Great opportunities

I was sorting through some papers recently when I stumbled upon the statement, “Great opportunities are being missed.” It was scrawled on a piece of paper, notes from a Zoom meeting back in the spring when the strangeness of the COVID world was still new and uneasy.

This meeting note-quote made me reflect on our life in COVID times. So many times, I hear people talk about how much we have lost this year. They focus on the school children, high school athletes, the students who didn’t get the big graduations and parties they deserved in the spring, adults who had planned weddings or other large gatherings, and all the funerals that were attended by only a small group of close family. We have lost so much this year.

It’s true, we have lost a great deal. We have lost hundreds of thousands of citizens globally and a quarter of a million in the United States. We have lost friends, siblings, parents, cousins, and children. We have lost health and jobs and homes. The losses have been immense and heavy, and they just keep piling on.

But I would argue that we have also gained a great deal. This year, a year unlike any other, we have been given an amazing opportunity to step back and examine the life we are living. We have had the time to reconnect with family and close friends in ways that we were too busy to do in the past. We have discovered hobbies and talents that previously slipped our notice.

We have gained an opportunity to look at life from a different perspective, turning situations upside down and staring at them until they make sense. We have stepped out of the boxes we once shut ourselves in to figure out how to do the impossible. We have learned to use technology we never imagined we would use. Often, we have constructed something from nearly nothing. We have learned to make substitutions and to be creative. We have developed flexibility. And we have grown our patience.

We have set aside our devices and connected with our families. We have spent more time in nature and outside with friends and neighbors. We have sent messages of hope and healing. We have read books, learned new things, and eaten meals together.

We have begun to rediscover the long-lost art of living.

If we focus on all that we’ve lost, we won’t notice all that we’ve gained. We will miss the opportunities presented in this horrible, terrible, tremendous, amazing year. We won’t see what is clearly in front of us. When we focus on the things we’ve lost, we miss the things we’ve gained.

As you are contemplating the past few months, take the time to reflect on the lessons of the year. Reach out to others who might be struggling. Look for opportunities that present themselves in this moment. Instead of focusing your sights on 2021, take a moment to appreciate the many lessons we’ve learned in 2020. It has been a year like no other, and the lessons we take away… they hold great opportunities we won’t want to miss!

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}

Noise

Society has been so very noisy lately. The news media presents constant, overblown and loaded stories every two minutes. And if you pay attention, the discussions around those stories can be heated and hateful. To lessen the noise, I try to spend some time in silence every day. I take some time to process. Some time to think. Apart from the noise.

Back when I was a kid, we read the news in the evening paper. The “news” was a bit dated in today’s terms, as it was sometimes nearly a day old. However, it was WAY ahead of the news in the days of the Pony Express. We watched the local news at 6:00 and the world news at 6:30. Then the news went off, and we were done with the barrage of horrible events and scandalous activities of people who would never be held up as role models. Today, with the news rolling in at warp speed and the constant repetition of all the bad things that are happening, we don’t have the advantage of 20+ hours a day of news-free moments.

But here’s what I want to remind you. We create the life we want through our actions. Let me repeat that: We create the life we want through our actions. This fact is very important as so few people realize the power they have in their own lives.

We have created this noisy world. We have created an increasingly divided, contentious, hateful society by propagating division, contention, and hate. Indeed, we have allowed events to simmer and bubble and boil over by continuously poking at the edges—at the two extremes—rather than coming to the middle to have a civil discussion.

At the same time, we have paid too much attention to the media. Our attention has allowed media outlets to present stories that are overblown and increasingly biased. Through our attention, the media persists and morphs and develops and increasingly slants to one side or the other until we all slide off, scrambling to get back to a humane and compassionate position. If we pay attention to the loaded tweets and social media posts of a family member, a celebrity, or a world leader, those tweets and posts will grow and morph and go viral, pulling in more and more people who are up for a fight.

