Wednesday, December 26, 2012

My First Noel or New Mom: Here's a Cheat Sheet

"It is not a slight thing when they, who are so fresh from God, love us." -- Dickens

Almost exactly twenty years ago to the hour I went into labor for the first time.  I had just eaten a delicious and gigantic Christmas meal (hint: try to avoid overeating just before labor and isn't pretty!) and we set off into the foggy night, wishing for Rudolph to guide us, on a 40 minute drive to the hospital.  John was so nervous he never even turned on the headlights of the car -- we drove with our running lights on!  I was so preoccupied with the changes in my body that I never noticed.  :)

At 6:57am on December 26th, 1992, at 8 lbs. 8 oz. our little bundle arrived, John William Foraker -- forever known to us as Jack.  He was named after my dad who had suffered a very serious heart attack while I was pregnant.  Today, Papa is alive and well and one terrific grandpa.

Jack was an easy baby, a curious toddler, an easy going grade schooler, a thoughtful and funny middle schooler and a willing high schooler.  He tried all sorts of things in high school, including a new sport, and grew and thrived in high school.  Today he is a sophomore in college -- a 6'4" big guy loving college and all of the adventures offered there.  All phases of his childhood have been relatively drama-free and he has been pretty much a cake walk to parent.  Jack is what we like to call an "old soul".

I take no credit for this.

I can see myself twenty years ago (how is that possible??) holding my tiny newborn in our mint green rocking chair singing Christmas carols to him and marveling at his beauty.
Here is the cheat sheet I wish I had.

Secret #1: Children come out of the womb hard-wired as they are.  Their personalities and temperaments are their own.  You can try to nudge them in the direction you wish they were but it is not very likely you will shift them in any significant direction.
You must learn to love them as they are.
The sooner you can do this, the happier you will all be.

Jack showed us his way of viewing the world at about 18 months.  I would tell him no and he would say, "Maybe tomorno?" in a questioning, sweet way.  He was able to adjust to limits and change.  He is intrinsically optimistic and so he just hoped that tomorrow things might be different.
Life is pretty easy when you view setbacks in this way.

Secret #2: Whatever stage they are in is fleeting.  I remember thinking that I would be nursing    In actuality I only nursed Jack about six months.  1/40 of his entire lifespan so far and shrinking.  If someone had told me that then, maybe I would have nursed a little longer.  The terrible twos...sassy all goes away.

Believe it or not, the plastic toy phase will go away too.  Eventually they will stop sucking their thumb or using a binkie.  They will potty train.  They will read and write and yes, even figure out how to borrow from the ten and subtract.  All the legos on the ground that you step on and curse in the middle of the night, will finally get packed up and put away.  All the backpacks strewn everywhere.  All the clothes, the messes, the bizarre handprints will find a way out of your house.  The crazy ride of day to day
parenthood does morph into another alternate universe.

Secret #3: Enjoy the time you have with them. Love them.
It really is that simple.
Just love them as they are.  Accept them. Guide them.
Most importantly, be there.
You will never regret the time you spend with your child, ever.  If you feel in your heart a strong need to switch jobs, quit a job, take a lesser paid position and have time with your child it.
They really like you.  For awhile there, they crave you and your attention.
Give it to them freely -- without reservation.  You cannot spoil them in this area.
If they feel your precious presence, if they feel that you are really listening, that is all they need.

Secret #4: You really can't mess them up.  (Aside from the obvious things like neglect, abuse and insane over protection.) They are crazy resilient. Crazy.  All parents blow it and get queasy when they look back and think they could have handled a situation better.  Turns out that's how we learn...all of us.  It's OK to blow it.  The real test is getting back in the game for another round.  How you handle adversity is the way your children will think to tackle their own problems.
Messing up is part of life.  Losing your cool.  Royally wishing for a's all messy when you live day in and day out together.  It's OK.  Be nice to yourself.  If your kids see that you forgive yourself, they might actually believe that you will forgive them when they mess up...which they will, guaranteed.

Secret #5:  They are your teacher and your free access to the divine.  That quote from Dickens at the top is on my fridge.  The wisdom our children show us day in and day out is stunning.
We just have to stop rushing enough to notice.  

Throw away your agenda and your time frame.  Let them lead.  Let their wonder and joy in our world show you the way.  Children know how to love without limits.  Children are honest. They see the world in a profound yet simple way.  Listen to them and respect them.  If they are full, they really are.  If they aren't hungry, don't make them eat.  They know their bodies.  It's the adults who overeat and over-indulge.  If they are afraid of something, listen to them.  Don't push them into trying to get over it.  Offer them a chance to be afraid in a safe place.

Secret #6: Chex Mix.  As Jack was getting bigger, in the middle of high school, I asked him what his favorite family memory was so far. He thought about it for a minute and then got a gleam in his eye.  He said wistfully, "Oh mom, it was the Chex Mix.  Do you remember when the Saunders were over and we were all just hanging around in the den having fun for a long long time and you came in and gave us Chex Mix?"
(I'll admit right now that I did not remember that at all...I was still reviewing in my mind our many vacations, family traditions, favorite books or family dinners and thinking he was going to mention some of those memories so I was taken off guard.)

I responded, "Really? The Chex Mix?"

"Yes,"  he said "you came right in and poured a whole entire bag of Chex Mix onto the table without a bowl or anything!  We were so hungry we just all ate it together from the pile.  It was great!"

Maybe he loved the fact that they finally were allowed to reveal their inner piggy-at-the-trough selves.  Or maybe he just loved being so free with friends.  Or maybe he just couldn't get over that I didn't have napkins and bowls and proper me, I have no formal dining room, I'm not that proper so that idea is kind of funny.

I have no idea why he glommed onto that memory but it was a wake up call for me.
The memories we hold dear are not necessarily the memories they will hold dear.
For them, it might just be all about the Chex Mix.

Which leads me to...Secret #7: Loosen Up!!!  Right now, this very minute, stop taking it so seriously.  Have some fun.
 Dance. Sing. Be silly. Tell them stories about yourself.
This is where John comes in.  You see, I really, really wanted to do this right.  I was committed to being a "good parent".  For whatever reason, although John was too, he has always been able to see the lighter side.  The guy is ready to laugh.  That helps so much.  Nothing is that big of a deal.  Laugh at the weirdness.  Enjoy the goofiness of kids. Relish in knowing their idiosyncrasies.
That is the good stuff, trust me.  If a teacher is mean, don't freak out on the teacher, just reward your child with an honorary sundae. It's not so serious.

Secret #8: It Gets Better Believe it or not, this twenty year old kid I have is even better than that tiny infant...way better.  He's interesting and funny; passionate and curious.  He's kind and thoughtful; gentle and daring.  I am so so grateful I have gotten to be on this journey with him.  I love seeing the person he is becoming and listening to what interests him or what makes him laugh or what music he likes. I can't wait to see where his life leads. Better yet, I can't wait to visit him there or cheer him on in whatever he chooses.

