Dear John, I Hope You Can Keep Learning after COVID-19 (and Educators Will be Here to Help You)

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Photo by Padli Pradana on Pexels.com

His brown eyes looked at me searchingly, as he took my hand and pressed it to a word I had just written in black marker on the board, where we had been working together to build a word bank students could use to help them write simple sentences about a photo.

“What thiiiiiis?” my new Spanish speaking friend asked, pressing my hand to the word and smiling, revealing two missing front teeth. “What thiiiiiiiiiis?”

“Balloon,” I repeated to him slowly, showing him the word and then pointing to the red balloon in the photo.

“Balloon?” he asked, looking at me for confirmation.

I nodded, grinning.

John (not his real name) repeated the word at least 15 times as he bounced back to his seat. Then, he scrunched up his nose, twisted his green marker top off, and started writing.

“Ballooooooooonnnnnnnn,” he said, lips puckering as he made the ending sound.

He wrote his sentence and read it to me, slowly. Deliberately. Proudly.

“I see a red balloon!”

He clapped and waved his hands over his head, smiling. Always smiling.

His excitement — the unbounded joy he showed while learning this new English vocabulary, took my breath away.

It was a sacred moment. Nothing in the entire world felt more important than the two of us, face to face, sharing words. Connecting.

“Balloooooooooon.”

Pure poetry. Beauty. Energy. Power.

When it was time for John to go, I gave him an elbow bump, saying something vague and child-friendly about this new and crazy idea that maybe we shouldn’t high five or shake hands because of germs, social distancing, all that.

“John! You keep working hard, promise?”

“PROMMMMMISSSSSSE,” he said, bouncing out the door.

It was a more innocent time, six days ago. Care-free.

I had no idea, blissfully naive.

I didn’t know he was about to lose at least five weeks of precious classroom time – probably more – because of the COVID-19 virus.

Today – on the heels of the governor announcing that Mississippi schools will be closed until at least April 17 – I’ve been working hard by Zoom and email and phone with a smart, capable team of school leaders. Districts have called and emailed, asking questions. Good questions. Hard questions.

We are talking about important things. Solutions – at least the early stages of them.

But I keep wondering what things will look like for John while he is out of his Mississippi public school classroom and away from face-to-face contact with the teachers who love him. Will he have an adult with him who is patient – and stress-free enough – to answer him when he grabs and points and asks, urgently, intently, “what thiiiiiis?”

Will his caregiver know enough English to be able to answer his questions? Will she have enough energy in reserve for the sacred moments, which can be beautiful but also draining.

Deep down, I believe that with his enthusiasm and eagerness and focus, John will likely be OK. He will probably get through this, because it’s who he is. He will learn, even with tremendous challenges.

But I also know that all the educators in his life – including me, in my ever-so-small role as the red balloon writing lady – need to work really, really hard – and very creatively – to get this thing right.

We will all be working hard, John. Promise.

 

COVID-19: What I’ve Learned So Far

While experts continue to remind us that in the U.S. we are still very much in the early stages of this COVID-19 outbreak, I can say that this challenge is teaching me vital lessons.

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Photo by Korhan Erdol on Pexels.com

Here are three things I have learned so far:

  1. Fretting Truly Can’t Prepare You

As much as I might fret and try to plan for challenging times, it is often impossible to anticipate the challenge that actually stops you in your tracks.

I have always been a person who feels better trying to prepare for the worst.

At any given moment, I can typically rattle off some sort of contingency plan for challenges including job loss, illness, death of a loved one, or even natural disaster. (At least those natural disasters most common in the Deep South, where I spend most of my time.)

And yet, despite spending all that time and precious energy diving deeply into frightening “what ifs,” this particular crisis was not something that I had fully considered until it was bearing down on us. That is how life goes, it seems. The things that end up sidelining us take us by surprise.

It’s Helpful to Focus on What You Do Know – at Least Right Now

My mind can click into overdrive with little to no preparation. This is apparently especially true in crisis. There have been moments in the past few days where I have analyzed the “what ifs” of this situation to the point that I mentally have myself  struggling to breathe, staggering penniless through the streets of New York City searching desperately for food, water and life saving medical care. (Don’t ask me how I’ve come to be on the streets of New York, panicked and alone, while also sheltering in place at my home in the Deep South. I just am. My fretting is rarely rational.)

