Reconnecting

Sometimes, I like to sit with childhood acquaintances and reconnect. These are the people I’ve known since I was very young—in grade school or high school. These are the people who knew me before I headed out into the world and discovered that the “real world” was maybe not everything it’s cracked up to be.

These people, they can often pull me back to my roots and ground me in “home.” They can help me remember both the innocence of childhood and the struggles of growing up. And they can remind me of the near-constant growth I have experienced since being on my own.

I like to engage these people in conversation about how life has turned out—what has happened in all the years since we last spoke? I will frequently get an earful of the good, the bad, and everything in between. Sometimes, if the friend is not local, these reconnections might involve long email or text exchanges.

Either way, my favorite thing to ask is the question: Has your life turned out the way you thought it would?

I love listening to the answers to this question. It’s a bit of a surprise question at first. The person wants the obvious answer to be, “Yes, of course it did.” But ultimately, the person stumbles through to the real answer. Though the responses vary from one person to another, they are always the same.

Here’s the interesting thing. When I ask that question, no one ever says, “Yes, my life has been exactly as I planned it all those years back when I was in school.” No one says that. Ever.

The fact is, life is not what we expect it to be. It is full of surprises—both good and bad. It is full of trials and triumph, pain and passion. Life is full. Sometimes, life is a struggle, and sometimes it’s a breeze. Sometimes life is amazing, and sometimes it is broken. But the saying is true: Life is what you make it. If you choose to take what life throws at you and make the best of it, then you will have the best life you can. Focus on the positive, weave yourself a network of support, and keep pushing forward.

No, my life is not what I had planned back when I was younger. But every day, I work on growing and moving in a positive direction. And even though it’s not what I planned, every day, I am very thankful for the life I have.

{Photo by Hush Naidoo on Unsplash}

Advertisements

Connections

We need to teach our children how to connect with others. I don’t mean teach them how to connect via social media—they are experts at that already. I mean we need to teach them to connect with other people face-to-face and one-on-one.

This thought struck me the other day after a couple things happened. First of all, I realized the new version of Google’s gmail is now offering me the option to click on a pre-determined email response. Essentially, it is “reading” my email and formulating a quick response that I can send to someone like, say, my boss, to thank her, let her know I will check into something, or make her think I am following up on her response or a request. In reality, the pre-determined one-click response allows me to not think. I don’t have to think about my response, and I don’t have to think about following up.

Now, I appreciate the time and effort Google has put in to formulating this algorithm, but shortcuts like this are the reason true communication skills are dwindling to non-functional levels. Seriously.

In order to have functional communication, we have to think about our responses. We have to consider whether an email deserves more than just a cursory glance. We have to think about the person who is receiving the response, and we must choose our language (and tone) based on our audience. Effective communication requires us to engage.

People are no longer engaged with communication. They are no longer engaged with others. They simply hit the reply button, send a one-to-ten word response, and they are done. That brevity does not encourage individuals to connect with other individuals. It demonstrates the power of technology to pull us apart. Yes, it does.

The second thing that gave me a glimpse into our need for better communication occurred when I was picking up a pack of colored chalk for some student tutors. I wandered into a local craft store. When I located the chalk and made my way to the check out, I was greeted by Ted. And when I say, “greeted by,” I mean Ted was working the register. He did not talk to me. He did not make eye contact. He did not speak in a voice that was loud enough or clear enough to be heard and understood. I am not sure why this corporation thought Ted was the best choice for this position. Then again, given the lack of any other visible workers in the store, I suppose their choice was limited.

Friends, we need to teach our children how to connect with others. We need to reinforce the importance of communication in all forms—face-to-face, through email, and over the phone. We need to teach them to look up from their shoes and make eye contact. We need to model and reinforce the conventions of carrying on a conversation. Being able to connect with other people is so important for living a healthy life. If our children have this skill—the ability to connect and communicate—they will have a strong foundation as they move on to “adulting.”

Family Time

Yesterday, I was with my three nearly-grown children, and we stopped at Panera for lunch. At the table next to us was a young family. Mom and Dad were there with two young daughters—one about nine or ten going on sixteen, and a younger daughter of five or six. In the middle of the meal, Dad said good-bye and left to go to work. Mom stayed at the table with the girls while they all finished their lunch. As they sat there, it was hard not to notice that Mom’s cell phone was sitting on the table, loudly and regularly letting her know she had messages and notifications. Each time the phone alerted her, she looked down and responded.

