Offering gratitude

I remember the Christmas I was about seven or eight years old. I wanted a Cabbage Patch doll. It was all I really wanted that year, to be honest. I had made that much clear to anyone who was listening (Mom, Dad, Santa….God?). I think I dreamed about her, my doll: those chubby cheeks, that rag-doll yarn hair. Those two lumpy pig-tails tied with ribbons, along with the signature on her rounded derriere that guaranteed she was truly made by ‘the’ Xavier Roberts. To have a Cabbage Patch doll would have been to have a dream come true. An answer to prayer, even. (I am not sure if I prayed for her, my non-existent dollie- but to think that I might have makes total sense.)

So imagine my surprise when I opened my Christmas gift that year to find a beautiful china doll with porcelain skin staring back at me instead of a dimpled plastic one. This replacement other- this actual doll was a fine toy complete with dark, wavy hair, finely stitched Victorian dress and a velvety blue bonnet that just never would stay put on that her head. She was lovely, but she wasn’t a Cabbage Patch Kid.

I don’t remember feeling very thankful.

What I do remember was receiving that doll and the disappointment I felt. She was beautiful, elegant and far more of a classic in comparison to the trendy Cabbage Patch doll I craved. But she wasn’t what I asked for. I felt quietly disappointed about the whole thing.

Years later, I find myself still asking. Only this time, my requests aren’t as trivial and innocent.

“Please God, protect them…” “Please God, allow rest…” Please God bring healing…” “Please God, more time…” “Please God….please.” Sometimes the litany of request feels like a shopping list of needs that I rhyme off- with hopes that I will get everything on my list. But what if what I am asking for is no longer in stock? What if it is not available at this time? What if what I am asking for is something not the very best for me- nor the very best for those for whom I am requesting that certain something? What is best, anyway? Do I even know?

What if prayer was less a list of ‘please give…’ and more of an “I thank you…”? What would prayer be like then? Would it change?

Our lives are full of blessings. Some of those blessings come through rays of sunshine and hope. Some of the blessings come through tears and storm clouds. But through the joyous moments and through the difficult times, there are slices of time when light shines through and we see the absolute beauty in life. Yes, our lives are precious in all their complexity- even in the midst of absolute darkness and sorrow, beams of light will radiate.

These little moments for me can be seen as answers to prayer. True, these little blessings are not always the big ticket items on my proverbial prayer shopping list- sometimes they are just those little somethings I noticed out of the corner of my eye. The little things. Things like…

• A friend stopping by to say they are thinking of me
• A phone call just when I needed it
• A message, email or note
• A smile timed just right
• A hug
• A drive to Tim’s
• A rainbow
• My flowers blooming
• A found kitten

The little things in life are sometimes what bring the greatest joy in my darkest hour. They are what get me through.

I have been asking God for some pretty big-ticket items lately. I have a feeling a few of us might be in this same boat. But I wonder if we have sometimes forgotten how to pray gratitude into our prayers. To thank instead of ask. To offer gratitude.

To thank God for the gift of time- what a precious commodity that is. To thank God for the gift of memories- we have such precious recollections of the ones we love- even as we make new memories each and every day. To be grateful for each moment we’ve been given. Even for today. To just relish the very minutes we have right now and breathe a prayer of thanks for this priceless gift.

We are so blessed.

Our lives may seem complex, complicated, rushed, maddening, stressful, anxious and short. But viewed through a different lens, they can also be seen as beautiful, intricate, intense and precious. Our lives are a masterpiece- and this life is only the beginning.

For every breath we’ve been given, our grateful hearts say “thanks”.

Blessings come through tears

We have a new baby kitten, so precious and sweet. The girls are enamored yet feel completely responsible for this little bundle of love. The other day, M.A. said to Husband with a sigh, “I am soooo tired of looking after this kitten” to which Hubs responded it was not her responsibility to do so: it was the mother cat who had that job.

Nevertheless, she feels it is.

Last summer, we had five little kittens born and raised on our property. One summer evening, the mother introduced them to us, calling them out from a Spirea shrub one-by one. They danced around our feet in the twilight much to the delighted squeals and giggles of our girls. We were taken by these little beings- they quickly wrapped themselves around our hearts.

One busy Sunday morning we were heading for church in a rush when Brian backed the van up quickly. One of the little kittens was situated under the tire, as they all found the warmth of our vehicle comforting. With a sickening feeling, Brian knowing he had backed over it, got out of the van without the children knowing and found the kitten. Still without telling them as he knew it would completely upset them at that moment, he moved the little lifeless body and carried on, feeling sick about the unfortunate event.

Even the life of a kitten has meaning and significance.

This summer, I have been watching this new mama cat as she cares for her single kitten and I have been struck with the fact that although she can do much as a mother, she cannot prepare her baby for the inevitable: its death. It is contrary to our normal inclination to think of death upon the emergence of new life, but the inevitability that life is followed always by death is something we cannot avoid. We as humans have the ability to be aware of our existence, something cats, in all their amazing capability cannot be.

