“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.

Don’t Wait for Others to Grant You Leadership Opportunities – Seize Them!

“I really want to be a leader,” a former college student of mine told me recently, her tone wistful. “I want to inspire others and I want to make a difference in the world around me.”

“I agree!” I said! “You are meant to be a leader – it’s a bit part of who you are, and I honestly don’t think you will be happy if you aren’t doing it! The world needs more leaders just like you!”

My former student grew quiet and hesitant. Suddenly, this strong, articulate woman – full of wisdom and conviction and heart, was blinking back tears. “They won’t let me,” she said. “I apply for those jobs and I don’t even get an interview. Honestly? It feels like those jobs go to men. or to people who know someone. Or people who have ‘done their time’ in the system.”

I sat for a minute, understanding the full weight of what she was saying.

I’ve been there.

Odds are good you’ve been there, too.

What do you do when you know you are created and called to lead, but you can’t seem to secure the title and position of a leader?

You lead anyway.

You might choose to lead in your existing position – even if your job description doesn’t include leadership responsibilities. You also might choose to lead on your own time, starting a side business where you are free to build the skills that you don’t feel fully free to build in your day job. In time, you may consider ways to make that side hustle your full-time job.

Maybe your leadership muscle can be strengthened through a community service project. Perhaps it’s your church that needs you to step up and be a leader – speaking your truth, sharing valuable information, inspiring, and coordinating the efforts of others.

We all have a sphere of influence – friends, family, neighbors, co-workers, students, children, and others who look to us for guidance and leadership. If we want to lead, we start by leading within our sphere of influence, each and every day.

Within our sphere of influence, we don’t ask for permission to lead. We already have been given that authority by nature of our relationships. And isn’t that what leadership is really about, anyway? Relationships?

If you are interested in leadership but are frustrated with being told “no” by gatekeepers of certain positions, I encourage you to think about who you influence. Who looks to you for advice and direction? Who do you find that you are informally called upon to teach and help to grow? This is your opportunity at leadership – take it!

If you want the formal leadership positions, please keep fighting for them. But in the meantime, don’t let gatekeepers prevent you from leading – do it right where you are, every day.

Don’t wait for permission – seize the opportunity – either in your work day or on your own time. You won’t regret it!

We Have to Do Better – for All Our Young People

A young man close to me, who also is an aspiring police officer, broke down last night, choking back tears. He talked about what he wants for himself – and for his friends of all colors and backgrounds.


“I just want this to stop. It’s getting worse. The world is getting worse. People are dying. And now we have this violence and I worry about more people dying because everyone is just so frustrated and angry. And I want to be able to get a job and provide for my family and find the best schools that I can for my kids. I want a good life – and I want that for everyone. But it’s getting worse, it feels like the world is getting worse – just going to hell. And it’s a lot. I want it to stop and I don’t know how.”

Photo by Julia M Cameron on Pexels.com


COVID was already hard on our young people – and continues to be. This violence and unrest are horrifically difficult. It feels hopeless when year after year after year, we see black people brutally murdered at the hands of police – while other officers are trying their best to protect and serve within an incredibly flawed system. It feels like we repeat the same events and talking points and heartache over. And. Over. And. Over. Again.


And like him, I don’t know all the answers. I don’t have the right words. But I know I need to do what I can to do right by him, and to make sure that the ship is righted when and where I’m able to right it.


God help us – and me – and him …..

A Meaningful Moment is More than Enough

“It’s too much,” my friend said on the phone recently, her voice catching. “I’m trying to work from home and I’m supposed to be homeschooling and making meals. I’m also apparently supposed to be preparing for major changes in the economy and checking on all my friends and neighbors. Oh, and saving money and supporting local businesses. I’m supposed to be making this time calm and magical for my kids, too. There are supposed to be forts. And chalk art. Bear hunts. Keeping a COVID journal for my great-great-granddaughter. All this stuff. But most days, I’m not even showering. I can’t do all this stuff.”

My friend’s words hit me hard. Hearing all the expectations she is shouldering – right now made me feel overwhelmed – not just for her, but for all of us.

How do we honor our commitments to our families, our work, and ourselves during such unprecedented times? What does our “best” look like right now?

Something in me has shifted in the last week, as we enter week 1,793 of sheltering in place.

Life is being distilled down to the moments. I’ve given up on being magical 24/7 – or even 3/2.

