Unexpected Duties

Last evening, my son walked in the door from work as I was walking through the kitchen with a basket of dirty laundry. “If you want to give me your sweatshirt, I’ll toss it in with this load,” I told him. He unzipped his jacket and slipped it off. He started to throw it on the chair, but then changed his mind. He brought it to his nose and sniffed. But right now, he has a pretty bad cold. “I can’t smell anything.” He held it out to me. “Can you smell this and tell me if it needs to be washed?”

You know that parenting manual that we are all supposed to receive before we leave the hospital with our newly hatched babies? The manual that the hospital always forgets to give new parents? This particular task is in there. It’s in the chapter titled, “Unexpected Duties of Parenting.” This chapter contains all the things parents must do, but don’t know about. These are the Surprise! duties, some of which could be perceived as dangerous.

“Uck! This smells horrible! Smell it!” This exclamation is usually followed by some item or other being held out at arm’s length toward the unsuspecting (and thoroughly disgusted) parent.

“It’s really dark in there, Mom. Can you go first?” Yes, that’s definitely a good idea. I’ll go first and when whatever is in there eats me, you’ll be left here to fend for yourself. Good plan.

“Mom, I think the milk is sour. Taste it.” Ooo! That seems like such a great offer, but … no thank you, I’ll pass.

“I dropped my boat [fish net, stick, jacket… insert item here] in the pond, and now I can’t reach it. Come help me get it!” All “emergencies” like this one are delivered frantic and breathless. They often take all spur-of-the-moment creative resources a parent can muster to devise some plan, gather all of the possibly necessary items (stick, rope, rain boots, etc.), and run to retrieve the stray item.

Then there are the SCREAMS that emanate from the far reaches of the house at top vocal volume. With heart pounding, the parent will call out, “What’s happening?” The child who screamed replies, “MOM! There’s a bug in my room!” The parent, with pounding heart calming and eyes rolling, will say (as calmly as possible), “Well, kill it,” because that would be the logical thing to do, right? The panicked reply is always, “It’s HUGE, Mom! Please come, NOW!!”

Over the years, there are myriad forgotten items that have to be delivered to school after the morning’s frantic rush to get out the door and make the bus—lunches, schoolbooks, papers, projects, you name it.

All of this—from crazy requests to chaotic moments—is contained in that single chapter of the great, unseen parenting manual. It might be nice to know these duties are coming and expected. Then again, no one can predict when a child/teen/young adult might say, “Yuck, smell this!” So maybe these unexpected parenting duties have a purpose for us, as parents. Maybe these are simply tiny lessons in thinking on one’s feet and creative problem solving that, when strung together, make us stronger and more prepared for the bigger issues and the truly important parenting duties.

{Photo by Ben Wicks on Unsplash}

The Letter Z

Today’s nonsensical post will be brought to you by the letter Z. It was going to be sponsored by X, but my fingers inadvertently hit the wrong key. So Z, it is!

Lately, my thoughts have been somewhat Zigzaggy as they skip from one subject to another, seemingly at random and with little warning. I believe this to be the result of new responsibilities while trying to tie up previous commitments. And a lack of a stable and steady landing pad. Or perhaps I am just becoming sentimental as my last child zooms through his senior year of high school and contemplates the next steps on his journey.

I have zero tolerance for these mind-wanderings as they make me feel freakishly unfocused. Perhaps some invisible zombies have taken over my brain, and I am halfway to zombie-state, myself. Having recently made it through Halloween, this is a distinct—though distant—possibility.

Adding zombies to the zany zoo of my life might be a bit crazy, eh? Then again, it is likely that I wouldn’t recognize the difference between the animals, the kids, and the zombies. While we’re at it, let’s throw in a lizard or two. But now maybe we have gotten so far off topic that we are conjuring a magic potion that will cure the zombies: tongue of lizard, eye of newt, and two chicken teeth, ground to green pulp….

