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}

Disappointment

Today, we are introducing the newest and most prevalent of flavors for 2020: DISAPPOINTMENT. This new flavor will be the one to taint everything in your life this season. It is the flavor of pumpkin, but instead of the normal cinnamon-sweet spices, it’s tinged with a hint of bitter licorice and way more salt than is necessary. After all, 2020 has been nothing if not salty. This new flavor is not the best combination, but it’s not the worst, exactly. That’s what makes it disappointment.

Disappointment is the flavor you will get when you send your child to school on the first day. You spend the morning reveling in your time alone—the first time in six months! You decide you might be able to get used to this again, but when your child walks in the door at the end of the day, he is carrying a mask you don’t recognize because he traded the one you sent with him for one he liked better.

Disappointment is the flavor of the day when you arrive at college (or high school or middle school) only to determine that nothing, and I mean nothing, is the same as it was when you left. The hallways have one-way traffic mimicking the aisles in the grocery store. The furniture in the lounge and common areas has been removed, and meals are now a grab-and-go affair—there is no sitting with your friends at your favorite table. Disappointment is all you can taste.

Disappointment will run through your veins and ooze out your pores when all the plans you made—for fall and the holidays—are cancelled, yet again. These are the plans you made while you sat at home twiddling your thumbs all spring and summer, itching to go out. Cancelled. Because, as it turns out, children can catch COVID; they can spread it faster than runny peanut butter, and in fact, they are itty-bitty super-spreaders.

Disappointment is the flavor that rolls around on your tongue when you need to do something different. As you scroll your social media, you see pictures of your friends at the beach, camping with large groups of “family,” attending parties and weddings and large rallies, and you want to be out there, too. You wonder, did I dream the whole pandemic thing? Because you just don’t feel like all those options are available to your cautious self.

Disappointment finds its way in the when you venture out to eat a meal at your favorite venue. It’s the first time that you and your friends/family are all available, so you arrange to meet up for dinner. But the clear skies that have prevailed for a month have clouded over and it’s pouring rain. The only available tables are the ones that are outside and not under one of the small tents.

Disappointment leaves its licoricey bitterness when you are driving an hour from home for an event. Halfway there—and too far from home—you realize you forgot your required mask, and you kick yourself because you have been so good about remembering. And now you’ll have to spend hours in a disposable mask that smells vaguely of sweaty socks.

Disappointment leaves the sharpest aftertaste when you travel three hours to check in on your mother. You confine yourself to a small space just inside the door of your childhood home. When, after a few hours of conversation, you turn to leave, you remember you cannot hug your mom good-bye.

If you get sick of the taste of disappointment, think about new and unusual ways you can enjoy the fall, despite the restrictions posed by the coronavirus. Gather school supplies to donate to a local charity. Join some friends for a bonfire and s’more making. Host an apple-picking party or an outdoor crafting/pumpkin carving party. Go on a hike or bike ride. Create something new.

Disappointment may be the overwhelming flavor of fall, but CREATIVITY and OPPORTUNITY are amazing flavors that will wash away the bitterness of disappointment.

{Photo by Pedro da Silva on Unsplash}

Rock Bottom

On the way to Rock Bottom, we encounter a number of valuable lessons that we will need for our long journey back. It is our job to notice these lessons and put them into practice. We need only look around, pay attention, and engage in self-examination and examination of society to find them.

On the way to Rock Bottom, we are given glimpses of who we are and of what we have become. We have ample opportunity to see our failings—one after the other—as they pass us by on our journey. We see flashes of indiscretion, indecency, and arrogance that have seeped into our everyday lives. Most importantly, the hatred that has tainted the edges of our lives rears its ugly head in a way that is no longer deniable. The hatred will launch us farther and faster toward Rock Bottom than we ever knew possible.

On the way to Rock Bottom, there is injustice, violence, and fear. If we are not strong and brave, these things will render us incapable of moving and of turning around. They will paralyze us, and we will continue our descent rather than stand up and fight our way back upward and away from Rock Bottom.

On the way to Rock Bottom, we are offered innumerable ways (and means) to fix what is broken. We are able to stand up for what we believe in. We are offered opportunities to be kind. We are confronted with situations where we can respect others. We are expected to be humble and listen and share in the experiences of others—experiences we can’t possibly know because they are not our experiences. On the way to Rock Bottom, humanity is exposed, rough and ragged and raw.

On the way to Rock Bottom, there are many diverging paths that will allow us to stray from the unpleasant and undesirable destination. We can open our eyes wide enough to see that Rock Bottom is where we are headed, but not where we want to go. We can open our hearts to show love to others. We can open our minds to reach out, lend a hand, and stand up for someone who is not able to stand up for themselves.

