Finding Our Way

Think back to when you were a child—maybe six or seven. You go to a birthday party in a fancy party outfit because… well, it’s a party, you really like the outfit, and you never get to wear it. It’s a bit smaller than it used to be, and it itches around the seams. But you are at a party, so your mind is on the fun you are having.

You come to the point in the party when the grown-ups say something like, “It’s time to play ‘pin the tail on the donkey’!” The children cheer for the activity and go running over to the adult in charge. You get in the line, and when it’s your turn, one of the grown-ups hands you a tail with a sharp, pointy, exposed thumb tack and ties a blindfold over your eyes. The blindfold is a bit tight, but this is a game, and you’re not supposed to be able to see. Anything.

The adult then takes you by the shoulders and spins you around, counting each spin. “One… two… three!” Then the adult lines you up with the tail-less donkey and gives you a gentle push. You put out both your arms [one hand leads with the pointy thumb tack] and you walk as close to forward in a straight line as your dizzy, disoriented, blind-folded self can manage. Meanwhile, your outfit has suddenly started to really itch, and you can’t refocus your attention. You reach the wall (or something solid), stick the thumb-tacked tail into the surface, step back, and remove your blindfold. At this point, you will either be ridiculously thrilled with yourself for getting the tail close to the donkey’s keister, or you will be sorely disappointed that you actually ended up on an adjacent wall and nowhere near the donkey at all. Of course, there is also a wide range of middle ground in this particular scenario. Remember these fun party moments?

If you have an educator in your life—a family member, a friend, or your child’s teacher—chances are, the above scenario is a fair depiction of the way they may be feeling right now. Navigating this “novel-corona-return-to-school” thing is not easy. There is no roadmap, only a vague sense of the path forward and the goal we have set out to accomplish. Disorientation pops up at every decision point, and the fluid undertow of plans that flip 180° from one moment to the next can leave even the most seasoned educator flailing to find firm footing.

As a disoriented educator blindly feeling my way through the beginning of the school year, here’s what I will offer. Be patient with your teacher friends. Be kind to them. Know that they are doing their best. Embolden them. They may be tired or frustrated or feeling uncertain, but they are not going to let on—they are going to keep moving forward, one step at a time, even when they feel they are moving backwards. Let them know you appreciate the work they are doing to navigate these early days and keep their students safe. Send them a message of encouragement. And pray for them—that they make the right decisions in the situations that present themselves.

Come to think of it… encourage and pray for for anyone you meet this week. Show them love. Let them know they are doing a great job. Not only will it make their day better, it will make the world just a little brighter!

{Image is a photo of a work of art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston}

Disappointment

Today, we are introducing the newest and most prevalent of flavors for 2020: DISAPPOINTMENT. This new flavor will be the one to taint everything in your life this season. It is the flavor of pumpkin, but instead of the normal cinnamon-sweet spices, it’s tinged with a hint of bitter licorice and way more salt than is necessary. After all, 2020 has been nothing if not salty. This new flavor is not the best combination, but it’s not the worst, exactly. That’s what makes it disappointment.

Disappointment is the flavor you will get when you send your child to school on the first day. You spend the morning reveling in your time alone—the first time in six months! You decide you might be able to get used to this again, but when your child walks in the door at the end of the day, he is carrying a mask you don’t recognize because he traded the one you sent with him for one he liked better.

Disappointment is the flavor of the day when you arrive at college (or high school or middle school) only to determine that nothing, and I mean nothing, is the same as it was when you left. The hallways have one-way traffic mimicking the aisles in the grocery store. The furniture in the lounge and common areas has been removed, and meals are now a grab-and-go affair—there is no sitting with your friends at your favorite table. Disappointment is all you can taste.

Disappointment will run through your veins and ooze out your pores when all the plans you made—for fall and the holidays—are cancelled, yet again. These are the plans you made while you sat at home twiddling your thumbs all spring and summer, itching to go out. Cancelled. Because, as it turns out, children can catch COVID; they can spread it faster than runny peanut butter, and in fact, they are itty-bitty super-spreaders.

