“Live your questions now, and perhaps even without knowing it, you will live along some distant day into your answers.” – Rainer Maria Rilke
Raising children offers adults a humbling opportunity to learn important life lessons, and my own journey as a mother frequently feels like a crash course in surprises. The best gifts, though, are the moments that have taken away my breath as I have watched my son step into adulthood. A simple blog post cannot honestly caputre the complexity and layers of the lessons I’ve learned from raising an independent, passionate, intelligent, empathetic, articulate man, but, collectively, a theme or pattern has emerged.
Finishing my third decade of teaching, my philosophy of teaching – of living, actually – has been deeply informed by watching my children experience life. The more immediate implication of sharing this journey with my son comes in understanding that adults cannot underestimate the power of children and young adults. And this unfolding epiphany influences the way I mentor and work with college students and has centered my professional work around progressive education. Lucas forever changed who I am as a mother, a woman, a colleague, an educator.
As a child, my second born exhibited the same strength and independence his older sister did, and yet, Lucas was and still is so incredibly different. His innate curiosity in how things work and his willingness to make mistakes enamored me and often caught me off guard. One summer afternoon, as I walked passed his bedroom, I found my five-year-old son with his door knob completely dismantled from the door and spread out on his floor. When I asked him what he was doing, he glanced up and said non-chalantly, “I wanted to see how it works.” How can a mother argue with that?
However, Lucas’ gregarious personality – desire for fun – his carefree spirit distracted me from thinking about the depth of his passions and interests. I marveled at how effortlessly he made earning good grades and performing well as an athlete at our small rural school, but I worried that he was not developing a solid work ethic. Honestly, I thought I was an expert at adolescents; after all, my entire teaching career has been working alongside young adults at the secondary or post-secondary levels. And I have never been more wrong.
Lucas chose to attend a university with a reputation for excellent academics, alumni involvement, active social life with the majority of students in Greek life, and quite a bit of swagger. In retrospect, I wonder why I questioned my son’s ability to do well in that environment. Perhaps Lucas’ own teachers’ opinions had swayed me from recognizing his drive – his desires – his goals. For thirteen yeasr, every teacher conference would include statements like “Your son has so much potential, but he likes to talk or he is distracted” or “He has natural talent, but he doesn’t like the rules.”
Each semester, as Lucas earned impressive grades, made the dean’s list, and made his way through his studies in computer science and economics, I realized that our schools had failed to meet Lucas’ needs. They had tried to fit my free-thinking, inquisitive, risk-taking child into their rows of desks and worksheets. He had played the game of school well enough to graduate at the top of his class, but his intellect and inquisitive nature had not been fed. He had not been allowed to investigate big questions that perhaps have no answer. He had not had the opportunity to explore how things work or why humans respond the way they do to others.
The greatest lesson I have learned in the school of parenthood has seriously altered the way I think about teaching and about preparing the next generation of teachers. Lucas taught me that the best thing we can do for children and young adults is foster their sense of curiosity. As adults, we have to listen to them – to empower them – to give them the opportunities to struggle, fail, and try again – to get out of their way.
In childhood, friends on the opposing kickball team would shout “do over” as they scrambled to recover from a a bad pitch or an error while fielding the large rubber ball. Even when my own children were growing up, I sometimes invoked a “do over.” This phrase came to mean Mom needed a time out – a chance to regroup – to apologize – to set things right in a moment of losing her cool. These do overs eventually became two-way streets, with my kids being able to ask for them as well following a meltdown.
Do-overs worked for me and my children because they were saved for special occasions. They were not overused. In a way, they allowed us to say we were sorry and to make amends for what had just taken place – usually a hurtful statement or some yelling.
The longer my feet kiss this earth, I realize asking for a do over wasn’t the best thing I could have taught my children. After all, when in life do we really get a do over? We cannot make up for the past – even the most recent of events. And yet, they have allowed us to restart and regroup.
