Buddy Bench

Last weekend, I took part in an annual “Day of Service” with the students in my freshman class. On this day, all of our first-year students disperse to various organizations in order to perform community service work—from working with children or the elderly, to spring clean-up, both indoors and out. My class was split up between an indoor site and an outdoor site, and I put myself with the student group doing outdoor work preparing a summer camp for the upcoming camp season.

Our first task of the day involved raking leaves in the main area of the camp around the office—the area where visitors first arrive. It was raining in the morning—as it had been through the night—and the leaves were sticking together, heavy and wet. As we raked, the leaves rolled up toward us, making it easy to move them onto a tarp in large clumps. Once the tarp was full enough, we dragged it into the woods, and rolled the leaves out of it. We dragged the tarp back to our raking area and started again.

When we finished the main area, the Camp Director took us to a hill by the lake. On the hill, there were several benches placed in a half-circle overlooking the water. Our final task of the day was to clean the leaves and pine needles from under and around the benches. When we were done, the Camp Director told us that the benches were “Buddy Benches.” If campers were feeling lonely and didn’t have someone to play with, they would sit on these benches. Other children knew that those who sat here needed a friend. What a great idea!

This got me thinking… shouldn’t there be “Buddy Benches” for adults, too? How many times over the years could I have used a friend? Why couldn’t it be as easy as simply sitting on a bench and waiting for someone to come and sit next to you and talk. Or listen. Or just be a support system?

If you sit on the Buddy Bench when you are overwhelmed, someone will come and talk you through it.

Stop by when you are lonely or you’ve had a bad day. Have a seat when certain pieces of your life (work, finances, family, spiritual) just don’t seem to fit right.

Come by when you have received bad news, or you’re scared about something, or your health is declining.

Come to the Buddy Bench when your spouse leaves you for “greener pastures,” and you have to figure out how to raise a gaggle of children on your own.

Have a seat on the Buddy Bench when you have lost a loved one, and you don’t think you can go on.

So many people have been through these same things. They won’t make your pain go away, but they can gently guide you through and help you to keep going: step by step, minute by minute, day by day until you can see the light through your troubles.

A Buddy Bench would help you to recognize how many people can understand what you are going through because they have been through something similar. It can show you how many people care and are willing to help.

Because a Buddy Bench will help you to find the people who can best support you. It will give you a place to rest and find comfort and support. And … it will remind you that you are not alone.

We are all in this together. Come. Sit on the Buddy Bench and rest awhile.

{Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash}

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Transformation

I’ve been away for too long. I haven’t been hiding (well, not really…), but life grew chaotic and crazy, and I’ve kept myself super busy swimming upstream. Responsibilities piled on top of responsibilities, and for a while, I felt like the donkey that got stuck in the well.

Multi-layered family obligations coupled with increasing work commitments and the normal operations of everyday life were nearly overwhelming and threatened to pull me under. But then I stepped back and looked at the big picture. It wasn’t that these things—taken individually—were overwhelming; it was that they all hit at once. If I plotted out a careful path and schedule, I could actually see the proverbial “light at the end of the tunnel.” So I took a deep breath, put my head down, and went to work. And surprisingly, everything got done.

Outside my window, the world reflected my inner transformation. Slowly but surely, spring emerged—because March and April are magical like that. Where the winter world is cold and bare, warming temperatures coax new life out of the ground in green shoots and tender flowers. Year after year, nature draws on its own ability to make spring happen.

I worked hard, drawing on what was inside of me, and I got through, but more importantly, I experienced my own transformation. My hard work brought tender shoots of possibility and promise, creativity and innovation. Just like the donkey, all the dirt and obligations that were thrown at me became my stepping stones. I drew on them for strength until I was no longer stuck at the bottom of a well, but boldly stepping out into the world, newly empowered and ready for the next challenge.

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}

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.

Believing in Magic

Navigating the many aspects of childhood can be an interesting journey. There are a million situations in which kids walk a line between the reality of the world and some magical thoughts of their own making (or the making of society), simply because their imaginations allow them to believe in magic. Santa. The Easter Bunny. The Tooth Fairy. This list is lengthy.