Sadly, we as humans are not always aware that we are born to one day die.   Yet thankfully, we are reminded throughout life that it is the living that is sandwiched in between the entry and exit that makes all the difference.

I have been thinking of how we as parents- how we as the adults can prepare children for death. We know not how long any life has been given, know not the number of our days nor any one elses, for that matter. How do we live life while facing death? How do we prepare for this fact? Even with my own assurance of heaven, there is still the very real aspect of separation in death that we as humans must face. Death causes separation, even if but for a time. No one truly wants to leave behind those they love and adore.

In my extended family, we have had several premature deaths- two to infants and one to a teenager on her graduation night. In all three cases, it has been hard to make sense of the fact that these were not elderly people facing death after a long, fulfilling life. These were babies, these were children. How does one make sense of this? How is it that a child is as susceptible to their mortality as one who lives to be one hundred? But it is the very nature of our humanness to be so fragile- we are but a vapour, a breath- transfixed between the present and eternity with only our next lungful of air as a separating veil.

Is this life we live, as fleeting as it might appear to be, a blessing?

I talked to a dear friend recently about that word ‘blessing’- a beautiful word to describe life when things are going well, but a puzzling one when things are not. Is life a blessing? All life?

The night my aunt was taken, she who was then eighteen years of age and a brand-new high school graduate- that night, two officers came to my grandparents door in the wee hours of the morning. Came there to deliver the inevitable news- news no paret ever wishes to receive.   That an accident had occurred and their beloved baby girl had been the casualty.  Words could not express the emotions that would overcome a parent hearing such a fateful interruption during what would have been prior a peaceful night’s sleep. What images would run through the mind? What visions? Our sole desire as parents is to keep our children safe- and when we cannot, have not been able to keep this sacred oath, what must that do to a parental psyche? Where would one go to find solace?

My grandfather’s devout faith and trust in a loving God- in a God who blesses us even with showers that fall fast and furious at times, pelting us with their intensity. My grandfather said this: “The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh. Blessed be the name of the Lord.” In the scriptures, Lord connotates a title of respect for one deemed in a position of honor, much the same as the word Rabbi is used to refer to a teacher. For my grandfather, he did not hesitate to acknowledge that the One he trusted most- the One who had proved faithful to him time and time again, would still prove faithful even in this storm.  And he used the word “blessed” to ascribe meaning- even to the taking of that dear one whom he held most precious.

How could this be?
Was this tremendous loss a blessing? For our family, we suffered the passing of a beloved daughter, sister, friend. Down through the years, we grandchildren have been told stories that honor my Aunt MaryAnne’s life. We have seen her legacy- and my own daughter is her namesake.  While death will never be celebrated as a blessing, for death is not lauded in the same way that we cherish life, the blessing was the life. She has never been forgotten, her life not rendered as history. Because through story, her memory lives on. Her life, however brief it may have been- was a blessing to those whom she met. There was not a soul who crossed her path that didn’t love her- she was that kind of girl. Years later, I still find people who talk of her genuine sweetness and purity of spirit. She was gentle and loving- and the world is a richer place because her life was in it.

We often say that we have been blessed with good health, good fortune, good genes, good luck. When the weather is nice we count it a blessing. But I would counter that life, no matter how short, how seemingly insignificant- is precious. Our lives are precious. And it is a blessing to live, to have lived. It is a blessing to have been given the chance to breath in air, to feel sun rays’ gentle warmth on our upturned faces, to know what it is to have felt the rain. My grandmother of 92 sits day after day inside a manor in Fredericton and while it can seem to be a curse to live that long and no longer have the wherewithal to get up and move, the people in her life are a blessing to her. It is a blessing for her to be cared for by people who genuinely love her.

And while I even think of the people in this world who have not been blessed with love and care, I feel the challenge is left up to those of us who know this blessing well to then extend it outwards. So that everyone the world over can feel the touch of love, especially those who need it most. Acclaimed writer and critical theorist bell hooks said this about the blessing of love: “Imagine how different our lives would be if all the individuals who claim to be Christians, or who claim to be religious, were setting an example for everyone by being loving” (hooks, 2000, p. 74). Were this to be true, how much more would we then understand the meaning of that little word blessing?

The challenge is left to us.

Our lives are not for naught. They are precious, meaningful, purposed for a greater plan. And it is a blessing to live, to have lived. A blessing to love, to have loved. And a blessing to have the opportunity to share this eternal love we know so well with the others in our lives.

Taking care of ourselves

She playfully bats at the little ball of fluff, her baby. Tousling, grooming, cuddling, nursing. But when she sees the need, setting the little kitten free to explore without the ever-present eye of Mama to govern and oversee. Sometimes, she completely appears to abandon, lazing in the sun while her tiny kitten sits alone on the top stair of our steps, wary and uncertain. Is Mama neglectful? I think not.

When mama cat lovingly stretches out languidly on our top step with baby nearby, her tiny offspring responds to her in love. There is no doubt that there is a relationship between the two. But it is one designed to set free so that the younger can one day take care of herself. To never allow for the certainty that the baby will one day be on its own would be a tragedy. True. Everyone needs love- even barn cats. But you rarely see amongst animals any form of helicopter parenting as one often sees in human parenting. Animals seem to know instinctively the balance needed so as to nurture and prepare their offspring for life after the nursery.

