The Box

Photo by Kelli McClintock on Unsplash 

Sometimes in life, we get stuck.

We do the same thing every day. We see the same people. We eat the same foods. We go to the same places. One day, we look up and realize we haven’t been venturing out of our box. Not in a long time. And we think, Maybe, just maybe, it’s time.

Admittedly, my box has gotten a bit smaller in these past two years. My home is my haven, and I have purposely tried to stay away from people and public events as much as possible. After all, I am with student-people every day, working shoulder to shoulder as we share a document or a computer screen.

But my box is small, and it’s getting too tight around the edges. I have to curl myself up and squish myself in to fit, and to be honest, the air has grown stuffy and stale. The scenery is bleak and unchanging. It’s time to stretch… up and out.

Outside my box, I know grand adventure awaits. Plans have been forming, evolving, coming together, to move beyond the confines of my box. My plans are full of light and energy. They will pose challenge and choice and adventure. But these plans are carefully laid and well-timed. These plans are mine and mine alone, though I might bring others along with me. And perhaps, others will bring me along—maybe willingly and maybe kicking and screaming. There is no doubt adventure awaits. I must simply muster the courage to step outside my box and break free.

Lost

Photo by Dunamis Church on Unsplash 

When I look back on 2021, I will remember this as the year I lost my way.   

At the beginning of the year, everything seemed to be going along pandemic-fine, thank you very much. And by “pandemic-fine,” I mean I was figuring out how to exist in the world with the constant ebb and flow of the waves of COVID virus. It took a little time, some deep thinking, and lots of creativity, but we had even figured out how to work side-by-side with students without infiltrating their enlarged 6-foot radius of personal space. At the beginning of 2021, I kept my head down, plugged along, and stayed the course.

Things were going along fine—at least… they seemed to be. Until they weren’t.

I had been so focused on what I was doing that I must have missed an important turn. Or maybe I took a turn that I shouldn’t have. Because when I had the opportunity to look up and study my surroundings, I didn’t recognize anything. There was more shade than I’d grown used to. Space seemed a bit warped from what I remembered. And time had a unique way of crunching together while simultaneously stretching out to the horizon. Seriously, nothing looked familiar. And try as I might, I could not figure out how to get my bearings when I didn’t recognize anything.  

For a bit of time, I walked the line between fear and intrigue. How would I find my way back? How would I ever get back on track? And did I even want to? I just couldn’t see how this situation would right itself.

But as time dragged on and direction remained elusive, I settled in to experience the ride and figure out what had happened. Time is a funny thing. And Lost is a curious place. I kept working, hoping for familiar, and a funny thing started to happen. I started to get used to being lost. I started to recognize the unfamiliar, and I became just a bit more brave. I took on tasks I didn’t know I could complete. I made small changes that surprised me. And I forged a new path because no matter how lost you are, you still must continue to move forward.

Of course, hindsight is 20/20, and from here, I can look back on my journey and see it for what it has really been (and continues to be)—a shift of focus. A readjustment of priorities. And a need to exit the fast lane. I now have a new focus and a new direction.

Somehow, in the busyness of life, I got caught up in what I do, and I forgot who I am. I forgot why I’m here. I forgot that life is short and finite. Losing my way has made me realize I am not where I want to be. I am not living the life I want to live. Somehow, I lost myself when I lost my way. But the disorientation that always accompanies Lost allowed me to reconnect with something deeper. It allowed me to reconnect with the real me and the meaning of life—the meaning of my life, but that also allowed me to find my way back to a better life, a stronger me, and a greater sense of purpose.

Maybe I didn’t lose my way after all. Maybe I just took a scenic detour and ended up traveling in a new and unexpected direction to a brighter and more appealing destination.

The journey from Lost is not over. In fact, this journey—the one that will take me into the new year and beyond—has just begun.

Running Ragged

Lately, I have been run ragged by life. If I were a toy, my seams would be ripped, my stuffing spilling out. It’s funny (or not), but sometimes life does that to you. I have slumped into a funk that I can’t escape. I keep pushing to move beyond this point, so I can get back to the energy and light that creativity brings. And so I am working to develop a strategy to get me through.

I am pulling myself away from noise and into silence. It is in the silence that we can hear what is going on inside our heads. It is the silence that reveals the truth.

I am turning away from busyness and moving toward stillness. Busyness pulls and rubs and irritates, but stillness is peaceful and soothing. Stillness is like the hug of an old friend—warm and comforting.