Recently, when I was sorting through some (very) old papers, I came across a reminder of my previous parenting life, back when all three of my children still had one foot firmly planted in the magical, and it was my job—as a parent—to make sure the magic remained for as long as possible. But as a single parent, things didn’t always go smoothly.

After all, perpetuating magic is a difficult job. Everything we say… everything we do… it’s all being registered by the little ones around us, even when we don’t know they are listening. Magic takes careful planning, much thought, attention to detail, and a lot of work. It is no wonder, then, that sometimes we slip up.

The note I recently uncovered reminded me that the Tooth Fairy forgot to come. It was one of those moments when I was—no doubt—jolted awake in the early morning hours when I realized that I had forgotten my role in the magic just a bit too late. Despite my best intentions, I had failed. Instead, I had to make up a story about why the Tooth Fairy didn’t come, and some blending of various reasons came out. Unlike Santa, the Tooth Fairy can’t always get to every house…. Teeth are heavy, and if she collects too many teeth one night, she has difficulty flying….

Really, I don’t remember the story I made up, but it seemed to be enough as the child in question believed me. And somehow, over the years, I was able to instill just enough lasting magic—despite occasional slip-ups—that a bit lingers in my now grown children. Because if you think about it, shouldn’t everyone hold onto a little bit of magic in their lives?

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.

Traffic

It’s been a crazy busy ridiculous fall. Wednesday was Halloween, and I didn’t have time to buy candy until after work. On Wednesday. Because I’m efficient like that. When I left work, I discovered that everyone was exiting the highway where I usually enter, and that can only mean one thing—traffic is bad. Very bad. Going south when I needed to go north was probably not the best idea, but I needed treats for my little goblins. Maybe the errand would allow the highway to clear up a bit.

The candy run was quick. As I cashed out, I texted my son that the highway was backed up and I wasn’t likely to be home right away. Back in the car, I selected some good driving tunes and settled in for the long, slow trip. Navigating the entrance ramp, a nice driver in an SUV waved me into the lane in front of him. I thanked him, and there I sat, moving at a snail’s pace along with a bajillion other cars.

Now, there’s a certain way this is designed to work. If people are patient and friendly and kind, the traffic moves smoothly, and we all get where we are going. It might take a little longer, but we’ll all get there. But Friends, listen… people are crazy! I mean, not necessarily you, per se, but there are a lot of impatient people on the roads. And when there are a lot more cars on the road than usual, it can be downright dangerous.

Here’s the thing. Everyone on the road is behind the wheel of a potentially deadly weapon. When one person decides that he or she needs to be in the front of the line, and the front of the line is well beyond the horizon, things are not going to go well. In fact, when I exited the highway (onto a relatively long exit ramp), I had to sit through three light cycles to take my left-hand turn. Just before I turned, a car came speeding up on my right and cut into the smoothly moving line of patient drivers. Really?

If you are that impatient when you are on the road with so many other people, what are you like when you are not in your car? Are you really so self-important that you can’t obey the rules of the road, putting everyone—including yourself—at risk? Most importantly, what is all the rush about?

Perhaps instead of constantly pushing to get to the front of the line, pushing the speed limit and the driving abilities of both you and those around you, you might, instead, think of your driving time as an opportunity to be present in your life, notice the people around you, and reflect on where you are going (both right now and in the grander scheme of your life). Put away the phones, the food, the notepad, the book, the map, the list, the GPS, etc. You might use this as an opportunity to commune with God or with nature or with yourself. In other words, you might use your road time as a chance to slow down to the speed of life and think about what really matters.

And then, when you have mastered the art of being patient and kind while on the road with so many people, you might take that skill out into the rest of the real world. We could use some patience and kindness in society these days. Perhaps our time on the road is where we could begin. If we can be kind to the person who simply wants to switch lanes to get out from behind a particularly slow truck, we might be able to be kind to the person whose arms are too full to open the door. If we can be present while we are driving, maybe we can put down the phone while we are interacting with the cashier at the grocery or the waiter at the restaurant or better still, our children at home who just want to have a real conversation.

Because what I have found is that kindness snowballs. It starts out with one small gesture and it grows in momentum. As you move throughout your day, be present. Notice what is going on around you. Make one small gesture of kindness and see if it grows.

 

{Photo by Robin Pierre on Unsplash}