Vulnerable

The other day, I sat in the parking lot of the grocery store watching people freak out about what they don’t have in their homes, and stuffing as much toilet paper as they possibly could into their grocery carts and cars. Truthfully, I was a bit shocked by the behavior I was witnessing. For whatever reason, people are panicking and stocking up on items like it’s the end of the world (in which case, they won’t need all this stuff, by the way…). This country has become so self-focused that “every man for himself” is the obvious motto people live by. In an emergency, grab everything you can! Don’t leave anything for anyone else! This mindset is both destructive and detrimental to any sense of community.

As I gathered my courage to enter the noise and complete chaos in the store for my weekly grocery run, I looked to my left at the car that was parked next to me. There, I saw a sad and curious sight. The car was packed full of stuff. Aside from the microwave sitting on the front passenger seat, the rest appeared, on first glance, to be garbage, in part because it was thrown in every which way, as if it had been carelessly tossed aside. There were open boxes of tissues and hangers and clothing. Small white paper bags that looked like they were discarded fast food bags and large plastic bags that appeared to be trash bags. A rolled up sleeping bag. Some socks and a shirt. The car was stuffed. Full of garbage and so much more.

There was a woman sitting in the car, and I was trying not to stare, but curiosity got the best of me. I wanted to study the contents of the car further, figure out what she was doing there.  She was parked in the handicapped space near the front of the store, and it appeared that she was eating a sandwich in the little space she had that was not taken up by stuff. She presented a stark contrast to the activity around her.

Homeless, I realized. She was likely homeless and living out of her car. I had a vague recollection of seeing this car, in this disorderly state, in this parking lot before—the tissue boxes sparking the memory. There was not much space for this woman to move about and get comfortable since so much of the car was taken up by her stuff. And yet, here she sat, alone and eating dinner in the silence and isolation of her car. Just outside her car, so many people bustled in and out of the store, stocking up on items to keep them fed and occupied and happy in the comfort and warmth of their homes while they wait out the coronavirus pandemic.

This, friends, is the reason that our panic and our focus on ourselves is not productive. We need to be mindful of the more vulnerable among us—the sick, the lonely, the homeless, the destitute. In times like this, we need to come together to look in on our neighbors. Make a phone call or check in with a quick knock on the door (keeping a safe distance from the individual who answers). Be willing to ask the question, I have to go pick up a few groceries. Do you need anything?

This is a challenging time for all of us, but for some more than others. Let’s come together and show the world who we really are.

{Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash}

Intimidating Stuff

Some things in life are intimidating, but the more you do them, the less intimidating they become.

Recently, a group of my student leaders was invited to have dinner with the University president. But the day before the dinner, we were notified that only a couple of the students had responded to the invitation, and the chef needed a head count. When we nudged the students to respond, some of them admitted they were intimidated by the thought of having dinner with the president.

And yet, the situations we encounter are often well matched to our development and to pushing that development just a bit beyond our optimal zone of comfort. Having dinner with a university president (who is well versed in dealing with young adults) is an appropriate situation for a student leader. Having dinner with the CEO of the corporation for which one works would be an appropriate situation for someone who had worked at the company for a while.

Life, you see, is about doing intimidating stuff. Because the intimidating stuff pushes us to grow and become better individuals.

But here’s the funny part. When you start doing intimidating stuff—making inquiry phone calls, engaging in debates with people whose opinions differ from yours, meeting with people in power, having dinner with your boss or the CEO of your organization, having difficult conversations—it stops being intimidating. It becomes the stuff you need to do.  You become more comfortable, and the difficult stuff…? It gets easier. Along the way, others start to recognize you as someone who faces situations head-on, they begin to look up to you, and you are given more responsibility. And more respect.

As you make your way through life, you need to take advantage of the opportunities that are presented to you. Sometimes, they are only presented once, and if you don’t jump, you may miss your chance. Take advantage of opportunities so you will be seen. No one is going to come looking for you to work on their project or create their videos or run their department… if they haven’t already met you or heard about you or seen you.

You will be amazed at the opportunities that open up all because you started doing intimidating stuff, and you didn’t let your fear hold you back.

Step out of your comfort zone. The more often you do so, the more comfortable—and the more ready—you will be when it matters most.

{Photo by Sammie Vasquez on Unsplash}

Coffee [Up]Date

If we were having coffee, I would tell you how much I’ve missed this. The coffee and you. I’ve missed you. I’ve missed sitting down over coffee or a meal and discussing life and death and successes and failures. I have missed driving and warmth and friendship and the ruse that is happiness.