The closer we get to Rock Bottom, the harder it is to see the light. But the good news is that on the way to Rock Bottom, we can step up and do the important work we need to do to prevent us from reaching the uncomfortable destination. This will save us work in the long run. When we step up, we will have no choice but to rebuild, but we will have something left. We will need to rework what we thought we had and who we thought we were, but we are reworking with some pieces still intact.

On the way to Rock Bottom, look for the signs—they are all around you. Let go of the hate—it has taken hold in society. See the humanity—it is everywhere—and act on it. Dig deep. Protect other humans as if they are your own children, your family, because in many ways, they are. We are one big family. And we must act now before we hit Rock Bottom.

The good news (if there is good news on the way to Rock Bottom) is that if we actually reach Rock Bottom, the only way to look is UP!

{Photo by Yannis Papanastasopoulos on Unsplash}

A Million Moving Parts

Recently, one of our country’s leaders stood in front of an audience of many (including the television audience) and proclaimed his wife to be an expert at reopening schools in the face of a deadly pandemic. His wife had been a school-teacher for 25 years. A national leader actually said that a school teacher is “the best expert he knows” in this field.

Now, I have been a teacher for a very long time. Longer, in fact, than this spouse-proclaimed “expert,” and all I can say is there are no experts in what we have to do. And, in fact, this politician’s statement backs up that fact. If his spouse is “the best expert he knows,” he is clearly admitting there are no experts in reopening schools in the face of a deadly pandemic.

Meanwhile, school administrators started the discussion of reopening in the fall months ago—when they first decided they needed to remain closed for the spring. The farther we get into the summer, the more pressing our discussions become on how and when schools can open safely, keeping in mind the U.S., sans any credible and unified leadership on the pandemic, is facing an out-of-control spike in virus cases.

Let’s take a step back and take a breath. We need to examine this very challenging situation and approach it with the humility it deserves as well as a desire to learn and grow. Let’s work to create a plan that future generations of this country will thank us for because they will be able to learn from what we do and adapt it to their own situation when the time comes.

There are a million moving and constantly changing parts involved in reopening schools in a pandemic. Health needs to be top priority—health of students, teachers, and staff and of all individuals in the building. Some of those individuals will be immunocompromised, and plans need to in place to consider the most vulnerable individuals. There is the need and ability for social distance, and there are mask requirements. There is P.E. and lunch and classes and passing in the hallways. There are games on the playground, playground equipment and toys, the nurse’s office, and the buses. There is story time in the library, art class, and computer education and shared computers. There is a teacher’s need to comfort crying children. There are daily health screenings and temperature checks. And there is the mental strain that all of this will take on the entire population of the building, the school district, and the community. And there is the constant reality that one case of COVID in a school building could throw the entire system completely off track.

The people who are making the decisions on reopening—these are people at the school district level who truly care about children. They are not making these decisions lightly. They are agonizing over how to do this and do it right, and we need to support them. We need to know that if they don’t feel it can be done safely, it probably can’t be. Even they are not experts. There are no experts. But they know their schools, they know the guidelines and restrictions, and they know what might be a workable way to reopen, even partially. We need to accept their expertise and acknowledge that our school administrators are incredibly brave pioneers. No doubt, plans will include flexibility for online education should we choose to keep our children home.

What we need right now is patience and understanding. What we need right now are leaders and leadership. We don’t need a federal government that is threatening to strip funding from schools that don’t reopen on schedule. We need regional think-tank groups made up of school administrators and staff who can brainstorm, throw out issues others may not have thought of, and work together to contribute to plans that are flexible and fluid and consider as many of the million moving parts as possible. Though knowing school personnel and how they work together in the best of times, I am sure those already exist in an informal way.

What we need right now are leaders who are willing to recognize there are no experts, step down from the podium, take off their jackets, roll up their sleeves and say, “How can I help?”

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}

Moments, Masks, and Missions

There is much to be said of the experience of living life. This whole slowing down thing has changed the focus of so many of us. Before the coronavirus shut-down, we were focused on some imaginary mission—reaching our goals, our children’s educational and athletic achievements, amassing money—that we forgot what it’s like to live. We hustled our children from one activity to another. They played baseball and soccer, participated in Scouts and dance, they painted and played a musical instrument. Until that all came to a screeching halt.

And now, we’re faced with a different reality. What would happen if we let our children (and ourselves) have some unstructured time? What would happen if we all had time to think and breathe and not be constantly scheduled for every minute of the day? What if we gave our children time to come up with their own activities? Time to fill in whatever way they see fit. What would happen then?

