Sometimes it doesn’t take much to inspire ideas to flow. This morning, it only took 7¢. It was scattered on the pavement, a nickel and two pennies. Perhaps the coins were dropped unintentionally, or perhaps they were purposely cast aside. I have no idea.

Let’s be real, friends. It’s been a tough week. Deep, heavy events occurred here in the U.S. Events that should affect the entire manner in which this country moves forward. Events that should bring us to our knees. Events that should pull us together, encourage us to rally around each other and our political system and begin a long overdue healing process. But healing and working together would be arduous and protracted, and to be honest, I think many Americans lack the capacity to truly work on the issues that divide us. Attention spans are short, and people don’t see themselves as part of anything larger than themselves. These days, many people seem to be repelled by hard work, patience, and understanding. We have proven too selfish, too unkind, too hateful to reflect on the big things. To dwell on the meaningful. We are too focused on the newest cell phone, the latest version of a video game, the things money can buy that bring only momentary satisfaction. We have become shallow shells moving through time and blaming everyone else for the problems in our society.

But let’s hope this one is the tipping point. Let’s hope this is not like every single natural disaster, school shooting, raging pandemic, and act of terrorism in which Americans have been better at making excuses than addressing the broken. Let’s hope we do not shove this into the past and move on without looking back. Without learning important and difficult lessons. Without dealing with the core issues that created the problem in the first place. Without reflecting on who we are as a nation. Without a second glance.

I’m told people have lost faith in loose change. Coins are an annoyance. They are heavy. Noisy. Not worth the effort it takes to carry around. We cast them aside as soon as they come into our possession, leaving a trail of change in our wake as we move through life. On the floor by the cash register. In the cracks of our car seats and sofas. On the pavement in the parking lot as we enter and exit our cars.

It’s not worth much. You can’t buy anything with it. But loose change adds up. If you drop it in a container on your way into your house at the end of each day, it will eventually become something worthwhile. If you were to save 7¢ every day, you will fill a cup or a jar, and you might soon be able to buy a carton of milk. Or go to a movie. Or pay a bill. Loose change is only inconsequential if you cast it aside.

Come to think of it, this is much like small acts of kindness. They fill our cup. They help us to feel better about who we are and the life we are leading. They make us feel like we are part of something. Small acts of kindness add up to large acts of kindness and these, in turn, contribute to an improved outlook on life.

If you make a habit of saving 7¢ a day, your loose change will begin to come together. It will begin to be useful. You will have 49¢ over the course of a week. And at the end of a year, you would have an extra $25. Kindness is like this, too. If you make it a habit to hold the door for someone on their way in to work, eventually you will be holding the door for someone each day. Then you might start to say, “Good morning,” and this might lead to longer conversations and deeper connections. Pretty soon, you will be starting your day in conversation with new friends, and this may prompt you—and those around you—to perform more acts of kindness, changing your outlook (and theirs) for the better.

We all say we want our society to change—there’s too much hate… we are too divided… we have lost patience with others. But change doesn’t happen all at once. It happens 7¢ at a time. Small kindness perpetuates more kindness, and with a lot of time and tremendous patience, we will begin to see the changes that will shift the attitudes of an entire society and finally begin to make a difference that matters.

{Photo by Jonathan Brinkhorst on Unsplash}

Beads on a String

Years ago, I was part of a writing group in which we often talked about our inner critic. You know the one I am talking about. My inner critic sits on my shoulder and tells me all the things I am doing wrong. She says things like, “You’re not going to write that, are you?”

I can’t shake her.

I could go out and run three miles or hike a mountain, and when I come back into the house and sit down to write, there she is. Still sitting on my shoulder. Still letting me know my ideas are not good enough. My handwriting isn’t neat enough. My typing isn’t fast enough. The list of criticisms is never ending.

I swipe at my shoulder, trying to brush her off. “Go away!” I grunt, batting at her as if she is an annoying and persistent mosquito.

“Your pen is running out of ink,” she taunts. “It’s a sign. Stop writing. You’re no good anyway.”

