Loss

Sometimes, I see something strange or out of place, and I am overcome with an inexplicable sadness. On Friday, I was out for my quick walk-before-work. A crispness has begun to creep into the air here in New Hampshire, and the cool morning temperatures are bittersweet. The close-to-home summer is coming to an end, and the leaves are beginning to turn color. The impending winter will bring more unknown to the year of the pandemic.

As I strode by the dumpster in my condo complex, I spotted a nearly new red tricycle abandoned near the fence. I felt an immediate ping of sadness. I recognized this tricycle, and in my mind, I could picture the joy on the face of the young rider. The previous evening, as I pulled onto my street after work, this tricycle was being enjoyed to the fullest. My young neighbor was speeding around our circle, laughing and giggling as his father and an older neighbor boy stood watch. Until dark, they stayed outside, talking, laughing, and engaging with each other and their neighbors in a way I hadn’t seen them do all summer.

Now, this tricycle was placed here for someone else to take, to use, and to love—a gift for another child. There is no doubt the next owner will make his or her own memories on this trike, speeding away from his or her parents and laughing all the while. The former owner and his family, off to new adventures thousands of miles away, crammed as much stuff as they could into a moving van and their two cars, but just couldn’t fit everything.

The sadness I am feeling is a sadness of loss—loss of innocence in the case of this toy. But increasingly in society, there are deep losses that affect all of humanity. Sure, there is the loss of the ability to navigate the world without consideration for virus and illness and germs, but we’re all figuring that out as we go. The losses that are hitting me the hardest are the loss of kindness, the loss of compassion, and the loss of humanity. These losses… they strike at the core of who we are as a people. They stand in the way of our ability to get along, to come together as a community, and to make the world a better place.

In this moment, the tricycle is symbolic of the all the things we’ve lost, and I wonder if we’ll ever be able to regain some of our childlike nature. We need to re-learn how to get along with people—a lesson from our very early days when we learned to share and take turns. Someday, I hope we can go back to approaching other people with curiosity rather than fear. With love rather than hate. And with joy rather than anger. I hope we can give other people—friend and stranger alike—the dignity and respect each of us deserves. Then, and only then, will we truly be able to live in harmony.

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}

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.

Unexpected Duties

Last evening, my son walked in the door from work as I was walking through the kitchen with a basket of dirty laundry. “If you want to give me your sweatshirt, I’ll toss it in with this load,” I told him. He unzipped his jacket and slipped it off. He started to throw it on the chair, but then changed his mind. He brought it to his nose and sniffed. But right now, he has a pretty bad cold. “I can’t smell anything.” He held it out to me. “Can you smell this and tell me if it needs to be washed?”

You know that parenting manual that we are all supposed to receive before we leave the hospital with our newly hatched babies? The manual that the hospital always forgets to give new parents? This particular task is in there. It’s in the chapter titled, “Unexpected Duties of Parenting.” This chapter contains all the things parents must do, but don’t know about. These are the Surprise! duties, some of which could be perceived as dangerous.

“Uck! This smells horrible! Smell it!” This exclamation is usually followed by some item or other being held out at arm’s length toward the unsuspecting (and thoroughly disgusted) parent.

“It’s really dark in there, Mom. Can you go first?” Yes, that’s definitely a good idea. I’ll go first and when whatever is in there eats me, you’ll be left here to fend for yourself. Good plan.

“Mom, I think the milk is sour. Taste it.” Ooo! That seems like such a great offer, but … no thank you, I’ll pass.

“I dropped my boat [fish net, stick, jacket… insert item here] in the pond, and now I can’t reach it. Come help me get it!” All “emergencies” like this one are delivered frantic and breathless. They often take all spur-of-the-moment creative resources a parent can muster to devise some plan, gather all of the possibly necessary items (stick, rope, rain boots, etc.), and run to retrieve the stray item.

Then there are the SCREAMS that emanate from the far reaches of the house at top vocal volume. With heart pounding, the parent will call out, “What’s happening?” The child who screamed replies, “MOM! There’s a bug in my room!” The parent, with pounding heart calming and eyes rolling, will say (as calmly as possible), “Well, kill it,” because that would be the logical thing to do, right? The panicked reply is always, “It’s HUGE, Mom! Please come, NOW!!”

Over the years, there are myriad forgotten items that have to be delivered to school after the morning’s frantic rush to get out the door and make the bus—lunches, schoolbooks, papers, projects, you name it.

All of this—from crazy requests to chaotic moments—is contained in that single chapter of the great, unseen parenting manual. It might be nice to know these duties are coming and expected. Then again, no one can predict when a child/teen/young adult might say, “Yuck, smell this!” So maybe these unexpected parenting duties have a purpose for us, as parents. Maybe these are simply tiny lessons in thinking on one’s feet and creative problem solving that, when strung together, make us stronger and more prepared for the bigger issues and the truly important parenting duties.