Together with the magic potion, all of the words in this post will be stuffed into a tiny Ziploc freezer bag (because freezer bags are stronger). I will zip them in where they will stay—until further notice—in the zone of the Zodiac in Xanadu.

Oops. That was meant for the X-sponsored post…. I need to catch some Zzzs!

Drawing Memory

As I sort through the fifteen-plus years of stuff that has built up in my home, every now and then I come across interesting souvenirs from my children’s younger days. Slips of paper tucked long ago between the pages of notebooks, books, files.

Recently, as I sorted through a pile of old magazines, I came across a bin of notepads. Years ago, I had used these pads to write “lunch notes” to my oldest child. [By the time the others were eating lunch at school, life had become too harried and chaotic to continue this practice.] One pad was made up of sticky notes with sweet messages pre-printed on them. As I picked up this pad and began to flip through it, a small scrap of paper slipped from the pages and fluttered to the floor.

I bent over and picked it up. It held a drawing from that brief period where images begin to emerge from the early scribbles of a child. The drawing was a vehicle of some sort—the favorite subject of art for my youngest child. Memory drew me back in time, and I could see him sitting in the brightly colored booster seat that was strapped to one of the kitchen chairs. He was bent over the table, working studiously to create this picture. His blond head bobbed a bit as he drew, tipping this way and that as he created the perfect picture. His glasses slipped down his tiny nose, and he wrinkled his face to push them back up. Many days were spent in this position as he produced drawing after drawing.

When this now eighteen-year-old arrived home from work that night, I handed him the drawing. “Look what I found when I was cleaning this morning.”

“A tractor!” he said on first glance.

“Do you remember drawing that?” I asked him, amazed that he knew exactly what it was.

“It’s obviously a tractor, Mom. The big wheel in the back gives it away.”

Yup, silly me. “I hadn’t thought of that. So what’s this?” I turned the paper over to reveal another drawing and handed it back to him. On this side were three things that might possibly be cars. Each was connected to a line that ran willy-nilly across the page. A map? Directions? Lightning strikes? The image was crossed out, so it clearly was not the image of choice on this paper.

He smiled and shrugged. “I have no idea.” I took the paper from him

and tucked it back in the notepad. Someday, I would once again unearth this drawing. An

d I would take another trip through my memories to the time when a little blond boy would sit at the kitchen table and create drawings that I would puzzle over long after he’d grown.

Next time, I’ll tuck it into his box of memories, so it can become his puzzle. And maybe, before it winds up in the trash, it will give him a smile of memory.

Brian

I stood in the dairy aisle examining the dates on the gallon jugs of milk. I was searching for the one with the latest date, but in this particular grocery store, I was also making sure the date had not passed. Next to me, an elderly man hoisted himself from a wheelchair, so he was standing on his one leg, and he leaned into the dairy case over the chocolate milk. I watched him for a moment. He reached way into the back and dragged two half-gallons to the front where he could see them better. He leaned over and adjusted his wheelchair, then he pulled a magnifying glass from the pocket of his jacket, and he checked the expiration dates on the milk he had just moved.

I moved closer. “Do you need help?” I ventured.

“Not yet,” he said with a smile as he turned to examine this person who had broken through his alone-space. He squinted a bit as he studied my face. “What do you do? Or what did you used to do?” he asked me. I told him I worked at the university in town. “Ah,” he nodded. “You teach?”

“Yes,” I told him. “I work in academic support.” He smiled and nodded knowingly as he told me about his cousin—the most compassionate person he’d ever known—who was also a teacher. Everyone thought very highly of her, and it was clear from his words that he did, as well.

With barely a breath in between, he began another story, this one about his life and his career, and I listened intently. He told me about the crimes he solved, the cases that he had easily cracked when no one else could figure them out, and the seventeen police departments that had extended job offers to him when he was younger because they recognized his talent. He shifted his weight on his leg as he leaned on his wheelchair for support. All the while he spoke, I watched his face. His long mustache and scraggly beard covered the lower half of his face, but his eyes held the wisdom that comes with age and experience. They held kindness. And they held loneliness.

