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}

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.

All of Us

April first. Spring is arriving to my yard with bulbs sprouting into crocuses and hyacinths, dotting the fading winter browns with color. Lying in bed this morning as consciousness began to awaken, I breathed in the depths of April. The difficulties of April. The heaviness and huge expanse of April that stretches out in front of us.

This afternoon, I went out for a walk. My afternoon walks keep me sane and give me time to reflect. There were lots of people outside. Some were walking their dogs. Others, like me, were just walking themselves. In the woods, I saw two teenage girls sitting together on a rock, shoulder to shoulder, bent over the same phone. Up the road a piece, in a cul-de-sac, a group of children played together as if it were any normal nice day. They huddled in groups discussing the game they would play.

It seems that many people are missing the social distancing point. Playing with friends—even outside—is not social distancing. Sitting with your friend on a rock or walking side-by-side with your friend is not social distancing. Hanging out with friends does not create the necessary distance.

The toll this virus is taking is already staggering. If we are going to beat it and “flatten the curve,” we have to be vigilant. We have to take on a new mindset. We have to assume everyone we see has the virus, and when we go out of our houses, we have to act like we have it. We have to stay away from people, and we have to protect ourselves and others. This is our main job right now—to stem the deadly tide of this enemy.

One of the reasons this virus spreads so fast is because it hides in people with no symptoms. It spreads through undetected infections and asymptomatic carriers. Look at the choir rehearsal in Washington state back in mid-March. None of the people in attendance had symptoms and yet the virus spread through 45 people in that group. No one knows for sure whether they are infected or not. We can’t take chances unless we are willing to risk our lives and the lives of our loved ones.

All of us, Friends. It’s going to take all of us to get through this virus and to beat it. Don’t hang out with friends. Don’t meet up with a group in a parking lot and stand six feet apart. Don’t drive with a carload of friends to a state park to hike. Don’t go to a store that’s open because it’s an essential business just to get something to keep you busy. Just don’t.

Do your part. Stay home and stay away from others. Do your part for all of us.

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}