Welcome to Monique Writes All

Life is hard.

And beautiful.

And, if we are honest, sometimes downright ridiculous.

Often, one of the things that can make our lives even more absurd is the lack of authenticity in the world around us. From social media to the workplace to our families, it’s sometimes tempting to put a spin on everything we say and do. We might not talk about “real” things, and we tend to drift through our day to day, not connecting authentically with the people around us.

This, I hope, can be a place where we can talk about life – in all its magnificent, ridiculous, beauty and madness. It’s a place where I hope we can think about parenting – and about how to connect with our aging parents, too. Being an educator, I also expect to share stories about what I’m learning as a lifelong teacher and student of life. It’s a place to reflect on spirituality – and the crazy questions that we might have, too.

I hope Monique Writes is a place where you can feel encouraged, inspired, and a little more connected – both to others and to your day-to-day.

If you like the sound of this, I hope you will subscribe by email, and share this blog with your friends. If you have ideas about what you’d like to see here, I hope you will share that, too.

Welcome!

 

post

A Chat with God: Prayer number 204,108

Hi there, God.

It’s me.

I wanted to take a minute to tell you that I realize you’ve probably grown a little sick of me lately.

Truth is, I have been talking to you more than I have during some previous seasons in life. (Apparently, having teenagers, aging parents and sick friends can have that effect on even a spiritual midget like me.)

But I’m realizing that I owe you an apology — because while I say I’ve been talking to you, I’ve really spent a lot more time talking at you.

I’ve told you a lot.

About what I want.

What I believe I need.

Even what – Lord, help me in my cluelessness – I believe that I deserve. (Thanks for not giving me that, God.)

Today, you reminded me that I’ve taken my focus off what’s important. I know I should be doggedly focused on what I should be doing – what you have called me to do. Instead of focusing on what I want, I should be focusing on how I can be of use to the world.

At the same time, I also should be focused more not just on what I should do, but who it is you want me to be – a person who gives sacrificially – of resources and time and

Some of that plays out in my professional work, God. I get caught up in comfort and what the salary is or isn’t, instead of thinking about where and how I can make the most difference in the world.

I also tend to get too focused on work – as though my difference-making is limited to the hours of 8-5. In doing that, I forget about the importance of serving you – and your people – both on the clock and off it.

I’ve been pretty picky about where I believe I should be of use, God. I’ve told you a lot lately about where I think I should go. What I should do. And how you really should do me a solid and make a thing or three happen.

Today, I heard a favorite song – one that I like so much that my friend Kimberly actually sang it at my wedding. (I know you know it, God. You were there. But for those who weren’t, it’s called “Daystar,” and my favorite version is by the Gaither Vocal Band. It’s total Old, White People Trying to be Semi-Cool in Church music, but for whatever reason I’ve never quite been able to help myself. I am a sucker for this song.)

“Lead me Lord, I’ll follow, anywhere you open up the door.

Let your word speak to me, show me what I’ve never seen before.

Lord I want to be your witness, so you can take what’s wrong and make it right.

Daystar shine down on me, let your love shine through me, in the night.”

I belted this song out with such conviction at 21, God. Even at 30. But now, in my forties? We’ve got bills, man. My kids eat a freakish amount of food. And their public school is always asking for $20. We absolutely bleed $20 bills, God.

And there’s not a clear end in sight. In four years, we expect to have our first child in college. And then the next year, we anticipate the second one joining her. Also, please don’t get me started on medical, dental and vision bills, God. Even with insurance, the bills are outrageous.

I realize these are teeny, tiny problems – if they are even problems at all. I’ve worked with so many children and families that have food anxiety. Have been homeless. Have absolutely no hope of ever earning a living wage. Despite my behavior, I know how fortunate I have been, and I know that really, I’ve been far more lucky than I deserve.

Really, God. I just plain don’t know how you put up with me.

You’ve always cared for me. You have always opened just the right door at just the right time – personally, professionally. With every move we’ve ever made, individually or as a family, you’ve been faithful.

And so I repent, God. I have been an absolute brat. I know that I need to return to the open, faith-filled pledge that I so comfortably made at 21. “Lead me Lord, I’ll follow, anywhere you open up the door. Let your word speak to me, show me what I’ve never seen before.”

Thanks for the iTunes-fueled reminder, God. And for your patience. Also thanks for those crazy, college-oriented, food bill-boosting kids of mine. I know what a privilege it is to even have them here with me to worry about. And I know they are on loan from you. Please know that I really do appreciate even having a mind and a voice to ask these questions of you.

Let’s talk again soon, ok?

I promise to continue working to make it a two-way conversation. And thanks again for not giving me what I deserve.

 

Finding and Keeping Friends in a Busy Season is Hard: Here’s My Plan

huntertrike

Nine years ago, this guy was careening around the playground of his Montessori preschool, racing his Wiggles and Spiderman-loving friends on a tricycle and getting reprimanded by his sweet, patient teacher because he thought crashing was the most fun a guy could ever have.

Today, he is trying to master the art of shaving.

I absolutely, positively can’t fathom how we got to this point, where our children are 13 and 14. In four years, my oldest child will likely be headed off to college. And one year after that, her brother will likely follow and we will be left with an “empty nest.”

As this reality is hitting me right between the eyes, there is a huge part of me that wants – more than ever – to spend every waking moment with both of my kids.

I’ve always made time with them a huge priority, building my career and lifestyle around them at every turn.