Over the last 15 months, I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on life – thinking carefully about choices I made – words I spent – people with whom I have pulled close – people I have let go – words I hope I get to say – adventures I get to take – people I get to meet – feelings I plan on experiencing. The opportunity to do over is not full proof, but perhaps it does us a chance to acknowledge our feelings.
Since December 2019, my daughter’s brain cancer has made her journey quite turbulent. Watching my child settle into facing her own mortality, helping her navigate the unknown moements that await her, living life as fully present as we can despite the sadness we feel has gifted me in so many ways. Would I trade it all in a heartbeat? Without a doubt, I would give her cancer back to the universe, but I know that is not possible. Instead, Elizabeth and I work together every day, whether we are physically together or we are connected by FaceTime, to stand in the light of the moment. Cancer doesn’t give us a chance to call “do over!”
What I can do, however, is enjoy each day the sun rises. I can be present when Elizabeth FaceTimes me. I can listen to the growing sound of the birds returning to the blossoming trees. I can listen carefully when my son he calls to chat. I can giggle at the snoring of my black lab sitting next to me. With the opportunity to stay present, I won’t need do-overs.
“Where do you take space for writing?” begged the writing prompt. I had promised myself at the beginning of the month to journal more. I even paid for the advanced version of an online journal, thinking if I could type my journal entries, I might dedicate time to processing my thoughts. I really should know myself better by this point in my life; I do not always do what I know is important.
This morning, I actually opened the journal on my laptop, but then emails distracted me. Before I knew it, an hour had slipped by, and I had answered emails and moved onto reviewing teaching applicants in preparation for a meeting this morning. My journaling intentions had dissipated as quickly as my first cup of coffee.
When this week’s online writing community’s invitation popped up in my email, however, it gave me pause. Where do I take space for writing? Writing often occurs in my head, and the best pieces of my craft emerge when I am on my daily four-mile walk, listening to podcasts that affirm my untangling of myself, my journey of self-excavation. The passerby often glances at me nervously if they hear my verbalized comments to the podcast guest speaking in my ear.
Ideas swirl in my head, and often, they course through my veins, exciting me because words offered by someone else connect deeply with me or challenge me to think differently about myself – my experiences – my life passage. This unraveling of understanding takes space in my mind, and while many of these narratives never make it to the page, they occupy my thoughts, and ultimately, they nudge me closer to becoming a better version of myself.
I promise myself I’ll be better at journaling – at writing on my blog – at outlining and even writing a chapter of the book my mentees often encourage me to write, but the words I write in my mind’s eye are the words I need to digest. These are the words that take up the most space until they are absorbed by my heart – by my actions – by my reactions – by my vision for the future. #MakeRoomForJoy
“She believed she could so she did” – a mantra one can find on signs throughout my house or posted on my social media platforms – is an ideology in which I fully believe. This statement propels me towards being the best version of myself, and these seven words empower me in indescribable ways.
Recently, a good friend of mine used this phrase with the female athletes he coaches. Listening to him use the expression with these young women gave me pause; in fact, it unsettled me. My heart pounded. Hearing someone say these words out loud to young women made me wonder if his audience truly understood the virtue of the statement or even what the mantra looks like in action.
In that moment, it occurred to me that the lesson may be lost as we rush to understanding, or worse, to application. Too often, we use an important statement such as “She believed she could so she did” as if it magically happens – as if saying it makes it true.
As they sat in their locker room, I asked the team which word was the most important in the phrase. Almost immediately, they uniformly said “believed.” My response shocked me. “No. It’s she. She is the one who believes in herself.” Since then, my quick reply has been sitting loudly with me – not because I don’t believe it, but rather because it revealed clarity to me I had not anticipated.
I imagine most people would respond similarly as the young women. On first glance, believing seems to be the key, and yet, without the subject – she – the action doesn’t take place. She must be the one to do whatever she knows will transform her life or the life of others. She takes ownership of the action. It really has nothing to do with believing; it has everything to do with the doing.