Care requires that we respond within a relationship. Within relationships of care, there is always a two-way exchange happening at any given time- a process which can reverse and rearrange at seemingly a moment’s notice. And all because relationships of care are responsive. A caregiver in relationship to another acknowledges a need or a requirement, responds to that need and then allows for caring to occur. This process can be reversed almost immediately, depending on the relationship. The cared-for- in response to the care emitted, can then responsively give care to the other almost immediately.

In thinking about care so much and so often, I am realizing that there are elements of care that we have forgotten. I feel we have forgotten at times how to take care. A local radio personality whom I have listened to over the years often signs off with the phrase, ‘take care of one another today’; from the moment I first heard this phrase, it has stuck with me. How does one take care? And where does care-taking begin?

I would suggest that there are dimensions of caretaking that we must heed. That we have overlooked. The first being our need to take care of ourselves.

There is an underlying assumption that we need to take care of one another in life, but in order to do this, we first need to learn the secret of taking care of ourselves. In taking care of ourselves, we need to learn to listen to our bodies, listen to our hearts. We have all heard of the spoken rule, given by flight attendants on airlines, to put on your own mask on first prior to helping your children or other dependents. I am convinced in my own life that the growth and development of care woven throughout my life experiences has been a direct result of my learned ability to care for myself, self-care guided for me by faith through the direction of a loving Father. For years, I looked to others to care for me. Why weren’t they doing what I thought was the basic of all human responses- caring? Why were people not responding to my needs? And why wasn’t I feeling loved and looked after? Why was I feeling so bereft? These feelings of a deficit in care followed me into my marriage, leaving me looking to a husband to fulfil the role of caretaker, a tremendous responsibility considering he was not even the one who had left me feeling unloved and uncared for in the first place. That was baggage I had brought into our marriage- a composite of my difficult years of schooling, my years in the public eye as a pastor’s kid and the other personal experiences of my life that directly impacted me in very private ways. We cannot first expect others to care for us if we have not learned how to care for ourselves. And I am convinced that many, many problems in marriages could be avoided if we first were able to redirect our need for care back to ourselves- as well as if we could start to see that the ways people express care, initiate care, offer care, interpret care and understand care: are different. Different. Not bad, worse, inferior or poorer: just different. Maybe we need to start by seeing the best in what another human being is offering us, starting with our partners.

I would never, ever wish the message I am conveying to be one in which we reduce the responsibility we have toward others. My life is rich because I have learned to care for others. I believe that the transformation in my life has been one in which, with God’s guiding hand, I was able to take something that was painful and difficult and see the good in it. I think this is the reason I am now able to responsively express care to others: there has been a miracle in my life. But I would never want to overstep the responsibility I have been given to care for myself in all of this. That was a first step in this process- understanding the needs in my life and slowly taking measures to meet those needs one by one through loving myself. Through accepting myself. Unconditionally. I had to learn to love myself so as to love others. And I cannot personally underestimate my faith in Jesus and my Abbba Father in this process- as I have come to understand I have a Father who loves me intimately and expressly, I can now love myself as an expression of His love. I am free to love the others in my life as I now know how much I am loved myself.

And this is the very essence of care: freedom to love and responsively give to oneself and the others in one’s life. Freely, wholly, purely.

All because of love.

Rage against the dying of the light

We tread side-by-side at dusk, rain still shimmering on summer leaves while sun fades fast behind heavy clouds. He divulges to me the secrets we both keep hidden away through daylight hours from Little Ears, sacred documents of the heart that must be locked away. As I walk the inside track, closest to the gully that leads down to the prolific birch trees spreading helter-skelter towards the field, he tells me this. Doctors have given very little hope, very little promise.

“What about that treatment?” I ask.

“It won’t prolong life,” the resigned response. And then he says to me, “I keep thinking of that Dylan Thomas poem:

Do not go gentle into that good night, Old age should burn and rage at close of day; Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

“I am resigned to the fact that the doctors know best,” he then offers uncertainly.

I cannot think of anything profound to say to that. But I think to myself: I would rage.

I would rage.

If radical pedagogy must insist that everyone’s presence is acknowledged (hooks, 1994, p. 8), then radical care vows no sacred Presence goes uncared for. Radical care upholds the individual’s right to love, compassion, empathy, concern and kindness. And when the need necessitates, the individual’s right to be cared for in radical ways.

I think of my little Sianna* of the just-finished kindergarten class from this past year. I think of the fears expressed to me by her parents and my inner vow to fight for this child. To be that advocate for her parents that they seemed to need. I remember the ways I fought for her right to be medically cared for- how I contacted the public health nurse numerous times to arrange for the appointments with an Audiologist. How I advocated for her parents’ right to a second chance at such an opportunity.

