Periphery

I was driving home from a dance class this evening. It was rainy and dark and more than a little bit foggy. I was listening to a story on NPR about baking and bread and devising new recipes. The story had my attention because I hadn’t had enough dinner before I ran out the door, and I was hungry.

In the distance, a barely visible shadow streaked across the road in front of me, jolting my attention from the radio and from the task of driving. I strained my vision through the fog to discern what it was I was seeing. Was it a cat? It seemed a tad too large. Was it a fisher? It didn’t move in that awkward, uneven manner of a fisher. Or was it someone’s escaped dog? The figure was gray—barely a shade lighter than the gray of the foggy night—and I wondered if, in fact, I had really seen an animal dart across the road despite the clear sparkle of its eye.

But then my mind wandered to all of the things that are constantly playing at the edges of my consciousness. Just like the animal that had crossed my path, these things could slip by unnoticed unless they are given attention. A butterfly flits through the meadow on a summer breeze. A deer stands in the brush, munching on leaves and grass. A streetlight blinks and turns off.

But there are other things that hang out in the periphery, as well…. Ideas that aren’t yet fully formed, that are just beginning to take shape. Words that might have been spoken before the opportunity slipped away. Prayers that need to be said rather than kept inside.

Life has very few distinct edges. It blurs and frays and blends. The physical blends into the cognitive which blends into the spiritual in ways that are reminiscent of this evening’s fog. Our lives blend into the lives of others. If we relocate our attention, we might just shift our focus, our decisions, and quite possibly our reality. Imagine the possibilities.

{Photo by Hannah Troupe on Unsplash}

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Compassion

It’s a complicated world we live in, and it’s important that we stop dancing around some of the bigger issues that threaten our safety and our society.

Today, I received a lengthy and detailed email from some overarching authority at one of the institutions for which I work. This email discussed how to recognize and assist individuals in Distress, with a capital D. “Distress” was then broken down further into several categories: general distress, victims of sexual misconduct, those at risk of suicide or self-harm, and those who may be dangerous.

This last one—oh yikes! But true, even though it seems to hit a bit too close to home as we begin to dissect yet another mass shooting. I listen to the news as the sheriff says, “No one expects this…” even though we are all coming to expect this. I hear an official on ABCNews instruct, “We all should think about what we would do in this situation…” and I know that any plan I could make would be lost in the terror of the situation.

But for those of us who daily deal with vulnerable individuals on a personal level, it is important that we are familiar with the warning signs of Distress. It is important to know what hurt looks like; how pain manifests; and when anger crosses into danger. So I read through the email, and I will read it again to commit the details to memory.

To all of my family, friends, students, neighbors, acquaintances, past and present; to all the people I know only in passing… if you are in Distress, I am here, and I am listening. If you need to talk, I will hear you. If you need a shoulder to cry on, mine are strong and broad. If you need a hug, my arms are open. If you need to sit in the corner and cry without judgment, I will sit with you. If you need encouragement, I will cheer you on. If you need prayers, I will offer them up.

I know I am not alone in the offer of help. The world is full of caring, kind, compassionate individuals who will listen and be present. They are willing to lend a hand, give a hug, connect over coffee, offer words of encouragement, or say just the right thing to make you smile. If you need something, we are here. Please… speak up and let someone know. If we all work together, perhaps we can make this world a little friendlier, a bit softer, and just a touch less complicated.

Encouragement

On a recent college visit, I was escorting my daughter across campus to the dining hall where she would meet up with the student who would be her “day host” for a class visit. As we walked, we passed by a post on which was taped a hand-written sign that said, “It gets better. I promise.”

I was struck by this sign because the truth is that life is a series of peaks and valleys and everything in between. When things are bad, they generally get better. We fight; we work; we pray; we cry; time goes by; and things get better. But a college student with less life experience may not realize this to be the case, especially when students are often told, “College is the best four years of your life.”

Newsflash: College is NOT the best four years of your life.

In fact, on that same college visit, I met with a professor, who was my professor when I was in college—about a gazillion or so years ago. Now, I haven’t seen this woman in a very long time. She looked at me and she said, “You look just like you did when you were twenty. But might I say, you look happier.” Her words prompted me to conduct an instant internal inventory that revealed that yes, I am happier than I was in college.

I tried to express my thoughts, “College… well, high school and college, really… they were tough times. Lots of social pressure and trying to figure out my identity and what I wanted from life.” And then we got to talking about kids today, the pressures they face, and the complications of social media in all its superficial glory. Truly, it was tough enough to grow up back in the seventies and eighties without the pressures brought on by social media. Is it any wonder so many young people nowadays suffer from anxiety, depression, and a whole host of other mental illnesses?

