Monday, March 24, 2014

On Friends and Missed Opportunities

This last week has been kind of tough. My friend and neighbor Candace passed away unexpectedly at the age of 66. She was a kind woman who spent her life in service as a nurse. She was married to the same man (my friend Peter) for 41 years and she has two grown children. Both men are good people and I consider myself fortunate to have met them.

When Steve and I first moved in Candace and Peter went out of their way to make us feel welcome in the neighborhood. We were invited to family birthday parties, they made and brought over pizza, and when I was very sick in 2008, they checked in on my in-laws who were watching our kids at the time. They were just as neighborly with them as they were with Steve and I.

Candace was found on her bedroom floor, a victim to a massive heart attack. The last things she had done before passing from this life were to care for her husband. She had ironed his shirts and cleaned the bathroom they used. This was after a day spent with her beloved husband, lunching and laughing. Peter told me they had gone together to have a Chinese food buffet and then come home.

I hope that when it is my time to go, I will have been as giving a person as she was. Candace made sure her boys had what they needed growing up and from all accounts she was just as giving with her friends. At her eulogy today one of her friends recounted about how she visited a friend in the hospital who had a hip replacement she was not satisfied with the traction set up that they had and went about fixing it to ensure this friend healed properly. That was just who she was. She wanted to be sure that those she loved and cared about had what they needed.

I am still in shock that she is gone. It will take a while for me to adjust and I hope that I can be a good friend to my neighbor Peter as he grieves the loss of his wife.

In the same week that this happened, a friend of ours, Steve, had a pons stroke (see for a description of a pons stroke). There was a period of time that he could not speak, see or move. What is so shocking about this is that he is just 41. This young father of four children suddenly had his life stop in its tracks. Thank God he is recovering now, but his family needs him and came dangerously close to losing a good man.

His wife Michelle was incredible through everything her family endured. She kept positive for her children and made sure that they were surrounded by loving people while there was such uncertainty about the fate of their father. Would I have the grace under pressure that she does? I don’t know. I hope that if and when it ever becomes necessary I can answer yes.

What I find myself thinking about after the two tragedies this week is relationships. How relationships need nurturing and care to flourish. How easy it can get to rely on others’ understanding of your busy schedule and how in the blink of an eye you can lose any opportunity to let them know how truly special they were to you.

If it sounds like I feel guilty it’s because I do. With both of these relationships Candace and Peter as well as Steve and Michelle I find myself thinking about how time can run out for me to show them how much respect I have for them. I’m left speechless when something like this happens because I haven’t spent time with them to let them know. Thankfully I still have time to express to Steve and Michelle how much their friendship means because he is still with us, but you know what I mean.

I suffer from social awkwardness. I get in a room with someone who is not a family member (and sometimes with family members too) and I don’t know what to do with myself. I find myself worrying if I said the right thing. I worry that I said too much or too little. I never realized this until recently but I avoid social situations sometimes because I am so worried that I will not handle it right.

The cost of this avoidance? I think I miss opportunities to develop relationships to a deeper level than they are. When I am faced with a situation where I need to interact with people I focus too much on what I should say. I want them to know I care and I make it more complicated than it needs to be to show them that care and concern I feel.

What shows you that someone cares about you? Is it a kind word? Their willingness to go out of their way for you? Their follow through on things they have promised? Does the amount of companionship matter to you or do you think that it’s more about the quality of the companionship when you have it?

I’d love to know what it takes to be a friend in your book. Please, comment below if you can take a moment to do so. In the meantime, I have a call to make to a friend. I think we need to go for coffee and just “hang out.”

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

What Did I Just Do?

Ok, so I’m panicking. I quit my job so I can write full time and I am freaking out. Mostly because our finances are taking a hit for this move. There are two sides to the freak-out session. First, I keep thinking, “What did you just do? You had a decent job that paid half-way decent money and you just ditched it. Are you crazy?” If I let myself follow this track for too long I become more and more crazy. I start thinking about begging for my old job or maybe working at McDonald’s. I start worrying about taking care of the kids. I begin to get teary-eyed and start feeling like I was being tremendously selfish for quitting like I have. I mean, how are we going to take care of things? Steve has a great job. His check covers what we need. I just worry about giving the kids what we WANT to give them. How are we going to send them to camp? How are we going to pay for college, how are we going to take care of the myriad number of little nickel-and-dime-type things that raising kids involves? I mean, there is karate, there are music lessons, there’s baseball, there are field trips, museum passes and the like. WHAT DID I DO? WAS THIS THE MOST SELFISH MOVE I HAVE EVER MADE?

