United States Passport on a paper map

How to Make the Most of an Embarrassing Situation (little things matter)

This morning, Gabriel went to the Post Office to get his passport. He’s adult enough to drive and almost adult enough to drink (why, tell me, is that a right of passage?). This adulthood stuff means that it’s time to get a brand new adult passport.

He had called me yesterday: “Mom, would you have time to help me fill out the paperwork for my appointment tomorrow?” His tone was apologetic.

I smiled. These days, I don’t have that many opportunities to “help him.” This guy is earning his independence right on schedule and, to be honest, sometimes the whole growing up thing has felt a little too rushed for me.

I dusted off the memory of our trip from Thailand to Cambodia. Some very forgettable circumstance had triggered me to think we were totally failing our children by doing too much for them. So, on the spot, we-the-parents gave them their kid passports–along with the responsibility of filling out all the paper work to leave one country and enter another. Think word and number search game without the fun.

Feeling nostalgic, I jumped at the chance to help.

“Sure, I’ll take care of that,” I assured him.

I filled out the form online, scanned it for mistakes, and printed it. Only then did I notice that I’d left the “z” out of his “city of birth.” There was no retrieving the document and the instructions specifically said not to make any handwritten changes on the printed copy.

Aware of my capacity for creative mistakes on important papers, I shifted into micromanage-the-details mode. Downloading the PDF for the empty form, I printed it and filled it out by hand. Gabriel would be super prepared with two options.

I read the list of required documents and noted that an expired passport sufficed for proof of citizenship–and his driver’s license would work as a photo ID.

Mistakes and delays? Not on my watch.

You can imagine my displeasure when he popped back home “because they want my birth certificate.” I immediately forgot how much I really so like our local post office workers (to the extent I’ve taken the time to respond 6/6 and 10/10 on the survey).

“Why are they asking for extra proof of citizenship?” I felt angry. My children are Latinos, because their father is Latino (I’m still pondering why it doesn’t work the other way around). Experience has effectively convinced me that this fact does not always work to their advantage.

Again, our small town post office workers provide stellar customer service and I would have hoped that my past experience with them would’ve produced a “benefit of the doubt” response instead of the “are you kidding me?!” reaction.

But they were also messing with the fact that I’d done my research and I knew. Are you familiar with the indignation that comes with “I’m right, you’re wrong?”


“I”m going to call them!” It was a loud thought. A much quieter thought sent out the memo that this was not necessary, reminding me that there were much more pressing issues to deal with, but I ignored it.

Unfortunately, I was still in reactive gear and missed the opportunity for some good, Inside Out living–and a quicker conclusion to this story.

I remembered that in three days, Daniel would be applying for his adult passport on the other side of the country–and he wouldn’t have the luxury of zipping home for his “Consular Report of Birth Abroad of a Citizen of the United States of America.” Oh dear!

So I made the phone call “to see if the website is accurate–has anything changed?–because, if so, I’ll need to speed mail my other son his birth certificate.

This was true. But it was not my inside truth.

The kind man answering the phone put me on hold to check with the clerk. He then explained that they typically ask for a birth certificate because the child passport photo doesn’t always resemble the grown up applicant. “But I see that your son’s picture does look like him… And anyway, not to worry because he’s back with his birth certificate.”

I thanked him nicely and sat down to a late breakfast with my beloved.

“I was polite on the phone, wasn’t I?” It was more of statement to push away the nagging sense that I’d lost my grounding and been pesky.

He didn’t say anything. Thanks, honey, way to make me own it.

“I guess it was really about me being mad and right,” I confessed to myself out loud. I determined to push pause sooner next time.

Check. Lesson learned. Move on.


The front door opened.

Mom? Why did you call them? The woman who helped me was so nice. She was glad I got there early and took my stuff even though there were three people in line. When I came back with my birth certificate, they were all looking at my passport and she was kind of irritated.”

Maybe this is the time to add that I can be that mom (sometimes) who makes sure (very nicely, of course) that I get the extra order of beans and no sour cream on my Chipotle crunchy tacos (and can you please give me those tacos separately so that they don’t get soggy?).

My kids prefer to be elsewhere at times like these.

Then there’s the inconvenient fact that I’m that role model in their life ever advocating for kindness, respect, and generosity.

So I cringed dramatically and we laughed. And it was all good.

It was embarrassing, but a great example of personal growth opportunity–so I shared it with a couple of friends engaged in the process of self awareness (university students who have the definite advantage of being of this generation).

They were silent for a moment after I told them my little story and suddenly, I realized just how trivial the illustration was. I mean, Naissa is an international social work major taking challenging classes like “Trauma” and “Death and Dying.” Zoe is a violin performance major grappling with what it means to keep learning after being sidelined by a wrist injury.

In an unconscious attempt to save my self-respect and explain myself, I grabbed words much like a swimmer might grab a flotation device.

“It was really nothing,” I started to say, but I wasn’t going to lie, either. It was something. So, I added: “But…

It’s the little nothings that make up the big something.

Alicia Worley Palacios

“Yeah!” Zoe exclaimed. “That should be a quote! It is the little nothings that make up the big somethings.”

The words, now coming from her mouth, came to life for me (thanks, Zoe). Life is made up of little nothings. How we internalize and respond to those things sets the essential tone and texture of our lives.

Big challenges and crises get plenty of attention, demanding that we process them on some level. Meanwhile, the mundane details of every day life often go unnoticed–and it is precisely these little actions/reactions that form habits and patterns.

As philosopher, Will Durant (summarizing the thinking of Aristotle on the matter) said:

We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.

Will Durant

I cannot promise to “never do that again,” but I can (and do) commit to attend well to the little “nothings” that lead me to that big something I’m praying for.

Sweet nothings,


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