Present

At this time of year, I find myself actively avoiding shopping. The crowds, the lines, the traffic, the people… really, these things are exhausting. But every now and then, I put on my big girl pants, wrap up in my thickest skin, and head out into the wild. On a recent shopping experience, I stumbled into a disaster of a store. All of the salespeople were manning the cash registers to keep up with the lines, and I noticed the store shelves looked like they had been ransacked. Clothes were carelessly strewn on piles of others that had been pawed through, held up, and discarded. There was no order and no rhyme or reason. There was just a disastrous mess.

Did I mention that the salespeople were frantically running the cash registers, and every register in the place was open and cashing out customers as efficiently as possible? They were doing a great job of moving the customers and keeping the lines from growing too long.

So honestly, people, do y’all have maids at home who follow you around and pick up after you? How long does it take to refold the items you look at so you might place them neatly back on the shelf? How much care would it take to not throw all of the packages of underwear on the floor while you look for the one package in the size and style you need?

Any direction I looked in this store on this day (this past Sunday), I saw signs of people moving through life without being present. These people are shopping and buying, searching for a present (not the right present, but any present) so they can cross one more thing off their lists. They are moving through the season like robots, checking in on their phones and posting their finds on social media. They are not paying attention to their surroundings; they don’t care about the people who work in the stores; and they have no regard for the other shoppers who will come to this same shelf and look for a gift in these same piles.

Is this what Christmas has come to? We have so lost touch with the reasons for giving that we destroy everything in our paths like mini tornadoes in order to get things done and get through the holiday. Then we can cross the holiday season off our list and move on into the new year.

We can do better, people. I know we can.

On this day in this store, I looked over my shoulder at all the salespeople working hard to accommodate the shoppers. I pocketed my car keys, and I set about folding and organizing the sweaters on one side of one display. It wasn’t much. And when I turned from my work, I could see so many other messes that I knew I barely made a dent in the clean up of this store. But my gesture might have given an atom of peace to one salesperson. Or my work might have been destroyed by the very next customer who couldn’t find the exact right sweater in the exact right size. Either way, I knew I had taken a few minutes out of my day to attempt to make things better for someone.

As we move through life in the coming days, perhaps we might all take a little time to think about what it means to be truly present in life—especially in this season of love and light and peace. What would your life look like if you paid attention to the things around you? Perhaps we might commit to taking one small step toward being more present—both for ourselves and for those around us. The world needs each and every one of us. But we can only be useful to the world if we are willing to be fully present.

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}

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}

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}

The Adventure Continues

I recently took my kids to Canada for a few days of exploring in Montreal. When we hit the northernmost Vermont border, we had to cross into Canada for our second driving adventure of the trip.

Crossing between the U.S. and Canada is always a bit strange. Like… the road keeps going, but you have to stop to get permission to keep driving. So you pull up to a very secure looking toll-booth-type structure, talk to the border patrol, and drive on in, even though the road looks the same. (Well, other than the speed limit signs, which are now in kilometers per hour, making it appear that the speed limit has increased substantially…). And talking to the border patrol officers is a bit unnerving because they are trained to be intimidating. Or maybe they just see too much in their jobs, and they quickly learn “intimidating” is the best approach. Who knows?

I am not (usually) intimidating. In fact, I like to talk to people and engage them in conversation. So as we pulled up to the window, my daughter warned me not to banter with the agent. Because apparently, I don’t know any better.

“Where are you from?” the man asked harshly in his French-Canadian accent. His directness caught me by surprise, and I momentarily forgot where we were from. But as he took the pile of passports from my hand, I quickly recovered and responded to his question. “Where are you going?”

“Montreal,” I informed him, and when asked, I told him how long we would be there.

“Do you have family in Montreal?”

“No, sir,” I responded.

“Do you have friends in Montreal?” he pressed.

“No, sir,” I answered. He studied the passports. “We’re on an adventure,” I offered, deviating from the expected script.

He snapped right back to the script. “Do you have any weapons in the car?”

“No, sir.”

“That would be an adventure,” he stated. It took me a split second to realize that he had ventured from the script, as well.

“What?” I asked. “If we had weapons?” He nodded. “Yes, it would,” I agreed

“The adventure would stop here,” he smiled and chuckled a bit to himself.

“I’m sure it would,” I smiled back.

“Go. Have fun.” He handed me our passports and waved us through. We thanked him and drove away. We were a bit giddy that the interchange had turned to an unexpected bit of fun.

And, of course, we were thrilled that our adventure would continue.

Adventure

We set out on an adventure the other day. As we were driving, the clouds grew dark and foreboding up ahead. The traffic was heavy and slow, and the farther along we went, the stormier the clouds became.

Now, we don’t live in tornado country, and while we sometimes have some roiling clouds, this particular evening, the clouds were angry, but not turbulent. But straight ahead, there was a cloud that appeared to be reaching downward.

“That cloud looks like it wants to be a tornado,” my daughter commented.

“True,” I agreed. “But since we are taking the next exit, we’ll be heading in a different direction soon.”

However, as we rounded the exit ramp, the cloud ended up centered directly ahead of us. “Or… maybe not,” I said, with a feigned nervous tone. We drove on, and before long, it started to sprinkle. Then rain. Then, we were driving through heavy blinding rain.

And then we weren’t. The rain slowed and the sun poked through the clouds—first one small ray, then a bit more until I knew there had to be a rainbow behind us, a thought that was later confirmed by friends’ Facebook photos.

We drove on, our adventure unfolding. We drove toward a beautiful sunset that grew in intensity with each passing mile. Thankfully, there was no tornado. But adventure is all in what you make it. And sometimes, the best adventures can be found on the other side of the storm.

{Photo by Simon Matzinger 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}