Spinning

On a recent afternoon, I was working with one of my regular students. She is a first-year student, with whom I have developed a relationship comfortable enough that we joke around a fair amount. In reality, I joke around with most of my students because it helps them to relax and work better with me when I am … redirecting … their writing. And their academic focus.

This particular student has been working with me weekly—or semi-weekly—all semester. During our appointments, we laugh. A lot. And every now and then, we cry because that’s just the way life is.

On this afternoon, however, I was tired—silly tired—and she was working hard on developing a couple of her points before she moved on to her conclusion. As she took the time to think and compose, I started to spin in my desk chair.

“You keep working,” I advised her. “I’m just going to sit here and spin.” And with that, I spun the chair in one direction and then the other. (My office is just small enough that I couldn’t quite spin all the way around without hitting her backpack on the floor or my desk against the wall).

With that announcement, her face lit up with a smile. “You should!” she exclaimed. “Adults don’t take enough time to have fun!”

And you know, based on my experience as an adult, I have to say she’s right. Being a single mom put lots of responsibility squarely on my shoulders, and even though my children are now grown and fully capable of taking care of themselves, I haven’t quite figured out how to shake the weight of my parental duties. I still have a tendency (as we all do) to get busy with the mundane tasks and duties of adulthood, and I don’t take the time to be present, enjoy the moment, and have fun.

So I’m making this my goal into the first few months of 2020. I am going to be intentional about taking time to have fun. I will spin at my desk, regardless of who is watching. I will find opportunities to get away for an hour, a day, or a weekend. I will dance in the rain and play in the snow. I will decorate my house, go to the movies, find some new friends, look for rainbows, and wish on falling stars.

And hopefully, you will too!

{Photo by Scott Higdon 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}

Surrender

At the beginning of this year, I came across a picture of a knitting project—a temperature blanket which is completed at the rate of one row per day. I’m not sure what possessed me to take this on, but the finished product looked intriguing. One row per day. How difficult could that be? On January first, or maybe the second, I selected an array of colors—one for each of the ten-degree temperature ranges we’re likely to experience here in the Northeast. I was ready to create a beautiful blanket. One row per day, I thought. I can commit to that!

It wasn’t long before I realized what I had gotten myself into. As I began to knit my one row each night, I realized I had absolutely no control over what the finished product would look like. I could not choose the color I would use each night. Nope. That was chosen for me based on the temperature that day. Suddenly, I was not the creator of the blanket. I was merely an unwitting tool in the finished product. The blanket was going to be its own story, and it was not my story to tell.

Now here we are, almost halfway through the year. I have kept up with my temperature blanket, and I am finding the results somewhat interesting. My colors are based on the high temperature of the day, and there are occasions when I consider fudging just a bit. Ooo, 59°. Perhaps I could knit a row of yellow, my 60s color… but I don’t.

I’ve realized, knitting a temperature blanket has been a giant lesson in surrender.  And this lesson comes at a time when I desperately need it. My children need my advice more than ever.

But do they really? Shouldn’t they figure things out on their own without me meddling in their business? Without me throwing myself into the decisions that will ultimately prepare them to face more and more challenging decisions? Shouldn’t I let them be?

They don’t need me the way they once did, and this is a challenging place for a parent. I won’t always be here, and I know my job is to let them flounder until they ask. My job is to give them the confidence that they have the skills they need. My job is to surrender control and trust that I have done my job in preparing them for exactly this. Even though I might want to help them out just this once… I have to let it go. I have to let them soar or fall so they will learn how to keep moving.

I may not like it any more than I like switching to a colder (or warmer) color in my knitting. But that’s exactly why knitting this blanket at this time has given me such a great lesson. I am not the one in control. I have to let go. My children are ready to tell their own stories.

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.”

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.

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.

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.