Being a parent is a blessing.  You are so so lucky!
Count your lucky stars that you get to be along for the ride.
Hold on and let go...if you learn how to do that, you must have a twenty year old!

Happy Birthday Jack -- we love you! 

Sunday, December 16, 2012


"Nothing is worth more than this day."
--Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Last night we held 2006 baby and me.  We were hurrying in the dark to Patrick's performance.  She had her new warm jacket on and her purple sequined holiday skirt.  I was wearing my thick red sweater.  We were together.  I could feel her fingernails and reminded myself that she needed to have her nails clipped.  I felt her hand and held it tighter, trying to get a grip on something that was growing and moving and forever headed out of my reach.

I've been trying to get a grip since Friday.  
It hasn't worked.

Friday, something beyond description happened in our country.  Some sick, sick young guy decided to take his anger and hatred out on an elementary school.  He walked around shooting up children, most of them born in 2006, until at last he turned the gun on himself.  

They were first graders.  Just living their day, learning to read, practicing their math facts, getting ready for Christmas.

I don't know how to make sense of any of it, so I tighten my grip.  I hunker down.  I read a few more books at night to her.  I give her cake for breakfast.  I pretend I need to fix her hair again just to fix it for myself.  I'm pretty sure she thinks I'm weird.

What can we do?  Any of us???

We can reach out to those suffering, instead of pretending not to notice.  
We can share a smile.
We can wait an extra few seconds before honking our horn or sighing with agitation or making that snarky reply.
We can offer kindness and acceptance where there is none -- and yes, right now, right where you live, there is somebody who needs just that.
We can think of others first.
We can support our schools with action -- let them know how much we appreciate their hard work and selflessness.
We can be patient.
We can pray.
We can love those who share our space today.

And that brings me to today.  That is all we have, any of us.

We live in a dangerous world.  

But we live in a beautiful world too. It is full of sunsets and roses and heroism every single day.

Today, I'm going to be present and mindful of the meals I make, the words I say, the thoughts I think and the actions that I spend my precious twenty four hours doing.
I'm going to lean toward love.
I'm going to really live my day.
I hope you do too.
I love you!

Sunday, December 9, 2012

I Never Said Thanks...

"We all mold one another's dreams.  We all hold each other's fragile hopes in our hands.  We all touch each other's hearts."

My path only crossed hers once...only one brief moment four years ago at a Back to School Night.  At the time, my daughter was a freshman and she was the art teacher.  She was exuberant.  She was warm and friendly.  She was passionate about art and grateful to be teaching it. She had such a great energy to her that I wanted to linger and I did.  I walked around her room slowly searching the pictures for clues to this person.  I wanted to know more of her story. I remember feeling so grateful that Mary Kate got to spend 50 minutes of every day at school with this warm light of acceptance and encouragement.  I left without telling her that.  In my mind it was enough to just feel it in my heart.  I left without looking her in the eye and thanking her.  I moved on into a dark night and a busy life.

Now it's too late.

Yesterday, Kathy Carlisle, was struck by a train while taking a photograph.

"It is with great sorrow that I share with you the loss of a valuable member of our St. Francis community, Kathy Carlisle. 

Kathy, a beloved member of our faculty in her sixth year teaching art, painting, sculpting, and photography was struck by a train Saturday near the school doing what she loved - engaging in her passion for photography. Her family was notified by authorities Saturday evening.

Our thoughts and prayers go out to Kathy’s husband Steve Jarvis and children Will, Bianca, and Violet, who is a freshman at St. Francis.

Kathy was a passionate artist, and dedicated teacher to her students. She possessed the ability to teach students to connect to their audience through art and showed them the incredible power of photography to tell a story or convey a message.

The entire St. Francis community mourns this tremendous loss of our colleague Kathy. We reach out to her family and close friends and hold them in our thoughts and embrace during this difficult time."

 She was pursuing her passion and engrossed in the moment.  Our world lost a bright light.  We lost a teacher who cared.  We lost a woman who took the time to connect with her students.  She said hi every day to Mary Kate this year, four years later, because once she was your teacher, she was always your teacher.  We lost someone who cared deeply; who molded hearts and minds and helped awkward teen-age girls feel beautiful and smart through art and photography.  Her sunshine is gone and we all feel the loss.

So, Kathy Carlisle, thank you for your love and energy and time.  I'm grateful we crossed paths if only one time.  You lived your life well.  You showed an entire high school of girls how to mix motherhood and teaching and art into a beautiful palette.  That won't be forgotten.  Your handprint is on Mary Kate's heart...and many others.  Your legacy is your love and warmth...and your art

Thank you.

**This piece of art is from a student at St. Francis High School -- I do not know the artist. **

Friday, December 7, 2012

Little Voices...Big Message

"We worry about what a child will become tomorrow, yet we forget that he is someone today." -- Stacia Tauscher

My heart is so full.  So full to the brim, it is bursting with love and peace and connection.  What did I do?  How did this transformation happen?
  I attended a mass presented by First Graders.

Up at the podium stood a line of small children...each were waiting their turn.  Some had hands tucked in pockets.  Some were looking down.  Some were nervous and awkward and extra careful.  They all took a turn and repeated the line they had practiced: softly, slowly, carefully and reverently.  Next to them was their teacher, arm wrapped around them for support...whispered words to help or clarify or encourage.  They knew this was the big time.  They knew they had to do a good job.  This was their chance to shine. 

Their radiant, holy light was luminous.

There is something so holy about hearing sacred words read by a tiny voice.  Something so humanizing and beautiful.  Listening to those tiny children my heart just kept filling up.  Is this how we sound to God?  So fragile. So small. So meek.  No wonder he gives us his blessing!

After mass, the entire class shared drawings and words about how they viewed Jesus.
He always shows up.
He is always ready to listen.
He is calm and loving.
He is your friend.

It hit me so clearly that the tears came...a big neon sign pointing the way.  That is exactly what we need from you, mom.  We need kindness and second chances and your presence.

Just as I was catching my breath, an entire class of First Grade voices started singing, "You've Got A Friend In Me".  They were smiling now.  They were confident and triumphant. Together, their voices could make an entire church full of bigger kids and adults stop and take notice.

God's biggest blessing comes to us in the form of an infant.  His tiny voice belies the great, great spirit transcending time and space.  He approaches us in a vulnerable, needy way...mirroring for us our frailty and natural weakness.

Today I am so grateful for tiny voices and the big messages they carry.  I am humbled and moved.  Thank you to an entire class of six year olds for showing the way.  Thank you for your love, your grace and your immeasurable presence.
You are the heart of God.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Look Up!