Disappointment is the flavor that rolls around on your tongue when you need to do something different. As you scroll your social media, you see pictures of your friends at the beach, camping with large groups of “family,” attending parties and weddings and large rallies, and you want to be out there, too. You wonder, did I dream the whole pandemic thing? Because you just don’t feel like all those options are available to your cautious self.

Disappointment finds its way in the when you venture out to eat a meal at your favorite venue. It’s the first time that you and your friends/family are all available, so you arrange to meet up for dinner. But the clear skies that have prevailed for a month have clouded over and it’s pouring rain. The only available tables are the ones that are outside and not under one of the small tents.

Disappointment leaves its licoricey bitterness when you are driving an hour from home for an event. Halfway there—and too far from home—you realize you forgot your required mask, and you kick yourself because you have been so good about remembering. And now you’ll have to spend hours in a disposable mask that smells vaguely of sweaty socks.

Disappointment leaves the sharpest aftertaste when you travel three hours to check in on your mother. You confine yourself to a small space just inside the door of your childhood home. When, after a few hours of conversation, you turn to leave, you remember you cannot hug your mom good-bye.

If you get sick of the taste of disappointment, think about new and unusual ways you can enjoy the fall, despite the restrictions posed by the coronavirus. Gather school supplies to donate to a local charity. Join some friends for a bonfire and s’more making. Host an apple-picking party or an outdoor crafting/pumpkin carving party. Go on a hike or bike ride. Create something new.

Disappointment may be the overwhelming flavor of fall, but CREATIVITY and OPPORTUNITY are amazing flavors that will wash away the bitterness of disappointment.

{Photo by Pedro da Silva on Unsplash}

Rock Bottom

On the way to Rock Bottom, we encounter a number of valuable lessons that we will need for our long journey back. It is our job to notice these lessons and put them into practice. We need only look around, pay attention, and engage in self-examination and examination of society to find them.

On the way to Rock Bottom, we are given glimpses of who we are and of what we have become. We have ample opportunity to see our failings—one after the other—as they pass us by on our journey. We see flashes of indiscretion, indecency, and arrogance that have seeped into our everyday lives. Most importantly, the hatred that has tainted the edges of our lives rears its ugly head in a way that is no longer deniable. The hatred will launch us farther and faster toward Rock Bottom than we ever knew possible.

On the way to Rock Bottom, there is injustice, violence, and fear. If we are not strong and brave, these things will render us incapable of moving and of turning around. They will paralyze us, and we will continue our descent rather than stand up and fight our way back upward and away from Rock Bottom.

On the way to Rock Bottom, we are offered innumerable ways (and means) to fix what is broken. We are able to stand up for what we believe in. We are offered opportunities to be kind. We are confronted with situations where we can respect others. We are expected to be humble and listen and share in the experiences of others—experiences we can’t possibly know because they are not our experiences. On the way to Rock Bottom, humanity is exposed, rough and ragged and raw.

On the way to Rock Bottom, there are many diverging paths that will allow us to stray from the unpleasant and undesirable destination. We can open our eyes wide enough to see that Rock Bottom is where we are headed, but not where we want to go. We can open our hearts to show love to others. We can open our minds to reach out, lend a hand, and stand up for someone who is not able to stand up for themselves.

The closer we get to Rock Bottom, the harder it is to see the light. But the good news is that on the way to Rock Bottom, we can step up and do the important work we need to do to prevent us from reaching the uncomfortable destination. This will save us work in the long run. When we step up, we will have no choice but to rebuild, but we will have something left. We will need to rework what we thought we had and who we thought we were, but we are reworking with some pieces still intact.

On the way to Rock Bottom, look for the signs—they are all around you. Let go of the hate—it has taken hold in society. See the humanity—it is everywhere—and act on it. Dig deep. Protect other humans as if they are your own children, your family, because in many ways, they are. We are one big family. And we must act now before we hit Rock Bottom.

The good news (if there is good news on the way to Rock Bottom) is that if we actually reach Rock Bottom, the only way to look is UP!

{Photo by Yannis Papanastasopoulos on Unsplash}

Clearing Out

Throughout my life, I have spent a good deal of time quieting the voices of others that ring through my head. These are the voices that have attempted to direct my life, to make me someone other than who I am, to make me listen and behave.