I think too of the assisted speech technology that I raced against time for- buying an i-pad for Jake* at a moment’s notice- literally. Then the race against the clock to meet a deadline with a man. A man who held the keys to open a door leading to a world of words for that same little boy, who had so few words at his disposal. I think of the sweat that broke as I ran, as I ran- just so as to obtain a program I could otherwise not afford installed on that same i-pad I had just bought: so that a little boy could somehow communicate with me. So that he could somehow find his voice therein. And I think of the tears that fell freely as I got there just in time. The sheer relief in knowing, this was really going to happen.

Radical care allows for the impossible to occur. But the challenge is first to initiate the care process, giving attention and acknowledgement to the presence of another human being. Through awareness of the people with whom we share our communities, be those groupings of a familial nature, a learning community or a neighborhood- we start by acknowledgement. And we move forward from there.

Husband and I head back, on the homestretch now. The sky is darkening and night time presses in, enveloping. But I do not go gentle into the thickening darkness.

I press on as one who sees the light.

******************************************************

Dylan Thomas’s Do not go gentle into that good night

 

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Taken from this URL: http://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/do-not-go-gentle-good-night

Mothers Also Need to Be Inspirational

We all know that motherhood is a balancing act. A fine art of juggling many breakable plates whilst appearing like everything is under control. As was the case recently when I was on my way to Charlottetown, P.E.I. for a radio interview related to my day job.

I am driving when I remember that my kiddos are heading on a field trip this particular morning and I haven’t paid for the park pass they need to get into the attraction of the day. I haven’t got the pass, paid for the pass- haven’t even made an attempt to call about the pass. It’s not that I haven’t thought about it. The pass, that is. It’s just that I have been thinking about too many other things. Things like, whether or not I can get myself to an interview and my three children to school on time (probably nope). Or even more pressing things like ‘Did I remember to take my lunch/carafe of coffee/grocery bag of stuff with me when I left the house mere minutes ago?’ (nope again) Which is the problem (of my life/reality within which I live) most of my waking moments.

Thoughts of ‘passing out‘ with all this last minute pressure on me to perform ‘pass‘ through my mind.

With that in mind, the count down is on. T minus 30 minutes and counting. I tell my childrens’ teachers when I drop them off that I will text them the pass number, which I proceed to do later on that same morning with one hand as I pay for the pass using a debit card with the other. This Mama might be absent-minded, but she can multi-task like nobody’s business. I turn and make a lame excuse to the cashier and then the person behind me- something about being a mother with lots to do. I get a few nods of sympathy from the curious onlookers witness to my desperation. Or maybe they are just glad that they were more organized than me. Smiles of pity- the worst kind to receive.

I do eventually get the pass. But as I am driving, I remember that our three cats at home have no cat food (because we also have a family of racoons living in the barn which eat us out of house and home). So I slip in to pick that item up en route. And while there in the grocery store, I also realize that my three children are going on said class outing without ready access to a water fountain. As I have a sinking feeling that Husband forgot to pack water bottles, today it is going to be blue Gatorade juice bottles to the rescue. All the better in the unfortunate event that my children happen to approach dehydration from the scorching hot sun. In which case, I will be the mother who is ahead of the game. Ready and prepared. Never mind the fact that Kiddos will probably all come home with only a cap full of the stuff drank and I will therefore have to pour the whole thing down the drain. It’s worth it.

And so it goes. Just another day in a mother’s life.

If I was to sit down and contemplate my life right now with all of its busy moments and crazy ups and downs, there is no doubt in my mind that this parenting gig is one of the hardest jobs I’ll ever have to do. It’s grueling being a mother. No words can adequately describe the simply hard, exhausting physical (yes) and mental work mothers do. And the above is just the tip of the iceberg.

It’s not that I don’t love my kids — I would die for them. I would. And I would drive to the ends of the earth for my children, if not for a park pass — certainly if it was a matter of life or death. Not that I don’t enjoy being a mother either, because really (most of the time) I certainly do. But I do have to say that being a mom is HARD for many reasons that are not always visibly apparent. Not only am I tending to the physicalities of the daily grind like laundry, bed-making, hair brushing and the like, but I also care- and care deeply about what’s going on inside my children’s hearts and minds. I care that my multi-tasking creates anxiety for both my Youngest and Oldest and I wish there was an easier way to do large-family living up in a more effective way. (I think I would start by hiring a live-in nanny.) I care that my children sometimes feel sad and alone. I care that they have important questions to which they are searching for answers. I care about the little and big things that affect their life.

I care.

Peter McKay has made recent comments about the day-to-day essential tasks associated with being a mother which would very much be in line with the first part of my little diatribe above, the part about what moms naturally are known for. But what he forgets to make note of is that moms also care deeply about “the immense and life-long influence we have over our children” every bit as much as do the dads. We certainly are in the business of shaping minds and futures alongside the other important adults in our children’s lives, namely fathers, grandparents, guardians, teachers and coaches to name a few. Although I am not a woman applying for a judicial position, I am a woman who cares deeply about her career and where it is heading, even as I ponder the ways in which I can influence my children to reach higher and probe further themselves — all things I think about while I cook up pork chops for supper or type out a blog post on the computer.

