A Million Moving Parts

Recently, one of our country’s leaders stood in front of an audience of many (including the television audience) and proclaimed his wife to be an expert at reopening schools in the face of a deadly pandemic. His wife had been a school-teacher for 25 years. A national leader actually said that a school teacher is “the best expert he knows” in this field.

Now, I have been a teacher for a very long time. Longer, in fact, than this spouse-proclaimed “expert,” and all I can say is there are no experts in what we have to do. And, in fact, this politician’s statement backs up that fact. If his spouse is “the best expert he knows,” he is clearly admitting there are no experts in reopening schools in the face of a deadly pandemic.

Meanwhile, school administrators started the discussion of reopening in the fall months ago—when they first decided they needed to remain closed for the spring. The farther we get into the summer, the more pressing our discussions become on how and when schools can open safely, keeping in mind the U.S., sans any credible and unified leadership on the pandemic, is facing an out-of-control spike in virus cases.

Let’s take a step back and take a breath. We need to examine this very challenging situation and approach it with the humility it deserves as well as a desire to learn and grow. Let’s work to create a plan that future generations of this country will thank us for because they will be able to learn from what we do and adapt it to their own situation when the time comes.

There are a million moving and constantly changing parts involved in reopening schools in a pandemic. Health needs to be top priority—health of students, teachers, and staff and of all individuals in the building. Some of those individuals will be immunocompromised, and plans need to in place to consider the most vulnerable individuals. There is the need and ability for social distance, and there are mask requirements. There is P.E. and lunch and classes and passing in the hallways. There are games on the playground, playground equipment and toys, the nurse’s office, and the buses. There is story time in the library, art class, and computer education and shared computers. There is a teacher’s need to comfort crying children. There are daily health screenings and temperature checks. And there is the mental strain that all of this will take on the entire population of the building, the school district, and the community. And there is the constant reality that one case of COVID in a school building could throw the entire system completely off track.

The people who are making the decisions on reopening—these are people at the school district level who truly care about children. They are not making these decisions lightly. They are agonizing over how to do this and do it right, and we need to support them. We need to know that if they don’t feel it can be done safely, it probably can’t be. Even they are not experts. There are no experts. But they know their schools, they know the guidelines and restrictions, and they know what might be a workable way to reopen, even partially. We need to accept their expertise and acknowledge that our school administrators are incredibly brave pioneers. No doubt, plans will include flexibility for online education should we choose to keep our children home.

What we need right now is patience and understanding. What we need right now are leaders and leadership. We don’t need a federal government that is threatening to strip funding from schools that don’t reopen on schedule. We need regional think-tank groups made up of school administrators and staff who can brainstorm, throw out issues others may not have thought of, and work together to contribute to plans that are flexible and fluid and consider as many of the million moving parts as possible. Though knowing school personnel and how they work together in the best of times, I am sure those already exist in an informal way.

What we need right now are leaders who are willing to recognize there are no experts, step down from the podium, take off their jackets, roll up their sleeves and say, “How can I help?”

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}

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}

Unexpected Duties

Last evening, my son walked in the door from work as I was walking through the kitchen with a basket of dirty laundry. “If you want to give me your sweatshirt, I’ll toss it in with this load,” I told him. He unzipped his jacket and slipped it off. He started to throw it on the chair, but then changed his mind. He brought it to his nose and sniffed. But right now, he has a pretty bad cold. “I can’t smell anything.” He held it out to me. “Can you smell this and tell me if it needs to be washed?”

You know that parenting manual that we are all supposed to receive before we leave the hospital with our newly hatched babies? The manual that the hospital always forgets to give new parents? This particular task is in there. It’s in the chapter titled, “Unexpected Duties of Parenting.” This chapter contains all the things parents must do, but don’t know about. These are the Surprise! duties, some of which could be perceived as dangerous.

“Uck! This smells horrible! Smell it!” This exclamation is usually followed by some item or other being held out at arm’s length toward the unsuspecting (and thoroughly disgusted) parent.

“It’s really dark in there, Mom. Can you go first?” Yes, that’s definitely a good idea. I’ll go first and when whatever is in there eats me, you’ll be left here to fend for yourself. Good plan.

“Mom, I think the milk is sour. Taste it.” Ooo! That seems like such a great offer, but … no thank you, I’ll pass.

“I dropped my boat [fish net, stick, jacket… insert item here] in the pond, and now I can’t reach it. Come help me get it!” All “emergencies” like this one are delivered frantic and breathless. They often take all spur-of-the-moment creative resources a parent can muster to devise some plan, gather all of the possibly necessary items (stick, rope, rain boots, etc.), and run to retrieve the stray item.

Then there are the SCREAMS that emanate from the far reaches of the house at top vocal volume. With heart pounding, the parent will call out, “What’s happening?” The child who screamed replies, “MOM! There’s a bug in my room!” The parent, with pounding heart calming and eyes rolling, will say (as calmly as possible), “Well, kill it,” because that would be the logical thing to do, right? The panicked reply is always, “It’s HUGE, Mom! Please come, NOW!!”