These are voices that, at one point or another, I have taken on and considered part of me, and yet, these voices are not me and do not reflect my reality. These voices reflect who I am or was in the reality of the speaker. But these voices—these words—were designed to make the speaker of the words feel better in his or her own life.

Over the years, the messages have been many:

You are not good enough.
You are not strong enough.
You are too negative
You are not smart enough.
You are selfish.
You are too sassy.
You are not pretty enough.
You are weak.
You are not feminine enough.
You are not…. You are not…. You are not….

But I am not these things that others have projected on me. Admittedly, I am broken. We are all broken.  And the only way I’m able to address my brokenness is to grab hold of the fact that life is short (and it feels even shorter while a pandemic is raging). The time to be fully me is now. The time to work on becoming whole is now. Time is running out.

If not now, when?

My life is shifting. I am shedding the me others think I should be. I am clearing out their voices from my head. My thoughts are mine, and that is enough. I will respect who I am and who I want to be, and that is enough. I will shed the ideas of others, letting them slip to the floor before sweeping them up and tossing them away.

I am making a shift in my life, respecting my thoughts, my ideas, and my wishes. I will not entertain others’ perceptions of who or what I should be as my own reality. I will be me—more me than I have ever been. And every day, I will know beyond a shadow of a doubt that I am enough.

{Photo by David Clarke on Unsplash}

A Million Moving Parts

Recently, one of our country’s leaders stood in front of an audience of many (including the television audience) and proclaimed his wife to be an expert at reopening schools in the face of a deadly pandemic. His wife had been a school-teacher for 25 years. A national leader actually said that a school teacher is “the best expert he knows” in this field.

Now, I have been a teacher for a very long time. Longer, in fact, than this spouse-proclaimed “expert,” and all I can say is there are no experts in what we have to do. And, in fact, this politician’s statement backs up that fact. If his spouse is “the best expert he knows,” he is clearly admitting there are no experts in reopening schools in the face of a deadly pandemic.

Meanwhile, school administrators started the discussion of reopening in the fall months ago—when they first decided they needed to remain closed for the spring. The farther we get into the summer, the more pressing our discussions become on how and when schools can open safely, keeping in mind the U.S., sans any credible and unified leadership on the pandemic, is facing an out-of-control spike in virus cases.

Let’s take a step back and take a breath. We need to examine this very challenging situation and approach it with the humility it deserves as well as a desire to learn and grow. Let’s work to create a plan that future generations of this country will thank us for because they will be able to learn from what we do and adapt it to their own situation when the time comes.

There are a million moving and constantly changing parts involved in reopening schools in a pandemic. Health needs to be top priority—health of students, teachers, and staff and of all individuals in the building. Some of those individuals will be immunocompromised, and plans need to in place to consider the most vulnerable individuals. There is the need and ability for social distance, and there are mask requirements. There is P.E. and lunch and classes and passing in the hallways. There are games on the playground, playground equipment and toys, the nurse’s office, and the buses. There is story time in the library, art class, and computer education and shared computers. There is a teacher’s need to comfort crying children. There are daily health screenings and temperature checks. And there is the mental strain that all of this will take on the entire population of the building, the school district, and the community. And there is the constant reality that one case of COVID in a school building could throw the entire system completely off track.

The people who are making the decisions on reopening—these are people at the school district level who truly care about children. They are not making these decisions lightly. They are agonizing over how to do this and do it right, and we need to support them. We need to know that if they don’t feel it can be done safely, it probably can’t be. Even they are not experts. There are no experts. But they know their schools, they know the guidelines and restrictions, and they know what might be a workable way to reopen, even partially. We need to accept their expertise and acknowledge that our school administrators are incredibly brave pioneers. No doubt, plans will include flexibility for online education should we choose to keep our children home.

What we need right now is patience and understanding. What we need right now are leaders and leadership. We don’t need a federal government that is threatening to strip funding from schools that don’t reopen on schedule. We need regional think-tank groups made up of school administrators and staff who can brainstorm, throw out issues others may not have thought of, and work together to contribute to plans that are flexible and fluid and consider as many of the million moving parts as possible. Though knowing school personnel and how they work together in the best of times, I am sure those already exist in an informal way.

What we need right now are leaders who are willing to recognize there are no experts, step down from the podium, take off their jackets, roll up their sleeves and say, “How can I help?”

