The secret to caring for people

I wake to the lonely sound of freezing rain pelting the window, and it is mere minutes later that a knock is heard at our bedroom door.
“I’m scared of the rain, can I sleep with you?”

I move over to make room. And as she settles in with her pink blankie underneath our warm quilts and Brunswick sheets, I think of how very much I want to protect this Little One. She is vulnerable, needing me. And I am willing to fill the gap. Willing to care.

Care is meant to be responsive. How very much I am realizing this as we deal with outside agencies. Hospitals, staffing at healthcare facilities, schools, public agencies. They are all the same essentially when it comes down to it: systems that, the bigger they get, the more impersonal the interactions seem to be. Yet, the more that care is fundamentally needed.

When I think of my belief in care and the power it holds to transform and change, I realize more and more that its evidence must be seen and its influence must be felt within the relationships we encounter. Those that span the range from the micro to the macro. We all desire to be heard and responded to.  We all long to be cared for in responsive, empathic ways.

How can we learn to care for people- especially for people when they are not especially likeable? People outside our circles of influence that we encounter in day-to-day interactions?  People inside circles of influence that challenge us, defy and oppose at every opportunity?

I think the secret starts with gentleness and a desire to remain open. Open to the possibilities and open to the fact that there are differences. And the secret continues by remaining soft in our approach- being gracious in our interactions; this is the complement to the quality of openness that brings it full circle.

Open arms and grace-filled hearts always lead the way toward love.

Christian philosopher Jean Vanier affirmed his conviction in the power of love to be a transforming force in our lives when he wrote a recent communiqué posted to his website that states simply: “we are all children who need to be loved, to be a source of joy, to live relationships full of joy, through communion and mutual presence” (Vanier, 2015).  Might be never forget that love is kind- and so must care be too.

Reminding ourselves that the people we find the most difficult to like/care for are probably the ones who need it the most is certainly useful in this process of learning to care for difficult people. If we can allow ourselves to see each person we deal with- especially the most difficult ones we deal with- as people who deep down have vulnerable, fragile selves, we can then appreciate that the defenses they have set up and the walls they have built are there for protection. People with walls up are people with fears.

But they are still people nevertheless.

We can learn to care for people even when they come with baggage. Even when they come to relationships both personal and formal with issues and things we don’t understand.  And believe it or not: we can care for people even when they don’t treat us with care.  We can find ways to care for them anyway.

Because the secret to caring for people is first determining that we will care and then finding something within people to care for. From there, the care will grow.

I can smell her hair on the pillow beside me. She smells of everything that seven-year old little girls do- a jumble of all that makes her beautiful and sweet. And my heart is full. Filled with love.

She sleeps peacefully until the morning light- knowing that I care.
Knowing that I always will.

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I press on

I nearly missed their beauty, walking by them quickly first before making the conscious decision to turn back. Before making the conscious decision to stand quietly looking for simple, untouched beauty on this ‘first-of-many’, warm autumn day. I stood for that brief moment at the guardrail- connected to the ducks in presence only. There were five of them swimming in formation in the shallow waters of the inlet. Swimming where the river lazily makes its winding way through meadows and marshlands lined with cattails and long, wavy grasses- to where it will gently widen and join the river proper. The five were headed away from the bridge where I stood. But an innate sense of knowing made them suddenly take flight. First swooping in one direction and then the other before landing out of my range of sight. Landing softly to swim again without the introspective eye keeping watch.

Birds are like that. Flighty. Capricious, if you will. They never know who to trust.

I am feeling a bit of the same. I write extensively about love, ethics of care, hope and kindness. But lately, I am finding I am challenged by this writing insomuch as I feel that showing love is easier said than done. I feel slightly inconsistent with what I ‘preach’ for I am not one who easily trusts. Who easily gives her love away. Not one who easily gives in to love neither, nor one who gives way to the generosity of spirit that love affords.

Under the watchful eye of those around me, I would take flight rather than stay and expose my weakness. So here I am tonight. A fragile being open to vulnerability. Examining her weakness and limitations.

A sitting duck.