What I wish Peter MacKay could understand is this: a mother’s work is not just about bonding and balance, it is about inspiration. While we do have a lot on our plates and many of those plates to juggle, our children are watching us. They are inspired by the choices we make. And it is up to mothers and fathers both to provide good role models for children to follow and pattern their lives after. Parents with decidedly different roles at times but both important for the function of encouraging the next generation to be all that they can be. And that missive includes clearly showing that men and woman both have contributions to make both inside and outside of the home.

One thing Peter and I would agree on I think is this: being a parent, while exhausting and challenging, is worth ever little second of worry and exhaustion and tears that comes with it as part of the package. It’s exciting to see growth in our children and it’s important that they in turn see growth in us. When we give our children a picture of the possibilities they have, they are always the better for it.

And just for the record: a sense of humor never hurts either for all those crazy in-between moments when we are just hanging on by a single thin thread. At least that’s how I roll.

The Different Faces of Love

Should a teacher be like a parent in her role concerning her students? Some might say “yes”. In both parental and educational positions, we are called to care, compassion and empathy in our interactions toward the children with whom we are connected. We are both called to help children grow and develop. We are called to nurture and protect. To teach and discipline. I would even go so far as to say that teachers, like parents, come to love their students. But are teachers called to “parent” their students?

I know I would have answered that question in the affirmative until I did more thinking on it recently. That is, I would certainly agree that in as much as is possible, teachers should try to fill that parental role for students while they are in their care during the day. And truly, I have very much felt like a parent at times to the precious seven that I spend the majority of my day with- so much so that they often call me Mom. I gently correct them when this happens, but it doesn’t seem to matter. It’s June and I am still getting, “Mom.., I mean Mrs. Gard…”

But more and more, I am beginning to think that my role as teacher needs to have some boundaries. Not because I don’t love my students. Not because I don’t care. But because I do. And because their parents love them more. So,I need to protect the boundaries around private and public life for both my students and myself. In contemplating this question, I came up with a few reasons why I feel teachers and parents have distinctly different roles.

Parents are largely in charge of the personal stuff. That is, they are the ones grooming, clothing and feeding their youngsters. They are the ones that make the final decisions about what happens before students come to school- and they are the ones who follow through on what happens after school- where kids go, what they do, how they do it. Parents are in charge of what extra-curricular activities their children are involved in and how much homework gets done. They are responsible for bedtimes and hygiene. They are the ones who deal with fears and anxieties that arise when the quiet of evening settles in. When the night-time dark wakes them from their sleep. Parents are the ones who greet them in the morning. And they are the ones who have the knowledge of what truly makes their child tick. Parents are the experts in this area.

Teachers, on the other hand, are the ones who are primarily involved in the public life of the child. They are the ones teaching key literacy and numeracy components. They are concerned with social, physical and emotional development. Teachers are interested with cognition and fine and gross motor skills. We are the ones who educate for a deeper appreciation of music and the arts. The ones educating children for social justice and critical awareness. And yes, while we also are always on the lookout for ways to teach life to our students, we would never want to unjustly steal the gift of this opportunity away from parents. This is your birthright as long as you protect it. You are your child’s first and most important teacher.

Because the lines are drawn largely around the realms of private and public spheres, teachers’ and parents’ roles are different. This might seem like common sense, but often it becomes confusing to teachers who come to love the children in similar ways to that of the parents, as well as confusing for students. We develop very close relationships with our ‘kids’. And we care deeply for them. Teachers love their students. But we can never duplicate that love that comes from a father or mother. That love is special, it is unique. It is distinctly different from a teacher love. And although love cannot easily be quantified or defined, it is important to realize that there are different kinds of love for different situations. Love is ‘big enough’ to ‘be enough’ for the person bent on giving it away- no matter what kind of love that gift might be wrapped up as.

No matter how it is packaged. How it is offered.

That gift of love can be that which is the unconditional support and care of a father. The selfless love of a teacher. The protective adoration of a mother. The committed affection of an educational assistant. Love is expansive enough to take on many faces. Big enough to fill up many spaces. Love is broad enough and wide enough to fill up a child’s heart with however much love is given.

There is always room, always space for more.

And although we might do up love packages in different ways, depending on who we are and the relationship we have with the child: parents, your children know one thing for sure. When they come to school, they know they should be loved. They know they should be cared for in as compassionate a manner as is possible- as compassionate a manner as we who are teachers are capable of offering. And while students might not see their teacher as a day-time substitution for Mom or Dad, that’s okay. As long as kids know that they are safe, cared for and being challenged in both little and big ways, that’s love enough to carry them.

It’s love enough for every child.

And sometimes I write about mindless nothingness…

I am writing now on the computer when Youngest Daughter comes up to me hopping on the spot. Telling me that she has almost got 5000 steps on her pedometer. This since supper, mind you. And moments before stepping into the tub, dear readers, she finally surpassed the coveted milestone. I just caught her trying to clip the darn thing to her naked toe as she stepped into the tub. INTO THE TUB, people. She then proceeded to ask me to check it, as it sat forlornly in the basket by the tub, as if it might have got up and hopped around the room while I was washing her hair.  As if it could possibly have a blessed moment of peace.  As I write these very words, she is calling to me from the upstairs tub to come and get her OUT. So she can STEP SOME MORE. And my friends and colleagues wonder why I am looking a little haggard these days.

