Moments, Masks, and Missions

There is much to be said of the experience of living life. This whole slowing down thing has changed the focus of so many of us. Before the coronavirus shut-down, we were focused on some imaginary mission—reaching our goals, our children’s educational and athletic achievements, amassing money—that we forgot what it’s like to live. We hustled our children from one activity to another. They played baseball and soccer, participated in Scouts and dance, they painted and played a musical instrument. Until that all came to a screeching halt.

And now, we’re faced with a different reality. What would happen if we let our children (and ourselves) have some unstructured time? What would happen if we all had time to think and breathe and not be constantly scheduled for every minute of the day? What if we gave our children time to come up with their own activities? Time to fill in whatever way they see fit. What would happen then?

If we continue to schedule our lives so full—to carry out some imaginary mission of productivity at all cost, we are not allowing ourselves to live life. We are not teaching our children what it is like to pay attention to the world around them and be with themselves. We are not allowing them to experience what life throws at them. We don’t expect them to reach because we are doing the reaching for them. We are not expecting them to figure out solutions to their problems because we are finding solutions before they even have problems. We are not teaching them to fit their mission to their life. Because they are living our mission and not their own.

This weekend, my son became a college graduate. Just like that. No fanfare, no diploma, no walk across the stage, no ceremony. One minute he was hunkered over the computer finishing up assignments that had been four years in the making, and the next minute, he was a college graduate.

And on Saturday morning, we were faced with the task of creating a special day and making our own memories, however simplistic and disappointing. He donned his cap and gown, and we ventured out into the windy, snowy, never-a-dull-weather-moment that is New England in May, and we took pictures. Proud college graduation pictures. In some, he is wearing a face mask, lest we ever forget what upended his senior year and his college graduation. And when we went inside, we feasted on homemade chocolate cake.

Life is not in all the things we try to cram into our schedules. Life is in the moments—in the deep daily living. It’s in the things that go wrong and the manner in which we rise to the challenge to address them. It’s in the ways we grow and the lessons we learn. Life is not in the mission to accomplish, but in the mission to learn and improve and grow. Life is in the mission to live fully and to make the best of every situation.

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}

Drawing Memory

As I sort through the fifteen-plus years of stuff that has built up in my home, every now and then I come across interesting souvenirs from my children’s younger days. Slips of paper tucked long ago between the pages of notebooks, books, files.

Recently, as I sorted through a pile of old magazines, I came across a bin of notepads. Years ago, I had used these pads to write “lunch notes” to my oldest child. [By the time the others were eating lunch at school, life had become too harried and chaotic to continue this practice.] One pad was made up of sticky notes with sweet messages pre-printed on them. As I picked up this pad and began to flip through it, a small scrap of paper slipped from the pages and fluttered to the floor.

I bent over and picked it up. It held a drawing from that brief period where images begin to emerge from the early scribbles of a child. The drawing was a vehicle of some sort—the favorite subject of art for my youngest child. Memory drew me back in time, and I could see him sitting in the brightly colored booster seat that was strapped to one of the kitchen chairs. He was bent over the table, working studiously to create this picture. His blond head bobbed a bit as he drew, tipping this way and that as he created the perfect picture. His glasses slipped down his tiny nose, and he wrinkled his face to push them back up. Many days were spent in this position as he produced drawing after drawing.

When this now eighteen-year-old arrived home from work that night, I handed him the drawing. “Look what I found when I was cleaning this morning.”

“A tractor!” he said on first glance.

“Do you remember drawing that?” I asked him, amazed that he knew exactly what it was.

“It’s obviously a tractor, Mom. The big wheel in the back gives it away.”

Yup, silly me. “I hadn’t thought of that. So what’s this?” I turned the paper over to reveal another drawing and handed it back to him. On this side were three things that might possibly be cars. Each was connected to a line that ran willy-nilly across the page. A map? Directions? Lightning strikes? The image was crossed out, so it clearly was not the image of choice on this paper.

He smiled and shrugged. “I have no idea.” I took the paper from him

and tucked it back in the notepad. Someday, I would once again unearth this drawing. An

d I would take another trip through my memories to the time when a little blond boy would sit at the kitchen table and create drawings that I would puzzle over long after he’d grown.

Next time, I’ll tuck it into his box of memories, so it can become his puzzle. And maybe, before it winds up in the trash, it will give him a smile of memory.

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}

Ghosts from the past

Here is an interesting piece of trivia from my life, and something that has shaped who I am as a person.

My second-grade teacher hated children.

Yes, Friends, it’s true. I was seven years old, and my teacher hated me… not because of who I was, but because of who she was. But at seven years old, I didn’t have the experience or the wisdom to recognize that. I sat in her classroom every day for 180 days knowing she hated children.

And she was mean.

People who hate children should not become teachers. That should be a no-brainer. They tend to take out their frustrations on the children in their classrooms. Innocent children who are doing what every child is expected to do. And yet, it happens. I have come across several teachers in my lifetime who truly did not like children.

Why, you ask, is my second-grade teacher important all these many years later?

Yesterday, I stood in front of a group of 20+ students who were participating in their freshman orientation to college. I gave them information about how college is different from high school. I told them to use their resources. I encouraged them to seek out their professors. I reminded them that while it’s their job to go to class, study, and do their homework, it’s our job to help them be successful. And I told them I do my job because I love working with students.

And I meant it.

{Photo by Rene Bernal on Unsplash}

Beyond My Control

I am a worrier. I always have been. In fact, there is a story that my dad used to like to tell about my propensity for worry. Because the truth is, it’s been part of me since birth. Or maybe even before.  

