom, and a hard shell of cynicism. After each rung, I would hold the mug like a talisman, asking her, “Do we love it here?” 

The last time I packed up an office, I was celebrating what would become my favorite “here.” I filled a box of files and knick knacks that would inevitably gather dust. My last, carefully wrapped memento, of course, was Sheep the mug, this time in a ratty company logo sweatshirt.

Our exciting new “here” was motherhood. Obviously, my goofy sheep’s whistling wasn’t necessary, but she could witness me singing lullabies to my angelic babies. Three (now teenaged) boys deep into motherhood, I laugh at that particular naiveté. If ever there was a perfect encapsulation of parenting, my poor, besotted sheep mug is it. Now, she and I hum the Talking Heads lyrics, “How did we get here?”

Fast-forward a few decades (because fast-forward is apparently the only speed when raising children). We recently moved my oldest into his first college dorm. I caught myself staring at the shelf above his sink, as I stuck his prized Milwaukee Brewers plastic cup in its place of honor. I was shocked by the middle-aged face staring back at me. Like many, I still feel like that young woman in her own college dorm, terrified of choosing the wrong path.

If I could tell that young woman one thing (and by extension, the young men she’s raising), it would be that she couldn’t possibly love every “here,” but she learned from each stop and got it right more often than not. I’d tell her to believe in herself, trust her sheep and keep whistling.

This piece, inspired by Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried” was originally a “human interest” essay submission for the ERMA BOMBECK Writers Workshop essay contest (no, I didn’t win) in January 2024.