Election Countdown: 21 Alternatives to Angst and Fury

“There are none so blind as those who will not see.” –Jonathan Swift, 1738

“There are none so blind as those who will not see that the faults of my candidate of choice pale in comparison to those of yours, and that your political party is corruption incarnate, and that a vote for your candidate is a vote for evil, and that no valid reason—not even one—exists to support your candidate.” –Facebook (et al), 2016

Twenty-one days remain until the U.S. Presidential election. Without diminishing the importance of voting or of thoughtful discourse beforehand, these are not the only avenues of change around these parts. A recent bit of well-articulated wisdom (erroneously attributed to C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters) points out that arguments, political gossip, and obsessing on the faults of people we have never met serves as an excellent distraction from advancing in personal virtue, character, and the things the patient can control.

True.

I tell my kids not to worry about other people’s faults, but let’s face it: dwelling on others’ shortcomings is much more satisfying than confronting my own. Another bit of wisdom (rightfully attributed to C. S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters), notes that we can practice self-examination for an hour without discovering any of those facts about ourselves that are perfectly clear to anyone who has ever lived in the same house with us or worked in the same office.

What does advancing in personal virtue, character, and things we can control look like? Those who have ever lived in the same house or worked in the same office with me would probably be glad to sum up what this would look like for me specifically. Maybe I’ll gather the courage to ask them sometime, but meanwhile, here are 21 ideas that would be good companions to anyone’s political positions.

Anyone care to join me in tackling some of these?

  1. Donate food to a food pantry. Here’s a list of what is most useful.
  2. Forgive someone.
  3. Let your encouraging words and compliments outweigh your criticisms.
  4. Send a gas card to someone who travels regularly to doctor’s appointments and hospital visits.
  5. Help a foster family. (Yes, they receive reimbursement rates; no, these rates do not cover the expenses they incur.) Donate your kids’ outgrown clothes to a foster-care closet; bring the family a meal; babysit; invite the kids along with your family on an outing.
  6. Pay for an extracurricular activity for a kid who cannot afford one.
  7. Describe one positive trait of someone who is not your favorite person. Maybe describe three.
  8. Contribute to an ESL class: volunteer, provide transportation, donate books, bring supper.
  9. Be kinder than usual, one situation at a time.
  10. Be more patient than usual, one situation at a time.
  11. Give up your need to be right, one situation at a time.
  12. Be gentler than necessary, one situation at a time, even when you believe you have the right to be harsh. Especially when you believe you have the right to be harsh.
  13. Identify someone who does more than his or her share. Do something nice anonymously for that person.
  14. Write a note of appreciation to someone who is often taken for granted.
  15. Squelch gossip. Don’t start it, and don’t pass it on. Be slow to believe it. Challenge it when you hear it.
  16. Ponder a promise you’ve not yet kept. Fulfill that promise.
  17. If there’s something (recent or otherwise) for which you should apologize, do so.
  18. Rid yourself of sarcasm. (Sarcasm comes from the Greek word sarkazein, which literally means “to tear flesh like a dog.” Ouch.)
  19. Grant children the same basic dignity and respect that you grant adults.
  20. Give practical help to a single mother who chose to give birth despite challenges.
  21. Make a list of everyone who has helped you tug yourself up by your bootstraps. Include those who taught you what you have come to consider to be common knowledge and skills. Be thankful for these people. Tell them you are thankful.

Vote? Absolutely. Discuss the candidates and election process? Of course. But don’t limit yourself to those things.

“The life I touch for good or ill will touch another life, and in turn another, until who knows where the trembling stops or in what far place my touch will be felt.”  Frederick Buechner

What would you add to this list?

 

 

 

 

 

What Teachers Teach, Measured or Not

Sonny and Ace’s school is wrapping up the latest round of standardized testing for this academic year. Sonny and Ace aren’t old enough yet to worry about the process or their results. Sonny rather enjoyed the testing, in fact—or rather, he enjoyed his class’s pre-testing “brain breakfasts” to fuel minds (and tummies) for clear thinking. He also looked forward to the occasional appearance on the screen of the wagging cartoon dog that said, “Good job!” Ace didn’t mind the tests, either, once assured that testing time would not conflict with gym class. He mainly looked forward to wearing the big headphones.

