The Magic of Strangers – in Target and Beyond


Don’t talk to strangers.

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

But it’s also incredibly bad advice.

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

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

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

“Isn’t the World Amazing?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amazing, little man. Amazing, indeed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

I always answered the question comfortably.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other Identities – None of them Simple

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

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

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

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

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

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

I Am ….

So here is who I am:

The daughter of a substitute teacher and a security guard.

Also the daughter of a nurse.

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

The town of Love, Maryland, is also mine.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m glad to be here.

Thanks for having me.

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


How to Get Yourself “Unstuck”


It’s been a while since I’ve written.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monique Writes All

woman doing nothing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

woman doing nothing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

first day

Well, kids, here we are.

This is the year.

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

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

That day has now come.

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

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

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

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

Don’t Worry About Being Popular

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No One Really Has It All Together

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t Get Too Focused on Yourselves

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

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


Continue to Value and Cling to the Adults that Love You

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

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

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

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

Look for the Other Kids Who Drift Between Groups

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

Really, There is Just This One Goal for Junior High

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

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

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

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

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

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



We Aren’t Fearless Feminists – Yet …

girl power

Fearless Feminist.

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

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

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

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

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

But I stopped.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe, too, we are still works in progress.

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

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

I Miss the Days When Everyone I Love Was Healthy (But the Growth is Coming Now)

I can’t stop hugging my parents these days.

I cling to them, really.

And they, at the same time, are increasingly clinging to me.

It’s especially noticeable when it’s time for our visits to come to an end. We say goodbye. We hug. We linger a bit. We repeat. And then repeat again.

There’s a reason for all of this clinging and lingering, even if none of us says it out loud.

My parents are showing their age. And they are beginning to argue between each other about who is going to pass away first. (Both of them swear the other one is the healthier – and more stubborn – one who will persevere longest.)

We laugh awkwardly at these comments – my parents, my 12 and 13-year-old, my husband and I.

We pretend it’s a comical argument. But of course, it’s not.

Our days together are waning, and even while there is no specific terminal illness or clear cause of the end of life looming, enough has happened in the past year or so to remind us – almost daily – that our time together is short.

Every visit seems increasingly likely to be our last. We don’t speak these things – not directly. But we do talk, in our more reflective moments, about things like burial plots and end-of-life plans. About wills. There is an urgency that has never been there before.

At the same time that I find myself hugging my aging mom and dad, I also find I am clinging to my kids – and they to me. There are things that we, too, aren’t saying. My girl is just one year away from high school, and my boy one year behind her.

Big rites of passage – learner’s permits and college applications and first dates – all loom large on the horizon. I know. They know. And we all, I suppose, are both excited and more than a little terrified about what it all means.

Sometimes, we cling by just sitting together quietly. Other times, we choose to forego a group gathering or other commitment so we can watch a kids’ movie or just sit on the patio talking. Every time they choose to do this, I recognize it for the fleeting gift that it is. I know now that there will be a last time, and that it will come sooner than I would like.

My niece – the youngest in our little patchwork clan of family (some chosen and some born into) is about to turn four. I cling to her, too. I stare in wonder at her strong legs, pumping up and down as she runs and leaps into the swimming pool. I wonder how many years she has to run with such wild abandon, unconcerned about the bit of adorable, kissable pudge at her midsection. I try to coerce her to allow me to hold her for just a little bit. These years are short, too. And they fly by when we aren’t looking.

There’s something else that is really causing me to cling lately: Every darned friend I have has cancer. Every. One.

  1. This is an exaggeration, but only a small one. Cancer, it seems, is everywhere. And it seems to be hitting my healthiest and most generous friends the quickest and hardest. (Maybe this means I will live forever, in all my stubbornness and brokenness and emotional ice cream eating?) I’m angry. I’m hurt. I have let God know this, but he apparently doesn’t see things the same way. So, I’m clinging to my friends. I know how easy it is to lose them. And I know that our last days with them, too, happen when we aren’t quite looking.

These are painful, awful, almost unspeakable lessons. But I also can absolutely feel the growth that all of these changes are bringing. I can all but hear the spirit (I believe it’s God) on my hardest days, whispering, “now you get it. This is life. Live it well.” Sometimes, I almost feel my emotional strength stretching and lengthening on hard days. I swear I am physically taller, even though the measuring stick says otherwise.

I absolutely despise all of the reasons I am growing. I throw mini-tantrums about these hardships in my time with God – and with dear friends, if I am honest. But I know that the lessons are ones that need to be learned and that without the hard days, the good ones wouldn’t be as good.

Here is what I am learning in all of this. It’s possible none of it is particularly profound or wise, but maybe these will be good reminders, just the same:

  • Life is too short to spend your precious free time even remotely accommodating people who don’t love you like crazy and have your best interests in mind. Don’t bother with people who make you feel unwelcome, who you know will whisper and roll their eyes about you the moment you walk away, or who will secretly wish for your demise because they are so unhappy themselves. Why would you even consider having them around?