This leads me to thinking about how this is such a first-world problem. There are many people who struggle to find jobs to put food on the table. They give up time with their families to provide what is needed for those very families. Their children don’t get to spend time with them, except for the briefest of moments saying goodbye in the morning and goodnight at night (and that’s only including those that work first shift). How many latch-key kids are there out there because both their parents work to provide them with clothing, food and shelter? I was lucky to have the job I had. It allowed me to (for the most part) see my family and also help them to achieve their dreams. Steve and I have been fortunate to be able to provide experiences and activities for our children that supplement their day-to-day experiences of school and home.

The second part of my “freak-out session,” involves my confidence. I wonder what I was thinking when I quit to write. I could have written part time, couldn’t I? Why did I quit to write? Do I really think I can become the next Stephen King? If I do, perhaps I should have remembered that good ole’ Steve King held down several jobs during the course of pursuing his chosen career. He taught and he worked in a laundromat just to name two. Why did I need to quit again? I haven’t done any writing for pay since my days in college. True I loved it, but it has been a while…like 23 years or so. I’m also not all that confident about some of the nuts-and-bolts of writing. My content can be pretty okay, but knowing the style, punctuation and grammar rules is not always my strong suit. Shouldn’t a writer be good at that stuff? Shouldn’t I be an expert in that in fact?

Then I take a breath and try to remember that this move was never about the money. We knew that there would be a proverbial tightening of the belt involved. We knew that my quitting was going to involve some adjustments. So I guess that part of the adjustments we are making is to think about work in a different way. Maybe work isn’t only what is paid for? Maybe work is the passion that we pursue throughout our lifetime. Maybe if we can create something of value from nothing that is important work too.
I feel like I have something to share with those who will listen. Maybe something I say will resonate with you. Maybe it’s about my son Thomas. Maybe it’s about marriage and family. Maybe it’s about what it takes to pursue an authentic life. I don’t know. I just know that I have to try this path out and see what comes. I keep hearing how the children in a family can’t truly be happy unless they know their parents are happy. I wasn’t happy not writing.

Some would say that to pursue a career path, particularly a NEW career path, they have to jump wholeheartedly into it. So perhaps immersing myself in writing and everything to do with it will lead me to my next opportunity. Maybe I can develop a presence in my writing that others can relate to. I hope that you can see a little of your own struggle in what I am doing. I hope that you can relate, even if only a little.

At any rate, I took the plunge. I left a job that was not fulfilling me. I picked a direction. Now that I’ve picked my direction, I’m going to run with it. Want to put your sneakers on and run with me?

Monday, March 10, 2014

In Awe of My Children

With the snow spitting outside my window, I sit down to write today’s blog post and think, “What do I write about today?” What can I possibly have to say that is worth saying on a day like today? I could write about the weather. I mean, the winter is hopefully drawing to a close but here in New England you couldn’t really tell. Just a couple more weeks and it will be officially Spring, yet outside my window I see flurries spitting down from the sky like an insult. But are people going to want to read about the weather? I suppose it shouldn’t matter what people want to read. I should write about something that moves me. So what moves me these days? My kids move me.

My lovely daughter Allison recently got her braces off. Her smile is beautiful. Not that it wasn’t before, I mean, let’s face it folks, my daughter is a cute kid. I’m not just saying this because I am her mother either. Objectively, she is cute. She has very pretty curly hair. We argue about its color – she says it’s brown and I say it’s strawberry blonde. She might be right but I still think it’s strawberry blonde. Her skin is like porcelain – smooth, pale and soft. She hates how she burns so easily…I mean it only takes 45 minutes in the sun even with sunblock protection and she is crispy. I however, love how milky-white her skin is. She has just a hint of freckles and a touch of pink, indicating how healthy she is.

