Piece by Piece

Pieces of an intricate antique puzzle

I have become the keeper of the puzzles. These puzzles, they are very old, yet nearly new. They are barely used, but they’ve been saved for decades, tucked away in a box under the eaves in the attic, a treasure long ago forgotten. They were created with great care and attention to detail back at a time when all things were created this way.

These puzzles are the definition of jigsaw puzzle—cut from a sheet of thin plywood. They are in boxes that look like standard gift boxes, some red, some white, and some off-white, weathered and stained. They come with no photo of what they will look like when they are assembled. Hundreds of pieces. No photo.

That’s right… the puzzles of yesteryear were sold without a guide, so when you first remove the pieces from the box, you have no idea what goes where. Color won’t help you other than grouping like-colored pieces together. Pattern is irrelevant. Even the edge pieces—or the pieces that appear to be edges—could be assembled upside down before the orientation is slowly revealed. It is only in the process that the end-product starts to make sense. Piece by piece.

As I put these puzzles together, I have realized they are much like life. We did not arrive here on Earth with a guide. There is no manual for many of the things we experience as we travel our journey. There is no map or even a sign to point us in the right direction. We are simply left to figure it out as we go.

The pieces we discover along the way are random—sometimes they fit, and sometimes they don’t. Most of the time, the pieces make sense. We can see their colors and shape, where they fit—and how—as soon as we discover them. Their edges slide seamlessly into the bigger picture. Sometimes, the pieces are here for a time, and then we discover that their angles are too sharp, their picture is too dark, or the color disrupts the environmet we are creating. And every now and then, we acquire a piece we don’t want, that absolutely doesn’t fit, but we are forced to make it fit. We must do the work to smooth the edges and reshape the experience, so we can work it into our lives and find a place where it not only fits but somehow enhances the whole.

As we move through life picking up pieces, we need to remain open to possibilities, and we need to draw upon the vast array of resources we have accumulated. The more of life we have traveled and the more experiences we’ve endured, the closer we may be to figuring out how to proceed with the next piece—unexpected or not—that we stumble upon. If we are having difficulty with one piece or other, we can lean on those around us for support. They may have dealt with a similar piece, and they can share how they eventually got it to fit in their own puzzle.

No, there is no guide to this on-going challenge we call life. But with patience, persistence, a lot of work, and a little bit of luck, all of the pieces will eventually fall into place in a way that is far more beautiful than you could ever imagine.

Fork in the Road

The other day when I was out on my early morning walk, I happened to walk by a fork in the road. It was just there, in the middle of the road, tines up. And it happened to be directly in front of several not-quite-middle-school kids who were on the side of the road waiting for their bus. I stopped, took a couple steps backwards, and used my foot to brush-kick the fork over to the curb. The fork complained in a metal-on-pavement clangy whine.

“No one should run that over now,” I said, as much to myself as to the kids in the grass.

“Is that a fork?” one of them asked as he took a step closer and stretched his neck out to see what was resting just beyond the curb.

“Yes,” I replied. “Kind of silly, isn’t it? A fork in the road?” I would’ve kept going, pushing the puns, but I have enough experience with kids these days to know that wordplay is not really something that most families engage in anymore. In fact, conversation among family members is something that doesn’t happen nearly as much as it should thanks to all of the distractions of life.

As I walked on, I could hear the boy in the background yelling to his mother. “Hey mom! There’s a fork over here! Can you believe that?”

How sad, I thought, that he missed such a great opportunity to expound on the fork and its location. Meanwhile, as I walked, my mind was racing with possibilities. A fork in the road! How odd would it be if you had to tell someone you popped your tire on a fork in the road?

Random Ramblings on a Rainy Evening…

Lately, I have been having trouble carrying a thought beyond a few short sentences to something whole that has potential. Because I have been unable to get to potential, I have countless ideas sitting undeveloped in dark corners of my mind and in documents on my desktop. These ideas, they seemed promising when they arose, but they fizzled and died before they took root. I suppose you could say I have been dabbling in dead thoughts for many months.