Despite the fact that I had never met this man before this conversation, I recognized something about him. It was in his eyes. It was in the way he started his sentences… his stories. It was in the way he reached out of his loneliness to hold me in conversation, to connect with me, if only for a moment. Even though we were strangers, I recognized his humanness.

His stories, though perhaps embellished a bit, reminded me of the stories my grandpa would tell. And in more recent years, the stories of my dad. There is nothing that compares to the storytelling of the older generations.

So I listened. I learned. And for a brief, fleeting moment, I connected. I offered him the human interaction that we all need, whether we are willing to admit it or not.

When I walked into the store, this man was a stranger, but when I walked out, he was Brian. The next time I see him in the dairy aisle, as I’m sure I will, I will greet him by name, and we will pick up our conversation where we left off. Although somehow, I believe I may just hear the same stories—the stories of his youth—yet again.

{Photo by Doug Maloney on Unsplash}

Hitchhikers

On my way home from Parents’ Weekend at my daughter’s school, I passed three hitchhikers. Now, when I was younger, people used to hitchhike all the time. But in recent years, this ride-hailing method seemed to be a thing of the past. Honestly, I believe I’ve run across maybe two hitchhikers in the past 15 years. Until Sunday.

It was drizzly on Sunday and not ideal weather to venture out onto the road to hail a ride. Aside from the guy hitchhiking in the other direction, the first hitchhiker I passed was wearing a green hoodie and carrying what looked like a sleeping bag in a red stuff sack. Just a sleeping bag. Nothing else. It had just started to rain at this point, and he didn’t look happy. In fact, he looked downright grumpy. He was young—early twenties maybe. He stood on the side of the road, looking down, waiting for a ride. He pulled at the heartstrings of the mother in me, but I didn’t stop because… well, strangers, you know. We’ve all heard the warnings.

The other hitchhiker piqued my curiosity. She had positioned herself on the entrance ramp to the highway with a small cardboard sign just large enough to hold the name of a town farther north. She was looking to travel about 70 miles up the highway, but I was only going to the very next exit—3 miles at best. The hitchhiker looked to be a bit older than me, with a sassy mop of short grey hair. She was energetic and working excitedly to get a ride. Her face was expressive and smiling as she appealed to the passing motorists—she looked like the kind of person who would entertain the driver with animated stories of her life experience for the entire 70 miles. Up the road a few feet, she had placed her name-brand suitcase with an additional bag on top—as if she had just stepped off a flight at the airport. She intrigued me.

I experienced a momentary urge to stop and pick her up. I wished I was traveling farther in her direction so I might give her a ride and get to know her. From my brief glimpse of her as I passed, I envisioned her as the “Thelma” to my “Louise,” the partner-in-mischief I have been searching for. I could just imagine the conversation we might have as we drove—so engrossing that we would miss the exit. From our brief moment of eye contact, I wanted to know this woman. She was that intriguing.

And from my brief encounter with this intriguing stranger, I learned something. Everyone we come across on our journey—whether for five seconds or five years—has a lesson to teach. From this woman (and the contrast between these two hitchhikers), I learned that one’s approach to life can have a huge impact on how people see us. The first hitchhiker—he was definitely a stranger, and he would remain so. The second, however, was a potential friend.

Two strangers, one activity, two very different approaches. Whenever you have the chance, be the engaging “friend.”

{Photo by Atlas Green on Unsplash}

Nothing

Nothing. That is where I am. Still. After weeks of struggling with nothing, I am still at nothing. No ideas. No motivation. No creativity. N-O-T-H-I-N-G.

So… I have decided to go out and steal some ideas. I’m going to go and listen in on other people’s conversations. I’m going to use their ideas to jump-start my writing. Maybe, if I’m feeling particularly persnickety, I will interrupt their dialogue—jump in and try to redirect their ideas. I might even mess with them just a bit to see if I can incite a heated debate or two. You know what might be fun? I could follow someone around the grocery store while they carry on a phone conversation. I could keep reaching in front of them to collect items from my list, and since I am there, I might offer them advice to deal with the person to whom they are talking!

