Advice to My Younger Self

Watching teens go through their various challenges is one of the more difficult parts of parenting. I always thought it would be great if I could somehow spare my children the trauma of middle school and high school. These are the years when kids are jockeying for some kind of ridiculous social position. They want to be seen as the best, the brightest, the funniest, the prettiest, the most popular, the most athletic, etc. The “senior superlatives” celebrated in the local high school speak to the role such competition plays in the lives of teens.

And yet, competition—being the best athlete, having the most friends—these are not the things that are the most important in life. The most important things in life are how we treat other people and how we treat ourselves.

By channeling my younger self and tapping into some of the challenging experiences I remember, I can offer some advice to my teenage self [which is actually thinly veiled advice to my teens…].

Mind your own business, and don’t get involved in other people’s drama. There may be situations that look enticing, and times when it is tempting to step into someone else’s train wreck. And there is no reason not to step in with a sincere offer of help. Otherwise, drama is always good to avoid—your own, and that of others.

Set your goals high. The higher your goals are, the farther you will go. If your goals are easily obtainable, you will not have a reason to keep pushing yourself and keep growing. As a wise teacher once said, “If you are not growing, you are dying.” Setting your goals high will give you a reason to keep growing.

Find your own internal motivators. You have to find meaning in what you do, and that meaning has to come from you. No one else can make sense of your life and your activities. No one else can give you reason to complete tasks, to earn good grades, and to pursue your goals. That meaning and sense of purpose has to come from you.

Walk away from those who don’t treat you well. Keep walking and don’t look back. There are many people who use others, manipulate them, control them, etc. These people, they will get what’s coming to them. It’s called karma, and it really does exist.

Don’t let other people define your limits. Other people are always quick to tell you what you can and can’t do. For example, You shouldn’t pursue a career in [insert creative endeavor here] because you won’t be able to make a living. When I was in graduate school, my advisor—who had met me moments before—looked at my proposed plan of study and said, “You can’t take that many courses. You won’t be successful.” I wanted to say, Watch me! Instead, I just nodded and said these were the courses I would take, thank you very much. Sometimes, people tell you things because they want what’s best for you. Sometimes, they don’t want you to be disappointed. However, only you can determine what’s best for you. And that leads to the next point…

Find your passion and pursue it. If you love to write, find a way to incorporate that love into your college program or your career path. If you are passionate about biology and music, be creative about how these two pursuits might fit together into a career that will feed your soul. If you can’t figure out how to form your passion into a career, at least continue to pursue the activity in a way that is meaningful to you.

Always be true to yourself. You know who you are and what you stand for. Don’t compromise your values or yourself to fit another person’s idea of who you should be. Be you because that is the best and most viable choice you can make.

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Happy New You

If you are looking for resolutions for 2018, if you are thinking about a way to improve yourself as we rush headlong into a new year, take a moment to think about the conversations you play and repeat in your head.

What do you tell yourself about who you are? What societal influences have you allowed to slip into your sub-conscious and become a part of who you are? In what ways have you lost touch with your true, authentic self?

Flush out all of the negative thoughts that make you feel you are not good enough. Move away from the constant pressure of social media and the “friends” you maintain there. Take some time away from the Internet to meditate and reflect on who you are and who you want to be. Do what’s necessary to find your true, authentic self.

That is where you will find your happiness and your best self this year and in the years to come. Happy New Year!

Rediscovered Treasure

This weekend, winter decided to move in. On Saturday, the temperature dropped several degrees, and the snow began to fall just before noon. And Saturday was the day I chose to sort through my Christmas ornaments to decide what I would keep and what I would give away. After all, some of the ornaments in my collection have been kicking around since I was just out of college. And even earlier.

Nowadays, I tend not to burden my tree with an overabundance of ornaments like I did when the kids were younger. Mostly because I like it simple—lights and a few sparkly ornaments to reflect the light back into the room. But there is also the fact that my teenagers are excited about decorating the tree, but not so excited about taking it down after Christmas.

So I sat on the couch and opened the large, green plastic tote, removed the first cardboard box, and began to unwrap small tissue paper balls to rediscover what was inside. Plastic animals dressed in Santa hats with wreaths, hand-painted cinnamon sticks and wooden disks picked up at a long forgotten craft fair, needlepoint plastic canvas squares… these were the items that found themselves in the ever-growing “give away” pile.

