Life Lessons from the High Jump Pit

Photo by Morris Watkins, Jr.

This post was originally shared on my personal Facebook page in April, early in the high school track and field season. With track seasons moving into regional and state finals, I wanted to share this as a thank you to my son’s track coaches – and as a reminder of the significance of the PR (personal record). Enjoy! ~Mary Ann

Last night, my junior broke his PR (personal record) in the high jump by several inches for a new PR of 6’2”, placing first in his favorite event! It was pretty amazing to watch considering our memories of his first attempts to clear even the lowest bar just a couple of years ago.

As he was jumping, I heard a stranger further down the fence loudly encouraging him. The man called him “Blue Shoes.” He cheered for him and engaged with him between jumps, as you might expect from a family member or friend. As a result, I met Mr. Watkins and his wife, who have a granddaughter on the team, and who shared their photographs of my son’s jump with me today.

It turns out a track meet is a great way to make some new friends.

Last night, the blue sky, the warm sun, the “catching up” conversations among the parents, the encouraging cheers for every single participant, the new friends, the diversity of student athletes… it was like track and field was wrapped up like a gift and tied with a bow.

It was perfect.

Photo from Canva.com

My boys have played a lot of sports, but the atmosphere of a track meet is different, and I could not love it more:

In track, you can participate in several different events. So you can come in first 🏆 and last 😢 on the very same day.

In track, you can decide to try something completely new in the middle of the season – even though you may not be any “good” at it. You are encouraged to try everything – to voluntarily experience the discomfort of something new, to embrace the inevitability of occasional failure when you are adventurous.

In track, people cheer just as loudly for the last person to cross the finish line as they do for the first.

In track, a PR is celebrated. A PR may be only two seconds faster or an inch higher, and even with the PR, you may have come in last. But you beat your own self, kid! So throw some confetti! 🎉

In track, the kids from the other schools congratulate you. They become your friends. You inspire one another. It’s both competitive and friendly.

In track, the athletes are tall or short or thin or muscular or anything else you can imagine. In track and field, there is a place for you. For every “you” who wants to try.

In track, you didn’t have to start expensive training when you were three-years-old to be successful.

In track, you don’t have to conquer someone else to secure a spot for yourself. That fact alone transforms a group dynamic significantly.

Basically, track and field is kind of like the world I want to live in.

The kind of world where personal growth is celebrated and failure is safe and competition is friendly, and everyone experiences some success and everyone is humbled on a regular basis.

The kind of world where a guy who doesn’t know your name calls you “Blue Shoes” to encourage you and then kindly friends your mom on Facebook to send photos and share in your joy.

The kind of world where everyone is aiming for a new personal record.

So, please, please, PLEASE – try to PR in something tomorrow.

Set your own personal record in anything.

Actually, try to PR tomorrow in EVERYTHING you do.

Be just a little nicer. Help just a little more. Listen just a little better. Learn just a little something new. Waste just a little less time doing something that isn’t good for you.

Because small, consistent improvement creates a significant positive change over time. Each little PR matters.

I learned that from track. Just by standing on the outside of the fence, looking in. 😉

To those who spent many beautiful (and some not-so-beautiful) spring evenings at the track coaching teenagers in running, jumping, vaulting, throwing, and LIFE – THANK YOU!

Photo by Markus Spiske on Pexels.com

It does not matter how slowly you go as long as you do not stop.

Confucius

After the Darkness of Winter, There Will Always Be the Beauty of Spring

Planting bulbs during quarantine, November 2020

Hey, friends! In November of 2020, I shared this on my Still Chasing Fireflies Facebook page, and the words have been on my heart this weekend as I prepare for my second covid vaccine tomorrow. Nature reveals so much to us in its patience and its promises. I hope you enjoy revisiting these words with me!

From November 2020:

With more time at home this fall, I finally remembered to buy spring bulbs.

I intend to buy them every year, but I always forget until spring, when I observe other people’s blooms with regret. So tonight, with Tom Petty’s voice in my ear, I worked my fingers through the cool dirt.

With all of the bulbs dumped together onto the soil, I broke up the thick clumps of earth and carefully worked to hide each delicate bulb from the light. Gently, I nestled each baby flower into it’s own dark pit, buried each one in its own hole, alone.

And I thought to myself, “We just have to make it to spring, little bulbs.”

We just have to hang on until the sun warms the earth, and we emerge from our holes, and life will look normal again. We just need to be patient. We just need to trust that spring will come. We just need to embrace the quiet and store up our energy and expect to grow.

And imagine…. When all of these flowers erupt from their lonely dark places to dance in the sunshine with the other bounty of the earth… And when our doors are finally propped open, welcoming parties of friends and family without worry once again…

Hang on, friends. Use the next few months of dark times to grow more beautiful. It’s painful. It’s tiring. It’s hard to understand.

But nature is full of answers. So choose to bloom.

Spring is coming…

The daffodils are growing! March 2021

Guess what, you guys?!? SPRING IS HERE! We made it! Tomorrow I will get my second vaccine, just as my bulbs are sending gorgeous green shoots up through the soil. Somehow spring has extra special meaning this year.

While it is certainly tempting to ONLY look forward as the blossoms erupt and the front doors swing open, especially since reflecting on the past year elicits AT LEAST a little bit of pain for most of us, these days between vaccines have been an important time of reflection for me. I’ve spent some time reflecting on what the challenges, the losses (from the annoying ones to the truly devastating ones), and the conflicts of the last year revealed about who I am at my very core. I recently and intentionally took some time to revisit all of my blog posts, all of my personal social media posts, all of my comments on my pages from the last year – and I thought about who those words revealed me to be. Where do I see evidence that I have grown in my faith, my knowledge, my generosity, and my love for others? When do I feel confident that I was I assertive at the right time, for the right reasons, and in the right way, and when did I completely miss the mark? When adversity hits us again – and it will – how do I want to react differently?

I learned several years ago that when adversity hits, it evokes intense emotions, and intense emotions strip us of our filters. In that way, adversity shines a light on who we really are, at our core, at that moment in time.

It’s no fun going through hard times. But hard times do have the potential to change who we are, and in a good way. But that change is impossible if we refuse to look in the rearview mirror, at least for a minute.

I hope that you, too, will take a little bit of time to reflect on the past as life begins to look more normal. And I hope you are as excited to see the spring blooms as I am!

Enjoy the sunny blue skies. Enjoy the colorful new life erupting from the earth. And TREASURE the hugs of friends and family as soon as its safe – and I hope for you that is SOON! I have a greater appreciation for smiles and hugs than I ever did before!

HAPPY SPRING!

~Mary Ann

There will always…
be winter…
But there will also always…
be spring. ❤

Yep. Valentine’s Day is For You, Too.💕

Happy Valentine’s Day!!!

This morning I decorated for Valentine’s, as I have since the boys were little chubby-cheeked bundles of energy who generally left me exhausted. Even though I was tired, I would stay up late and cut out hearts to make the morning special.

My oldest will be 17 in a couple of weeks, and he still smiled at the hearts taped all over the kitchen this morning. 💕

Throughout this week, I have enjoyed all the Valentine’s pics and especially the “how we met” challenges that have been shared. Love is such a wonderful thing! 💗 But I also want to give a shout out to the people who won’t get chocolates or roses or whatever special gifts are on the Valentine shelves this weekend. I want to remind you of a few important things that you already know – things that might get buried in your thoughts in February under a heaping pile of conversation hearts.

1. Love is not a finite resource. There is plenty to go around, and it does not end just because a loved one is not close. When someone passes away, their love stays with you, and it still envelopes you. It is with you, even in your pain and your grief.