I choose to write about love largely because it fascinates me. But beyond that, I feel my limited ability to express love, while falling short at times only to give way to being generously giving at others, is not lived to its full potential. So perhaps I am fascinated with love because of my perceived limitation. Perhaps it is what I feel is my greatest challenge: to love unconditionally. In my defense, I am in possession of a very tender heart and compassionate soul by nature, the endowment of my gracious Creator. I am Woman who can emote easily and express her feelings. Woman who can convey love as evidenced in the overwhelming sense of care I feel for those most precious to me. But the sheer physicality of showing love- demonstrating it to those same beloved leaves me at times in a panic. Leaves me wanting.

I often have to walk myself through the desired and expected responses, telling myself what to do and how to do it. As if I were alien to the languages of human love. This fact of my life intrigues me.

It is not that love eludes me. I have a very sensitive Husband and four loving children. I am the daughter of two loving parents, one of whom has been a kindred spirit to me for over half my life. Added to this, many people I am connected to who I love and whom I have a sense that they love me too.  But in experiencing love, I sometimes wonder: do I truly know what this feels like? Do I really know how to show love? Receive love? Express love? Offer love? Understand love?

And why the pull to know about love and its subtle nuances anyway? Why is love the consuming influence in my life and writing?

Culturally, we are in a time when love is a consumable. A thing to use and throw away. When the love grows cold, let the fire burn to embers. And then start a new fire somewhere else. Even familial love is expendable. Why love if it has nothing to benefit me?
But love is more than this and in our heart of hearts we know: love’s promise offers us hope to be strong in the face of adversity, joyful in light of fearful circumstances, compassionate in spite of offense. Love transcends.  And it calls us to stay and be who we are, vulnerable and defenceless at times, so that we can first offer ourselves fully.  Being present with the experience of the moment.  Understanding then the value of the gift we are being offered so that we can then receive it fully and know that what we’ve been given is a treasure. A gift not to be taken for granted or lightly perceived, but something to be valued.

When I walk back again toward home, the ducks are still in hiding down along.  I glance, but don’t take the time to ruminate. For I am no longer wistfully looking for them to return. Instead, I fix my eyes on the horizon and see within my sights the familiarity of a country road that leads my heart toward home.

And I press on.

Why We Care

She slouches on the vinyl chair next to mine, chewing her lip, twirling her hair. Wrinkles creasing her brow. And as she sits, I wonder.  Is she thinking of what to expect, even as she knows the reason for why we are here? Or is there more to the wonder than mere childlike speculation?

The reason for why we have left the house at such a crazy-early hour to drive for two hours was not, of course, to only sit and wait. We are here for other more pressing concerns. And yet, there is always the fear of the great unknown- especially for a child.

Not to mention of course the apprehension it brings the mother.

The doctor arrives with a bluster of energy and vigour. She immediately puts at ease what was formerly a worry. What was moments ago a source of stress, a source of concern, is now an afterthought in light of this physician’s delightful presence. She just seems to do this work so naturally- without a thought to the magic she has achieved. Weaving a tapestry of compassion through her laid-back banter, silly jokes and thoughtful concern. But then again: doesn’t care always have that gentle way of easing, of lessening the burden? And as the moments tick toward the hour we will spend in this tiny little room, I find my daughter relaxing. Find her unwinding, creased brow giving way to a smile. And all this because a doctor has chosen to spend this hour in this room with us, taking the time needed to care for the person, rather than merely just diagnosing the patient.

If a busy doctor, bound by the relentless expectations and constraints that often define this demanding profession, can make the time to show caring, compassionate concern, so might we do much of the same in the field of education.

It is not a matter of should- it is a matter of how.

How can we invest in the lives of our students in caring, compassionate ways even as the demands around us increase exponentially?

We can and we must, and one way I propose this can be done is through investing in care. That is, making it a priority to value the person that is the student- along with the tandem idea of valuing the people as a whole which comprise our classroom community. Through valuing and giving worth to the human beings that represent the education system in which they are found, we give credence to the humanity of the students. We recognize the person-hood of each boy and girl, man or woman who sit in front of us day after day. And this- all achieved by seeing though the test scores, records and data to the very real hearts and souls of the children and teenagers that we are called to teach. Taking the time to know the story of their lives instead of reducing them to a number and figure on paper. Taking the time to understand the context in which the students we learn alongside- live, work and play. For when this happens, we can fully care for our students in their learning, development and growth even while the system might appear to breath heavy down our necks. After all, if we sacrifice care on the altar of academic standards of excellence, haven’t we lost everything?