I love seeing her smile or laugh. Her whole face lights up and she engages all of her face in the act of smiling. Her eyes sparkle and become wider and her eyebrows arch. When she is laughing she is truly beautiful. And now that the “jewelry” is off her teeth, she looks even better. She is trying to get used to her retainers and hates how they make her mouth feel. She has a slight lisp right now and it’s interfering with her attempts to learn French. I however, think it is pretty darned cute. There is some soreness, but so far that has been bearable for her.
Allison has a wide range of interests that make talking with her both a challenging and thought-provoking. She reads all the time. She knows about so many different things. She likes science, debating, technology, vegetarianism, politics, dogs, cats and music. She is thoughtful about the topics of conversation she has and what she chooses to contribute to them. She is a woman of few words. She makes the words that she uses matter. The vocabulary this girl has makes my mind spin! She is so bright.

So that is Allison. My middle child Christopher, is a charmer. He is cocky, confident, and adorable in my humble opinion. He has hair that is a straight as you can get it. Not one curl. His eyes are blue, like his older sister’s, and the color of his hair is similar to his sister’s as well. But his looks aren’t the most interesting thing about him. Christopher is a funny guy who has loads of confidence. He is tough, fair-minded and athletic. Watching him run while he is playing baseball or just around the yard while he plays with his cousins brings me such joy. I know it might sound odd that his running would bring me joy, but to see him move is to see one of God’s most coordinated creatures move.

We played Pickle yesterday. The whole family did. It was such fun. We so rarely have the time to just play games with our kids like this but yesterday the weather cooperated and we had a blast. For me, some of the best fun was seeing how agile Christopher truly is. He has long, coltish legs that seem to carry him like he is floating through the air. To see him move is to truly see poetry in motion. He’s not afraid either. He commits to his moves thoroughly and never seems to worry about getting hurt, which is probably why he so rarely DOES get hurt. I mean, how many times have you hesitated on something only to regret the hesitation later? I wound up face down in a brook one time while hiking with a fifty-pound pack because I hesitated about jumping on a rock while crossing the brook. Christopher seems to possess none of that hesitation. He commits fully and if he gets a little banged up in the process, he’s okay with that.

Finally, there’s Daniel. Daniel is a sweet, adorable, friendly, creative guy. With lots of curly hair and blue eyes he is a stunner. Again, not to focus on the physical aspects of my kids, Daniel is sensitive and affectionate. He is my artist. He loves to cuddle, draw, paint, and read.

Recently Daniel did some public speaking “for fun.” I had to laugh that he thought that this was fun because public speaking is one of the biggest fears most people have. But not my Daniel. He got up in front of his audience (a group of parents there to see their children participate in 4H Visual Presentation Day) and spoke like a pro. He was very much at ease and knew his material very well (Minecraft – not a hard topic for an eight year old to engage his audience with). He and I had worked together on the visual part of his visual presentation – a 3-panelled foam board display illustrating the various “Minecraft Mobs” and I was so impressed with him. Working together is not really that accurate a comment as he did all the work and all I really did was to make suggestions. He was so confident and comfortable with what he wanted to present that he was able to take suggestions for improvement in stride and he managed the whole project so well. I think it was due to his familiarity with the subject, but for an eight year old to have the poise and grace he did about presenting is very impressive to my way of thinking.

Okay, so enough of the love-fest for my kids. By now you are probably tired of hearing this mother go on and on about how terrific her own kids are. I mean, after all, aren’t ALL kids impressive? In their own way, yes, all kids are impressive. Watch any of them for a period of time and you will marvel at how they grow, learn and change. That is part of what I am doing here as I sing the virtues of my progeny. But more than that I truly LIKE my children. I find them to be interesting, engaging, funny and intelligent beings in their own right. Marvelling in their awesome-ness just seems natural to me. Doesn’t it seem so to you?

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Do What You're Told...Or Not. That is the Question

So, having a highly intelligent daughter is proving to be challenging. Particularly since, like me, she has a bit of a rebellious streak in her. We have raised her to feel questioning authority is not a bad thing. Thing is, sometimes, she questions us and we need her to not do that sometimes. Like when I'm trying to emphasize with my eight year old that he needs to do his homework the way the teacher says to do it. The conversation went like this:

Me: Daniel, you scribbled on your reading log. You need to color each day in individually, not scribble across the whole thing.