There have been a couple of live thoughts… BIG thoughts that gain momentum without my attention as they rattle around in my brain. These are thoughts I have been trying to ignore—putting them off until I have time to sit with them, cultivate them, tame them. They take up lots of space in my head, and they’ve settled in as if they are teenagers on a couch, gangly limbs splayed every which way, leaving little room for anyone else. Or any thought else. Before long, they will take over as they cast aside empty plates and cups in their attempt to quell their insatiable appetite. These out-of-control thoughts… they could use some nurturing.

Nurturing takes time, and these are not simple thoughts. They are project thoughts—undertakings, really—that need to be planned and implemented with the greatest of care. Or maybe they demand attention so I will implement them sooner rather than sitting on them forever, as I am wont to do. Whatever the issue, they are taking up a massive and increasing amount of my limited headspace.

And speaking of headspace… it has been an interesting reentry to a back-to-nearly-normal school schedule. If you don’t work around a great many people, you might not truly appreciate what social distance had to offer. I am a relative introvert—a reluctant socializer—and I took great comfort in the need for social distance. But this year, not so much. This year brings a lack of restriction that is uncomfortable and overwhelming in so many ways. Students have slid right back into the need to be up close—in my office, in my space, in my face, and sitting elbow-to-elbow. There is no question those Covid germs will make it across the few-inch span to my air-space. My random ramblings started earlier this evening, as I worked on a recommendation for a student. I was thinking back to the fall of 2019 when she sat in my class. Two years ago, we had no idea what was coming. Truth: you never see upheaval until it knocks on your door and stares you in the face, stares you down, and scares you beyond measure. In two years, we have learned there is much to be gained from upheaval. There is so much strength to be found in the broken pieces as they mend and heal.

Something Good

Tell me something good that happened today.

I have been struggling to pull my thoughts together—to come up with some inspiration for writing. It has been too long. There is so much negative energy in the world these days that finding the positive and the good is often a challenge. The negative has kept my creativity from flowing freely.

But you see, as in the case of a river, the water must flow. It flows around rocks and boulders, carving its own path, sometimes re-routing around barriers in its way. If we build a dam to hold back the flow, the water will find a way. It will collect in a pond or lake, flowing outward. Or it will gather so much power that the dam will break, flooding the towns and villages below and washing away the very people who tried to restrain it.

Creativity is much like a river. It flows regardless of whether it is being restrained or inhibited. It is fluid and sometimes fickle. Lately for me, creativity has come like grains of sand, tiny snippets that capture my attention but evade my grasp. If only I could write about an image or idea that passed through my mind or that story not fully formed in my head. If only….

As I start to write, to flesh out an idea, my mind fills with the negative that inundates us from the daily news. It sneaks in and takes hold, permeating my thoughts and squelching my creative flow. Covid cases are rising. Political unrest is growing. Power hungry political leaders are taking over. Corporate greed. Impending climate disaster. Economic crises—all sensationalized by the news that streams 24/7 from our TVs, our computers, and even our phones. And that’s just the list of global disasters. There is also the national list, the local, the family, the personal.

And so I say, “Tell me something good that happened today.” Because logically, I know there is more good than bad. Good people doing good things are quiet people who don’t get attention because they don’t demand attention. And good news doesn’t translate into corporate revenue. Good things are happening—on a personal level, a family level, a local, national, and global level. Good things are happening, and we need to shift our focus. When we shift, creativity flows. We can see our way out of the situations we have gotten into. We can allow the solutions, consider alternative perspectives, analyze our positions—and those of others. When we shift our focus to the good, we recognize our role as an individual in a greater whole. When we shift our focus, we are more likely to work for the good of all.

So… tell me something good that happened today. Or yesterday. Or this week. Let’s open the floodgates and let the good wash over us.

