Finding Purpose

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“Listen to me. You HAVE to decide what you believe to be the most important work in the world and then you have to DO THAT WORK. Because THIS is what happens. THIS IS WHAT HAPPENS. God shows up.”- Glennon Doyle- Melton

I am still recovering from yesterday’s drama. As a day among many other similar days, it still wasn’t the best example of my most shining moment as a parent. I might have been a bit too impatient- MIGHT have lost my cool and run out of a room. I might have had a mini adult tantrum.

In short, I might have failed a bit as a parent.

And so, when today arrived new and shining, I did what I always do. As daybreak dawned bright and new, I woke to the promise of another try. Another chance. A fresh beginning. I got up and faced the challenge.

I showed up.

This is important to remember: even after apologies have been offered and forgiveness is finally on the table, sometimes things don’t always work out perfectly- that is something I am learning.

But here’s what else I know to be true.

When we begin again and life still isn’t perfectly worked out- all the kinks haven’t been smoothed and all the creases haven’t been folded- sometimes a little bit of heaven shines through anyway and we are reminded of our purpose. Reminded why we are here and why we are still doing what we’re doing.

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I walk into the school with the buses already lining up beside me, and I met immediately with a little girl whom I know and care for greatly. She and I- we just connect. I sense immediately that this little girl, like me, has started the day off with a bit of apprehension- maybe even a bit of fear: I can just feel it. And it doesn’t take very long for both of us to get to the heart of the matter, she and I. Talking about our STUFF, the things that weigh us down. She’s only eight, but she is oh, so wise. And I feel tears forming and love rising inside of me, even as I listen to her. I remind myself yet again: we are all in this together.

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I walk into the office, and I find him sharing his little heart with anyone that will listen. And I feel compelled to leave my comfortable cocoon- the little space I am occupying this moment…leave it, so as to tell him that I have been there too- that I have stuff that holds me down, binds me up inside. I am not perfect either, Little Man. And as I tell him something that makes him laugh, I feel inside of me a weight lifting. It’s like my soul was a leaden balloon and he has just lifted a release to let it fly anyway. That laughter we share is freeing. I am being lifted once again by an eight-year old.

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I stand in the hallway readying children for the buses. A little boy runs into my room and hands me a small green zombie head. “Mrs. Gard, I just want to give this to you,” he says exuberantly. I take the small offering, turning it over in my hand. “Why me?” I ask inquisitively.

“Because,” he says ( a shining light in his eyes), “You always let me come into your room.

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I line up my own little class for the buses, and one of my dear little four turns his head in my direction. Before he makes the turn in the hallway to move out of my sight, he looks back at me and says, “Mrs. Gard, I love you!”

So this was my day…today.

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We must all find our purpose in this life and that purpose must compel us to move forward, doing what we can and what we are able so as to live out our calling.

Someone recently told me that they didn’t know what their purpose was. This is hard, challenging work- figuring out our purpose. It is stretching, complicated stuff. And it always leaves us changed, different than we were before.

I think part of my purpose is to care about people. It is why I am here. And I find that the more I care, the more I am able to care. The more able I am to care, the better I get at it. The better I get at it, the more I feel challenged by it. The more challenged I am by this whole endeavor, the more soul-searching I must do to re-confirm that where I am RIGHT NOW is where I need to be.

I am where God has placed me to be in the larger scheme of life.

But I know all too well: caring for people is frustrating work. It is hard. And it often leaves us feeling a bit stripped of resources. A bit broken and vulnerable. But when we do care, in honest, authentic, open ways, we allow for opportunity so that others can then see us for who we really are, giving them hope in the process.

Caring is like that: it is attentive, connective and relational.

And while there are times when those relationships we nurture leave us raw and open, leave us feeling exposed. There are other times besides when we see growth. For in allowing fragility to act as a bridge for caring, we are then led down different paths and toward new horizons. To new opportunities of care. Led to other people who need our care, even but for a little while before we return our hearts again toward home.

Caring heals us,
From the inside out.

Our calling might be as different as our days are varied. But one thing is sure: we are called to care. And when we care for others, doing what we can in the little ways we are given, God gives us the strength to do the greater work He has for us. One little act of love at a time.

