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.

Understanding

Understanding. I am trying to approach everyone I meet with understanding as I contemplate their unique perspective on the world and their individually challenging situation.

A bit before class last week, one of my students emailed me. “I’ll be on Zoom today. I have to babysit.”

Normally, babysitting is not an excuse to be out of class. Class is important, and if you’ve ever taken the time to figure out the price (per class) of a college course, it’s fairly expensive, as well. So no, I do not condone skipping class.

But this is not a normal year. In fact, there is little that even faintly resembles “normal.” Excuses abound in Covid time. “I have a doctor’s appointment.” How can I argue that? “My mom’s car broke down, and she took mine.” Yep, Mom has to get to work so she can make money. “It’s snowing and I have to get home to help out with my little brother.” “I was exposed to Covid, and now I am in quarantine.” Ugh. So many excuses.

I am a proponent of attendance in class, but I also try to be flexible. In the past, I would have asked for a doctor’s note, a court summons, or whatever. Documentation can excuse you from class.

But this year is different. This year has been tough. Everyone has a different situation. I don’t know who has younger siblings that might need supervision. I don’t know whose family is struggling and whose parents have lost jobs. I don’t know which of my students has taken on a job (or two) to help with the bills. I don’t know unless they tell me. And some students aren’t ready to be that vulnerable.

But I do know that people are struggling. I know that my students are struggling. The world, as they knew it, disappeared just as they were preparing to graduate from high school and move out in the world and work on their independence. It has been almost a year since that time. We are all tired of this. We all have pandemic fatigue. We all want to see a relative or friend, go to a concert, attend a wedding, have dinner out with non housemates…. There is so much we are missing about our former lives.

So I take a step back and I ask myself, is it my position to question this student’s situation, or is it simply my position to express understanding? I am not going to judge anyone in a year like this.

Like everything else this year, I am exercising flexibility. If you tell me you have to Zoom into class because you have to babysit, I am not going to ask. I’m going to send you the Zoom link and see you, virtually at least, in class.

Everyone is struggling. Not necessarily in the same way. In fact, not likely in the same way. Understanding is what we need. From where I sit, understanding is the best path forward.

{Photo by Jeffrey Hamilton on Unsplash}

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}

Blooming – 2020 style

My Christmas cactus is having a difficult time this year. It has always been a late bloomer, but this year, it is really struggling. It has been pushing out teeny little buds that show great promise. Like many things this past year, these buds give me a brief hint of excitement and hope. But after a few days, they wither up and fall off. This cactus… it’s not even close to blooming, and I am wondering if it will bloom at all this year.

Truth be told, I have been having trouble blooming this year, as well. This year has been tough, and some days I feel like I just don’t have it in me to be my best. Some days I lack the patience necessary to think about tomorrow. The days blend together, and Monday becomes Tuesday and blends with WednesdayThursdayFriday until the weekend, and then the week starts over again. On and on and on it goes.

It’s been a tough year, but it has also been an important year. In its break from reality, its focus on silence, its fear of crowded spaces, this year has given us some much-needed room for reflection. I tried hard to take advantage of what this year offered, so I might be in a better space going forward. I refrained from railing against authority and complaining about not living life as “normal.” I embarked on a lengthy journey to reconnect with my self—the essential core of who I really am.

I’m not going to lie. This year was filled with tough lessons that weren’t fun but were very much necessary. It took a great deal of patience and tenacity to sit through these long months, especially when we began to see hints of how far we have strayed from where we need to be. Our goals and our focus have drifted away from being good people to amassing as many possessions and as much power as we can, no matter the cost. We have grown to focus not on who we are as people, but on what and how much we have. I have to believe this is not why we are here.

So I took this year as a correction. I am taking its lessons, and I am coming back to center. I am re-grounding and rediscovering myself and my mission for my life. The lessons I learned emerged—as many do—from loss, boredom, anxiety, and resolve. They came in the form of traits such as patience, resilience, tenacity, discipline, and a habit of self-reflection. They involve listening to myself in order to continuously rediscover and recreate who I am. And they involve looking carefully and paying attention to the little things so I will know better how to fill the spaces where need is great.

Stay with me for a few days. I’m going to take you on a journey through this past year and share with you some of the lessons that I have learned—lessons that I will take with me as I venture into 2021.

Clearing Out

Throughout my life, I have spent a good deal of time quieting the voices of others that ring through my head. These are the voices that have attempted to direct my life, to make me someone other than who I am, to make me listen and behave.