Tell me something good that happened today.

Go Easy

As you move through your day, ticking off items on your to-do list, go easy on yourself. Do the things you need to do—go to work, pick up your children, make meals, etc.—but prioritize. Many of these items can wait a day… a week… even a year. If you don’t sweep the floor today, the dust will still be there tomorrow.

As you look in the mirror at the end of a long day, go easy on yourself. Every line, every wrinkle, every scar and bit of saggy skin, every gray hair, the eye puffiness… these tell your story. They are parts of the whole picture that is you… that is your life. There is the scar from the time you had stitches or surgery; the crooked where your broken bone healed not-quite-right.  The increasing gray hairs and wrinkles are from the love you poured into worry over a child who is struggling to find his way or an elderly parent who is navigating life alone for the first time. There is the softness of years taking over the activity and fitness of youth. This is your story reflected back from the mirror. You are your story. A story of love, of struggle, and of accomplishments big and small. Honor your struggle and your successes.

Go easy on yourself as you rewind the memories of the past. Perhaps this morning’s meeting or presentation didn’t go as well as you would’ve liked. Now, you are hyper focused on the things you said or didn’t say. You are playing the tape over and over in your mind as 20-second sound bites, each time like the strike of a whip to your soul. Or perhaps it was something you did as a kid that you regret. So many years ago that there is no doubt you are the only one who remembers. Yet it is burned in your brain as a failure. There is no use replaying the past in this way, beating yourself up over something you cannot change. Rewrite the meeting, the memory with how you should’ve handled the situation or what you will do differently next time. Play that script for a while then let it go. Focus on the best way to carry on while releasing the pain or disappointment and move forward. One step at a time. Build a better immediate future through thoughtful reflection, learn from the past, and keep going.

Go easy on yourself if you are not getting out in the world in the way you would like. If you say “no” to outings with friends when you really want to go out more, consider why. Maybe you’re more of a homebody. If you don’t jump at opportunities to push yourself, don’t fret. We all have a preference for what is comfortable. We choose to stay home and stream Netflix rather than meet up with new people or climb a mountain that might challenge our body and soul. Set a new goal—that you will do one thing each month that challenges you. Once you are comfortable with that one challenge, think about whether you want to increase the goal to twice a month. Or once a week. Pretty soon, you will have greater confidence—whether in doing new things or knowing you’re fine as you are. You will stretch your knowledge of yourself and grow in new directions.

Go easy on yourself and take your time. It does not matter what other people can do faster or better or stronger or more efficiently. What matters is what you can do. Your talents, your skill, your way of doing things—these matter. Your perspective and your opinions are part of a greater whole—they add to the big picture. Maybe someone read the book faster than you, but you came away with the one sentence or idea that will make a difference… for you, for the world, or for that one person who needs help.

Go easy on yourself. If we take our time and stay true to ourselves, we can gain from our experiences what we most need so we can offer those skills and talents to others later. Trust in the process. Know you are doing fine, and you are making a difference. Give yourself a break. Go easy and rest.

#GoEasy #Rest #Reflect

Step Away

I have taken some time to step away… step away and observe the world around me, the people, and the ways we interact. The way we are right now? I am not impressed.

I believe social media—for all its ability to keep us connected—is pushing us apart. We focus too much on what others are doing and saying. We don’t think we measure up. We think we have to have what everyone else has, do what everyone else does, and be like everyone else. Social media has taken the idea of “Keeping up with the Joneses” to a whole new level.

Social media, at its worst, makes people envious and angry, boastful and proud. Social media allows people a forum to lash out, to vent their own insecurities to some unsuspecting victim because they need to lash out. And let’s be real—nobody on social media should be unsuspecting.

But I’m curious about this “keeping up with the Joneses” thing.  Why is it we feel we need what other people have—things that are likely not even the best for us?