Just like you, I do not know what tomorrow will bring. But I know that in this moment, I can breathe. I don’t have symptoms. Those closest to me don’t have symptoms. I know that I have supplies to last a few days. I know that the sun is currently shining outside my window, my dogs are getting a smidge sick of my nagging at them for barking, and my teenagers are engaged in a water ballloon throwing contest with each other on the back patio. In this moment, that can be enough.

It is Relationships – Both Close and Not So Close – that Matter Most

OK. I already knew this one – at least in theory. But I have received a powerful reminder in the midst of this outbreak. I have been surprised by some of the relationships that have brought me comfort these past two days.

I have received encouragement from my husband, my teenagers, my father-in-law, my parents, and a handful of friends that have been important to me for a decade or more. Their honesty about where they are emotionally, what they are thinking, and how they are getting through have been great comforts.

But I also have had people I am not quite as close to to reach out and say hello. There have been neighbors beyond my immediate ones (who are awesome, by the way) that I don’t communicate with as regularly. They have texted or called just to say “Hey, how are you? Are you guys at home? Do you need anything?”  Some new friends have checked in with me in ways that feel important and I can feel our connections growing, even with this social distancing mandate in place.

My church is still formulating plans for how we are all going to stay connected and love each other during this weird, admittedly frightening time. I have enjoyed those updates – even when they didn’t carry much in the way of actual news because there is so much we don’t know.

I have taken comfort in knowing that teachers and our new youth pastor are all working hard to figure out how to keep supporting our kids. That has made me grateful and also taken a bit of pressure off – that even in a crisis like this where we are hunkered down at home, I do not have to be all things to anyone, even my own kids.

This morning, I took some time to email or text with most of the educators I am fortunate to serve through my work. We bantered back and forth a bit about the craziness and stress of this moment. We shared movie, book and podcast recommendations. Multiple people told me that – like me – they are currently binge watching Parks and Rec and have found it oddly helpful. I offered them an idea or two about things they might want to think about next in their schools. We were of use to and service to each other. And in these moments, that feels downright sacred.

There will be more lessons, of course. And by tomorrow, odds are good that my stubborn, prone to worry self will need to relearn some of the lessons from today, too. But I hope this is helpful to someone out there.

What are YOU learning during this strange season? How are you?

 

 

Ditching My Blind Spot: Eating Better

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Photo by John Finkelstein on Pexels.com

I have never felt fully in control of what I eat – and that’s something that’s always bothered me.

The truth is, I’ve spent more than 40 years having what can best be described as a sugar and caffeine addiction.

In tough – and not so tough – times, I have used a mixture of sweets and caffeine to bolster my energy and my mood.

Feeling a little sick? Eat some ice cream.

Stress? They make Reece’s Cups for that.

Celebrating a strong work week? Start Friday with donuts and, maybe, Cocoa Pebbles, too.

Want to wallow a bit because the week wasn’t so great – at home or at work? Fruity Pebbles, Count Chocula and brownies, anyone?

I’ve had a nagging sense that my eating was a problem for a while now. But I grew up in a household where the focus of diet and nutrition was never on wellness – it was always on how I looked and what size I wore. So, as long as my favorite pants still (sort of) fit, I decided I was just fine.

All that changed about four months ago, when I started noticing that I had a headache every weekday afternoon at about 3 p.m. At first, I thought it was a stress-induced phenomenon. Was I working too much? Did I not like my job as much as I thought I did? Was this just one of the harsh realities of getting older?

A colleague and friend of mine mentioned in passing that she had given up soda, and I decided to do the same (again). I also cut my coffee intake back to just one cup each morning. Throughout the day, I also was intentional about drinking water – something that felt difficult, since I am in a classroom all day most of the time.

The first day, I honestly felt scared and insecure. Was this something I could do? This fear carried into day two.

By day three, all I wanted to do was sleep. My headaches were worse than ever and my body ached so much I initially thought I might be getting the flu. But I hung in there, recognizing I was likely in withdrawal. By the afternoon of day four, I was headache-free. Instead of lending the school day with a headache, I felt energized.

That one change got me thinking – if eliminating soda and scaling back coffee could make such a big difference, what would actually changing the foods I eat do? Could I feel better than ever, even in middle age?