Instead, I am being intentional about little moments.

Yesterday, I spent what felt like way too long sitting with my coffee in the kitchen, gazing into space. I lost complete track of time. Somehow, almost two hours passed. The coffee went cold. My thoughts churned, my stomach knotted and unknotted and knotted again.

“Ugh! I feel so unproductive!” I told a colleague mid-morning. “I don’t even know what I am doing with myself right now!”

But then, I pushed myself back from my coffee cup. I could be intentional – just for 10 minutes. I gathered up my teenagers and my husband – the dogs and a jabbering parakeet joined in, too.

“Hey. How are you guys? What are you learning? What do you need?” My kids spoke through broad smiles and through tears – sometimes in the same breath. My husband made a corny dad joke – something about ear hair and not being able to hear and the bit 5-0 looming large.

The cobwebs in my brain and in my soul cleared – at least for a while. A sense of gratitude and encouragement washed through the room. It was fleeting, but it was a moment. And now, just a day later, I see that it’s a memory – one that will carry us through our week.

Maybe it’s not about being great and shouldering all of those expectations. Maybe it’s about rallying as we can – being the architect of those little moments of encouragement and love. We can do it.

Now, where did I put that coffee cup?

A Letter to My Young(er) Mom Self: Report Cards and ACT Scores and Tryouts Don’t Matter

Dear Monique,

Whew. This love you feel for your elementary school-aged babies is intense, isn’t it?

But there is something else intense within you – a desire to safeguard them from the ups and downs of life.

You and Matt feel you have had to fight so darned hard to be where you are today financially. You want your kids to be OK – not just now, but when you are gone. And you want to be able to safeguard them against the need for so much luck.

Photo by Srinivas on Pexels.com

Achievements as a Trust Fund ?

Since you don’t quite see the pathway to a massive trust fund (first generation college kids usually don’t), you try to give them a different inheritance – achievements. You want them to be excellent – academically and athletically and musically and in service.

I love you for this sort of focus and intensity, Young(er) Monique. There is so much love and good intention and fight in what you are doing.

But I also see you becoming borderline hysterical because one of your growing babies made a B in third grade social studies. Really? A B in social studies? That’s not so bad. It’s even kind of good, actually. And besides, that grade was based on a couple of foldables and an unnecessarily boring reading passage. If anything, that grade measures the ability of your child to follow other people’s directions.

We also need to talk for a minute about sports. Your kids enjoy sports – a lot. They love soccer and baseball and swim and basketball and football and volleyball. That’s not just you thinking they love it – they really do!

But I want you to know there will come a time when they will want to try other things, too. They will want to play drums and be in the diamond girls and all sorts of clubs. Your daughter will stun you by wanting to do beauty review! They will realize that competing to play college sports isn’t their top priority.

So enjoy the sports. Relish and reinforce the lessons. Take lots of pictures. Smile. Laugh. Treat these experiences like some of your very best memories – because they are. But don’t worry so much about every roster and tryout and race time – every practice that is missed because of a fever or a sprain or a sore pitching arm. It will all be OK.

Get Ready for Some Sci-Fi Craziness

Now, I am about to tell you something that is going to blow your 30-something mind. Are you ready? Sit down. No. Seriously. Sit. Down. This is beyond intense:

In the spring of 2020 – when your kids are buzzing along in their first and second years of high school, a pandemic is going to completely derail their lives and yours. I know. I know. It sounds like something out of a low budget sci-fi movie, doesn’t it? But unfortunately, my sweet and naive younger mom self, it is real.

Right before the pandemic hits, you will still be obsessing over achievements in spite of yourself.

One of your children will make an actual C on their report card in their very best subject because they lost some papers. Or didn’t complete them? Or never got them? Or got them and the teacher lost them? (Unlikely, but possible.) You will lose your MIND about this C. You will be convinced that it is going to ruin their chances of securing money for college, and you will rant at them about the oppressive nature of student loans and how this one grade could negatively affect their lives. You will be a hot mess. And you will know it, but you will still rant.

Then, the pandemic will hit full throttle. You and your little family – and two crazy dogs and a parakeet – will be sheltering in place at home – for weeks and weeks. The last nine weeks of school will happen online, and there will be a grading scale that really makes a lot of the focus on schoolwork seem downright absurd.