These are voices that, at one point or another, I have taken on and considered part of me, and yet, these voices are not me and do not reflect my reality. These voices reflect who I am or was in the reality of the speaker. But these voices—these words—were designed to make the speaker of the words feel better in his or her own life.

Over the years, the messages have been many:

You are not good enough.
You are not strong enough.
You are too negative
You are not smart enough.
You are selfish.
You are too sassy.
You are not pretty enough.
You are weak.
You are not feminine enough.
You are not…. You are not…. You are not….

But I am not these things that others have projected on me. Admittedly, I am broken. We are all broken.  And the only way I’m able to address my brokenness is to grab hold of the fact that life is short (and it feels even shorter while a pandemic is raging). The time to be fully me is now. The time to work on becoming whole is now. Time is running out.

If not now, when?

My life is shifting. I am shedding the me others think I should be. I am clearing out their voices from my head. My thoughts are mine, and that is enough. I will respect who I am and who I want to be, and that is enough. I will shed the ideas of others, letting them slip to the floor before sweeping them up and tossing them away.

I am making a shift in my life, respecting my thoughts, my ideas, and my wishes. I will not entertain others’ perceptions of who or what I should be as my own reality. I will be me—more me than I have ever been. And every day, I will know beyond a shadow of a doubt that I am enough.

{Photo by David Clarke on Unsplash}

Kaleidoscope

        

Have you ever looked into a kaleidoscope and seen the beautiful patterns that emerge when you hold it up to the light? With only a slight twist of the lens, you can change the pattern to something completely different but just as beautiful.  A slight twist, and the shapes and colors shift and move and fit themselves into spaces that other pieces have vacated, providing a new and differently beautiful vision to the viewer.

Life is like this. There is a constantly shifting balance that rises and falls as life is maintained and the various pieces work together to create a whole and beautiful picture. Over time, some elements move from our lives while others fill in the spaces that have been left behind. There is a tremendous beauty in the constant motion and workings of this rhythm.

Just when we think we have things figured out, they change. We shake our heads to clear out the cobwebs that settled there in our complacency. And at first, we might think, No! I liked things the way they were! Because they were comfortable and familiar. We get so used to our environment—as it is right now—that we stop taking risks and making changes. And, in fact, we stop seeing the beauty as we settle into the safety of the mundane.

But life… it’s dynamic and constantly changing. We have to change with it, or eventually, we will be dragged along, kicking and screaming, headlong into the changes.

This is where we are now. We are being dragged headlong into a change over which we have very little control. But if we are among the lucky, if we are among the thoughtful, if we are among the introspective, if we are among the creative… we can make the most of this change. The people, the businesses, the services that are thriving right now are the ones that have been able to see our new circumstances, examine them from all angles, and see a new perspective. They are the ones that have noticed what the world needs,  taken a risk, and attempted change what they deliver to fill that need.

Maybe it wasn’t comfortable. Maybe it wasn’t what they wanted. Maybe it wasn’t even cost effective. But it was something. And from that something, they can continue to grow. From that something, they can fit themselves back into the whole in a way that makes sense—in a way that will contribute to the shifting beauty.

We are all part of the kaleidoscope. Take the time to step back and take in the bigger picture. The togetherness. The introspection. The opportunity to reevaluate and reset. The family time. The slower pace. Take a moment to figure out how you can take your talents and fit them into the direction the world is going. It may not be comfortable at first (taking a risk never is), but it will give you a glimmer of control over the direction you may go when this is over. Look around you. Find the pieces that work—the building blocks of the beauty that is emerging. And fit them back into the life that you want.

Moment by moment… recognize the beauty that is this kaleidoscope we call life.

Dots… and Everything Else

Life is a process of connecting the dots. When we are young, our lives are full of dots that have little connection. We live life one day at a time with few plans. We play with this friend, that toy, and we work to discover our talents. As children, we live moment to moment, figuring things out as we go.

When we grow, we take all the things we have experimented with in our “play” and in our growing up, and we examine them, figure out which things we want to keep, and which things we really don’t enjoy or prefer not to pursue.

Now, here’s where the tricky part comes. In order to connect the dots and begin to fashion a life that has meaning and purpose, we have to determine how our “dots” fit into the bigger context of the world around us. We have to figure out what we bring to the world, and how that talent or  interest meets a need that the world has. That is where meaning, purpose, and passion come together.