If we continue to schedule our lives so full—to carry out some imaginary mission of productivity at all cost, we are not allowing ourselves to live life. We are not teaching our children what it is like to pay attention to the world around them and be with themselves. We are not allowing them to experience what life throws at them. We don’t expect them to reach because we are doing the reaching for them. We are not expecting them to figure out solutions to their problems because we are finding solutions before they even have problems. We are not teaching them to fit their mission to their life. Because they are living our mission and not their own.

This weekend, my son became a college graduate. Just like that. No fanfare, no diploma, no walk across the stage, no ceremony. One minute he was hunkered over the computer finishing up assignments that had been four years in the making, and the next minute, he was a college graduate.

And on Saturday morning, we were faced with the task of creating a special day and making our own memories, however simplistic and disappointing. He donned his cap and gown, and we ventured out into the windy, snowy, never-a-dull-weather-moment that is New England in May, and we took pictures. Proud college graduation pictures. In some, he is wearing a face mask, lest we ever forget what upended his senior year and his college graduation. And when we went inside, we feasted on homemade chocolate cake.

Life is not in all the things we try to cram into our schedules. Life is in the moments—in the deep daily living. It’s in the things that go wrong and the manner in which we rise to the challenge to address them. It’s in the ways we grow and the lessons we learn. Life is not in the mission to accomplish, but in the mission to learn and improve and grow. Life is in the mission to live fully and to make the best of every situation.

Just in case…

Just in case you need to hear this today, you are doing great. As you sit in your home and look in on your friends and connections on social media—the ones who seem to be rocking quarantine—you need to know, we are all struggling in our own way. We all have different coping mechanisms for dealing with this isolation and lock down. Some of us are sitting home binging on Netflix, and others are purging and redecorating their homes, room by room. You are doing what you need to do right now, and you are doing great.

Just in case you need to hear this, you are beautiful. Perhaps you got up this morning and donned jeans and a sweater, put on makeup, ate a good breakfast, and did something productive throughout the day. Or maybe, you rolled out of bed at noon (or later), didn’t comb your hair, had a breakfast pop-tart, and spent the day in your jammies. Regardless, you are beautiful.

Just in case you don’t know, you are awesome. All that you are doing to get through your isolation, this is what you need to be doing. You are making an effort to keep it together day after day in unpredictable circumstances. The people around you might not be joyous every day ago because they, too, are trying their best to handle the circumstances of our current world. Whatever you are doing to deal with your isolation and quarantine, you are doing your best.

Right now, as we work through our situations, each on our own and in our own ways, we are more exposed than ever. We are more real than ever. The beautiful, wonderful mess that is life is on display daily for each of us to deal with and for those on Zoom to see.

No matter what you have on display, no matter if you are having a good day or a bad day, just know you are loved and needed and cared for. Know that people rely on you for a smile, a kind word,

Just in case you have forgotten, you matter.

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.

The View from Here

The view from here is very different than it was a couple weeks ago. We have now been in social distance mode for just under two weeks—far less time than most of the world. We knew it was coming—we watched it sweep slowly across the globe on its way.

That doesn’t make the view from here any brighter. We are broken people in a society that is also severely broken. In our attempts to deal with this global pandemic, we need to come together—work together and protect one another. But we can’t.

Because the view from here looks out over a broad chasm that has been growing and deepening and pushing us farther apart. We have forgotten that we are one humanity in a global environment, and we are stronger when we band together and create a united front. We will always be stronger together.

We have forgotten that life is not about all the things we want in this life and how we will get them, no matter the cost. We have forgotten that most of the “things” we possess don’t matter, especially when weighed against human health and life itself. Even in our isolation, we continue to buy and buy and buy to the point of hoarding because “enough” is a concept our society ignores as it pushes spending and materialism and greed as a way to promote a “healthy” economy.

We have filled our lives with material things. We have been so conditioned to look outward for happiness and acceptance and validation that we have lost sight of the most important element—what we are feeling on the inside. Who we are. The very traits that make us special and unique and individual—these have been cast aside for too long. They have been stomped down and buried deep inside ourselves as we live a life that is filled to the brim with a busy-ness dictated by society. Most of us—we aren’t even truly happy anymore.

The view from here is not in touch with the things that matter. It is weighed down by all the lies society has been telling us for decades. The expectations we are supposed to live up to. We are tired and weary. The burden weighs on us, and we are struggling to break free.

But the view from here—it is quiet and lonely. We are in a period of grieving all that we have lost or perceive we have lost. We are grieving what we may lose. And we are grieving all the changes our society will face—changes that we just can’t fathom from this particular vantage point. But if we take the time to really look and examine our lives, the view from here may be (dare I say) just a little peaceful.

While we may be feeling overwhelmingly burdened by our current situation, the view from here may shift, giving us a glimpse of elements of peace, simplicity, and kindness. It is quite possible that with a bit of time and a new perspective, the view from here might just be the soil in which we begin to change and blossom.

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}