Grief

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As the year began, it was my goal to blog more than last year, and I started out well. But the roller coaster of life took over. Suddenly, like so many friends and acquaintances my age, I experienced the unexpected loss of my father, and I am now navigating the uneven waters of grief.

These waters are thick and heavy, fighting against me as I press forward, day by day, moving ahead with life. I cling to the things I recognize in a life that will now and forever be different.

My journey through these waters is slow and difficult. The current is unpredictable, and the undertow often grabs me and pulls me under when I least expect it, waiting for me to thrash and fight.

Then, just as suddenly, it lets go, and I float to the surface, able to catch my breath—at least for a moment. But by the end of the day, I am exhausted from battling these waves as they come and go only to come again.

Some days, I feel as though I will never write again, and other days, I feel as if I start writing, I will never stop. Writing for me is a necessity—a place to find sense and peace and light.

Grief is where I’ve been hiding, but in time, I am hoping to blog more this year….

The Process of Learning

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At dinner recently, my children mentioned the struggles some of their friends face with their parents. They recounted stories of friends who are grounded for having unacceptable grades when their parents check their Powerschool account.

Ugh, Powerschool. For those not familiar with academic technologies, Powerschool and other similar online grading tools can be valuable for checking on grades and making sure your child is on task, and also allowing them to adjust their studying and homework as necessary before grades close. But this type of technology can just as easily be abused as a micro-management tool.

When I was a student in high school (as with most parents of teenagers today), my parents saw my grades at the end of each quarter when I received my report card. Between report cards, I had the choice of what I would share with them and what I wouldn’t. If I chose not to share an “oops” grade, I had to be pretty certain that I could bring up my grade in that subject before the end of the marking period; and not sharing a bad test grade would give me extra drive and motivation to do so. Nowadays, parents can see grades along the way. Every day, if they’d like. Every. Single. Grade.

Here’s the thing. Learning is actually about growth, not grades. Learning is a process—one that we hone over time—that is sometimes successful, and sometimes not so much. The process of learning requires constant revision and self-evaluation.

Grades are part of the process of learning, and can help students with the self-assessment and re-evaluation necessary for improvement. Grades are not merely a product of the learning process, as people often think.

I work with college writers on a daily basis, and by the time students come to my office, they are already focused on the grade they will receive and not on the process of improving their writing. Very seldom does a day go by when I don’t say to one student or another, “Writing is a process.” Students want to focus on the product—the final, graded draft—and be done with it. But it is a rare writer (at any level) who can write a quality, finished essay the first time around and not have to go back and revise.

Overall, learning is a lot like writing. As students learn more challenging material [or learn a different subject matter … from a different teacher… in a different textbook or context], they have to put into practice what they know about learning, the subject at hand, and their past experiences, all while they constantly adjust their process to fit the situation. What worked last week for one bit of material might not work as well this week. A poor grade on a test or quiz will alert the self-aware student to what is not working, and will allow that student to re-evaluate and revise what he or she is doing.

Come to think of it, this is a lot like life. We are constantly editing and revising; we are examining our approach and making adjustments—fine-tuning, if you will. If we, as parents, don’t step back and offer our children some space to figure things out and some room to grow and examine their own performance, we are teaching them that learning is about the product, in this case, the grade. This parental approach to academics does a grave disservice to our children. Not only are we hijacking our children’s learning process to get the result we desire, we are teaching them that the grade is more important than fostering the innate intellectual curiosity and creativity that comes when they follow their learning in a direction that is of interest to them.

When children are conditioned to only look at the end result—the grade—the fear of failure can become paralyzing. And more than likely, children in this situation will learn not to take risks, but to take the “safe” path. Learning how to deal with failure, on the other hand—how to bounce back from a low essay grade or a bombed test—is a far more effective life lesson than learning to be afraid of failure. They also begin to realize that failure is an integral part of the process.

My son recently completed his first semester in college. For the first half of the semester, he struggled with one particular class—it was a subject he had never studied, and the professor had a well-earned reputation for being tough. In the end, my son received his lowest grade of the term in that course. However, I believe that grade was the one he was most proud of because he learned more about the process of learning, approaching the academic rigors of college, and self-advocacy from that class than he did from all of his other classes put together.