This was not the point of this blog.  The point was to talk about my complete lack of prowess at chess.

Last night, Son suggested we play chess. Good times. REAL.GOOD.TIMES. When I play chess, it usually ends in tears. As in, I’m crying (inside) like a baby. But I guess you could say last night’s game was certainly also good for a few funny laughs at my expense, if you call losing to your fourteen year-old son in a silly board game amusing. But then again, these grumbling sentiments of mine are partly due to the fact that I am the worst chess player in the universe. I know that. Son knows that. Husband knows that. Now the rest of the world is in on our little family secret.
It’s humiliating, really.
Now that I am forty, I have a sinking feeling that my brain cells are diminishing at a more alarming rate than I have previously been accustomed to. So I agreed to play with Son anyway (partly because my brain cells are diminishing at an alarming rate and I no longer know any better, … and also partly because I keep forgetting how bad I actually am at chess. It never seems to take me too long to remember though.) I usually agree to play chess because I think I am exercising my brain. However, some things don’t want to be exercised anymore when you turn forty- things like brains and bellies. And buttocks. They actually RESIST exercising, like there is some sort of rule about the point of no return. If I started exercising my brain (and other things) at this point in my life, I would be very afraid at what might be the outcome. At what might HAPPEN. But that is another story to pursue. For another blog, another day.
It’s not like I didn’t have my cheerleaders rooting for me. One second into the game- after I moved the very first fresh-faced pawn up two spaces on the board to face his daunting adversaries, Youngest Daughter looks cheerily at the board and says, “Good move Mom!” It was all downhill from there. At the end of the game, after a few tears, a long walk and a swift pep talk (THIS- all for me, by the way: a.k.a. The Loser of the Game): Son looks at me and says, “You did pretty good Mom, considering what you had left to work with.” I think he meant the measly few pawns and the terrified King who was hiding behind them. Not my brain cells.

I am praying that’s what he meant anyway.  One can always dream.

What Dads Do

In anticipation of Father’s Day on Sunday, I stumbled across a book which I then read today to my students on the topic of animal dads. The book was a great overview of animal fathers in the wild and how they contribute to their offsprings’ lives. A very interesting read.

Did you know that there is a type of fish (whose name escapes me now) which will hold its babies inside its mouth if enemy approaches and then release them when the danger has passed? “Gross,” said my little kindergartners while “fascinating” was the word which came to mind for me. Animal dads are just an amazing study of responsible parenting at its best.

Some of the ways animal fathers do this work of parenting are ways very much like those seen in human fathers, as both can be seen protecting their young, sheltering them, providing for them and playing with them. Cleaning and feeding them. Watching over them while the mothers are away (which the book referred to as babysitting, but which I would clarify so as to call it simple parenting).

And yes, in a manner of which: there are even some animal dads found giving birth to their young. Okay, maybe that one is a tad bit different than in humankind- although we as mothers certainly wouldn’t be opposed were the marvels of modern science to come up with ‘the plan’. Human dads maybe not so much in favor, but it’s my humble opinion that nature has us beat on that one.

As I was reading this book, I was struck by the varied ways in which animal dads offer their children compassionate, loving care. Care offered in many of the very same ways human fathers the world over tenderly care for their own babies- their beloved boys and girls. So with the inspiration gained from having read this book, and with Father’s Day in mind, I am offering five unique ways in which human dads care for their children, in no uncertain order.

1. Human dads can read to their children. I have found that when dads read to their kids, kids are inclined to read more themselves. As dads are interested in a variety of topics, there is bound to be something that will strike a chord, enabling conversation to therefore flow from the launch pad of a great read. When my own kids were young, their dad would have two on either side and at least one on his lap. I still can conjure up this comforting image in my mind even now, many years later; it brings me joy at the thought of it.
2. Human dads can talk to their children. About stuff that matters, as well as stuff that’s just meant to be for fun. The other night, Husband and Son were out scraping the old paint off the house in preparation for repainting our home this summer. At bedtime prayers, what my son mentioned he was most thankful for that day was the time he had to talk to his dad during their work together outside. I later asked Hubbie what they talked about, and he replied with a bit of perplexity: “Not much.” But what we both decided, after some time of talking it over for a bit ourselves, was this: it isn’t WHAT has been said, it’s that something HAS been said. That’s what matters. And its what will be remembered long after the conversations are over.
3. Human dads can stimulate their children’s thinking. One thing I have appreciated about my children’s father is his quiet, unassuming manner when it comes to challenging my children emotionally, intellectually and spiritually. Rather than always leaving them to arrive at their own conclusions about important matters in life, Husband thoughtfully fosters their thinking through carefully designed questions and reflective comments in response. In thinking through issues, the solutions are gained not from imposing standards and expectations that are rigid and exacting, but through providing an example of how one can live their life. And why that example is important to take note of. And from there, allowing time and availability so as to follow through when children are arriving at the answers to their own questions. Making sure that patience and grace are the foundational structures upon which direction is given.
4. Human fathers have the rare opportunity to both create and then leave a legacy for their children. What that legacy becomes remains to be seen through the lasting impression dads leave with their children. Impressions made about what really matters in life, what is worthwhile doing, being and knowing and what is the reason for their own personal existence. All dads provide a legacy, rightly or wrongly, for their children. How their children arrive at the understanding of this legacy is based on the ways in which the father conveys his message. Through his actions, his words and his belief systems. Everyone leaves a legacy for their children, whether they realize this truth or not. So it matters what you believe and how you live out those beliefs: your children are watching you.
5. Human fathers are capable of offering love in deeper ways than one is able to believe that animal dads would be equipped to offer love. There is no doubt that animal dads have a level of commitment and affection for their children: love can be observed the world over, in both human and animals alike. But human fathers have the rare opportunity of showing their offspring unconditional, sacrificial love, a love exhibited by one willing to put himself on the line, if circumstance required that of him. No better example of this can be given than the recent deaths of three fathers in the line of duty, whom one could say were not only acting for the good of all human kind, but also for the good of their own six children they’ve now collectively left behind. Love like this is inspirational.