In this season, I am becoming more intentional than ever about addressing certain topics – tough topics like when to walk away from an unsupportive friend, how to know when you truly want to “date” another person, traits you might look for in a marital partner, the dangers of exposing the brain to addictive substances in adolescence, battling gender and racial stereotypes and inequity, potential triggers for eating disorders, choosing a career …..

Every car ride seems especially important, because before I know it, they will be driving themselves most places. Their free time will increasingly be taken up with high school activities, friends, studies and jobs. And all of that is exactly as it should be. This, after all, is what we’ve been preparing them for from the moment we brought them home from the hospital.

But in some ways, a lot of this whole family-life balance struggle feels like a bit of a cruel setup.

On one hand, I have the instinct to spend every spare moment I can manage with each of them. Yet, I know that if I make them the absolute center of my universe, then I will be setting myself – and possibly them — up for failure in this next season.

Our immediate family – probably because we have moved several times together and don’t have much extended family – tends to be rather clannish. We appreciate and guard our time together. We all actually really, really like each other, and we sometimes don’t let others into our little world as a result.

So in this season, I find myself realizing that in order to successfully navigate the coming years, I will need strong, honest friendships to get me through. And, I hope, I will increasingly have time and energy to support others in friendships.

I am trying to strategically resolve this tension between time with family and the need for keeping existing friends and making new ones, being honest and realistic about what I have to give and what I might need in return.

Here’s how I’ve gone about this intentional effort so far:

  • One recommendation of Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project and creator of the Happier podcast, is to create a “standardized vacation” with friends. I currently have the beginnings of two standardized vacations in the works – both two-to-three-day trips with friends from our time in Texas. Even though I know that I won’t realistically be able to make the 8-hour drive to Houston often, keeping in contact with friends so we can continue to communicate by phone, texting, etc. in authentic ways seems more likely if I know I will see them face-to-face at least once or twice a year.
  • Education guru Harry Wong says “you are always invited if you are the one throwing the party.” I’ve always adored this quote, because Wong makes it clear that we shouldn’t just sit around hoping to be included. One way to be included is to include, first. With this concept in mind, I have started a little “no-homework book club,” which I hope will meet monthly. Because I know my friends are as busy as I am, we aren’t doing a traditional book club, where everyone has to read the same book and come prepared to discuss. Instead, each gathering will be an opportunity for everyone to quickly share a little about a book they have read – either recently or in the distant past – that they enjoyed. They might talk about why the book was appealing, or they can just read a favorite excerpt. Easy. Low-pressure. Meaningful. I’m excited, and the other people signed up to come seem excited, too.
  • I’ve been intentionally scheduling one-on-one weekday dinners to catch up with existing friends I want to maintain contact with and/or get to know better. Social media can sometimes lull me into thinking that I know what is going on with friends. But of course, social media isn’t telling me the full story – just as they aren’t getting a truly accurate depiction of my life from Facebook and Instagram. Because our weekends tend to be so consumed with sports and church activities, as well as chores, I’ve chosen weeknight dinners with friends as a way to connect. I try to go early so that I can stop and meet on the way home from work, visit for a while and still get home in time to check in with the kids about their days before they are asleep.
  • Re-committing to regular community service. My very favorite people are those who choose to spend their lives in service to others. It’s one reason I have always gotten along well with my co-workers in journalism and education. Since moving back to my home state, we’ve done more “on our own” service projects, where we see a simple need and fill it. But by recommitting to regular service with others, I know that we will build those connections. Few things are more sacred to me – and to our family – than coming together and serving with other like-minded people. I can’t afford to let that go untended.

So far, I am happy with this  plan. I’m excited about the potential it gives me to strengthen existing connections that are important to me, while also building some new ones. And at the same time, I’m also being honest with myself about how much time I have to give and I’m honoring my commitment to put my family first during this season.

What about you? How do you make sure you build and maintain the connections you need to navigate life? Have you tried any of my suggestions? Would they work for you? Is making time for friends hard? Why or why not?

 

 

 

“I think that you are ruining my life.” Lessons We’ve Learned Moving with Kids

mississippimove

“I think that you are ruining my life,” my normally collected, empathetic daughter said, as she looked at me evenly three years ago this week. “We like it here and this is where we should stay.”

This uncharacteristic reaction came on a Saturday morning, when we told her that the family was moving from the Houston suburbs back to my home state of Mississippi once school was out.

The move was one my husband and I had been strategizing for years, in part because we knew that we needed to be closer to my aging parents and partly because we knew the move would be good for our lifestyle, respective careers and bottom line.

Even though we viewed the move as a positive change, my husband and I got precious little sleep during the days leading up to the move. We had so many questions about how our children – who were 11 and 12 at the time – would transition.

We felt tremendous guilt, too, because we were taking them away from a caring support network there in Texas, where I had been incredibly fortunate to teach at their neighborhood elementary school.

Happily, by the time we left for Mississippi in June, the kids had given us more buy-in. They liked the house we had purchased and they were increasingly excited about some of the things our new school community had to offer. The time we would save by not sitting in traffic also seemed like a precious gift.

Still, there were tough, heart-wrenching moments and more than a few tears were shed as we prepared for the move.

Now, three years after that initial family announcement, here are some of the things that we believe this big event taught us.

1) People are happy to help you – let them. Through the wonders of the Internet and social media, we were able to connect with people from the kids’ schools and sports teams before we ever crossed the state line. We asked questions about neighborhoods and schools, sports teams and test scores and commuting patterns. Some of the people we talked to have remained in our lives, and others didn’t. But we still appreciate each of those people like crazy for the ways they helped to support us during a stressful time.