  • Kindness is always needed. Going through some pain myself lately has reminded me how much being kind to others helps to brighten both our days and those of others. So lately, in this blazing summer heat, I’ve been chasing down people to give them drinks. I’ve tried to compliment the random person waiting in line with me. I’ve confessed a challenge to a tired and potentially lonely stranger and just acknowledged, “whew. This life is hard, right?”


  • Life is too short to get edgy with people in the service industry. Maybe a waitress can never quite bring me a beverage. Maybe the order is wrong. Perhaps I wasn’t greeted when I entered. Maybe the checkout clerk is on her phone. Still, I greet others. I ask for the beverage again. I make small talk with the checkout clerk, who just might be having a bad day and dealing with aging parents or a stressed out teenager herself. It’s not personal. And viewing it as though it is just steals your time, energy and joy.


  • Slash anything unnecessary and unfulfilling out of your schedule when you aren’t at work. I have quit a few volunteer commitments lately. I am not sure, honestly, why I said yes to some of them in the first place. But I have purged activities from my life. If it’s not time spent with a friend, with my parents, with my children or spouse, I am just not sure it’s worth much time.


  • I try to do the most good I can at work, while also trying to provide what my family needs financially. My job is a tool for two things – to help meet the needs of the world, and to meet the financial needs of my family. I know that one of the best things I can do for my kids is to have my own finances in order, including a solid plan for retirement. So, I nurture and care for my career. I am trying to learn new things – and to be smart about my plans for the future. I try to make my work count – by doing as much good as possible. This part of my legacy matters, too.


  • I’m showing more graciousness and love to my husband. My husband is the easiest guy on earth. It’s mostly a blessing but also a bit of a challenge. One reason it’s a challenge is that it’s easy to bump him down the priorities list in favor of the more demanding folks in my life. And yet, increasingly, I know that he is the one that is, God willing, going to be navigating all these challenges and changes with me.


Honestly, there are days when I miss simpler times – when my family and friends were all healthy, when my kids were younger and not making so many big decisions on their own, and when it felt like there was plenty of time. And yet, here we are. Learning. Growing. Being strengthened.

What are you learning in your current season?

Take Pictures with Your Friends – Even When Your Hair is Weird

This is a picture of my friend Kim, who I was lucky enough to get to know while we both worked as teachers in Texas.


One of the things that I adore about this picture is that it somehow manages to capture Kim’s essence. She is a strong, smart, kind person with a beautiful spirit. And yet there is something missing from this picture – or at least missing from any of the photos in mycollection.

I’m not there.

And to my knowledge, there isn’t a photo anywhere of just the two of us.

Kim has been gone from us for about two years now. Her death after being diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer was heartbreaking for so many reasons, but especially because it seemed that Kim still had so much to give and so much to teach the rest of us, including her two teenaged daughters.

Looking at the span of our friendship, Kim and I got to know each other best after her diagnosis. We talked about the range of emotions that she experienced. We talked about what we thought death meant. And how different people might handle her earthly exit. We discussed what it meant to live a full and meaningful life, and whether either of us was managing to do that.

I knew every single time we talked that she might not be with us as long as we hoped and prayed. (And I did pray. Hard. Kim did, too.)

I had a number of opportunities to take a picture of the two of us together. Every time we met up, including on a crazy late-afternoon trip from The Woodlands, Texas to Baylor to hear a guest speaker talk about education, I thought about asking to take a picture of us. But I always found a reason not to do it.

My hair was too poofy.

My hair was too flat.

My skin was weird.

I was wearing my glasses.

I was wearing my contacts.

I might look tired.

I might look like a spazz.

I worried about her, too. She might not like what she was wearing. She might think that I was taking her picture because I didn’t believe she was going to survive.

Always. An. Excuse. And then, heartbreakingly, she was gone. It was too late.

People who know me best think it’s odd that I feel so strongly about having my photo taken. Day to day, I really don’t put an awful lot of time or energy into worrying about how I look. But I think that is what bugs me about photos of myself.

They don’t always capture my essence. A photo can’t show how smart we are, or how kind, or how funny. When we take a photo, we run the risk of being reduced to how we look. And then we count on the viewer of the photo to fill in the gaps.

When I look at photos of my friends and family, I don’t just see what is in the photo. I see them – in all their boundlessly hilarious, brilliant, funny, generous glory. I fill in the gaps. And every one of my friends is beautiful beyond measure. Why can’t I allow myself to view my own photos the same way?

These days, I take a lot of photos of my kids and my three-year-old niece. Photographing children is something I’ve always felt comfortable doing and something I’ve long enjoyed – in part because children don’t worry much about their hair, and in part because children change so quickly that I feel an urgency about photographing them. Capturing them in a particular phase feels urgent.

But with adults, I don’t tend to take photos very much. This is especially true when it comes to pictures of my friends. I often assume that they, like me, are feeling weird about their hair. Their skin. Their clothes. And I assume that I can always wait and take a photo another day, because we don’t change so quickly.