I am rejecting chaos and clutter for simplicity. Chaos and clutter are a result of the worldly and material taking over as the focus of life. Simplicity brings calm. Simplicity allows us to disconnect from the material to reconnect with the spirit.

Sometimes—often, in fact—you need to reject the ways of the world if you are to see your own light. If you are to spread your light in the world.

Sometimes, you need to be alone in reflection to see where you fit in the world with others and within your own life.

Don’t be afraid to take the steps necessary to care for yourself, to rediscover yourself. Too often, we get caught up in the everyday. We try to live in the expectations of others, of the world, and we lose ourselves. We lose what makes us true and right and unique. We lose our passions.

Without passions and creative energy, our light dims. Our candle burns out. Our life becomes a series of day upon day upon day with no real rhyme or reason.

It is only in pulling back into the silence that we can escape the noise. It is only in seeking stillness that we can recognize the poison that is busyness. And it is only in letting go of all the trappings of the here and now that we can truly find ourselves among the simplicity.

So let go. Find your way back and reconnect with your true self.

Wreckage

My train of thought has derailed. I got caught up in the What ifs of life, and my thoughts were swept away under their own momentum. Remember the Little Engine that Could? That determined little engine used positive thinking—I think I can… I think I can… I think I can…—to pull its cargo of toys and treats up a hill it didn’t think it could climb.

In my case, it is a whole train of negative What ifs that has pulled me off track. In fact, the mantra What if… What if… What if… has been growing stronger and steadier. My train of thought picked up speed going down a hill. It was going faster and faster, and when the track veered off to the right (or the left, I can’t even remember anymore), my train of thought stayed straight and derailed.

Now, I am sitting in a pile of steaming wreckage. Twisted metal rises around me casting spooky shadows against the foggy night sky. All the cargo that was neatly in its place is now scattered across the landscape—a million pieces of life that will never fit back into place all tidy and neat as before the derailment. A million pieces of which I may find only half.

No, sometimes life needs some shaking up. Sometimes, we get too comfortable in our day-to-day, and one thing comes along—be it good, bad, or indifferent—and steps smack into our path with a challenge: “Think you’ve got everything figured out? Try THIS!” And while these challenges force us to re-examine various parts of our life—or maybe the whole thing—seeing life from a new angle can be helpful as we search for a creative solution to a difficult situation or a path to a more productive (and more positive) future.

And so… I sit here in the rubble that was my thinking, my life. I sit in silence, not distracting myself with any of the occupations of life that got me into this situation in the first place. The longer I sit here, the sharper my perspective grows. Of course, it helps that the derailment occurred in the dead of night, and the dawn is slowly claiming the darkness. It helps that the outline of what is left of the train is ever more visible against the faint tint of early day. And as the sunlight begins to poke up over the horizon, beams of light illuminate tiny tendrils of smoke winding their way out of the wreckage. The longer I sit here, the brighter my thoughts become, and I gain a sharper realization of the steps I must take to move forward. The longer I sit here, the more certain I am that I will rise from the wreckage of my What ifs, leave this mess behind me, and move into the future carrying a smaller portion of the weight of the world.

And I’m pretty sure that as I move on and leave the What ifs behind, I will take with me only what is needed for today.

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.

When we are together…

When we are able to be together again—whether post-pandemic or as the waves recede for now—I am going to smile my warmest, unmasked smile in your direction, and I’ll greet you with a hug so tight, it might feel like I’ll never let go. I really miss hugs. And smiles. I so miss seeing people smile.

When we are together again mid- or post-pandemic, I will stand close to you while we talk—close enough that I will feel your warmth. I will watch your mouth move in familiar patterns as you shape the words you speak. I will nod in agreement, and I might reach out and touch your arm while we joke about one thing or another.

When we are together again, we will sit side-by-side on a bench or across a small table from one another. We might sip coffee or tea or maybe an adult beverage. We will talk and laugh and snack on finger foods we share from a plate that rests between us.

When we are together again, we will have much to catch up on. I will ask how your life is going and how it has changed in recent months. I will ask you about your work, your home improvement projects, your crafts and reading, your mindfulness and reflecting, and how you spent your time in lockdown and in the months since. I will ask you about the ways you’ve found to cope in these most unusual times.