2) Family closeness matters more than ever in a move. People often tell me that our two kids are unusually close. Some of this is by design, since I am a recovering only child who still absolutely despises coming from a tiny, disjointed little family. During those early months after the move, we took extra comfort in reminiscing over the past, while also looking to the future we were building together. My kids have always been each other’s favorite pals, but their connection was stronger and more important than ever during the transition. Because we knew the family needed to stick extra close, we also budgeted in some extra time to be together during that first year – a luxury that I know everyone doesn’t have, but one I would encourage anyone who can to consider.

3) Give yourself and your kids time to adjust to their new environment before they return to their old one. Our kids texted and talked with their friends back home often and this definitely seemed to help them during the transition – and continues to help them feel secure and healthy today. Still, we passed on some of those early invitations to head back to Texas for long weekends and holidays. While it might not be true for everyone, we knew that our kids needed to fully embrace their new home before they returned for a visit. Emotionally living in both lands wouldn’t have worked for them – it might not work for your family, either.

4) Be aware of the tendency to idealize your former location on difficult days. Our family spent about three months preparing for the move. This was actually an excruciatingly long time, and we honestly grew weary of saying goodbye to people and even places that we loved repeatedly. The up side of this, though, is we were able to also spend some time beginning to make note of the negatives where we were living. I often told them: “When you move, your brain is going to try to trick you into believing that this place is perfect. But no place is perfect. When your new home isn’t quite what you want on a particular day, remember how annoying (insert specific circumstance) was, too.”

5) Remember that kids are more resilient than we might expect. When my daughter accused us of ruining her life, part of me knew she was being dramatic. But another part of me was terrified that she was right. Still, despite a few inevitable middle school ups and downs, she was actually the first of our two children to agree that the move had been a good one. Today, if she had to decide whether to return to Texas or stay here, she says she would choose to remain. Our son says the same thing, most days.

6) Don’t associate every post-move challenge with the move itself. We had some rough patches that first year – some mean girl madness, some power struggles and a few squirrely behaviors surfaced. It was tempting, during those moments, to assume that if we hadn’t moved these things wouldn’t have happened. But when we looked at situations critically, we recognized that most of the challenges of that first year were the result of normal life and child development – not the move itself.

7) Accept that the life you are envisioning in your new place won’t quite look like you imagine. There were perceived benefits to our move that never quite panned out – certain relationships and connections didn’t go the way we expected. Some of the places we expected to enjoy turned out not to be our favorites. But other wonderful, surprising benefits surfaced as we kept open minds. Life doesn’t stay the same when you are living in one place. Certainly in a move expectations will need to shift, too.

Moves are admittedly hard – and they are far trickier when you have children in junior high or high school. If you are preparing for a move yourself, expect some sleepless nights and difficult days.

But also know that if you let fear and “what ifs” hold you back, you risk missing out on amazing adventures.

 

 

 

The Magic of Strangers – in Target and Beyond

sunglasses

Don’t talk to strangers.

It’s something I heard often growing up, and it’s something I’ve found myself telling my own kids more than a few times – especially when they were wild-haired, free-wheeling preschoolers who would say or do almost anything.

But it’s also incredibly bad advice.

(As my son asked in kindergarten, “If I never talk to strangers, how will I ever get to meet anyone new?”)

This week, two of my favorite memories were made with the help of strangers.

I ran into our area Target one night, looking for a few St. Patrick’s Day “happies” for my kids. When I hit the sunglasses section, I was immediately greeted by a dimpled, shout-talking boy of about eight.

“Isn’t the World Amazing?”

The boy, clad in an aqua-colored shirt that urged onlookers to “stay awesome” grabbed my hand and urged me to start trying on sunglasses.

“These make the store look pink!” he shrieked, wide-eyed. “And these make it look green! And look! Look! These make it look yellow! Isn’t the world amazing?”

Initially, I was in a hurry. But I sensed my day would be a little brighter if I spent some extra time with this young philosopher of a boy.

I made eye contact with a nearby girl who introduced herself as the boy’s (very patient but tired) older sister. “I’m really sorry,” she said, shaking her head.

“No! No!” I said, smiling. “I’m an educator and a mom. I totally get it. And if I’m honest, this is a conversation I need to have today.”

The girl looked grateful, and I took that as my blessing to visit a little more.

We spent about 10 minutes just talking about sunglasses. We experimented with what it was like to have one tinted pair after another on. Then, we started trying to predict what color we would see if we put on two different pairs at once.

Yellow and red, I “discovered” with my new friend, made orange. Blue and yellow tints, of course, made green. Red and blue gave us purple.

It was science, yes. But it felt like downright magic was happening to me right there with a pile of $12.99 Mad in China sunglasses.

My friend and I eventually parted – me to run errands, and him to rejoin his mother in another part of the store.

“Hey, Miss!” he called to me as he walked away. “Buy you some sunglasses, ok? And remember all the colors. The world really is amazing.”

Amazing, little man. Amazing, indeed.

“Look at the Ducks! Look at the Ducks!”

Later in the week, I had a little spring break fun with my family in Memphis. While there, I completed one of my bucket list items – to see the ducks escorted into the Peabody Hotel fountain downtown.

There is a great deal of fanfare surrounding the Peabody Duck March, which is held each day when the ducks arrive at 11 a.m., and again when they depart at 5 p.m. The Grand Duck Master gives a speech about the ducks’ history, and guests are prepared for what to expect upon arrival.

