No, Thank You

It has been a challenging summer, and my work-life balance has tipped too far to the side of work, forcing me to slip away from the “life” side of balance—at least from the life I want to live. This situation has not been good for anyone, not for me and not for the various young people for whom I am responsible.

My current state of imbalance has made me nostalgic for the days I learned to say “No, thank you” to the things I didn’t want. I was young when my parents taught me the words, “No, thank you.” That way, if someone asked, Would you like more peas? I would know the proper response. “No, thank you,” I would say, and that would be that. No more peas.

However, “No, thank you,” has become a bit more complicated as responsibilities have piled on with adulthood. As responsibilities grow, the questions become increasingly complex, and they are not as easily answered with a simple “No, thank you.” As a teen, a tougher question might come from an acquaintance: Hey, we’re all going to the lake for a party. You wanna come? Even though I might be thinking, “No, thank you,” my response might be something along the lines of, “I’ll let you know,” and I’d walk away thinking, Nope. No way. As time passed, the questions—and the factors that needed to be considered—grew far more complicated.

Life is a series of checks and balances, shifting attentions, and maintenance. As an adult, I need to take a long, hard look at my life, my priorities, my family, my work, and my mental (and physical) health. Daily, these factors change, priorities shift and balance has to constantly be maintained.

Sometimes, things get out of whack—like this summer—and that’s when I realize my skill of saying “No, thank you” needs to be honed and strengthened. Because just like a muscle, if this skill is not used enough, it will weaken with inactivity.

So today, I’ve decided to begin regular exercise of my “No, thank you” muscle. I’m excavating deep into my childhood to help me remember how it works. I think it will just take some effort to jump start, but with some elbow grease and a lot of persistence, I’ll get that skill sharpened up in no time!

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Blind Spot

It’s raining, and I’m driving to work, making my way down the highway a bit faster than I should. Cars are passing me, but I continue at the same pace, resisting the pressure to succumb to their impatience. My exit is not far off, and I need to move one lane to the right. I turn to look over my shoulder to check that the lane is clear, and I am startled by a large, red truck hanging out in my blind spot. An entire truck, bright red and visible even amid the road spray from the rain. How is it that something so big and bright is able to hide right next to me?

This, I realize, is not unlike the route my summer has taken. My life will be traveling along on what seems like a good path, headed in a positive direction, but then I notice something big and startling hanging out in my blind spot. I try not to swerve from my path to avoid it; I try to remain calm.

The past few weeks, it seems, there has been much that is hiding in my blind spot. These “life issues” hover on the periphery of my life, just out of my vision. So close yet so hidden. Every now and then, when I least expect it, they poke their heads out to taunt me: “Here I am!” mocks Loss. “Gotcha again!” shouts Grief. “Be quiet!” whispers Insecurity. “Not good enough,” chants Inadequacy. Each and every time, as I am caught off guard, I retreat within myself.

But I am tapping into my resources. This summer, I have been involved in some work with encouragement, wellbeing, belonging, and courage. Research that has affected me very deeply. And an important part of each of these is vulnerability. Vulnerability is at the heart of much we face in our lives; it’s a valuable part of connection—both to others and to ourselves.

The (involuntary) break I’ve (accidentally) taken from my blog has not been good for me. I am happier when I am writing and posting regularly. I am more centered and able to deal with the challenges—big and small—that life tosses in my path. Not writing has allowed me to realize that maybe what’s hiding in my blind spots needs to be tackled head on.

And so, I open myself up to the vulnerabilities. I will stand and be brave in the face of all that is hiding—the sadness and sorry, the challenge and grief, the insecurities and failures. By allowing myself to feel all of my emotions and be vulnerable, I can live into joy.

Patience in the Un-find-able

If I had a dollar for every minute I’ve spent searching for the un-find-able, I would be a rich woman. This weekend, it was a pair of shorts that we swore were in the house as both my son and I had “seen” them on Saturday. After a frantic search of the house, he returned to camp without them, and found that he had left them in his cabin when he left camp on Friday.

Over the years, there have been so many things. The “favorite” bean-bag dog that was pushed to the bottom of the sleeping bag in the night and ended up being rolled up inside it for months. The team jacket that we accidentally left (or did we?) in the locker room after the final competition of the year one June many years ago. I called the coach before she left the venue. On Monday, I called the school where the competition had been held. I emailed the coordinator of the event. We searched the closet, the car, and eventually, realized we’d have to buy a new one before the next competition season began. At the end of August, as we headed back to the studio, one of the other girls discovered my daughter’s jacket, along with her own, on the floor of her closet.

How many times have I heard: “Hey Mom, you know that form we were looking for…? It was in my locker.” How much time and energy have I spent searching, and in the end, the thing I am looking for turns up in its own time? Many such searches have confirmed that I can’t find the unfindable. That I shouldn’t worry about things that are out of my control. The things I am searching for will appear in their own time. Sometimes, lost items appear only to eyes that aren’t frantic from looking. And in this process, I have learned that (aside from endlessly searching) all I can do is be patient and wait.