2. When someone decides they don’t love you anymore, that HURTS REALLY BADLY – but there is no empty “love hole” inside of your heart. You are still loved so abundantly that the space fills right back up. Let yourself feel the fullness of the love around you. Let yourself treasure the love you DO have rather than dwelling on the love you don’t. Your heart is not compartmentalized. Love seeps into all the empty places if you allow it.

3. Our happiness is actually MORE connected to the love we GIVE than to the gifts we receive. Unlike love, time IS a finite resource. Will you be happier waiting for someone to love you or actively loving on other people with that time?

4. You are not “unwhole” if you don’t have someone to buy you flowers today. You are a complete person, and you can buy the flowers for yourself. And I don’t mean “you can buy them for yourself” as in “you are perfectly capable of going to the store.” I mean you can buy a GIFT and GIVE it – with love – to yourself. Treat yourself, think about yourself, and talk to yourself with love – the same way you would treat another person.

And, hey, an added bonus is that when you get to treat yourself, you always get what you want. 🤣 What I wanted last night was a heart-shaped pizza so that I didn’t have to cook dinner. 🍕❤️ And I got it. That is also a long-standing tradition that I share with my kids, and when they move out, I will continue it and share it with someone else. When life changes, you can still continue old traditions, or you can make new ones. It’s up to you!

There is such beauty in loving relationships that have stood the test of time. The effort and love that devoted couples give to overcome obstacles and sustain their marriages is truly heroic. Love is sometimes the hardest of work. This is not, in any way, a condemnation of Valentine’s Day.

But if a forever relationship is what you always wanted and, for whatever reason, your life did not pan out that way, it’s easy to scroll through the heart pics and spiral into a fantasy world where everyone lives in a gated community on a pink-and-red cloud, and you were never given the code.

That’s why it’s important to maintain some perspective. We’ve all watched enough Dateline to know that the perfection captured in a snapshot has probably been filtered or photoshopped, at the least.

Or buried in a hole in the backyard. 😳

Joking aside, the point is that relationships can be wonderful, and they can be terrible. Either way, they aren’t easy. Or perfect. Or the solution to every negative feeling or problem that we face.

I am thankful for Valentine’s Day and a celebration of a feeling (love), a choice (love), and an action (love) that makes the world a better place, starting in our very own homes. I don’t want to be sad today, and I don’t want you to be sad either! Don’t wait to receive love today… give it, instead!

And remember that life is a journey, riddled with unanticipated twists and unexpected turns that no level of planning can control sometimes. I truly cannot wait to see where my path is going, and maybe even whom I will meet, along the way!

HAPPY VALENTINE’S DAY!!! 💗💕

**Hey, everyone! Thanks for continuing to hang out with me here on the rare occasion when I have time to write right now! A friend (thanks, Michelle S!) read this post on Facebook (Still Chasing Fireflies on FB) and suggested we think of Valentine’s Day less as a day ONLY for couples and more as Happy Love Day! I think that’s kinda awesome – because I have a lot of love for all of you!**

The Lemonade Stand

The Memorial Day sky today is stunning – a brilliant blue sprinkled with cotton-candy clouds, punctuated by the towering tops of the trees. Leaves of striking emerald green wave hello from branches that were bare just a few weeks before. Like magic, and without fanfare, nature did what nature does, bursting out of its winter slumber just as we were all safely taking shelter inside. But how could anyone avoid the lure of summer on a gorgeous day like this?

Ohio has been heating up the past few days, proven by the influx of baby pools in front yards, the angry skin tormenting cheeks and noses, and the gush of hot air that greets you upon opening the door. Summer in Ohio feels a bit like living in a toaster oven. And since we switched to summer temperatures in Ohio rather quickly, some of us have done some stupid summer things – like going for a run during the hottest hours of the day without plenty of water.

Don’t do that. It’s not a smart decision.

One of those stupid people was me. After a three-mile run today through thick air and under a blazing sun, I was parched, with a half a mile or so to walk home. That’s when I saw an oasis in the midst of the concrete grid of the suburbs: a lemonade stand with the most adorable homemade sign and a tantalizing pitcher of ice cold lemonade.

Of course, having left my home to go running, I hadn’t taken any money with me, which was a shame because 1$ for 2 lemonades is a steal, plus I was really, really thirsty. But home wasn’t too far away, and I could probably crawl that far if worse came to worst.

What I hated even more than missing a lemonade while dehydrated was telling the three exceedingly hopeful little girls that I didn’t have 1$ to pay them. I just KNEW they would be crushed with disappointment. There is only so much traffic in the ‘burbs on a holiday, so there was a lot riding on every potential customer.

I felt such empathy for them. My childhood friend and I sold rocks at a table on our dead-end street once. It didn’t go so well. The first of many of life’s tough blows, I guess.

I smiled and broke the hard news. “I’m sorry! I didn’t bring any money on my run today.” I finished with a shrug and a disappointed frown and social distanced myself to pass on by.

Those girls did not skip a beat.

“That’s okay. We don’t mind. We want to give it to you.”

Wait, what? One generous little girl added, “For FREE.”

I was HOT. And I was THIRSTY. So I agreed to a free lemonade but promised to come back and make it up to them later. “We’re gonna be here for a long time,” they said. And as I walked away with my lemonade, one of the girls shouted, “Happy Memorial Day!” Before she could finish, the others chimed in, too, with a staggered chorus of sweet Memorial Day blessings.

As I walked the rest of the way home with my lemonade, I was absorbed in reflection. (Running is always my best thinking time anyway.) I was so touched by this small act of kindness. It reminded me that the things that we give, even the little things like a 2 for 1$ glass of lemonade, matter. They make a difference. They brighten someone’s day. They prompt a smile. How many little kindnesses would it take to brighten our communities and our cities and our country and our world?

It reminded me that what those girls were willing to sacrifice – .50 or 1$ – was a lot of money from their youthful perspective. But they were willing to give to someone wholeheartedly, without reservation. To a stranger, even. Where do we lose that generous spirit as we grow up?

It reminded me that those girls were using cups and lemonade mix and a table and chairs that their parents had generously provided. The kindness the parents had shown toward their children was paid forward as kindness to me. So often we think of people as either “givers” or “takers,” but love, kindness, and generosity are like vines, growing and winding from one person to another until communities are literally woven together. There is no end to love, just expansion, and there are no “givers” and “takers,” only people who will sit on both sides of the table at some point.

It reminded me that we reward children for so many things these days. Grades. Athletic achievement. Participation. Even just showing up. But how much do we celebrate their character? If we ask our kids to describe themselves, do they talk about what they do or do they talk about who they are?

When I got home, I wrote the girls a thank you note and rounded up lots of change to pay them what I owed, plus a generous tip. I wanted them to know how much I appreciated their kindness, especially on this very special day.

Because they also reminded me that while most of us will not die in a heroic act of sacrifice for our country, maybe there is no better way to honor those we have lost than by living a life defined by the kindness and generosity that we show to others.

What Students Are Missing the Most This Week

No photo description available.

I currently teach for an online high school. Online schooling is the best option for SOME students. It is NOT the best option for ALL students. It is also a term that is being used pretty loosely at the moment; “remote learning” is maybe a more accurate description of what will be happening in most homes for a while. But this post isn’t about online schooling.

