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!

 

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“It’s Not the End of the World” – Until It Is

blanket woman

 

I was restless in the crowded home store, zipping back and forth between towering stacks of fluffy blankets. I’m sure I looked funny and unnecessarily picky, repeatedly caressing one blanket and then another.

Should I get a Christmas-themed blanket? What about one with llamas and Christmas trees? Were cute, hat-wearing penguins a deal-breaker? Would something modern with just a touch of hot pink work if it was whimsical?

I wasn’t sure which style to choose. But I knew the blanket had to be the absolute softest one I could get my hands on, and it also needed to be manly enough for a quirky, outspoken tough guy in his mid-60s.

An Ugg-wearing lady in a Christmas-themed t-shirt reached for a blanket at the same time I did and then laughed. “Look at us!” my fellow shopper said, smiling. “We are sitting here going back and forth between these blankets like it’s such an important decision! We obviously are taking ourselves and this shopping way too seriously. I mean, it’s not the end of the world!”

I smiled faintly, not knowing quite what to say.

“Yes, sometimes shopping can make us all a little crazy,” I said, breaking eye contact and hoping she would be on her way quickly before things got awkward.

It would have felt unneccesarily cruel to tell her the truth: that for me, my shopping did feel like a stunningly important, once-in-a-lifetime decision. After all, it’s not every day that a girl picks out a blanket to comfort and connect with the dying biological father she was about to meet for the first time.

Not long after the well meaning shopper departed without incident, I was able to make my decision: I settled on a gray and white blanket decorated with Christmas trees and Charlie Brown, Linus and Lucy. I didn’t know an awful lot about my father before I met him, but I did know that we shared a love of the Peanuts gang. It really was perfect. And I was in no way crazy or over-the-top for obsessing until I found just the right one.

I’ve thought a lot about this encounter as I’ve been reflecting on the lessons I learned meeting my hospital-bound father for the first time, after going a lifetime wondering about him.

One of the biggest lessons I learned was a result of my home store encounter: You never know what the people around you might be going through. It’s not the end of the world – until it is. We need to remember that  – and to treat others around us with the love, compassion and carefulness this truth requires.

Note from Monique: I’ve been continuing to process the time I spent last month, meeting my biological father for the first time and then losing him 12 days later. If you are an adoptee who has a reunion story you’d be interested in talking about, shoot me a message at moniqueharrisonhenderson@gmail.com. 

Calm, Engagement and Community: Three Words for the New Year

final word collage

For the past few years, I’ve ditched traditional New Year’s resolutions, replacing them instead with three focus words.

Last year, my selected words were:

Strength.

Connection.

And Fun.

Honestly, I did reasonably well with a focus on strength. I stopped allowing day-to-day events to hijack my emotions so readily. I learned to accept some inevitable imperfections in the short-term, while also planning for change that would bring improvement long-term.

And when faced with some heavy stuff – loved ones being diagnosed with a life-threatening illness or getting a negative follow-up report; meeting my biological father for the first time as he made sense of his looming death; and giving my teenagers increased freedom to make their own decisions – I was proud of how I remained reasonably strong.

I didn’t do as well with connection. I had intended to make 2018 the year that I devoted more time to reconnecting with old friends, while also establishing some new friendships. With a couple of exceptions, I failed at this effort pretty miserably. When I had a rare free evening or afternoon, I usually felt like spending it either alone or recharging with my immediate family.

My effectiveness at having more “fun” was a bit mixed. On one hand, I do think we made time for fun. There were family game nights, trips to the movies, weekends spent out of town and unplanned moments of sheer, laugh-until-you-sob hilarity. And yet, I have to admit that while I had fun this year, I sometimes allowed challenges to overshadow fun in ways that I can’t quite be proud of.

Looking Ahead with Intention

Regardless of the mixed bag of last year, I am still selecting three words I want to focus on now that 2019 is here.

For 2019, my three focus words are:

Calm.

Engagement.

And Community.

Calm is mostly a recognition that this season in my life calls for an intentional pursuit of peace.

Helping two children to navigate the teen years is no easy task. From driving to dating, friendships gone bad to frustrations with sports tryouts and playing time, it can be hard not to worry about how my eighth and ninth graders will fare in the coming years.

At my core, I want to protect my teens from the roughest of times. I fantasize about fighting their battles for them – telling off the mean girl, helping the coach to see the error of his ways, and clearing both the literal and figurative roadways of all hazards big and small.

But I know that what my teens really require from me right now is calm. They need me to listen with both an accepting and calm spirit. They long to know that I can handle their toughest, most gut-wrenching stories without panicking. If I head into battle every time they are wronged, they will stop telling me about the trials they are facing, because ultimately, they are (mostly) their trials to navigate.