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The Life and Calling of a Teacher

It’s snowing.

He and I walk a stretch of icy road, heading down to the bridge below the farm. Blizzard warnings have cancelled school across the Island, so this is our P.E. class for the day. Cabin fever never hurt to act as motivator for a teenager to spend time with their mother.
I ask him the question, and he’s thoughtful in his response.
What is the most important way your teachers can show you they care? Because I want this to be practical- I want this to be real. I really want to hear his answer, if this is going to guide my lived experience.
He responds- the words, not shocking in their revelation: I want them to be understanding- and nice. An answer quick and to the point. He doesn’t mention initially his fine teachers’ collective breadth of knowledge, their expertise. The lessons they’ve taught or the curriculum they’ve unpacked. His answer doesn’t reference the lectures, the assignments and projects.
But he does talk about the relationship. Their ability to care. Words that confirm what I am beginning to understand about caring, compassion and kindness- about transparency and thoughtfulness. Words that confirm to me as a teacher the heart of the matter about teachers and the relationship they have to their students. That is, what really matters to our students is who we are. Not what we do.

It was fall of my Grade 12 year, the year I remember as ‘The Move.’ My father having been relocated in his job as a pastor packed up our meager family possessions and moved his wife and four children minus one over the course of a weekend. It sometimes takes a weekend to unravel a family. And at other times, it just takes a moment.

I alone remained behind, determined that I wouldn’t be leaving all I had known and loved. Sixteen is a brazen age. It’s old enough to know that one couldn’t leave behind their childhood memories. Their home, their life. And it’s old enough to stay behind. But it’s not quite old to know exactly how to pull it all off. My parents in their wisdom allowed me the choice to remain behind so long as I chose to live with a family friend. Someone they trusted. But I was on my own when it came to paying rent and looking after essentials. I agreed to their terms and so it was decided. But the day they pulled out from the driveway of our first family home, moving van loaded up with my childhood toys, my bed and dresser, van full to the brim with my four younger siblings and weeping mother- that is a day that will forever be imprinted on my memory.

I lasted until the following Monday evening when I finally caved, coming to my senses as well as the bittersweet realization that I needed to be with my family. I needed to go home, whatever that meant now. There was a scramble- a gathering of my own small assemblage of life possessions and a drive from one province to another. Which is to say, I found a way to reunite with my family a few days later, as bittersweet as that reunion might have felt in those moments.

That move crushed me- left me feeling as if the bottom had fallen out from my world. And it left me to cope with the difficult task of starting over, starting fresh at a time in one’s life when they should be celebrating the finish line.

I found myself in a brand new school. A strange place to find yourself when you are sixteen, in love and at the pinnacle of your school career. Starting over- it was humbling. Perhaps what I needed, although I wouldn’t have said so then. I went from knowing everyone to knowing no one. From being part of a crowd to feeling outside the crowd. I went from having a presence to feeling invisible. But at the time, I would have readily admitted it was my worst sixteen year old nightmare come true.

Somehow I managed to pull things together enough to make it work. I made a few friends, did well in my courses and tried to keep up on the news from my former school and friendship circle, places and people I identified in my heart as my real home.

There were a few classes in the new school that I did enjoy, especially one taught by a Mr. T. A funny, earnest man, he infused life into the classrooms with his stories, his wealth of knowledge and his love of all things chemistry. And I can’t remember at what point in the semester he called me down to his classroom for a chat, but I will never forget the care and concern in his voice. Somehow, he had seen me there in the back row of his classroom, hiding underneath a veil of resentment, fear and insecurity- angry that my life had been interrupted. And in spite of it all, he made a point of looking past the image so as to connect with me. Letting me know that I had potential- that he saw the best in me at a time in my life when I couldn’t see the best in my circumstances.

Mr. T was unforgettable. Was it the chemistry lessons he delivered? The curriculum outcomes he covered? Was it his vast knowledge and seemingly infinite understanding I remember? What was it exactly that forever etched his impression on my memory?

What I remember now as a teacher myself was his smile. His laughter. And I remember that he saw me.