You will read news reports at night, when everyone else is asleep, that caution about things like the likelihood that distance learning will have to continue – possibly through your older child’s senior year. There may be no high school sports. No band. No academic awards assemblies or face-to-face service projects. No internships or exclusive summer camps.

During the Shelter in Place order, your daughter will come to you, talking about the ACT Prep you have repeatedly emphasized. And all of a sudden you will look at her and realize: It doesn’t freaking matter. Little of it matters – not much, anyway.

What Matters Has Shifted

Because all of a sudden, colleges are cutting deals with kids to get them to even come to college. And because it’s likely all college learning will be distance learning for months on end, it feels like where they go doesn’t even matter. It might even be beneficial to just take a year off.

One of your kids will begin thinking that they aren’t sure they even want to go to college at all, and this will suddenly seem very reasonable, because who knows what anyone at all is even training and preparing for anymore? How do you prepare for this wild new world? How do you spend four years preparing for a career when you don’t even know which careers will be sustainable?

And that is when it will hit you, my dear, well intentioned younger self: you were focusing on the wrong lessons. Because what matters in this pandemic – and on the other side of it – is that your kids have healthy coping skills. You will look at your carefree child – the one you shouted at to try to make them understand the horrors of earning a C – and you will realize that this carefree nature is actually a freaking superpower – not a deficit.

You will all but weep as you realize that what matters now is the relationship you have with your kids – that there is love and mutual respect and mercy between you.

You will look at your kids and you will see that all those sporting lessons – and the school ones, too – were just ways to learn resilience and coping skills. You will recognize that more than grades, they need to know how to pivot and learn new things. They need to be creative and innovative – to think beyond what’s right in front of them. They need to be able to do their own research and analyze the validity of statements that are made in the media and beyond.

Signs You Will Be OK

One night, around the dinner table (you will eat meals together again during the pandemic, too. Crazy, right?), they will look at you and say something like, “We will be ok. We aren’t worried. We will adjust. We just don’t want more people – even people we don’t know – to die.” These words will touch you at your very core. You will be so darned proud of them – prouder than any achievement could ever make you.

They will have the best coping skills! They will do videoconferences with their friends and their boyfriends/girlfriends. They will play HORSE and do church youth group scavenger hunts virtually. They will create their own schedules, where they are sure to make time for work and exercise and talks with friends and time with you, too. And you will know, with so much gratitude in your heart, that they learned what they truly needed- in spite of you.

It’s going to be OK, Young(er) Monique. THEY are going to be OK. But it won’t be for any of the reasons you thought. Enjoy those sweet, growing people of yours. And help lead your family with heart and grace and love and strength. (Also, invest in Zoom. And Charmin. And hand sanitzer. Seriously. Don’t ask. Just do it.)

Also, I love you. And you are enough. You always were – and so are your kids.

We Survived the Southern California Recession of 2009: What We Learned – and Are Learning Again Now

In 2009, the economic bottom fell out of our lives, when the company my husband had worked for since he was 21 quickly went from being a Fortune 500 company to filing for bankruptcy.

The financial and professional futures we saw for ourselves disintegrated almost overnight, and we grieved those losses. We had two preschoolers at home and were living in one of the hardest hit parts of the nation. At one point, one in four neighborhoods in the community where we lived was in some stage of the foreclosure process. Not only were we hurting – most of the people we knew were, too.

It wasn’t uncommon during those times to have neighbors suddenly allow their grass to go brown. Soon, you would learn they’d packed up and left their sprawling suburban homes behind in the middle of the night in anticipation of the banks seizing them.

Another thing I remember hitting hard is the desperation of those looking for work. One middle-aged man positioned himself on a busy street corner, day after day, dressed in a snazzy suit and holding a sign that read, “Have an MBA, need job making $50,000. Call me.”

My husband and I know what it’s like to have a little something in the bank, and we know what it’s like to live without, too. Our own childhood experiences probably make us trend conservatively when it comes to money. We try to save and we think a lot about how to be good stewards of our money. We also, often, fall short.

It turned out 2009 brought other stressors. Several family members and friends were facing severe health issues, and we were working to manage those from across the country from our Alabama and Mississippi hometowns.