This lesson is one that we learn over and over. The lesson reappears in small ways so we might recognize when it comes into our lives in big ways. We search for our career path, the fantastic opportunity, the house, the family, our way in life…. These things will all come in time and in their own way. When we are ready. When the world is ready. When God is ready. It’s important to recognize that the unfindable may be hidden from our view because there are situations that we cannot control—that we should not control.

When something is lost—or we are lost—remember to take a deep breath and let go. The simple act of letting go makes just enough space in our lives that whatever is lost might just find us.

Balance

Despite the fact that I started out July thinking I would “be bold” and post more frequently, I have gotten caught up in the crazy of summer life. I have gotten caught up in my work, reading the books necessary to complete that work, preparing for college, cleaning up and throwing out. All this amid the daily routine of household chores necessary to maintain a functioning home. Sometimes, I begin to feel I am losing my grasp on what is real and necessary and beautiful.

It seems out of necessity, I have been cramming too much into the summers. Actually… into life. I spend my days cramming too much into life. Too many jobs, too many chores, too many errands, too many appointments. These things take a toll, but as I prepare to pay tuition bills, I am hit broadside with the reasons why I constantly push, always taking on more. But cramming in so much is not always a good thing. Quality, simplicity, and reflection would be good things. These things would give me the ability to shift my perspective, breathe, and re-evaluate the crazy that dominates my days. Maybe find a better balance.

Each time I think I am almost to the end of my crazy, a new string of commitments and appointments makes non-crazy an un-truth. Once again, the crazy continues, off-kilter and out of balance, but next week looks promising….

Kinda funny about next week. There’s always next week, isn’t there? And next week always brings new hope for just a bit more balance.

Grow your Good

On Friday evening, I was driving to my daughter’s dance rehearsal. The sun was low and the traffic was heavy with summer weekend tourists. I was alone in the car, and my mind was flipping through the pages of the day, churning through a brutal narrative of destructive self-talk. I am not enough of this, and I am too much of that. It was the typical inner focus on my flaws and deficiencies.

As the weight of the evening’s inner monologue grew clear to me, I stopped myself and worked to redirect the narrative. You’re not stupid, I tried to convince myself. But that wasn’t much of a redirection. The statement needed to be positive rather than negative. You are much smarter than you give yourself credit for, I ventured. You have good ideas and you follow through. Better. A good deal better! You are enough, I told myself.

As I pondered my self-talk, I reminded myself that I’m not the only one who’s killing it in the self-bullying department. While so many people seem to believe in themselves without a problem (or they’re faking it), other people struggle as they navigate their daily lives. Our inner critics are not kind. But most people couldn’t possibly be as brutal in their inner monologue as I am. Or could they?

What if… just for today, we stop comparing ourselves to others? Everybody is unique, and everybody has their own talents that they bring to the world. We all have positive aspects and negative aspects, and most of the people I know spend inordinate amounts of time focused on fixing the negative when they should instead focus on growing their good. Despite what social media might suggest, nobody’s life is perfect. Accept what you have and work with it. Grow your good.

What if… we began to tell ourselves the truth rather than some warped version of the truth we use to make ourselves feel bad? We could focus on the child we made smile while we were standing in the grocery line. We might consider how well we handle the demands of our job. Or we might look at how a great sense of humor helps us through the day.

What if… just for today, we stop keeping a laundry list of all the things we have done wrong. Better yet, what if we rip up that laundry list and throw it in the trash? Or maybe we could bring it with us the next time we go camping. Then we could throw it in a campfire and watch it slowly melt away into ashes.

What if… just for today, we were to celebrate our successes rather than dwelling on our failures? We might recognize that we have raised good children, or that we handled the latest two-year-old temper tantrum with a patience we didn’t have yesterday. We might see that we walked half a mile more than we intended, or we beat our personal best in our most recent marathon.

What if… just for today, we rewrite our inner monologue? What if we focus on all the things we are rather than all the things we are not? What if every time we heard ourselves engage in negative self-talk, we changed it to a positive statement? By doing so, we might give ourselves an opportunity to see the good in ourselves and the possibility for our future.

And what if… tomorrow, we were to do the same thing?

Navigation

Apparently, underneath my smoldering reluctance to use GPS is an amazing truth—not only in who I am, but in the way I have chosen to approach navigation and directions. My reluctance to use GPS and my fascination with maps—even the unwieldy ones that unfold and unfold and unfold into something that is far more than a driving distraction—has been working parts of my brain that are dying off in those who rely on a computerized voice to tell them where to go.