I will never fully understand the bond that fathers have with their children. Strong as they are between a mother and her children, there is something uniquely special about the father-child relationship. And while it is true that not every father has done the five things I have listed above, the truth of the matter is that most are ABLE to do some of those five, should they so choose. And speaking as a mother, friend and teacher myself, I want to also say this: I appreciate the dads that are emotionally and physically connected to the children I have interacted with over the years. Being a good dad doesn’t mean one must aim for perfection. One would never expect that of mothers, so why then would we expect it of dads? Human perfection itself is a myth, but involvement is a certain possibility. A perfect possibility. Being an involved dad is about as close to perfect in a child’s eyes as they would ever come to expect. And when those kinds of dads take time to read, talk, stimulate, create and love, there is no telling the ways which they will then have of influencing their sons and daughters to being the best people they can be.

Truly the sky’s the limit.

Why I Don’t Have To Be An Expert

On Friday afternoon, I held a Mother’s Day tea in my classroom for all mothers of my current students. And it was a lovely tea for all those who were able to attend. Most of the moms came, along with one grandmother.

When we got to the part of the program where I told them I would be reading some answers to questions that students gave me about their mothers, I heard an audible groan go up from the moms. Of course, there was concern about what their child might have said about them, things said which could inevitably bring embarrassment to the given mother (no matter how cute or adorable it might sound when I wrote it down- word-for-word with the intentions of reading it aloud).
I assured them, in not so many words, that there was nothing to be said that would make anyone want the floor to open up and swallow them alive. Although some of the answers were pretty cute, along with their amateur use of grammar at this age.

Isn’t it interesting how concerning it can be when we know our children have expressed their thoughts about us to someone else.

Today, I was standing next to another young mother and she and I laughed about the fact that we are always wondering how our kids can come up with such flattering, complimentary professions of love for us in their cards and notes when what we really wonder is if we’ve scarred them for life with our constant bellowing and nagging. Not to mention our cranky monologues.

Yesterday, the day before Mother’s Day no less, I had an absolute meltdown regarding Some Children Of Mine who for three consecutive days in a row have left me “surprises” in the toilet and forgot to send them to the undergods at the septic level. I never intended to blow a blood vessel…it just gradually progressed to that point without any real warning to either me or them. In about five minutes flat, I went from concerned, compassionate caregiver to crazed psychopath.

There we are few of us crying and a few of us screaming. And those not doing either of those two things were considering ways in which to prematurely disable their hearing by first blowing a hole in their eardrums.

It was not my finest moment as a mother.

And I have thought a bit over the last twenty-four hours about my meltdown, along with the fact of the matter that I am still an amateur at this gig, even after fourteen years of practice. I still could use a handy manual or helpful little nanny to step in and intervene on those days where I have just “HAD ENOUGH”. Which leads me to my next level of thinking: that we are not mothers because of what we do, necessarily. But rather- mothers because of who we are. Added to that fact is this little bit of encouragement: we are not expected to be perfect at this mothering gig in order to make an impact. In order to be effective. In order for our children to love us.

Because it’s okay to mess up. It’s okay to still be a work in progress. To be a wrecking ball at times.

And I often fall into the trap of thinking that in order to take something on- something as monumental and life-changing and all-important as mothering, I ought to at least be a bit of an expert before I begin. Don’t we all do this at times? And we later fall prone to believe, as time goes on, that the more we do this work of mothering, the better we ought to get at it. So that when we do fail and make mistakes, as we are so prone to do, we are left baffled. Wondering how anyone could ever think of us as competent, let alone wondering how our children could ever come up with so many descriptive words to use in the acrostic poetry entitled M-O-T-H-E-R. Words like…

Mesmerizing, memorable and meek.
Optimistic, out-going and organized.
Tolerant, trustworthy and terrific.
Happy, honorable and helpful.
Energetic, effervescent and enthusiastic.
Role-model, realistic and responsive.

