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.

Welcome Winds

Photo by TOMOKO UJI on Unsplash

Here in the northeastern United States, winter has been cold and bleak, as winter so often is. The first day of spring was glorious—sunny and warm—but a few days in, Spring turned her back. Winter temperatures and a dusting of snow greeted us one morning, and the wind has continued its bitter assault, letting us know who’s boss.

These winds, they are the winds of change. On the horizon, the golden glow of the morning brightens the dark sky as a long, low rumble of thunder can be heard in the distance. Winter always turns to spring eventually. The spring peepers begin their evening song—slowly at first as one then two then dozens of frogs join in. The earth and air warm and the colors of blooming trees dot the mountains.

These are the winds of change, and they are blowing fierce and free. The change is welcome as the creative embers, buried deep for far too long, are glowing brighter. With a bit of TLC, the sparks will catch and spread their warm energy, bringing new places, new friends, and new opportunities.

Dark winter has lingered long enough, and spring will bring a needed respite. These winds—the winds of change—they are welcome here.

Empty Space

On New Year’s Eve, as the final light of 2021 faded into an eerie dusk, I walked through my neighborhood listening to my footsteps, a dog barking in the distance, and the sound of tires on wet pavement as the occasional car passed by on the street. I breathed in the damp winter air as I watched the fog rise from the melting snow. I noted how the snow cover brightened my path and softened the darkness. I took in the world around me in my quiet walk to end the year.

These walks have been important to me over the past two years (since the start of lockdown back in March of 2020). These walks have kept me grounded. They have offered me fifteen minutes each morning to reflect on my day, and they have given me space to breathe, reflect, pray, and allow creativity to flow.

Too often, we tend to fill every minute of our lives with “stuff” that likely doesn’t really need doing. We keep a hectic schedule, running from commitment to appointment to activity. In between times, we cram in as much social media and web-surfing as we can in attempt to prevent downtime and keep our minds from being idle. And so as we enter the new year, I want to urge you to leave yourself some empty space.

Despite all we have been told about idleness, an idle mind is necessary to live a healthy and balanced life. Empty space allows us to recognize and process what is going on in our lives, in our heart, in our heads, and with our emotions. When we have a moment to process the heaviness of the world—and the laughter, as well—it opens up space for new ideas to flow. It opens space for new feelings, for grounded thinking, and for a more objective view of ourselves.

More importantly, it is in the empty space that ideas take shape, dreams become reality, creative ideas form, and inspiration happens. It is in the empty space that new thinking can take hold, leading you to move down an entirely new path in your life. Or maybe it allows you to come up with a plan to change the things that need changing in your life. Regardless, empty space is a vital part of a healthy life. As you fill the days, hours, and moments of 2022, leave some empty space for yourself. Leave some space that won’t be filled with the hustle and bustle of everyday life and social media interactions on your devices. Whatever your empty space brings, may it bring you joy and happiness or at least a more defined direction and self-confidence as you face all that the new year may bring!

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.

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}