We were lucky enough to be at the Duck March the same day as a group visiting for their 60th high school graduation anniversary. They were a close-knit and friendly group of septuagenarians. Both my husband and daughter were asked to help people with their Iphone cameras. One man told me about life with a pacemaker. Someone else talked to me about gardening petunias. Although we were all crammed in close, everyone was in good spirits.

But no one was in better spirits than class member Ed, who was so stunningly jazzed about the ducks. He was so enthusiastic he couldn’t sit still, constantly announcing the remaining minutes until the ducks’ arrival and checking in to make sure his classmates understood his level of excitement. When about five minutes remained, he set off to find the elevator that would bring the ducks to the lobby.

Some in the group seemed a little relieved Ed had taken off on his own.

“That Ed just gets so, so excited,” one lady by me said, shaking her head but smiling in spite of herself.

“That’s Ed,” another added, eyebrows raised. “He’s always been that way but probably more so now.”

My family and I settled in, waiting. Just when we’d forgotten about Ed, he was suddenly right in front of us, Iphone waving inches from my corneas. “Look at the ducks! Look at the ducks! They just got off the elevator! They are off the elevator! I have a picture of them! This is what they look like, right here!”

He showed us the picture before dashing to the next group.

When the ducks arrived, I could no longer see Ed. But I could still hear him, clapping and calling. “The ducks! Oh! The ducks! Aren’t they just marvelous! Marvelous!”

And I suddenly felt so overcome with gratitude – for Ed and for the ducks and for every person in that lobby who slowed down and gathered together to see the simple act of five ducks waddling up to a hotel fountain. The ducks were marvelous. And so was Ed, with all his grinning enthusiasm and unabashed clapping and dashing about.

Thinking about it now, it strikes me that both Ed and my young friend in Target showed tremendous courage. Because life sometimes isn’t kind to people who are enthusiastic – who leap about, expressing unbridled excitement about sunglasses or ducks on an elevator. It can seem a little silly. Or unseasoned. Sometimes, the things we are excited about might fall short of the expectations of others and we might look a little foolish.

You’ve never seen sunglasses before? It’s just five ducks! What’s the big deal?

But if we can maintain our focus – and are lucky enough to sometimes have strangers remind us – there is so much to be excited about day to day.

So try on the sunglasses. Celebrate the ducks. And love the people who show you how to do that like crazy – even if they are the strangers your mama warned you about.

How Do We Know You Belong?: A Lesson in Gatekeeping

identity

“Now sweetie, who’re your mama and your daddy?”

It was a question that I had to answer during almost every journalism assignment I completed during high school and college, when I was fortunate enough to have a job at my hometown daily newspaper.

I always answered the question comfortably.

“My mom is a substitute teacher and my dad’s retired from the Army. Now, he works as a security guard at the guard base.”

Most people would drop the questions at that point, but a dogged few would continue.

“The daughter of a security guard and a substitute teacher!” one silver-haired woman with a noticeably tight facelift once exclaimed. “Now sweetie, how in the world did you get this job?”

Looking back, I was never bothered much by the questions, even though I knew it was society’s way of saying, “who are you to be here?” But I did assume that in time, the questions about my background would stop, allowing me to be viewed independently of my family background.

What I didn’t know then is that life seems hell-bent on finding ways to sort all of us into neat categories, where our worth – and even our futures – can be easily assessed and assigned. I’m 44 today, and I still get those same questions.

In time, the answer of who I am – and even who my mama and daddy are – has become more nuanced.

I’m a kid, it’s true, of the wrong side of the tracks in an East Mississippi town.

I’m also the child of a substitute teacher and a security guard.

But those same people are more than what their jobs might indicate. The substitute teacher, you see, is a documented immigrant fluent in seven languages. While neither of my parents has a college degree, my father got close thanks to the education provided through his Montgomery GI bill. He can talk sociology and psychology, politics and religion with the most educated among us.

Other Identities – None of them Simple

I’ve picked up experiences and identities of my own.

At 14, I found out I’m an adoptee. Around the same time, I developed my identity as a writer. I was raised a Southern Baptist, then turned to the Assemblies of God church, independent evangelical churches for a while, and have now landed squarely in the United Methodist Church.

I’m still that kid from the wrong side of town, but I’m also someone who spent 10 years in Southern California’s Inland Empire and six years in the oil-rich Houston suburbs. While my parents didn’t have any college degrees to their names, I now have four to mine. I’ve been a journalist but also a public relations director, a teacher and an education advocate.

More recently, I’ve found my biological family and have started to integrate what I know about them into my identity. That’s been important but also challenging.

It shouldn’t come as a shock, but it does surprise me that when I do newspaper work these days in Meridian, the question still comes. “Now, who are your people? Who’s your family? Where are you from?” I get similar questions as I navigate the state as an educator.

The questions often seem like an effort at not-so-subtle gatekeeping. Do you belong here? Who are you to tell my story? Who are you to educate my children?

I Am ….

So here is who I am:

The daughter of a substitute teacher and a security guard.

Also the daughter of a nurse.

I am most everything I am today because of my hometown – Meridian, Mississippi. I still see the faces of my teachers and classmates several nights a week in my dreams. (And I always relish meeting everyone there.)

The town of Love, Maryland, is also mine.

It was named after some of my ancestors on my biological father’s side. They were hard-working, civic-minded Catholics interested in building a town that would provide a good quality of life to everyone who came.