My curiosity led me to an (admittedly) quirky nurse practitioner, who recommended a detox effort to determine what foods made me feel good, and which ones harmed my well-being. This led me to a whole foods focus. No grains (I had already given up gluten due to an allergy). No milk. No sugar. No processed foods of any kind. If it didn’t come from the ground, I didn’t eat it.

The experience reminded me – a lot – of my caffeine detox effort. On day two without sugar, I felt both achy and irrationally emotional. On day three, I honestly questioned whether it was worth getting out of bed without sugar in my day. (I knew this was completely insane but couldn’t fully stop thinking it.) Driving to my school for the day, I felt myself swinging irrationally between a sense of deep despair about my breakup with sugar and exhilaration at what this newfound discipline might bring to my life.

By day four, I could feel my symptoms subsiding. At the end of the first week, I had a strong resolve. This really could be a new way of life for me, I decided. It turned out that I actually could control what I ate, when, and how much!

Through the experience, I have identified some stumbling blocks I have had with diet before and I’ve addressed them. I am sharing these in case they might help you:

  1. I don’t pay attention to the scale. Instead, I pay attention to how I feel when I eat various foods. This is a more effective incentive to me because it’s clear that my dietary changes are a radical act of self-care – not something I am doing to meet the expectations of others.
  2.  I have replaced fast food and unhealthy snacks with a new type of “fast food.” This was probably my biggest stumbling block before. I thought I didn’t have time to eat healthy. But I keep it simple. It turns out it is just as easy to throw fruits, raw vegetables and almond butter in a lunch bag as it was to throw chips and rice crispy treats in one.
  3. I have identified go-to meals I can eat when I go out to eat. Almost any restaurant offers salads.  Chicken or (occasionally) steak or salmon are found in most restaurants, along with a basic vegetable. Once the habit is built, it doesn’t really feel that hard.
  4. I have let go of feeling responsible for how others respond to what I am eating. Sometimes, people can feel strangely triggered when they see someone making healthier choices. While I still sometimes recognize this discomfort, I remind myself that I was the only one who could change my choices, and it had to happen in my own time. I really don’t have that much influence over how most other people eat, so why should I worry about their reactions?

I have been living this new lifestyle for about three months now. I recognize more challenges will come – one of the reasons I waited this long to share. But right now, I am very focused on how good eating this way makes me feel. And that is an amazing reward.

What lessons have you learned about healthy eating? What are your stumbling blocks? How do you overcome them?

 

 

 

 

 

Our Kids Still Need Us – Even When they are Bigger than We Are

You know that saying – if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it must be a duck?

Well, it doesn’t necessarily apply when dealing with teenagers – and that’s a difficult lesson I re-learned this week.

My two teenagers have both been taller than me for more than two years now.

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Photo by NEOSiAM 2020 on Pexels.com

They are skilled at dealing with everything from waitresses in restaurants to angry parents at the soccer fields where they referee to tech support staff on the telephone – and have been for a couple of years already. They handle most social issues themselves, without my hovering. My daughter even has the same driving freedoms that I enjoy as an adult, minus a state-imposed curfew for new drivers.

When I listen to them speak, they often sound just like I do – especially when they are making a case for why they should be allowed to do something.

In so many ways, they appear to be adults. And honestly, that appearance has lulled me into a state of complacency at times.

Because the reality is they are not yet adults.

Their brains will continue to develop and form new, important connections for several more years. They do not always have the capacity to understand when they are in a dangerous situation, and the fact that they have successfully navigated childlike problems in the past does not mean they are fully ready yet for the grown-up world.

That hit home for me in a big way this week, when we realized that our kids had been shouldering a very difficult – and adult – situation for several months now without our boundaries and support. While I had heard bits and pieces of the problem, I failed to fully connect the dots and it made them less safe as a result.

They and some of their friends were in over their heads and needed help from us – even if they didn’t quite ask for it.

When I realized how long I had let them grapple in relative silence, it hit me like a punch to the gut. They might seem OK on the surface, but these teen years are difficult, and our kids still need our help to process things – a lot.

It is our responsibility to loan them our fully developed adult brains and to give them structure to process problems they aren’t quite ready to handle alone.

We are admittedly regrouping a bit at our house right now – talking more about safety and being realistic and candid about some of the dangers in this difficult – and ultimately broken – world of ours.