If we were having coffee, I would tell you that I haven’t given up. That I still plug along every day with the intention of moving in the right direction. But movement is slow and messy. The two steps forward three steps back thing has prevented me from getting to my goal as quickly as I would like, and I am frustrated.

If we were having coffee, we would discuss how frustration appears as red lines cracking through the grays of the moment. The color has drained, but I know it is still there. I can see it shining through the cracks.

If we were having coffee, I would listen to all that has changed in your life since we last spoke. I would listen for the moments that sparked joy and the issues that held you back. I would talk you through the sad times and wish for you a smooth road ahead.

If we were having coffee, we might discuss the light that shines through the dreariness of winter and reminds us of the hope and promise of spring. We might touch on the light that shines through the darkness of my mind and reminds me that the path I’m on, though not always easy or straight, is the right one. Definitely the right one.

If we were having coffee, I would ask you about your biggest fears. I would tell you about my children, and I would reveal that my biggest fears revolve around the fact that I want my children to be happy and fulfilled. And I often fret over whether I’ve done enough to set them on the path that will lead them in the right direction. How can a single parent ever do enough?

If we were having coffee, I would talk to you about some of my students. I would share stories about what these young adults have already accomplished. I would mention their ground-breaking achievements, their contributions to their community, their passion for helping others, and the struggles that have held them back from being even more amazing. I would tell you that these kids give me hope for the future, and that the world will be in good hands when this generation comes of age and begins to lead the world.

If we were having coffee, I might accidentally cry a bit, but I would tell you I was sorry for not holding myself together. Sometimes I feel missed opportunity as sharp rocks on the path of my journey. Sometimes I feel the happiness, the loneliness, and the joy so deeply that I cannot keep them contained in my body. They spill out of my eyes as warm tears and deep sobs. Sometimes. It doesn’t mean I am sorrowful or upset. It simply means I am still alive and experiencing the richness of life.

If we were having coffee, we would talk about storytelling and how important it is to tell stories for connection and vulnerability. I would encourage you to share your own story widely and in meaningful ways. I would remind you that you are unique and the world needs you. And I would let you know that I am here to listen any time you need me.

When we are done with our coffee and we are sweeping aside the crumbs of our chosen snack, I will be sure to tell you how much I enjoyed our time together. We might even set a date for our next coffee. Hopefully, it won’t be so long between coffee dates this time. After all, life is short and I’ve missed you.

Giving presence

My most important lesson from 2019: be present.

In recent weeks, I have spent a great deal of time observing life around me and considering the manner in which many people function in their day to day lives. I have bumped into people who were not watching where they were going (or rather… they bumped into me). I have had to engage in evasive maneuvers to avoid people who were texting: texting and driving, texting and walking, texting and pushing a grocery cart, texting and living.

Texting and living. Is that what we want? Sorry, I didn’t hear you. [I was distracted by my phone]. No matter where we go—the grocery store, a restaurant, the movie theater—people are on their phones. It used to be we went out to dinner at a restaurant so we could socialize and talk to our friends—those at the table with us. Now, the people at the table are busy texting the people who aren’t at the table. Hey, where are you? Look at this great meal you are missing.

I missed seeing you score your goal, kiddo. [I was texting my friend]. If you are going to take the time to attend your child’s game or go to dinner with friends or venture out hiking or go anywhere, really, do those things fully. Be in the moment. Take in all that your surroundings have to offer—enjoy the sights and sounds, experience the joys, and make the memories. By paying attention to each of the five senses, you can lock in amazing memories that will remain with you forever. Believe it or not, your neighbor’s post on social media will still be there when you return to Facebook/Instagram/Twitter in an hour or two. As will your friend’s text.

Sorry… I just have to respond to this [text, email, FB post…]. Because somehow, it won’t be there later. The message here is that the person standing right in front of you is not as important as what’s happening on your phone—the people who are elsewhere in your life, but texting you. As someone who grew up in the era of landlines without call waiting or voicemail, I can tell you with one hundred percent certainty that if someone wants to talk to you, they will wait for your response. Or they will text/call you again eventually. Why jump on each text, phone call, or post immediately? Our current world and technology have taught us that we can expect an immediate response. But why are we buying in to that?

Texting and living is not what I want for my life. My goal for 2020 is to take a lesson from the last weeks of 2019 and really work to be present in life. There is no better gift you can give to yourself and to those around you than to pay attention, listen, and be present for them.