"It's your sky, so you make the decision where your clouds live." 

I've got a thing for clouds.  Yep, living in a land with a majority of days that have endless, empty blue skies might make that seem ironic, but maybe it makes sense.  Clouds are not in my world very often.  So when they are, they seem to bust out the moves, put on the tap shoes and go for it. Recently I had one of those days.

Maybe it was reading a whole bunch of Nancy Drew books and solving mysteries with Encyclopedia Brown as a kid, who knows.  It might have been reading Harry Potter or watching James Bond.  Wherever it was, somewhere along the way it was revealed that most people rarely make the effort to look up. Nancy proved that taking the time to view the world from a different angle often reveals a secret.  However it happened, I learned to stop and look up as a kid.

 On this day, I couldn't help it...the entire universe was sending me clues...starting with the one in my van's rearview window as I was trying to put away my groceries:
Beth, stop what you're doing...there's a show going on.

With a view like that I couldn't ignore the dance the sky was doing apparently just for me.

I looked across the street:
Little Iphone 4 camera...and ka bam...Ansel Adams. Thanks clouds!

It actually got silly this game of me and the clouds.  I mean I had stuff to do and things that needed to be accomplished and I'm sure all sorts of other important things and all I could do was enjoy the clouds.  I felt like someone newly in was all I could see...all I could think about...and it was beautiful.

I had to get gas...and look who followed me.

When I have moments like this it makes me wonder what I'm not noticing most of the time.  What beauty is just above my normal line of vision that I often miss?

H-e-l-l-o...anybody paying attention??

Today I am thankful for the ephemeral, transient, fleeting beauty of clouds.  How could water vapor form such a multitude of shapes in a myriad of hues?? How can they move so swiftly and yet feel so oppressive?  How can the formless not only take shape but literally sculpt the horizon???

Clouds never stay still.
Their presence reminds me and challenges me to live this moment right now.
Life is always changing and flowing.
 Endless blue skies give up their ballpark to guys like these
who get run out of town by the serious bad boys
 who in turn head for the hills
 and allow that ocean of blue to hover above once again.

The very same day...making way for some blue.

Feather dusters, arrows pointing the way, a thick blanket, whimsical wafts, imaginary creatures morphing and molding...whatever path you take, clouds, I am a fan.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Our Goddess: Bev

That's no's our fairy godmother in disguise!

"Hard work spotlights the character of people: some turn up their sleeves, some turn up their noses and some don't turn up at all."
--Sam Ewing

Every school has someone like this...well let's put it this way, every well-functioning school has someone like this.  She's our school secretary, welcome wagon, school nurse, keeper of all secrets, and the Yoda of our school -- heck she is the Force.

If Bev doesn't know where it's lost.

If Bev can't help're outta luck.

Bev is who we go to...who we ALL go to.  We ask our questions about Picture Day, Field Day, school uniforms, school lunches, the bulletin, registration, and on and on it goes.

She gets the kids who are ready to throw up, the kids with a nasty scrape, the kids who just broke their glasses, the ones who have a loose tooth or sore throat.  Naturally, these children are escorted by caring friends or at the very least a couple of kids who need to take a walk.  Bev knows how to soothe any ill. She knows when to call home and when to play it tough.
She's seen it all.

One day, I want to sit Bev down with a margarita in her hand and just hear the stories.  There have got to be some doozies.  Heck the Foraker family alone has given her some...
How about the phone call to young teacher Beth at work when Jack was in kindergarten.  It seems young Jack went down the slide head first and at the precise moment when physics was at its greatest managed to suck a piece of pea gravel up his nose. There's no way to make that call without at least a small chuckle. But Bev did no such thing.  She called with care and concern in her voice and thought I might like to come over and help Jack out.  The pea gravel made its way out without any medical intervention and Jack's nose survives today.

Or there was the time when Mary Kate was running in first grade full force, head down and ran into a basketball pole.  I was at home that time. Got the caring call from Bev, ran right over and found my darling girl with a knot the size of a golf ball on her forehead and a sudden burst of tears...the bravery could only last so long.

Or we have the many special moments with Patrick...far too many to count.  Some highlights include sliding into mud, barfing after running the mile, a bathroom mishap, and the wrong uniform on.  Let's not even count the sheer number of tardies we've made Bev write on Patrick's behalf...she should have writer's cramp and yet, she faithfully writes them out with a zen-like calmness.

Happily Caroline hasn't had too many Bev moments, although I do remember getting a call about having to remove some nail polish...but she's only in first grade.  Give her a little time.

Bev must have some sort of trick because she never gets flustered, frantic or frenzied.  She is calm, always.  She's orderly and organized.  She is the engine of our school and it hums along like a fine-tuned roadster thanks to her.

Maybe her trick is that she has seen it all: broken bones, ambulance calls, frightened upset parents, sick, crabby kids.  She knows how to administer what we all need: TLC.  She offers it freely and kindly.  She's like the best referee/mom combo.  She knows when to call you out and when to comfort you.

Bev is at all events.  She is setting up and taking down.  She's in the parents' club closet and in the school kitchen.  She knows the trick of the trash cans, the ice machine, the pitchers, the tables and chairs and special table cloths.  She doesn't just know where everything goes, she knows how every machine runs and every tool works.  Not to mention maintaining our school calendar.

Truly, she is our school's Google.  We should just start using her name as a verb...have you Bev'd it? If you haven't, you're lost.

Today I saw her during Conference Week.  She schedules every single one of our school's does she do it??? I smiled knowing that the orchestra she conducts is full of so many instruments and yet it always is on key.

She must have a little Bibbity Bobbity Boo in there somewhere. She's magic!

I've been part of our school for fifteen years.  Bev has been there probably twice as long.  Day in, day out. Week in, week out.  School year after school year Bev brings the sparkle to our gem of a school. She has a ready smile and sleeves rolled up.  She's amazing and truly a gift to so many.

Today, I am grateful to Bev...the keeper of the keys and so much more. She holds the heart of our school. Thanks is not enough for this special lady but here it goes:
Bev, you ROCK!

I've Bev'd it and I know. :)

Friday, November 2, 2012

My Secret

"Gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder." -G.K. Chesterton

It's that time of year...counting blessings; pausing to notice the little things; time to gather with family.  My very favorite holiday approaches and so I suppose I should share my not-so little secret.

When Patrick was in the thick of battling leukemia, probably about two years into the three year battle, I decided to try to keep a Grateful Journal for Lent.  Lent, for those of you who haven't hung around a lot of Catholics is a 40 day journey leading up to the miracle of Easter.  It's considered a time of sacrifice and personal reflection...a time of stripping away the superficial trappings of our life. As a child, you are told to "give up" something (most often it is a treat like chocolate, soda, ice cream) so that you can get in the frame of mind of sacrifice and selflessness.  