I share this with you as a gentle reminder: We can’t operate in a place of paralyzing fear. We should not over-protect our children at this age, since very soon they will be called upon to fully function in the adult world, often without us.

But we have to continue being vigilant, even if we feel our kids are mature and (mostly) responsible. We have to listen like crazy, trust our gut (I ignored mine for a little too long on this one) and support as needed.

Our kids’ very lives may be at stake. Hang in there, friends. These years are both beautiful and achingly difficult.

 

 

Check with Your Strong Friends, They Are (Probably) Not OK, No Matter What Social Media Says

 

 

“Check on your strong friends, they are not OK.”

I have seen this reminder a lot lately, including from my (very strong and awesome) friend and Atlanta area educational entrepreneur, Ty Lewis.

The reminder has always made sense to me on some level. As someone who fancies myself strong, I know that I can sometimes feel a smidge overlooked when people start offering up support. People think I am OK because I work so very hard to make that true.

This has been a really, really tough season for a few people around me. People are dealing with everything from illness/death of loved ones to ailing parents to teenagers who have somehow gone off the rails, despite the very best parenting efforts.

And while I have tried to be intentional about reaching out, I also don’t want them to feel that I am hovering or over-supporting, somehow. “Maybe,” I think, “they really are ok? And maybe they already have more support than they can handle.”

So, I’ve offered some very basic support in the way of check-ins, a few dinners here and there, and phone calls.

These friends, as a group, are absolute rock stars in their day-to-day lives. They are fiercely independent, calm under pressure and more likely to be found supporting others than needing help themselves.

And so, when these friends have posted photos on social media of themselves seemingly carrying on with normal activities – and even exceling – in the face of hardship, I have stopped checking in quite as much.

“Wow,” I’ve thought to myself, scrolling through photos of them leading with heart and love and grace. “I know they are in a hard season, but they don’t seem to need much from me at all.”

Deciding to send kudos to one of my friends after an especially strong post, I reached out.

“Wow! You are amazing,” I told her. “You’ve gone through so much, but here you are rocking it and leading others.”

But the messages that came back let me know I’d been misleading myself: my friend was not, indeed, OK. She was in a very dark place, wondering to some extent how she was going to make it through the day.

“There’s been a lot of darkness,” she told me. “A lot.”

Several friends, actually, have referenced a darkness lately, despite their track records of being quite strong. Maybe it’s middle age. Maybe it’s LIFE.

It brought me back to the admonition my friend Ty shares so often.

Check on your strong friends. They are not OK – and often, their portrayal that they are OK on social media is part of their baseline strength – an opportunity to rally themselves and to try to look to the positive, even in achingly difficult situations. But attempting to be positive doesn’t mean you are positive. And sometimes, we all need a little help getting past the darkness.

I know better. I need to do better – a lot better.

 

Advice from the Field: Sometimes You Just Stop the Next Ball

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My sophomore daughter hung in the goal, on high alert during Tuesday’s high school playoff game against a rival team. She and her team made it through four over-time periods, with 20 minutes of overtime and 10 minutes of sudden death.

Neither team flinched.

It came down to penalty kicks – the ultimate in high stakes and high pressure for a keeper (and yes, also for all those who love that keeper).

Hannah got loose and stepped into the goal, looking calm.

Ball after ball came by. Some went in, some did not. She continued to look eerily calm, staring with intensity at each kicker, ready to explode with force in a hair trigger moment, a split second after the ball made contact with cleat.

The kicks continued, both sets of parents screaming maniacally. Some people chanted our daughter’s name. “Go MAVERICKS!,” could be heard echoing through our side of the stadium, as though if we screamed loud enough, we could influence the outcome through sheer desire.  Others, mostly moms, couldn’t even bear to watch, the tension so high for both teams.

My girl stopped the ball. One of our players scored. Sudden death penalty kicks. The game was over.

Fans started to rush the field, screaming and waving their arms. “MAVS!!!!”

Hannah stretched and for a second, got back in the goal.

The referee looked at our daughter, puzzled.

“The game is over,” the referee said, smiling at her.

“Wait, you mean we won? That’s it?” she asked, a broad smile crossing her face, her eyes focused now on the friends and family pouring through the gate.

After rounds of congratulations from teammates she came to find us.

“I didn’t know we’d won,” she said after a moment. “I was just focusing on stopping all the balls.”