{Photo by Ben Wicks on Unsplash}

Drawing Memory

As I sort through the fifteen-plus years of stuff that has built up in my home, every now and then I come across interesting souvenirs from my children’s younger days. Slips of paper tucked long ago between the pages of notebooks, books, files.

Recently, as I sorted through a pile of old magazines, I came across a bin of notepads. Years ago, I had used these pads to write “lunch notes” to my oldest child. [By the time the others were eating lunch at school, life had become too harried and chaotic to continue this practice.] One pad was made up of sticky notes with sweet messages pre-printed on them. As I picked up this pad and began to flip through it, a small scrap of paper slipped from the pages and fluttered to the floor.

I bent over and picked it up. It held a drawing from that brief period where images begin to emerge from the early scribbles of a child. The drawing was a vehicle of some sort—the favorite subject of art for my youngest child. Memory drew me back in time, and I could see him sitting in the brightly colored booster seat that was strapped to one of the kitchen chairs. He was bent over the table, working studiously to create this picture. His blond head bobbed a bit as he drew, tipping this way and that as he created the perfect picture. His glasses slipped down his tiny nose, and he wrinkled his face to push them back up. Many days were spent in this position as he produced drawing after drawing.

When this now eighteen-year-old arrived home from work that night, I handed him the drawing. “Look what I found when I was cleaning this morning.”

“A tractor!” he said on first glance.

“Do you remember drawing that?” I asked him, amazed that he knew exactly what it was.

“It’s obviously a tractor, Mom. The big wheel in the back gives it away.”

Yup, silly me. “I hadn’t thought of that. So what’s this?” I turned the paper over to reveal another drawing and handed it back to him. On this side were three things that might possibly be cars. Each was connected to a line that ran willy-nilly across the page. A map? Directions? Lightning strikes? The image was crossed out, so it clearly was not the image of choice on this paper.

He smiled and shrugged. “I have no idea.” I took the paper from him

and tucked it back in the notepad. Someday, I would once again unearth this drawing. An

d I would take another trip through my memories to the time when a little blond boy would sit at the kitchen table and create drawings that I would puzzle over long after he’d grown.

Next time, I’ll tuck it into his box of memories, so it can become his puzzle. And maybe, before it winds up in the trash, it will give him a smile of memory.

Boredom

When I was a kid, summers were long and slow, and by mid-August, boredom had fully settled in. The long summer days had been filled with play and bike rides and make believe. We had spent time with friends and siblings and cousins—perhaps to the point of annoying each other. We had filled long nights with neighborhood hide-and-seek games that stretched well past dark. We had caught fireflies then set them free. We had grown Monarch butterflies from tiny caterpillars. We went to camp, and we read piles of books. We had spent long, lazy days in the pool until our lips turned blue. Picnics and bike rides, baseball games and kite-flying, watermelon and popsicles—we had done it all. We were bored. And we were ready to go back to school.

But in Massachusetts, where we started school after Labor Day, we still had many long days stretching out in front of us. And we had to fill them.

Being bored was never really a bad thing. Boredom instilled me with creativity. I thought up fun things to keep myself busy. I worked to create useful things from the items we had around our home. I learned to make craft items that people would use, giving me an eye for how shapes, colors, and textures worked together.

I became a deep thinker. In my boredom, I had grand daydreams in which I traveled the world and beyond, taking imaginative detours and side roads. I tried on different identities, playing pretend and dress-up, shedding my quiet personality and donning the cloak of someone more adventurous. I thought about the way the elements of my life fit together.

Boredom pushed me outside where I learned about nature. I watched caterpillars hatch from miniscule eggs and butterflies emerge from chrysalises. We rescued baby bunnies from the neighborhood cats, and nursed an oriole with a broken wing. I explored trails and woods and followed streams. Occasionally, I came to the end of the road and had to figure out where to go next.

Boredom gave me focus. It gave me time to reflect on who I was, what I wanted to do, and how I planned to get there. It forced me to think about which career options would be the best for me, my future plans, and how to deal with my thoughts about myself.

Boredom forced me to realize that life is not all that bad.

And now, as I watch kids focus on their phones, compulsively check messages, and interact with the people sitting next to them via text, I can’t help but think we’ve gotten pretty far off track. Maybe what we need is a little more boredom.

{Photo by Charlein Gracia 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}

De-Cluttering

Lately, I’ve been on a de-cluttering spree. And by “spree,” I mean I declutter a small area when I have a few free minutes, which is not very often.

But through my de-cluttering, I have found some good resources for donating, recycling, or repurposing the things I no longer want. There are organizations like Habitat and Goodwill, local organizations like churches and Scouts which take donations for fundraising rummage sales, and there are shelters and resources for the homeless or people trying to get back on their feet.