I take a deep, slow breath in, gritting my teeth as I gather strength to deal with her. Unlike an annoying bug or persistent distraction, this is my inner critic. She is a part of me, the result of too many years of disappointments and all the voices that told me I wasn’t good enough, from school-yard bullies to power-seeking bosses to abusive partners.

Logically, I can piece together all of the experiences that gave her strength. And as I quickly run through each of these negative people and events, I visualize them as beads on a string, misshapen, dull, and discolored. One by one, I pluck them from the string and flick them to the floor. They ping, bounce once or twice, and scatter to the far reaches of the room, disappearing in dark corners and under seldom-moved appliances.

With a now bare and empty string, I can re-string it with ideas, positive thoughts, and encouragement. These beads are perfect in their varied shapes. Their colors are complementary and offer hope for an uncertain future. Together, they create a beauty that is striking.

The more I am able to diminish my inner critic and soften her criticism, the more beauty I can add to this growing strand of beads.

We all have our own inner critic, and mine is not limited to writing. She is always with me, trying to pull me off track. The metaphor of beads on a string allows me to be selective about the messages I keep. By plucking negative thoughts from the string and casting them away, I can replace them with positive ones. I can refocus away from my inner critic’s constant commentary and work on creating beauty—in writing and in life. My ideas flow more freely, and I am able to play in imagination, unencumbered.

2021 – Bring Your Thunder

Recently, I saw this new message circulating on Facebook. It was clearly a post directed to the turning of the calendar, and it said something like, “What is one thing you want to tell me?” And so, here are my thoughts as inspired by that question.

What are the things I want to tell you? I want to tell you that no matter what anyone says, you are special and unique. You have your own individual gifts and talents that make you perfectly you. These gifts and talents, when fully realized, will help you to be the best version of yourself. Don’t minimize your talents because someone doesn’t like who you are. Don’t let someone else’s expectations of you influence your essence.

I want to tell you to embrace your passions because doing so will help you and the world around you. If you are passionate about helping others, get out there and do it. If you love to build things and work with your hands, go find a place where you can build. If you know you need to create beautiful things or generate ideas, find a way to feed that passion so you can nurture your soul. Don’t give up what you want to do because you feel constrained. Look for ways to engage your passions.

I want to tell you to shed unhealthy influences so you can truly live your best life. I am not denying there are things we all have to do that we might not enjoy. However, if you are losing who you are for others or for unhealthy habits, rethink your relationship to that person or thing. Unless the person is a child or elder who depends on you for their very existence, you might consider limiting their influence on you and your activities for your own wellbeing. Work to combat unhealthy addictions so you can move forward unencumbered. Recognize toxic influences for what they are and take steps to let them go.

I want to tell you to set boundaries that work for you. If you are working too much, step back and reconsider your schedule. Are you taking on extra work? Are you constantly going above and beyond expectations? Do you feel you are picking up slack for others in your work environment? Critically evaluate your schedule. Cut back where you can and let someone else pick up the slack every now and then. Time is our most valuable resource. Use it wisely.

I want to tell you to take care of yourself. Time and again, we hear that we will only be our best for others if we are our best for ourselves. I truly believe this is the case. We are given one body just as we are giving limited time. If we do our best to take care of it—in sickness and in health—we will feel our best and perform our best. When we eat well, exercise, and get enough sleep, we have the energy necessary to get through the day and to push through the tough times. Improved physical health can contribute to better mental health and overall attitude. Make a positive investment in yourself.

I want to remind you to be realistic. If you have not exercised in years, you won’t be running a marathon next week. If your living space is full of clutter, tackle it one room at a time (or one shelf at a time, if necessary) rather than all at once. Small improvements will give you satisfaction that will encourage continued effort until the job is done. Being realistic is not telling yourself all the reasons you can’t do something but taking the steps to move toward success.

I want to tell you that a spirit of gratefulness goes a long way to fostering a positive attitude. Create a habit of thankfulness for all that you have and all that you’ve gone through. Each day, each journey—good or bad—contributes to who you are and who you are becoming. Your identity—your self—is made up of every experience, every lesson, and a small bit of every individual you have come across. Be grateful for the richness of your life and experience—past, present, and future—as these things weave together to create the best you possible.

