Just a Minute

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“You marked the minutes,” the old man said. “But did you use them wisely? To be still? To be grateful? To lift and be lifted?” —The Timekeeper by Mitch Albom

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Recently my day began at 4:48 in the morning, at which time a four-year-old climbed into my bed with his ant farm, usurped my pillow, and cheerfully sang “Five Little Snowmen Fat. Every verse. I marked the minutes—all 72 of them until it was officially time to get up. I’m sorry, but it was 4:48—4:48 in the morning (or have I mentioned that?)—and that is too early to start the day. (Similarly, “all day” is too long to have “Five Little Snowmen Fat” stuck in one’s head.)

. . . . .

This past weekend my parents offered to host Sonny and Ace overnight. Looking forward to the break, on the designated morning I marked the minutes until J and I dropped them off. And as soon as we did, I marked the minutes until they returned. (Funny how that works, isn’t it?)

. . . . .

We often have trouble getting out the door. It’s time to leave, or it was time to leave seven minutes ago, and there we are, stalled in the mud room. One child can’t find his left shoe. The other can find both of his but wants to see if he can put them on using only one hand. (He can’t, as it turns out.) I mark the minutes, because we are going to be late. And when we finally get into the van, I realize I have forgotten something and must go back inside to get it. More minutes marked.

. . . . .

This historic polar vortex has put us under house arrest this winter. Repeatedly, as though we were repeat offenders of . . . something. Not sure what. The shine of snow days has worn off, and we are cold, and we are all marking the minutes until spring. Shoo, winter, shoo.

. . . . .

I signed up for the Festival of Faith and Writing this year. I can hardly wait, and yes, I’m marking the minutes until it’s time. And when it’s finally Festival time, I will mark the minutes carefully to squeeze every possible drop from the schedule.

. . . . .

Marking the minutes: check. No problem.

But using minutes to be still, to be grateful, to lift and be lifted?  Too often a problem, at least for me.

It’s easy to come up with theories on how to do these things. Successfully practicing these theories, though, is a little different. That takes effort and spending minutes.

I could list the things that help me to be still, to be grateful, to lift and be lifted, but your list is probably different than mine. So.

What helps you be still?

For what are you grateful?

Whom can you lift, and how?

How can you allow yourself to be lifted?

Those things are well worth our minutes. Let’s do them.

Post-Valentine’s Day Love

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“When God gave me to you, did he say, ‘Will you love him?’”—Sonny, at age 3

Valentine’s Day, that holiday marked by special gestures such as flowers, candy, cards, dinners out, is over. Valentine’s Day, that holiday unobserved—even scorned—by many (and they have their reasons), will not roll around for another 363 days.

Any day that celebrates love—be it romantic love or love for children, siblings, parents, friends—is worthwhile. Who can argue with love? Who can argue with roses? Who can argue with boxes of chocolate (which are now being clearanced at your nearest pharmacy, so don’t just sit there!). But Valentine’s Day gestures doesn’t compare to showing love the rest of the year in ways unscripted by Hallmark.

For example: We love our children. We love them when they’re loveable and when they’re unloveable. When they’re drawing us pictures, when they’re snuggling to read a book, when they’re doing their chores, when they’re helping their brother, when they’re playing superheroes, when they’re singing in the bathtub. When they’re trashing the house, when they’re refusing to do their chores, when they’re tormenting their brother, when they’re enthusiastically bailing bathwater onto the floor.

But sometimes, I suspect, despite our best efforts, they might not always feel very loved. Maybe we sometimes forget to show love (or are too irritated to do so; see bathwater example), or we show it in ways that they don’t feel.

So, I asked Sonny and Ace and some of their contemporaries (via their parents) what makes them feel loved. Here is what they said:

When you lie down and rest with me.

Going out for lunch with just Daddy.

Getting hugs and kisses.

When you tell me you love me.

When you listen to me.

When you ask me what I think.

When you build things with me.

Snuggling.

Playing Candyland with me.

Notes in my lunchbox.

Laughing together.

Walking the dog with me so I don’t have to go alone.

Getting mail from Grandpa and Grandma.

When you notice I did a good job.

When people say thank you.

Much as they love Disneyland and electronics and staying up late and toys (and lots of them), none of these kids associated those things with feeling loved. They just want a little time, a little attention, a little affirmation, a little sharing of interests. A little grace. Then they will feel loved.

After all, Captain von Trapp loved his children, but they didn’t figure that out until he sang with them.

Adults are no different. Spouses, siblings, parents, grandparents, friends, neighbors—what makes them feel loved? A little time, a little attention, a little affirmation, a little sharing of interests. A little grace.

What does this look like? Depending on the recipient, maybe a phone call. Maybe a chore taken off their hands. Being listened to. A note. A visit. A sincere compliment. A favorite meal. Permission to be themselves. Praise or appreciation instead of criticism. A walk together. Going out for coffee. A hug.

See? You don’t even have to buy any roses or any chocolates (clearanced or otherwise).

