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}

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Step Away

We were talking about writing, my daughter and I, about writing to an assignment when you’re not really sure of what to write. How do you not only answer the question, but write a three-page paper?

Without even thinking, I started tossing ideas at her. What is the story? Who’s involved? What is happening? Have you Googled the story and read through the summary/analysis online as a way to spark some ideas? Starting points… all things she had thought of, but approaches that weren’t helping her.

For me, talking about writing is nothing new—in fact, it is a daily conversation. This is what I do. I write. I talk about writing. I work with writers. It’s important that I include the phrase, “I write,” because if you don’t actually sit down and do the tough work of writing, it is difficult to talk to young writers about writing. And to speak authoritatively about the process of writing.

Our banter was getting us nowhere except frustrated. Sleep on it, I finally told her. The assignment wasn’t due for a couple days, so she had the advantage of time on her side. She agreed that was a good idea, and put the paper away for the night. However, she came back and texted me a bit later. “I took a shower on it, and I think I figured it out!” she told me.

That was it. She just needed to step away. In order to connect with the subject, she had to disconnect from it. Sometimes, that’s all it takes. Not just in writing, but in the process of daily life.

If you step away, your thoughts can become clearer. Let your brain rest and move on to other tasks. Because sometimes, when you’re not putting demands on your brain, it will continue to process on its own terms. In fact, it is often when we are not thinking about something that it works itself out. When we are not focused on a problem, more varied solutions—those that are lurking on the periphery—become evident.

We all have situations we need to step away from. If you step away, often the things you are wrestling with—the problems, the situations, the frustrations—they all become easier to figure out, and your brain will come up with a solution you hadn’t even considered!

Step away, and have confidence the answer might come to you. If not, at least you will return refreshed and ready to dig in.

{Photo credit – my amazing daughter}

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.”

The Lesson of the Donut Vendor

This morning, my daughter and I were racing to get her back to college before the impending snowstorm settled in. The drive is a pretty one—over rolling hills, alongside rivers and train tracks, across farmland, and through the center of an occasional small town.

We chatted as we drove, and as we wound our way through one town, we noticed a crowd gathered near what looked like an old-fashioned carriage. As we drew closer, we could see that the crowd was actually a line, and the cart was some sort of vendor. Only upon passing the scene could we read the bright pink wording on the side of the black carriage: DONUTS!

“Donuts!” we both exclaimed.

I turned to her briefly, keeping one eye on the road. “Do you want to stop?” I asked.

She thought for a minute. “Well, I don’t really want a donut…” she replied as we continued our journey. After a pause, she said, “But we should go back.”

“You want to?” I questioned. “I’ll have to find a place to turn around.”

“If you want to,” she told me. “But we do have to get back before the snow.” And there it was. The reality check to an otherwise whimsical and fun idea.

“Ugh. You’re right. I guess today’s not the day,” I said to no one in particular. And I kept driving. But I also kept thinking about the donuts and the donut vendor. What a great idea—to spend a Saturday morning selling donuts on the town green. It reminded me of the idea my dad had when I was younger to buy a popcorn wagon and sell popcorn on a busy street corner.

I thought about that donut wagon and the vendor for the rest of the day. I decided if he was still there on my return trip, I would stop and buy some donuts for my boys. After all, the line by the cart certainly hinted that his donuts must be good. But when I drove back through town over an hour later, the vendor and his wagon were gone.

This moment—the choice to stop or not stop—was an example of me being 2018 me. I was on a journey from point A to point B, and the destination was my goal.

But what if the destination is only part of the goal? What if the true journey lies in the adventures along the way?

Driving home, I decided that next time, I am going to stop when I see something interesting. From now on, I am going to work on not being so focused on the destination that I miss the experiences that might come from an occasional detour or two. Next time, I will stop when I first think of it, and I will buy donuts!

{Photo by Charles “Duck” Unitas 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?

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.