I want to encourage you to move into 2021 with intention. I want to encourage you to focus on all the ways you can bring your best self to all that you do. Despite whatever may happen this year, find a way to look for the positive. Be fully you. Make some noise. As you move into 2021, bring your thunder.

{Photo by Jeremy Thomas on Unsplash}

Social Constructs

2020 Lesson Number Four: Social constructs are flexible

There are social constructs that have become so much a part of our lives that we have forgotten they are merely social constructs. This year, for example, there has been much talk of students falling behind in school—of not completing the “required curriculum.” Parents have expressed great concern that their son or daughter will fall behind and not acquire the skills necessary to progress to the next grade level. The student won’t be able to pass some randomly selected marker of achievement. Or the student will have a decreased opportunity to attend the college of his or her choice.

What is lacking in these conversations is the recognition that all students are experiencing the same school and learning issues. All students. And not just in the U.S., but all students around the world.

What if instead of expecting students to reach some imaginary marker, we change the bar? What if we decide that the skills necessary to move to a new grade level might be a little different than they have been in past years? What if we recognize that this year, students might have acquired a whole new set of skills that we didn’t expect?

Students might not have acquired the same skills they normally would for their grade level. But now, they have gained an awareness of how to take precautionary measures to coexist with others during a global pandemic. They have learned, firsthand, about supply chain shortages, supply and demand, and hoarding. They have lived through a major historic event and seen what is possible if we all pull together. And they have experienced the tragic consequences of an infectious disease spreading through the population. Students have learned to navigate mask-wearing and Zoom classrooms; they have learned self-discipline and an ability to minimize distractions in a distraction-laden environment; and they have developed skills to deal with uncertainty in a life that once felt completely safe and well-planned. They have learned to give back to their communities, and they have planned socially distant events and pitched in like never before. They have watched over loved ones and taken on roles that they might not have been ready for. They have grown and stretched and matured.

It is fair to say that this year has been a lengthy lesson in some challenging life skills. So what if we shift our focus from all the things these kids can’t do and all of the things they didn’t have a chance to learn. What if, instead, we give them credit for all the amazing and meaningful things they did learn and all of the life experience they gained. What if we look at this year as one big lived-history lesson?

Since societies are the ones who determine school curriculums, they can determine the changes to the expectations. I, for one, believe that if you made it through 2020, you have some life skills in your tool box that will serve you well for years to come. I don’t believe anyone is falling behind. I think we are all falling into place.

{Photo by Marcelo Silva on Unsplash}

Accepting Technology

2020 Lesson Number Three: Technology is not always our friend, but we can come to terms with it

I do okay with many technologies, though I would never say I was an expert. I regularly use instructional technologies. This past spring, I did okay as I simultaneously learned several different virtual meeting platforms. For me, the challenging technologies are GPS technologies that require me to relinquish control in order to follow someone else’s directions to a place I have never previously traveled to.

I am a firm believer in maps and atlases and relying on one’s internal sense of direction. When I get in the car and I am not sure where I am going, I like to have a map and directions printed out and at the ready—especially if I need to double-check my route. Lately though, have been using GPS more often, and it makes me feel adventurous, spontaneous, and carefree, like I am a fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants kind of girl. I am not. Nor am I yet an avid fan of GPS. But I swallow my pride and use it because it is convenient and it saves paper.

I drive, and my Google gal narrates my trip via her built-in maps that are, apparently, updated regularly. And this is great, really. Except when she gets interrupted or distracted by a phone call, as she did back at Thanksgiving. While I was on the phone, she remained silent. Then again, there wasn’t much to narrate at that point since I was traveling on the same highway for several miles. Thankfully, my phone call ended just in time for her to continue my journey. I followed her directions (exactly, point-by-point), but when she announced I had arrived at my destination—a grocery store where I was to meet my daughter to bring her home for Thanksgiving—there was no store in sight. In fact, I was in a questionable section of a town I didn’t intend to be in. My “destination” seemed to be the warehouse of a moving company with lots of large moving trucks, but not much else. And there was no one around. Anywhere. I pulled into the parking lot, reset my GPS, and headed to my true destination, still 20 miles away.

