Snippets of Life

Memories of my life are filed away like index cards carefully placed in drawers, an ancient and ever-expanding card catalog of snippets of life. I can open the drawers, flip through the memories, and see the things that have brought me to this place—this point in time.

Different drawers contain different sets of memories. The good memories fill several drawers, and I can flip through them quickly, as if spinning a Rolodex, or slowly like I am engrossed in detailed research. When I look in one drawer, I can see my children toddling down the hall. There are first words, first steps, first days of school. I pause for a moment on an afternoon spent running around the front lawn, desperately trying to catch leaves tossed and blown on the wind. The giggles are as vivid in memory’s ear as they were that day.

If I work really hard, I can go back to memories of my own childhood: picnics on an old wooden bridge, dressing up for church on Sundays, holidays, and the occasion or two when I walked home from school in the middle of the day for lunch. There are memories of lessons learned, family time, and brief vacations thrown in here and there for good measure.

Silliness weaves through most of the drawers, knit into the fabric of my very being. Here and there, a memory will bring up the humor that my children often take for granted. It is an essential part of our family life.

There are memories I draw upon for inspiration. Times I was the definite underdog, but I persevered and met with success. Times I was on the receiving end of Mercy and Grace. Times when love and laughter were on my side as I worked through a challenge.

The not-so-positive memories are in a drawer of their own, lest I accidentally stumble upon them while I am surfing my pleasant memories. I don’t open that drawer much—I don’t need to. It is stiff and broken and hard to work. It doesn’t quite close all the way, and sometimes, the memories slip out, catching me when I am low, and nagging at the edges of my brain. These memories, they chastise me for… well, for everything. Not good enough. Not strong enough. Not thin enough. Not happy enough. Not. Enough.

And I work diligently to recover and move on as quickly as I can to another drawer. Because the catalog has never been a bad thing. It helps me to stay organized and grounded. And it helps me to move in a positive direction. The good memories outweigh the not-so-good memories. File away the “mistakes made” as lessons learned, and they suddenly become a necessary step in the process. Because every step and every misstep, every turn and every detour, every moment lived through every age is a tiny building block in the process of creating my life. The good, the bad, the happy, the sad, every card in my catalog… these are all lessons learned.

Journeys

It’s been a tough week of walking the line. Some days, it seems gremlins have attached themselves to my brain, and they are sneaking around the edges, working their way into my thoughts when I least expect it. There has been much going on around me—accidents, illness, suffering, loss—all way too close. So many of these situations demonstrate how quickly our paths can veer off course and life can change. But these are also the things that tend to bring my blessings into focus. Being an eternal optimist, I always look for the blessings.

This year, our Thanksgiving table was filled with many family members. But throughout the day, I couldn’t help thinking about the one who was absent… Dad. There was much laughter around me, and I spent the day tip-toeing the precarious line between laughter and tears. Wanting to flee to a quiet spot to cry, but being drawn by the warmth of the laughter. I chose to show up and be present.

Life is a one-way trip, and we’re all going the same way. The clock always moves in one direction. We continue to move forward because… well, it’s the only worthwhile choice. There is no going back for a do-over. If you make a mistake, learn from it and keep moving. If there are gremlins in your brain, holding you back, figure out a way to get rid of them or sneak by them. Just. Keep. Moving.

Life is a journey. Pack what you think you might need, show up (with as much confidence as you can muster), and be present. If you need directions, I can help. Forward. Go forward.

And along the way, be the eternal optimist. Always look for the blessings.

Community

On Monday, I had a conversation with my college freshmen about community and responsibility. This conversation came after we had viewed a documentary on extreme poverty—living on a dollar a day—and attended a presentation by one of the young men who was involved with the project. Despite the poverty in the community, the families were very close as they worked together to help each other and make a better life for themselves. Our class discussion revolved around the responsibility each person has and how our responsibility extends from family to neighbors to the larger global community.