What if you found out that what the Joneses have has come at a price, and that price has been steep. Come to find out, Mr. Jones has a drinking problem, and Mrs. Jones has turned to other outlets to fulfill her emotional needs. They no longer have a connection, and their marriage is unraveling from the inside out. These details… they are conveniently left off of social media. Because these details are not flashy and sexy. These details don’t make the Joneses look good. Not at all.

But these details are there. Behind everyone’s social media front, there are the down and dirty details they don’t want their friends to know. An everyday “normal” they don’t want their followers to see.

So I would say this. Step away from social media for a while. Take some time to think about all the things you have. Consider your blessings. If you need to, sit down and write out a list. Having a physical, tangible list of your blessings will allow you to recognize all that you have. It will allow you to regularly review your blessings just by rereading the list. And it might just begin to shift your mindset from envious and longing to grateful and fulfilled.

This is your journey, not that of the Joneses or your friend or your neighbor. It is up to you to set goals that fit into your life. It is up to you to consider and recognize the next best move to make, the next best step to take. It is up to you to recognize all that you have and all that you are. It is up to you to be happy.

Make the move you need to make for happiness to begin to bloom. That might be something as simple as being thankful, making a list of your blessings, or talking to someone about something that has been bothering you. Keep a gratitude journal. Whatever you need to do, go out and start now. Don’t sit around and wait for happiness to come to you. Take action. I guarantee you, happiness—true happiness—will not be found on social media.

I remember…

…when I first learned how to read. I was sitting on a bench by the door in my kindergarten classroom. It was warm outside—fall or spring, I’m not sure which. The door to the playground was open because it may or may not have been recess time, and the sunlight streamed in. My feet couldn’t reach the floor, so they were swinging—no doubt with a little help from me, the constant fidgeter.

I had a Dick and Jane book open on my lap. It was the green book, and Dick, Jane, and Spot were running across the cover, but I could be making up the color and picture from books I’ve seen since that day.

But that moment, I remember it like it was yesterday. There was a bit of chaos in the classroom as children came and went through the open door. The teacher was standing there coordinating the chaos. But I was focused on the book. It was as if suddenly, the work I had been doing to learn the letters and decipher written language suddenly all came together and there they were—words on the page! Meaning in the squiggles. I could read! Spot and Dick and Jane, they were playing and having fun right here inside my book. The puzzle had been solved. Suddenly, the rest of my life opened up before me like the book on my lap.

These Days

These days, I don’t always know whether I am coming or going—a feeling that is, no doubt, a result of having my schedule ripped away and cast to the wind. It’s a disorienting feeling—the pieces don’t fit together as seamlessly as they once did. The pieces of daily life feel loose and rattly, like a few screws need to be tightened in order to set the world back on its right trajectory. I am doing my best to stay grounded.

These days, I look for reassurance and grounding in the little things—tangible evidence that I have completed a task, continued to move forward, that I am surviving (though maybe not thriving) in a challenging world. Colorful dishes full of leftovers in the fridge indicate that I made dinner last night, that it wasn’t just a dream. And they provide information on what I made so I don’t have a repeat performance tonight. I never used to rely on the visual because I always had a plan. Now, it seems, most of the things I do are on a wing and a prayer. Everything seems to be holding together so far….

These days, pandemic life has created a certain degree of turmoil through which I stumble without feeling. My awareness, once fairly acute, fails me on a daily basis. I am forgetful and unfocused as I attempt to remain on track to check items off my to-do list.

These days, I cannot make it through without a daily check list. I complete one item, and I move on to the next. Check—done! Next? I would not remember all I have to do if I didn’t write it down when I think of it. Am I suffering from the effects of age or the pandemic? Write it down, cross it off. I move down the list with a robotic accuracy, writing and crossing off, lest anything be forgotten.

These days have been difficult. We don’t have the consistency of the schedule we have followed for years and years without interruption. My work-life is built around the school year—the same schedule I’ve followed since I was five or maybe younger—but this year, it is different. We are creatures of habit and routine and orderliness. Our schedules have been ripped from us—along with our plans, our projects, our dreams, etc.—and held in suspension just a little too high for us to grasp. When we are finally able to regain all that we have lost, we know life will no longer be the same.