I’m a Mississippi community college girl married to an Alabama community college boy. I’m also the product of a small, fairly exclusive private liberal arts college in Southern California, where I earned my doctorate. I was able to attend in part because I was lucky enough to land a job as an employee, and that job provided me with a deep tuition discount.

I’m a journalist – an outsider, in many ways, always set apart, always asking hard questions and never quite a part of some activities and projects because neutrality is the expectation.

I’m a nurturing and passionate teacher and an education administrator. Almost nothing in this world makes me prouder than thinking about the struggling students I’ve taught to read or the families I’ve supported through tragic times. I would absolutely hurl myself in front of a bus for any of my students and families, even years after they’ve been under my direct care.

I’ve been a college professor – and I’m thankful that some of those college students still choose to talk to me today.

I’m a wife and a mom of two junior high aged children. Their childhoods are turning out very different from mine. I’m thankful for the opportunities they have that I did not. But I also make sure they have at least some of the experiences that shaped me. They are just as comfortable talking to people who are mentally ill, who are homeless, who don’t speak English well – as they are speaking to their suburban neighbors. There is little I wouldn’t do for them to continue to learn and grow this way.

I’ve been and continue to be a suburban mom. I’m a wildly proud Mississippi and former Texas public school parent. My husband and I will fight for quality public schools –for our kids and for others. We are soccer parents and baseball and football parents. Nothing makes us prouder than watching our boy bang on a drum in his school band or to see our daughter acting in a school theater production.

We are all of these things – and we are the sum of all of these complex experiences.

People still ask me – in ways subtle and not so subtle: “What gives you the right to be here? Who are you to tell our stories? To educate our children? To strive for more, for your children or for ours?”

And I have to say, I have these rights because I am me – a human with complex identities, some that make me similar and some that make me “othered.”

I am all of these things. I know what it means to be on the outside and I also know what it looks like to build bridges and connections to the inside.

I’m glad to be here.

Thanks for having me.

I hope you know I’m glad that you are here, too.

 

How to Get Yourself “Unstuck”

bubble-gum-438404_1920

It’s been a while since I’ve written.

And while I could make up a long list of excuses about how busy I’ve been and why I haven’t shared here, the truth is that I’ve been hiding from my own writing.

I’ve spent the last few months feeling a little stuck – while also struggling with some realities of middle aged life, work, parenting and care taking. (Ever been there?)

I’m incredibly grateful to report that I feel myself rallying – returning to the things that make me passionate, excited and hopeful about our collective future.

How did I get back to this place? What does it take to get yourself “unstuck?”

I will tell you that for me, it wasn’t just something I had to “shake off.” It was an intentional process that involved just as much intellectual work as effort of the heart.

Here are some of the actions I have took – and am continuing to take – in order to reclaim myself.

1) I had to identify what, precisely, was making me feel so stuck. I hid from this truth for several weeks, busying myself with day-to-day life to avoid thinking about what was bothering me and why.

Then, my stubborn, normally reliable body apparently decided to claim that time for me. Two painful (and brutally expensive) root canals have left me with ample time for reflection.

And in that time, I’ve realized something: there is a calling that has been slowly and steadily whispered in my ear that I’ve been avoiding. Every time it started to call out to me, I turned up the radio; picked up my pace. I hit the gym, the movies – anything to keep from hearing this challenging and transformative call.

But I’m hearing it loud and clear now. And I am beginning to be honest about this call with those who are closest to me – those who are both safe havens and able to help make the vision a reality. Even while my circumstances have not changed, I feel far less “stuck.”

2) I am being intentional again about my social and civic connections. Being stuck is draining. It sometimes even makes us uncomfortable around the passionate people in our lives that are living their purpose and thriving. One way I am doing this is by starting a group of some sort. The verdict is still out on whether it will be a book club or a Bunco night or a dinner and dialogue gathering. But I know that I am lucky enough to have a list of people I want to get to know better. And as I’m becoming less “stuck,” I feel more free and empowered and comfortable reaching out.

3) I’ve developed a plan for making my new vision reality. This plan is going to take a little time. It will involve an awful lot of networking and heart and, admittedly, a bit of luck, too. It might not happen right away – or even in the next year. But there is power in taking small steps, every day, to make this dream closer to reality. Sometimes, just taking the next right step allows you to feel less stuck, even if your circumstances have not yet changed.

4) I’m making more time for the things that help me feel fulfilled. Community service is a way of life for my family. We believe strongly that we have an obligation to support the most vulnerable among us – the children struggling with broken families, homeless veterans, moms who don’t know where they will find their next meal. But for some reason, when I am stuck I shy away from these acts. I make excuses or fill my calendar with less rewarding things – partly, I suppose, because in serving, I know I will be reminded of the calling I’ve been ignoring.

5) I return to a place of gratitude. I’m not a big fan of self-help books and programs. They’ve never quite felt effective to me. And instead of helping me to move beyond a challenge, I find that the book or program just encourages me to spend more time stewing over something negative. I am happy for and encouraged by people who are helped by such people. But for me? The best thing I can do to move past a feeling of being “stuck” is to focus less on the problem and more on gratitude. This gratitude brings a calmness to me – and it also prevents me from hyper-focusing on the areas of my life that needs addressing to the point it isn’t healthy. Gratitude reminds me that while I am working to improve a situation, the life that I have is already one for which to be grateful.

So, in writing this post, I make a declaration: I am back. Back as a writer and back as a thinker – back as a person who works to connect with others and to live a life that is authentic and packed with purpose. I hope that in sharing this, those of you who are or have been stuck will feel a little less alone. And maybe, some of the tips here will work for you, too.