Less Talk, More (Political) Action

At the same time, engagement for me is primarily about a desire to become more involved in my community. When we moved back to my home state of Mississippi a little more than three years ago, I knew I wanted to make a difference in the lives of children and families here. This state has been very good to me – and I believe strongly it’s time for me to get busy paying that goodness forward.

I’ve been lucky to do some of that forward-paying through my work in education. But I also believe that this work will be incomplete if I also do not speak truth to power in the political realm.

This year, Mississippi has some big state elections – and I know that it’s time for me to get involved in campaigning for the people I believe can make systemic improvements to our public education system. That is going to mean less time running my mouth on social media and more time actually doing the hard, in-the-trenches work of campaigning.

Church Sausage Making

I also know that I need to become more engaged in my place of worship. Petty church divisions – and church people – have left me heartsick more times than I can stand to recount. I often find that I don’t trust the church – or its people – because of the pain I’ve experienced in the past. In a lot of ways, I’ve viewed the inner-workings of the church a lot like sausage-making – sometimes, it’s best not to know the details of exactly how things come together.

Yet, I know that when it comes to my church life in this season, I will only get as much out as I put in. So, I’m going to take the risk of putting in more, getting to know some people and making myself more available for service. It’s terrifying – more terrifying to me than political engagement, somehow – but it’s also a step I think it’s time to make.

When it comes to my third word – community – I see the natural tie-in to engagement. In 2018, I struggled to make the time for connections with individual people.  I intended to do that connecting through dinners out, time for coffee, in-home gatherings, book clubs, and related events.

Yet something about that idea never quite motivated me to action for more than a day or three. Shifting the focus from connection to individuals to connections to an actual community feels more natural to me. And I know from experience that I often make some of my most rewarding connections while focusing on supporting others through community.

What About You?

Do any of you select focus words for the new year? If so, what are your words? What words might you select if you haven’t already? What are your hopes for the new year?

 

 

 

 

 

Give Yourself Grace in the New Year

 

2018 image

As 2018 slipped away, I felt more than a little frustrated with myself.

Every year, I establish three focus words that I try to prioritize and live into during the next 12 months.

In 2018, my words were Strength. Connection. And Fun.

Doing my end-of-year inventory, I gave myself credit for embodying strength through much of the year. I’d faced some challenges that felt big to me – including transitioning to a new job that better suited my personality and needs, and meeting my biological father – and then losing him again – within an emotional roller-coaster ride of just 11 December days. (That’s a story for another post, for sure.)

But I definitely didn’t connect through this blog the way I intended, and I did a horrific job of scheduling time to connect with new and old friends. When it came to the question of whether I’d had “fun,” I found I was mad at myself for allowing small things to still rob me of some enjoyable moments during the year.

I was tempted to declare the year something of a wash, when another word came to me – grace. I needed to show myself a bit of grace – just as I strive to show grace to others.

And in doing that, I realized, I needed to give myself credit for some of the seemingly small things that I navigated in 2018. What were some things that felt big to me, even while they weren’t things that would necessarily go in a scrapbook, a lifetime highlight reel, or on a resume?

A few came to mind, and I bet that some of you did these very things, too:

  1. I helped my daughter navigate the transition from junior high to high school. I made sure to make time for her as she started trying to make sense of the crazy-making, unpredictable world of dating.
  2. I ushered my son into the teen years back in the spring, when he turned 13. I’m working daily to learn what he needs from me – and also what he does not. There have been some definite missteps, but we are learning together.
  3. For 365 consecutive days, I managed to navigate the life of professional working mom, partnering with my husband to get our kids where they needed to be and ensuring their needs were met. During that time, we never once left them stranded (for more than 27.5 minutes, anyway) at a band rehearsal, soccer practice or ACT session. Given the demands of both of our jobs – and the sheer volume of activities our busy children – and basically most children in these modern times – are part of, this is arguably our biggest accomplishment of the year.
  4. Every holiday was celebrated in a way that felt appropriate for us. There were Valentine cards on the right day, and Easter baskets on the appropriate day. The Christmas decorations were both enjoyed and put away, and we didn’t engage in a single holiday tradition out of mere duty.
  5. Everyone in the household was fed in some manner or another for 365 days. Some days, this admittedly involved swinging through a drive-through. Other days, the crockpot or (new) Instapot was our meal ticket. Here and there, dinner might have been a nice Luna Bar and some fruit or celery. A lot of cereal was eaten at all hours of the day and night as well. Regardless, everyone consumed some sort of food – even me. Downright incredible, right?
  6. Every day of the year, I managed to remember that driving requires gas. And while I cut it close and bargained irrationally with God way more than I should have while on isolated roads, with no gas station in sight, I never once ran out of gas. Winning!
  7. For 52 straight weeks, I ensured that our little family had the necessary toilet paper, dish-washing liquid, shower gel, number two pencils, and laundry detergent. Every member of my family had the medications they required, when they required them. We even had cleaning supplies and toothpaste as needed.
  8. Our awesome Labradoodle, Buddy, was fed by someone in the family every night for 365 days, even when this required cajoling and even nagging and melting down on my part.
  9. In an entire year, I didn’t – at least permanently – lose my keys, my phone or my purse, even once.
  10. While I got a speeding ticket this year (hello, Carthage, Mississippi), I managed to pay it before a warrant was issued for my arrest. And I managed to avoid additional tickets, even when logging an insane number of miles on Mississippi’s wide-open highways.
  11. I have breathlessly awaited – and prayed like crazy – for people I love in various stages of cancer this year, and also held my breath a few times when dealing with my own children’s health scares. Even when I’ve been scared out of my skull, I’ve done my best not to show it.
  12. I’ve exercised my body here and there this year, even if a lot of that was just walking the dog. I also adjusted to a gluten-free lifestyle after new, middle-age-onset food allergies seemed to necessitate it. I now know that Rice Crispy treats don’t have gluten, but corn dogs do – really important for someone who eats out of rural gas stations an awful lot.
  13. I was kind to my husband this year. (He deserves it, believe me.) In fact, I didn’t even cut him the day that both he and my 13-year-old son told me to calm down. Strength, indeed!