All of my teacher friends who work in school buildings are working incredibly hard – shedding tears even – to figure out how to do their jobs a different way with little training and without the tools that online teachers have. Also consider that when online teachers are hired, they may not know what they are doing, but everybody else working there does. There are “veterans” to call for help. Not so for most of our brick-and-mortar teachers right now. So many of them are excellent at their jobs, and they just want to provide the BEST for their students. They love your kids! My heart hurts for them. 💔

Most people don’t understand that students enrolled in online schools are expected to work 5-6 hours per day – basically, a school day. For my students this week, it is business as usual. Most people also don’t understand that online students DO have live classes with their teachers. Yes, we have class “together” at the same time. They can see me if I turn on my camera. We can talk to each other with our mics. There is a real-time running chat where they can ask questions. This is different from most online college courses that many adults have experienced.

Monday and Tuesday before our lessons, we took some time to allow the students to share how they are feeling right now. Some of them are very anxious about what is happening outside their homes. The pictures of bare shelves scare them. The constant stream of new information confuses them. Just like the adults, they are rattled.

My students are lucky that their schooling still provides a bit of routine in a confusing time. But many have siblings home from school now, parents home from work, vulnerable people they are worried about, and financial concerns at home. We empathized with them when they said that focusing can be difficult in the midst of all the unexpected change.

My co-teacher and I listened to them and responded to their comments with reassurance. We helped them look for the good and reminded them that it’s not their job to worry – the adults are working together in amazing ways to support each other and create solutions.

After class yesterday, it occurred to me that maybe even more important than the education many students are missing this week is the comfort they are missing from their teachers. And I mean all of our students – from kindergarteners to seniors. My sons often come home from their schools and begin sentences with “Mrs. Scott said…” or “Mr. Chid said…” because they trust their teachers’ wisdom and reassurance so much. Teachers reinforce what we parents are saying at home, or in some cases provide the only calm, encouraging voice a child or teenager hears. They aren’t just teaching content. They provide safety and stability.

Teachers are so important. All of them. My teacher friends are trying to do the impossible this week – either teach online students who are completely (and expectedly) distracted or figure out how to teach an entirely different way with limited time and resources.

Everyone is doing their best under the circumstances.

Maybe don’t worry so much about your kids falling behind in math or English this week. Maybe take some time to look them in the eye and check on how they are feeling. When they express concern, maybe even ask them, “What do you think Mrs. Smith would say to you about this?” Not because you aren’t MOST important as the parent, but because your child looks to their teachers to back YOU up. Your child would have gotten comfort from you AND comfort at school if things were different. And I know that it is hurting your child’s teachers not to be able to share that message themselves… so maybe you can do it for them. ❤️

#bettertogether

Coronavirus Isn’t the Only Thing That’s Contagious

View of market stall in store

There are many different words that one could use to sum up the situation over the past few days.

Unprecedented.
Crazy.
Disappointing.
Historic.
Frightening.
Surprising.
Volatile.
Unpredictable.
Confusing.

And, of course.. contagious.

None of those are particularly positive.

On a scale of “good” to “not good at all,” the past week was a “terrible, horrible, no good, very bad” week for many people. The elderly and those with pre-existing conditions are concerned about getting sick. Healthcare workers are concerned about potentially exhausting the capabilities of our medical system. Teachers are concerned about providing adequate educational opportunities for kids who won’t be at school. Parents are concerned about losing hours at work, paying their bills, finding childcare, and stockpiling toilet paper. Pictures of empty shelves, coronavirus emails from every store and organization in America, and endless announcements of new cancellations are leaving us all a bit edgy.

At one point while discussing the news, my son looked at me and said, “2020 has been a TERRIBLE year.”

That’s a pretty rough assessment when we haven’t even closed the door on March yet.

As an educator, I DO think that it is important to be informed and to take this situation seriously. As I have told my boys when they have complained about cancellations, “Your sacrifice might be saving someone’s grandma,” and I’m not joking. But it’s easy to get caught up in the fear and the extremes and the self-imposed isolation. In fact, yesterday I found my thoughts spiraling into a dark pit of every “what if” that my imagination could unravel – mostly because I had read something that was not exactly accurate. Sorting through all of the information can be challenging. Sometimes you just have to stop yourself, take a deep breath, and recalibrate.

So that’s what I did yesterday afternoon. I stopped and re-evaluated and reflected on what I’m ACTUALLY experiencing – which is a lot of people doing really good, really generous, and really selfless things. In pausing to reflect on my personal experiences over the past few days, I was a bit surprised at how POSITIVE my interactions have been – even with low-hanging, ominous clouds threatening to rain down “the unknown.” (And honestly only a little of what is happening is actually “the unknown” at this point, if we cooperate with the experts.)

On Friday, I squeezed my car into a narrow spot in the packed Kroger parking lot. I was fully expecting empty shelves and grouchy shoppers, people grabbing up supplies like they fought for Cabbage Patch Dolls in the 80’s. To my surprise, it seemed like shoppers were in an extra friendly mood. It was like we were all on the same Kroger team – ALL of us against the coronavirus. We actually NOTICED each other, which is different. At the deli case, I had an uplifting chat with a friendly guy who brought his elderly mother to buy some necessities before hunkering down for a while. On another day, we might have stared at our phones instead of making a meaningful connection, but this time we talked and then waved to each other while waiting in the checkout lines. In the checkout line, I met a friendly woman from West Virginia who was visiting her son’s family. I watched her patiently and kindly allow the man in front of her to hold up the checkout because he had forgotten to grab something he needed to buy. Nobody complained about the lines or checked the time impatiently. Three different times as I shopped, I heard employees discussing how much extra they have been working this week – but they continued to stock shelves, smile, and chat with customers as we walked by. I heard one employee say, “I think it’s going to be like this for a while…”

Friday evening, a few girlfriends were stopping by my house to decompress after the crazy week. I mentioned in a group chat that I could use a roll of paper towels if anyone had an extra until I could find some to buy. I hadn’t realized I was out, but that shelf at Kroger had been empty anyway. The first friend walked into my house with two rolls of paper towels from her personal supply, even though you know she could sell those things on Ebay for $20 a roll right now. Perfect! That should suffice. Soon, the second friend knocked at my door with two more rolls of paper towels from her pantry. Please note that no one here was stockpiling; they were just being generous with the limited supply that they had. When I told her I no longer needed them, she insisted that I keep them to have a couple extra and avoid the store. I know they are “just” paper towels – but I felt the love, you guys. Loving people is really simple. The third friend didn’t know what had already happened, so she let herself in and then handed me a pack of more paper towels. She had been at Lowe’s when I texted, so she had bought them for me. And she refused to take a dime.

After I had gone to Kroger, I realized that buying groceries (and toilet paper and hand soap and sanitizer) feels comforting because it gives us a sense of control (even though that’s a bit of an illusion), which maybe explains why some people are buying SO much stuff right now. But it seems to me that this will all balance out – IF everyone will express what they need AND also share what they have with someone else.

Yesterday, there were some local (and misleading) posts about the coronavirus that created alarm. Despite maintaining a healthy balance of caution and calm throughout this situation, I felt my anxiety rising to high alert, and I didn’t like it. I thought, “Why am I feeling this way, and what would make me feel better?” And I knew the answer – talking to people who are smarter than I am. I reached out to a couple of trusted friends in the medical field after watching the governor’s press conference (which was helpful in itself). One of the friends I reached out to lives nearby, and I see her often. She calmly and honestly shared what she knows and how she feels (cautious and concerned but not alarmed) and what boundaries seem reasonable for our families. I also messaged with another good friend who works in an ER, a friend whom I don’t connect with nearly often enough, and she also calmly and honestly shared her training and her perceptions of the situation. She is concerned, as well, but she wisely told me, “There is no need to panic until the ER nurses panic, and I promise I’m not panicking.” I was so grateful for the kindness and expertise of these two women and so many other family and friends I know in the healthcare field. I know I’m not the only one asking them questions in their personal time, and I am so thankful for their willingness to educate us and to help people they don’t even know, even at the risk of harm to themselves. Seriously, what would we do without these people?!? We don’t think about them nearly often enough.