One of the things I do in the real world is ask college freshmen to begin connecting their dots. What did you LOVE to do when you were nine or ten? What is something from your childhood you wish you hadn’t given up when you transitioned to adulthood? What are you doing when you are most likely to lose track of time? If you were asked to work alone in isolation every day, would you be able to do it, or do you need to be with people?

That was the dot that got me back when I was graduating from college. I had planned a desk job for my life, working in a cubicle in an office building. But a teaching internship slammed on the brakes, showing me I was on the wrong path. I had forgotten to consider the dot that needed dynamic, face-to-face interaction with people. [Now, of course, here I am in Corona Isolation, craving dynamic, face-to-face interaction, but this is a temporary story.]

If you haven’t yet taken the time to examine your dots and figure out how they connect, now is a perfect time to start thinking about that. Are you doing what you love? Are you fulfilling a need in the world? Are you happy? And more than that, do you experience regular moments of joy?

Not only is now a great time to begin to connect any dots you haven’t yet connected, it is also a good time to begin to examine Everything Else. What is it that makes you fully you? Are you in the best job for you? Do you have enough time for family? Is there something else you need to be doing? How can you put steps in place to get where you belong?

Here in this down time, take a moment or two to examine the Everything Else that makes up your life; if you are not on the right track, create a plan to get back on track.

This time—this quiet time when we have opportunity for greater reflection and focus, when we can look deeply inside ourselves and see who we really are and what we really want for our lives—this is a gift.  Don’t let it slip away without at least taking some time to think. Your dots deserve to be connected, and you are the only one who can do that.

{Photo by Michael Dziedzic on Unsplash}

Brave…

Beautiful. We are all living in this beautiful, bumbling mess that is humanity. We are all figuring things out as we go. We are boosting each other up. We are booing the forces that break us down. We are believers—bold and brave in the face of the unknown. We are beautiful.

Bright. We are bright lights to those around us. Those who are searching for hope or for peace or for somewhere to land. We buck up in the toughest of times and forge ahead, blazing a trail for those who need a leader. We are the brightest light for those in the darkness.

Blessed. As each day begins and ends, I list my blessings. It’s a way to maintain focus and a positive attitude. Even in tough times, it’s a question of balance. If you can look beyond the bad or the negative and find the silver lining, that mindset, in and of itself, is a blessing.

Our blessings—they are what help us to remain brave in the face of adversity. Our families, our pets, our hobbies, our work, our faith. These are the things that give us strength to carry on, to stand up and fight and keep fighting. Our blessings give us the brilliant bravery we need to keep moving forward, step by step. Day by day. To keep moving through even the toughest of times. And when we get to the other side, we will see that we were and we are…

Bold. Brave. And Blessed.

{Photo by Joyce McCown on Unsplash}

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}

Intimidating Stuff

Some things in life are intimidating, but the more you do them, the less intimidating they become.

Recently, a group of my student leaders was invited to have dinner with the University president. But the day before the dinner, we were notified that only a couple of the students had responded to the invitation, and the chef needed a head count. When we nudged the students to respond, some of them admitted they were intimidated by the thought of having dinner with the president.

And yet, the situations we encounter are often well matched to our development and to pushing that development just a bit beyond our optimal zone of comfort. Having dinner with a university president (who is well versed in dealing with young adults) is an appropriate situation for a student leader. Having dinner with the CEO of the corporation for which one works would be an appropriate situation for someone who had worked at the company for a while.

Life, you see, is about doing intimidating stuff. Because the intimidating stuff pushes us to grow and become better individuals.

But here’s the funny part. When you start doing intimidating stuff—making inquiry phone calls, engaging in debates with people whose opinions differ from yours, meeting with people in power, having dinner with your boss or the CEO of your organization, having difficult conversations—it stops being intimidating. It becomes the stuff you need to do.  You become more comfortable, and the difficult stuff…? It gets easier. Along the way, others start to recognize you as someone who faces situations head-on, they begin to look up to you, and you are given more responsibility. And more respect.

As you make your way through life, you need to take advantage of the opportunities that are presented to you. Sometimes, they are only presented once, and if you don’t jump, you may miss your chance. Take advantage of opportunities so you will be seen. No one is going to come looking for you to work on their project or create their videos or run their department… if they haven’t already met you or heard about you or seen you.

You will be amazed at the opportunities that open up all because you started doing intimidating stuff, and you didn’t let your fear hold you back.

Step out of your comfort zone. The more often you do so, the more comfortable—and the more ready—you will be when it matters most.

{Photo by Sammie Vasquez on Unsplash}