What does this mantra look like in action?
She took control of her health, focusing on her mind, body, and spirit.
She has maintained a 120 pound weight loss for nearly six years.
She empowers young people to understand their own influence.
She ended a 31-year marriage in order to live an authentic life – to honor her spirt.
She helps her daughter navigate living with stage four brain cancer.
She works with educators to change the world for children.
In the end, the message is not about believing. The power fully rests in the the action she takes. She does not need to believe she can; she needs to do what she says she can.
“Courage is the most important of all the virtures because without courage, you cannot practice any other virtue consistently.” Maya Angelou
We often think courage is something other people possess, and yet, 2020 offered us lesson after lesson of every day courage. The year offered us silent moments of reflection and beautiful illustrations of courage – of resolve – of heroism – of intrepidness – of bravery – of grit.
To date, according to the New York Times, the global pandemic has taken nearly 385,000 American lives, and we would be hard pressed to find someone not impacted by the virus, directly or indirectly. Since March, the news has been filled with brilliant examples of courageous acts: teachers masterfully meeting the emotional and social needs of their students in a virtual classroom; health care providers comforting isolated patients fighting for their lives, or worse, holding their patients’ hands as they took their last breaths – separated from their families; the custodial staffs tasked with disinfecting our hospitals as the deadly virus swept through; families whose livelihoods relied on the service sector, struggling to make ends meet as businesses closed; small business owners who have poured their hearts into their crafts, facing bankruptsy without the flow of customers; the elderly secluded in their rooms, unable to interact face-to-face with their familes; and on, and on, and on….
Non-COVID19 lessons have also demanded our attention in the murders of black Americans, and specifically the murder of black men. When a black man is more than 2.5 times likely to be killed by police than his white peer, we perhaps take pause (https://www.pnas.org/content/116/34/16793). What the Black community has been enduring for centuries could no longer be ignored by a white supremist culture. Courageous, protestors of all races and ethnicities joined the Black Lives Matter movement, often facing opposition or fearing attack by forces protected with shields and armed with rubber and real bullets, tear gas.
Courage is coming in the voices of every day people demanding, “Enough is enough.” Courage comes in knowing the color of your skin puts you at risk in America. Courage emerges as Americans, especially those of us who identify as white, wrestle with racism, listen to those speaking their truths, and work to shift institutional and cultural ideology. Courage comes as white people face their implicit and explicit bias and acknowledge their role in a white supremist culture.
After watching the historical, surreal events unfolding in our nation’s Capitol – America’s house – the personification of democracy, I am struck by the courage on so many levels. While our history as a nation is fraught with ethnocentric misogyny and a myriad of other flaws, the courage it takes 328+ million human beings sprad across 3.8 million square miles of land to live their own realities. Regardless of how we feel about politics – or who is in public office – or with which political party we identify (if we do) – the courage it takes for members of Congress to do our nation’s work is incredible. They do not have more intelligence or insight than you or I, but they are brave enough to try to make a difference.
The insurrection on our Capitol shook many of us. As the events were unfolding, my 24-year-old son sent me text upon text. He admitted he couldn’t focus on work, and he felt like crying. My response, “You should not be working. This is a catastrophe of epic proportion. It’s okay to cry. I am.” I sat glued to the television with a lump in my throat and watery eyes, not because I could not believe what I was seeing, but because I felt like I should do something. I just did not know, in the moment, what I could do other than console my children and my friends.
Over the past week, I have landed on the courage it is going to take of all of us to understand how we each of us has such a different perception of the reality of living in this country. It will take courage for us to admit to our misconceptions, and our part in the rhetoric. It will also take great bravery for us, as a country, to have difficult discussions with our families and our friends – with our communities – with people we perceive as enemies despite sharing the same national identification.