In addition to all of those experiences, I connected with one of my cousins yesterday, got a message from a dear former coworker I haven’t talked to for a while, texted with some friends who always make me feel safe and loved, shared resources with several teacher friends who have been asked to instantly learn a new way to teach, found comfort and ways to help through my faith, and spent extra time with my two favorite boys.

Listen, I don’t like what is happening right now.

I don’t like it at all.

And I know that it can be scary.

But somehow when things get bad, we get better. In fact, some of us act like completely different people. We remember to smile at people. We dig deeper to give to others. We notice our neighbors. We stop for a minute to help. We slow down to connect. We find space in our hearts to feel grateful. We reprioritize and remember what is actually IMPORTANT.

The worst brings out the best in us.

And that, I hope, is contagious, too.

When Your Year Ends With Hurt and Heartbreak

 

Canva - Candle in the Dark

So long, 2019. To be fair, you had some high points. We shared some really exciting moments, and it was fun getting to know you.

Well, mostly it was fun. But sometimes it wasn’t.

I don’t want to sound ungrateful, 2019. I mean, we did make some amazing memories, you and I, and I appreciate those times for sure. Remember the quiet mornings when we sat with a book on the porch swing at the cabin and watched the sun as it rose above the rugged mountain peaks? Wow, 2019. That was incredible. Or the week when our troubles were swept away with each crashing wave that pounded the Carolina shore? I loved that week, 2019. I really did. The boys have grown and matured, and my oldest started driving – which still doesn’t even seem possible. You were with me when I let go of some old things and embraced some new things, when I looked at myself in the mirror and saw a different woman staring back, when I started imagining a future that I hadn’t been able to envision before. You didn’t spare much time for me to write last year, but you helped me rediscover who I am, take some risks, achieve some professional success, and go back to school. You reminded me that the writing will come, that every minute with my high school student is precious, and that every conversation with my middle schooler is more important than anything else I could be doing in that moment.

My heart is overflowing with gratitude for those moments. I’m thankful for the lessons, the wisdom, and the relationships that we cultivated together, 2019.

To be honest, I thought we were friends.

I didn’t realize how needy you were until you orchestrated such an ugly grand exit. It turns out you were kind of a jerk.

In these last two weeks, 2019, you got me thinking about how I want to be remembered. I want my legacy to be so much different than yours. I hope that the last thing I do is to help someone, to encourage them or feed them or share some meaningful, hard-earned advice. You know, something beautiful that my friends will reflect on in my absence – You heard the last thing that she did, right? Of course, she was helping someone! That’s just who she was! I’m not saying that will happen or that I’m deserving; I’m just saying that’s the legacy I would hope for.

That’s why I don’t understand what you were thinking, 2019. You chose a completely different path – and for that you will be remembered.

That’s the thing about tragedy. It is memorable.

Typically at this time of year, I feel inspired to write some profound reflections on the past twelve months and to shower the Internet with my eternal spring of hope for the future. That spring is still flowing, 2019 – surely you have noticed that I ABSOLUTELY REFUSE to allow any day or week or year to drain it – but there are ominous clouds hanging all over my community this week. One hovers right above my sweet friend’s home, and there is no ignoring its shadow. In our joy and celebration, in the glow of the fireworks and sparklers welcoming the promise of 2020, there has been pain. The deep, dark kind of pain that seeps like oil into every hollow space within your heart.

Canva - Cloudy Sky

Listen, 2019, I’ve been around the block a time or two with some of your friends who’ve come and gone before, and I already know that Joy and Suffering coexist with us on this rotating planet. I also know that we often forget that both are with us, without fail, all of the time. When we celebrate, we don’t invite Suffering to the party; if she is excluded, then we can pretend for as long as possible that she doesn’t exist. And when we are suffering, we forget that Joy awaits nearby, clouded by the darkness. She is a loyal friend, patiently waiting until we can see through the thick fog and embrace her once again.

Canva - Sun Rays Through the Tree Leaves and Mist

As you waved goodbye last night, 2019, even though you left our Worthington community peppered with black clouds and sorrow, I know that Joy was with us as we rang in the new year. Some people felt her warm hug as one year gave way to another. But for those who didn’t feel her presence, I hope that they will trust that she is quiet and she is patient and she is kind. I know that when their hearts are ready, when there is a bit of room where some of the sadness has leaked out, she will slip inside and fill each void. You may have delivered my family and friends some heavy blows, 2019, but I trust that our wins will outnumber our losses in the end. The human spirit is strong. God is good. And dark clouds, unless we tether them to us, gradually give way to the light.

But it takes a while.

As I grow older, every year passes quickly, but for some reason, 2019, you especially seem like a blur. I would have sworn that just yesterday I was sitting around a friend’s kitchen table with a small group of wonderful people getting stomped in a trivia game called Smartass. (That really is the name of the game, not just the name we used for my friend’s husband, who we now know is significantly smarter than the rest of us.) But that wasn’t just yesterday. It was New Year’s Eve 2018. Joy had a seat at the table. And so did our friend Jamey Shiffer.

We laughed and played games and stayed up too late. We gushed about how grateful we are for this community, how thankful we feel that our teenagers found such an amazing group of friends, how our kids were the catalyst for us parents finding one another. It’s a joyful, indelible memory of ringing you in, 2019.

So, seriously, how could you? We were so kind to you. We toasted your arrival. We cheered with excitement when you finally showed up at the party – even though you were the guy who didn’t make an appearance until midnight. But this week, right before we could bid you farewell, you stole someone from us.  You took an incredible husband, an exemplary father, and a loving friend from his beautiful wife and his daughters, whom we love so much. You left an empty chair at our New Year’s Eve table. You sucker punched us on your way out the door.

Last night was more somber, but we clinked our glasses to 2020 around the same table, together. There were some laughs and some tears, there was some joy and some pain, there was some sadness and a whole lot of love. There may have been some loud cheering when we heard that you, 2019, are now gone. There was Jamey’s presence and his legacy – so different from yours – the kind of legacy that makes you hug your friends more tightly and love your neighbors more generously and treasure the time with your family more passionately. And there was hope – so much hope that it spilled out of the windows and seeped under the doors. It enveloped the house and hovered over the street and floated like mist all around the neighborhood and beyond.

2020 Pink

Because here is the greatest irony of all, 2019: The rain from your storm clouds is replenishing our spring. You thought that the downpour would drown us, but instead the heavy raindrops from your black clouds are soaking into our dry ground. They are trickling through all the cracks and crevices, and there is a silent transformation percolating beneath the surface. The pain will gradually – very, very slowly – be filtered from the rest until clear, fresh hope and the purest kind of love pour out.  And what was meant to break us will be given a purpose, a purpose and a hope that will nourish our souls.

Until then, we will keep our heads above water.   We will keep one another afloat.

So I welcome you, 2020! My heart is heavy, but I am happy to greet you and to accept your hope and your promise.  I am ready to prepare for the great things that you have in store for the people whom I love so very much.

And if you are sad today, this first day of 2020, remember that Joy is quietly waiting to slip into your heart.  She will be there when you are ready.  You will recognize her, like a friend whom you have dearly missed.

Here’s to happiness and healing in the coming year.

And to the Shiffer family, and to the other families in our community and in my hometown who also experienced tragic loss, we send you all of our love.