I smiled widely. Sometimes life is like this. In moments of high pressure, confusion, tension or anxiety, we have to step back from the big picture and focus on the next right thing.

Stop the ball.

Love your family and friends boundlessly.

Do ridiculously good work.

Care for and serve others with abandon.

You will look up one day and see that the game is over. And you’ve won.

 

 

 

Beware the Mirror Friend

We came to an ugly realization this morning: our family parakeet, Beignet, has developed an unhealthy attachment to a 2×4-inch mirror mounted in his cage.

We installed the mirror a few weeks ago, thinking it would provide our feathered friend some entertainment beyond his orange, star-shaped swing and adjacent dangling, multi-colored plastic keys.

beignet mirror

Initially, this seemed like a good decision. Our yellow and green little bird occasionally sidled up to the mirror to have a look and chatter a bit.  But in the last two weeks, his fixation on the mirror became obsessive. He soon lost all interest in his keys, his swing, and even in interacting with us. He spent the entire day perched on top of the mirror, chattering and looking at his reflection.

After a little reading, we learned that Beignet’s reaction actually isn’t unusual. Apparently parakeets — innately very social creatures — can easily develop unhealthy attachments to their own reflections. In time, the mirror can make them both more territorial and agitated. The mirror seems like an entertaining toy that would satisfy a bird, but because it’s not a natural relationship, things can quickly become unhealthy.

Realizing the dysfunction of Beignet’s “relationship” with his fake friend, we made the painful decision to remove the mirror from his cage early today. This evening, he spent some time back on his swing. He’s pouting some – understandably – but seems to be on the way to becoming himself again. He even took a little bit of seed from my hand a few minutes ago. We are hopeful tomorrow will be an even better day.

Still, the whole experience was more than a little sad – and it got me thinking about the danger of fake friends – the sort that don’t look back at us from actual mirrors, but from figurative ones.

We have probably all had them – friends – and even family members – who we can get along with as long as we are the “perfect mirror.” These people, who claim to care about us deeply, will embrace and even celebrate us as long as we mirror them.

The fake mirror friends expect us to make the same choices they do and to have the same beliefs – even about trivial things. These are the people who will be our friends as long as we meet their expectations. In all our interactions, we must serve as mirrors, reflecting back their own decisions. They seek validation through our mirroring, and their expectations may require that we:

  • Go to the same church
  • Work the same level of or type of job that they do
  • Live in housing similar to theirs
  • Live near them geographically
  • Make the same decisions about marriage and family
  • Vote as they do
  • Like – and dislike – the same people they do
  • Dress like they do and make other purchases similar to theirs
  • Have the same hobbies they do
  • Have the same diet and exercise regimen they do

In some cases, we not only must mirror them  – we must mirror a slightly stunted version of them. We can never outdo them – in our job performance, our finances, our commitment to health. In doing this, we cause them to feel uncomfortable. And if there’s one thing mirror friends don’t want, it’s to endure discomfort.

As long as we meet their expectations, we have peace. We are accepted and even praised for our decisions. But the price we pay for these relationships is steep. Conforming can come at a high price – particularly when it determines decisions about important things like our core beliefs, where we work or worship, where we live, and who we accept.

With maturity, these relationships often deteriorate. We reach a point where we start to ask ourselves: Is this person really a friend? What will happen if I am my true self? Am I able to ask questions? Can I be honest about my spiritual or intellectual doubts? Do I have the freedom to change?

The imploding of a relationship with a “mirror friend” can be painful. Unlike a real mirror reflection, these fake friends can turn on us, berating and criticizing us.

But often, as we mature, we realize that staying in fake friendships causes more damage than it is worth. In ending our bogus relationships with mirror friends, we realize that we are more free to be ourselves. Growth and freedom come.

If we are really lucky and work hard at cultivating our authenticity, in time we will be able to move past our mirror friends, and realize that they have been replaced by true friends – people who do not require our mirroring in order to accept us.

These people see us for who we are – and also are willing to accept us if we change or if we question. They understand that we can vote differently, have different beliefs about religion, or have different friends and still be bonded together.

With these friends, we can ask the scary questions: What would happen if I changed career paths? Moved? Visited a different type of church? Voted differently? Changed my eating habits? Befriended someone that others in my social circle actively dislike? Picked up a new hobby or abandoned an old one?