Over the years, there are myriad forgotten items that have to be delivered to school after the morning’s frantic rush to get out the door and make the bus—lunches, schoolbooks, papers, projects, you name it.

All of this—from crazy requests to chaotic moments—is contained in that single chapter of the great, unseen parenting manual. It might be nice to know these duties are coming and expected. Then again, no one can predict when a child/teen/young adult might say, “Yuck, smell this!” So maybe these unexpected parenting duties have a purpose for us, as parents. Maybe these are simply tiny lessons in thinking on one’s feet and creative problem solving that, when strung together, make us stronger and more prepared for the bigger issues and the truly important parenting duties.

{Photo by Ben Wicks on Unsplash}

Brian

I stood in the dairy aisle examining the dates on the gallon jugs of milk. I was searching for the one with the latest date, but in this particular grocery store, I was also making sure the date had not passed. Next to me, an elderly man hoisted himself from a wheelchair, so he was standing on his one leg, and he leaned into the dairy case over the chocolate milk. I watched him for a moment. He reached way into the back and dragged two half-gallons to the front where he could see them better. He leaned over and adjusted his wheelchair, then he pulled a magnifying glass from the pocket of his jacket, and he checked the expiration dates on the milk he had just moved.

I moved closer. “Do you need help?” I ventured.

“Not yet,” he said with a smile as he turned to examine this person who had broken through his alone-space. He squinted a bit as he studied my face. “What do you do? Or what did you used to do?” he asked me. I told him I worked at the university in town. “Ah,” he nodded. “You teach?”

“Yes,” I told him. “I work in academic support.” He smiled and nodded knowingly as he told me about his cousin—the most compassionate person he’d ever known—who was also a teacher. Everyone thought very highly of her, and it was clear from his words that he did, as well.

With barely a breath in between, he began another story, this one about his life and his career, and I listened intently. He told me about the crimes he solved, the cases that he had easily cracked when no one else could figure them out, and the seventeen police departments that had extended job offers to him when he was younger because they recognized his talent. He shifted his weight on his leg as he leaned on his wheelchair for support. All the while he spoke, I watched his face. His long mustache and scraggly beard covered the lower half of his face, but his eyes held the wisdom that comes with age and experience. They held kindness. And they held loneliness.

Despite the fact that I had never met this man before this conversation, I recognized something about him. It was in his eyes. It was in the way he started his sentences… his stories. It was in the way he reached out of his loneliness to hold me in conversation, to connect with me, if only for a moment. Even though we were strangers, I recognized his humanness.

His stories, though perhaps embellished a bit, reminded me of the stories my grandpa would tell. And in more recent years, the stories of my dad. There is nothing that compares to the storytelling of the older generations.

So I listened. I learned. And for a brief, fleeting moment, I connected. I offered him the human interaction that we all need, whether we are willing to admit it or not.

When I walked into the store, this man was a stranger, but when I walked out, he was Brian. The next time I see him in the dairy aisle, as I’m sure I will, I will greet him by name, and we will pick up our conversation where we left off. Although somehow, I believe I may just hear the same stories—the stories of his youth—yet again.

{Photo by Doug Maloney on Unsplash}

The Stranger

I recently had an intriguing interchange with a stranger.

First let me say, I love talking to strangers. I talk to them in the grocery store while I am picking out my produce. I talk to them while I am waiting on the interminably long deli line each week. And I will start conversations with them when I am out walking. I don’t apologize for my boldness. I am cohabiting this earth with others, and I would like to get to know them. Besides, strangers are only strangers until you get to know them.

So the other day at work, I was minding my own business. It was Friday afternoon around 3:00, and I was trying to finish up some tasks so I could actually leave for home at a reasonable time. My phone buzzed, and I received a text message from a number I didn’t recognize. “All done. When I get to better service, I’ll send a pic……” The number was from my mother’s area code—the area code in which I grew up and still have a friend or two.

Maybe it’s someone I know, I reasoned. I decided to wait and see if the person texted me again. I put my phone back on my desk, and I promptly forgot about it.

Nearly two hours later, my phone buzzed again. This time, my screen displayed a picture of a white horse, his nose in a feedbag. “This is how he was waiting for me,” the message read. The picture made it very clear that the texter was not someone I knew. Though I felt pulled to hear the story of the horse.

“Cute picture,” I texted back. “But I think you might be texting the wrong person,” I informed the stranger.

“Oops. Thanks for resending… glad I made you smile.”

Now, don’t get me wrong. There is a part of me that wanted to keep texting. To probe deeper. To find out about this random stranger who texted me at quitting time on a Friday afternoon. To tell her about the coincidence of the area code. To find out about the horse. And to make her smile, too. There is a part of me that longed to make that connection.

Because a stranger is only a stranger until you get to know her.

Then she is a friend.

{Photo by Nikki Jeffrey on Unsplash}

Recharging

I am having difficulty writing these days. I don’t know where I’m stuck, but my mind will focus just long enough for me to have an idea and to think it is going to result in a blog post. But when I am part way through the writing, the idea fizzles, and I can’t figure out what it is I thought I would say. Or I’m distracted and end up a thousand miles away. Or perhaps… I have lost the magic.