Canva - Cloudy Skies

Canva Isaiah

Canva - Time-lapse Photo of Waterfalls

Feeding the Ache: Twenty One Pilots and My Friend Pete Crozier

Hey, friends!  I’m trying something new today.  If you want to LISTEN to the post while you are doing something else, click on the video link below.  If not, just drop down and start reading!  Let me know if you appreciate the audio!  It feels a bit more like a podcast.  🙂

Read below or LISTEN here: https://screencast-o-matic.com/watch/cqin0GOf3Z

Let me start by saying this: This post is going to take some strange twists and turns, but just stick with me.  Primarily, I want to introduce you to my friend, Pete Crozier, an inspirational guy with an awesome cause that I think you will want to support.  But I really can’t do that until I tell you about the Twenty One Pilots concert I attended in Columbus, Ohio on Sunday for two reasons.

(1.) I can’t stop thinking about it.

(2.) I think I can pull these two things together.  (Let’s hope so, anyway!)

First, let’s talk about the concert.  You guys, it was AMAZING.  In a society where people cannot agree on ANYTHING and are offended by EVERYTHING, music still has the power to create a healthy sense of unity that I wasn’t sure was even possible anymore.  Add to that the astounding level of creative detail in both the production and the music itself and you have a memorable experience that I was lucky enough to share with my two sons.  Those boys waited patiently for months after receiving the tickets for Christmas.  It was their first concert –  and it set the bar very high for their future ticket purchases.

Here’s the deal – I have a bit of an obsession with insanely creative people.  I want to experience the way they think.  I want to look through the lens that shapes the way they see the world.  I want to understand their compulsion to MAKE something that MEANS something and then to SHARE that something with the world.  I want to know the catalysts that move them, the inherent need to tell a story, the emotional tumult that paralyzes most people but erupts from others into words and lyrics and melodies and art and dance and PURPOSE.

Obviously, this fascinates me.  Maybe a little bit TOO much.  But, really, isn’t it interesting?

In truth, I feel like these kind of people are MY kind of people.  I’m talking about people who have an incurable creative ache that can only be controlled through some sort of ACTION.  It’s a pain that drives some people to take REALLY BIG risks, not because they are braver or more confident than anybody else but because inaction is so uncomfortable that the discomfort of action is somehow a better option.

This is where great art comes from.  Maybe this is what allowed two young and extremely talented guys from Columbus, Ohio (Yes, they are hometown boys!) who were a bit outside the box, genre-less, and sometimes underestimated to think, Yeah, we should do this.  And even if we fail, it’s worth the risk and pain.  Maybe they even thought, We aren’t exactly comfortable doing this.  But we won’t be comfortable NOT doing it either.  They responded to the ache, and now millions of people benefit from that decision.

As people scurried to their cars under the night sky after the concert, a young man holding a box full of music approached concertgoers, saying, “We’re a local band like Twenty One Pilots trying to get off the ground.  Free CDs!”  I thought, Wow.  That kid is a risk-taker, handing his demos to people leaving the best concert that most of them have seen in their lives.  And he didn’t seem particularly brave.  Instead, he seemed like he had the ache, and, standing there in front of Nationwide Arena handing out free copies of his music, he was releasing his dream into the universe.  That is SCARY, you guys!  Because you can toss something around in your head for years, and as long as it stays within those boundaries, you cannot fail.  But once that dream leaves your heart and your mouth, it’s a whole different story.

And this leads me to my friend, Pete.  This is an honest blog, so I don’t want to mislead anyone.  Although I wish I were friends with Josh and Tyler of Twenty One Pilots (even though I was probably graduating from high school when they entered kindergarten), I do not know them.  And even though I describe Pete as my friend and I see him often in our community, we are just getting acquainted.  We know each other in a we-played-a-mean-game-of-Catchphrase-together-at-a-friend’s-New-Year’s-Eve-party kind of way.  We know each other because we both like to write and we share that on social media.  We know each other through mutual friends who are trusted and wonderful people, which tells me a lot about Pete and his wife Sarah’s character.  And we know each other because our sons are good friends.

And they are both named Gavin.

So we both have really good taste.  (Or maybe Sarah gets all of the credit for that one!)

In fact, here is a pic of them to prove this is real.  Meet the two Gavins.

Remember how I said that some people just can’t be comfortable NOT doing something when they have an ache to do it?  Well, one of those people is Pete, and he is on a truly awesome adventure right now called Fifty for Father.   On his website, Pete shares personal stories about the loss of his father and the diabetes diagnosis of his son – yes, my son’s friend, Gavin.

Here’s the thing that I love about Fifty for Father: Pete decided to DO SOMETHING rather than just THINK ABOUT IT.  He is currently on the last leg of his fundraising campaign that involves playing 50 rounds of golf in 50 states in 50 days.  That is a lot of driving, a lot of walking, and a lot of time away from the family that he loves.  Why would Pete do this?  Two reasons: to honor his father’s legacy and to raise money for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (JDRF) to honor his son.  His goal is to raise $50,000 by the end of his journey.  Today is day 37, and he has raised over $38,000 so far.  I know that meeting his goal in the next 13 days is of the utmost importance to him, and it is important to me because we love Pete’s family and his son Gavin and because juvenile diabetes has touched my extended family, as well.

If you are like me and want to track Pete’s travel and fundraising, you can check out this page with his stats.

I love what Pete is doing for a lot of reasons, but here is maybe the strongest one: Pete, like the kid handing out CDs after the concert, released his dream to the universe.  He accepted the risk and the discomfort.  He didn’t allow the thought to pinball around in his mind forever in order to keep it safe.  As a result, he has raised funds for JDRF, has almost traveled across the entire country (even hitting Alaska and Hawaii), and has shared and heard so many inspirational stories along the way.

I imagine how scary it might have felt the first time he put his IDEA into the WORDS that made it “real.”

But I’m so glad that he did.  I’m so thankful for his decision to respond to the ache and to accept the discomfort of risk – a risk that is paying off in a big way.

I don’t ask for a lot, but I am asking two things of you today.  First, if you know Josh and Tyler and you are inviting them over for dinner any time soon, PLEASE  invite me, as well, so that we can talk about metaphors and meaning and all of that English teacher/international rock star kind of stuff.  (Seriously, we have so much in common.)  And if you have a few minutes and a few dollars to spare, please check out Fifty for Father to see Pete’s posts and videos about his journey and to donate to JDRF to support the mission before his 50 day adventure ends very soon.

I’m sure that some of your families have been touched by diabetes, too.

Thanks everyone!

~Mary Ann

P.S.  Don’t keep incubating your dreams.  It’s time for them to hatch.  🙂

Why I Took an Unusually Hard Stance on Gillette’s New Ad

 

father son hands pexels

*Note: This is a challenging post, both to write and to read.  I hope it will bring something new to the conversations you are already having.  Please be prepared for crude language in the first section.

 

I. You Park Like a C***

Let me tell you a story.

Several months ago, a friend of mine shuffled her two young children into a local restaurant to celebrate her daughter’s soccer season with the team. The families laughed. They shared stories. They ate tacos. It was a happy occasion, a short reprieve from the stresses of school and of life. When the event drew to a close and my friend returned to her minivan with her kids, she noticed that a folded piece of paper had been slipped onto her windshield. Maybe one of their soccer friends had forgotten to tell her something, she thought. When she unfolded the scrap of paper, she found this message, scrawled in pencil: You park like a cunt. Her mood quickly shifted. She surveyed the area to see if someone was watching her, to make sure that they were safe. She loaded her kids into the car and headed home, but she was rattled to her core. Who does something like that?