And despite the way it might seem, that experience was a good one for me to have with my Google gal. That experience humanized GPS technology in my mind. It allowed me to see that I was right in my desire to have a back-up plan in place. But it also improved my relationship with my GPS.

Now, I affectionately refer to her as, “Girlfriend.” When she gives me directions (“take the next exit onto Route 2 east,” for example) I respond with, “You got it, Girlfriend!” When I cross a state line, she welcomes me to the new state. “Thanks, Girlfriend! You too!” I reply.

We have a new comfort level, me and my GPS. She does her best to lead me to my destination, and I, in turn, recognize that I may… or may not… arrive where I am going. But now I accept that any journey could become a grand adventure in an instant.

{Photo by Ali Kazal on Unsplash}

What you wish for…

2020 Lesson Number Two: Be careful what you wish for

Remember all those times you thought you wanted to stay home from work? You might have had visions of how nice it would be to switch jobs so you could work remotely every day? How many times did your kids express an interest in staying home from school, “I’ll get my work done from home, Mom. I won’t get behind. Besides, we’re not doing anything today, anyway. Or maybe I could do online school…?”

At some point in recent years, some of our students began to ask if they could email their papers to us rather than physically attend a writing appointment. While we had the technology, at the time, we held to our position that if students attended in-person classes, they should come see us so we could have a conversation about their papers. After all, it is much easier to ask questions and carry on a dialogue about what is working and not working in a piece of writing when we are sitting side-by-side with the writer.

The other day, I was listening to an interview on NPR in which they were talking to students about remote learning and Zoom classes. One of the younger children they interviewed—maybe 10 or 12 years-old—was talking about how difficult it is to sit in front of a computer all day. He mentioned that he wanted to be with his friends and be involved in activities with the people in his class. He said, “It’s hard,” and his voice shook a bit as he began to get emotional.

Sometimes, we think we want something, but we lack deep knowledge about what that thing might actually look like. We simply have a thought that it would be better than our current reality. No doubt, we have all day-dreamed about working from home at one point. But sometimes, when we have an opportunity to live out that dream, we realize we are wrong. Very wrong.

This is one of the valuable lessons we can take from this past year. While it might be okay to work from home some of the time, it is also really nice to interact with our co-workers and friends. It’s nice to discuss ideas, to work through them, to engage in office banter, and to go for walks when we need a quick break. It is nice—and highly valued—to interact with people in real life. To engage in conversation and to connect in ways that can be challenging in scheduled one-hour virtual meetings. It is nice to be able to say to someone, “Hey, I’m going to the cafeteria. Do you need anything?” or “You look like you could use a break. Why don’t you step away from your desk for a few minutes?”

Sometimes, we forget how vital human connection can be–and not connection through an electronic screen. But when we are without it for too long, we begin to appreciate how very much we rely on others for simple things—a hello or good morning, a quick chat and a laugh or two, and a break from a tedious task—and we begin to appreciate how much of “normal” life we’ve been missing.

{Photo by my beautiful daughter}

Waiting

2020 Lesson Number One: Waiting is an important part of life.

Over the years, our culture has evolved into a society that rejects waiting as undesirable and something to be avoided.  We have found ways to remove the need to wait from our lives. We are able to find out the gender of an unborn child so we don’t have to wait nine long months and wonder about the child we will meet. When we have an idea we want to explore or research we want to do, we have a wealth of information at our fingertips—no more waiting for the library to open and then waiting to obtain a physical copy of a book or magazine that might have to come from another town or state. Nope… information is now available (from the comfort of your couch) at any time of the day or night. Need something that you don’t have in your house? Place an order, and if you are willing to pay a little extra, you can have the item by tomorrow. Not feeling well? No need to wait to see the doctor. Just take to the internet and diagnose yourself! That way, you can decide if you really need to bother the doctor, and when you finally get an appointment, you can tell the doctor what is wrong with you. (Note: I do not support self-diagnosis via the internet and nether do most doctors).

