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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Worry about Who You Will BE, Not What You Will DO

Don’t worry so much about what you will DO.

Worry about who you will BE.

This wisdom was shared with me, according to my rather fuzzy recollection, by a professor in my doctorate program. But it was a classmate of mine who really reminded me of the words regularly.

In my early thirties, my professional path was unclear. Because I had an opportunity to earn a master’s while working at a university, I had a good bit of education, but very little actual experience in public education. My experience as a journalist had been important and eye-opening to me, but I worried that it was somehow “lost time” now that I had switched fields. I felt like I owed others an explanation for why my path to education wasn’t more direct.

Then, I had the chance to earn a doctorate – while I was working part-time and staying home with my two children, who were toddlers at the time. I worried a LOT about what going part-time might mean and whether I would really be able to transition back to the career I wanted. (I could, in case you were wondering. The worrying was unnecessary. Worrying tends to work that way, it seems.)

I also spent an absurd amount of time trying to make my doctorate make sense – to justify it in my mind, even though no one in my life was really demanding an explanation at all. I wanted it to make financial sense, and I worried about what it might look like if I never “reached the full potential” the degree and accompanying title represented.

My friend and doctoral classmate – a passionate, quirky middle school teacher with no aspirations of ever “moving up” into administration, reminded me of this advice often, and his reminders resonated with me.

My friend Bill taught me to worry more about who I wanted to BE, instead of just focusing on my next professional move. Bill was a master at BEING. We could all stand to learn from him, I suspect.

Unfortunately, that friend died suddenly a few days ago. And tonight, we had a simple online memorial service to honor his life. A small group of us (there were only 18 in our cohort) shared what Bill meant to us. We talked about his passion for teaching, for learning and for life. We found ourselves smiling as we recalled how much he enjoyed cooking and snazzy hats. And coffee shops. And asking questions just for the sake of finding answers – of seeking truth.

As we talked, I realized anew how far I have come in the last 15 years or so, thanks in part to the advice of both my friend and my professor.

These days, I am honestly not worried about what title I hold. I don’t feel any need to justify anything – my degrees, my professional path, the ways I have and have not “reached my full potential.” Instead, I see clearly who I want to BE – a person who inspires and challenges others – a person who MATTERS, not because of a title but because of how I treat other people. I want to use my talents to make a difference.

I want to be a person who leaves my community better than I found it. A person who does a better and better job of showing up for others when they need me. As cliche as it sounds, this is what I want – to love well and to live well. I want to be a person who takes the time to really listen, and who helps others to be their best possible version of themselves.

I especially want to be there for those who need me most – my husband, my children, my friends, my colleagues. I also want to be a person who remembers those who I have lost and does all I can to honor their memories. To me, this is an increasingly important part of life, and one I take seriously. Remembering the people who are important to us is essential to our humanity, somehow – even in a pandemic, where the remembering and rituals can feel difficult.

I once felt strongly about what I wanted people to call me.

A leading keynote speaker.

A best-selling author and journalist.

A superintendent.

I still have professional dreams, of course. And I plan to keep right on chasing them, in whatever form that takes. But now I care most about who I AM – not what I DO.

Thanks for all the reminders, Bill. You managed to BE one of the very best.

Moms, Cultivate Your Interests, Hobbies and Career – One Day You Will be Glad You Did!

My 17-year-old daughter stood in our kitchen a few weeks ago, clad in her favorite fuzzy blue pajamas, searching my face.

“One thing about you, Mom, is that you have a lot of hobbies,” she said, reflectively, as she took a break from packing up her room for college. “You have a lot of things you enjoy – like books and writing and different people. You also like movies and just being at home, cleaning. You really like spending time with Dad. And you like your job. It’s really good that you like your job.”

I smiled bravely, nodding.

I knew exactly what my big-hearted daughter was doing – because I had sized up my mother’s life the very same way at about her age, when I was headed off to college – and a new world where my mom would no longer be quite as central a figure.