Later that evening, I saw that she had posted about her experience on a private Facebook page for people who live in or around her community. She had included a photograph of the note – the visual evoked a powerful emotional response – and wrote a heartfelt message that our community can do better. The note on her minivan was alarming and unacceptable, but it had prompted a valuable conversation about kindness and respect with her family, and she hoped that sharing this story would remind other local families to have this conversation, too.

Her post had generated an unusually high number of responses.  I was proud of the way we rally around one another to defend what is right. I was proud of us, proud that her message had garnered so much support from the community.

Except it hadn’t.

At first, the comments were kind and appropriate: “I’m so sorry this happened to you” and “This is totally unacceptable” and “We don’t want this kind of behavior in our community.” A doctor who works at a local hospital noted that she had seen people in the ER who had been shot in similar situations; there is danger in treating people this way. Some empathized, imagining how they would feel if their teenage daughters or their wives or their mothers had found notes like this on their cars. But it didn’t take long for the conversation to turn on my friend, who had RECEIVED the vulgar note. First, people justified the note: “I would like to see a picture of how badly you parked.” “How bad do you have to park to get a note like that?” Then people blamed her for being afraid or offended: “It’s just words. What’s the big deal?” “Words don’t mean anything.” “Why are you letting this bother you?” Then people questioned her parenting: “What kind of mother would let her kids read a note like that?”  The downward spiral continued.  At one point in a comment thread, a woman actually said something to the effect of “I hope her daughter gets your daughter’s spot on the soccer team.”

ARE. YOU. KIDDING. ME?

This conversation happened on a private Facebook page for people who live in or near one of the most affluent, highly educated cities in the state of Ohio. And there was only one appropriate response to a person (male or female) leaving that note in those words on a family minivan for any reason: “That never should have happened.”

If we cannot agree on that, can we agree on ANYTHING?

II. Razor Burn

I am eating my cereal and catching up on the morning news on the Today Show. They share a new Gillette ad that is generating some buzz. After airing the ad, the newscasters raise their eyebrows and nod approvingly. I, too, feel a warm glow inside from the positive message. This is huge, I think to myself between bites of toasted oats and dried berries. We are – WITH INTENTION – showing boys like my own sons what behaviors are unacceptable (the beginning of the commercial) and what behaviors are acceptable (the end of the commercial) in a society where the messages we have been sending them have been horribly blurry. I see a beautiful depiction of masculinity, with Terry Crews, the picture of traditional masculinity with his physical strength and confidence, as the ambassador of male kindness and accountability, as well. I see the message that masculinity is being kind and strong and confident and courageous and respectful and responsible and brave. There are MANY, MANY challenging political and social issues with valid arguments that I understand on both sides, but this commercial is something we can all agree on. RIGHT?

The next day, the media is flooded with pictures of men across America throwing their shaving cream in the trashcan.

Is this really happening?

III. The Dukes of Hazzard

Americans are skilled at avoidance and deflection. We are trained to avoid and deflect at a young age, and the skills are honed and reinforced as we watch celebrities and politicians and public relations machines dance around the truth on a daily basis. We suspend our disbelief and accept the Photoshopped images and the “reality” television shows as authentic. We ignore biases and learn from social media that the image we convey is far more important than what is REAL.

Avoidance and deflection are our natural human reaction when faced with the parts of ourselves that make us uncomfortable. This is true of all of us, myself included.  The number on the scale this winter makes me uncomfortable, so I’ve implemented a solution. Am I exercising more? No. Am I eating more carrots? Nope, I am not. My solution is easier and should work until June: I’M AVOIDING THE MIRROR. I’m wearing extra layers to hide things and avoiding that mirror like the plague.

Looking in the mirror ruins the fun of eating mac and cheese, and the truth is that I’m not quite willing to give that up yet.

Acknowledging that the Gillette ad is amazing ruins something, too. It ruins the peace of mind that comes from a belief that we are ONLY responsible for our own behavior, and whatever anybody else does, well, that’s not our business.

The Gillette commercial is also a mirror that is forcing men to strip off the protective layers that we’ve ALL built up by adulthood and take a cold, hard look at an uncomfortable reality: the way we’ve been doing things hasn’t been perfect. It has been flawed. We’ve made some mistakes. And maybe this is a reason why some really fantastic guys I know are feeling uncomfortable. Part of toxic masculinity is the belief that admitting a mistake is a sign of weakness. It’s a fear that a flaw is the equivalent of a failure, that an error is not a chance for growth but a white flag of defeat. We’ve taught our boys not to compromise. We’ve taught our boys that if you don’t win, you lose. In fact, we’ve DEPENDED ON MEN to be firm and tough and stoic and to pretend to be fearless. And that’s kind of exactly what this commercial is trying to say – GUYS, you don’t have to live by those stupid rules any longer.

My two sons and I recently stumbled across an episode of The Dukes of Hazzard. It wasn’t long into the storyline when a dashing Bo Duke blindsided an unwitting girl with a kiss as she turned around. She was surprised. So was I. I paused the show. “Wow. So…. maybe that was acceptable in the eighties? I don’t remember? But you understand that surprising an unsuspecting girl with a kiss like that is not okay, right? It’s completely disrespectful.” We resumed the show, and soon Daisy Duke was wearing even less than her famous Daisy Dukes. She stood in the middle of a country road wearing a tiny bikini to tempt some guys to pull over in order to help her cousins, who, of course, drive a car painted to look like the Confederate flag. Yikes. I had more explaining to do than I expected.  As Bob Dylan once sang, “The times, they are a-changin’.”

This is what we forty-year-old adults were raised on, you guys. These are the attitudes and behaviors that were normalized for us as kids. We tend to remember a lot of not-so-great things fondly if they are threads in the quilt of our formative years. But the messaging wasn’t all good.

Like every generation before us, we have some knots from our childhood to unravel.

father baby pexels

IV. Complicit

It’s hard to look at the people we love, the shows we love, the music we love, the movies we love, the commercials we love, the entertainment we love and realize that all of it is flawed. No one and nothing is perfect. It’s hard to look in the mirror and realize that we, too, are flawed people, that we may have somehow contributed to somebody else’s pain, that we need to change – in significant ways or in small ones. We don’t want to be considered complicit.

We now know that for many, many years the Catholic church harbored a problem of priests abusing children in the church. We also know that the vast majority of Catholic priests are selfless, generous, faithful people – yet the credibility of ALL of the priests took a serious hit when the stories of abuse came to light. And there’s a reason.

According to reports, time and time again the “good” priests chose NOT to address the behavior of the “bad” priests. They were afraid that the unacceptable behavior of one priest, if publicized, would reflect poorly on the church as a whole, so they ignored it. But by ignoring the abuse to protect the whole, THEY BECAME COMPLICIT. If they had not turned a blind eye, if they had forced the guilty priests to be accountable right away, then the good guys would have looked like good guys. In fact, they would have been MORE than innocent. They would have been heroic.

But in so many cases, that is not what happened. By protecting the group rather than contributing to positive change, the priests who were NOT engaging in abuse became tarnished themselves. They tried to separate themselves from the problem, but they became part of the problem.

This is why it is so important for men to support an ad like Gillette’s. Sometimes, there isn’t really a middle ground to stand on. When there is a societal problem and you are made aware of it, you must choose to become part of the problem or part of the solution. You choose to become complicit or heroic.

The commercial is unfair, some people say, because it puts all of the responsibility on men. Don’t women need to be part of the conversation, too? YES. YES, THEY DO. But change happens when people WITHIN a particular group begin TO PUT PRESSURE ON THEIR OWN. Women ALREADY aren’t laughing at blatantly inappropriate comments about other women. Men will stop making those comments when THE OTHER MEN AROUND THE TABLE or THE OTHER MEN ON THE GOLF COURSE or THE OTHER MEN IN THE BOARDROOM stop laughing. That is when those comments will die.