We have had quite a year, individually and collectively. We have experienced social unrest on so many levels, and yet, here we are. Every day, we stand on the cusp of new opportunities to make daring choices to be better than we were yesterday. As neighbors – as communities – as congregations – as families – we can be brave; our collective courage will allow us to shift paradigms and practices. Collective courage will be our saving grace. #MakeRoomForJoy #Courage
On December 28, I posed a challenge to my Facebook friends. Along with with Eleanor Roosevelt’s quote “Do one thing every day that scares you,” I asked “Who’s in?” It wasn’t important if I had others join me; after all, the post was more for me – a declaration – a promise to myself. If I intend to continue on this journey of untangling myself, of living an intentional life, of being present, then I really must understand the importance fear plays.
In a few of my previous posts, I have talked about helping my daughter navigate stage four brain cancer. Over the past year, I have faced the greatest fear of any parent, the fear of losing a child. Before she was born, I loved Elizabeth with an intensity I had never experienced. Watching her grow into an independent, driven, intelligent, compassionate human often took my breath away.
Parenthood, I confirmed with the birth of my second child, is indeed breathless moment upon breathless moment. The thought of losing either of my children can still choke me with trepidation, but this is nothing new. I found myself in deep conversations with myself convincing myself not to follow them on their first solo bike rides around town, and I often held my breath as they sauntered to the idling car which held their waiting friends.
Elizabeth’s diagnosis with a brain tumor just after her 21st birthday forced her to wrestle with her own mortality, and in turn, it begged me to do the same. The gift in this obligatory introspection shifted the way I think about fear; it invited me to embrace fear. Over the course of a few years, I recognized that if I allowed fear to paralyze me or if I chose to live in fear of what loomed on the horizon or hid in the shadows, then I would miss important moments. I would miss life.
Not long after this epiphany, I ended a 31-year marriage to an amazingly loyal man, an intelligent, kind-hearted human. I had spent nearly a decade feeling lonely in the marriage – disconnected – unfulfilled. Fear had restrained me in an unsatisfying marriage – fear of hurting our children – fear of disappointing my family and friends – fear of looking like a failure – fear of living independently – fear of the unknown.
As family and friends found out about my divorce, I was often taken aback by their response. While I am sure many hid their disappointment or disapproval, overwhelmingly, the response “you’re so brave” caught me off guard. In retrospect, I had not considered the courage it took to end a marriage. For so long, fear had held me hostage. When I embraced fear as a natural element of life, I freed myself in so many ways.
“I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it,” wrote Nelson Mandela. “The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.” As I began to practice facing my fears, or at the very least peeking around the corner at them, I understood Mandela’s insight. Whether the future involves figuring out how to winterize the house or take ownership of my finances or it demands conversations with my daughter about living wills or life celebrations, if I acknowledge the fear, i take a great step towards courage.
My advice: start small. Choose something in life that creates anxiety: shopping for a car on your own, eating dinner out alone, calling a friend with whom you haven’t connected for some time. You decide which fear you want to play with, and then chip away at it. As you practice acknowledging what scares you, you take its power. And then, before you know it, you are standing boldly in the midst of what scares you most: courageous, brave, upright, and resolute. #MakeRoomForJoy
With New Year’s Eve upon us, many of us will flirt with making resolutions, a 4,000-year-old practice once employed with hopes of pleasing the gods. Regardless of the purpose, making resolutions on the cusp of a new year requires reflection, purposeful identification of our mistakes or debts, and determination to make amends – changing our behaviors to pursue the best version of ourselves.
As 2020 concludes, with deep intention or fleeting interest, many of us will identify a resolution (or resolutions for the more ambitious among us) for the upcoming year. We will secretly or publicly declare our intentions, even though we know we will most likely abandon our goals within a few weeks . After all, it takes at least three weeks for a behavior to become a habit, and three weeks is a long time even for the most resolved.