When we are together again, I will tell you about the projects I worked on while I was home, the ones I started and the ones I completed. I will tell you how a project of scanning childhood photos turned into a soul-searching rediscovery of a girl long ago forgotten. And how I reclaimed some of her traits and pulled them back into my now-life. I might even tell you that I’m not sure it was the photo-scanning that prompted the reclaiming, but perhaps the time alone and long moments of reflection served to ground me back into myself. I had pulled apart a bit over the years—my soul tearing from my physical being just enough that the disconnection was real, but not detectable through the hustle and busyness of normal life. I am working to carefully stitch those parts back together so as to avoid a recurrence of this detachment in the future.

When we are together, I will try to explain how very much I needed to be a “helper” when the waves of covid were rolling in. But I felt helpless. I will tell you how that feeling made me dig through my drawers of old fabric and begin making face masks to distribute to family. I will tell you this was a project that lasted through a shortage of elastic and snail-speed shipping on supplies and stretched on for months—even into 2021. Every time I felt like I needed to be more helpful, I would sit down at my sewing machine and stitch face masks. A few hundred face masks later, I have begun to slow my pace—not because I don’t think they will be useful, but because I want to tackle other sewing projects and finally use some of the fabric I bought years ago. It’s part of my intentional recovery and reconstruction.

When we are together, I will tell you about the rethinking I did about my life—about the fact that I am transitioning from being Mom, in an all-the-time kind of way, to mom-to-grown-adults. While I am still mom to three kids, my day-to-day life is no longer defined by my role as somebody’s mom, and that is a difficult but necessary change to navigate. The quiet time of the pandemic has given me an opportunity to think about who I am now that I am not who I was. I will tell you that this time, in many ways, has prepared me for that transition. I will also say that the pang of grief of this transition wound its way through and around the Covid stress-grief and these two feelings became nearly inextricable.

I will tell you that I had many projects I could have done around the house and in the garden, but lockdown meant I was working. Harder than usual. And I took on my second job since life was restricted, and food became (and remains) ridiculously expensive. I will tell you that money was a worry, but that I am fortunate that I have been able to maintain my work thus far. I will tell you that worry is part of my DNA, and I have always worried. A lot. About stupid things. I will tell you I need to let go and let God deal with my stress… and the things I have no control over. Because amazing things happen when you let go of what you cannot control and fully embrace the knowledge that God’s got you.

When we meet again on the other side of the pandemic, I will tell you that it’s good to see you. To be with you, and to talk and to sit in silence. I will tell you that I know the pandemic is not over, but I will enjoy our time together. When we are separated again, I will have these moments to hold onto, to dig into, and to help me realize that I am strong, resilient, and able to find all of the necessary resources when required to do so. I will let you know it’s good to be back. It’s good to be together. But the changes we experienced in the past year? They were good, too. We are stronger now. We are better now. And I hope these changes will stick and weave their way into our new existence, whatever that may eventually look like.

Year One: #PandemicLife Lessons

As we run headlong into year two of this crazy pandemic life, I wanted to take a minute to reflect on where we’ve been. I thought it would be worthwhile to acknowledge the efforts and experiences we’ve lived since last year at this time. We’ve come a long way in our acceptance of our current reality, so it’s a good time to reflect on what we have learned thus far. Some of the lessons of the past year have been re-learned from childhood, but others have been a bit tougher to swallow… and to maintain. Here are some of the big ones:

Personal space: This year, we learned personal space is an actual thing. In the past, it wasn’t always respected, and people sometimes got too close. They might accidentally bump into you when they were reaching over you at the grocery store. Or you might sit three people across in a space made for one-and-a-half on an airplane. But personal space is important, and now we have come to see that more space is better! Now, when someone who doesn’t need quite as much personal space as you gets just a little too close, you can politely take a step (or five) backwards—while they are advancing—without offending them. Just claim Covid and social distance.

Cover your mouth: Whenever you cough or sneeze (or breathe, for that matter) cover your mouth (and nose, friends). This pandemic has really driven home the point that exposing others to your germy droplets can be downright dangerous. Of course, when you do cough or sneeze, make sure you do it into your elbow, so you don’t go spreading those germs around when you then touch something. This elbow-thing has been tough for me (decades of using my hand to cover my mouth is a hard habit to break), but I think I’ve finally adjusted, and I am willing to admit not coughing/sneezing into your hand makes great sense when you stop to think about it.

Be patient: This is one of the biggest lessons of the pandemic. We have no idea how long it will be before we can reclaim our “normal,” so we have to be patient. Now, there are many people who have had enough and are not waiting. They are reclaiming their “normal” now. Personally, I don’t recommend this. I was exposed to Covid and spent 10 days waiting it out; I believe erring on the side of caution is preferable to too many more periods of quarantine. So I am being patient and gathering some projects that I’ve been meaning to work on: knitting, painting, reading, walking, praying, and making exercise a habit. That last one is a struggle… but there are some great videos on YouTube. By the time we come out of this cautionary period of social distancing, I will (at the very least) have compiled a library of good workout videos with which I will (someday) make exercise a daily habit.