However, if these posts and the ballooning media fail to get our attention, the originators of these posts and stories will have to change. The media will have to become more factual. The bias will need to diminish. The outlets we pay attention to will have to become more responsible in their presentation. And our friends, family, and celebrities who are posting irresponsible facts will not have the following they have become accustomed to. If we stop focusing our attention on these things, these things will have to fundamentally change.

I’ve been thinking about silence a lot lately. If we pay attention to silence, to our breathing, to relaxation, to family and the things that matter to us, those things will grow in importance in our lives.

We create the reality we want through our actions. Choose wisely.

{Photo by Elijah O’Donnell on Unsplash}

Lessons from Lockdown: Logic, Life, and Laughter

This period of lockdown has offered us a unique opportunity to shift our focus and reevaluate who we are and what is important. It has offered us a unique perspective on the things we hold dear. As many people sort, declutter, and simplify their homes, they might begin to sense that what’s important lies in the little things, the intangible things, the spiritual-rather-than-material things.

Logic: Today, I almost started an email, “I hope you and your family are doing well in lockdown.” Now, no matter how true and relevant that is, I couldn’t help but think it sounded like the family was in jail. So I rewrote my opening sentence. The person who received the email will never know of my near faux pas, but I definitely appreciate the thought that I have to put into writing a normal statement after working from home for nearly two months.

Life: Yesterday, I helped my son move out of his college dorm for the final time. This was not the way it was supposed to be—returning to a room that was a time-capsule, untouched since the mid-March day he came home for a week of spring break; moving out with almost no one else on campus; not having the much-anticipated celebrations of scholarship, graduation, and ending ceremonies. It was a two-hour time slot of “pack up your stuff and get out.” When I drove away, he stayed behind, saying good-bye to a senior-year-interrupted in the way that was appropriate for him. As I drove home, I shed a few tears for him—for the proper end of college he wouldn’t have; for the memories he wouldn’t make in favor of others that would define him and his entire cohort of age-peers. And as I drove, a bald eagle flew overhead as an illustration of the way he will soar once the tethers have been released. It will be a different world by then, but these young adults are in the perfect position to take it on and run with it.

Laughter: Our house is regularly filled with laughter, even in the tough times. These days, we could easily abandon laughter altogether in favor of the dark and dreary, but where would that lead us? Nowhere good, no doubt. So we laugh. On a recent afternoon, I was cutting the hair of my younger son, exercising the clippers that I bought when the boys were young to save money on haircuts. I hadn’t cut anyone’s hair in ten years, at least. But this kid likes his hair short, so he asked me cut it. At one point, in a move that was far from professional, I realized the cord was hanging in his face. “Sorry about the cord,” I told him to let him know my technique was far from polished.

“That’s okay,” he told me. “I’ll mention it in your Yelp review though.” Ha! If I open my own pop-up barber shop, that would not be the worst thing my Yelp reviews would say.

We do our best to hold on to the lessons we are learning. And we keep laughing because the laughter keeps us positive and the positive keeps us moving forward. And forward is the best way to get through this.

{Photo by Matt Seymour on Unsplash}

Broken Zippers

We have reached a critical point in our school career, my youngest and I. With just over three months to go in his entire school career, the lunch bag he has been using since eighth grade (maybe seventh) has sprung a broken zipper. We have been able to limp through this crisis so far, but we are reaching the end of the bag’s utility faster than we are reaching graduation.

The zipper has two pulls that meet in the middle. One of the zippers has come off its track and hangs useless and rattling at one end. While that might seem workable, what with the second pull and all, the zipper has a section of broken and missing teeth, and the other end only zips halfway, leaving the bag gaping and in danger of dumping its contents—literally “losing its lunch,” if you will.

But as I mentioned, we have only three months left of school. In our entire career. It’s not like a new lunch bag can be passed down to a younger sibling or cousin or neighbor. In three months, we’ll be DONE, and there is no one younger to use a crummy lunch bag.

But I know better than to think three months of paper lunch bags would be a good idea. Number one, the environment doesn’t need to give up any more trees. And number two, paper doesn’t keep the lunch cold and the weather will be warming soon.