What about you? Have you ever felt stuck? What was the cause? How did you move forward? What’s next for you?

Got Plans this Weekend? Don’t Fear “Nothing”

Monique Writes All

woman doing nothing

“I am so, so excited about this weekend!” my co-worker said Friday, smiling broadly.

Me, “Yeah? Are you going to the (Mississippi) Book Festival? Or the leadership event the Stennis Institute is having? Or are you headed out of town? Or ….”

“No! I am so excited! I don’t have anything to do! Can you believe it? I can’t wait,” my friend explained.

This was one of several similar interactions I had with female friends and colleagues as the weekend loomed. Everyone was so. Incredibly. Excited. All to be doing exactly nothing!

The idea made me laugh, as I recalled my junior high and high school days, when no plans on the weekend left me sprawled out on the couch, dramatically complaining to my parents about how tragic it was that I “had absolutely no life.”

I called my best friend on the way home Friday night – just to…

View original post 500 more words

Got Plans this Weekend? Don’t Fear “Nothing”

woman doing nothing

“I am so, so excited about this weekend!” my co-worker said Friday, smiling broadly.

Me, “Yeah? Are you going to the (Mississippi) Book Festival? Or the leadership event the Stennis Institute is having? Or are you headed out of town? Or ….”

“No! I am so excited! I don’t have anything to do! Can you believe it? I can’t wait,” my friend explained.

This was one of several similar interactions I had with female friends and colleagues as the weekend loomed. Everyone was so. Incredibly. Excited. All to be doing exactly nothing!

The idea made me laugh, as I recalled my junior high and high school days, when no plans on the weekend left me sprawled out on the couch, dramatically complaining to my parents about how tragic it was that I “had absolutely no life.”

I called my best friend on the way home Friday night – just to say, oddly, that I would love to see her this weekend, but that really, I was just too darned tired. I needed to do nothing. She agreed that she, too, was tired. And that what she really needed was …. nothing. We had a good laugh, recalling our younger selves, who would have feared we were utter losers without plans.

I think there is something of a rebellion among women – especially moms – within my demographic. Women in their forties and fifties – often with children and aging parents – are just plain tired of being told they “need” to do – or have or be – one more thing.

A number of women I know are in a season of simplifying their lives. If a possession or time commitment (or even a relationship) doesn’t bring them joy or purpose they are cutting it loose.

Some are downsizing their homes, even as their children are growing and taking up more space than ever. I’ve known others who have scaled back their work lives, or resigned from prestigious community positions.

I’ve never been a person who has struggled to toss possessions that no longer bring me joy. (I got rid of a container someone gave me to heat up tortillas this morning because, well, why do I need an actual container for that?) I take pictures of my kids’ arts and crafts and toss those things, too. (If my mom has taught me anything, it’s that “Roaches and rats love paper, Muhneeeeek. Shudder.)

Commitments are a little tougher. I’m thankful for people who are interested in spending time with me – even when deep down they aren’t people I especially like or think like me. And I also am thankful for any of the organizations I am part of for believing in me and thinking that I have something to contribute. Sometimes I feel that if a person or organization is interested in me, I owe it to them to return the favor.

At the same time, I’m also realizing that if I don’t have that “nothing” time – time to just think and be and, perhaps, walk or run or sprawl – then I don’t have anything left to contribute. If I don’t have a little bit of “nothing” I become less of myself.

When I look at the times when I don’t write, they are always seasons when I am depleted. I’m so busy that I don’t have time to think beyond immediate decisions and needs. And without thought, creation can’t come – in my writing or in my work or in my home.

I think that’s what all those female friends were really saying on Friday.

“Thank God! Rest and rejuvenation is coming! Can you believe it?”

There is nothing boring about nothing. We need it. Badly. And we need to treasure it and protect it so that, come Monday, we are ready to begin building and creating and growing again.

So, “nothing” on, friends. Nothing …..

Thoughts for My Children As They Start Another Year of Junior High

first day

Well, kids, here we are.

This is the year.

If there is one thing you know about me, it’s that I try to be optimistic in all things. But it’s time you were aware of something: there was a day, 12.5 years ago, when postpartum hormones were still pumping through my veins. I touched your beautiful, soft, apple-shaped cheeks and I wept. And then I wept some more.

The tears would not stop. And the reason was because it hit me that one day I would have both a seventh and eighth grader in my house. And the idea of what you – and we all – might go through during that potentially crazy, heart-wrenching, unpredictable season scared me to death.

That day has now come.

There are many things that comfort me in this inevitably terrifying time. First, despite a few concerns here and there, I actually still really, really like you. Don’t get me wrong. I knew I would always, always love you. But the liking you – really enjoying you and wanting to be around you? It’s still there, too. And in fact, it’s stronger than ever. Thank you for that.

You two are some stunningly smart, quirky, kind people. And you really do want, day to day, to make good choices. I’m not as terrified today as I was when you were babies. But I have to be honest, I’m still pretty darned nervous about this year. There’s just so much potential for heartache. And disappointment. And hurt.

I wish I could safeguard you against the pain that will inevitably come at some point this year. (And the pain that came last year, too, come to think of it.) That’s impossible, but I wanted to at least share a few tips/ideas for you as you enter this season.

Humor your mom, will you? (And maybe someone else out there will find comfort in these, too.)