On my way back to the parking lot, I stopped and took a picture of the sign I had seen earlier. This sign is a message to all of us that whatever we’re going through… this too, shall pass.

And perhaps there will be one person who walks by this sign, and these words of encouragement might just make a world of difference. Whatever it is, it will get better. I promise.

Simple Things

This week, it happened again….

One morning, early in the week, I was finishing up lunches and water bottles, preparing to send my kids out the door for their day at school. I usually add a few pieces of fruit to my water and my daughter’s, so we will have a hint of flavor as we stay hydrated throughout the day. I find if I put it in the bottom of the bottle before I add the ice, it stays out of the way.

Right now in New England, we are moving past our summer fruits. The berries and soft orchard fruits—like peaches—are not as readily available. Pineapple, various melons, and citrus fruits will become our go-to choices for the winter. On this particular morning, it was a few leftover strawberries combined with orange slices—a pretty tasty combination.

The minute I made the first cut into the orange peel, the zest sprayed out, filling the kitchen with its strong, distinct scent. This scent is one that speaks unmistakably of winter and holidays to me. On this morning, the smell brought me instantly to thoughts of Dad—the neatest orange peeler ever—and my childhood home; every year, just before the holidays, my parents buy oranges from a local high school citrus sale.

And suddenly, I began to wonder who might help Mom with the sorting and moving of her oranges this year—the boxes are bulky and heavy. And the grief came flooding in like a tsunami.

From that one simple act of cutting an orange, the week continued with moments of grief both intense and ephemeral. And on Friday, I walked out the door of my office building on a hazy, humid, and partly sunny day to a rainbow in the sky directly in front of me. It hadn’t rained, and the sun was struggling to shine brightly through the haze. And yet, there it was, a beautiful swath through the sky.

This grief thing… it can be a thorny path. But I’m becoming increasingly convinced that grief is not something to be overcome. Maybe, tucked in among the thorns, we find the beauty of the roses.

{Photo of oranges by Mateus Bassan on Unsplash}

Sunscreen

The morning was sunny as I helped my daughter apply sunscreen for a trip to the beach. I was responsible for covering her back, and I worked to slather the lotion on her skin around her bathing suit straps. I was careful to apply a liberal coat in hopes that all of her back would be protected.

When I was done, I launched into a disclaimer about the fact that while I tried the best I could, there was no guarantee that I had actually covered every bit of her exposed skin. If she were to burn in strange blotches, I apologized. But as this disclaimer was tumbling out, a brilliant idea momentarily slid into my brain. “They should make a sunscreen that’s color changing. That way, you’ll know if you are completely covered. For example, it could go on blue and then change to clear after a minute or so….”

“That’s disgusting, Mom!” my daughter argued, not even giving my idea half a chance. Color-changing technology works for other things like bathroom cleaner, baby bath thermometers, ceiling paint…. (Although, color-changing technology didn’t work for the large swatch of unpainted ceiling in my kitchen, but that is a story for another day). “What if you were putting it on at the beach?” she questioned. “That’s just wrong.”

Actually, I think color-changing technology could be a brilliant solution to this age-old problem. Though I have to admit, it might be somewhat off-putting to be an innocent bystander and watch people smearing themselves with bright blue lotion at the beach.

Lessons from the Tollbooth

Every experience, good or bad, can be considered an adventure. And every adventure, positive or negative, has its lessons. Let me set the scene….

It is 6:00 in the morning. It is still dark, and there is an unmistakable crispness in the air, despite the calendar’s July date. My daughter and I are traveling an unfamiliar highway in a Midwestern state to get to the airport for an early flight home from a nearly week-long adventure.

I have my electronic toll pass in the car with me, and even though it is from our home state, in theory, it should work here. The toll experience on the way in was spotty, but we made it through. Our home state removed the gates on their tollbooths many years ago in favor of speed and efficiency. Such is not the case here in this Midwestern state.

At the first tollbooth, we pull up to the gate, but the booth does not pick up the signal from our transponder. I wave it around in the car. Nothing. I push the “help” button on the tollbooth, and a male voice wishes me a good morning. I explain my situation. He asks me to read my transponder number. Um… it’s fairly dark in the car and I don’t have my reading glasses, but I don’t tell him this. I pass the transponder to my daughter. She reads the number, and I repeat it to the voice in the void. Once he confirms that I do, in fact, have an account, the gate rises, and I drive through.