These tests measured their mastery of math and reading, both obviously crucial to educational success. They are assumed to reflect a teacher’s effectiveness. But while they may reveal some truth about a teacher’s influence, they do not tell the whole truth.

_ _ _

I stared at the lopsided circle of blue crayon around the whale picture on the worksheet. The class had been instructed to circle the things that started with K. Oops. I made my way to new kindergarten teacher, wondering how she would respond to someone who failed to follow directions. “I made a mistake,” I confessed, pointing out the whale. She waved away my concern. “That’s okay!” she said, smiling.

My kindergarten teacher taught me that it’s okay to make mistakes.

A classmate held up his hands, which were smudged with brilliant, deep blues and pinks and greens. “This chalk is messy! It’s even on my shirt!” He looked expectantly at our neat, orderly teacher, obviously hoping to be liberated from the art project. Our neat, orderly teacher cast him a sympathetic smile. “Doing art is messy sometimes,” she explained. “We just enjoy it and clean up afterward.”

My first-grade teacher taught me that the lack of neatness and order in creative endeavors is not a shortcoming.

“She is very strict,” an older girl warned me toward the end of the summer. I envisioned a year in a classroom run by a drill sergeant. Fantastic.

A few weeks later, I slumped down at my desk, having sneezed and coughed my way through the day, hating the story about locomotives that we were reading aloud. When the story (finally!) ended, the teacher approached my desk and knelt beside me. I looked at her warily, certain that I was about to be told to sit up straight or throw away my pile of used Kleenex. “You don’t feel good today, do you?” she asked. “How about I ask your grandma [the school secretary] to drive you home so you won’t have to ride the bus?” And she did.

My second-grade teacher taught me that people often transcend their reputations.

“Here we come!” “Where from?” “New Orleans!” “What’s your trade?” “Lemonade . . .”

When it was her turn for recess duty, kids from every grade flocked to her to play “New Orleans” and other games from her endless supply. We loved her turns for recess duty, when nobody felt unwelcome on the playground. We loved being in her classroom. She was gentle, creative, fair, and relentlessly patient. She was fun. She never rushed. Did she ever raise her voice or even convey irritation, even to repeat offenders? I don’t think so.

My third-grade teacher taught me that kindness and patience effect genuine respect in a way that harshness never can.

Every Friday morning my fourth-grade classroom rocked with the singing of old songs, enthusiastic piano accompaniment courtesy of the teacher. This same teacher often entertained us with stories about his childhood on a farm with his many siblings; he didn’t have to spell out how much he cherished it these memories—his face told us that. At a time when end-of-the-year class picnics were being replaced with skating parties, he invited our class to ride bikes from school to his house in the country, where we enjoyed an old-fashioned picnic, complete with sack races and swimming in the creek. On that afternoon we were as carefree as any kid from a previous generation would have been.

My fourth-grade teacher taught me the power of well-placed nostalgia.

It happens every autumn the morning after the first hard freeze: I step outside and am visited by poetry: “When the frost is on the punkin’ and the fodder’s in the shock . . .” Poppies incite a similar phenomenon—“In Flanders fields, the poppies blow . . .”—as does any mention of Abraham Lincoln’s death: “O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done . . .” In fifth-grade we memorized this poetry, despite memorization’s falling out of fashion in educational circles.

My fifth-grade teacher taught me the beauty and inspiration of poetry and its power to make connections. He taught me to ignore the claim that memorization is a meaningless parlor trick devoid of real value.

My sixth-grade teacher was a man of high academic standards and stern repute. He marched us through a long list of Newbery books—the more serious ones, such as Adam of the Road and The Trumpeter of Krakow—and tested us after each one. If the B was too creatively formed on the word abjurer, he would mark the correctly-spelled word wrong on the spelling test, claiming that letter wasn’t a real B. (Ask me how I know this.) He liberally doled out “lines” to wayward students, and don’t think that such students would be lucky enough to escape with, for example, writing “I will not be disrespectful” 50 times. Instead he would write on the board for the guilty party to copy—and the rest of us to gawk at—a “line” along the lines of “I will cease and desist my display of abominable attitude post haste and endeavor to maintain impeccable behavior forthwith as becoming my position as a student who is striving to mature and to increase in decorum.” The culprit would turn pale, the rest of us would vow never to risk being assigned such an atrocity, and we’d all learn new vocabulary. Win, win, win! (For him.)