Don’t Worry About Being Popular

I know I tell you this one all the time. But I just want to emphasize it to you once more. I could care less if you have one friend or 1 million. Popularity is a crock, because the thing about popularity is that it’s fleeting.

I had a co-worker years ago who always said, “Everyone loves a winner until they win too much.” There’s a truth in that. People love to build you up and then tear you right back down. It makes them feel – sadly – more important.

What is popular one day will be unpopular the next. And the ways that you have to contort yourself to fit the constantly changing standards of popularity just plain aren’t worth the damage that is done to your soul. Make decisions that you can live with and feel good about. That is all that matters.

Do Your Best, But Don’t Worry Too Much about Recognition

Maybe this one will surprise you. I know Dad and I have a wide streak of competitiveness in us. We like to win, and we like to see you win, too. (You may have noticed this from years of hearing us scream like maniacs for you in soccer/baseball/football/basketball/volleyball/swimming.) But the thing about prizes and recognitions is that often, the focus is on doing better than others. And in life, there will be times that you will be the smartest or the most athletic or the most successful in the room. But there will be many more times that you won’t be the very best around. Someone is usually worse, and someone is usually better.

That’s how life works. (Besides, if you are always the smartest or most capable person in the room, you are probably in the wrong room, because how in the world will you ever learn anything?)

Another problem with setting your sights on being recognized by others is that sometimes the deck is stacked against you. It’s no secret to you that some kids and families get special treatment – maybe because of whom their parents are, or what they have, or the pressure they have applied behind the scenes to get special treatment. Other times, you might be overlooked because, while some might find you to be lovely kids, you inevitably won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. You aren’t for everyone, and everyone isn’t for you. Sometimes this includes grownups. And that’s ok, as long as you are respectful of the authority they have been given over you.

You can’t control many of the factors that go into being picked for awards or recognitions. You will win some and you will definitely lose some, too.

So, instead of trying to beat others, try to be your very best. Think about how you want to finish this year. What do you want to end the year knowing that you have done? What do you want to have learned? How do you want to have behaved? What experiences would you like to have had? Focus on those things. That is what you can control and that is what will serve you best in life and in learning.

The Most Interesting Adults Often Had the Most Awkward Junior High Years

The people I like the most seem to have one thing in common: junior high was hell on earth for them. They were awkward. Their skin was weird. Their hair did strange things. They stumbled and stammered. Their teeth didn’t quite seem to fit their faces for a season. They were sensitive. Maybe they cried more than others thought normal. Maybe they snorted when they laughed. Or had really, really runny noses. Maybe they liked cartoons or Star Wars or Dungeons and Dragons a little more than other people thought was OK.

And in all that weirdness and awkwardness, they developed actual personalities. They became some of the funniest and most insightful people on the planet. Maybe their experiences gave them empathy. Maybe they learned to laugh at themselves. Maybe all that time alone in the cafeteria gave them the time they needed to begin thinking the interesting thoughts that make them who they are today. During the hardest time, remember that this season probably isn’t the best season in your life. But it is preparing you for something amazing.

No One Really Has It All Together

You know that girl that seems to have it all figured out? The boy that has the perfect hair that everyone on campus seems to adore? I promise you they feel as ridiculous as you do. They, too, aren’t fully comfortable in their skin. That seems to be one of the biggest themes of these years – just learning to be comfortable within yourself. And it takes everyone a little time and a whole lot of work.

Recently, I talked to some of my fringe friends from junior high. They were the ones I once envied, because I truly believed that if I could just be them, I would never again feel the pain of being awkward and unwanted. I asked these people how they remembered junior high – what it was like to be the people who had it all figured out.

They had no idea what I was talking about! “Those were the worst years of my life!” one Perfect One said. “I am so embarrassed by how I acted and how I behaved then.” “I hated myself every day.” “I felt so unloved.”

I’ve never seen an actual study on this, but I really do believe that your hormones conspire to trick your brain in junior high. They convince you that you are uglier, more clueless and more awkward than anyone else in the entire city.

And yet, the thing is, that can’t possibly be true, because everyone is feeling the same thing at the same time. You are totally fine. And even if you are having a bad hair or skin day, know that it really doesn’t matter as much as you think. No one is thinking about or watching you too terribly much. They are all too busy worrying about themselves. Seriously.

Don’t Get Too Focused on Yourselves

You’ve been taught to serve others and to do it often. You already know it’s important to give water and clothes and food to people who are homeless. You encourage kids younger than you in your volunteer work at the library and the hospital, and spend time with seniors who are afraid of being forgotten. We’ve talked a lot about doing that because it’s good and it’s right. Much has been given to you, and so much is expected.

You need to know now that there is another reason to do good: serving others can absolutely, positively save your life. Taking our minds off our own challenges and struggles and recognizing how we can make the world a little better is one of the things most worth doing in this world. And as long as we can make a difference – to someone, anyone – we know that we have a reason to be here.

 

Continue to Value and Cling to the Adults that Love You

One of the cruelest and most confusing aspects of these years is that during a time when you could use a kind and supportive word more than ever, you also are feeling an urgent need to pull away from the adults in your life.

You might feel convinced that your parents, your teachers, your aunts and uncles, and your youth group leaders could never possibly understand you. You feel like if you don’t pull away from them during these years, you will never grow, and you will still be living at home when you are 40. But that’s not really true. You need to begin forming your own ideas – that much is true. You need to learn to think and do for yourself, and you need to develop the courage and the moral muscle to do the right thing, even when you know you could probably get away with the wrong choice.