Inner reflection: Sometimes, in times of quiet loneliness, we are forced into some inner reflection. In fact, that is actually a good thing. I would argue that in our society, we don’t do enough reflection and personal work on figuring out who we are as individuals. Instead, we keep ourselves busy with activities and friends and events. We have appointments and meetings and conferences, and we fill our calendars as full as we can. But not since last year. If you are looking to grow and evolve into a better person, you have to start with yourself—you have to look in rather than out. What we often fail to realize is that what we want is not out there. It is inside us. What better time for inner reflection than now, when there’s not a lot else to keep us busy?

As cliché as it may sound, history repeats itself. One thing we’ve learned this year is that people don’t want to listen to what worked 100 years ago because much has changed in the last century. What has really become evident this year is that lessons from history are lost once the people who learned them are no longer with us. Therefore, history repeats again, and again, and again until we not only learn the lessons we need to learn, we internalize them and they become part of who we are as a society. I heard about the Spanish flu when I was growing up from my grandpa. He was in France in World War I, and he had lived through the epidemic. He had lost many men in his division to the flu. We used to speculate that his penchant for raw onion sandwiches at lunchtime kept him healthy. True or not, we’ll never know, but there’s no doubt he would have had much to say about our current pandemic based on his past. But we’ll never know that, either.

It’s been a long year bursting with lessons, and the lessons will continue this year and into next. Hopefully, not much longer because I, for one, am ready for the lessons to become lessons of beating a pandemic and moving forward into a new “normal.” Let’s hope the lessons learned this time will inform society and help them deal more efficiently with whatever the future may hold.

Here’s hoping.

{Photo by Pepe Reyes on Unsplash}

Ignite Hope

Every day, I drive by a snowman on my way to work, and every day, it appears a bit more despondent than it did the day before. Its slouch increases; its scarf hangs lower; and at some point early in the week, its nose slipped out of place and landed in the snow.

Every day, as I drive by this snowman, I see it as an image for our current situation. Every day, we may grow a little more despondent. And every day, the spark of hope is just a bit more challenging to ignite. There is a fatigue that permeates even the air we breathe, and we just can’t escape.

And yet, if we can tap into even the slightest hope and know that things are going to change… eventually, we can pull ourselves up, day by day, and keep going. One step at a time. This, friends, is part of our journey. We may not like it, but there are some things that we don’t get to control.

However, we do get to choose how we approach every day of year two of pandemic life. (Who would’ve thought we would ever put those words together in the same sentence? And yet, here we are….) What if—upon waking—you lie in bed and take an inventory of all the things for which you are grateful? What if you take five minutes each morning to focus on the things that are going well in your life, no matter how insignificant they may feel?

I am pretty sure this simple and brief exercise will help you frame your day. If you begin with a focus on the positive, you may see the positive more often. It is a simple shift in the way you approach the day. At first, the positivity may last for only the five minutes of your reflection. But little by little, the five minutes will expand—6, then 10, then an hour—until the shift is lasting and significant.

You get to decide how you will face the continuation of this crazy journey we are on. You get to decide if you will tap into the positive and drag it—perhaps kicking and screaming—into everything you do in an absurd attempt to spark hope in your life (and possibly in that of others). Or you could choose to face the day with the growing despondence seen in this snowman.

If despondence is your choice, I would caution that this snowman is about to lose his head. One warm day and it could drop into the snow and roll down the hill, coming to rest in the middle of the road where it will be squished by car after car after car.

Don’t get me wrong. I would never say bringing the positive is easy or always the best choice. But if you can bring the positive more often than not, if you can see the good in your life, and if you can be grateful for the little things, you might be able to change your outlook on our current situation. And you might just spark a tiny seed of hope in the people around you.

{Photo of the despondent snowman taken while safely stopped on the side of the road}

Comfort Zone

It has been cold here in New England recently. Earlier this week, it was bone-chilling, teeth-crackling cold. So cold, in fact, that even the thought of going for a walk made me shiver. But after a week in quarantine, working from home, and barely going out, I was stir-crazy, and I forced myself to go for a walk.