Old habits die hard. But old habits CAN die.

When the bystanders stop resuscitating them.

V. The Playground

It was a beautiful summer day. The sky was clear, a brilliant shade of blue. I was taping clues for a scavenger hunt onto objects around the playground at a local park for a back-to-school party with some friends. I noticed that a few little boys were following, tearing the slips of paper down behind me. I politely asked them to stop and retraced my path, taping the clues back where they belonged. Within minutes, the boys had torn them down again. I kindly tried to negotiate; if you will leave these notes alone for twenty minutes, then we will make sure that you can do the scavenger hunt yourselves in a little while. That will be fun for you. That didn’t work, either. So, while the playground thieves’ mothers chatted away at a picnic table nearby, we assigned parents from our party to stand beside every clue until the game had concluded.

At this point, I was livid, so when one of the same boys walked up behind my son, who was playing soccer with his friends, and spit on the back of his neck in my view, my head nearly exploded. I approached the mothers of the boys and explained what I had just witnessed, adding that it was extremely disrespectful for one of the boys to spit on my son after we had treated them kindly despite their repeated attempts to destroy our game.

The spitter’s mother was indifferent.  She shrugged. “They are just kids,” she said. They finished packing their things and walked away.

My heart was heavy with both anger and sadness. What are the chances that this little boy, the one who spit on my son and was expected to take no responsibility for his behavior, will grow up to become a kind, respectful, accountable young man who respects women, or any authority at all? If that incident is representative of his upbringing, the chances are very, very low.

Some people are perpetuating the myth that an attack on “toxic masculinity” is an attack on masculinity in general – that being critical of “toxic masculinity” is being critical of manhood itself. That argument has proven to be a surprisingly effective deflection, but it’s NOT THE TRUTH. Aside from some extremists on the fringes, no one is saying that being physically strong, muscular, and athletic is toxic. No one is saying that being competitive, hardworking, and assertive is toxic. No one is saying that protecting others by being a police officer, a firefighter, or a soldier is toxic. That is not toxic masculinity – so just stop spreading that nonsense. The reality is that even though we have MILLIONS of amazing and wonderful men in our country who are tough and strong and brave, we also have a serious problem with men involved in gun violence, domestic violence, and drugs. We have a serious problem with men who will not seek help for mental health concerns, men who weren’t taught to deal with stress and emotions, and men who are not financially or emotionally supporting their children. That stuff – it’s toxic. And it’s not just a toxic pill that those guys swallow. It’s a toxic gas that drifts through the air, exposing families and communities to the ill effects.

The truth is that we women, like the mom at the park, contribute to toxic masculinity by the things that we say, the behaviors we allow, and the entertainment that we provide for our sons. And, guys, we know that toxic femininity is a thing, too. It’s only fair that we also call out our own. Victoria’s Secret models aren’t doing women any favors. We do need to hold other women accountable for choices that negatively influence the beliefs of our daughters and our sons, and we need to stop defending women whose behaviors contribute to the objectification of women.

But accepting some responsibility on our end doesn’t let guys off the hook. Those boys on the playground needed mothers who would instill empathy and accountability. But they also clearly needed some solid male role models who would influence them positively and who would encourage the other men around them to have a positive influence, too. Maybe there will be another man who will make the difference – a teacher, a coach, a neighbor, a religious leader, a friend. Maybe.

Somebody has to teach boys like them how to be masculine without being toxic.

And the more pressure that men are putting on one another to be better, the more secure and confident all of our boys will become.

VI. The Wrong Side of History

This week as our nation celebrates Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day, many students across America will read two important historical texts. The first text, “A Call for Unity,” is a plea written by eight white clergymen in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963. In the text, the clergymen ask civil rights activists to stop demonstrating in their city. The gist of their letter is this: Although we do not support hate, your demonstrations are disrupting our peace, so we think you should be patient and give the court more time to work this out. In so many words, the clergymen said we aren’t against you, but we aren’t going to help you, either. They were trying to walk a very fine line between not quite being racist and not quite NOT being racist, if such a line exists.

The second text is Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s brilliant and much more famous response, his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” in which he effectively tears down every part of the clergymen’s plea, revealing the hypocrisy of their stance.

Those eight clergymen probably did many wonderful things while serving their parishioners throughout their careers. But the only reason anyone is talking about them in 2019 is because they signed their names to the wrong side of history. Their public plea for the “outsiders” to go away and for the insiders to be patient was supposed to deter the civil rights protests, but instead their words confirmed the NEED for demonstrations. Their letter was like a flashing neon sign that said, “WE STILL DON’T GET IT!” In fact, the only positive aspect of what the clergymen wrote is that it prompted Dr. King’s incredible response, paving the way for events that would prove other men heroic and would eventually change the face of our nation in tremendous ways.

In a similar way, the shaving cream in the trashcan last week had the opposite effect of the intent; when men reacted so harshly to a commercial that promotes positive male role models, the images of brand new razors thrown into the garbage screamed “Maybe I have the exact problem that throwing away this razor is supposed to prove that I don’t have.”

I wonder if those eight white clergymen in Birmingham, with the blessing of hindsight, would recognize that by asking the demonstrators to stop rather than joining them in the streets they were complicit in the injustices in Birmingham. I wonder if they would be embarrassed that by trying not to get involved, they actually WERE involved, and their complacence hurt people.

I wonder if the letter they wrote to their community and their place in history might have been different if they could go back in time.

I wonder if they would have been brave enough to join the protests instead of criticizing them.

I wonder if they would have been heroes.

father son sun pexels

How the Smallest House Taught Me the Biggest Lessons

IMG_4274

“I really have to go, Mom.  Like, NOW,” my son said from behind the bathroom door of my parents’ home.

“I’m hurrying!”  I’m sure I snapped at him.  I didn’t want the warm embrace of the shower to end so soon.  And all of the sudden, I was fourteen again, telling my brother to get lost so that I could enjoy just a few moments of peace, all by myself, in the confines of our only bathroom.

I grew up in a small house.

My house was a really small house, especially by today’s standards. Seven rooms, no basement, one floor, and just one bathroom for the four of us to share. I remember when Doug Stone released the country song “Little Houses” in 1994, the fall after I graduated from high school. When he crooned about brushing one another while passing in the hall, he wasn’t kidding. The quarters were tight, and they grew even tighter as we grew bigger.

My friend up the street had a small house, as well, but she had a bedroom in the attic.  That meant that she had stairs.  I dreamt about having stairs.  Someday, I promised myself, I would have a house with stairs.  I don’t remember dreaming of a mansion, but I did fantasize about having a bathroom where I could shower without someone banging on the door.  And if I could have a basement where I could hide from a tornado, that would be okay, too.

Looking back with more wisdom and experience, I understand that our small house on a small street in a small town was just fine.  It was more than fine, actually.  It was always warm and it was always cozy.  It was never too small to welcome a guest who stopped by, and it was just the right size for a small dining room table where a nourishing meal was served every night.  The love in our house was condensed into such a small space that it hung thick in the air.  We breathed it.  We felt it on our skin.

So during a recent visit, as I finished my shower at my parents’ house while my son impatiently waited outside the door, it struck me that, while my own kids have stairs and a second shower and a finished basement, too, all of those things I had wanted as a child, maybe they are actually missing out.  Growing up in a small space shaped the person I am today, so here are a few of the biggest lessons I learned from the smallest house.