Noise

Society has been so very noisy lately. The news media presents constant, overblown and loaded stories every two minutes. And if you pay attention, the discussions around those stories can be heated and hateful. To lessen the noise, I try to spend some time in silence every day. I take some time to process. Some time to think. Apart from the noise.

Back when I was a kid, we read the news in the evening paper. The “news” was a bit dated in today’s terms, as it was sometimes nearly a day old. However, it was WAY ahead of the news in the days of the Pony Express. We watched the local news at 6:00 and the world news at 6:30. Then the news went off, and we were done with the barrage of horrible events and scandalous activities of people who would never be held up as role models. Today, with the news rolling in at warp speed and the constant repetition of all the bad things that are happening, we don’t have the advantage of 20+ hours a day of news-free moments.

But here’s what I want to remind you. We create the life we want through our actions. Let me repeat that: We create the life we want through our actions. This fact is very important as so few people realize the power they have in their own lives.

We have created this noisy world. We have created an increasingly divided, contentious, hateful society by propagating division, contention, and hate. Indeed, we have allowed events to simmer and bubble and boil over by continuously poking at the edges—at the two extremes—rather than coming to the middle to have a civil discussion.

At the same time, we have paid too much attention to the media. Our attention has allowed media outlets to present stories that are overblown and increasingly biased. Through our attention, the media persists and morphs and develops and increasingly slants to one side or the other until we all slide off, scrambling to get back to a humane and compassionate position. If we pay attention to the loaded tweets and social media posts of a family member, a celebrity, or a world leader, those tweets and posts will grow and morph and go viral, pulling in more and more people who are up for a fight.

However, if these posts and the ballooning media fail to get our attention, the originators of these posts and stories will have to change. The media will have to become more factual. The bias will need to diminish. The outlets we pay attention to will have to become more responsible in their presentation. And our friends, family, and celebrities who are posting irresponsible facts will not have the following they have become accustomed to. If we stop focusing our attention on these things, these things will have to fundamentally change.

I’ve been thinking about silence a lot lately. If we pay attention to silence, to our breathing, to relaxation, to family and the things that matter to us, those things will grow in importance in our lives.

We create the reality we want through our actions. Choose wisely.

{Photo by Elijah O’Donnell on Unsplash}

Birdsong

I was out walking on Friday afternoon when I finished working—something that has become part of my “quaroutine.” I have found that a walk between work and preparing dinner helps to clear my mind and allows me to shift more fully to family time. Working from home can sometimes blur the work time/family time distinction.

Toward the end of my walk, I had almost turned around but decided, instead, to venture across the street into a different neighborhood. I had checked the time, calculated how long I had before my son returned from work, and decided on an extra mile. It was, after all, a gorgeous day with bright sun, a slight breeze, and flowers blooming everywhere.

As I walked, birds sang, but one song in particular stood out. The song was both foreign and familiar—not one I recognized from the birds in my own backyard, but one I had heard before. It continued to sing as I grew closer. I looked up toward the sound, and at the very top of the tree, I spotted orange plumage against the spring-green leaves. An oriole!

In an instant, I was right back in the heat of a summer long, long ago. My dad had a cat living at his workplace, and the cat had attempted to catch an oriole. Unfortunately, the oriole had not emerged unscathed. It had a broken wing and could no longer fly.

Dad brought the bird home in a shoebox. From somewhere in our house, he scrounged up a birdcage, and he lined the bottom with newspapers. He got out a roll of white medical tape, and he set to work carefully removing the bird from the box and taping the tips of its wings together. This would hold the broken wing in place, and prevent the bird from thrashing about. He placed the bird in the cage with some birdseed and some water and placed the cage on a table on our enclosed front porch.

That bird lived on our front porch for what now seems like most of that summer. At first, every time we walked out the door onto the porch, the bird would panic and flit around the cage trying to get away from us. But after a while, the bird calmed a bit. We discovered that it preferred fresh berries and fruit to birdseed, and the sweet black raspberries from our backyard bushes became its main food.

After the requisite amount of time, Dad announced that it was time for us to let the bird go. I am not sure how he knew “the requisite amount of time,” but I believe he had consulted a local bird expert about broken wings and healing and bird care.