The truth is, my teenaged daughter loves me madly – just like I loved my mom, and like most daughters love their mothers – whether they want to at the time or not. And while she was so incredibly excited to be going to college – a year and a half early, in her case – she also wanted to know I would be OK.

She absolutely hated the idea of leaving a gaping hole in my life when she left to chase her own dreams.

And as I inventoried my life, I was, indeed, thankful.

Parenthood has been absolutely consuming to me in many ways. I am a kinder, better, more engaged human today because I have been a parent. And, I truly have enjoyed parenting more than anything else I’ve ever done in my life. I don’t think another experience will ever rival it.

When the kids were pre-school aged, I was lucky to be able to work part-time, focusing on the early demands of parenthood. But once the kids were in elementary school, I shifted to working at their school, cultivating my education career while also continuing to do the journalism work I did in my twenties on a part-time basis. As they grew older, work took on a bigger role in my life. I started working summers and traveling some for work – an admittedly difficult choice. Yet, I knew that I wanted to ramp up in preparation for their departure – and also knew it made financial sense, as they both became more expensive people. (Don’t even ask me about my grocery bills!)

The past few years, I have found myself increasingly involved in the world beyond home, while still making sure to keep the needs of the kids in clear view. I started engaging at my church more, and also serving some in the community. I invested more in my career, developing new talents and trying my hand at new things. I also started a second side business and am writing more.

I will confess that if there is an area that has been lacking the past few years, it has been making time for friendships. I regret that in some ways, but also recognize that many of my friends have been just like me – struggling to find the time to work and support their kids, emotionally and otherwise.

I have been thankful for the friends who have allowed me to pick right back up with them recently, while understanding those who have not. I’m thankful, too, for the new friends of all ages who have come alongside me in the past year – even in the middle of a pandemic, where so much of our connection had to happen on Zoom. I am eager for the new friends that are around the corner, as I explore some other interests, including (finally!) starting a book club and picking up a tennis racquet again for the first time in 15 years.

My mother struggled mightily when I left home – because there was little she could find to fill the gaping hole left by my departure. This sometimes made it difficult for me to enjoy my late teens and early twenties, as I worried about my mom and how she was coping with my absence. In some ways, her unhappiness made me feel guilty, and it hurt our relationship. I did not want that for my own children.

We do not have an empty nest at our house just yet. But we know that when our son turns 16 in a few weeks and gets his license, we will likely see him less. He is set to graduate early – just like his sister – and will soon be heading off to college himself. He will chase dreams, too.

While I will soon miss both of the kids like crazy, I am thankful for the many interests, people and ideas that can enrich my life. I have plenty of dreams to chase and exploration to do.

And honestly? I can’t wait to tell my kids more about it – after they are done telling me about their dream chasing fun, of course!

Parents, Keep Your Hobbies, Cultivate Friendships and Career: You will Need them Again Soon

My 17-year-old daughter stood in our kitchen a few weeks ago, clad in her favorite fuzzy blue pajamas, searching my face.

“One thing about you, Mom, is that you have a lot of hobbies,” she said, reflectively, as she took a break from packing up her room for college. “You have a lot of things you enjoy – like books and writing and different people. You also like movies and just being at home, cleaning. You really like spending time with Dad. And you like your job. It’s really good that you like your job.”

I smiled bravely, nodding.

I knew exactly what my big-hearted daughter was doing – because I had sized up my mother’s life the very same way at about her age, when I was headed off to college – and a new world where my mom would no longer be quite as central a figure.

The truth is, my teenaged daughter loves me madly – just like I loved my mom, and like most daughters love their mothers – whether they want to at the time or not. And while she was so incredibly excited to be going to college – a year and a half early, in her case – she also wanted to know I would be OK.

She absolutely hated the idea of leaving a gaping hole in my life when she left to chase her own dreams.

And as I inventoried my life, I was, indeed, thankful.

Parenthood has been absolutely consuming to me in many ways. I am a kinder, better, more engaged human today because I have been a parent. And, I truly have enjoyed parenting more than anything else I’ve ever done in my life. I don’t think another experience will ever rival it.