I did that "giving up" thing for decades...rotely, thoughtlessly, practically effortlessly.  I patted myself on the back as I avoided Starbucks for 40 days...smiled as I wouldn't have any chocolate with friends during another set of 40 days...felt actually proud of myself for resisting my daily lunchtime Coke for a different set of 40 days...and then it got old and tired. Flat and stale.  Lent felt like a time card that I simply punched and waited for the paycheck. I felt stuck in grade school religion and began to be on the look out for something else...wondering if there was a more grown up way to venture through a 40 day journey.  

Once you start looking, things start revealing themselves...and as soon as I began to think about it, somebody said something mind blowing: "How about DOING something each day for 40 days?"  Instead of focusing on "doing without", make your priority to take action.  I glommed on to that big idea and decided that was my challenge.

I had always wanted to try a Grateful Journal but I got bogged down at the thought of doing it every day.  Besides, it was like a hot movie that everyone is talking about: overexposed and annoying.  I was tired of the trite: "count your blessings and you'll be happy" mantra that Oprah and other gurus were offering up. My kid had leukemia.  I had a crap ton of laundry and a perpetually dirty house.  My other two kids were, demanding and needy and attention-seeking. 

But on the rainy first night of Lent in 2004 I decided to grope in the dark for an ancient blank journal stuck away on a random bookshelf and begin my first official Grateful Journal.  My rules: 
1) Write in it every night for 40 nights
2) List at least 5 things I am grateful for

The first night was easy.  I was motivated.  It was raining (and we needed rain) so I already had two things: finding my journal and the rain.  The next three tumbled out and I plopped into bed...deeply satisfied with my experiment.

As the universe likes to do, Day 2 was an entirely different story.

Patrick was sick that day...weirdly sick.  He was stuffed up and could barely breathe.  He was listless and without his usual sparkle.  I couldn't put my finger on it but I began to have that unease that mothers have when their subconscious knows what the conscious self hasn't yet figured out: 
crap is going down and fast.

Patrick came toddling up to me at about 4 in the afternoon and his coloring was off...way off.  He was pale in an eerie way.  I lifted him up and hugged him close.  He was raging with a fever.  Suddenly I pulled him back to look deep into his eyes...something was definitely not right.  He was so stuffed up and full of gunk he could barely breathe.  His breathing was shallow and difficult.  He tried to snuggle in to my shoulder but instead of that moment feeling comforting it felt like a wounded animal seeking refuge.

The alarm bells started going off inside my head.  I felt panic lurking around my doorway.  I knew an enemy was prowling.  I was holding my vulnerable, sick little boy and suddenly all the pieces fit together.  He's not just sick...he's fighting to stay alive!

I had two other kids at home and I was very aware that I could scare them silly if I went down Crazy Street -- which incidentally is exactly the street I wanted to travel.  John was too far away to come and rescue any of us.  The neighborhood was empty.  How could I call 911 and travel with other children too?  

Swirling around my mind are these frightening thoughts:
How much time does Patrick have?  Is he getting enough oxygen?  Will he pass out from such difficulty breathing?  Can so much phlegm drown him? What does this mean? What's going on with the leukemia?  Does he have a life-threatening virus? What can I DO?

I suddenly remembered my friend, Michele, whose husband Jim is a fire fighter.  I called her on the off chance that he might be home and that he might come with me to the hospital and that Michele could take Jack and Mary Kate.

He was.  He did.  She did.  Thank God.

As I drove begging for a speeding ticket, Jim sat in the back of my car with Patrick in his car seat. He talked to me in the most soothing voice giving me updates on Patrick's breathing and how Patrick was doing.  He will never know what his gentle kindness did for me in those moments but it is stained on my brain like a water ring on a wooden table...clear as can be.

Halfway there, Patrick vomited. All that gunk had to go somewhere.  Turns out that your body knows what to do in deep just gets rid of the gunk.  Thankfully, Jim was unfazed.  Miraculously, Patrick's breathing rapidly improved.

We made it to the hospital and when I turned around and saw Patrick his color was so much better that I finally could breathe myself. We had made it!  He might have something terrible going on but we were at the right place. We could get help. I hugged Jim with so much grateful appreciation I could barely let go. We had a chance.

Sadly, I don't even know what happened to Jim after that.  I just remember dealing with a doctor that didn't know Patrick at all or any of his history.  Without even checking him she gave me a very condescending answer to Patrick's ills: pneumonia.  She was smug in her diagnosis.  All I can recall hearing is something like: "Your son has Down Syndrome and it's common knowledge that Down's kids always get pneumonia."

Patrick had never had pneumonia in his entire life.  My face was red, my anger was sitting like a ripe fruit just waiting to get picked.  I tried hard to not lose it but in my head I was screaming:
"Patrick might have Down Syndrome but he sure as hell isn't a Down's kid and who are you to stereotype a diagnosis when my kid is so sick!"

Turns out, the lady with a medical degree was right. He did have pneumonia which gave him a free ticket into the hospital and me a chance to simmer in anger.

I was SO mad.  Mad that Patrick had leukemia. Mad that he now was in the hospital for who knows how long.  Mad that he was so sick. Mad that I had to watch him go through so much. Mad that my family was separated. Mad at pretty much everything. 

Right in the thick of that quicksand, I saw my Grateful Journal -- tucked into my bag, taunting me, my very empty journal.  
Day 2...yeah, right.
I acted like a stubborn child refusing to do homework.  No. No way. I'm NOT writing in that stinking thing.  I am most definitely not grateful. I had hours to whittle away.  I was adamant in my avoidance.  But as I grew wearier and wearier, I chided myself. 
 How could I quit on Day 2?

So, begrudgingly, I took out the journal.  I opened it and began writing.  I was convinced I'd write five short items.  I ended up writing six pages.  Turns out underneath that simmering anger was an entire casserole dish of grateful appreciation -- mounds and mounds of people and moments that were wonderful in this terrible day: Jim and Michele at the top, a hospital that would give Patrick care, transportation that worked so that I could get him there, the ability to ask for and receive help, the diagnosis of pneumonia wasn't life threatening and very treatable, for Patrick's attitude, for the nurses who were tending to us and on and on.

Once I stopped writing I started crying.  Seeing all of those blessings written there made them even more real...and yes, sacred.  On one of the worst days of my life I could see the beauty in that day.  
I was transformed.

All it took was living through that to see that keeping a Grateful Journal would allow me to see the sacred in the mundane, the tragic, the difficult and the very ordinary days of my life.  I've been doing it ever since.  There's no way I can stop.   Eight years of grateful living and trust is my secret.  If I skip a day or a few, I can feel my perspective shift.  I get irritated a bit more easily.  I focus on the annoying.  I nit pick.  All I have to do is open up that journal and suddenly my blessings are laid before me...ready to be cemented in print.