On Tuesday morning, I was driving to work. I had just pulled onto the entrance ramp for the highway when everyone around me suddenly began to slow and then they stopped. I looked to the highway on my left just in time to see a car flip over and land on its roof in the median. I pulled over and put my car in park. I sat for a minute catching my breath and working to calm my nerves as I watched several people get out of their cars and run to the flipped car to check on the driver. Before long, all traffic had stopped in both directions.

[I will say, I stayed in my car. Unfortunately, while I remain calm under pressure and can deal with emergencies, I do not deal well with injury/blood/death/etc. These things cause me to grow faint and shaky, pass out and become completely useless to anyone who might need help. Knowing our limits—it’s an important part of self-awareness.]

Four or five people gathered around the car and helped the driver out and to her feet. They walked her gingerly away from the car, and went back to check that the car was empty of other passengers. At this point, I decided the situation was under control, and I slowly made my way around several stopped cars and drove to work.

There are times when I think we are on our own in this country. The sense of community and our responsibility to others gets lost in the craziness of everyday life. And yet, this incident was an example of the many ways we come together to help others in need. We are all here together, and when we most need help, others generally show up, We have a responsibility to our community—both locally and globally—and if we take the time to look around, we will see ways in which we might just make a difference.

Compassion

It’s a complicated world we live in, and it’s important that we stop dancing around some of the bigger issues that threaten our safety and our society.

Today, I received a lengthy and detailed email from some overarching authority at one of the institutions for which I work. This email discussed how to recognize and assist individuals in Distress, with a capital D. “Distress” was then broken down further into several categories: general distress, victims of sexual misconduct, those at risk of suicide or self-harm, and those who may be dangerous.

This last one—oh yikes! But true, even though it seems to hit a bit too close to home as we begin to dissect yet another mass shooting. I listen to the news as the sheriff says, “No one expects this…” even though we are all coming to expect this. I hear an official on ABCNews instruct, “We all should think about what we would do in this situation…” and I know that any plan I could make would be lost in the terror of the situation.

But for those of us who daily deal with vulnerable individuals on a personal level, it is important that we are familiar with the warning signs of Distress. It is important to know what hurt looks like; how pain manifests; and when anger crosses into danger. So I read through the email, and I will read it again to commit the details to memory.

To all of my family, friends, students, neighbors, acquaintances, past and present; to all the people I know only in passing… if you are in Distress, I am here, and I am listening. If you need to talk, I will hear you. If you need a shoulder to cry on, mine are strong and broad. If you need a hug, my arms are open. If you need to sit in the corner and cry without judgment, I will sit with you. If you need encouragement, I will cheer you on. If you need prayers, I will offer them up.

I know I am not alone in the offer of help. The world is full of caring, kind, compassionate individuals who will listen and be present. They are willing to lend a hand, give a hug, connect over coffee, offer words of encouragement, or say just the right thing to make you smile. If you need something, we are here. Please… speak up and let someone know. If we all work together, perhaps we can make this world a little friendlier, a bit softer, and just a touch less complicated.

Encouragement

On a recent college visit, I was escorting my daughter across campus to the dining hall where she would meet up with the student who would be her “day host” for a class visit. As we walked, we passed by a post on which was taped a hand-written sign that said, “It gets better. I promise.”

I was struck by this sign because the truth is that life is a series of peaks and valleys and everything in between. When things are bad, they generally get better. We fight; we work; we pray; we cry; time goes by; and things get better. But a college student with less life experience may not realize this to be the case, especially when students are often told, “College is the best four years of your life.”

Newsflash: College is NOT the best four years of your life.

In fact, on that same college visit, I met with a professor, who was my professor when I was in college—about a gazillion or so years ago. Now, I haven’t seen this woman in a very long time. She looked at me and she said, “You look just like you did when you were twenty. But might I say, you look happier.” Her words prompted me to conduct an instant internal inventory that revealed that yes, I am happier than I was in college.