What about you? What are some little things you’ve done this year that, while not seemingly huge, are worthy of recognition? How will you show yourself grace in the new year, while also pushing yourself to be better?

 

 

 

Pro Wings and Slamming Lockers: A Tribute to My Public Schools

I had the chance today to interview one of my high school classmates for a story for our hometown paper.

It’s been about 30 years since we were in seventh grade together, but as soon as I heard him laugh, it took me right back to seventh grade in Ms. Michael’s language arts class.

All of a sudden, I was a squirming, wild-haired kid in dingy Pro Wings, agonizing over the neatness of my margins and the proper placement of my commas.

In a lot of ways, middle school was pretty hellish for me (see reference above about Pro Wings during an era when the brand of shoes you wore was everything). And yet, it also was the time in life that made me who I am today. It was, somehow, perfect even in its imperfection.

I’ve been thinking a lot about middle school and high school lately, in part because my own kids are in seventh and eighth grades and have a lot of questions about how I went from the awkward, alienated looking kid in the eighth grade Photography Club photo to who I am today.

I’ve also been thinking about those years because of a book I am writing and publishing with help from some of my classmates – who may or may not have hassled me about those scuffed up, no-brand tennis shoes of mine. (I will never tell and doubt they will, either.)

The idea is that the book will feature about 15 or so of our classmates, what they appreciated about the contributions of our public school system, and how it’s made them who they are today. Proceeds from the book will be used to fund a scholarship from the Meridian High School Class of 1992.

Being responsible for the foreword of the book, I have been thinking a lot about what made our class so remarkable.

And one of the things I think about most often is the diversity represented in our classes. I was lucky to go to integrated schools in Mississippi. We hit third grade there about 15 years after Mississippi’s schools were integrated. In fact, several of my teachers had started their careers teaching at Meridian’s all-black schools.

We were – and are – an interesting and diverse crew. Trailer park kids. Kids who lived in one of several housing projects in our city. The children of hospital administrators and doctors, teachers and nurses. Some of our parents were drug addicted, others were pillars of the community.

And we all rubbed shoulders and backpacks in the halls each day, slamming lockers, taking Algebra tests, putting out the school newspaper, arguing about the theme for prom (ours was one of the first to take place after integration because for years after integration, there was no public school prom – just a private dance for white students and another for students who were black.)

Telling the story of the collective experiences of our class is going to be a challenge. We all had our own individual experiences, but also collective experiences that shaped us all.

Meridian High School – and the elementary, middle and junior high schools that fed into it – were far from perfect. But the impact that they had on our lives? Well, they feel close to it.

We had teachers that were STUNNINGLY demanding of us, pushing us to learn and grow. No matter where we were from, there were no excuses. We would achieve and be accountable. Period. Their high expectations for us permeated our lives, and I believe it’s one of the reasons that so many of us have done so incredibly well, both professionally and personally.

Our public school experience also equipped us to be culturally proficient in a way that has paid huge dividends. Most of us move quite comfortably between different circles of people, and we have our public schools to thank for it.

I’m really excited about this project and am humbled to think that we could use our collective resources to extend our legacy, making college even a little bit more accessible for those students coming behind us.

And thanks for taking the time to talk and laugh with me today, classmate. It made me thankful all over again to be a part of such a beautiful, messy, crazy, empowering public school experience.

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.