And yet, commitment or making up one’s mind to make changes can and does happen. Towards the end of 2014, I made a promise to myself to reclaim my health. At that point, I weighed over 125 pounds more than I do today. I had been too wrapped up in caring for my family, my students, my friends, and I had neglected myself. In 2014, the universe had offered me what felt like insurmountable personal challenges, as well as the realization that if I continued to ignore my health, I would be unable to care for those most important to me. Over the course of several months, I began a life altering transformation of mind, body, and spirit.
Looking back on that pivotal year, I now realize its gift. 2014 forced me to intentionally focus on unresolved issues – to prune parts of my life that sucked my emotional energy – to seek counseling for untouched wounds – to understand that living is a gift that requires action not passivity. 2014 also taught me the depth of my strength, and it mandated, yes mandated, me to shift how I understand my purpose. And ultimately, 2014 prepared me for 2020 and what awaits.
While a resolution is “a formal expression of opinion or intention made,” it also includes “the mental state or quality of being resolved or resolute; firmness of purpose” (dictionary.com). Firmness of pupose. Firmness of purpose. As I read this definition, my mouth first whispered the phrase, and then I heard my voice say it out loud.
Firmness of purpose is not a one and done resolution, but it is a way of living – an intentional step into understanding, and it requires grace, reflection, and definition. So for 2021, I will continue to whisper, shout, sing, dance, live these words: firmness of purpose. Firmness of purpose.
Earlier this year, I listened to a 2017 episode of the On Being podcast in which Krista Tippett interviews Dr. Atul Gawande, a practicing physcian, Harvard professor, and writer. The title of the episode, “What Matters in the End,” indicates why I might be drawn to a conversation with a doctor. In my quest to live intentionally, I find myself obsessed with reading and listening to how others make the most of their “one wild and precious” lives (“The Summer Day, Oliver, 1990).
Today, Gawande’s medical practice and writings are based on the question, “What does a good day look like?” – a question he now asks both terminally-ill and healthy people. This important question allows him to treat the whole person, and it makes a difference to his patients. Good days, after all, are moments we seek.
In the interview, Gawande recalls the pivotal moment when his philosophy of healthcare shifted. A patient, who would die less than 48 hours later, told him she was going to take her family to Disney Land. In that moment, he realized as a care giver, he had missed a critical moment. He realized the importance of asking earlier, “What does a good day look like?” With that important information, he could have helped her achieve that wish a month earlier.
This conversation reminded me of the quip I often say or post on Facebook: Today is a good day for a good day. While I often tweak the statement to reflect my own spirit with “today is a great day for an excellent day,” the message is important. Live the day you have in front of you. Don’t wait to live.
Dr. Gawande’s question is one we can, and should, each ask ourselves. If we start our days with “What does a good day look like,” we remind ourselves of how fleeting time is, and how important it is to fill our days with things that make us happy – people and events that fill us with joy.
Too often, the narratives that run through our heads or the messages society offers us force us to feel obligated stay in relationships or positions we don’t enjoy. We stay in social circles that don’t excite us, we continue to work in unfulfilling jobs, or we continue in unsatisfying marriages without fixing or ending them. Days slip by, and we crawl into bed unhappy, or worse, without emotion.
I am not advocating we bail on our friendships, quit our job, or end our marriages. Each of us has our own journeys and way of approaching things that do not fill us with joy. What I am urging us to do, however, is really rather simple. Before we get out of bed in the morning, we should consider envisioning what a good day looks like. What is on our agenda for the day that will make it a good day or even an excellent one? If there is something on the day’s schedule that doesn’t serve a specfiic purpose or will not contribute to our overall happiness, can it be removed or modified?
If we take a few minutes to ask these questions and monitor our progress towards creating a “good day,” we will experience a shift in the way we think about our lives, about the people with whom we interact, and about the world around us. The time to ask ourselves “What does a good day look like?” is now, while we still have time to make all of our days good ones. #MakeRoomForJoy
“You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them,” wrote Maya Angelou. A quote such as this requires some unpacking – and perhaps optimism and resiliency – but it also contains so much truth. It takes work to understand that we cannot control the world, and it takes even more work to realize the narratives we create shape our responses to events and people.