I tried to express my thoughts, “College… well, high school and college, really… they were tough times. Lots of social pressure and trying to figure out my identity and what I wanted from life.” And then we got to talking about kids today, the pressures they face, and the complications of social media in all its superficial glory. Truly, it was tough enough to grow up back in the seventies and eighties without the pressures brought on by social media. Is it any wonder so many young people nowadays suffer from anxiety, depression, and a whole host of other mental illnesses?

On my way back to the parking lot, I stopped and took a picture of the sign I had seen earlier. This sign is a message to all of us that whatever we’re going through… this too, shall pass.

And perhaps there will be one person who walks by this sign, and these words of encouragement might just make a world of difference. Whatever it is, it will get better. I promise.

Me Too

As the #metoo posts began to populate my Facebook timeline last weekend, I grew deeply disturbed at how widespread the problems of sexual harassment, sexual abuse, gender discrimination, etc. have been. How has our society continued to perpetuate the objectification of women without question? Yet, despite the fact that every one of my woman friends was posting #metoo, I couldn’t bring myself to post on my status, and it took me some time to figure out why not.

Even many years later, in each case without exception, I can still tell you exactly why I was at fault—for one reason or other—for the times I was a victim of abuse or harassment. If I had done something differently, if I had been more careful… these situations would not have happened. It seems that when the lines of appropriate and inappropriate are blurred from the time a girl is young, that girl accepts blurred lines as the manner in which the world is set up.

When I was 17, I was walking through the town square in a country far away. It was early afternoon—siesta time—and the square was nearly deserted. I should have been back to my host home earlier, and I was trying to get back as quickly as I could. I was walking quickly on a path that ran diagonally through the center of the square. As I passed an older man, he grabbed my thigh as if he had a right to touch me however he wanted. My heart and pace quickened, and I did not look back. I was young, alone, and scared, walking the fence between two cultures, unable to speak the local language. I should not have been out during siesta when the streets were quiet and everyone else was settling in at home. I had been out with a friend and time slipped away from us. It was a risky move, and the unwanted advance—it clearly could have been prevented if I had been returned earlier.

In my early 20s, one of my student charges was popping popcorn and tripped a breaker in the dorm where I served as hall parent. It was after evening study hall, and I had to request help from a campus security guard to fix it. I followed him to the breaker box—in a dark room—where he lit our path with a flashlight. Until he had other ideas and switched off the flashlight. It was my fault for following him into a dark room and trusting him to light the way.

Again in my 20s, I was told that an entire office of male workers would discuss my backside as they watched me in the parking lot from a nearby window. First of all, do men not have anything better to do? Second, what did one man expect when he came to me to tell me that—with a creepy smile on his face? And third, why were there no self-checking men in the group who were willing to step forward and stop the others from objectifying a young woman? Was I not supposed to venture into the parking lot where they could see me?

I have faced unwanted advances, harassment, and discrimination from peers, coworkers, teachers, doctors, bosses, and strangers on the street, and thanks to #metoo, I know I am not alone. It is a process that begins when girls are young and continues through adulthood. We become so accustomed to this behavior from the other half of the population that we begin to accept it without question, often blaming ourselves for not being strong enough, for wearing the wrong clothes, for being in the wrong place, or for trusting when we shouldn’t.

What I find disturbing is not only that we allow this harassment—this clear display of man’s power over woman—to perpetuate, but we make women feel responsible for the abuse. You shouldn’t have dressed that way. How many of us have heard those words? You shouldn’t have walked that way or You shouldn’t have been in that place.

No, I am not to blame in these situations. Men are to blame. Men who feel it is their right to objectify women and treat them as pieces and parts rather than as whole, intelligent, amazing, complicated, and competent human beings. And the silent men are to blame. Men who sit by listening to other men talk about women this way and watching other men treat women this way. Because if you sit idly by and say nothing, you are part of the problem.

It is time that women gather together, draw on our collective power, and release it out into the society as a loud and resounding NO! It is time that men stand up to other men and stop tolerating the “locker room talk” simply because it was once an accepted part of male culture. These people you are discussing…? These are mothers, daughters, sisters, and aunts. What if it was your mother or your daughter that was being discussed? These people—these women—they should be your people.