1. The world does not revolve around you.

For the most part, my kids don’t have to accommodate other people too much during their normal routine at home.  If they need to use the toilet, we have three.  If they need to shower, we have two.  If they need a sink where they can brush their teeth, we have options.  If they want to watch something on television, we have two comfortable living spaces where they can do just that.  And many kids today are living in homes much bigger and with many more televisions than ours.

Life isn’t like that in a small house.

In a small house, you learn to wait and you learn to hurry.  It doesn’t really matter how much you might enjoy pampering yourself a bit more or how hard your workday has been.  At the end of the day, you have three minutes to get clean, partly because you are just one link in the shower chain and partly because everyone wants some hot water.  Small houses don’t have huge hot water tanks.  Everything about small houses is, well, small.

When you have one bathroom, someone is always beating on the door.  Always.  And while it’s annoying when you are the occupant and someone is knocking, you have also been the person beating on the door – too many times to count.  So you learn to hurry in order to accommodate someone else, even if you do so with loud sighs and eye rolling, in the hopes that they will return the favor later in the week.

When you live in a small house, you never expect to watch what you want on TV, unless you just happen to get home from school before everyone else does, which did happen during middle school and was kind of amazing.  Then you can watch Santa Barbara, a soap opera that you probably shouldn’t be watching anyway, without anyone complaining.  But most of the time, watching TV in a small house is an exercise in compromise.  You learn to watch things like Jeopardy and Animal Planet and old sitcoms that everyone in the family can enjoy.  You also learn the importance of the win/win.  Yes, you are missing the shows that your friends are watching, but you aren’t being forced to watch football or He-Man or something else that your brother would choose, and that, my friends, is a WIN.  You become skilled at negotiations and learn to stand by your word – “You can play video games for one hour if I can watch Beverly Hills 90210 at 8.”  That’s a no brainer.  DEAL.

A college writing professor once asked me if my parents argued in front of me often while I was growing up.  They didn’t.  He explained his observation that students who are skilled in the art of argumentation were often raised in the midst of conflict.  Nope.  Not me.  I grew up in a small house.  I just learned to debate and negotiate so that I could watch what I wanted on TV.

2. Don’t want anyone to know about it? Then don’t do it.

It is very, very hard to have secrets in a small house.

In a small house, your family hears everything.  They observe what you are doing, see what you are watching, and hear what you are listening to.  If your friends come over, no one sends you to the basement and closes the door behind you because there is no basement.  Your bedroom is close to the living spaces in the house, and you may even share a bedroom with a sibling.  People can see into your room every time they walk to the restroom, and your drawers and closet space might even be used to store things that aren’t your own.  People are in your stuff and in your space all of the time.  But it’s okay.  You never get comfortable with privacy because you never have any.

This can keep you out of lots and lots of trouble.

Our kids today believe privacy is their right, and it’s no wonder that they feel this way.  They have their own rooms, their own phones, their own e-mail addresses.  Many have their own bathrooms, their own televisions, and their own gaming systems.  Sure, privacy is nice.  But privacy is also where, in many cases, we make mistakes that have the most serious consequences.  Sure, my friends and I could have gone to other people’s houses to hide from our parents, but that feeling of never having privacy just became a part of who I was.  I imagine that my small house saved me from making at least a few very poor decisions.

3. If you don’t plan ahead, you have no one to blame but yourself (even if you try to blame your brother).

Getting four people ready for anything in a small house requires military-level planning.  It is impossible for everyone to “pull it together” at the last minute when everything that everyone needs is located in one very small place.  The timing of showers has to be coordinated and supplies have to be distributed so that various tasks can be completed wherever a mirror can be found.  Extra time has to be factored in if the ladies are washing their hair or shaving their legs.  And inevitably someone will actually need to use the toilet somewhere along the line, which can completely derail the entire schedule.

In a small house, if you don’t plan ahead, you may be going to school without brushing your teeth.  Or going to work with wet hair.  Or showing up with your friends only to find that your brother’s friends have already claimed the living room.  Or trying to study while everyone else is enjoying dessert with guests and loudly reminiscing at the dinner table.  Or bringing a date over when your family is being completely embarrassing and there is nowhere to escape in the house.

Kids with big houses will never understand the strategic planning that takes place in small homes.

4. Most of what you think you need, you don’t need.

Now that I have a home of my own, I am AMAZED that two teenagers and two adults lived in my parents’ teeny house and never really “felt” how small it was.  I chalk this up to my mother’s skills and wisdom in managing our household.

My mom shopped from a list of what we needed, and I don’t remember ever buying much extra. If she didn’t have an immediate need for something AND know exactly where she could store it, she didn’t buy it. I can remember my mom declining invitations to go shopping, and this baffled me because shopping seemed fun. She said, “If I’m not going to buy anything, then why would I go there?” She didn’t get sucked into “window shopping” because “window shopping” usually becomes “actual shopping.” And I still fall for this ALL. THE. TIME.

I spend impulsively sometimes.  I buy things I don’t need sometimes.  I buy things that I can’t use now but hope to use later sometimes.  I can do this because I have a little extra room to store things, but extra space can encourage excess spending.  Small-house people can’t just buy more things.  They truly understand the difference between a need and a want.  They also know that buying one thing will probably require them to get rid of something else, and that trade-off often isn’t worth it.  The value of the things that they choose to save is very clear, and there is no need for extra gadgets when another simple tool will do the trick.

My mom also kept our house very tidy.  Although she treasures family heirlooms, she has always been able to “clean out” without getting too hung up on emotional connections to objects.  In a small house, there is just no space for clutter.  Everything has a place, and when things are out of place in a small home, you literally have to move them or step over them all the time.  You can’t stuff them in a closet or in the basement or in the “guest room.”  When you live in a small home, you learn to recognize the true value of the things that you have, to buy only what you need, and to respect your space by putting things away.

5. Get over it.

In a big house, people can hide from one another.  They can remain angry or sad or frustrated for a long time without really dealing with the problem at hand.  In a small house, you can’t do that.  You are going to be sitting directly across from the person who hurt your feelings at some point later that day.  There is really no place else for the two of you to go.

You are going to need that person to let you use the bathroom because there is only one.  You are going to eat at the same table because there is only one place to eat.  You are going to watch television together because your bedroom is boring and all of the entertainment is in one room.  You have to have hard conversations or your own life will be miserable.  You have to get over things and move on.

That’s not a bad life skill to learn.

I’m not saying that kids who grow up in big houses won’t learn these life lessons in other ways, but I do wonder if they will learn them the hard way, from people who don’t love them as much when they leave the safe boundaries of home.  And if they don’t learn to be humble, to compromise, to share openly, to manage their time and their space and their money, and to resolve conflicts as a natural part of sharing a home, I wonder how we should be fostering these skills and if a deficiency in them might impact their relationships and experiences in the future.

My mom was never one to listen to the radio much.  She had her Barry Manilow albums that we listened to instead.  But I remember that she loved the lyrics to Doug Stone’s song:

But you know, love grows best in little houses,
With fewer walls to separate,
Where you eat and sleep so close together.
You can’t help but communicate,
Oh, and if we had more room between us, think of all we’d miss.
Love grows best, in houses just like this.

In reality, the most consequential lessons we learn are often from the little things – the close-up, intimate interactions with people that force us to change who we are, decide what we value, and reflect on how we respond to others.  Maybe more walls and more bathrooms and more TVs and more staircases are making our job as parents more difficult, forcing us to be more intentional about promoting certain values and skills.  I don’t know.  But I do know that tonight I will take a long, hot shower with no one banging on the door.  And, because of my childhood, I will appreciate every minute of it.

 

 

Doug Stone. “Little Houses.” Greatest Hits, Vol. 1, Sony Legacy, 1994