But after lunch he would read aloud the more hilarious Newberys such as Porko Van Popbutton and other purely entertaining books, such as those featuring Soup and Rob. When we’d howl over Soup’s joke about peeing, he’d laugh along with us.

My sixth-grade teacher taught me that even those with serious academic standards need not eschew lighthearted fare.

 – – –

Whether standardized tests are an accurate measure of educational quality, whether they are fair across socio-economic lines, and whether they reflect the effectiveness of teachers—who knows. What I do know is this: even the best tests, standardized or otherwise, do not fully measure a teacher’s worth.

They do not measure how Sonny’s teacher, Mrs. K., is detail-oriented and highly organized while remaining calm and flexible. They do not measure the personalized notes she regularly writes to students praising their accomplishments and efforts—notes that at least one of her students saves in his desk drawer at home. They do not measure how she captures students’ attention by singing instructions to them, her unruffled classroom management, or the affection with which she greets students each morning and bids them farewell in the afternoon, often praising them for a specific job well done that day. They do not measure her thoughtfulness and foresight in arranging for brain breakfasts before standardized testing.

They do not measure how on the first day of school when Ace panicked at my leaving him, Mrs. C. distracted him with a conversation about frogs, recalling from his getting-to-know-me letter that he loves frogs. They do not measure how she allowed him call me from the classroom when he lost his first tooth. They do not measure her high expectations for behavior or the students’ rising to those expectations. They do not measure the bird calls she has taught students to identify. They do not measure how she launches each morning with a positive spin by inviting students to share their latest good news. They do not measure her tricks for helping young children learn to pronounce TH properly instead of as an F sound, nor do they measure a five-year-old student’s elation over wearing her insect-vision goggles during the Insect unit so that he could better pretend to be a bumblebee.

The tests  measure math and reading, unarguably important, but they do not measure everything. No test can accurately measure the scope of a teacher’s effectiveness. And that’s okay, as long as nobody pretends that it can.

“Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”  — Albert Einstein

Teachers, math and reading count. But so do these other things—immensely. They matter, and they last. For all you teach, thank you.

There’s No “If” in Thanksgiving

A couple years ago at bedtime I asked Sonny and Ace our customary question: “What would you like to tell God you’re thankful for tonight?” Ace, then three years old, spoke up promptly: “Well. If you would buy me skates, I could tell God I’m thankful for those.”

Later, I laughed with J as we shook our heads. Such naïve bluntness! All those toys, and he wanted more! He was only one pair of skates away from happiness. Leave it to a three-year-old, right?

Or not. Despite my laughter I recognized that Ace’s “hint” reflected my own habits: of sidestepping thanks in deference to longing for something else. Of believing that one elusive missing piece would seal my contentment. Of allowing my desire for just one more thing to loom larger than the recognition of what I already have.

I would be thankful if I could avoid interruptions.

I would be thankful if my kids made a habit of behaving in ways that made me look like a competent mother. Oh, and if they would stop arguing. And stop bellowing.

I would be thankful if everyone followed my plans. They’re such sensible plans, after all!

I would be thankful if my kids didn’t have sore throats.

I would be thankful if I were not perpetually behind on the laundry.

I would be thankful if everyone around me could just relax. Then I could relax, too. (Everyone else needs to go first, though.)

I would be thankful if I heard more positive statements than negative ones. Then I could be more positive, too. (Everyone else needs to go first, though.)

And so on.

Sometimes these ifs come to fruition, and sometimes I am fleetingly thankful, but more often I quickly accept these gifts as my due. It’s easy to acclimate to what one has, after all. Also, as Sonny gently explained recently (in a context that I no longer recall), “Mom. You know, you do forget things.”

Bless his forthright little heart. He’s right. I forget things, not the least of which is to be thankful.

I forget that those close calls could easily have gone other ways—tragic, unthinkable ways.

And that most of the time, the people who interrupt me are the ones whom I love the most and that any time with them is worthwhile.

And that having too much laundry means that we have more clothes than we need.

And that most of my problems are also of the first-world variety.

And that my fighting, bellowing kids are also funny, loving, loyal, helpful, good-hearted kids.

And that many parents long to exchange their kids’ diagnoses for one as mundane as a sore throat.

And that it shouldn’t take someone else’s tragedy to stun me into gratitude for what I have.