Unlike our bird, we don’t usually have someone else who can come along and remove the mirror entirely. We have to deal with it ourselves. And while that’s a painful decision, it’s typically worth it.

What are your experiences with “mirror friends?” How did things change between you? How are you doing now?

 

 

What a Toxic Encounter Taught Me

 

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One of the things middle age is teaching me is to have really strong boundaries. It’s important to be kind and loving, but it’s also important to remember that this starts by being kind and loving to myself.

But I let my guard down yesterday and found myself interacting with a pair of people who have proven themselves to be dangerous to my sense of self in the past.

In the course of just an hour, these people, who know me well, managed to attack:

  • The value of the work I do each day
  • How I parent my children
  • My core beliefs about accepting others
  • The quality of my education/my intelligence
  • The economic lifestyle my family lives
  • My ability to teach others
  • Whether I have earned the good things that have come my way

Honestly, the only thing they didn’t seem to attack about me and my life is my appearance. I have to assume they just forgot to hit this point, but I will be working very hard not to give them the opportunity to pile on this criticism in the future!

Yesterday, I was proud of myself. I handled the situation with more calm and gracefulness than I would have in my twenties or thirties, when I would have met their behavior with a string of crying hysterics and screaming, followed by hours of arguing with myself about my self-worth.

But this morning, I woke up feeling pounded. I honestly felt like a death had occurred, and I knew I needed to take some steps to work through the pain I had experienced. If I ignored it, it would surface later in more negative ways.

I talked to a couple of trusted people about what had happened, trying to keep my story succinct and not to dwell too much on the awfulness of specific attacks. I took a walk with my dog when the sun unexpectedly broke through outside. I ate some cheese and some Cocoa Krispies (don’t worry, not at the same time, and not to excess).

Then, as I began to feel better, I shifted to asking myself: What do I do with this? What can I learn and how can this negative experience, which has the potential to absolutely throttle me, help me to be and do better? How do I take the bad and turn it into good?

Here, for your viewing pleasure, is what I came up with:

  1. Remember the power of words and honor that power. The people who attacked me are not healthy people. They choose to use their words to tear down and hurt. How I choose to use my words matters and there are consequences that come with my decisions. I have so many opportunities each day to use my words for good – in the work that I do, in the young people that cross my path through my children, and also through my writing. I will be intentional and use my words to uplift others. This will be a legacy for me – the positive seeds that I plant in other people will outlive me.
  2. Be especially mindful of the words that I say to my family. In the teen years, it is tempting to think that children sometimes need blunter, harsher words in order to help them see a point. This, of course, is not true. Teenagers need kind words. They need to be uplifted, as they continue the hard work of developing their own sense of self. I will speak those words to my family, and especially my teenagers.
  3. Resist the urge to choose isolation over connection. Now that I am in my forties, I am starting to see people around me choose isolation at times when they would benefit from choosing to connect with others. In this age, it is tempting to feel frustrated with the failings of others. We wonder if we should, instead, protect ourselves by pulling back from friends, family and society as a whole. An isolated life can seem safer. After all, if we don’t trust in others, we will never be disappointed in them. The people who spewed their anger at me yesterday are isolated, lonely people. This is the life they have chosen for themselves. And it is a jaw-dropping cautionary tale. I will choose connection, even when isolation might initially feel tempting to an introvert like me.
  4. Choose acceptance. The people who railed against me yesterday did so because they want me to conform to their views and their attitudes. Oddly, they would likely be kinder to me if I mirrored their misery. My life doesn’t look like theirs – it’s more abundant in opportunity, in connection and in the work that I do. I do not operate from fear as they do. I don’t say this in arrogance, but simply to recognize the mindset they were likely in when they spoke their hurtful words. I don’t like what they said, obviously. I will make decisions going forward to try to prevent these people from being in situations where they can speak such words to me again. But I also accept them, where they are. They will not change – in fact, odds are excellent that their behavior will escalate even more than it already has. I accept that for what it is. I do not get to be surprised that they are the people they have repeatedly shown me they are. I accept them, just as they are.

This morning, I felt completely exhausted because of the verbal assault I experienced yesterday. But now, I am beginning to feel renewed – like I can take the negative and learn from it, using it as fuel to do better and be better. If every day was an easy one, we would likely never learn.

What have you learned from toxic people?

 

 

 

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

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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?