I was finishing up my doctorate and only working part-time – while worrying about how I would be able to use a doctorate in educational leadership in a recession that had tens of thousands of Southern California educators out of work – and entitled under union agreement to get their jobs back before external candidates like me could even be given an interview. One of the fears that gripped us most during this time was losing health insurance. Not only were we unsure we could get jobs in our fields – we weren’t even sure we could get jobs with benefits.

As an added “bonus,” to the year, the kids both had swine flu – and had terrifyingly high fevers. When those fevers broke, I promise you we weren’t thinking about what was or was not in our bank account.

Thankfully, we came out of the 2009 recession fairly unscathed. It even made us better people along the way. Here are some things the experience taught us – lessons we seem to be relearning now, as economic uncertainty looms large again.

  1. Focusing on what you do know can truly become a superpower. There were so many times back in 2009 that I spiraled into catastrophic, “what if” thinking, trying to plan for every negative event imaginable. It’s like I believed if I thought analytically enough, I could out-think our situation. Slowly, though, I learned to steady myself by listing out what I did know at the time: My immediate family was healthy. We had food to eat. Running water. Electricity. Access to education. Access to healthcare. Jobs. Professional contacts. We had people who loved us – people who I sometimes listed by name when I was feeling my most fearful.
  2. There can be a magic in living more simply. We escaped the 2009 Southern California economy by moving to the Houston, Texas area after my husband got a job offer from a utility company. My husband made less money in the job, but the moving package got us out of California – and the Southern California housing market – and got me into a better market for my skills. We rented a smaller house, near his work and maximized the time he had previously spent commuting to make memories. Because we were able to stay positive and emphasize the benefits of the move, our kids didn’t even notice that we had downsized – or that our previous vacations were replaced by staycations or driving trips to see family. They just saw the magic of a new place – one where Daddy was around more and where Pawpaw lived closer to them.
  3. Music really can be a salve for the soul. When I look back on some of our more fearful days in Southern California, I recall the many times that music got me through. Even now, I have a sort of Recession Playlist that includes songs like Chicken Fried by the Zac Brown Band, Live High by Jason Mraz, and Better Together by Jack Johnson. Each of those songs has a message about simplictiy and beauty in togetherness. It’s funny, but I have been listening to those songs more as the challenges of 2020 face us. (I’ve also added in some Queen and Aerosmith and Enigma for good measure.)
  4. Relationships matter. In the heart of our concerns about the Southern California economy, there were so many good people who stepped up – in some cases people we had not heard from in quite a long time. These people stepped alongside us with not just words of support but offers of help. I can still remember the names of the people who shared our resumes – both in Southern California and across the Deep South. I’ve been thankful to return a few of those favors in more recent years – but the amazing thing is that no one ever asked me to or expected me to – they just helped because it’s who they are. They’ve made me a better person through their kindness.
  5. You never know who or what will help you get back on solid professional ground. My husband was one of thousands of applicants for his job in Texas. His resume stood out because the hiring manager happened to be familiar with the program at his university and viewed it as a good one. A while later, I got a full-time job because my son’s kindergarten teacher was willing to go to bat for me and vouch for the volunteer work I did in her classroom – not because I was trying to get a job (I’d been told there wouldn’t be openings) – but just because I loved being with the kids. Doing the next right thing and volunteering paid off, even though I had no reason to think it would.
  6. You can’t wait until you are crisis-free to have fun. One day early in 2009 it hit me – we had been riding one personal crisis after another for a while. If we had written off the months and years when something upsetting was happening in our lives, we never would have allowed ourselves to have fun or enjoy ourselves. We learned to laugh even while grappling with heavy matters. Life is too short not to have an awful lot of fun.

We grew so much during the season of 2009-2010! And even though our kids were quite young, they sometimes reference that period and the wisdom we gained. They know that we will be ok with less – less entertainment, less disposable income, fewer distractions and activities.

They understand that friends and family and helping others are the real treasures of life. We all still worry a little more than we should and work to predict the future when that’s impossible, but the lessons learned then were valuabe.

I’m re-learning some of those lessons, too – it’s not a coincidence, then, that I am re-reading The Simplicity Circle during this season. It’s also not a coincidence that Jack Johnson, The Zac Brown Band and Jason Mraz have all been on repeat on my Spotify account. Later today, I wil likely make at least a mental list of all the things I know to be true – in this moment.

I can almost hear myself growing and maturing again.

