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.

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!

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}

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?”