When I was little—maybe around five or six…—we would sometimes go on Sunday drives into the woods on very narrow dirt roads. To my child-mind, the roads were too narrow for Dad’s jeep, let alone two cars passing in different directions. We would drive and drive and drive, and I would become more and more and more worried. Finally, I would pipe up from the backseat, “Where are we going to turn around, Dad?” as if it was my job to be concerned about all eventualities. But my propensity for worry prevented me from enjoying the drive, as everyone else in the car seemed to be doing. 

Last week, as I was going through my morning “pre-work” routine, I caught myself trying to figure out way too many pieces and bits of things that are attached to events and situations happening weeks in the future. It is as if somehow it is up to me to predict the future and troubleshoot every possible outcome—both good and bad—before the event even happens. And I do mean EVERY. POSSIBILE. OUTCOME. 

On the flip side, I have spent much parenting life convincing my daughter that there is very little in life that is worth the worry she tends to expend. I see her getting caught up in her thoughts and anticipation of situations in the future, and she is unable to experience the present moment to its fullest extent. Perhaps because I can relate, I work with her to stay in the moment and not worry so much. 

So last week, when I realized I was overwhelming myself, I stopped and took a breath. No, I thought. You are worrying about things that you don’t need to worry about. Most of these things are beyond your control.  

Beyond my control. True. And how much of my life have I devoted to worrying about things that are beyond my control? Too much. I am getting better, but I need to focus on taking things moment by moment. When I feel myself drifting to the future, I will work to pull myself back to the present and enjoy the journey. And I will take my daughter by the hand and lead her on this journey with me. The stress that is inextricable from worry is just not worth it.   

When we are able to step away from the worry and the unnecessary focus on the future, the view—right here, right now—is often pretty fantastic!  

{Photo by Simon Matzinger on Unsplash}

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}

Sprinkles of Love

I was at the grocery store the other day, walking past the bakery on my way to the produce department for some fruits and veggies. My eye caught on a giant tub of autumn sprinkles, the kind that someone might use on a cake or cupcakes for an all-school Halloween gathering. Or… whatever you are baking for fall that might be jazzed up with sprinkles.

At first sight of the sprinkles, my mind had zipped away from the bakery, the store, and into the past. Years ago, when C was in early elementary school, his teacher had planned a fall party. I can’t remember the occasion, but I was tasked with baking cookies masquerading as pizza (cookies in a Halloween costume, perhaps…). Easy, right? I’d planned to make round sugar cookies with red frosting. But the “cheese” was eluding me. Coconut? Different frosting? I was stumped. My parents happened to be visiting, and they went off to the grocery store to see what they could come up with.

When they returned, they had a large tub of autumn sprinkles as well as some other possibilities. Dad was most excited about the sprinkles. “We can take all the brown ones out, and you can just use the yellow and orange!” While that would be a great idea in theory, in practice it seemed a bit daunting.

“That’s a bit ridiculous,” I told him. “There are a lot of brown ones in there.”

“It won’t take long,” he assured me, though I wasn’t so sure. Those sprinkles were awfully small. But I didn’t say that.

The next day, the kids went off to school, and I went off to work. Back then, I was working mother’s hours, so I arrived home in the early afternoon—in time to get my kids off the bus. When I walked in the door that day, the kitchen table had become the work area for the sprinkle project. One bowl held the yellow and orange sprinkles. Another bowl held just brown. Mom took my entry as her excuse to rest her eyes, but Dad remained bent over a pile of sprinkles on a paper towel. Wielding a butter knife as his tool, he was pulling the brown sprinkles away from the others with the precision of a pharmacist counting and separating pills.

I am sure this project was far more involved (and tedious) than Dad expected, but he never uttered a word of complaint. He finished off that whole tub of sprinkles, so I’d have “cheese” for my pizza cookies—and they looked amazing! I’m sure none of the kids eating them even suspected the amount of work—and grandparent love—that went into each cookie.

And I had forgotten, as well, until I walked by that one random item in the grocery store last week. I was immediately transported back to that day so many years ago. It was a day much like today, and my memory of Dad, painstakingly separating sprinkles at my kitchen table, was as clear as if it had been yesterday. The love (and self-imposed duty) of a parent was captured in the memories grounded in a tub of autumn sprinkles.

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.

Firefly Season

It’s firefly season in New Hampshire, a magical time that awakens the memories of long summer days and playful nights from my childhood. Each year, I discover firefly season quite by accident, and it always takes me by surprise—as if I had forgotten that fireflies exist.

This year, I was walking along a path through the woods with my children. I saw a tiny yellow-green flash against the darkness of the woods. And then another. “Fireflies!” I exclaimed, though my children had already seen them. Each evening since, I have taken a walk just before dusk darkens to night, so I might once again experience their fleeting magic before they slip away until next year.

Fireflies bring me back to childhood summers. Bedtimes were extended to accommodate early July activities—picnics and fireworks and ice cream. We would venture out into the darkness with jars to catch as many of these magical insects as we could. Bugs that light up! We would follow them with our eyes, attempting to predict their path in the darkness, hoping their bright tails would reappear where we were expecting them. As we opened our jars to catch the next firefly, one or two might escape, and the chase would begin anew. At the end of our hunt, when it was way past time to go to bed, we would open our jars and set them all free.

Firefly season always brings me back to those magical nights of childhood. I can feel the warm summer air and soft breezes. I can smell the scent of grass and dew. I can hear the muffled voices of my parents by the open window and the squeals and giggles of childhood.

When I spot the first firefly,  I am right there, surrounded by all the richness of life.

{Photo by Steve Halama on Unsplash}