I forget that there’s no “if” in thanksgiving.

O Lord, that lends me life, lend me a heart replete with thankfulness.”-  William Shakespeare, Henry VI

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

 

Ten Things I Learned from My Dad

Have you ever shopped for a Father’s Day card? Too many of them rely heavily on bathroom humor or remote-control jokes. Or incompetently executed home repairs. Or the assumption that dads are the biggest doofuses ever.

None of these work well for my dad—or more dads, I suspect. (Can someone please clue in the greeting card companies?) I’ve learned many things from my dad, none of them related to bathroom humor or swearing on the golf course. Here are ten of them, in no particular order.

1. Just because other people have one doesn’t mean you need one. For several years our house was devoid of a television set. Any suggestion to rectify this situation was met with “And why would we need one of those?” In high school, my sisters and I didn’t have our own car. (Because, why would we need one of those?) And so on. We must have survived these deprivations, because here we are.

2. Whatever you own owns you. Why gather stuff when you’ll just end up catering to it? Temptations to accumulate things notwithstanding, this is the bare truth. With this in mind, sometimes I envy the Ingalls family despite their having to haul their own water, contend with Nellie Oleson, and keep one eye out for panthers and wolves at all times. Everything they owned fit inside a covered wagon. Freedom!

3. One secret to happiness is recognizing what is and what is not your problem. I could expect this advice when fretting about a situation that didn’t concern me. The mean girl mocking me? My problem. My sister’s chores? Not my problem. I still check in with this truth occasionally. Turns out a lot of things are not my problem, and I am happier when I keep this in mind.

4. Don’t noise up the place for no good reason. My dad would often each over to turn off the radio (despite having probably selected the station himself), saying, “This music is not an improvement on silence.” Nothing wrong with stillness; no need for mediocre background noise. Just appreciate the quiet already.

5. Work and play. My bedroom window overlooked the back patio; I remember waking up on snowy mornings and looking out the window to check for his footprints to determine whether he’d been called to the hospital before dawn, for he worked at all hours of the day and night. Other childhood memories include him chopping wood, gathering maple sap, shoveling snow, picking corn with my mom (and gleefully piling it in front of the designated huskers, aka his daughters). They also include him attending concerts with my mom, enjoying afternoons the beach, building snowmen, playing chess, driving the family on road trips, walking in the woods, cross-country skiing, picking up our friends to take us all out for ice cream, hanging out at a cottage for a week. He works, he plays—he has found the balance.

6. People aren’t watching you as closely as you think. My dad once told me this once when I was in the throes of adolescent angst about . . . well, something. I’ve long forgotten the (probably trivial) situation, but I just knew everyone was jeering at me. Turns out, he implied, that probably nobody had noticed, and those who had probably weren’t even thinking about it. This was a gentle way of telling me to get over myself, a crucial step in overcoming self-consciousness—especially the misplaced variety.

7. Be there for your family. He does this and always has, in many different ways. He and my mom once came home from vacation a day early in order to see me in my school play. When I was sick and J was traveling out of state, he drove over 70 miles to hold newborn Sonny for a couple hours so I could take a nap. When his parents were in declining health he traveled regularly across three states to check in. Later he moved his nonagenarian father to across those three states to a residence a few miles away so that he could care for him. You get the idea. So did I, early on.

8. You can’t have too much garlic. Although my mom has always been the family cook, whenever the menu featured spaghetti or lasagna my dad would prepare the garlic toast. Heaps of it, heaped with buttery garlic. He’d smuggle garlic into the scrambled eggs and once, I suspected, over the popcorn. Whenever anyone would object, he’d simply reply, “You can’t have too much garlic.” He loves garlic.

Not being quite the garlic fan that he is, I’ve taken the liberty of extrapolating on this idea: “If you enjoy it and it’s not harmful, indulge to your heart’s content.” Dark chocolate, for example. You can’t have too much of that.

(Turns out that garlic has been declared a superfood. So has dark chocolate. I guess we were both on to something.)

9. Be a jokester once in a while. One April Fool’s Day I woke up in my sister’s room and she in mine, having been the victims of a midnight switcheroo. Occasionally—rarely enough to catch me off-guard, but occasionally—I’d find myself sprayed with the hose while minding my own business in the yard. And only a couple years ago I was baffled by an egg that refused to crack. Turns out he’d smuggled a ceramic egg into my egg carton while visiting one day, even though he knew he wouldn’t be on-site to witness my confusion when I’d try to break it open. Want to hear him laugh? Ask him about the egg.