Admittedly, I have been busy. The start of the school year has kept my mind moving a million miles a minute, or thereabouts. And long days of training students and prepping classes have kept me away from home and far from my computer.

Sometimes, we just need to take the time to work on finding balance and regaining our footing. So I am putting this here as a place holder to say, “I’m working on it.”

And I am. I am brainstorming and freewriting, doodling and walking. And I am staring at maps and asking for directions to help me find my way.

Before long, I will be back. The ideas will flow, and I will have direction. With any luck, my writing will be better than ever. Because the fact is I haven’t lost the magic. I am simply recharging my magic wand.

{Photo by Cristofer Jeschke on Unsplash}

Evening Reflection

Last night, at the tail end of dusk as the sky was still darkening in the west, I stepped outside for a walk down the street. It was peaceful and calm, and I was by myself. From the trees behind my house, an owl called its haunting call, waiting for a response. It was quiet for awhile, and when no response came, it called again, adding an air of mystery to the night.

The owl hooted a third time. From the edge of the slimy green pond, a lone bullfrog lazily harrumphed a response.

Bugs hovered in the air as the temperature dipped from the heat of the day. The path led into the dark of the woods where the brush was thickest, and the bugs gathered in thick buzzing clouds. I considered whether I would return on this same path or venture out into the road where the trees (and therefore, bugs) were more sparse. I opted for the woods at a quickened pace.

The woods opened up, and there were fields on both sides of the road. As I turned toward home at the end of the road, I noticed a shadowy figure off in the distance. Bear? I stared, forcing my eyes to adjust to the low light. No, too thin to be a bear. Deer, I guessed. I stood by a tree and watched it watching me.

I began to whistle a tune, willing it to come to me as the pied piper might. There are those social media videos of people playing various instruments and successfully attracting a herd of cows. Or Llamas. Are deer really that different? I whistled. I watched. The deer stayed still and stared my way.

A moment later, it took off running across the field, stopping briefly at the side of the road as a car approached and passed. It crossed the road and was gone.

I stepped out of the shadow of the tree and breathed in the night air. I made my way back through the stillness to the clamor and commotion of home.

{Photo used by permission of my beautiful daughter}

You are HERE

You are HERE.

Most people think of HERE as a physical locale, and temporarily, it may be. But HERE (in the big picture) is your physical body and your emotional and spiritual wellbeing. In fact, HERE is less a physical locale than a mental state of being. HERE is a permanent but fluid state. Because no matter where you are, you still have to deal with the stuff that you can’t shake off—your health and your state of mind.  The good thing is, if you don’t like being HERE, you can change it.

When you say, “I’ll be happy when I can move to a warmer climate,” or “If only I made more money…,” you are stating that you are not happy right now. Right HERE. And if that is the case, moving to a new place or making more money won’t resolve the unhappy in the HERE.

No matter how much you try, you cannot run from HERE. Who you are, what haunts you, what keeps you up at night, and what pushes you on… these things will stay with you. They will follow you. HERE will always be a part of you.

If you face the HERE, you can do the work you need to do. Figure out who you are and what makes you tick. Learn to love yourself and be content with your situation. You have all the necessary tools and resources available to you. Discover them, grow them, and practice using them so you can become your own Master Craftsman. You will always be able to go back and draw on those resources when you need to.

Because no matter how much work you do and how much change you undergo, no matter how far you travel, you will always be HERE. There will always be work to be done.

You are HERE. Welcome!

{Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash}

From the Stillness

When was the last time you sat in stillness, uninterrupted by a phone, the television, or any other device, paying attention only to your own thoughts, feelings, and ideas? What comes into your head when the outside distractions of our high-tech world are removed?

There is a peace in the stillness that surrounds us, and that peace can be deeply compelling, if only we sit with it and pay attention.

But it’s scary to be quiet, to listen to the ideas that emerge when we are not frenzied by a need for constant busyness. There are ideas in our heads that tell us we are not who we should be. That we are not involved in activities or work we are passionate about. That we are not living our life to the fullness of our potential.

In the stillness, there are ideas that scare us. They scare us with their bigness. They scare us with their risk. They scare us with their potential that could lead us closer to our potential.

So too often, we choose to turn away from the stillness. Turn away from the possibilities. Turn away from the risks. Too often, it’s easier to stay lost in our busy lives rather than face the unknown.

Lately, I have been working on re-centering myself, removing distraction, and rediscovering who I am and what drives me. I have allowed myself to think about what I enjoy, how I express myself, and how to make the best choices for me in the life I live at this time.

I have taken a job that challenges me to move in new directions and to apply my creative ideas on a daily basis. And every day, I try to sit in the quiet for fifteen minutes. Each day. I try to do more.

In the quiet is where I am finding myself. Where I am rediscovering who I am. Sitting in stillness helps me to re-connect with my soul. And even though being still can be scary, time spent without distractions is definitely worth it.

There is a peace in the stillness that surrounds us. And peace is something we all could use in our lives.