But here’s the kicker. I knew we had another black lunch box in our house somewhere… or at least we used to. We definitely have a green one, and I know exactly where that one is. But there was a black one… now where did we put that?

Then one day last week, I was carrying the laundry to the basement, and I spotted the lunch bag. It was covered in a layer of dust, hanging on a hook behind my older son’s quiver of flu-flu arrows. (Those suckers haven’t been moved since he was in high school, and he’s graduating from college this year…). So, I took it down and tossed it in the laundry room to wash over break.

A couple days later, when I went to throw it in the wash, I realized it wasn’t empty. You know that feeling of dread you get when you have no idea what you’re about to see, but you know it can’t be good? As I reached for the zipper, I prepared both my eyes and my stomach for whatever four-plus year-old food I was about to uncover. I closed my eyes and unzipped the bag.

I opened one eye and peeked in. A sandwich bag full of goldfish—still orange (though pale) and smiling—stared back at me. A smaller bag held $1.25 in quarters—milk money. I breathed a sigh of relief as I peeled the sticky goldfish bag from the bottom of the container. The oils from the crackers and the years in the bag had made the plastic sticky. I chucked the bag in the trash, scrubbed the residue from the container, and tossed it in the washing machine. Now, we have a nearly new lunch bag to end out the waning school year!

But an important lesson can be learned from this story: Check your lunch bags at the door. You may thank me someday.

Grapes

I have learned to ration grapes.

This lesson was a long time in the learning, but I think I finally have it down. It comes after many months of missing out on the grapes—grapes I bought. I would come home from the grocery store with three pounds of grapes, dump them in a colander and wash them. While they drained in the kitchen sink, they would disappear. All of them. Before the end of the day.

Week after week, month after month, this was happening. Now, you might think I would have caught on before now. You might think I would have devised a solution months ago. Or stopped buying grapes. But I didn’t. I just kept thinking that requesting my kids not eat all the grapes would be enough. Nevertheless, when I arrived home from work. The grapes would be gone.

“You ate all the grapes!” I would say when I discovered the disappearance.

“No. I saved you some,” would come the inevitable reply.

“Three grapes. You saved me three grapes!!”

“Oh. Is that all that’s left?” And there would be a long pause. “Sorry….”

And so, I have learned to ration the grapes. This is just one in a long line of lessons I have learned in my parenting career. I wash a small bunch at a time, and leave the majority in the refrigerator. In the back. Where they might go unnoticed.

It’s the only way I can have my grapes and eat them, too.

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}

Really Old

So… this evening, I worked late. I had to teach a workshop to a graduate class, and I had told my children—who are all still home for break—I wouldn’t be home for dinner. Since we have a fridge full of leftovers, I knew they wouldn’t have a problem finding something to eat. I walked in the door at 7:40, which spurred them to action on the dinner thing. While they heated up the food, I went upstairs to change into my pjs and get ready for bed.

When I came out of the bathroom, I could hear them talking about music and Metallica and how the band had been together forever—well, since 1981, anyway. My older son asked the younger, “Are they finished now?”

The younger son responded, “Nah, they’re never done.” Then he thought for a minute and changed his mind. “Well, they might be. They’re all really old now.”

The older brother asked, “How old are they? Like seventies?”

“No.” There was a brief pause. “They’re like Mom’s age,” came the response.

Oh dang! It’s always quite enlightening to get a glimpse of yourself through the eyes of your kids.

Giving presence

My most important lesson from 2019: be present.

In recent weeks, I have spent a great deal of time observing life around me and considering the manner in which many people function in their day to day lives. I have bumped into people who were not watching where they were going (or rather… they bumped into me). I have had to engage in evasive maneuvers to avoid people who were texting: texting and driving, texting and walking, texting and pushing a grocery cart, texting and living.

Texting and living. Is that what we want? Sorry, I didn’t hear you. [I was distracted by my phone]. No matter where we go—the grocery store, a restaurant, the movie theater—people are on their phones. It used to be we went out to dinner at a restaurant so we could socialize and talk to our friends—those at the table with us. Now, the people at the table are busy texting the people who aren’t at the table. Hey, where are you? Look at this great meal you are missing.