When all is said and done, we don’t get used to waiting anymore. We expect instant gratification. We have forgotten that there are things we cannot control, regardless of the time that passes. We have lost the benefits of waiting—of delaying gratification and anticipating what will come… in time. And most importantly, we have forgotten the art of using waiting time to benefit our lives and ourselves.

This year, we had to wait, and we had to figure out how to deal with long stretches of time spent waiting. On March 13, when so many of us were told to go home and stay there for two weeks, we thought it would be just that—two weeks. But two weeks stretched to a month, then two, and before we knew it, we had been at home for four months. Or six months. Or more.

People took up new hobbies. They worked on developing cooking and baking skills. They learned to knit. They took up yoga and meditation. They made home improvements and became master gardeners. People began taking walks in nature, playing outside with their children, and connecting with family members. People connected with each other as they reflected on what was to come and how our society—and their lives—might be different on the other side of COVID.

Waiting is not a waste of time, as society has programmed us to believe. Waiting is one of those in-between-spaces where we think nothing is happening. And yet, waiting is a valid and valued part of life. Waiting is where the pieces of life come together. Waiting—and working through problems and ideas in our heads and lives—is where meaning is found.

This year, we learned to wait, and hopefully this new skill will help us to create a more meaningful life when we finally settle into our new normal.

Blooming – 2020 style

My Christmas cactus is having a difficult time this year. It has always been a late bloomer, but this year, it is really struggling. It has been pushing out teeny little buds that show great promise. Like many things this past year, these buds give me a brief hint of excitement and hope. But after a few days, they wither up and fall off. This cactus… it’s not even close to blooming, and I am wondering if it will bloom at all this year.

Truth be told, I have been having trouble blooming this year, as well. This year has been tough, and some days I feel like I just don’t have it in me to be my best. Some days I lack the patience necessary to think about tomorrow. The days blend together, and Monday becomes Tuesday and blends with WednesdayThursdayFriday until the weekend, and then the week starts over again. On and on and on it goes.

It’s been a tough year, but it has also been an important year. In its break from reality, its focus on silence, its fear of crowded spaces, this year has given us some much-needed room for reflection. I tried hard to take advantage of what this year offered, so I might be in a better space going forward. I refrained from railing against authority and complaining about not living life as “normal.” I embarked on a lengthy journey to reconnect with my self—the essential core of who I really am.

I’m not going to lie. This year was filled with tough lessons that weren’t fun but were very much necessary. It took a great deal of patience and tenacity to sit through these long months, especially when we began to see hints of how far we have strayed from where we need to be. Our goals and our focus have drifted away from being good people to amassing as many possessions and as much power as we can, no matter the cost. We have grown to focus not on who we are as people, but on what and how much we have. I have to believe this is not why we are here.

So I took this year as a correction. I am taking its lessons, and I am coming back to center. I am re-grounding and rediscovering myself and my mission for my life. The lessons I learned emerged—as many do—from loss, boredom, anxiety, and resolve. They came in the form of traits such as patience, resilience, tenacity, discipline, and a habit of self-reflection. They involve listening to myself in order to continuously rediscover and recreate who I am. And they involve looking carefully and paying attention to the little things so I will know better how to fill the spaces where need is great.

Stay with me for a few days. I’m going to take you on a journey through this past year and share with you some of the lessons that I have learned—lessons that I will take with me as I venture into 2021.

Wits’ End

Hey you!

Yes… you.

How are you doing? I don’t ask that question in a quick greeting-in-passing kind of way. How are you really doing? Are you hanging in there or hanging by a thread? Are things under control or are you so out of sorts that you can’t tell if you are coming or going? Are you questioning anything? Everything? Have you been able to remain organized or do you wish the world would just pause so you can take a breath and pull yourself back together? Are you at your wits’ end?

Wits’ end, as scary and frustrating as it can be, is often a good place to start anew. It is a place where we are forced to take a look around and survey the landscape, size up the current situation, and create a plan for the future. Wits’ end is generally a turning point that can move us in a new direction.