When the kids were pre-school aged, I was lucky to be able to work part-time, focusing on the early demands of parenthood. But once the kids were in elementary school, I shifted to working at their school, cultivating my education career while also continuing to do the journalism work I did in my twenties on a part-time basis. As they grew older, work took on a bigger role in my life. I started working summers and traveling some for work – an admittedly difficult choice. Yet, I knew that I wanted to ramp up in preparation for their departure – and also knew it made financial sense, as they both became more expensive people. (Don’t even ask me about my grocery bills!)

The past few years, I have found myself increasingly involved in the world beyond home, while still making sure to keep the needs of the kids in clear view. I started engaging at my church more, and also serving some in the community. I invested more in my career, developing new talents and trying my hand at new things. I also started a second side business and am writing more.

I will confess that if there is an area that has been lacking the past few years, it has been making time for friendships. I regret that in some ways, but also recognize that many of my friends have been just like me – struggling to find the time to work and support their kids, emotionally and otherwise.

I have been thankful for the friends who have allowed me to pick right back up with them recently, while understanding those who have not. I’m thankful, too, for the new friends of all ages who have come alongside me in the past year – even in the middle of a pandemic, where so much of our connection had to happen on Zoom. I am eager for the new friends that are around the corner, as I explore some other interests, including (finally!) starting a book club and picking up a tennis racquet again for the first time in 15 years.

My mother struggled mightily when I left home – because there was little she could find to fill the gaping hole left by my departure. This sometimes made it difficult for me to enjoy my late teens and early twenties, as I worried about my mom and how she was coping with my absence. In some ways, her unhappiness made me feel guilty, and it hurt our relationship. I did not want that for my own children.

We do not have an empty nest at our house just yet. But we know that when our son turns 16 in a few weeks and gets his license, we will likely see him less. He is set to graduate early – just like his sister – and will soon be heading off to college himself. He will chase dreams, too.

While I will soon miss both of the kids like crazy, I am thankful for the many interests, people and ideas that can enrich my life. I have plenty of dreams to chase and exploration to do.

And honestly? I can’t wait to tell my kids more about it – after they are done telling me about their dream chasing fun, of course!

Fight Shame – and Serve, Anyway!

My face flushed when I saw the messages, which came on the same morning, from two different people.

“You need to look at your own life.”

“You claim to be about kindness, but you aren’t always kind. I’ve seen it.”

The messages, unprovoked, as far as I can tell, were from two different, seemingly unconnected parties who apparently take offense to my politics – as well as our family’s small efforts to bring food, toiletries and other needed items to people in our community who are homeless or living in extreme poverty. Both also suggested that maybe I should not run a Daily Kindness Challenge group if I’m not 100 percent kind all the time.

The flushing in my face and the hard knot pulsing in my stomach are both familiar feelings. It is something that was used to control me as a child, and one something has also shaped my behavior as an adult more than it should.

Shame.

Shame for not being perfect.

Shame that while I really do want to serve others, I fall short each day, without fail.

I felt ashamed because yes, I know that I could do more. And I know that there are better, more virtuous folks out there who could do this work better, more consistently, and with more insight.

One of the criticisms I received that day is that “even after you feed people, they still don’t have homes. You aren’t really doing anything.”

But here is the thing – while I am also part of some systemic attempts to make this world better, I recognize that immediate needs must be met, too.

It is kind and good to feed people, even while we also are having bigger conversations about how they can eat and be sheltered long-term. And sometimes, it is easy to allow systemic conversations to keep us from taking authentic action.

To me, our homeless efforts are a beautiful way to say, “life is complicated, but we can do something right now.” We don’t need anyone’s permission. We don’t need a committee. We don’t need to fill out a pile of paperwork. We buy the food. We find the people who need it, and we share.

Both short and long-term needs must be met. And while many things are complex, feeding people, giving them cold water and hand sanitizer and masks, can actually be magically simple.

I was tempted to hide the criticisms that were hurled at me and my family – and for a bit I did, because the wounds were fresh.  I also feared that in sharing them, others would see even more of my shortcomings than they already do.