10. It’s okay to be the minority in one’s own house. “Oh, your poor dad,” some folks would say with various degrees of jest upon learning that he had three daughters but no sons. And he would occasionally lament about being outnumbered—usually when my sisters and I were hosting sleepovers, or when his favorite reading chair was occupied by Barbie paraphernalia, or when the kitchen reeked of three Ogilvie home perms. But what I remember most clearly is the time he told my sisters and me that he was glad to just have daughters.

As the mother of sons, I have been offered sympathy and encouraged to have another child to give myself a chance of having a daughter. But you know what? I’m thrilled with having sons, content with being outnumbered. And just so Sonny and Ace are clear on this, I follow my dad’s example and tell them that I am glad that God gave me boys.

And, I am glad that God gave me the parents that he did.

Happy Father’s Day, Dad. I love you.

Ten Things I Learned from My Mom

It’s Mother’s Day, that day when we officially focus on doing what we should do every day of the year—express gratitude for our mothers. And while I don’t say so nearly often enough, I am grateful for my mom. She’s taught me many things, some of which are spelled out below.

Of course this list could go on well beyond ten points; sorting out which messages to include proved more difficult than I expected. But then I decided to stop overthinking things (something my mom taught me) and just get on with it (something else she taught me), because this list doesn’t have to be perfect (see item # 9 below).

So here are, in no particular order, ten things I learned from my mom over the years.

1. It could be worse. Occasionally, or more often, my sisters and I would offer up to her various laments. She would sympathize as the situation warranted but then, when the time was right, point out that it would be worse. A scrape? At least we didn’t need stitches. A disappointing test score? At least we cared enough about our grades to be upset. An infected mosquito bite? At least it wasn’t a bee sting. The power went out? At least we usually had power at our house, unlike most of the world for most of time.

“It could be worse” is a lesson in perspective and in gratitude. Go ahead and nurse that wound for a little while, but know that it’s not as bad as it could be.

2. “Serviceable” is good enough. Occasionally our family would rent a camper for a summer trip—usually new large pop-ups, and once even a motor home, so when I learned my parents had actually purchased a camper for our upcoming vacation, I envisioned something similar to these. “Don’t get too excited,” my mom warned. “You haven’t seen it yet.” Well, I did get excited, because, really, how bad could it be?

Pretty bad, as it turns out. This camper was little more than a faded canvas tent over a flimsy metal base. This camper was ancient. This camper was rickety. This camper was homemade.

It was the most embarrassing camper in all the land.

But camp in it we did. While for a week my sisters and I slunk around the campgrounds, valiantly avoiding association with it, my mom was unfazed. “It’s just fine,” she maintained, confident in its utility. “It’s serviceable.”

It was, in fact. A family can still sleep and consume S’mores and play cards and sightsee while burdened with a decrepit RV. This vacation proved to be just as enjoyable as previous vacations. To this day we reminisce fondly about our trip in The Serviceable Camper ™, and to this day we all appreciate that something that can only be deemed “serviceable” is usually good enough.

3. Beautify your surroundings. Despite her contentment with serviceable accommodations, my mom cherishes beauty. So she plants flower gardens. She repaints the bathroom if she doesn’t like the way it looks. She garnishes food with a strawberry or a mint leaf or a swirl of frosting. (If you ever find an ice-cube-encased pansy in your lemonade at my parents’ house, fear not; pansies are edible.) She regularly turns on classical and sacred music. She sets the table with attractive napkins. As seamstress to all of our childhood clothes, she would adorn them with the prettiest possible buttons—sunflowers, strawberries, ladybugs.

She knows it’s within everyone to make the world a more beautiful place, so she does it.

4. Keep commitments. When I was about 10, a blizzard struck on a Saturday night and drifted our road shut. Did my mom plead “snowbound” and shrug off her obligation to play the organ at church the next morning? No. Instead, she contrived a solution that involved riding shotgun on my grandpa’s tractor.