If it were up to me to write my own Mother’s Day card, here is what I might come up with on any given day:

Meanie
Over-worked
Truthful
Honest
Exhausted
Real

I think there is a bit of truth in both lists, tbh.

Because to be honest, moms don’t have to be perfect so as to be the perfect-fit for their kids. They don’t have to be mesmerizing to the exclusion of once in a while being viewed as a meanie. Nor do they have to be either always organized to the point that they don’t consider themselves a wee bit overworked.

We are mothers after all. Not saints.

We can be tolerant while brutally truthful.
Happy while still being honest and true to what we see as the obvious.
We can be the enthusiastic cheerleaders our children need us to be, while inside feeling absolutely exhausted and unable to put two coherent thoughts together.
Responsive and real.
At one and the same time.

The truth is, we don’t have to have our act together- have our ducks always lined up in a row. Mama, we have permission to mess up. We are not perfect.
But we are perfectly right for the children we’ve been blessed to love.
And that is why they love us anyway. And why we joyfully can carry on in spite of it all.
Happy Mother’s Day, all!

The Art of Appreciation

I was reading a blog the other day that gave kudos to teachers, in support of Teacher Appreciation Week. It talked about the work that teachers do and acknowledged teachers and educational assistants as doing important, worthwhile things, in both academic and other areas, so as to support children and young people in their growth, learning and development. It talked a lot about the little unnoticed things that teachers do, things that often fall below the radar as far as visibility. It was a nice article- it made you feel good to read it.

Particularly if you were a teacher.

And then I scrolled through the comments.

And as I did, I came across some negative feedback- as there so often is- to counter the opinions of the author. Comments placed there so as to undermine the author’s attempts at acknowledging her intended audience: teachers. Comments placed there to whine about why other groups of people hadn’t been thanked. Comments placed there to diminish the efforts of individuals committed to their calling and willing to make sacrifices so as to continue doing so. They were rather hurtful comments to read, whether one was a teacher or not.

I am a teacher. But these comments didn’t irk me because I am a teacher. They irked me because I am a human being. A person with a desire to continually acknowledge the best in people and thus see and commend the value of other human beings in service, whomever those individuals might be. And I do this, quite often, through the art of appreciation. Which is to say: I try to watch others. And whatever they might be doing or saying or being matters to me. So much so, that I try to extend to them, as often as I can, a word of appreciation. Thanks and gratitude. It’s not rocket science- but it is pretty important stuff: actually, it’s how I was taught to be by my own gracious mother. So I continue to do so as often as I can. And it is what I now teach the next generation to do as well- my students and four children as well.

It’s quite easy really. Appreciate people. Tell them once in a while what they mean to you. Carry on and repeat.

Couldn’t be simpler.

But I am finding, at times, that this ability of ours as people, to appreciate others: it is passed over in favor of the all-important critique. It is more trendy to critique someone on their performance, abilities or job and less favorable to find the best about them instead. It is more interesting to find fault. Less interesting to build up. More interesting to point fingers rather than to join hands.

As a result, we are losing much, not the least of which is a dying art. That is, the art of appreciating people and things and ideas. The ability to recognize possibility. Particularly, the potential in another human being and then acknowledge that same person for their endeavours. I think that we as people can never do enough appreciating in this life. And it certainly should never come at the expense of a lost opportunity taken instead to undermine another human being’s worthy attempts at celebrating other human beings for their efforts.

Appreciation matters.

My students had a tea party for their mother’s today. It is my third annual tea party for mothers. I once also threw a pizza party for fathers. It is possibly in the works again for this year. The point of me telling this is because the whole event is organized so that my students can take time to think about and reflect on their parents and the hard work they do at raising them. The important work they do in loving them. And thus come to appreciate them a little more. We spend time thinking about what parents do. How they look after us. How they provide for us. We take time to thank them. We sing songs in praise of them. We prepare things that we know they will like and then we serve them. We let them eat and drink first, for a change. In short, we take time to honor their legacy.

It’s very important work- and not just for five and six years olds. It just might be some of the most significant work I do with my students all year. I take it very seriously.

What I am trying to say here is this: we need to instill in our children, our young people and thus in adults as well, the value of appreciation. The worth of acknowledgment. The importance of telling people what they mean to us. The art of appreciation.

Not because we as receivers of this praise need it so as to shore up our self esteem.
Not because we are needy of accolades.
Not because we can’t function unless we have a set number of compliments.
Not for our egos.

But for our souls. Because quite simply, we matter.

No matter what we do we matter. That’s because people matter.

And because our person matters: our contributions thus matter, our influence matters and our legacy matters.

And when we are told as much, it causes us to want to do the same for another human being, starting a chain of appreciation to begin to form.
One can only imagine what ways this world could change with such a chain. Such a possibility for seeing worth in the world around us.
It is quite simply the power that is the art of appreciation.

And I believe that when we appreciate, there is no end to the possibilities for hope.

It’s just that influential.