Sadly, life has taught me that not everyone who smiles at you is your friend. And even people you think are your friends may be tearing you down when you aren’t there.

But there is great freedom in putting the criticism out there, really.

I actually WANT you to know the “ugly” truth.

I don’t run a Daily Kindness Challenge page on Facebook because I am exceptionally kind. I do it because I think kindness has value, and that it’s worthwhile to try to encourage it. When I post reminders about what we can do to make this world a smidge better, I don’t do that because I think other people need them. I do it because I know that I need them – and if I need them, maybe others could benefit, too. If nothing else, it can’t hurt.  

The same is true of our efforts to help those who are homeless. I have family members who have struggled with homelessness for one reason or another. I am painfully aware that we are all a mental illness, an addiction or a catastrophic event or three away from the same situation.

I don’t think of myself as being especially vulnerable to the controlling influence of shame anymore. But on that day, when two different people chose to pile on, it did sting a bit. I was temporarily paralyzed.

But here’s the thing. Day to day, as I am able, I am DOING something. And I’m trying very hard not to tear down others in the process. There is no room for shame in that.

Maybe you have things you want to do, too. And maybe – just maybe – you are being held back by feelings of shame and of not being “good enough” to lead and to share and to grow.

You don’t have to be perfect. You don’t have to apologize. You don’t have to hide your light. Put one foot in front of the other, consider the needs of others, and serve.

It really is that easy, when we move beyond our shame.

Introducing … My Two Focus Words for 2021!

Happy New Year, readers and friends!

Have you selected your word or words of focus and intention for 2021? (If you haven’t, there’s still time!)

After a bit of grappling, my two words for 2021 are influence and cultivate.

My goal in selecting “influence,” is definitely not to try to acquire more power and authority in the coming year. I’m not necessarily interested in chasing specific titles or official roles of leadership.

Instead, I want to end each day by asking myself the question, “Who did I influence today and how?” My goal, ultimately, is to end each day knowing, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that I made a difference in some small way to someone. Most days, I want to be able to say with confidence that I influence several people.

Developing this goal has pushed me to identify who I actually do, realistically, influence. And I confess that the list I made has humbled me. I started with my most powerful place of influence – my family. Every day, I most definitely influence the energy within my own home. Beyond that, I have schools and districts I partner with that look to me for information and, often, leadership. I want to do a good job of leading and influencing these stakeholders – not just professionally, but in how I live my life.

I also have a growing group of students that I tutor and mentor. I want to continue to influence their lives – and the lives of their families, hopefully – in meaningful ways. Some of that is through the nuts and bolts of teaching reading or supporting students in college admissions. But in that process, I also model who I am, what I value and what I believe. I tell my own stories in transparent ways, hoping to challenge and inspire. I need to do more of that this year.

My church also is a place where I hope to be a positive influence this year. I have come to church leadership reluctantly, after years of staying away due to witnessing some very un-Christian behaviors within church settings. But this year, I have new opportunities to step up and do good, and I intend to do my part.

Additionally, my family has a growing opportunity to influence our community through our outreach effort, 55 and Love. This is a project where we help distribute items like hot food, toiletries, blankets and other items to people who are homeless. We also help to connect our neighbors with opportunities to give through a local food pantry. I want to continue to give, and also to inspire others to do the same.

Looking at the word cultivate, this represents a focus on building – building friendships and professional connections and also cultivating talents and abilities.

One item that comes up every January is the desire to learn some additional Spanish vocabulary. I know I need to model this for some of the educators I serve – and I know that knowing even some basic Spanish could help bring comfort to my students and families.

I also want to push myself in the area of writing. I’ve been dabbling in some humor and memoir writing, and hope to publish at least a small book of personal stories this year. One motivation for this is being able to do a small book tour after the pandemic wanes.

Some of my goals are lofty, I know. But I know that without big goals, big achievements cannot happen. And I am determined to show myself grace as challenges arise.

