Lessons from My Son

DePauw University – 2019 Graduate

“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.

Taking up space

“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

I’m joining an open community of writers over at Sharing Our Stories: Magic in a Blog. If you write (or want to write) just for the magic of it, consider this your invitation to join us. #sosmagic

She believed she could so she did…

“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.

#MakeRoomForJoy #SheCan

I’m joining an open community of writers over at Sharing Our Stories: Magic in a Blog. If you write (or want to write) just for the magic of it, consider this your invitation to join us. #SOS

Courage

2021 challenge

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

I’m joining an open community of writers over at Sharing Our Stories: Magic in a Blog. If you write (or want to write) just for the magic of it, consider this your invitation to join us. #sosmagic

The Gift of Time

“Time moves slowly, but passes quickly.” – Alice Walker

I’ve always been a “busy” person, fitting in as much as I possilby can in a day. My sleeping habits echo this trait; in the early hours of the day, while most humans are sound asleep, my mind begins racing and my body happily responds. Yes. I wrote “happily.”

Even in the evenings, or on the weekends or vacations, I fill the hours with work – good work: baking for others, reading, exploring topics which interest me, mentoring young people, writing notes, walking, cleaning, serving on a few executive boards, etc.

Perpetual motion has always defined me. Early, I learned the special look of a teacher urging a talkative child to stop interrupting. And I remember quite fondly, my grandmother saying firmly, but lovingly, “Heather Annie, be still. Just be still.” I struggled to sit quietly and just watch a movie or at least not jump up during commercials to throw in a load of laundry or start the dishwasher.

Upon the diagnosis of my daughter’s brain tumor, for the last six years, I have focused on living a joy-filled life – a life being present – a life keenly aware of the gifts I am given on a daily basis. Leading this type of life requires attention to time, and time to simply focus on the moment – not worry about the cookies to bake, the lessons to plan, the papers to grade, the leaves to rake. Honestly, my inabilty to be still posed a barrier to fully living authentically.

Like others, though, 2020 has taught me important lessons. Primarily, I have learned to be still – to really immerse myself in the moment. This lesson, though, began months before the global pandemic brought the world to a screeching hault.

In January of this year, stage four brain cancer swept through my daughter’s brain like a wildfire. My 27-year-old child spent weeks in the neuro-ICU, and once her medical team controlled the inflamation, she began six weeks of radiation to her head and spine. And then for the last nine months, her body has been pumped with drugs to control her headaches and chemotherapy to stave off the spread of cancer.

I credit her six year journey for giving me a passion for authentic, intentional living. This newest leg of her journey, though, has propelled me into a deeper space of intentionality. I begged for understanding, and the universe answered in its own way: TIME. Because my colleagues and friends picked up the pieces at work and home, I had the gift of time to sit by my child’s bed – to attend to her needs – to focus on her medical crisis.

In the dull glow of the hospital light, I expectantly searched for lessons. I needed to trust the universe had given our family these difficult moments for a reason. Otherwise, the darkness would be too much. In the midst of this new leg of the battle, a pandemic turned things upside down for rest of the world. And while COVID created new challenges like quaranting for two weeks before spending time with my child, I saw a huge silverlining: TIME.

COVID 19 forced the world to slow down – to turn inwards – to be still. At first, like many, I struggled with the quiet – with the aloneness – with the silence. I forced myself to see these moments as a gift – as a way to find meaning – as a way to understand myself – to set goals for myself. I found myself walking miles, often listening to podcasts, but mostly just music. As the year continued, I grew comfortable with solitude – with downtime – with opportunities to seek understanding.

At this point in my life, the propensity for perpetual motion is solidified, but I have learned to sit with the darkness, sadness, and fear the universe gives me. When I stand in the difficult times, I have an opportunity to truly appreciate the gifts – the lessons of life – the joy that comes in being present. #MakeRoomForJoy #GiftOfTime

I’m joining an open community of writers over at Sharing Our Stories: Magic in a Blog. If you write (or want to write) just for the magic of it, consider this your invitation to join us.

Cooking with Purpose

For most of my childhood and adolesence, I spent nearly every weekend at my maternal grandparents’ house. Besides traipsing around outdoors with Grandpa, hours were spent sitting at the kitchen table talking with my grandmother as she cooked. Often, I would join her in snapping green beans fresh or try my hand at frying hamburger to stir into her chili. On holidays, I would lie in the spare bedroom next to the kitchen and listen to Grandma hum as she stuffed the turkey in the early hours of the day, long before we would sit down as a family around the kitchen table.

I learned a lot from my grandmother, much more than how to cook for a large family on a blue collar budget. Perching on a chair pulled up to the counter was eventually replaced with standing next to her, chopping onions or assembling monkey bread, watching, listening, soaking in her kindness. Her lessons extended beyond knowing when the fried chicken was done. Much later, long after my weekends with her had morphed into raising my own family, I realized the moments in the kitchen were not intended to teach me about food.

As Grandma Mitchell patiently showed me how to cook, often without a recipe, I knew I had a frontrow seat with a master story teller. I held onto the stories that unfolded, stories of growing up in the Great Depression, of tire rations, of outhouses, of working a factory job, of selling crickets for the bait shop in my grandparents’, of my grandfather being stabbed, of burying her third child as a toddler. Through her stories, I learned the joy that accompanies a life well lived, regardless of the circumstance. Her cooking held great purpose.