Daniel: OK Mom, I'll fix it.

Allison: Why? What does it matter? I mean, if he gets the whole assignment done, who cares how he gets it done?

Me: Allison, now is not the time. Daniel needs to do what the teacher tells him to do.

Allison: But why? He needs to learn to use his mind to investigate things and he can't do that if he just follows the rules. If he blindly follows the rules, he'll never understand what he is doing or why he does it.

Me: Part of what he is learning right now is to follow directions. At eight years old that is an important thing to learn. Once he learns to follow them, then he can learn to explore the whys of things.

Allison: Shouldn't he learn while he is doing something? I mean, what's the point of filling in the reading log? I mean, he read, and that's all that really matters.

Me: No, it matters that he learn to follow the directions that he is given. Part of his assignment is to fill in the reading log. It doesn't help that you are encouraging him not to do his work.

Allison: I'm not encouraging him not to do his work. I just don't see why it has to be done that way.

Me: Because that is the way he was told to do it by his teacher.

Allison: So?

Me: So his teacher gave him an assignment and part of the learning process for a boy who is eight is to learn to do what the teacher is telling him to do.

Daniel: Allison, I...

Allison: Daniel, I am having a conversation with Mom. You don't need to add in.

Me: Hold on. The conversation is about him. I think he can add his two cents if he wants. What is it Daniel?

Daniel: I'm going to do what the teacher says to do because that's what I'm supposed to do. I want to do what she says so I am going to.

Allison: Daniel, I'm talking to Mom right now about this. (To Me): Why can't he do it in his own way?

Me: Let's use karate as an example Allison. If you didn't learn each combination the way you were taught it, would you be good at karate?

Allison: No. But that's different, it's physical

Me: No, it isn't different. It's the same. If you want to get good at something you have to learn the basics first, and then move on to variations after you get good at the basics.

...and so it goes. It sounds like I handled the conversation pretty well, doesn't it? The thing is, there are parts of the discussion that I don't remember. What I remember is feeling like Allison was very adeptly building her case for not following directions. I felt my points were not well thought out and that she had a strong point. Why exactly, do we have to follow directions? Why can't we figure out the answers to things in our own way? Why can't we muddle through with our own unique brand of muddling until we arrive at a satisfactory answer? As long as our thought process is clear and we do the assignment, why can't we do things in our signature style of thinking? Won't we better understand them if we follow a logic that we understand?

That sounds wonderful until we are operating with flawed logic. It is up to our parents, mentors, teachers, and various other "experts" to teach us how to use clear logic. Teaching clear logic to my 14 year old is challenging, intellectually stimulating, and I want to be fully engaged in the conversation, but I am also painfully aware that my eight year old is listening to every word I say. What does it really matter to my 14 year old if I win or lose this debate? My eight year old, on the other hand, has everything to lose if he develops poor study habits at the beginning of his academic career because he thinks it doesn't matter if he does what the teacher tells him to do?

The other question I have, to confuse the issue even further, is what am I teaching my 14 year old about using her head if at bottom I am just telling her that she needs to do something a teacher or other person told her basically because she was told to? I have worked most of her life to teach her to think for herself. Am I really telling her to do what she's told without questioning? My short answer to that is no. I am not teaching her to just do what she's told without question. What I AM trying to teach her is to use her judgement wisely about breaking the rules. Sometimes its worth it and sometimes it isn't.

What I wound up telling my daughter (and my son if he was still listening) was that sometimes you follow the rules because the one with the power to give you what you want says so. If, for instance, Daniel would like a good grade on his homework assignment, he will follow his teacher's instructions and color in each day on his chart separately as he was told. If the grade doesn't matter, then he will do things his own way. My hope is that the grade matters to him and he will do the assignment correctly. The benefits (parental approval of choice, learning material more thoroughly, teacher approval, development of study habits, good grades)outweigh the disadvantages (parental disapproval of choice, bad grade, teacher's disapproval, not learning material as thoroughly as possible, not learning to follow instructions).

So what do you think? Am I giving my children good life skills by instructing them to use judgement about when to break the rules or am I teaching them to be conformists? I guess only time and maturity will tell.