Lately, I’ve been using Facebook Marketplace to pass along some of the items I am uncovering in my decluttering. Just this week, I sold an item that my daughter thought she might just give away. When my son came downstairs one morning, I told him that the item on the kitchen table—which was taking up half the table—would be gone by the afternoon because I had sold it on Facebook.

“I’m not sure I like all these people you’re meeting on the Internet, Mom,” he stated disapprovingly. I laughed, not only because his words were funny, but because I had spent his lifetime cautioning all three of my children about meeting people on the Internet.

“No really,” he continued as he opened the front door to check the temperature. “I hope you don’t do that when we’re not around.” He went to the pantry and pulled out a box of cereal. He poured himself a bowl and started in on his breakfast without another word.

Kids, they are funny, aren’t they? But even several days later, I just can’t quite tell if he was trying to be funny. Or if he was completely serious, in which case, I am one lucky Mama.

{Photo by Simson Petrol on Unsplash}

Family Time

Yesterday, I was with my three nearly-grown children, and we stopped at Panera for lunch. At the table next to us was a young family. Mom and Dad were there with two young daughters—one about nine or ten going on sixteen, and a younger daughter of five or six. In the middle of the meal, Dad said good-bye and left to go to work. Mom stayed at the table with the girls while they all finished their lunch. As they sat there, it was hard not to notice that Mom’s cell phone was sitting on the table, loudly and regularly letting her know she had messages and notifications. Each time the phone alerted her, she looked down and responded.

Lately, I have noticed more and more parents interacting with their phones rather than their children. And I have heard from my children that many of their friends are on their own to make food at home, eating on the run, in their bedrooms, or in front of the television. So here’s my question: when are you spending uninterrupted quality time with your children? How do you show them that they are important and worthy of your time and undivided attention?

I have written about this before, but early in my parenting—and even when our family structure shifted, and I became a single parent—I established dinner together as a deeply important part of our day. This is the time when we come together as a family—and we are together for an important purpose: eating our evening meal. But dinnertime has become so much more over the years. Dinnertime is when we connect. We check in on each other. We talk about life, issues, morals, values, and what is happening in our individual lives and in the world. This meal has become a regular and expected time together as a family.

Now, I have two children in college, and they are home for the Christmas/winter break. Still, each night when I get home from work, we sit down together to consume our evening meal. We laugh, we talk, we eat. And now that they are older, we hash out political issues and share our views, we discuss environmental dilemmas, and we weave together the fundamental pieces of our day into an intricate tapestry that solidifies our family connection.

The unwritten rule, and one that is mostly followed, is that there are no devices at the table. This is family time, and devices are a distraction. Constantly looking at a device and responding to notifications demonstrates that we are not giving others our undivided attention. And it pulls us apart rather than bringing us closer.

And so… about childhood—this is time you will not get back. Establish a daily time to put away your devices and sit down with your children. Talk to them. Listen to them. Learn from them. They are amazing little people who will grow up to become wonderful adults. And those adults will need to know how to connect—deeply and meaningfully—with others. Scheduling some daily time to connect with family can make all the difference.

Believing in Magic

Navigating the many aspects of childhood can be an interesting journey. There are a million situations in which kids walk a line between the reality of the world and some magical thoughts of their own making (or the making of society), simply because their imaginations allow them to believe in magic. Santa. The Easter Bunny. The Tooth Fairy. This list is lengthy.

Recently, when I was sorting through some (very) old papers, I came across a reminder of my previous parenting life, back when all three of my children still had one foot firmly planted in the magical, and it was my job—as a parent—to make sure the magic remained for as long as possible. But as a single parent, things didn’t always go smoothly.

After all, perpetuating magic is a difficult job. Everything we say… everything we do… it’s all being registered by the little ones around us, even when we don’t know they are listening. Magic takes careful planning, much thought, attention to detail, and a lot of work. It is no wonder, then, that sometimes we slip up.

The note I recently uncovered reminded me that the Tooth Fairy forgot to come. It was one of those moments when I was—no doubt—jolted awake in the early morning hours when I realized that I had forgotten my role in the magic just a bit too late. Despite my best intentions, I had failed. Instead, I had to make up a story about why the Tooth Fairy didn’t come, and some blending of various reasons came out. Unlike Santa, the Tooth Fairy can’t always get to every house…. Teeth are heavy, and if she collects too many teeth one night, she has difficulty flying….

Really, I don’t remember the story I made up, but it seemed to be enough as the child in question believed me. And somehow, over the years, I was able to instill just enough lasting magic—despite occasional slip-ups—that a bit lingers in my now grown children. Because if you think about it, shouldn’t everyone hold onto a little bit of magic in their lives?