This realization came when I was listening to a story on GPS technology on NPR’s OnPoint. While the program focused on digital mapping technology, the guests also touched on our increasing reliance (in fact, dependence) on this technology. When we need to navigate unfamiliar territory, we simply turn to our phones, as we do for many things these days. Regardless of the convoluted directions we seem to be following, we trust our digital navigation systems to get us where we want to go.

However, humans have a built in ability to navigate the world—to figure out how to get from one place to another using things such as celestial bodies, earthly forces, our own knowledge of our surroundings, the maps that have been created of those surroundings, landmarks, and our own instincts. These things together give us a broad picture of what is around us and where we are heading.

The technology we have now, while convenient, allows us to navigate in a passive manner. Essentially, we have a tool that leads us, and we don’t have to pay attention to anything but the tinny, computerized voice emanating from the small box we hold in our hands. “Turn left in 100 feet,” it tells us, and we do. If we look at the unwieldy map, we might see that straight through the next four intersections we would come to an incredibly cool pink lake that would be awesome to see before we turn left on a different path that will still lead to our destination.

In this same NPR story, one of the guests referenced a study done in London on GPS navigation versus the use of maps and navigational techniques to find our way. The navigational part of the brain was fully lit up in those who were using a map to navigate the streets of London, but it was completely dark in those relying on GPS navigation. Completely dark. As in not being used. Where brains are concerned, that is not good news.

So the next time my children say, “Mom, just turn on your GPS,” I will just say, “No thank you.” There is a time and a place for GPS. If I am lost in a strange place and need to get somewhere by a certain time, I might turn on my GPS.

But getting lost is actually an adventure that can lead to amazing places. Unfolding a map and using my brain is the more active way to get where I am going. And maybe in the wandering, I will do some sightseeing, discover a new path, and make some new friends along the way.

Classroom Etiquette

As a teacher, I spend some time in the front of a classroom. Because of the nature of my full-time work—one-on-one academic support—I generally teach only one face-to-face class each year, but it is enough for me to track the changes in educational engagement through the years. Or is it?

As I stand in front of the class, with students working away on their computers, I (used to) make the assumption that they are taking notes or otherwise engaging in educational activities that will ultimately enhance their learning. That’s what I want to believe, so I create that reality in my head.

Fast forward to this summer, when I am taking a face-to-face class. This is the first time I have been a student in a physical classroom in many years, though I won’t say how many. I mean, I have attended various trainings (as recently as this past February) which mimic a classroom situation, but in those “classrooms,” it always seems as though people are interested in learning the material so they can bring it back to their own workplaces and put it to use.

This week was my second class in a summer-long Masters-level research class. I am not in a degree program; I am taking the class because I have research I want to conduct, and I don’t really know the best way to start. At this week’s class, one of my work colleagues was seated on my right. She and I were actively taking notes, discussing the topic, and beginning to get excited about our research projects.

On my left sat a fellow classmate, a young woman I have seen before, but I don’t know. She arrived right before the class started, took out her computer, and immediately picked up a message stream that she had left mid-conversation. To her credit, she also opened a document window where she could take notes during the 2+ hour class.

Class began, and she continued to occupy herself with messaging. Somehow this new generation of students hasn’t learned that they can say, “Hey, I’m in class right now. I’ll message you later,” and they don’t find it important to do so.

But this woman wasn’t engaged in class at all. Before 4:30, she removed a glass container from her bag and opened it on the desk. Inside was a nice looking dinner salad. She removed another container from her bag, opened it, and poured dressing onto the salad. Then she spent the next fifteen minutes crunching away on her dinner. (Did I mention this is a two-hour class? Have a snack before class, and you can have dinner at 6:15). When she was done, she dropped her metal fork into the glass container (not even attempting to be quiet), snapped the cover on, and put the container back in her bag. Then, she promptly returned to messaging her friend.

While I was trying to pay attention to the professor and concentrate on the material, I had developed a deep curiosity as to this woman’s non-stop in-class extra-curricular activities. Weren’t these activities just as effective when done from one’s couch in the comfort of one’s living room? Why would someone commit the time and money to a class when she wasn’t going to exert any effort beyond being physically present?

When I looked at her computer screen again, she was browsing the Crate & Barrel website, scrolling through dishes. The woman sitting to her left was commenting on the ones she liked best. In class. While the professor was lecturing. Clearly, taking a class means something different to these women than it does to me.

Perhaps I have an archaic notion of classroom behavior, left over from my student days long before the advent of portable computers. However, I don’t believe that respect for someone teaching a class has completely gone by the wayside. And I know for certain from all the studies I read that the best way to learn is to actively engage with the material.

We are only two classes in, and this experience has been eye opening for me. When I stand in front of my class in September—a class that is designed to help students make connections, discover how to learn, and serve as a foundation and resource for college life—I will tell my students that our classroom will be technology-free. Because sometimes, the best way to learn how to make connections is to disconnect.