So Happy Non-Valentine’s Days, all 363 of them. Don’t forget to celebrate.

Snow Days

It’s winter. It’s cold. The snowfalls are tying records set in 1936. What has this meant? Snow days. Lots of them.

Early-morning announcements thereof arrive almost simultaneously via text message, robocall, e-mail, school Facebook page, news station Web page, and, if anyone cares to take the time to watch, TV. Such was the case again a few days ago as another snow day dawned—the seventh this winter, if anyone’s counting (which, judging by Facebook comments, many people are).

The previous week was a two-day school week. On Wednesday, the third consecutive snow day, the wind chill was (still) -20° F so it was (still) too cold to play outside. Sonny and Ace had abandoned their massive blanket fort in the living room. They had painted all the pictures they cared to paint. They had practically worn out their Legos. We had already completed the Facebook-recommended snow-day activities of making snow ice cream and tossing boiling water into the frigid air to form an instant cloud.

They just wanted to go somewhere.

In a last-ditch attempt to resist the siren song of Netflix for a few more hours, I filled a large plastic bin with snow and dragged it into the basement. Look, boys! You can drive your little cars in it, you can use your little bulldozers to make snow piles, you can craft tiny snowmen! All in the house! Thank you, Pinterest! I crept upstairs in search of solitude. When I checked a few minutes later, Sonny and Ace were having a snowball fight. In the house. Why had I not seen that coming?

(On went Netflix.)

Back in ye olde days, before text messages or WiFi (or Netflix), we learned of snow days the old-fashioned way: by peering at the list of school closings inching across the bottom of our 13-inch TV. Often we’d have one eye on the TV and one eye out the window to make sure the bus wasn’t coming. Alas, sometimes the bus was in fact coming, but sometimes the TV gave up the goods, ushering in a day of freedom.

My mom would make play dough in three colors, one for each of us. My sisters and I played Monopoly—one game lasted at least three days—and assembled jigsaw puzzles. We sewed muumuus for our Barbie dolls. (What? They’re easy to sew.) We shoveled snow and made snowmen families with my dad, who would pelt snow balls at us as soon as our backs were turned.

We poured maple syrup over snow to make candy à la Mary and Laura Ingalls’ Christmas preparations. (It totally did not work.)

We cross-country skied to Grandma and Grandpa’s house. Sometimes they’d join us to ski in the woods. Or play Boggle with us. Or consume tea and cookies.

When I was in second grade my older sister and I were snowed in at our aunt and uncle’s house. We spent the next day or two roller-skating with our cousins in the basement with our new Christmas metal clamp-on skates, visiting the sickly newborn calf that my uncle had bedded down in a corner for warmth and to keep a closer eye on. We were sad when it died during the night.

Did my parents get fed up when we had an overabundance of snow days? Probably. Do I remember them grumbling? No way. Maybe they were remembering their own snow days.

My dad’s family fortuitously shared a party line with one of his schoolteachers, who lived on a nearby farm.  When the teacher’s  distinctive ring rang on snowy mornings Dad always just knew it was the principal calling her to declare a snow day. One way to find out for sure, of course: listen in. Once in his excitement he neglected to hang up before cheering. (My grandma was mortified, as listening in on a party line was to be done very discreetly.)

My mom, unblessed by any teachers who shared the party line, relied on the radio for snow-day news.  The announcer would plod through the school names, taking too-frequent breaks for commercials. This took forever, but when she heard her school’s name she could never quite believe it and stood there for another round just to make sure. Then: snow-day fun. She would sled near the barn with the neighbor kids and ice skate on old, borrowed skates. She’d play Monopoly and cards with her siblings. She and my grandma would comb through Better Homes and Gardens and McCall’s for cookie recipes and craft ideas.

Did my grandparents get fed up when their kids had too many snow days? Maybe. Did they say so? I am sure they did not.

My grandma recently told of the winter of  ’36, that winter whose records are now being tied, when she was turning 11. The snowbanks reached the telephone wires. Her family was snowbound for 30 days. “Snowbound” meant “not able to get the car to town.” No grocery store runs for them, but that was okay, because they had shelves full of canned meat and vegetables, cows full of milk, and chickens full of chicken and eggs.

So how did she spend her snow days? She didn’t have them. She and her sisters walked—well, waded—across to their country school, as did the other students and the teacher. She didn’t mind. Ever the extrovert, she was glad to go to school. “We wouldn’t have gotten out otherwise,” she said. “Except that one Sunday when my dad hitched up the sleigh and horses and we went to visit our grandparents. They lived about five miles away.” Her voice brightened at the memory. “It was so good to get out and go somewhere!”

And now it’s 78 years later. Wading across the fields and hitching up sleighs seems so quaint. As do party lines and McCall’s magazine. As do clamp-on skates.  I wonder what will seem quaint about the snow days of 2014 a generation or two from now. Netflix, maybe? Facebook announcements? Will there even be snow days, or will we have found a way to overcome them?

Enjoy this memorable winter—snow days and all.