After an hour or more on the road, the second tollbooth comes into view. We pull up, fully expecting (well… hoping for) our toll pass to work. Of course, it doesn’t. I roll down the window and lean way out, holding it under the barcode scanner that I discovered at the last tollbooth. The bright red laser line crosses the code. I watch the gate, but it doesn’t move from its persistent placement directly in front of the car. I push the “help” button and wait for a friendly voice. Nothing. In my rear view mirror, I see a semi truck approaching, but I figure he will go into a different toll lane. He doesn’t. In seconds, the massive rig is directly behind my car. We are trapped, and my daughter is trying desperately to hold herself together as she begins to panic in the seat beside me.

I step out of the car into the chilly dawn air, transponder in hand. I frantically wave it in front of the scanner while simultaneously pushing the “help” button. This tollbooth is completely unresponsive—nothing functional here, it seems. I breathe deeply, forcing air into and out of my lungs. I turn to the truck driver behind me. I muster my most helpless and apologetic expression and I shrug, still holding my transponder in my hand.

He pauses for two seconds. Then motions for me to get back in my car, and he begins to slowly back up so I can switch to a lane with a real, live attendant. But not only does he back up, he angles his truck in such a way as to block any traffic that might be approaching. Oh, bless you! I think to myself. I roll down my window as I move over several lanes, and I wave my thanks.

“How many more tollbooths do we have to go through?” my daughter asks quietly.

I sigh, reluctant to tell her. “I think only one,” I say, keeping my tone low and tender.

It’s finally light out when the third—and final—tollbooth comes onto the horizon. The tension I feel from the passenger seat is pulling on my heart. I take a deep breath. “It will be fine,” I say by way of calming us both down. And it is. We sail right through. What? How is that possible? I glance in my rearview mirror, looking for answers that are not there. I take a deep breath and finally relax.

We survived and have had substantial time to decompress, and I am happy to share the lessons I gleaned from my not-so-good-morning at the tollbooth:

Don’t believe everything you hear or read on the Internet. We heard our toll transponder would work, but I checked the website to confirm. Even so, our transponder didn’t work exactly as we’d hoped.

Trust that people will work with you and rely on the kindness of strangers. For the most part, if people see you are in a tough situation, they generally offer their assistance. That could come as a helping hand, but it could also come as a truck driver backing up and blocking oncoming traffic so you can do what you need to do.

Always have an escape plan, or just a plan, in general Even if you don’t need it, it is good to have a plan in the back of your head. Just think, for a moment, about what you will do if you get stuck. What is it they say…? Anticipate the worst but hope for the best.

Be a calming force for those around you. Now in reality, I had no idea how we were going to get out of our predicament. But experience tells me that these things have a way of working themselves out. And after only a brief panic, they did work out. After all, when was the last time you heard of someone being permanently stuck in a tollbooth?

{Image: FreeImages.com / Travis Cripps}

Fridge Lock

It is interesting how conversations progress in my house, and how quickly things change.

A week ago, my son came home from college and in all honestly, he might not have eaten the entire time he was there. On one of his first days home, he was eating a container of apricot yogurt. I didn’t know he liked apricot yogurt, and there were other flavors in the fridge I thought he did like. So I mentioned to him that I had purchased the apricot for his brother.

At first, he stared at me as though I had somehow insulted him. Deeply. And then he marched to the fridge, threw open the doors, and said, “Tell me which food in here is mine, Mom. What has my name on it?” He made a sweeping motion with his hand, indicating the contents of the fridge. “Can you tell me? Because I see none.” He turned and looked directly at me, taunting me, daring me to answer him. I stared back. Then I smiled and shrugged, but I did not answer.

Fast forward to today. I purchased bagels earlier in the week at his urging, but today he complained, “There are no bagels left. I only ate one of them, and the rest disappeared.” He was disappointed. Somehow, he had forgotten that food tends to disappear in a house with three hungry teenagers. And my house doesn’t have the seemingly endless supply of food that he enjoyed in his college dining hall.

“We should put a lock on the fridge,” he proposed, apparently backing off on his open-refrigerator policy of just a few short days ago.

“And that would mean that only I would have access to the food,” I countered, suddenly recognizing what a great idea this might be to have complete control of the food.

“No… I would have access, too,” he told me. “I know about fridges. I majored in culinary in high school.”

I laughed. “Interesting thought, but that might cause more problems.” I imagined one of his siblings trying unsuccessfully to get into the fridge—even for a glass of water, and I shuddered.

Yes, the conversations change quickly around here. This afternoon, as I left the grocery store with a full cart, I said to my boyfriend, “There. Now I won’t have to come back for at least two days!” It seems it might be a long summer of frequent food shopping. Maybe a lock is not such a bad idea.

Image credit: FreeImages.com / Griszka Niewiadomski