Even in the Craziness of Impatience, Doubt – and COVID – God Somehow Shows UP

I’m not a very good Christian – never have been.

I can often act like a fool. Impatience gets the best of me – fear, too.

So many of the trappings of church – even the language of the church – annoy me. If God judges us based on church attendance and daily Bible readings and even pureness of thought, I am, to put it spiritually, screwed.

And yet, I can sometimes see glimpses of God all around. He does show up.

Photo by Alena Koval on Pexels.com

This morning, God was in an online church service.

I smiled broadly as I saw my friends log on and comment, too. “Hi. Thank you for being here. It’s good to see you.”

He sat with us after the service in our living room, when the dogs paced and I quietly asked my little family, “Hey. What are you learning right now? What does this all mean and how will we be changed?” He was there in the tears that followed – tears of mourning and of conviction, of peace and of gratitude, and sadness and hope, too.

A little later, he was in a long walk, with Queen playing on repeat as drops of rain hit my cheeks. My neighbors of all ages were out, too, riding bikes and running or walking, nodding. I smiled at them, and at their newly planted flowers, small but powerful acts of radical hope:

‘Cause love’s such an old fashioned word
And love dares you to care for
The people on the edge of the night
And love (people on streets) dares you to change our way of
Caring about ourselves
This is our last dance
This is our last dance
This is ourselves under pressure
Under pressure
Pressure

I’m a lousy Christian, but I’m glad God decided to show up today, anyway.

Things Cracking Me Up in the Midst of Chaos

I did a lot of my growing up in the newsroom of a daily newspaper, where I started working at the age of 16, and somewhere along the way, the experience taught me to appreciate gallows humor.

Sometimes, the only feasible thing to do in a crisis is to laugh – hard – and even inappropriately. Journalists aren’t the only ones who share this sense of humor. Paramedics, firefighters, police officers and ER staff also are known to laugh in the face of crisis. It’s not about a disrespect for life – it’s about understanding that bad things happen, life goes on, and none of us can afford to take things too seriously.

Becoming a mom of two small humans and going into public education has eliminated a lot of that behavior, but one of the things that surprises me in this strange, unprecendented season is how quick I am to laugh about most anything. Here, for your viewing (or scrolling pleasure), are a few things cracking me up these days.

  1. The idea that every darned person I encounter online seems to believe they are at least a part-time epidemiologist. People who can’t even correctly spell the word with consistency have strong opinions about why it is or is not wise to continue shelter in place orders, send kids back to school or close the playgrounds and fishing holes. Often, these people even insist that I should believe them, over, say, internationally recognized doctors, scientists and researchers. Hilarious, right?
  2. Dogs. All of the dogs are making me laugh these days. My own two crack me up because early on in the shelter in place order, I was convinced they were plotting together – possibly with our parakeet, Beignet – to kick us out of our own home. They downright glared at us when, day after day, we refused to leave their house. Now, they seem to have settled into a new approach: They are allowing us to remain here, but only if we serve them in a way that meets their expectations. This includes taking them on multiple walks in a day, feeding them like clockwork and doling out snacks repeatedly. And it’s not just my own dogs making me laugh. I’ve become the person that laughs aloud at random, poorly executed pet videos on Youtube. If this doesn’t tell you I’m on the brink, nothing will.
  3. People on parenting pages who are fretting about how to make sure their college student continues to do their coursework online. Seriously? Weren’t they living in a dorm and successfully getting themselves to class, turning in assignments and preparing for tests without your support before they were forced to return home? Were you doing their coursework then? If not, why are you tackling it now, just because they are under your roof? (I would argue the same is true for high school students. I check for completion with both of my children. If they are stumped, I encouraged them to reach out to their teacher. If that doesn’t work, I try to help them find a solution. I realize this isn’t feasible for students who need extra support, but for the average high school student, it seems reasonable.)
  4. Ads for pricey dress clothes. Really, Anthropologie, Macy’s, etc.? You think I need that $250 dress or pair of strappy dress shoes to “be summer ready? Let’s see if I will even be seeing anyone beyond my dogs, my husband and my teenagers first. Consumerism has always been a little ridiculous, but it’s downright laughable right now.
  5. College recruitment materials aimed at my high school freshman and sophomore. I still really hope both of my kids will go to college and land in a career they love. But I also am painfully aware that the world is changing at a breakneck pace. The idea of taking on significant debt to go to an out-of-state school – or even an in-state school immediately – just seems foolhardy right now. Community college or an online program that doesn’t include the cost of room and board is very appealing these days. It’s hard to know how to choose an education when you can’t even begin to picture the sort of world you are being educated for. That makes brochures and postcards showing cushy libraries and coffee shops and jam-packed athletic events feel laughably absurd right now.
  6. My own tendency to fret over things actually has become a prime source of amusement. I mean, I have invested a lifetime in trying to anticipate the next bad thing in hopes of being prepared. I’ve anticipated and planned for all sorts of things – getting trapped in quicksand (thanks, 1980s Saturday morning cartoons), amnesia (thanks, handful of soap operas I saw at Grandma’s house), cancer, the death of pretty much everyone I have ever loved, wrongful imprisonment (thanks, Scared Straight assemblies at my Title I middle school), and drug addiction (thanks, creepy newspaper articles about LSD laced stickers at parks in 1982-1984). I’ve also spent decades dodging parked cars, because at some point my mom warned me that someone might be waiting in one, crouched over and ready to leap out and attack me, possibly with a butcher knife. But I somehow never got the memo that I should be fretting about a pandemic that forced everyone I know to stay at home – possibly for months on end – as the economy collapsed around us. I like to think this will break my habit of worrying – since clearly I have devoted a lifetime to worrying about the wrong thing. But not worrying? Well, it kind of worries me.
  7. Zoom bingo. It’s so juvenile, but it cracks me up how at some point most Zooms include unofficially mandatory sayings like “Unmute yourself! We can’t hear you!” And, “can you hear me now?” And, “Hi. Is X on the call now?” The awkward silence before meetings officially kick off also make me snicker. There seems to be some sort of emerging norm about not making small talk with each other while waiting for a work Zoom to begin. What is that? Why wouldn’t we make small talk the same way we would while awaiting the start of an in-person meeting? Amusing ….