This personal toil, though, ulitmately leads to a liberation, a true empowerment. Too many of us spend a lifetime waiting for life to begin. We fall victim to believing life happens to us. Once we realize we can control our responses to people, events, and even emotions often surprise us, we nudge ourselves closer to authentic living – to living in the moment – to leading a life fully present.
The more I practice this philosophy, the more I experience its power. In moments that evoke angst, fear, or even anger – moments which often feel completely out of my control – I force myself to pay attention to my thoughts and my physical reaction. With this intentional focus, I shift my thinking, and ultimately my response. I choose not to be destroyed by the event. In this choice comes the freedom. ‘
This mindset doesn’t come easilty. I still have moments where I get sucked under by the waves of hopelessness and fear, but I have discovered two key strategies that help keep life in perspective.
First of all, I work hard at taking care of myself physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Feeding my body healthy food and keeping it hydrated gives me energy and allows me to focus. My daily practice involves exercise, typically 4-5 miles every day. I also spend periods of the year swimming or biking.
Besides journaling, listening to podcasts of spiritual leaders, and processing the universe’s lessons with my trusted square squad, I also make a practice of repeating the “Serenity Prayer” – a prayer that guides an ethos of redirecting responses to things I cannot control.
I find myself reflecting on the prayer as I walk, especially if my route meanders through nature, away from town. And I find myself repeating the prayer as I swim laps: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.” Sometimes the prayer is reduced to “serentity, courage, wisdom” – a powerfrul mantra with each stroke.
Because I have learned to take care of my whole self, I have recognized the power in the second tool: mentoring. Over the last three decades as an educator, I have learned my role extends way beyond the content and skills I nurture in the young people with whom I work.
My teaching credo is deeply steeped in progressive education, a person-centered, inquiry-based way of learning to improve the human condition. As young people experience success in owning the learning process, they develop self-efficacy. As their belief in themselves grow, it spills into other areas of their lives.
Teaching, for me, has morphed into mentoring dozens of young people, often college students who are not even students within my department. No matter where it occurs, mentoring is a win-win. As I speak my truth – share my story – illustrate how I have shifted my thinking to reflect my understanding of the universe, I gain momentum in the practice of intentional living.
The other part of the equation comes in watching young people realize they, too, can shift their thinking. As my mentees begin to see life as something they do instead of something that happens to them, they are empowered in so many ways. The benefits they experience excites me – fuels me.
Again, none of this is easy, and I have moments of panic and fear, but they occur so much less than they did six years ago. And, more importantly, I know it works. Personally, I know I am in a different space than I was when I began this journey – a much different space. Occasionally, out of the blue, I am reminded that sharing my journey with others matters.
Recently, in less than a 24 hour period, I received texts from two different young women and a card from another. The first text was a young teacher who thanked me for making her a teacher. In the string of our conversation, she reflected on how hard 2020 had been for her, and she typed “And life is about perspetive. We can’t choose our circumstances, but we can choose if we are happy or not. As I type that it sounds very familiar, huh?”
The second text came from a young woman who is learning to navigate the world, and she wanted me to know she had realized the most difficult period in her life had brought important people into her circle, and she wrote “even in my worst times God was giving me the greatest blessings of friendship and companionship. That’s super weird to think about. My mind is blown right now honestly.”
And then the mail brought me a card from a young woman who recently lost her mother to colon cancer. The front of the card read EMPOWERED WOMEN EMPOWER WOMEN. Her note inside reminded me of the importance of believing in each other – of showing up – of living intentionally – of believing in each other.
So here is to empowering ourselves so that we can empower others. In the process, we come closer to living – truly living. We come closer to understand that living is something we do, not something that happens to us. #MakeRoomForJoy