Lately, I have noticed more and more parents interacting with their phones rather than their children. And I have heard from my children that many of their friends are on their own to make food at home, eating on the run, in their bedrooms, or in front of the television. So here’s my question: when are you spending uninterrupted quality time with your children? How do you show them that they are important and worthy of your time and undivided attention?

I have written about this before, but early in my parenting—and even when our family structure shifted, and I became a single parent—I established dinner together as a deeply important part of our day. This is the time when we come together as a family—and we are together for an important purpose: eating our evening meal. But dinnertime has become so much more over the years. Dinnertime is when we connect. We check in on each other. We talk about life, issues, morals, values, and what is happening in our individual lives and in the world. This meal has become a regular and expected time together as a family.

Now, I have two children in college, and they are home for the Christmas/winter break. Still, each night when I get home from work, we sit down together to consume our evening meal. We laugh, we talk, we eat. And now that they are older, we hash out political issues and share our views, we discuss environmental dilemmas, and we weave together the fundamental pieces of our day into an intricate tapestry that solidifies our family connection.

The unwritten rule, and one that is mostly followed, is that there are no devices at the table. This is family time, and devices are a distraction. Constantly looking at a device and responding to notifications demonstrates that we are not giving others our undivided attention. And it pulls us apart rather than bringing us closer.

And so… about childhood—this is time you will not get back. Establish a daily time to put away your devices and sit down with your children. Talk to them. Listen to them. Learn from them. They are amazing little people who will grow up to become wonderful adults. And those adults will need to know how to connect—deeply and meaningfully—with others. Scheduling some daily time to connect with family can make all the difference.

Patience

This year has been a challenge. Changes blew through, bringing a different schedule, more intensity, and a shift in focus away from where I want to be. The election brought dissonance and division and the general society has been difficult to tolerate. I turned off the news and frequently found myself turning to music as my chosen distraction on the way to work. I took a step back from social media. In fact, in the past month, I have chosen to observe for a while. Just observe.

One point I have taken from my observations: it seems patience is a trait that few people possess nowadays. We are not nice to each other as we go about our daily business, and I think it’s because we are wrapped up in our own lives. We fail to look outside of ourselves, put ourselves in another’s shoes, and recognize that each of us, in whatever way possible, is trying our best in that given moment.

Case in point: recently, I was in line at the local CVS. I was behind the woman who was next in line. But the customer at the counter had left her wallet in the car, and she apologized as she ran out of the store to get it. This tiny little wrinkle seemed to throw the next-in-line-woman into a tizzy. She began sighing. Loudly. She shifted from one foot to the other. She tapped her foot on the floor, and she turned to me and rolled her eyes, most likely in an attempt to pull me in to her impatience.

Meanwhile, I was feeling sorry for the woman who had run to the parking lot. I could so see myself leaving my wallet (my keys, my brain…) in the car—even though I’ve never done so—that when the impatient woman tried to pull me in, I smiled sweetly while I clutched my tissues and my M&Ms. The forgetful woman was gone for two—maybe three—minutes, but her brief absence certainly annoyed the woman behind her in line. And when we are impatient and not taking advantage of the downtime to enjoy the moment’s pause, time tends to pass more slowly.

This small instance of impatience is one of many I have witnessed in the past few months. I have to wonder: what is the hurry? Why are we so unable to relax and support those around us rather than rush past them with little care for anything outside of our own lives?

Before I judge or become impatient, I am going to take a deep breath and imagine what the other person might be going through. Maybe she forgot her wallet because her first and forever best friend just passed away, and she is trying to hold it together. Maybe the person who is still stopped in front of me at a traffic light that has turned green has a job that just isn’t paying the bills—and the bills are due. Maybe the woman whose cart is in the middle of the aisle at the grocery store is distracted because her grown child is an addict, and she is at the end of her rope.

Patience. It is one of the best gifts we can give to the world. And one of the best gifts we can give to ourselves as we navigate the world. Take a deep breath and give patience a try.