If you think this is a woman who would allow her daughters shirk a commitment for any old reason, you would be wrong. There may have been a time when my sisters and I asked why we had to go to piano lessons while in the (non-contagious) recovery stages of virus, what would be the big deal about skipping catechism class once in a while, or why we couldn’t cancel our babysitting plans if a more appealing opportunity came along. If so, we quit asking, because we knew the answer: “You signed up for this,” she’d say. “It’s your job to be there. It’s not okay to let people down.”

5. One good reason trumps several flimsy reasons. “If you don’t want to do something,” she would advise, “offer a solid reason. The more reasons you give, the more it sounds like you’re making excuses.” So true, as was the unspoken but obvious message—if you have to offer several flimsy reasons, you probably don’t have even one good excuse, so examine your motives and act accordingly. (So why, exactly, can’t you paint the porch today?)

6. Know how to refresh yourself. One of my earliest memories involves my music-loving mom leaving the house for a dulcimer-making class. She loves hymns, so she attends hymn festivals. She enjoys sewing, so she sews doll clothes to give away. She travels to other states for Sacred Harp singings. She gardens. She laughs with her friends. She plans trips with my dad. She plays with her grandkids. And her mind and spirit are refreshed, and it shows.
7. Pick your battles. “Nobody will pay any attention to you if you try to get your way every time,” she’s point out; demonstrations abounded. She didn’t hound us over every little thing. She probably overlooked many matters that mattered more to her than she let on, but the standards that she did choose to enforce—among others: using proper grammar, avoiding profanity, participating in the church, and, of course, keeping commitments—highlighted her most cherished values.

8. Family stories matter. What is as captivating as a family story? I love the connection to my ancestors, both recent and distant. My mom is skilled at weaving her own memories and other bits of family history into conversation, sometimes to entertain, sometimes to make a point, sometimes to empathize, sometimes just because.
These stories have always fascinated me: her childhood fall from a moving vehicle; the car-radiator fire that my grandpa doused with their picnic lemonade; the relative who sent his regrets to her wedding because he wasn’t planning to make the five-mile trip into town that day; the notoriously bad cook whom other family members discouraged from contributing to potlucks; my great-grandma’s love of laughter. “You’re related to these people, you know,” she often adds. (Is there anything as humbling as the reminder that one shares DNA with a cantankerous great-great uncle who refused to observe Daylight Saving Time?)

9. Don’t pretend to be perfect. A non-spotless house would never prevent my mom from welcoming someone into it. Pride would never keep her from telling a self-deprecating but entertaining story—for example, that of when looked down while in a meeting only to discover that her shoes did not match. She has always matter-of-factly admitted mistakes, signaling that they are part of life and no cause for shame. “If pretended to be perfect all the time, you wouldn’t fool anyone anyway,” she once said.

10. Loved ones are a privilege, not a burden. I don’t have enough space to record all of the appropriate examples, ranging from dedication to elderly relatives to doting on grandkids, but this one speaks for itself. “Keep it simple,” as my mom would say, so on this final last point I will do just that.

I want to be like you, Mom. Happy Mother’s Day!

Wisdom from Wooliam: My Messy Beautiful

“People generally see what they look for, and hear what they listen for.” – Judge Taylor in To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

—————————————-

Ace marched proudly from the preschool classroom, clutching the telltale yellow fabric bag. “I got Wooliam,” he announced, triumphantly displaying the bag and its occupant. “It’s my turn again!”

Wooliam is a stuffed lamb whom Ace and his classmates take turns hosting. This endearing little creature participates in the family’s activities and chronicles them in a journal entry. Naturally, the chosen four-year-old is thrilled over the opportunity to oversee him.

I must admit, though, that “thrilled” is not an apt description of my own reaction. While I applaud the spirit of this tradition and appreciate Wooliam’s importance to Ace, hosting duties can be . . . well, a wee bit burdensome. Not because Wooliam is a troublemaker (he’s not, although he has managed to get lost and throw us into a panic every single time he visits our house, starting with his first visit to Sonny over two years ago), but because of the journal. The journal is not only read to the preschool class but accompanies Wooliam on each visit for the host families to enjoy. Not to overthink things, but the temptation to manipulate an activity or two in order to make our family seem well-adjusted and not too tedious (or neglectful of Wooliam) is real. Turn off the TV and let’s play Battleship, everyone, and then let’s go to the park!