If I were to give advice to parents, I would say, step back. Give your children some room to fall while they still have you there to guide them and help them navigate the rough waters they encounter. Without a little room to figure things out on their own, not only will children have no motivation to get up when they fall, they will not learn how to get back up—to recover from setbacks and move forward.

Let your children stumble so they can assess and reassess and redirect. Help them to learn the important lessons that lead them toward resilience. Now, more than ever, our society is going to be looking for people who can not only face setbacks with grace, but can help others do so, as well.

The Things that are Missing…

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At that university where I work, I meet with student writers from all walks and backgrounds. I mainly meet with undergraduate writers, but I also work with students who are professionals in the midst of careers—returning to school for professional development or to get a degree. And then there are the graduate students who range in age from 22 to 92.

Recently, I met with a woman who was an acquaintance of mine in a former iteration of my life—years ago when I was single and worked a different job. She is in a demanding graduate program, she works full time, and she deals with the every day stresses and curve-balls of life that we all deal with.

She was struggling. Her professor had told her that her final essay could end her participation in the program; she was under more pressure than usual, and she was taking it out on herself. Briefly, she let me in on the frustrations she had with the class—the only class in which she had struggled in the program thus far. Now, she felt the need to put exactly the right words on the page, which is never good for the writing process; she was over-editing because she felt under-confident.

I asked her how many classes she had completed in the program. Seven. And then I reminded her that she had seen me two years earlier—when she had first started her program—feeling almost exactly the same way. And I reminded her that she hadn’t seen me since. “What is it about these two classes that stripped you of your confidence?” I asked her.

Her response had nothing to do with school. She mentioned the loss of a loved one several years earlier; the holiday season without that person; the stresses of her work; a birthday celebration that needed to happen in the midst of everything else. And the pressure to finish this one last paper.

Often at this time of the year, we are too able to focus on what’s missing. The longing for what is missing blurs the present and what we have. And sometimes, we don’t even consciously recognize that we are struggling with loss or stress or the need to be everything to everyone.

And so I say this: be gentle with yourself, not just at this time of year, but always. You are not alone. We are all in this together. Chances are, if you are willing to say, “You know what? I am struggling today,” someone will step in to offer support and to lift you up.

The Best Gift

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My grandmother loved to laugh. She had a bit of a silly sense of humor, which we first began to notice as children, when she made us birthday cakes on which she placed “trick” candles—the kind that we couldn’t blow out.

As I grew older, she would give me gag gifts. These were usually things she came across as she was cleaning out her house. One of the most memorable (because it went back and forth several times) was a crocheted miniature chair that she boxed up, wrapped, and addressed to me from “Nobody.” We had some fun with that chair, including the time I reupholstered it (in the same material she had just used to cover a chair in her home) and gave it back.

In my mind, the best gift I ever gave my grandmother was the silliest and the simplest. It was her birthday, and if my math and memory are right, I believe she was turning 90.

Now, if you have any 90-year-olds in your life, you know they really don’t need much. So I thought long and hard about what I might do for her. And finally, I knew what I would do. I went out and bought a mylar balloon that said, “Happy Birthday!” I put it in a cardboard box, sealed it up, and addressed it to her. In the spot for the return address, I wrote, “Nobody.”

When the package arrived at her house, my aunt handed it to her to open. “There’s nothing in this box!” she chided. “It’s empty!” But (thankfully) she went through the motion of opening it, anyway.

When she pulled open the flaps of the box, the single balloon floated to the ceiling. According to my aunt, my grandmother laughed and laughed and laughed. As my aunt went about her business that day, she would hear my grandmother start laughing all over again.

That was truly the best gift I ever gave. It was also the simplest and probably one of the cheapest—a single balloon in a box. But what I really gave my grandmother that day was the gift of laughter. And in return, I received a memory that I will cherish forever.

[image credit: FreeImages.com/John evans]

Christmas Lights

img_2667It’s nearly winter where I live. The shortest day of the year is less than three weeks away, and the past few days have been particularly dark and dreary with heavy clouds, drenching rain, and murky fog. The rain has offered some needed relief from the months’ long drought, and while it may seem as though I am complaining, I am not. In fact, I find rainy days offer an opportunity for introspection.

But sometimes dreariness lingers, as it has recently. So with the shorter days, I am doubly glad I put up my Christmas tree this week. I am a huge fan of LOTS of lights One small tree (well, it’s a bit taller than I am…), 520 colored lights. (Yep, I like the colored ones). It bathes my living room in a pinkish glow of cozy warmth.