On the day of the announcement, Dad took the bird from the cage and painstakingly worked to remove the medical tape. He worked the sticky residue from the bird’s feathers with some harmless solvent—again, most likely a tip he had gotten from his bird expert source. We put the bird in a box and took it to a forested area of town near a pond and an open field. We parked the car and carried the box across the field toward the wood line. Dad set the box on the grass, removed the cover, and gently lifted the bird out. He held him for one final time.

“Here we go,” he announced as we all hoped and crossed our fingers that the bird’s wing had healed. Dad held the bird out in front of him at arm’s length and gave him a gentle toss away from him. The bird thrust out its wings and dipped toward the ground, but about a foot from the grass, it lifted up, flapped its likely stiff wings, and soared up into a tree where it landed on a branch. We all exhaled breath we hadn’t known we were holding in. Our bird sat on the branch, a bright orange spot, watching us for just a moment. Then, it flew away, farther into the woods and out of our sight.

And here was an oriole, serenading me as I walked the streets of this neighborhood. When I got back to the tree where it sat, I slowed and paused to search the tree to see this beautiful bird one more time before I went home. But the bird was uncomfortable with my proximity. It flew from the tree, its orange body bright against the clear blue sky. For a moment, it seemed to pause mid-flight. Then it flitted to and fro, completing a little dance before it flew off to sing from a distant tree.

That bird was an incredible gift to end my week. It brought me a few moments with Dad in my memories from a long time ago.

Moments, Masks, and Missions

There is much to be said of the experience of living life. This whole slowing down thing has changed the focus of so many of us. Before the coronavirus shut-down, we were focused on some imaginary mission—reaching our goals, our children’s educational and athletic achievements, amassing money—that we forgot what it’s like to live. We hustled our children from one activity to another. They played baseball and soccer, participated in Scouts and dance, they painted and played a musical instrument. Until that all came to a screeching halt.

And now, we’re faced with a different reality. What would happen if we let our children (and ourselves) have some unstructured time? What would happen if we all had time to think and breathe and not be constantly scheduled for every minute of the day? What if we gave our children time to come up with their own activities? Time to fill in whatever way they see fit. What would happen then?

If we continue to schedule our lives so full—to carry out some imaginary mission of productivity at all cost, we are not allowing ourselves to live life. We are not teaching our children what it is like to pay attention to the world around them and be with themselves. We are not allowing them to experience what life throws at them. We don’t expect them to reach because we are doing the reaching for them. We are not expecting them to figure out solutions to their problems because we are finding solutions before they even have problems. We are not teaching them to fit their mission to their life. Because they are living our mission and not their own.

This weekend, my son became a college graduate. Just like that. No fanfare, no diploma, no walk across the stage, no ceremony. One minute he was hunkered over the computer finishing up assignments that had been four years in the making, and the next minute, he was a college graduate.

And on Saturday morning, we were faced with the task of creating a special day and making our own memories, however simplistic and disappointing. He donned his cap and gown, and we ventured out into the windy, snowy, never-a-dull-weather-moment that is New England in May, and we took pictures. Proud college graduation pictures. In some, he is wearing a face mask, lest we ever forget what upended his senior year and his college graduation. And when we went inside, we feasted on homemade chocolate cake.

Life is not in all the things we try to cram into our schedules. Life is in the moments—in the deep daily living. It’s in the things that go wrong and the manner in which we rise to the challenge to address them. It’s in the ways we grow and the lessons we learn. Life is not in the mission to accomplish, but in the mission to learn and improve and grow. Life is in the mission to live fully and to make the best of every situation.

Lessons from Lockdown: Logic, Life, and Laughter

This period of lockdown has offered us a unique opportunity to shift our focus and reevaluate who we are and what is important. It has offered us a unique perspective on the things we hold dear. As many people sort, declutter, and simplify their homes, they might begin to sense that what’s important lies in the little things, the intangible things, the spiritual-rather-than-material things.

Logic: Today, I almost started an email, “I hope you and your family are doing well in lockdown.” Now, no matter how true and relevant that is, I couldn’t help but think it sounded like the family was in jail. So I rewrote my opening sentence. The person who received the email will never know of my near faux pas, but I definitely appreciate the thought that I have to put into writing a normal statement after working from home for nearly two months.