What are your words? Why did you choose them? How do you hope to manifest these words in the new year? Good luck!

How to Pick a Word that Works for YOU in the New Year

For years, I was a diehard New Year’s Resolution person. Each year, I would identify as many as 5-10 commitments for the new year. These often included commitments to health, learning new things and breaking bad habits.

Some of my commitments were success stories. I did, intermittently, exercise and remain calm more, learn a bit more French, or attend church with more consistency. But somewhere along the way, my resolutions stopped feeling fun and started to feel like self-loathing.

For the past few years, I’ve ditched resolutions, choosing instead to select a word or words to focus on in the new year. These words were selected because they communicated what I wanted more – or less – of in the new year. They were reminders of who I wanted to be and how I wanted to live.

Through the years, I’ve had a number of focus words, including community, connection, whimsy, calm, consistency, development, steadfastness and fun. Friends have also come up with some excellent words – things like prayer, hope, faith, love, fearlessness, exploration, studiousness, intention, carefreeness, peace, challenge, learning, leadership and renewal.

Here are some tips that might help you in choosing a word for 2021.

  1. Find a word that can evolve as the global pandemic shifts. One of my words for 2020 was whimsy. Oops. After the shutdowns came in mid-March, I confess that whimsy was not a top priority for me, as I shifted, at times, into more of a survival and adjustment mode. This year, I am choosing words that can shift slightly as the year evolves. They can include, for example, goals of travel and socializing, but also can continue to work while social distancing.
  2. Avoid the “shoulds.” When I look back at some of my early resolutions, I realize I sometimes picked things I thought I should want to do, instead of things that were truly important to me. For example, I knew I needed to eat more healthily, but at the time, I had not truly reached a place where I wanted to do it. Before selecting a word, really stop and think, “Does this truly matter to me? Why?.
  3. Consider your season. Some things can be important to you, but not be realistic for the season that you are in. For example, a few years ago I picked the word “friendship” as one of my words. Some of my commitments included seeing friends more frequently, going out to dinner, meeting new people and joining a group or two. This word ended up not working for me because the season I was in realistically did not allow for a focus on socialization. The truth was, when it came down to it, I preferred to spend my time in that season focused on my elementary-aged children, my teaching and my writing. And that was OK. This can be true with career-related goals, too. Maybe you would like to pursue more leadership roles at work, but you also recognize that your family demands make this a season for holding steady or even ramping down your work commitments. Saying no to a word one year doesn’t mean saying no to it forever.
  4. Plan to give yourself grace. This experience is meant to inspire, encourage and focus you. Remember to show yourself grace if you realize that a particular word is a poor fit for the year – or for you. I have changed or abandoned words several times when I got into the year and realized they did not work for me. Whimsy, for example, ended up feeling too frivolous for me in 2020. Friendship didn’t work for me once I realized that trying to jam in more social gatherings while parenting young kids just made me feel grumpy and longing for down time at home.

Will you pick a word for 2021? What are your words? How did you pick them?

Happy New Year!

Before We Move Forward, a Look Back at 2020

2020.

Whew.

Am I the only one who really struggles to even come up with words to adequately describe the challenge, the horror, and the disruption this year has presented to us? I look back at pictures and posts from this time last year and I’m almost stunned by our collective naivete. How did we not know what was coming? How could we possibly believe that 2020 was going to be OUR year – our “perfect vision” come true?

And yet, we know that when we are challenged the most, we grow. This was not a sweeping year of achievements for me – or my family. In the workplace, our goal was mostly to remain steady, remaining thankful for work when so many struggled terribly. The only certificates we received were ironic ones that I printed on our home printer. But through growth, we did achieve.