I am intrigued by the fact that so many winter traditions include festivals of lights. Even the early people knew that lighting the deepening darkness was a good thing that might make them happy. As I sit beside my tree in my living room, I am grateful for the thoughtfulness of their traditions.

For the past couple days, I have been seeking refuge in this welcoming light—both early in the morning, as I drink my coffee, and late in the day, when the daily activity of my house is winding down. Over the next month, I will continue to find moments and create excuses to sit by the tree and think and hopefully, write. My blog challenge in November didn’t go as well as I would have liked, so I have downloaded two lists of prompts for December. If my creativity is not sparked by one list, perhaps it will be sparked by the other. And perhaps I will produce extra blog posts this month.

Because … hope. It “springs eternal,” whatever that means. And for this month, at least, I will sit in the light of my Christmas tree as if I am soaking up the vitamin D infused rays of the sun. And I will quietly wait for inspiration to land here with me in this space.

Brain transplant

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Sometimes (actually, often), we have some unusual conversations in our family. The other day, I got in the car with W, and as I settled in to drive, I felt a twinge in my knee. “Ooo, my knee hurts,” I commented, mostly to myself.

“Is that from when you fell?” he asked, and I nodded. Back in January, I was pumping gas, and I attempted to step over the loop of hose between my car and the gas pump. Bad idea. The hose tripped me up, and I fell, my left knee taking the brunt of the landing. Let’s just say after the embarrassment, the tears, and the initial pain, I had recovered, but my knee… it was slow to heal.

“You should probably get that checked before you have to get it replaced,” he said in his fifteen-year-old matter-of-fact way. “I know someone who had one replaced.”

“I know someone who had two replaced,” I bested.

“You know those cars that have so many parts replaced they are practically brand new?” he asked, taking the conversation in a related-unrelated direction.

“Yeah. Can you do that with a human? Replace so many parts and organs they become a ‘new’ person?” I chuckled at the thought.

“That would be weird.” He looked out the window, and that was probably my cue to stop the conversation. But I didn’t.

“What about a brain transplant?” I ventured. “That might make someone a new person.”

“They can’t do that.” He went for the logical, but I wasn’t having it.

“But what if they could?” I pressed. “You would be a new person. You might not even remember who you were; you wouldn’t recognize your family or your friends….” I tried to think about the multitude of dilemmas presented by this type of major operating system transplant.

“You’d have someone else’s memories and thoughts,” W started to engage, but then stopped. “But they don’t do that.”

“Maybe it wouldn’t really be a brain transplant.” My mind was working overtime as I tried to wrap my head around this concept. “Maybe you’d wake up and say, ‘Oh look! I got a new body!’ For the person whose brain it was, it would be a body transplant.”

Oh my! I believe I’m thankful they haven’t figured out how to do this type of surgery. At least they haven’t figured it out yet….

 

 

Anomalies

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Yesterday’s November blog challenge prompt was supposed to be “20 facts about me,” but I wrote something different. Today, I give you Fact #1:

When I was growing up, my father owned a business that was housed in what was once the town fire house and opera house. It was an interesting combination, to say the least, and I’m not exactly sure how that worked. If there was a fire in town, did the show stop while the firemen and trucks clanked out of the building, sirens screaming? I really have no idea, and that is not really the point of this story.

The point is that the building had a working fire pole from the second floor to the first. By “working,” I mean that it was still standing and connected on both ends. And it was sturdy. And since I was a regular visitor to this defunct firehouse, I was presented with the opportunity to take up a career in pole dancing… way before pole dancing became vogue.

However, the phrase “Do not play on the pole” was part of the vernacular of my house. But I have to say, it was sooooo tempting! What kid wouldn’t want to slide down a fire pole? Every time I went down the front stairs (which wasn’t often because the stairs by the stage were the ones we typically used), my eyes would lock on the pole, and I would long to slide down it. Or try to climb up it. Just once.

But I didn’t. The words, “Do not play on the pole,” rang in my head every time I reached my arm out, brushing the cool metal with my fingertips as I walked by. And I know it really wasn’t because they thought I might become an exotic dancer.

Looking back, I realize that this was one of the anomalies of my childhood narrative. Not many people can say that their parents regularly warned them about a fire pole. So I got to wondering… what are some of the anomalies from your childhood narrative?