My kids hear regularly: "I'm going to put that in my grateful journal!"  If they do something it goes.  I have counted John in there so often that I now get sheepish counting him -- like that's an easy out.  But it's fun to see what comes up often.  It's amazing to reread and humbling to see the string of days so beautifully beaded by the sparks of everyday grace. Truthfully, this blog is just a more sporadic internet version of the original.

I want to challenge all of you to try it for the month of November.  Don't get stuck on the type of journal or the manner of writing -- spelling doesn't count. :)  Just stop and write each day for 30 days five things you are grateful for.  I promise that you will notice beauty, kindness, gentleness and love surrounding you like angels every single day.  Even on your hardest days they will be there.

Thanksgiving will hold your heart closer this year.  You will have a grateful heart on that most sacred day.  Your cup will be full.  

Come on...give it a try! And at the end of the month I really want to hear your stories.  I want to know what comes up in your journal time and time again.  I want to hear the magic of the blessings that were there every day just waiting to be noticed. Tell me and I'll tell you my favorites of November too.

In the meantime: Happy Thanksgiving!

Monday, October 22, 2012

Learning the Hard Way

"Did you know that even when you do something bad, really bad like what happened today, that your mom and dad will not run away and they will still love you?" 
                                                                  -- Caroline (age 6)

My kids did something bad yesterday.  Really bad.  Patrick made some really bad choices.  Caroline helped instigate it and Mary Kate got in on it a little too late.  All the way around it was bad, with a capital B.  There were a lot of tears...some yelling and the ever present, awkward intruder who always makes his presence known as the unwanted houseguest he is, blame.

There was no getting around it.  Patrick had the choice between right and wrong and he chose wrong.  When I asked him why he would choose wrong he told me an honest truth: "Because I wanted to." Since that is usually the reason we all choose wrong I wasn't surprised by his motivation -- just a little bit stunned at his candor.  I had my lecture all ready for being honest and telling the truth...he beat me to it and spoke the truth.  I had to change it up and talk about why we must stop ourselves and choose right and refuse to do the things we want to -- especially when they are wrong.  I had to hold up the mirror to his moment and help him see how it was wrong...had to help him see the dark side within himself...and those of you who think people with Down Syndrome are "angels" who are "happy all the time" and are "pure" and can never make wrong choices might want to rethink that.

I have seen Patrick be sneaky, dishonest, and even a little mean.  It's not very often, but it's not an impossibility.  I remember the first time he tried to manipulate me, he was only five.  I smiled and cheered was age appropriate and fantastic!  He was trying to find a way to get his needs met and he knew I was going to shut him down.  Like any ordinary kid, he tried the sneaky way.  It didn't work but I was proud of the effort.

As Patrick begins to navigate the older world, the stakes are higher.  Like all teenagers, he can mess it up big time.  But just because he has Down Syndrome doesn't mean that he should be protected and prevented from blowing it.

My tolerance for my kids making mistakes has grown.  When my kids were younger I wanted to be the buffer between any misfortune and my child.  I wanted to point out the obvious pitfalls and have them avoid them.  Now I know that this is where the real learning takes place.  This terrible time, between the tears, the apologetic hugs, in the thick of feeling forgiveness and regret is where the character building happens and where kids decide what kind of person they want to be.

We had a long conversation about making the hard decisions...about choosing right even when no one is watching...about knowing the differences and following through.  It was sad and bad and pit-in-the-stomach queasy but that is what parenting is about.  It's about seeing the dark side and facing it head on.  It's about confronting a problem and not sweeping it under the rug.  It's about holding up a mirror to our children and ourselves.  It's a hard, hard road but one I'd never miss.

Caroline's take away from that hard day was both heart-warming and heart-wrenching.  No, moms and dads are not going to run away.  We're here to stay and yes, we will not let you choose wrong.  We're here to make it clear and help you become the person you are meant to be. We're sticking around and seeing this through.  We love you, mistakes and all.

So today I'm grateful that I get to be here, day in and day out, helping my kids learn how to be good, kind people...even when they are learning it the hard way.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Mount Washmore

"...there is no such thing as a charmed life, not for any of us, no matter where we live or how mindfully we attend to the tasks at hand.  But there are charmed moments, all the time, in every life and in every day, if we are only awake enough to experience them when they come and wise enough to appreciate them."
--Katrina Kennison

I used to have a seriously awful relationship with laundry.  I detested it and I was pretty sure that it detested me.  It smirked at me, filling immediately upon emptying out.  It mocked my attempt to control it.  It dominated my pitiful efforts and constantly reminded me who was in charge.  It was overwhelming, unruly and very disobedient. Kind of like a dog with no manners, my laundry spilled out everywhere, climbed up on me when I tried to shirk it away and constantly hounded me.

All that changed in just one moment.

My mom was taking care of Jack and Mary Kate for me while I was at a hospital appointment with tiny baby Patrick.  I came home and my mom was doing my laundry...putting it away, folding it in her careful way, organizing and helping.  I must have had a look on my face of angst or sadness and my mom asked me some sort of question about the laundry.  I just started crying.  I told her what was in my heart, "Don't you see?  I just want to be doing what you're doing...just taking care of the kids, doing my crappy laundry, myself. I don't want any of this hospital stuff.  I just want to be here."

Suddenly laundry looked pretty good.

I made a mental note in that moment to never take the ordinary, mundane, insidiously repetitive household chores for granted.  You see, if you are doing those things, your life is pretty great.  You have a family that needs tending, children that need cleaning, and the ability to get it done.  Laundry became my indicator of just how good our life was.  Full to the brim meant a full life for me.  I looked at those clothes, towels, sheets and blankets as the stitches of my daily life and the chance to clean them and put them away as a neat hem on a gorgeous wrap around family blanket.  Finding baby clothes in there once again became a secret gift.  Onesies, footy pajamas, the occasional binkie all reminded me of the fleeting moments of babyhood.

I mark time with the laundry...finding sports jerseys, school uniforms, seasonal kitchen towels and even the university T-shirt that would never would have been in my pile except that Jack spends his days there now.  Like all of life I can see the change in my world by the size of my pile.  Soon enough Mary Kate will be doing her own laundry far away from here and my pile will get even smaller. 

I find peace in the pile...comfort in the folding and organizing and the joy in having a family and a giant-sized Mount Washmore, as my friend with six kids affectionately calls it.  I know all too well that this time of family laundry is only a season of life.  Even though that season feels forever-long; it ends.

So today I'm grateful for the overflowing laundry basket -- happy to know John's raggy old favorite T-shirts, comforted by the Rapunzel underwear and reminded by the larger and larger socks and pants of my growing kids just how quickly it goes. 