What about you? What are you laughing about in these strange times? Do you find you are quicker to chuckle while grappling with crisis? Or am I alone in that? Because if so, that worries me – kind of like quicksand …..

When Death Looms, Only Two Things Matter

I lost a colleague last week – possibly to COVID-19, although the official results are not back just yet.

And as death rates from this virus continue to rise, I think many of us are being pushed to think about not just death but about life – about what truly matters and what decidedly does not.

Grappling with my friend and doctoral classmate’s death, I found myself reflecting back on his life experiences. And one of the biggest things I wanted to know, ultimately, was: Did he know joy and love – in its many varied forms?

There are so many elements that can make up a joyful life – romantic love, the love of family, friends, and colleagues. There’s also hopefully the joy that comes from fun things like holidays and vacations and adventures like cultural events and visits in nature. But it’s also the joy of simpler things – a freshly cut lawn, a dog’s loyalty, a child’s drawing on the refrigerator, bubbles and balloons and (in moderation) chocolate chip ice cream. It’s about moments spent with friends over good food and better conversation. It’s about having people who look at you and truly see you – as you are, somehow, but also as the very best version of yourself.

My friend had so much joy – joy in the little things and the big things, too. And so even though his life was cut too short for me, I take comfort in knowing, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that he knew joy and love. I saw it in his radiating, electric smile the moment I met him. And he continued to tell us he was happy for years after. I want that same joy for everyone I know – even some of the people who intermittently annoy or perplex me.

After I settled into the knowledge that yes, my friend knew joy and love, I shifted to the next question: did he know and was he known by other people – was he connected and an influencer of others? Would these people carry on his memory and the wisdom of his life in his absence?

The answer to this, too, was clear. It will be clear again this Thursday night, when a group of 18 of us get together to remember our classmate, to shed tears over the knowledge that his voice has been silenced on this earth. But his legacy lives on – in each of us, yes. In his wife, and in countless school administrators and teachers and church friends and neighbors, literally the world over. There wil be students who grow into teachers and scientists and lawyers and bankers – but most of all, simply into good, joyful, connected, healthy people themselves. They will recall his lessons and his love, and he will live on through them. His love and his joy will carry on, echoing from one generation to the next.

And so today, in these ridiculously strange and terrifying and bewildering times, I consider my own life, and renew my focus on what’s important: to know joy and to be connected to others in ways that matter. May this be our focus – not just in this time, but always.