There are times in our service as teachers when we set aside the act of doing for the sacred work of being. When lessons and lectures, activities and testing are momentarily shelved, playing second fiddle to the art of listening. When caring is the curriculum, and life is the lesson. There are times when we see that our noble profession is more than mere passing on of knowledge. A routine work of filling empty vessels. And those are the times when we see through new eyes- our students. See them as people. As possibility. We see them for the potential they truly are. Those times remind us- it is the care we infuse into our work that makes the difference.

Such is the life and calling of a teacher.

The Pursuit of a Joyful Life

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt is hard to understand, to fully comprehend: how someone who brought so much joy to other peoples’ lives could himself be eluded by that same joy and wonder. And yet, here we are on a Tuesday night, grieving the loss of a beautiful life- grief those of us who loved his work feel in some form or fashion.

Another light has been extinguished. You are already greatly missed, Robin Williams.

I just came from a funeral home myself an hour ago- a loving father and husband lain to rest, his family sorrowing the loss. As I slip into the restroom to refresh, I overhear a conversation referring back to another deceased, sharing another room in the funeral parlor adjacent to the one I have come to bid adieu.

“I am so sorry for the loss of your father.”
“He would have been 93,” comes the reply. “He lived a good life, though.”
“Yes, but it is still hard,” says the first woman. “One is never ready to lose parent- it is never time.”

So too it is with the family I have come to give my deepest sympathies. It is never easy to say goodbye to those we love. Emotions strain to find the right words, the right sentiments at times like this. Saying goodbye is never easy.

It is never time.

And as thoughts drift again to the recent death of adored actor Robin Williams, comedian extraordinaire- I can’t help but wonder if his greatest legacy was that he lived as a father. His daughter Zelda leaves the following words written by Antoine De Saint-Exupery as a lasting tribute to her father’s legacy:

“You – you alone will have the stars as no one else has them…In one of the stars I shall be living. In one of them I shall be laughing. And so it will be as if all the stars were laughing, when you look at the sky at night…You – only you – will have stars that can laugh.”

I write often of care- specifically the care of Significant Others in our lives, and particularly as it concerns children and students. But without an understanding of the role that self-care plays as a first step in the process, we cannot truly understand the impact of care in our lives and in society. I often think of the airline rule to first affix one’s own gas mask before attempting to help one’s dependents. Is this not also true of everyday life at times? If we have not given our own bodies and souls attention and replenishing, are we really of much assistance and benefit to others? We must remember that we cannot run ourselves into the ground, depleting our own resources and ignoring our own needs and requirements to the extreme that we are of no earthly good to anyone else around us. Is it worth our while contributing to the world at large at the extreme expense of losing ourselves? These are tough questions to ask and perhaps the answers will differ depending on who is answering. One thing remains- without care given to ourselves, we eventually run down. We diminish. And the cycle of care cannot be continued without more care invested from either without or within.

Since the only dependable source is from within, that is where our greatest efforts must be concentrated.

Nel Noddings writes about caring for self in terms of meeting the physical, spiritual, occupational, recreational, emotional and intellectual needs of all human beings. If I had to pick one to focus on primarily (acknowledging, of course that the basic needs of the body must be met), it is my beleif that the spiritual needs are the most significant. For without an inner purpose and greater meaning to act as our guide, where are we headed? What direction do we choose? And what benefit is everything else going to be? We must decide what truly matters in this life; for me, I have found purpose, meaning and significance in the person of Jesus Christ.

2000 years ago, I believe that very Person willingly chose to lay down His life for me. And it wasn’t a suicide pact or mental illness that compelled Him to the cross. It was love. And because of that Love, I too am free to love. Free to care. Free to give my life in service to the Call. Free to give my love with generous abandon. Free to live- free to really live.

I am free.

And even though I know that death will one day call, I daily make it a priority to care enough for myself to ensure that when that time comes, I am ready to die. No stone unturned. Living my life as if today might even be my very last (we never can know). Living each moment, each day with joy, passion, wonder and care. Living with a healthy appreciation for the fact that Death is part of life. Even as I focus on living my life to the fullest.

Even as I live this brief expanse of time that we call life with a wild and beautiful pursuit- the pursuit of a joyful life.