I'm grateful to have a family --  Mt Washmore and all.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

The Big Bad Wolf

"We are cups, constantly and quietly being filled.  
The trick is, knowing how to tip ourselves over and let the beautiful stuff out."                  
-- Ray Bradbury

 Patrick has been working on a play through our local Art Center with about ten other kids.  They have met twice a week for the past four weeks with the goal of creating a script together, figuring out the blocking on stage and performing a play at the end of that short time.

Day one, the kids brainstormed Heroes and Villains.  The list of heroes included: Hercules, Wonder Woman, Goldilocks, Robin Hood and my personal favorite, Hermione Granger.  The list of villains went as follows: Cruella de Ville, The Wicked Witch, The Evil Queen, Captain Hook and The Big Bad Wolf.  Wanna take a guess who Patrick wanted to be?

Patrick, lately, has been having fun imitating the bad guy.  Whenever Caroline and Patrick are playing I can hear Patrick trying to set up the plot so that he can be the villain.  He's interested in seeing the other side of things...being a little dangerous, kind of shady, trying out those things he knows aren't acceptable anywhere else. He coveted the role of the Big Bad Wolf. 
His wish was granted.

He came home after only two days with an official script.  He carefully read through it and highlighted his lines.  He had them memorized that night. He couldn't wait until the next practice.

Patrick is thirteen.  Although he has Down Syndrome, there is no doubt that he is ready for more opportunities without me around.  He doesn't need me escorting him right to the edge of activities.  He knows it and I know it.  
The only problem is actually living it. 

It feels extremely weird to leave him alone waiting for his activity to begin.  I want to make sure it is all settled and comfy for him but he clearly doesn't want that.  He flicks me away like an annoying bug, telling me: "I know, mom, I know.  I'll see you in a little while.  I'm fine. You can go."

He's sooooo thirteen and I want to go, really I do.  I know he needs me to go. But there's no rulebook to follow in this world of teaching independence and bestowing confidence in your child with a disability.  It's hard enough to navigate with kids who are pretty typical. It's downright terrifying to let it unfold here with him.  What am I afraid of? The big, bad wolf?

If I want him to have a life of his own, I have to let him. I have to show him the cracks and stumbling blocks; point out the safe zones and sure fire ways to get help.  I try to think up unforeseen circumstances and give ideas of how to deal with them...but like my other two older kids I know I can't think of everything. I know this process is like shedding skin.  It comes off piece by piece...the new skeleton ready and strong.  We have to believe it is there and wait and watch.

I drop Patrick off at his class ten minutes early.  The universe has conspired to help me on my path of letting go -- Caroline has something that starts at the exact same time somewhere else and we need a bit of traveling time to get there.  I try to linger. Patrick does the teen brush off. He has already started talking to a friendly face. I tell this other child my situation and he  lets me know that he will hang with Patrick until things start.

I sigh and head out...wishing I could be in two places at once. Wishing for some sort of secret camera to transmit data to me...wishing I could have one for my son at college too.  

But what's the point of freedom if you have a leash?

We have to put ourselves out there.  Out in the big bad world with the villains.  We have to see if we have the hero within us and afford ourselves the opportunity to let that hero out.  The sad truth is that the hero never shines if his mother is hanging around.
Or maybe that's not so sad.

If I want my son to have dreams and passions and hopes of his own, then I need to walk the walk.  Although I will admit that Rapunzel's tower is making a lot of sense to me right about now.

So, Patrick worked with kids and together they wrote a script.  They had heroes and villains and Patrick was the Big Bad Wolf.  He rattled off his lines at home and together we searched for a legit wolf mask -- finding the perfect blend of frightening and realistic at our local Target store.  He loved it!

Yesterday, after only a handful of practices, was the performance. No one knew what to expect.  Caroline, Mary Kate and Sarah (Patrick's aide from school) showed up to a minimalist set and some folding chairs.

The kids begin.  It's a clever script with twists and turns and a general feeling that the good guys might not be all that good and that the bad guys might be nicer than you think.  The villains vamp it up with a certain wolf very in touch with his angry side.  He growled.  He smirked.  He was Bad with a capital "B".

The show crescendoed with a wild fight scene.  The lights were blinking on and off.  The hand to hand combat was hilarious -- suddenly the action stopped.  The wolf was gone.  
In his place was Prince Charming. Magically, he is transformed.
He rises from the attack and whips his red robe and looks majestic and strong.
The audience, happily surprised, roars its approval.

A hush settles over the crowd and the last few lines are said.  The details might be missing but the message is loud and clear.  
We all have a beast we are fighting. We all have something charming within. It's our own journey to discover it...our own life's work.  

No mommy can do it for us.

And the bigger message that hit me like a set of high beams: maybe this group of kids first saw Patrick as some sort of monster.  Maybe this group wanted him growling and fierce. Could it be that by working alongside on a project together that they could finally see the prince within?  Aren't they the ones who allowed the script to have a happier, nobler ending?  No adults wrote the script or acted it out.  It was a group of kids who together, inclusively, found their way...a group of kids who acknowledged the villain in each of us and the hero ready to transform. 

Notice: no mommy was a main character.

I'm getting the message.  My job is to be in the show up.  My job is to provide the opportunity to stumble -- the chance to rise from defeat, a prince.  The challenge is to stay in the wings...letting the beauty spill out and relishing the view. 
I'm up for the challenge...ready to find my own inner hero and begin the transformation from mommy to Wonder Woman -- or better yet, Hermione.  Now I just need to find my wand.

Monday, September 24, 2012

The Only Thing That Matters: Kindness

"I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel." -- Maya Angelou

There is a song that we used to sing when Patrick was a tiny baby.  It's called "Hands" by Jewel and it is a mesmerizing song.  It has a haunting melody and beautiful lyrics that get to the heart of what matters.  Her line that often repeats, like a prayer:

In the end, only kindness matters.

That's it. Six small words and that's all you need to distill all the wisdom of every religion down to a single sentence:
only kindness matters.  

When we were holding fragile, baby Patrick those words became our mantra.  It was all we asked for from each other, all we expected of our kids, all we hoped for the world to give our son who was labeled with "down syndrome", "mental retardation" and assorted other limiting words sprinkled on him only hours after birth. 

And like some sort of slide show, I remember the incredible acts of kindness bestowed in those beginning days.  I remember returning from the hospital to a house still in the ruins of a remodel to a front door that was decorated and welcoming us home.  That loving act of kindness still brings tears for it was the first time that I pondered the idea that Patrick might be welcomed by others...and he was!  I remember a dinner being brought over to my house by a mom I didn't know since Jack was a brand new kindergartener and we were new to our town. Mostly, I remember the bottle of wine she gave if we were celebrating.  And it dawned on me that we could be celebrating, should be celebrating -- instead of being afraid of the unknown.