Which brings us to this last visit, which happened to land over spring break. Yes. When it dawned on me that Ace would be in charge of Wooliam for eleven whole days, I had two simultaneous thoughts: a) Where can I buy Wooliam’s twin in case we lose him for good this time, and b) How can we possibly come up with eleven days’ worth of journal-worthy activities?

But fast-forward to spring break’s end, and Wooliam’s selective reporting had come through for us yet again. Bless him.

What Wooliam divulged: “We played hide-and-seek!”

What Wooliam concealed: “Sonny and Ace forgot to look for me and nobody missed me for two days. It’s dark under the couch, and I evidently am allergic to dust.”

What Wooliam divulged: “I helped set the table.”

What Wooliam concealed: “Hot chocolate spilled on me. But it’s okay, because it turns out stuffed sheep are machine-washable. Who knew? The dryer made me dizzy.”

What Wooliam divulged: “Sonny and Ace made me a colorful pipe-cleaner tightrope that stretched across the living room.”

What Wooliam concealed: “I got strung up from the colorful pipe-cleaner tightrope by my ears.”

What Wooliam divulged: “I helped Ace and Sonny make a salad for dinner.”

What Wooliam concealed: “It may be that Ace’s lunch consisted primarily of Cheeze-Its.”

What Wooliam divulged: “I watched Ace dig for dinosaur bones.”

What Wooliam concealed: “I got buried in the dirt up to my neck. Ace’s mom rescued me and brought me inside before it started raining. See previous comment regarding machine washing.”

Good old Wooliam. Ever the gracious guest, he manages to make us look competent. He is grateful and uncomplaining. He looks and listens for the wholesome beauty and turns a blind eye to the rest.

20140414_081224I could take a lesson and look and listen for the beauty, too, and spend less time dwelling on the messy—not in order to appear more competent, but in order to be more grateful. Not to deny or veneer the messy realities that need acknowledgement or resolution, but to welcome the everyday gifts concealed in messy wrapping.

Last fall, for example, I was felled by a nefarious strain of the stomach flu and spent a miserable day flat on my back. But Sonny wrote me a note: “I love you, Mommy!” I awoke at one point to Ace’s favorite dinosaur book propped on my nightstand; he’d brought me the best thing he could think of to make me feel better. Both boys crept in periodically to rub my arm and ask in whispers if I felt better yet or if I needed more water. They proudly announced that they’d cleaned the house without even being asked.

The discomfort of this nasty virus? Messy. My sons’ blossoming compassion and empathy? Beautiful.

My kitchen is in an almost permanent state of disorder: smears of sunbutter and crumbs of play-dough, sticky spots, ubiquitous papers and crayons. I can’t take two steps without stepping on someone who just wants to help. But it’s the space where my family gathers to play and create and cook. It’s where Sonny and Ace learn to pitch in. It’s our favorite landing spot when we want to connect.

My kitchen is messy. My kitchen is beautiful.

I spend hours in the minivan, sometimes frustrating, teeth-gritting hours. With the minivan we pick our way over slippery roads in the winter and creep through traffic jams in the summer. Inside the minivan imprisoned hangry kids hone their whining credentials during long errand runs. Here snack crumbs and wrappers fall and crumpled papers overstay their welcome until I get around to cleaning the interior. But in the minivan Sonny and Ace and their carpool friends play their own version of “Name That Tune” and tell knock-knock jokes that never grow old. It’s where Sonny talked Ace down from his nervousness about starting preschool. It’s where the four of us sing Christmas carols as we cross the several states to Grammy’s house in December. It’s where Ace encouraged Sonny that he was “the best soccer player on the field, and also the best brother.”

Is the minivan a messy place? Yes. Is it a beautiful place? Yes.

Beauty does not eradicate messiness. The stomach flu is still miserable and always will be; my kitchen is still in disarray; I sometimes consider changing my official primary address to “minivan—the messy one.” And some heartaches and struggles are too large to be glossed over by a surface check for the positive. But at other times, if we look and listen for the beauty, we will see it.

Thanks, Wooliam, for the reminder of what to look for. You’re always welcome at our house, and next time I promise to hide the pipe cleaners.

 

This essay is part of the Messy, Beautiful Warrior Project. To learn more and join us, click here. To learn about the New York Times bestselling memoir Carry On Warrior: The Power of Embracing Your Messy, Beautiful Life, just released in paperback, click here.

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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.