Here are the biggest things we learned (or, in several cases, relearned) this year:

  1. We can’t control our circumstances, but we can control how we react to them. For the most part, I am reasonably proud of how we handled ourselves this year. We definitely had our days of staring blankly at the wall or the TV screen or social media, in shock about how quickly our lives were derailed. That’s a natural response to trauma and there is no shame in that. But after the shock, we did a good job of analyzing the situation and agreeing as a family about what was important and how we believed we should conduct ourselves. We were (mostly) kind to each other, and that may be our greatest achievement this year.
  2. We don’t need consumeristic distractions as much as we sometimes believe we do. Before the pandemic, I often felt “busy” on the weekend. Much of this busyness was because I was swinging into stores to check for sales and new items. The pandemic highlighted some of these bad habits and helped me to correct them (again).
  3. Taking the time to assess what we are doing is essential – even if we think everything is OK on the surface. The pandemic and resulting school closures in the spring helped our family to realize that, as happy as our teenagers seemed on the surface, traditional school was not working for them as well as we thought. Both expressed a desire to accelerate their high school education and to continue learning online. This was a dramatic shift for us, and it meant saying goodbye to things like two years of high school soccer and three years of high school band. But in listening to our kids and adjusting, we are realizing that they are even happier and more “themselves” than they were before. While this does not work for everyone, it works for us – and has allowed our daughter to finish high school 1.5 years early. One of our greatest joys of 2021 will be seeing her start college.
  4. Helping those most in need is always the best way forward. Because we had more time to talk as a family and were less distracted by things like consumerism, we were able to ramp up our efforts with our family effort to support people who are homeless or living in extreme poverty. We held several canned food drives, taking carloads of food to MADCAAP, an organization in Madison County that helps provide food and other supports to people who need it. We ramped up our efforts to distribute pizza, toiletries, sleeping bags and other items to people who are homeless. Somewhere along the way, people in our neighborhood and beyond started sending us items to use in our various efforts. This has been one of our greatest joys this year, and we are committed to continuing to honor this commitment in new ways in the coming year.
  5. Focusing on what we can give instead of get in relationships sustains us. At the start of 2020, I was feeling isolated – a little emotionally hollowed out, really. Since moving back to my home state five years ago, some relationships here have admittedly disappointed me. (This is a common experience, it seems.) This year – both before and during the pandemic – I focused on being open to connecting with others, asking, “What do they need and how can I be there for them?” I stopped worrying so much about recriprocation and also focused more on making new relationships, with zero expectations attached. In doing that, I have cultivated several new friendships that have sustained me this year. I am in a very different place now and feel more connected to my home state than ever – even with the social limitations of the pandemic.

What did you learn in 2020? How did the year change you? What lessons will you take with you into the new year?

Friend’s Financial Gift Challenges, Humbles, and Inspires

The notification on my phone made me stop talking, mid-sentence.

$500 had been added randomly to my Venmo account by a close friend who wanted to invest in the work of 55 and Love, the soon-to-be-nonprofit that my family is establishing to help provide needed resources to people who are homeless or living in extreme poverty in Central Mississippi and beyond.

Because I know this friend well and we often talk business together, I have a sense of how much money she is bringing in at work this year. I knew that the gift, while not bankrupting, was certainly generous – sacrificial. 2020 has not been a great year for most small business owners, including those in education.

The gift of my friend, Marina Gilmore, silenced me for several minutes. It took processing, somehow.

Then, I walked around the house, quietly telling each member of my family about her generosity.

“Wow!” my daughter said. “We really need to make sure we have a clear plan for how we want to spend that and when.”

“Should she have done that?” my son asked, brow furrowed. He sat quietly, his brown-green eyes searching my face for several seconds. “I mean, I love Marina. Does she need that money? It seems like she might need it?”

My husband, ever the caretaker of my female friends, expressed similar concerns. “She’s sure this is what she wants to do?”

After I adjusted to the news, I set about with intentionality. There was something about such a sacrificial gift that made me want to make sure I gave it the attention it deserved. It’s a feeling I have felt previously, when others also dug deep to donate.

We have talked as a family about wanting to establish 55 and Love as a nonprofit before the end of the year, but honestly, other pressing things have taken priority. I wasn’t so sure it would happen – or even begin to happen.

Not anymore.

Tomorrow, we are meeting with a friend who has established several nonprofit organizations. We will talk to him – and among ourselves – about exactly how we want to establish ourselves and about our ultimate vision for this group.