But here is the thing that 43 is teaching me like no age before: like children, our images can be fleeting. Some of us are taken from this earth suddenly. I’ve lost multiple friends to cancer lately. Another to suicide. One to a decades-long battle with addiction. Others are almost unrecognizable to now because they have been ravaged by illness.

I pray hard and wish mightily for the recovery of my sick friends. I cry. I wish that I had better words – in some cases for them, and in other cases for the family members who struggle. But I also wish for photos that capture the essence of our friendship – something that says, “yes. We had some good times. We connected. And the time we spent together was magical. It mattered – to both of us.”

This weekend, I visited with friends I hadn’t seen since we left East Texas two years ago. Kim should have been in that group in body. But instead, she was only there with us in spirit. I made sure I took pictures together with the rest of us. My hair was weird. They probably think theirs was, too. But I will treasure those photos like crazy.

And I will make a point of taking more photos with friends in the future. I also am promising myself that I will do a better job of making time for friendships – for honoring them for the tremendous meaning that they have in my life. Tomorrow is not guaranteed for our family, but also for our friends, too. And losing them hurts terribly.

It’s a lesson that Kim continues to teach me. And I want to do right by her.

Tweens Are (Sometimes) Stinky and Moody and Awkward – And They Need You

hunter triathlon


My boy completed his first triathlon this weekend.

When he started training, I thought that the highlight for him would be the sense of accomplishment that comes with finishing with his family and friends cheering him on. (Also, possibly, that the t-shirt could serve as a pretty effective chick magnet, although he would never admit that to me.)

It turns out, though, that what Hunter enjoyed the most was the time he spent talking to a brave, unassuming grandmother during his least favorite segment – the run.

Like my boy, this grandmother said she was completing her first triathlon, and she was doing it in honor of her grandson, Ryan LaSource, who died of leukemia in June 2016, when he was just three years old.

My son said they talked throughout a big part of the run/walk. She was tired. He was tired. They both had a little something to prove to themselves. This woman, who I didn’t have the opportunity to talk to myself, apparently kept telling Hunter how amazing she thought he was for trying something so hard when he is only 12. Hunter thought she was pretty amazing, too.

“People who aren’t your family just don’t say that to you very much – that you are amazing,” my son told me after. “This lady, she was just so awesome. I hope she knows it.”

Hunter’s words got me thinking: we don’t tell each other how awesome we are enough. Some days, maybe we are doing something easily regarded as tough – like finishing a triathlon. But others days, our triathlon might just be getting out of bed and trying again after facing failure or loss or heartbreak the day before. Sometimes, maybe our triathlon is being kind when others have been less than kind to us.

I need to tell people they are awesome more. I bet most of us do.

Another thing that Hunter’s experience is teaching me anew is that tweens and teens especially need to hear how great they are – and they need to hear it from adults who aren’t part of their immediate family.

One of the things that surprises me most about my 12 and 13-year-old is how much they need and enjoy the adults in their lives. And I think they especially need adult fans that they meet on their own, apart from our family. (This is where teachers and coaches and librarians and volunteer coordinators come in.)

This can be a challenge, if we are honest.

Most adults are pretty comfortable talking to young children. After all, they are often cute and cuddly and not at all judging our shoes, weight or makeup.

Tweens and teens, for most of us, can be a little terrifying. I think that we assume that they are hipper than us – that we couldn’t possibly have much to say that they would appreciate.

We assume that they aren’t interested in what we say, and that what they really want is the approval and company of their peers.

And yet, at least with my two and their friends, I’m not finding that to be true. I think what I see, instead, is that they long for the companionship and reassurance of other adults – adults who tell them they are awesome when they aren’t beholden to feel that way because of family bonds. They need to hear, from people who already know about being an adult, that they are on the right track – that they are going to be OK.

This age is brutal, if we are honest. There are the hormones, messing with emotions and throwing the actual chemical balance of the brain off kilter. They have to deal with throngs of other equally off kilter, confused, moody young people, all within the puzzling confines of school systems and sports teams, and even through near-constant texting and social media exchanges (which parents should work to limit, although that’s a post for another day.) Even the most seemingly confident, attractive and talented young people are, deep down, a bit of an emotional, confused, moody mess.

It’s absolutely the worst possible time for the adults in their lives to step back and leave them to their own devices. It’s also the absolute worst time for their community of adults to retreat, assuming that they no longer have anything to contribute.

Teens and tweens can be uncomfortable in their interactions, and they can make us feel that way, too. For some of us, we might still have our own pubescent issues lurking just below the surface, unresolved.

I don’t know if the grandmother who talked to Hunter during his triathlon had any initial discomfort when she started talking to my boy. But I know that her words and example made a huge impact on him – and are something that he will never forget.

While I am trying to be the best parent I can be, I hope that other adults also will push through any discomfort, give an encouraging word, share a story or an insight. And me, I will be pushing to do the same with the young people I am lucky enough to know.