As I sorted, I came upon a yellowed box that said, “Mom’s dwarfs” in the handwriting of … I’m not really sure … one of my aunts, maybe? And in pencil, in a similar handwriting, it said, “For Suzanne from Nana.” More recently written were a number of notes in Dad’s handwriting: instructions about being careful, about the fact that there were extra parts wrapped up by themselves, about the things that Dad would typically warn me about as he removed these very fragile items from their carefully crafted tissue paper cocoons.

And now, I pulled one out of the box and placed it in my lap. I unrolled the tissue, getting closer and closer to the treasure it held. The weight of the ornament was less than one might expect, making it easy to fumble or accidentally drop it. But it was cradled securely in my lap. Finally, I was rewarded for my care when I spied the first glint of pointy shoes, a leg, and then a jolly face, its paint cracked and peeling from years of use.

My breath caught in my throat as I could feel Dad’s large hand carefully placing the “dwarf” ornament in my own then small hand. Each year, without fail, before he let go, he would ask, “Got it?” double-checking that this delicate figure was secure and would not fall to the floor where it might meet its demise.

The fact that these old ornaments had seen better days did not make them any less precious. The memories they evoked were worth the extra care needed. Of course, now that I have carefully unwrapped these very fragile ornaments on my own, I believe they are less fragile than all the past fuss would indicate. No matter. I still took great care as I hung them on the branches of my tree.

My one question that will never be answered: why, with elves all around at this time of year, did these ornaments end up being labeled “dwarves” rather than “elves” that might be more fitting for the Christmas season? I suppose I’ll never know. I will be left to devise my own theory.

 

 

Periphery

I was driving home from a dance class this evening. It was rainy and dark and more than a little bit foggy. I was listening to a story on NPR about baking and bread and devising new recipes. The story had my attention because I hadn’t had enough dinner before I ran out the door, and I was hungry.

In the distance, a barely visible shadow streaked across the road in front of me, jolting my attention from the radio and from the task of driving. I strained my vision through the fog to discern what it was I was seeing. Was it a cat? It seemed a tad too large. Was it a fisher? It didn’t move in that awkward, uneven manner of a fisher. Or was it someone’s escaped dog? The figure was gray—barely a shade lighter than the gray of the foggy night—and I wondered if, in fact, I had really seen an animal dart across the road despite the clear sparkle of its eye.

But then my mind wandered to all of the things that are constantly playing at the edges of my consciousness. Just like the animal that had crossed my path, these things could slip by unnoticed unless they are given attention. A butterfly flits through the meadow on a summer breeze. A deer stands in the brush, munching on leaves and grass. A streetlight blinks and turns off.

But there are other things that hang out in the periphery, as well…. Ideas that aren’t yet fully formed, that are just beginning to take shape. Words that might have been spoken before the opportunity slipped away. Prayers that need to be said rather than kept inside.

Life has very few distinct edges. It blurs and frays and blends. The physical blends into the cognitive which blends into the spiritual in ways that are reminiscent of this evening’s fog. Our lives blend into the lives of others. If we relocate our attention, we might just shift our focus, our decisions, and quite possibly our reality. Imagine the possibilities.

{Photo by Hannah Troupe on Unsplash}

Snippets of Life

Memories of my life are filed away like index cards carefully placed in drawers, an ancient and ever-expanding card catalog of snippets of life. I can open the drawers, flip through the memories, and see the things that have brought me to this place—this point in time.

Different drawers contain different sets of memories. The good memories fill several drawers, and I can flip through them quickly, as if spinning a Rolodex, or slowly like I am engrossed in detailed research. When I look in one drawer, I can see my children toddling down the hall. There are first words, first steps, first days of school. I pause for a moment on an afternoon spent running around the front lawn, desperately trying to catch leaves tossed and blown on the wind. The giggles are as vivid in memory’s ear as they were that day.

If I work really hard, I can go back to memories of my own childhood: picnics on an old wooden bridge, dressing up for church on Sundays, holidays, and the occasion or two when I walked home from school in the middle of the day for lunch. There are memories of lessons learned, family time, and brief vacations thrown in here and there for good measure.

Silliness weaves through most of the drawers, knit into the fabric of my very being. Here and there, a memory will bring up the humor that my children often take for granted. It is an essential part of our family life.

There are memories I draw upon for inspiration. Times I was the definite underdog, but I persevered and met with success. Times I was on the receiving end of Mercy and Grace. Times when love and laughter were on my side as I worked through a challenge.

The not-so-positive memories are in a drawer of their own, lest I accidentally stumble upon them while I am surfing my pleasant memories. I don’t open that drawer much—I don’t need to. It is stiff and broken and hard to work. It doesn’t quite close all the way, and sometimes, the memories slip out, catching me when I am low, and nagging at the edges of my brain. These memories, they chastise me for… well, for everything. Not good enough. Not strong enough. Not thin enough. Not happy enough. Not. Enough.