Then, we will set to work, establishing the nonprofit as economically as we can. It will be a renewed focus in the new year, regardless of the challenges of the pandemic and our own lives.

My beautiful, bright, generous friend also sent me a second gift – $300 to give to someone who I believe can use it. For some reason, I immediately knew I wanted to give it to a small business owner and classmate I know in Meridian, Mississippi.

She will use part of the money for her business, and part to get a graduation dress for her precious daughter, who is a senior this year and faces some unique challenges.

When I told my teenagers about this gift, which came rapid-fire after the first, they both paused.

“Wow,” my daughter said. “How does Marina know that we will do the right thing with the money? She really trusts us.”

And I think there is something very revealing in those words. There is something about a financial gift that is especially humbling – almost to the point of being mildly uncomfortable. It’s an expression of faith and trust, and I plan to continue working to honor and even extend it.

Because of the example Marina set, we also have been more intentional this week in our own giving, sending a few financial happies to people we know could use them.

If I’m honest, financial giving has never been a strength of mine. I’m far more willing to give my time or my talents than my money. On some level, this comes from a scarcity mentality, where I fear not having “enough” for the things we believe we need.

I’m going to do better in the new year. And whenever I think of the establishment of 55 and Love as a non-profit, I will think of its beautiful start, and the deep, abiding faith of my dear friend.

Thank you, Marina. You make me – and all of us – better.

20 Things I’m Thankful for in 2020

It’s been a wild year so far, and the next few weeks promise to continue be challenging. That’s why it feels even more important than ever to pause at Thanksgiving and consider blessings. Here, in no particular order, are things I’m thankful for today.

  1. The changing of the seasons. There is something soothing about the way no matter what, time passes, the leaves turn, and life goes on.
  2. Technology that allows us to continue connecting. I watched my church’s children’s choir perform this morning from their individual homes. They were able to be apart, but still lift their voices together. How awesome is that?
  3. Dogs. No matter what the current headlines are, my dogs can still be immediately overjoyed when I walk through the door.
  4. Schools. From Zoom to Canvas to Google Classrom to hybrid to face-to-face, educators have been rock stars this year. Never again can we say educators aren’t flexible and innovative.
  5. Scientists. We have not just one but several vaccines on the horizon. They give me great hope this year, as do additional treatments that have been developed to battle COVID. I can’t imagine a world without scientists.
  6. Artists, musicians and entertainers. Their talents in these strange times have managed to unite us and give us hope, while also making us laugh and cry.
  7. Non-profit organizations. Many non-profits are serving more people, with less money. I’m thankful for the way non-profit organizations are able to offer food, housing, Christmas gifts and other items to people in need.
  8. My church community. I’ve often had a tense relationship with my faith communities, feeling like I couldn’t truly be myself. I’m thankful for the way my current community encourages and inspires – and reminds me I’m not alone in my weirdness.
  9. Coffee. Every morning, I have a heaping cup of magic beans that help wake me up and inspire me to do good. How awesome is that?
  10. Children. Honestly, many of the adults in my life have been a smidge disappointing this year, especially when it comes to public health. But children? They have adjusted beautifully, wearing masks, social distancing, and still learning and loving with their friends.
  11. Democracy. The state of democracy around the globe has arguably seen better days, with so many countries now trending in the direction of authoritarianism. And yet, here in America we have seen that our systems are still intact and operating as they should.
  12. Clean water. We had a boil water notice in my community a few weeks ago. That will definitely make you stop taking safe drinking water for granted.
  13. The ability to connect. One of my themes for 2020 was connection – a word I obviously selected before realizing we were headed into a global pandemic, where we would actually celebrate distance. Before the pandemic, I found myself feeling the need to see others, having dinners and connecting for walks with a number of friends old and new. Happily, I found that my connections continued in lockdown. I will never take those connections for granted again.
  14. The ability to be of use. Every day of the shutdowns, I woke up and asked myself, “How can I be of use today?” Each and every day, there was a good answer to that question – whether it was reaching out to people several states over, or creating materials for my work, writing, sending cards, or listening intently to the needs of my teenagers.
  15. Opportunities to reassess. In the spring, as we listened to our teenagers more, we realized that while we thought their school environment was working, they were thrilled to be away from it. This got us thinking about alternative ways to educate. I’m thankful we listened and I’m thankful for options, even while still supporting our public school system and wishing them much success.
  16. Friends who support our efforts to help others. We intensified our commitment to 55 and Love, our mission to serve people who are homeless and otherwise in need, this year. It never occurred to me this would be an effort others would want to give to, but they have – and generously! It’s inspired us to do more and be more and we will forever be grateful. (Look for us to develop it into a non-profit in the coming months.)
  17. Family. I’ve taken a hard look at who family is and is not in the last few years, including as I have found and gotten to know some of my biological family. If I ever tried to map out my family tree, it would be an admittedly dysfunctional one. But it’s mine, and I’m thankful for all of it – biological and adopted.
  18. Difficult times. This year was not the first time I faced heartache and hardship. And while there have been plenty of times in the past that I have questioned the “why” of my experiences, I’ve been thankful this year that 2020 wasn’t my first forray into disappointment and even destruction. Without my previous experiences, I could never have helped my kids to navigate this season.
  19. The rituals of food. I got my eating (mostly) in order this year, shifting to a diet with an anti-inflammatory focus. And yet, despite giving up some of my “comfort foods” this year, sitting around the table as a family in the evenings has been extremely soothing. When this whole pandemic is over, I can’t wait to have more people around our table.
  20. New traditions. This was a year to re-examine everything and do what works best for us. This week, I did something that a year ago I railed against – putting up Christmas decorations before Thanksgiving. No one died – and I honestly just might leave them up until we all are vaccinated. If traditions don’t serve us, why do them?