{Photo by Paul Hanaoka on Unsplash}

Adventure

We set out on an adventure the other day. As we were driving, the clouds grew dark and foreboding up ahead. The traffic was heavy and slow, and the farther along we went, the stormier the clouds became.

Now, we don’t live in tornado country, and while we sometimes have some roiling clouds, this particular evening, the clouds were angry, but not turbulent. But straight ahead, there was a cloud that appeared to be reaching downward.

“That cloud looks like it wants to be a tornado,” my daughter commented.

“True,” I agreed. “But since we are taking the next exit, we’ll be heading in a different direction soon.”

However, as we rounded the exit ramp, the cloud ended up centered directly ahead of us. “Or… maybe not,” I said, with a feigned nervous tone. We drove on, and before long, it started to sprinkle. Then rain. Then, we were driving through heavy blinding rain.

And then we weren’t. The rain slowed and the sun poked through the clouds—first one small ray, then a bit more until I knew there had to be a rainbow behind us, a thought that was later confirmed by friends’ Facebook photos.

We drove on, our adventure unfolding. We drove toward a beautiful sunset that grew in intensity with each passing mile. Thankfully, there was no tornado. But adventure is all in what you make it. And sometimes, the best adventures can be found on the other side of the storm.

{Photo by Simon Matzinger on Unsplash}

Ghosts from the past

Here is an interesting piece of trivia from my life, and something that has shaped who I am as a person.

My second-grade teacher hated children.

Yes, Friends, it’s true. I was seven years old, and my teacher hated me… not because of who I was, but because of who she was. But at seven years old, I didn’t have the experience or the wisdom to recognize that. I sat in her classroom every day for 180 days knowing she hated children.

And she was mean.

People who hate children should not become teachers. That should be a no-brainer. They tend to take out their frustrations on the children in their classrooms. Innocent children who are doing what every child is expected to do. And yet, it happens. I have come across several teachers in my lifetime who truly did not like children.

Why, you ask, is my second-grade teacher important all these many years later?

Yesterday, I stood in front of a group of 20+ students who were participating in their freshman orientation to college. I gave them information about how college is different from high school. I told them to use their resources. I encouraged them to seek out their professors. I reminded them that while it’s their job to go to class, study, and do their homework, it’s our job to help them be successful. And I told them I do my job because I love working with students.

And I meant it.

{Photo by Rene Bernal on Unsplash}

Surrender

At the beginning of this year, I came across a picture of a knitting project—a temperature blanket which is completed at the rate of one row per day. I’m not sure what possessed me to take this on, but the finished product looked intriguing. One row per day. How difficult could that be? On January first, or maybe the second, I selected an array of colors—one for each of the ten-degree temperature ranges we’re likely to experience here in the Northeast. I was ready to create a beautiful blanket. One row per day, I thought. I can commit to that!

It wasn’t long before I realized what I had gotten myself into. As I began to knit my one row each night, I realized I had absolutely no control over what the finished product would look like. I could not choose the color I would use each night. Nope. That was chosen for me based on the temperature that day. Suddenly, I was not the creator of the blanket. I was merely an unwitting tool in the finished product. The blanket was going to be its own story, and it was not my story to tell.

Now here we are, almost halfway through the year. I have kept up with my temperature blanket, and I am finding the results somewhat interesting. My colors are based on the high temperature of the day, and there are occasions when I consider fudging just a bit. Ooo, 59°. Perhaps I could knit a row of yellow, my 60s color… but I don’t.

I’ve realized, knitting a temperature blanket has been a giant lesson in surrender.  And this lesson comes at a time when I desperately need it. My children need my advice more than ever.

But do they really? Shouldn’t they figure things out on their own without me meddling in their business? Without me throwing myself into the decisions that will ultimately prepare them to face more and more challenging decisions? Shouldn’t I let them be?

They don’t need me the way they once did, and this is a challenging place for a parent. I won’t always be here, and I know my job is to let them flounder until they ask. My job is to give them the confidence that they have the skills they need. My job is to surrender control and trust that I have done my job in preparing them for exactly this. Even though I might want to help them out just this once… I have to let it go. I have to let them soar or fall so they will learn how to keep moving.

I may not like it any more than I like switching to a colder (or warmer) color in my knitting. But that’s exactly why knitting this blanket at this time has given me such a great lesson. I am not the one in control. I have to let go. My children are ready to tell their own stories.