Standards mean little if the people that represent them are dehumanized.

Who We Are

It is hard to understand the whys and hows of human relationships. Sometimes these interactions astound and touch my deepest parts for their tremendous propensity to kindness. And yet sometimes they disappoint beyond what mere words can express.

Why are our connections with one another so prone to such wild swings of the pendulum?

For here we are, all just walking around inside our little outward shell, thin veneer- pretending to be brave when we don’t always feel brave. Pretending to be strong when we don’t always feel strong. Putting on our game face even when the game is over. Showing up even when we don’t have the strength to take another step. We are all, I believe, giving this ‘here and now’ our best shot- this moment, this day, this life. We are who we are- cover-ups, disguises, masks and all. Doing what we have to so as to keep our head above water, to stay afloat. And it’s a hard-knock life sometimes. Hard enough trying to get by without having another soul, another Body: push you over. Knock you down. Hard enough trying to be a person living through the day without having another soul, another Body step all over you. Rain on your parade.

Isn’t it high time we gave each other a chance?

Is it so hard to see ourselves, our weakness- as through viewing our brother’s face? So hard to see our own proclivity to sorrow by looking in our sister’s eye?

She orders a coffee and a chicken sandwich for her husband. And all the while, she is given the five-star treatment by the waitress on duty. No request denied, no favor spared. She is Chosen. Somehow, special. But when it comes to him- he who is different, suddenly the mood alters. The temperature drops or so it seems. He who is seen as ‘other’ is disdained, disparaged, despised. She wonders, as she waits for the remainder of her order: why? Why him? Why her? Why such vast discrepancy? Why is she singled out to receive the good and he left to suffer the mockery, the subtle abuse? Why such different treatment when the same blood that courses through her veins, pumps slow and steady through his also?

Are we that blind that we can no longer see each other for who we truly are?

And who are we anyway? Who were we made to be?

We were made to be His Beloved. Loved, cherished, held, treasured. Longed for by the Father and precious in His sight. And when He sees us, He sees the beauty in the workmanship, the exquisite detail in the masterpiece. He sees us for the value and worth and tremendous significance we were designed for.

Each one of us.

And He doesn’t judge us for the fading shell without, that holds us.  Piece by fragile piece.  That damaged armor we wear to protect, we put on so to endure.  Doesn’t judge us for our persona.  Our outward presentation- He just loves us.  Loves us for the lasting treasure we are within.

And because He loves us, we too can love. Wildly, unabashedly, freely- with abandon.

We are free to love each other.

We are Loved.

My Five Wishes for the Upcoming School Year

It’s August. And as it happens to be my holidays, I am knee-deep in summer lovin’. I have paint spatters on my legs from the fresh coat I applied to the veranda this afternoon, a good book waiting for me on the couch and the idea in my head of a glass of iced coffee just waiting for me to drink it. Thoughts of school, teaching and work might be a million miles away from my immediate consciousness.

But are they?

As a teacher, this time of the year is one where my mind drifts to ‘what ifs’ and ‘how abouts’. To possibilities. Summer is the time of year when teachers are finally afforded the TIME in which to breathe, take stock and think about what is yet to come. So while I am not ready to cash in on summer yet, here are a five wishes I have for the upcoming school year, set to start in a few short weeks.

1. I wish for this upcoming school year that we as teachers act on the principle that education be not only about the mind. It be about the person. That is, the whole person. I love what Nel Noddings has to say on the topic:

“…school, like the family, is a multipurpose institution. It cannot concentrate only on academic goals any more than a family can restrict its responsibilities to, say, feeding and housing its children. The single-purpose view is not only morally mistaken, it is practically and technically wrong as well, because schools cannot accomplish their academic goals without attending to the fundamental needs of students for continuity and care” (Noddings, 2005, p. 63).