Here are a Few Things Giving Me Joy, Hope or Comfort During These Strange Days

If you turn on the news, it’s especially easy to become consumed by negativity right now. The media isn’t to blame for this. The news in our world is awfully grim right now, and it is the responsibility of journalists to keep us informed about how to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe, while also calling out systemic issues that need to be addressed, too.

But while awareness of what is going on is important – and potentially life-saving – it can’t consume all our time. We have to find ways to look away from the darkness and to see the good and opportunity around us. Otherwise, we will absolutely not be able to maintain our sanity during this long stretch of isolation/social distancing. Pacing ourselves and monitoring how much bad news we consume is essential.

Part of pacing ourselves is looking for the good around us – things that give us hope, bring us joy, or make us laugh. I will even go with things that distract us right now, allowing us to think about something beyond ventillator shortages and shelter in place orders.

Here are a few things getting me through.

  1. Creative people continuing to use their talents to brighten our worlds. See the photo attached with this post? This comforting greeting at the front of our neighborhood was created by three of our neighbors. They wanted to use their talents to create a sense of hope and they did what it took to make that happen. I admire that they didn’t stop to overthink it. They didn’t wait for someone possibly more talented or with better resources to take action. They didn’t worry that some people might not agree with their artistic vision, or that everyone would not appreciate it. They had an idea and they executed. There is something to be said for taking action during such an uncertain world. I’m awfully thankful my neighbors did.

2. Opportunities to regroup and possibly do something new. Many of us don’t like change. But me? I have always reveled in it. I have long felt like I am at my best when something new needs to be created. Paradigms are shifting right now – more quickly than we can even recognize. While the uncertainty can make me a little nervous for my finances – and the future my children will inherit – there also is something really exciting about all that needs to be created right now, in this moment of great shift.

3. Reminders of who – and what – matters most. Some of our core values as a nation have been off kilter for a good while now – if we ever even had them right in the first place. This crisis has reminded us of who is and is not essential. The superheroes among us right now are not professional athletes or musicians or financiers. We are reminded – in dramatic ways – that we desperately need our grocery store workers. Nurses. Respiratory therapists. Teachers. School cafeteria workers. Sanitation workers. Pharmacy techs. Public health experts. State funded researchers. Scientists at the CDC. As we continue deeper into this, we are going to see that school counselors and social workers and therapists are out there doing essential work every day, too. I continue to hope that when we come out on the other side of this, we will look at the pay structures in place for folks who do such important work.

4. A shift in what is viewed as “women’s work” by many. I think that women, particularly, are revolting right now against expectations being placed on them, and are finally openly saying, “Nope. I can’t do this alone.” We are recognizing that no, we cannot – and do not have the desire to – work full-time, “homeschool” full-time, and care for the emotional and physical needs of our children and aging parents full-time. We also most definitely cannot do it all perfectly. I have noticed a shift in work loads, and in who is doing what. With more men working from home, many seem to be stepping up, as children are home and still expected to learn. This will, I hope, lead to a greater sense of equity in the home going forward. Maybe it will lead to more men working from home long-term, too.

5. A greater appreciation for mindfulness and living in the present. Whew. Have you noticed that everyone seems to be giving mindfulness and meditation a shot right now? And do you see how absurd it can feel to worry so much about the future, when no one knows what it will even look like – or when our “new normal” will even begin? While we need to be prudent and proactive when possible, we also need to recognize that really, we only have this moment. Nothing beyond that is guaranteed. So, let’s hug our kids. Pet our dogs. Listen to the music. Skype with our family and friends – even the ones that maybe we were a smidge grumpy with before all this madness started. Let’s savor our dinner and enjoy the feel of the sun our faces for a few moments longer. This is what we have, for sure.

6. Recognition that some things just aren’t that serious. I am finding myself really appreciating entertainment more now than I have in a while. My 16-year-old and I have marveled at the joy that the utterly ridiculous Tiger King documentary on Netflix has given us. It will not change the world, or make us smarter or better humans. It will not help my kids secure higher ACT scores or better grades or additional service hours (I mean, are we even COUNTING any of those right now?) But sometimes, you just really, really need a laugh. (Take it where you can, all you cool cats and kittens. )

What do you think? What is getting you through during this time? What makes you happy or gives you comfort or hope going forward? What is entertaining you just when you need it most?