At the same time, the adults in your life really have been where you are now. They didn’t have the same technology, or fashion sense, or taste in music. But human beings have been doing this whole maturing into adulthood thing for a while now. There probably are some things you could learn from the people who have already lived it.

(And besides, those people love you. They believe in you. Honor that. Because as you get older, you will realize that it’s one of the most amazing, inspiring gifts you have ever been given.)

Look for the Other Kids Who Drift Between Groups

There is something stunningly refreshing about people who think for themselves. This is true at any age, but the very best people in the world learn how to do this at a young age. This is why some of the most awesome people you could ever meet can be found on the fringes of social groups. They are the people who resist groupthink and choose their own interests and ideas. Often, they are the kids who are jocks but also really love science. They are the nerds who also can write their own music. The actors that also love baseball. The people who already think for themselves and march to their own beat are your people. It’s both how you’ve been taught to live and how you were created. Find your people. (Yes, even, if there are only two of them. Because two really is enough, particularly since we already told you the popularity contest isn’t one worth entering.)

Really, There is Just This One Goal for Junior High

We hope you earn good grades – or at least the best ones you can. We want you to work hard in whatever you choose to do – whether it’s school or sports or music. We want you to remember to honor the name that you have been given and the family you represent. We hope that you smile a lot this year. And laugh some – at yourself and also with others.

But more than anything, our goal for you in junior high is simply this: be a good person. Speak up for the underdog. Be kind to everyone – including yourself.

The thing I am most proud of in my life at this point is that I have a 12-year-old and a 13-year-old who don’t seem to be jerks. You try to be kind – to each other, to me, and to the people you encounter at school, at church, in sports, and even in the places that we go to try to serve.

To me, the worst thing about seventh and eighth grades was that it felt like every day, the culture of my school community tried to pound that kindness out of me. I felt like I had to learn to be hard. Indifferent Unfeeling. A bit of a smart a$$.

Don’t let this year make you hard. Be brave enough to be kind. And decent. Don’t put down the people who don’t seem to value even themselves. Be helpful – to your peers and to teachers and to younger kids. Recognize how hard this life is for all of us. And be of use, any way you can, to make it just a little bit better.

Thank you for being the people that you are. Let’s do this. Together.

 

 

We Aren’t Fearless Feminists – Yet …

girl power

Fearless Feminist.

My 13-year-old daughter grinned from ear to ear as she waved the white tank top with the black writing scrawled across the front.

“This shirt is everything!” she said loudly. “I have to have it. Can I have it, Mom?”

I immediately agreed that the shirt was an amazing one. I was excited that my junior high girl was so excited about a shirt that addressed equality – a social justice issue – instead of one that celebrated the virtues of shopping or selfies.

Settled on this $22 purchase, we looked around the store a bit longer, trying on beaded bracelets and examining long, fringed necklaces that we sometimes buy but never quite seem to wear.

Then, it was time to head to the register, feminist tank top in hand.

But I stopped.

And I flinched, as I thought about the place that we live – a place that I love dearly and a place that I fought hard to return to after 16 years away. I remembered the anger that many people aimed at the woman who came so close to becoming our first female president. (Just the week before, we had seen a bumper-sticker arguing that the b-#$? should be locked up.)

I recalled the spirited – and sometimes grueling – political battles my son has engaged in at school in the past year, as he’s made the not-so-radical case that derogatory statements about women matter. That sexual assault can’t be ignored. That women do, indeed, have the knowledge and the ability and yes, the right, to chase any and all dreams, including being president.

I couldn’t take another step in the direction of the register.

My girl immediately sensed what I was thinking without me even saying it.

“This shirt – this shirt could get me killed, couldn’t it?” she asked quietly and steadily (this is her way).

“Killed seems extreme,” I said, taking a deep breath. “But yeah. We need to talk about this. We need to think.”

We talked then about where she would wear the shirt and where she wouldn’t. School was out of the question (no tank tops allowed, anyway). Our progressive church was definitely a possibility. The gym was a decent option, partly because my husband or I are usually there with her and could help her navigate any crude comments or threatening body language.

But then, what about stops made after to the grocery store? Walmart? Would we have to be right with her any time she wore the shirt? What about the times when she was away from the protection of her parents and her brother? Did we want to have to engage in such heightened vigilance – all for a shirt that declares fearlessness?

“The word fearless – it seems like it’s too much of a challenge,” my freckled girl said. “I’m afraid that someone might try to really scare me – maybe make me think they were going to attack me or something. They might try to prove I’m not fearless. And maybe I’m not ready for that. Not yet.”

We left the tank top in a crumpled heap in the store.

And as we walked out, we both blinked back tears.

We are feminists – at least if by feminist we mean the radical notion that women are people with the same abilities and intellect and rights as men. But in these times that we live – when politics is so divisive and there seems to be a backlash against messages of equity and equality – we aren’t quite fearless. We are aware – aware of both the good and the bad that exists among us.

A healthy dose of fear might be what it takes to keep my girl (and her brother) safe, even as they continue to learn to respectfully challenge inequity and inequality when they see it.

Maybe having fear is about being savvy and about being smart during times when both are (unfortunately) still needed.

Maybe, too, we are still works in progress.

One day soon, we will both wear those shirts and we will wear them with pride. In part we will do this because we will live in a world more ready for the message, and in part because my girl will be even more experienced and equipped in how to stand up for herself and her ideas.

Until then, we will be feminists, yes. But feminists who recognize we need to keep ourselves safe to continue the work that so needs to be done.