I am going to engage in some random acts of mischief. Maybe I’ll swap some price placards at the grocery store (those things are so easy to change out!) or leave messages on chalkboards in random classrooms: Today’s class has been moved to room 302. I could walk around in a Halloween mask, or—if I’m really feeling daring—flip the arrows on construction detours. (This last idea would be best carried out under cover of darkness…).

I am going to pretend to occupy myself with some intensely secret projects. These projects will involve all kinds of crazy equipment and supplies, none of which will be related in any conceivable fashion. But I will collect everything I “need” in a massive pile on my front lawn, all the while touting my “top secret endeavor.” Or maybe I’ll just dig a six by six by three-foot hole in my front garden. That might make  my neighbors curious about what I was up to….

I am going to plant seeds of kindness. I am going to leave post-it notes with inspirational messages in places where their discovery will be a pleasant surprise—next to the toilet paper dispenser, inside the elevator door, on people’s car windows, and on the napkin dispensers in the dining hall. I am going to hold doors, offer words of encouragement, and hand out flowers on a street corner.

I am going to hold a wacky raffle and give away tickets for free. (How many people will write their names and emails on wacky raffle tickets for a stranger?) I will raffle off items from my home that I no longer need or want. This will be a much easier way to get rid of my clutter than selling it or hauling it away. And imagine what a pleasure it will be to email strangers and say, Hey, you’ve won this week’s wacky raffle!!

I am going to go out on a limb once a day for the next week and step out of my comfort zone. I am going to sit with a stranger who is crying or upset. I am going to talk to the children whose parents are consumed by their phones and not paying attention. I am going to offer a helping hand, a hug, or a kind word or bit of encouragement and hope that I can make someone’s day just a little brighter.

And maybe when I’m done with all of this, maybe … just maybe … ideas will start to flow. Because right now, I’ve got no ideas. Not even one. I’ve got nothing. But if you want a wacky raffle ticket, let me know. I’ve got those!

{Photo by Mark Eder on Unsplash}

The Stranger

I recently had an intriguing interchange with a stranger.

First let me say, I love talking to strangers. I talk to them in the grocery store while I am picking out my produce. I talk to them while I am waiting on the interminably long deli line each week. And I will start conversations with them when I am out walking. I don’t apologize for my boldness. I am cohabiting this earth with others, and I would like to get to know them. Besides, strangers are only strangers until you get to know them.

So the other day at work, I was minding my own business. It was Friday afternoon around 3:00, and I was trying to finish up some tasks so I could actually leave for home at a reasonable time. My phone buzzed, and I received a text message from a number I didn’t recognize. “All done. When I get to better service, I’ll send a pic……” The number was from my mother’s area code—the area code in which I grew up and still have a friend or two.

Maybe it’s someone I know, I reasoned. I decided to wait and see if the person texted me again. I put my phone back on my desk, and I promptly forgot about it.

Nearly two hours later, my phone buzzed again. This time, my screen displayed a picture of a white horse, his nose in a feedbag. “This is how he was waiting for me,” the message read. The picture made it very clear that the texter was not someone I knew. Though I felt pulled to hear the story of the horse.

“Cute picture,” I texted back. “But I think you might be texting the wrong person,” I informed the stranger.

“Oops. Thanks for resending… glad I made you smile.”

Now, don’t get me wrong. There is a part of me that wanted to keep texting. To probe deeper. To find out about this random stranger who texted me at quitting time on a Friday afternoon. To tell her about the coincidence of the area code. To find out about the horse. And to make her smile, too. There is a part of me that longed to make that connection.

Because a stranger is only a stranger until you get to know her.

Then she is a friend.

{Photo by Nikki Jeffrey on Unsplash}