I bundled up and stepped out the door and into the cold. The air was still and no one else was out as I walked down the path past the pond. The bare trees of mid-winter reveal the landscape in new ways, and I could see the stream through the twigs and branches that line the path. In warmer months, these twigs would be dense underbrush. I could see where the stream split in two then rejoined as one before emptying into the pond. Far above me, the trees whined and groaned in the slight breeze.

The normal acoustics of the outside world seemed muffled by the cold, the snow on the ground, and my hat on my ears. An airplane flew low overhead preparing to land, and the sound was much quieter than at other times of year when the volume can be deafening.

When you are willing to step outside and brave the elements, you are often rewarded with peace and fresh air and sights not seen indoors. As I walked up the hill, I spotted a sundog gracing the clouds up ahead—a wink from my dad, the spotter of rainbows and shooting stars, letting me know he’s here even though I cannot see him. And at the end of my walk, as I approached home, the wispy strokes of an angel-like cloud danced in the sky, beckoning me forward.

Here’s what I know. When you are willing to step out of the warm comfort of your home and pay attention to the world around you, it feeds your soul. When I stepped outside, I opened myself up to the sights and sounds that awaited me. The smell of snow, the clouds against the blue sky, the shape of a snow heart set off by the dark pavement.

But here’s what I want to know. If these are the possibilities with a simple walk outside, what are the possibilities if you step out of your comfort zone? What kind of growth is possible if you take the step you’ve been putting off? How will you change if you take the risks that you know you want to take, but you can’t quite muster the courage?

True growth happens when we make ourselves vulnerable. When we do the thing we have been putting off. It might be to leave a comfortable job for a new opportunity. It might be to reach across the void of years to reconnect with an old friend. Or to leave a relationship that isn’t healthy. It might be venturing out on your own to create the life you desire and deserve.

Yes, it may be scary. Yes, you will be able to come up with a million and one excuses for not doing the thing. But what do you have to lose if you take the risk? More importantly, what regrets will you have if you don’t take the risk and do whatever it is that is calling your heart?

No doubt, the first few steps will be cold and uncomfortable. No doubt the journey will be bumpy and at times unsettling or even downright discouraging. But when you find your footing, when you take a look around, you will notice the beauty. You will realize your strength. And you will begin to find your confidence.

Take the step, whatever that may be for you. Venture beyond your comfort zone and discover the joy and wonder that lie just beyond your current reach. You just might be surprised by what life has in store for you!

Social Constructs

2020 Lesson Number Four: Social constructs are flexible

There are social constructs that have become so much a part of our lives that we have forgotten they are merely social constructs. This year, for example, there has been much talk of students falling behind in school—of not completing the “required curriculum.” Parents have expressed great concern that their son or daughter will fall behind and not acquire the skills necessary to progress to the next grade level. The student won’t be able to pass some randomly selected marker of achievement. Or the student will have a decreased opportunity to attend the college of his or her choice.

What is lacking in these conversations is the recognition that all students are experiencing the same school and learning issues. All students. And not just in the U.S., but all students around the world.

What if instead of expecting students to reach some imaginary marker, we change the bar? What if we decide that the skills necessary to move to a new grade level might be a little different than they have been in past years? What if we recognize that this year, students might have acquired a whole new set of skills that we didn’t expect?

Students might not have acquired the same skills they normally would for their grade level. But now, they have gained an awareness of how to take precautionary measures to coexist with others during a global pandemic. They have learned, firsthand, about supply chain shortages, supply and demand, and hoarding. They have lived through a major historic event and seen what is possible if we all pull together. And they have experienced the tragic consequences of an infectious disease spreading through the population. Students have learned to navigate mask-wearing and Zoom classrooms; they have learned self-discipline and an ability to minimize distractions in a distraction-laden environment; and they have developed skills to deal with uncertainty in a life that once felt completely safe and well-planned. They have learned to give back to their communities, and they have planned socially distant events and pitched in like never before. They have watched over loved ones and taken on roles that they might not have been ready for. They have grown and stretched and matured.

It is fair to say that this year has been a lengthy lesson in some challenging life skills. So what if we shift our focus from all the things these kids can’t do and all of the things they didn’t have a chance to learn. What if, instead, we give them credit for all the amazing and meaningful things they did learn and all of the life experience they gained. What if we look at this year as one big lived-history lesson?

Since societies are the ones who determine school curriculums, they can determine the changes to the expectations. I, for one, believe that if you made it through 2020, you have some life skills in your tool box that will serve you well for years to come. I don’t believe anyone is falling behind. I think we are all falling into place.

{Photo by Marcelo Silva on Unsplash}