Daily life has become exhausting and fragmented like a jigsaw puzzle that won’t quite fit together the way it’s supposed to, the way it used to, or the way we think it should. Troubles mount and the consequences of coronavirus continue to challenge us, and it is tempting to lash out in frustration. Or dissolve into a puddle of tears. And it just drags on.

These tough times require patience, resilience, and an ability to dig deep and lean in. We are navigating challenges on a scale no one has seen in a very long time, and the ability to dig deep will determine how effectively we move forward.

The challenges, the loss, the grief, the instability… they just keep coming. But you are not alone. You have friends and family and neighbors and community members who care about you. We are all navigating the pandemic—and its consequences—in tandem. We are all trying to envision how the various fragmented pieces of present day life will fit into the big picture of the future as we create a post-pandemic world that will likely look much different than our current and previous life.

Life is uncertain and this year has been a living illustration of that fact. We cannot imagine how things will look in another month or two or ten. However, if we let go of our expectations and recognize that this pandemic is changing us and will continue to change us, we can build a future that is better and brighter than before. If we harness all of our kindness, patience, love, and support and channel it into our work together, we can create an amazing future.

It’s going to take time. We are deep in the throes of what this year has brought us, and there is no magical switch that comes when one year changes to the next. But there is hope.

So when you are feeling weak or lost or hopeless, lean on those around you. Ask for help. Recognize that you are stronger and wiser than you were last November. Give yourself a pat on the back for all you have endured over the last few months. Before you take to social media to lash out at the world, remember… we are all human in an unpredictable world. Be kind. Be patient. Be forgiving. With others and with yourself. We are all—every single one of us—at wits’ end. But we are all doing the best we can to grow and change and become stronger under the circumstances.

{Photo by Erik Eastman on Unsplash}

Great opportunities

I was sorting through some papers recently when I stumbled upon the statement, “Great opportunities are being missed.” It was scrawled on a piece of paper, notes from a Zoom meeting back in the spring when the strangeness of the COVID world was still new and uneasy.

This meeting note-quote made me reflect on our life in COVID times. So many times, I hear people talk about how much we have lost this year. They focus on the school children, high school athletes, the students who didn’t get the big graduations and parties they deserved in the spring, adults who had planned weddings or other large gatherings, and all the funerals that were attended by only a small group of close family. We have lost so much this year.

It’s true, we have lost a great deal. We have lost hundreds of thousands of citizens globally and a quarter of a million in the United States. We have lost friends, siblings, parents, cousins, and children. We have lost health and jobs and homes. The losses have been immense and heavy, and they just keep piling on.

But I would argue that we have also gained a great deal. This year, a year unlike any other, we have been given an amazing opportunity to step back and examine the life we are living. We have had the time to reconnect with family and close friends in ways that we were too busy to do in the past. We have discovered hobbies and talents that previously slipped our notice.

We have gained an opportunity to look at life from a different perspective, turning situations upside down and staring at them until they make sense. We have stepped out of the boxes we once shut ourselves in to figure out how to do the impossible. We have learned to use technology we never imagined we would use. Often, we have constructed something from nearly nothing. We have learned to make substitutions and to be creative. We have developed flexibility. And we have grown our patience.

We have set aside our devices and connected with our families. We have spent more time in nature and outside with friends and neighbors. We have sent messages of hope and healing. We have read books, learned new things, and eaten meals together.

We have begun to rediscover the long-lost art of living.

If we focus on all that we’ve lost, we won’t notice all that we’ve gained. We will miss the opportunities presented in this horrible, terrible, tremendous, amazing year. We won’t see what is clearly in front of us. When we focus on the things we’ve lost, we miss the things we’ve gained.

As you are contemplating the past few months, take the time to reflect on the lessons of the year. Reach out to others who might be struggling. Look for opportunities that present themselves in this moment. Instead of focusing your sights on 2021, take a moment to appreciate the many lessons we’ve learned in 2020. It has been a year like no other, and the lessons we take away… they hold great opportunities we won’t want to miss!