Life: Yesterday, I helped my son move out of his college dorm for the final time. This was not the way it was supposed to be—returning to a room that was a time-capsule, untouched since the mid-March day he came home for a week of spring break; moving out with almost no one else on campus; not having the much-anticipated celebrations of scholarship, graduation, and ending ceremonies. It was a two-hour time slot of “pack up your stuff and get out.” When I drove away, he stayed behind, saying good-bye to a senior-year-interrupted in the way that was appropriate for him. As I drove home, I shed a few tears for him—for the proper end of college he wouldn’t have; for the memories he wouldn’t make in favor of others that would define him and his entire cohort of age-peers. And as I drove, a bald eagle flew overhead as an illustration of the way he will soar once the tethers have been released. It will be a different world by then, but these young adults are in the perfect position to take it on and run with it.

Laughter: Our house is regularly filled with laughter, even in the tough times. These days, we could easily abandon laughter altogether in favor of the dark and dreary, but where would that lead us? Nowhere good, no doubt. So we laugh. On a recent afternoon, I was cutting the hair of my younger son, exercising the clippers that I bought when the boys were young to save money on haircuts. I hadn’t cut anyone’s hair in ten years, at least. But this kid likes his hair short, so he asked me cut it. At one point, in a move that was far from professional, I realized the cord was hanging in his face. “Sorry about the cord,” I told him to let him know my technique was far from polished.

“That’s okay,” he told me. “I’ll mention it in your Yelp review though.” Ha! If I open my own pop-up barber shop, that would not be the worst thing my Yelp reviews would say.

We do our best to hold on to the lessons we are learning. And we keep laughing because the laughter keeps us positive and the positive keeps us moving forward. And forward is the best way to get through this.

{Photo by Matt Seymour on Unsplash}

Kaleidoscope

        

Have you ever looked into a kaleidoscope and seen the beautiful patterns that emerge when you hold it up to the light? With only a slight twist of the lens, you can change the pattern to something completely different but just as beautiful.  A slight twist, and the shapes and colors shift and move and fit themselves into spaces that other pieces have vacated, providing a new and differently beautiful vision to the viewer.

Life is like this. There is a constantly shifting balance that rises and falls as life is maintained and the various pieces work together to create a whole and beautiful picture. Over time, some elements move from our lives while others fill in the spaces that have been left behind. There is a tremendous beauty in the constant motion and workings of this rhythm.

Just when we think we have things figured out, they change. We shake our heads to clear out the cobwebs that settled there in our complacency. And at first, we might think, No! I liked things the way they were! Because they were comfortable and familiar. We get so used to our environment—as it is right now—that we stop taking risks and making changes. And, in fact, we stop seeing the beauty as we settle into the safety of the mundane.

But life… it’s dynamic and constantly changing. We have to change with it, or eventually, we will be dragged along, kicking and screaming, headlong into the changes.

This is where we are now. We are being dragged headlong into a change over which we have very little control. But if we are among the lucky, if we are among the thoughtful, if we are among the introspective, if we are among the creative… we can make the most of this change. The people, the businesses, the services that are thriving right now are the ones that have been able to see our new circumstances, examine them from all angles, and see a new perspective. They are the ones that have noticed what the world needs,  taken a risk, and attempted change what they deliver to fill that need.

Maybe it wasn’t comfortable. Maybe it wasn’t what they wanted. Maybe it wasn’t even cost effective. But it was something. And from that something, they can continue to grow. From that something, they can fit themselves back into the whole in a way that makes sense—in a way that will contribute to the shifting beauty.

We are all part of the kaleidoscope. Take the time to step back and take in the bigger picture. The togetherness. The introspection. The opportunity to reevaluate and reset. The family time. The slower pace. Take a moment to figure out how you can take your talents and fit them into the direction the world is going. It may not be comfortable at first (taking a risk never is), but it will give you a glimmer of control over the direction you may go when this is over. Look around you. Find the pieces that work—the building blocks of the beauty that is emerging. And fit them back into the life that you want.

Moment by moment… recognize the beauty that is this kaleidoscope we call life.