What are YOU thankful for in 2020?

“And It’s Laughter that We’re Making After All”

My 15-year-old “baby” and I went for a drive on the Natchez Trace today, with him behind the wheel.

It’ was a strikingly beautiful day – bright blue skies, slightly warm November temperatures and the red and gold hues of fall foliage still lingering.

This fellow of mine has always been a good conversationalist – making sharp observations and describing people in ways that make me think. (He recently described someone that we love as “what you would get if all my music suddenly became a person. It’s awkward and doesn’t quite fit, but I still really like him.”)

Something even more magical happens to our conversations when my son is behind the wheel. He’s somehow even funnier – more keenly observant and delightfully relaxed at the same time.

The sun is setting on my time as an active parent of kids. His sister is heading to college in January – 1.5 years early, but still leaving just the same. And while she will be only 30 minutes from home, she will still be missed on those nights she is in her dorm instead of with us.

My son is closing in on 15.5, and I know that his remaining time under our roof will go back lightning quick.

So today, as we drove aimlessly, there were no lessons. (I didn’t even nag him when he veered the slightest bit into oncoming traffic after being distracted by some ridiculously cute cows.)

Instead, we laughed – about the antics of a friend who is surprising us, about how ridiculously bad I am at math, and about the hilariousness that is wildlife crossings. (How does the sensor come on to notify us animals are crossing? Do the animals have to push a button? And which wildlife? Maybe there are sensors that go off when deer approach, but what about turtles? Rabbits? Low-flying birds? This continues to both intrigue an amuse us.)

As we hit the off ramp near our house, I looked over at my boy, who is now upwards of 6’2″ – definitely far more man-child than baby – and it occurred to me that of all my memories of him, it’s the ones of us laughing that I treasure the most.

And so we will keep working to make those memories. We will laugh about the antics of our dogs, and our friends. We will sometimes laugh at my expense – at what an atrocious cook I am, and at how sometimes I don’t quite get the laundry right. We will even laugh about the familiar – and unnerving – noises that our family makes around the dinner table.

I will try to slow down each of those laughter-filled moments, seeing them for the treasures they are.

The fall colors will continue to turn. Adulthood looms. But the laughter remains.