I remember vividly our gentle, kind parish priest, Father Dan, holding tiny Patrick right outside of church and giving him a blessing and then blessing all of us.  I could feel his grace and his welcoming kindness.

I remember a friend coming into our hospital's Pediatric Cardio Intensive Care Unit with a giant over-sized stuffed puppy that was also named Patrick.  Seeing that giant puppy given from my hard-working friend in her business suit made me believe that someday our Patrick might be climbing all over that silly guy and having fun...outside of hospital walls and hard times.

In the end, only kindness matters.

And no, it's not just in the intense dark days that this matters.  Kindness matters every single day. It is the extra deep breath and calm reaction to whatever mishap in the kitchen has occurred -- the proverbial spilled milk.  It is the extra thirty seconds of listening to someone speak, really listening.  It is the way we say goodnight and the way we say good morning to those who share our space.  It is the smile of recognition and welcome for someone who's new.  It is the caring text, checking in.  It is the phone call, the dinner served, the extra kid who tags along because he needs a ride too.  It's our reaction when our spouse says he's got to go out of town, yet again.

You see, I'm not writing this to tell you I'm doing all this.  I'm writing to remind myself.  To remember what it feels like to receive such kindness and by remembering trying to live it.  It's a process and a slow one...but that song still rings true today.  Perhaps the words are even more important today.

Piggybacking onto Jewel's song is this of my all time favorites.
It, too, serves as a daily reminder for me.

by Naomi Shihab Nye

Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things, feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.

Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the
Indian in a white poncho lies dead
by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you, how he too was someone who journeyed through the night
with plans and the simple breath
that kept him alive.

Before you know kindness
as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow
as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness
that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day
to mail letters and purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
it is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you every where
like a shadow or a friend.

So, it is with kindness that I send this out to you...hoping the ripples will make their way into some space within you that needs a bit of kindness...hoping that those ripples will continue to find others who need a dash of kindness like they need a spot of tea.   That this kindness can be the way we treat each other, including those that we love most and those we don't even know. The "size of the cloth" is pretty big, and it is the only thing that makes sense.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Let's Start A Smiley Revolution

"Today, give a stranger one of your smiles.  
It might be the only sunshine he sees all day." 
                                           -- H. Jackson Brown, Jr.                                             

  This...just never gets old, does it?   

I don't know who taught her this.  This smiley face tucked inside the letter "O" but I absolutely love it.  And trust me, if I could somehow place two eyes and a curvy upward smile into my computer "O" I'd be all over it.

I received this envelope just the other day -- at the end of a long day.  I perked right up with those smileys.  I started thinking about where she might have seen those decorated "O"'s and wondered who was blessing her with smileys, besides me.

Back when Patrick was in kindergarten, in 2005, I decided to travel to Sioux Falls, South Dakota for a conference for educators who believed in full inclusion in Catholic schools.  It was the first time I had ever really travelled alone and I was going to a place where I knew no one.  It was a whim.  I felt an urgent need to affirm to myself that including Patrick in our local Catholic school where our other two older children went wasn't just a nice idea.  I wanted to believe that it was happening in other places.  I wanted to meet other people who felt called to this mission of actually living what we know at our very core: all kids deserve to be educated together -- no matter how hard or uncomfortable it might make the school community.
We all deserve to sit at the table.

So, there I was on an airplane journey that had a layover and a long wait in an airport.  You should know this about me, and perhaps you do, I'm a talker.  I love to strike up conversations with strangers.  I love hearing their stories, commiserating over cold coffee or weird TSA agents or sharing the latest book I'm reading. I am comfortable making small talk, actually, I'm good at it.

So it might come as a surprise when I reveal that for two different airplane rides, one multi-hour layover in a strange giant airport not a single person made eye contact with me or made conversation with me.  It was so unnerving that on the second leg of my journey I started to have real doubts about this whole thing.

It went a little like this:
"Beth, what in the world are you doing?"
"Why are you traveling all the way to South Dakota on a lark?"
"What are you thinking leaving your three small children and your husband and just going off -- this is crazy!"

Honestly, by the end of that second plane ride I had convinced myself that if my ride to the tiny (yet gorgeous) retreat center way out in the boondocks of rural Irene, South Dakota looked at all suspicious I would just pack it all in and declare failure.

Off the plane I went searching for my ride and there he was: an older man with a kind smile holding a sign.  All it said was Welcome -- NICE Conference.  And in the center of those two letter "O"'s were, you guessed, the smiley face.  It sounds funny now but as soon as I saw those smileys I knew I was in the right place.  I knew I was with the right people and I knew it was going to be a worthwhile adventure.

All it took was that international symbol of goodwill and welcome.  The sunny smiley. :)

Seeing how the world is right now with outrageous hatred toward others of different cultures or faiths or classes I want to start a worldwide smiley revolution.

I'm not trying to be trite or trivial.

Can you imagine how powerful it would be if we all just held up signs that said "Welcome" with a smiley in the center?  How sinister can we be if we hold up signs that say "love" with a smiley tucked in about the powerful "Thank you"?

I believe we could change the world with a smiley revolution.  If every single person received a smiley, regardless of status or age or wealth or race, we could change a worldwide mood of hostility and simmering anger to one of care and inclusion. about the word "inclusion" holding that smiley too???

Yep, we all deserve to be here.  We all deserve a smiley and while we're at it, let's throw in a heart or two.  It can't hurt and it just might help.

Your job today: pass out 10 smileys and 5 hearts to those you love.
Tomorrow pass out the same amount to strangers.
The next day: try to pass them out to those who you'd rather not give them to, those who bug you, get under your skin or make you creep out.

Imagine the ripple.

Who's in?

Monday, September 10, 2012

Lucky Number Nine

"It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; 
what is essential is invisible to the eye." 
-- Antoine de Saint Exupery (The Little Prince)

Patrick with his heart cake today, 9.9.12

Thirteen years ago God graced us with a baby...a tiny baby boy with a broken heart and an extra chromosome.  The doctors who know better checked his heart immediately and found that indeed Patrick had one large chamber when he should have four.  We were introduced to fancy terms and potential surgical procedures and a whole host of predictions that just don't seem to fit into your brain when you are holding a tiny piece of perfection.  Predictions that included "heart failure" and "open heart surgery" in a matter of weeks.  I remember watching him breathe effortlessly still sleepy from entering this crazy world and wondering how any of it could be true.  Like a small child, I leaned down  close to his chest and tried to hear anything that might indicate the dire predictions...I always wonder what I expected to hear (an ambulance siren? a tornado warning?) but all I heard were the sweet sounds of a baby slumbering, perfectly at peace.