And I work diligently to recover and move on as quickly as I can to another drawer. Because the catalog has never been a bad thing. It helps me to stay organized and grounded. And it helps me to move in a positive direction. The good memories outweigh the not-so-good memories. File away the “mistakes made” as lessons learned, and they suddenly become a necessary step in the process. Because every step and every misstep, every turn and every detour, every moment lived through every age is a tiny building block in the process of creating my life. The good, the bad, the happy, the sad, every card in my catalog… these are all lessons learned.

Blink

Over the years, we have hit milestones with the regularity of the thump of a flat tire. Thump… thump… thump…. At first, it’s kind of reassuring to know that your child is hitting all the important milestones. But recently, it seems the car is speeding up and the milestones thump by faster and faster—at an alarming rate of speed, really. And this week, my daughter completed—and submitted—her first college application. Breathe.

These monumental occasions always give me pause and compel me to take a quick (or leisurely) inventory of the years that have come and gone. This most recent milestone hints at the small amount of time I have before she is off and testing her wings.

The early years of single parenthood are still vividly etched in my memory. I spent the days looking in the rearview mirror, counting heads in the backseat of the car. As the one parent of three very small children—all under five—I was always afraid that in my sleep-deprived state, I would leave one behind. Maybe one slipped by me somehow, and was still hiding in a store in the mall. Perhaps someone went to use the potty and was in the bathroom finishing up, or worse, didn’t get in the car and was standing in the driveway in a puddle of tears wondering why I left without him/her. In those early years, that fear never fully dissipated.

I blinked and we were in a new house in a new neighborhood with new friends and a new school. Little hands reached for mine with regularity. A hand to hold; a hand to help; a hand to lead the way. Those were days of constant attention and discovery and learning. There were toys and games and books and building and dancing and crafts. LOTS of crafts.

And then I blinked.

And the day came when they were all in school, mornings first and then full days. The school bus rumbled up the hill in the morning and swallowed them up. I would watch as the bus drove off up the road and out of sight before I ran home to switch to “adult” mode and be on my way to work. In the early days, I was home from work for 3:15, always needing to beat the bus to meet the kids so they were supervised and transported to the activity of the day. Always rushing so I wouldn’t be late.

Until I blinked.

The kids were able to ride the bus to their activities. My work hours increased, and an after school sitter took on some of my role. Extra keys were made and cell phones purchased and the kids further shaped their identities as they took their first tentative steps toward independence.

I blinked again, and now they are nearly through high school. They will be out on their own soon, with jobs and lives that take them all in different directions. That doesn’t mean my job is done. A mother’s work is never done, is it?

Just don’t blink.

Compassion

It’s a complicated world we live in, and it’s important that we stop dancing around some of the bigger issues that threaten our safety and our society.

Today, I received a lengthy and detailed email from some overarching authority at one of the institutions for which I work. This email discussed how to recognize and assist individuals in Distress, with a capital D. “Distress” was then broken down further into several categories: general distress, victims of sexual misconduct, those at risk of suicide or self-harm, and those who may be dangerous.

This last one—oh yikes! But true, even though it seems to hit a bit too close to home as we begin to dissect yet another mass shooting. I listen to the news as the sheriff says, “No one expects this…” even though we are all coming to expect this. I hear an official on ABCNews instruct, “We all should think about what we would do in this situation…” and I know that any plan I could make would be lost in the terror of the situation.

But for those of us who daily deal with vulnerable individuals on a personal level, it is important that we are familiar with the warning signs of Distress. It is important to know what hurt looks like; how pain manifests; and when anger crosses into danger. So I read through the email, and I will read it again to commit the details to memory.

To all of my family, friends, students, neighbors, acquaintances, past and present; to all the people I know only in passing… if you are in Distress, I am here, and I am listening. If you need to talk, I will hear you. If you need a shoulder to cry on, mine are strong and broad. If you need a hug, my arms are open. If you need to sit in the corner and cry without judgment, I will sit with you. If you need encouragement, I will cheer you on. If you need prayers, I will offer them up.

I know I am not alone in the offer of help. The world is full of caring, kind, compassionate individuals who will listen and be present. They are willing to lend a hand, give a hug, connect over coffee, offer words of encouragement, or say just the right thing to make you smile. If you need something, we are here. Please… speak up and let someone know. If we all work together, perhaps we can make this world a little friendlier, a bit softer, and just a touch less complicated.