Tidbits

Over the past month, I have had the opportunity to sit in on several hours of student-led review sessions for Anatomy and Physiology. In fact, I have spent so much time in these sessions that I am pretty sure I had an outside chance at passing the first exam, even though I never attended an actual class lecture or read the book.

As a non-science-type in these review sessions, I have begun to extract random tidbits of information that I find interesting or thought-provoking, that I might write into something meaningful (or completely meaning-less, I’m not sure). I would compile a bunch of random, overheard sentences or thoughts into a book, perhaps—something like Lessons Plucked from a Life of Listening. This book would contain helpful tidbits of information from many areas of life.

The particular idea that set me on this trajectory was the question of what would happen if our skin weren’t waterproof, and we were to go swimming. While the thought in the room was that the body would explode, I started to really think about that. If your skin weren’t waterproof, how waterlogged would you become? How heavy would your body be as you attempted to drag it out of the water? And what unsanitary microscopic creatures might enter your body if you were swimming in, say, a lake? My mind took off on a jaunt through a hundred different possibilities, as it often does. This book could definitely be a wild adventure—especially for a reader who would never know what was coming up next!

These thoughts, and the wanderings of my mind, led me back to reality… and to life. As I was running through the possibilities of the book such tidbits might become, I began to realize that life, too, is a series of tidbits. We take our memories and experiences as well as facts, thoughts, and ideas, and we pull them together into something that makes sense to us. From such a grouping of tidbits, we form a life. As we think back on our past, memory is a series of moments we remember for one reason or another. These memories become treasures that we hold onto, or lessons that we learn from, as we continue to move forward and create new experiences—new moments, or tidbits, which we will add to our ever-growing treasure trove.

So if I can create a (marginally) meaningful life by compiling tidbits, it would seem I could create a (marginally) meaningful book in the same way. And once compiled, that book might just be about life, in some strange way. So I’m going to keep compiling my list of tidbits while I live my life, and maybe one day, that list will make its way onto a different page.

Metaphors

Recently, I had the opportunity to try my hand at making pottery—wheel-throwing, to be exact. In truth, I think I did this once or twice as a kid, but it was long ago. I remembered only the feeling of wet clay slipping between my fingers, the gentle prodding of the clay to create the desired shape, and the uneven feeling of lopsidedness on the wheel.

This time, I had the benefit of a patient and experienced instructor, who led me—step by step—through the process. I threw the clay onto the wheel, missing the center by more than I’d like to admit. The instructor adjusted the clay, pushing it closer to the center, and started the wheel. He demonstrated how I should hold my hands to gently push or pull the lump of clay into the center, shaping it and rounding it out. The clay resisted. I pushed harder, using some muscle to move it beyond its resistance. I was a bit surprised at the muscle necessary to move this inanimate, shapeless lump.

I smoothed the edges into a disk, and I pulled up toward the center, raising the height of the nameless object on the wheel. I used the side of my hand to flatten the clay and push it into the center. I repeated this process of centering until I had a flat disk resembling a hockey puck.

I began to work the center, slowly and gently pressing my thumb into the clay to create a hole from which I would begin to sculpt the vessel. From here, the process became one of gentle pressure—make an indent and watch it slowly become deeper and wider. The next steps would take an increasingly gentler touch as I steadied one hand against the other to work the sides upward and outward. The farther out and up I went, the more I could feel a slight off-centeredness of the piece. While I wanted to pull it back in, I didn’t want to exert too much force.

In the moments before I declared my piece “done,” and the wheel was turned off, the metaphor of potter and clay was not lost on me. The fact is, it’s not easy to mold a shapeless lump of clay into something both beautiful and useful. The clay resists. It won’t stay centered, and if it’s off center, it will become increasingly lopsided until it ultimately spins out of control and falls apart. Sometimes, it takes greater force from the potter to coax a piece back to the center. Perhaps sometimes, when we get too caught up in our lives, we are particularly unyielding and need to allow ourselves to be pulled back to center.

Ultimately, I added a spout to my piece. I not only wanted a vessel that could be filled up, but I also wanted one that could be poured out. One that would easily contain and distribute ingredients. It will take some time for my bowl to be dried and fired, glazed and re-fired. At the end of this month, it will arrive, beautiful and useful. I can’t wait to see the finished product and recognize the steps—and the patience—necessary as the potter molds the clay.

Classroom Etiquette

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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