My world was the opposite.  I grappled with a newborn facing massive surgery at any moment -- the date depended on the best guess of a pediatric cardiologist who acted casual and perfectly normal as he described cracking my newborn's chest open, cutting through the electric field within the heart, creating chambers with Dacron patches and reconfiguring life sustaining heart valves.  Sure.  No problem.  It's all fine, really...NOT.

On 9.9.99 at 9am at 9 weeks old and 9 pounds 9 ounces,  I handed my sweet baby over and prayed like crazy for the next few hours.  Anything goes with heart surgery. All sorts of really bad things can go down.  We all know it but nobody talks about it...until it happens.  

Believe it or not, this was a time before the internet and incredible connectivity was really possible.  I knew next to nothing of what to expect.  I saw no pictures of babies who might have gone through something similar.  I didn't know what would happen afterward or how nursing would go or if I would ever get my baby back.

Patrick came out of surgery at around 2pm and I remember feeling the most afraid I'd ever felt.  Seeing him wasn't scary, waiting for the other shoe to drop was what made me crazy.  We brought our favorite music so that we could envelope Patrick in our blanket of love and hope, our way.  We held our breath and watched and waited...for what we didn't know.  He had tubes and wires coming out of his body and I remember unease, nausea and fear creating 
tentacles that gripped me.  I got good at finding my way to random isolated corners of the hospital and crying and crying and if that would help.

Patrick for the first 18 hours was really out of it but then the pain came crashing down.  They tried the heavy narcotics that relieve almost anyone else, increasing the morphine regularly but it didn't work. An entire day later, they tried Fentanyl and my baby finally stopped fussing.  To this day, that drug is emblazoned on my memory and should Patrick ever be in severe pain again I know what to say and how quickly to act.  It doesn't help that now I know that he has an incredibly high pain threshold and that when he is suffering, he really is suffering, in an excruciating way.

For five days, Patrick recovered.  But those words mask the terror and the fear.  We watched a young boy who was Jack's age at the time -- a darling six year old -- die right in front of our eyes with every amazing surgeon and doctor and nurse laying it all out there to save his life.  It wasn't supposed to go that way.  It wasn't expected. And it's moments of complete futility and heartbreaking effort that underscore what we all know but never acknowledge: all the important stuff is out of your hands and out of your power.  All you get to do is wait, hope, pray and acknowledge the gift if it goes your way.

So...every September 9th we pause and acknowledge the gift.  It went our way.  Those Dacron patches worked.  Those valves continue to do their job day in and day out.  Thirteen years later, I have a teenager with a scar on his chest -- his badge of courage we call it -- and that is it.  No heart issues at all.  We had talented surgeons, truly terrific nurses and nothing but good fortune on 9.9.99.
We are forever grateful.

It seems the least we can do is make a heart cake, dig out the red plate and celebrate Patrick's lucky number nine.

My boy with the biggest heart I know can indeed see rightly.  He knows what is essential.  Thanks to him, I do too.

Friday, August 24, 2012

The Tenderness of Teachers

Fresh crayons and pencils awaiting their students.

"One looks back with appreciation to the brilliant teachers, but with gratitude to those who touched our human feelings.  The curriculum is so much necessary raw material, but warmth is the vital element for the growing plant and for the soul of the child."  
-- Carl Jung

My kids have started school, just barely, and some of my student teachers from last year have classrooms of their own -- these bits of my heart are in classrooms all over the place -- and I want to acknowledge the beginning point.  We've got clean slates right now.  No huge transgressions have happened, no bad choices, no impulse control issues.  That is the beauty of the new year and I am grateful for it.

I'm grateful for the fresh pencils, the stacks of construction paper lovingly ready for art projects, the tubs filled with books or crayons and the clean desks.  I'm grateful for the fresh start of every single new year in's one of my favorite parts of teaching.  We all get to start over, make new goals and create new dreams.

Caroline is in first grade this year.  She's pretty easy going and pretty non demanding...after all she's fourth in line in her family so she's used to waiting her turn and helping herself.  The third day of school though, life was hard for Caroline.  She was scootering to school, fast and frenzied, the way she likes to do it and she bit the dust...full on wipe out.  The girl is quick on her feet and pretty steady on a scooter so she was shocked, sad and hurt.  We ditched the scooter and I carried my crying girl the rest of the way to school.  We stopped at the front office and I cleaned up her scraped knee, placed the ever-crucial band aid and walked over to the first graders lining up just outside of their classroom.  

Caroline tried to get it together.  Her red face and tear stained cheeks gave away that it had been a rough start but she was trying to calm down and then, she saw her teacher and the tears started all over again, and the quiet sobs.  So sad.  My mother's heart was aching with the wish of whisking her away but I knew I had to keep with the routine and get her to class.  Her teacher came up to her and wrapped her arm around her while I told the story of the sad scooter wipe out.

Her teacher looked her in the eyes and said something so comforting, so simple and so brilliant: "Caroline, I have a special chair in my room for times like these.  You can sit in it and feel better.  I'm sorry that happened.  Come with me."

A special chair. 
 Even I, a veteran teacher and wise to the ways of teacher tricks, wanted to spy the special chair.  What did it look like?  Could I get one for at home?  Where is it?

Caroline composed herself and set off in search of the special chair.  She barely looked back.  And I had to be satisfied with the comforting and healing of the special chair.  I had to put my faith in a kind teacher and let my baby girl go -- skinned knee and everything.

As I walked back home with a scooter, I pondered the special chair.  We all need moments of tenderness and kindness.  For a teacher, we ache to soothe the owies and help our students but we feel the time pressure of so many needy students and we worry about anything taking away from class time.  The special chair is a beautiful way to give that tenderness and acknowledgement without skipping a beat.  It lets the student feel heard and helped and yet it takes nothing away from the others.  

When Caroline got home I asked her about the special chair.  She said it was the rolly, comfy chair that the teacher sits in at the reading table.  That's it.  No decorations, no fancy paint...just a chair...provided in a difficult moment.

And that's when it struck me.  That's the difference between great teachers and the rest of us.  They are regular people doing their job but they know when to pause and offer the special chair.  They recognize that not much learning can get done if the heart is wounded.  They find ways to reach the heart of the student before trying to teach the brain.  If a student knows and feels that the teacher truly cares, tremendous things can happen...crazy amounts of learning and incredible amounts of personal growth. If not, students stagnate or worse, they wither. 

Today I am grateful for the tenderness of teachers.  Beginning teachers, veteran teachers and even grizzled college professors, I'm blessed to know so many truly gifted teachers.  Teachers who offer the special chair at just the right moment.  Thank you for your hard work, your kindness and for taking the time to truly see your students.  You make the world a better place.