I missed seeing you score your goal, kiddo. [I was texting my friend]. If you are going to take the time to attend your child’s game or go to dinner with friends or venture out hiking or go anywhere, really, do those things fully. Be in the moment. Take in all that your surroundings have to offer—enjoy the sights and sounds, experience the joys, and make the memories. By paying attention to each of the five senses, you can lock in amazing memories that will remain with you forever. Believe it or not, your neighbor’s post on social media will still be there when you return to Facebook/Instagram/Twitter in an hour or two. As will your friend’s text.

Sorry… I just have to respond to this [text, email, FB post…]. Because somehow, it won’t be there later. The message here is that the person standing right in front of you is not as important as what’s happening on your phone—the people who are elsewhere in your life, but texting you. As someone who grew up in the era of landlines without call waiting or voicemail, I can tell you with one hundred percent certainty that if someone wants to talk to you, they will wait for your response. Or they will text/call you again eventually. Why jump on each text, phone call, or post immediately? Our current world and technology have taught us that we can expect an immediate response. But why are we buying in to that?

Texting and living is not what I want for my life. My goal for 2020 is to take a lesson from the last weeks of 2019 and really work to be present in life. There is no better gift you can give to yourself and to those around you than to pay attention, listen, and be present for them.

{Photo by Paul Hanaoka on Unsplash}

Hitchhikers

On my way home from Parents’ Weekend at my daughter’s school, I passed three hitchhikers. Now, when I was younger, people used to hitchhike all the time. But in recent years, this ride-hailing method seemed to be a thing of the past. Honestly, I believe I’ve run across maybe two hitchhikers in the past 15 years. Until Sunday.

It was drizzly on Sunday and not ideal weather to venture out onto the road to hail a ride. Aside from the guy hitchhiking in the other direction, the first hitchhiker I passed was wearing a green hoodie and carrying what looked like a sleeping bag in a red stuff sack. Just a sleeping bag. Nothing else. It had just started to rain at this point, and he didn’t look happy. In fact, he looked downright grumpy. He was young—early twenties maybe. He stood on the side of the road, looking down, waiting for a ride. He pulled at the heartstrings of the mother in me, but I didn’t stop because… well, strangers, you know. We’ve all heard the warnings.

The other hitchhiker piqued my curiosity. She had positioned herself on the entrance ramp to the highway with a small cardboard sign just large enough to hold the name of a town farther north. She was looking to travel about 70 miles up the highway, but I was only going to the very next exit—3 miles at best. The hitchhiker looked to be a bit older than me, with a sassy mop of short grey hair. She was energetic and working excitedly to get a ride. Her face was expressive and smiling as she appealed to the passing motorists—she looked like the kind of person who would entertain the driver with animated stories of her life experience for the entire 70 miles. Up the road a few feet, she had placed her name-brand suitcase with an additional bag on top—as if she had just stepped off a flight at the airport. She intrigued me.

I experienced a momentary urge to stop and pick her up. I wished I was traveling farther in her direction so I might give her a ride and get to know her. From my brief glimpse of her as I passed, I envisioned her as the “Thelma” to my “Louise,” the partner-in-mischief I have been searching for. I could just imagine the conversation we might have as we drove—so engrossing that we would miss the exit. From our brief moment of eye contact, I wanted to know this woman. She was that intriguing.

And from my brief encounter with this intriguing stranger, I learned something. Everyone we come across on our journey—whether for five seconds or five years—has a lesson to teach. From this woman (and the contrast between these two hitchhikers), I learned that one’s approach to life can have a huge impact on how people see us. The first hitchhiker—he was definitely a stranger, and he would remain so. The second, however, was a potential friend.

Two strangers, one activity, two very different approaches. Whenever you have the chance, be the engaging “friend.”

{Photo by Atlas Green on Unsplash}