My grandmother’s feet no longer kiss the earth, but she is always with me. For the last three decades, gatherings, especially around food, have served as a foundation for my home. My siblings and their families often gather around my table for holidays or celebrations, and when my children lived at home Friday nights found the basement filled with basketball or football players, always hungry. In these familiar moments, I draw deeply from Grandma’s genuine love for others.

As my two children have moved into their own adult lives, my house is still filled with young people: first year students, softball players, women’s basketball players, students needing a home for difficult discussions about race, or sometimes just two or three who need someone to listen. Just as it did in my own childhood, food brings people together, and amazing conversations happen long after the meal is removed and the dishes are piled in the sink.

Currently, cooking has a different purpose for me. The purpose has a more immediate need – higher stakes. As my daughter battles stage four brain cancer, part of her speech therapy includes following writen directions. Following recipes feels like a natural way to meet her therapist’s request. Each night this week, we have selected something for Elizabeth to make. I write out the items she needs as well as the steps she must take to assemble the dish. Because of the location of the cancer, language processing is hard, but like my grandmother, she is kind, gracious, and humble.

As the Gautama Buddha says, “Your purpose in life is to find your purpose and give your whole heart and soul to it.” My grandmother filled me with a sense of purpose one dish, one story, one song at a time. Today, my love of cooking offers a physical way through which I can express my purpose: deeply loving others – those who are biologically mine and those who are not. Bellies are filled. Hearts are filled. In my book, that’s a win-win! #MakeRoomForJoy

My suprehero making roasted potatoes. Grandma Mitchell would be so proud.

I’m joining an open community of writers over at Sharing Our Stories: Magic in a Blog. If you write (or want to write) just for the magic of it, consider this your invitation to join us. #sosmagic

Get Yourself a Square Squad

Throughout the journey of untangling myself – of making meaning of how the ebb and flow of my days impact my life – of understanding my purpose in this world, I have leaned into the uncomfortable act of learning to love myself. I have always had solid self-esteem, and I tend to quickly release negative thoughts. At times, I have observed that I don’t care what people think or their opinion doesn’t impact my decisions.  I have actually said out loud, “My Christmas card list is plenty long” or “love me or leave me.”  The obvious problem with those statements, however, is that I truly DO need people. I need people who allow me to be vulnerable and love me none-the-less. Like everyone else, I need community.

Brené Brown, a social scientist who has spent decades researching shame, vulnerability, and authentic living, believes we need people in our lives whose opinions do matter.  These aren’t the casual acquaintances who like a post on Facebook and with whom you share the occasional cup of coffee. Instead, these are people who truly understand who we are. These are the few people in our lives whose opinions matter in such a way we can be truly vulnerable.

Brown encourages us to identify a few key people we trust, we love, and who don’t need us to be anyone but our authentic selves.  Once we identify these people, we should write their names or initials on a 1” square piece of paper.  The people on this little piece of paper are the people in our Square Squad.  They are the ones who don’t run from our vulnerability, and they are the ones to whom we can turn when we need to process thoughts or ideas. They will offer opinions, but they will not randomly criticize. Instead, they allow us to be brave – to be courageous along this journey.

For me, the people on my square squad also hold me accountable.  They encourage me.  They make me want to be better today than I was yesterday.  They are the ones who show up – repeatedly – even when I don’t realize I need someone.  My square squad has carried me through some pretty dark times in my life including a tumultuous time at work, my daughter’s health battle, and the ending of a 30-year marriage.  Individually, they check in on me, but more importantly, their opinion matters, and when they share it – solicited or unsolicited – I take it seriously.  They offer their opinions, and I’m not offended. If their observation butts up against my own perception, I have to sit with it for a little bit, but the way I process their words is important.  I don’t take their advice as critical.  Because I value their opinion, I step even deeper into being my best self.

The idea of putting names on a 1″ square piece of paper we can tuck in a wallet or other safe place means we don’t need a lot of people in our inner space. We need just a few who love us unconditionally, and who are comfortable with our relationship that they know their opinion matters. Along this untangling, they impact the direction and depth of understanding of our journeys. Ultimately, the members of our square squads reflect the dearest elements of community, love and acceptance. They make all the difference in the world. #MakeRoomForJoy

If you are interested in learning more from Brené Brown, check out her new podcast at https://brenebrown.com/unlockingus/

I’m joining an open community of writers over at Sharing Our Stories: Magic in a Blog. If you write (or want to write) just for the magic of it, consider this your invitation to join us. #sosmagic

The Morning Walk

A silhouette defines my space on the verdant soybeans,
A tender crop moving gently at the hand of the too still breeze.
She tugs at my wrist, whispering loudly
Look. Pay attention. 
Do you see?
 
I walk alone beside generations of seeking sojourners.
The perfume of the humid soil tickles my nose,
Unnamed birds offer their friendly chatter, and
The rhythmic cadence of insects propose an accompaniment
As nature sings me its anthem.
 
This hymn, this spiritual manifesto for love and life,
Offers a deep melodic thread to the earth – to understanding
A path generations of feet have traveled  
Listen – look – the answers are here.

#sosmagic
The lessons are here. We simply must listen. #MakeRoomForJoy