These days are hard, but they will pass. One day, this will all be a distant memory, and our grandchildren will look at us with fascination as we tell them about the COVID pandemic of 2020. In the meantime, I am trying hard to tap into my patience, my persistence, and a little bit of resilience. These are the tools that are going to be most useful in getting through these days.

Photo by Jared Murray on Unsplash

Simplicity

Recently, I was on a social media site, and I saw a picture of a pinecone in a tiny pot sprouting itty bitty pine trees. This picture was astonishing to me, both in its cuteness, and in its simplicity. The idea that I could take something as generally disregarded as a pinecone, put it in some dirt, and watch it grow captured my attention.

Not long after seeing this picture—on one of only a smattering of gorgeous spring days we’ve experienced—I stepped out for a walk during lunch. Rather than walking toward the road, I chose to walk to the back of our building. I had only a couple minutes to enjoy the warmth and the sunshine, and the grassy yard was calling to me. The ground under the pine trees was littered with beautiful, perfect pinecones. I’m going to try to grow one! I thought to myself, so I picked one up and brought it inside.

One of my students immediately discounted my idea to grow it. “It’s so dry,” she commented. “I can’t imagine anything growing out of that.” But then again, that is the miracle of a seed, isn’t it? That an object so small and dry and seemingly worthless can sprout life and become something as majestic as a tree.

Maybe my little pinecone will grow a seedling, and maybe it won’t. But I’m going to give it a try. I’m feeling a need for simplicity and growth in my life.

And if this pinecone does grow, maybe it really would be just a little bit of a miracle.

Blink

Over the years, we have hit milestones with the regularity of the thump of a flat tire. Thump… thump… thump…. At first, it’s kind of reassuring to know that your child is hitting all the important milestones. But recently, it seems the car is speeding up and the milestones thump by faster and faster—at an alarming rate of speed, really. And this week, my daughter completed—and submitted—her first college application. Breathe.

These monumental occasions always give me pause and compel me to take a quick (or leisurely) inventory of the years that have come and gone. This most recent milestone hints at the small amount of time I have before she is off and testing her wings.

The early years of single parenthood are still vividly etched in my memory. I spent the days looking in the rearview mirror, counting heads in the backseat of the car. As the one parent of three very small children—all under five—I was always afraid that in my sleep-deprived state, I would leave one behind. Maybe one slipped by me somehow, and was still hiding in a store in the mall. Perhaps someone went to use the potty and was in the bathroom finishing up, or worse, didn’t get in the car and was standing in the driveway in a puddle of tears wondering why I left without him/her. In those early years, that fear never fully dissipated.

I blinked and we were in a new house in a new neighborhood with new friends and a new school. Little hands reached for mine with regularity. A hand to hold; a hand to help; a hand to lead the way. Those were days of constant attention and discovery and learning. There were toys and games and books and building and dancing and crafts. LOTS of crafts.

And then I blinked.

And the day came when they were all in school, mornings first and then full days. The school bus rumbled up the hill in the morning and swallowed them up. I would watch as the bus drove off up the road and out of sight before I ran home to switch to “adult” mode and be on my way to work. In the early days, I was home from work for 3:15, always needing to beat the bus to meet the kids so they were supervised and transported to the activity of the day. Always rushing so I wouldn’t be late.

Until I blinked.

The kids were able to ride the bus to their activities. My work hours increased, and an after school sitter took on some of my role. Extra keys were made and cell phones purchased and the kids further shaped their identities as they took their first tentative steps toward independence.

I blinked again, and now they are nearly through high school. They will be out on their own soon, with jobs and lives that take them all in different directions. That doesn’t mean my job is done. A mother’s work is never done, is it?

Just don’t blink.