We have tolerated this behavior for far too long. It’s time we create a different world, a better world, for our daughters and their daughters, and all the daughters to come. It’s time expect better and end the cycle of #metoo.

{Image credit: Unsplash.com/Mihai Surdu}

Raising Teens

A month or so ago, a local teenager made a reckless decision and the decision had dire consequences. The story was on the news and all over social media, and the accompanying images were horrific. On social media, the responses to the story were brutal.

“Serves him right!”

“Where are the parents?”

“I have a 15 year old, and I always know where my teen is.”

I experienced such a visceral response to these comments that made it difficult for me to write anything for a time. Some time has passed, but this story still claims a large chunk of my emotional energy. There are a couple of points on which I remain stuck.

First of all, what’s up with the bullying among adults? Is it any wonder that we have bullying issues in our schools? When children see their parents making comments like these, they must begin to believe this is the way to respond to other people. And with the exponential growth of social media, there is no question that children see what their parents post—even their responses to news stories. After all, the parent’s name is attached to the comment, so anonymity… it’s not really a thing in an online community.

Perhaps these comments are born out of the need to uphold one’s own superiority, but it seems we have become so competitive that we have lost sight of compassion. The I am better than you mentality has taken over society, and we are unable to reach out to those who are suffering without claiming some imaginary trophy and keeping score. Bullying starts at home. It starts with adults who see no problem with posting brutal responses to tragic stories because they need to feel that they are better than others—just as a school-yard bully would do; they need to claim the position as better parents, better guardians of their teens, more efficient workers, etc. This competition is so destructive to society.

This situation reminded me of another horrible accident a year or so ago in which five teenagers were killed in a head-on collision on the highway. It was late at night and they were driving home from a concert. A man with a mental illness and a commitment to destruction of everything around him was driving the wrong way on the highway after a failed mental health visit to the ER. Now, if you have ever encountered a wrong-way driver on the highway in the dead of night, you understand how extremely disorienting it can be. You will likely not even realize what is happening until the other driver has passed, at which point you slam on the brakes and think, “Wait, what just happened??” If I’d been on that road that night, I wouldn’t have stood a chance just as these kids didn’t stand a chance. Yet, in the comments of this news story, responders blamed the parents for letting their teenagers attend a concert. I’m not sure when it became irresponsible to allow a teenager to attend a concert, but I digress.

As for the commenter who always knows where her teenager is…. I can pretty much guarantee that she does not. I have worked with teenagers for thirty plus years, I have three teenagers of my own, and I (sometimes) understand how teenagers think. It’s not necessarily that they disobey, but rather, they omit. History and literature are rife with examples: Rapunzel, Romeo and Juliet… these parents thought they knew what their teens were doing, as well. But in truth, try as we might, we don’t always know where our teens are and what they are doing. Maybe it’s okay not to always know. In fact, maybe it’s healthy to give our teens an increasing amount of space to make their own choices and decisions as they grow and mature. How are kids supposed to learn responsibility and how to face tough decisions if they are not given the room to do so?

Over the years, I have worked with some practically independent kiddos, and I have worked with others who still need a good deal of guidance; I have taught A students and F students; I have worked with wonderful young leaders and painfully shy followers. And I have seen everything in between. All of the teens I have worked with over so many years have one thing in common: they all have a still-maturing teenage brain that is not fully able to think through all of the consequences of a decision, and therefore, they are prone to making the occasional bad decision. It is through these questionable decisions that teens grown and learn how to make better decisions.

Maybe we could all work together to encourage our teens—and all the teens we come in contact with—to make smart decisions. And maybe we could work together toward healthier reactions and less judgment. If our first response is to have compassion rather than to chastise, we might be able to build some mighty bridges and educate our children in the process. After all, our children learn far more from our actions than they do from our words.

{Image is a photo taken by my daughter}