What Noddings is saying here is that school must function in continuity for the purpose of caring for students as whole persons, not just merely as empty minds which require regular and constant filling up of knowledge. Students have minds, yes- but they also have souls and bodies which both require care and attention in the course of the day, along with caring for the student’s mind for academic, physical, emotional and relational pursuits. My wish is for educators to remember that there is more to student learning than simply pumping the mind with facts and information. The possibilities for growth and development are endless.

2. There is a lot of wasted time in school. Time wasted before school while waiting for all the buses to arrive, time wasted in line-ups, in wait time, in coming and going places. Another wasted time of day is lunch time. Sure, it gets used for eating and sustenance- but wouldn’t it be great if lunch time was an opportunity for growing community, in the very same ways that those families who see it as a priority use it to grow family attachments? What I am talking about, and this is another one of Noddings’ beliefs as well- is the importance of mealtime. Breaking bread in the very real sense of the word. Mealtime is a time to talk and listen, a time to discuss and reflect. A time for sharing and caring. A time when what is said is not evaluated and assessed- but taken at face value and respected. If students were given this opportunity, to sit face-to-face, as might a family eating a meal together, how might that benefit in a positive way the dynamics of social interactions amongst students? We’ll never know until we give it a try.

3. There is very little choice for students in school- very little choice for teachers either. We have all been given the required curriculum and asked to adopt it as our own. But wouldn’t it be wonderful if students and teachers were able to work together to come up with themes and pursuits that might reflect curriculum ideals, using them as springboards for further areas of study and exploration. Using curriculum jazzed up with a healthy dose of imagination, critical thinking and creativity to make these extra-curricular projects work within the existing structure? I think the sky is certainly the limit for those who give it a chance. Who knows what new interests might be sparked for learning amongst students who are currently disenfranchised, disengaged and disempowered. The time is now for outside the box thinking and teaching..

4. My wish for teachers and students is that we remember that each person we see sitting in front of us each day, standing beside us at our desks, walking along in front of us or behind us in the hallways- each person going and coming in the hustle and bustle: each person is a person. A person with feelings, thoughts, emotions, complicated baggage, issues, story, problems, joys, sorrows, hurts and pains. They are a person with more than meets the eye. And I wish for all those who find themselves in the educational milieu, that is MY HOPE would be, that we never lose sight of the humanity of the people in our schools: the humanity of the students, the staff, the parents, the volunteers, the administration and any visitors that might find themselves walking through the hallways. May we always be known as a People that care. And may that define each and every one of us this year.

5. And as a final note- may we have fun! Is it too much to ask that we find time to play? Time to laugh? Time to breathe, and wonder, and imagine, and daydream? Time to doodle, and draw and sculpt and create. Time to rest and time to work. And may we never forget that learning is a life-time pursuit. We don’t want to burn out the creative fires until the very last embers of life have been snuffed out, when we find ourselves breathing our last. May we always be found learning each and every day of our life- and may it be a joyous, delightful, exciting, inspiring and worthwhile venture.

These five are among my wishes for you all- for we are all learners. And for those of us who call ourselves teachers, staff and students, as we set off in another few short weeks for another voyage, another adventure of learning, wonder and discovery: let’s not forget to take care of each other in the process.

Carry on, comrades!

{You can read this again on the Huffington Post by clicking on this link: http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/lori-gard/back-to-school-2014_b_5656507.html?utm_hp_ref=canada-living }

 

Satisfied

I am running up the uneven and worn sidewalk blocks, grass growing up between them. Frost from past winter’s freeze has shifted and changed their original direction. Water soaks the ground beneath my feet, splashing up and over the sides of a rather closely situated water slide. I run towards the entry point high above so that I too might ride, running towards the staircase as if I am ten years old again. Ten years old: just like my Sarah who made this milestone today at exactly 6:26 p.m. this very evening. I race up the slope towards the inclined steps that lead to two rather small and well-used waterslides. Small but perfect- that’s my view. These waterslides: ‘just right’ for the forty-year old woman who believes she just might have a ten-year old heart. Perfect for me.

And oh! the exhilaration. To stretch one’s body in pike position and feel the speed. The water beneath and the wind above. Yes, for some it might be a small thrill. But for me, I am just satisfied. Satisfied! With this. All of this. This day and the juxtaposition of special and mundane. This weather, a mix of rain and sun. This park, this place, these people.

I’m satisfied.

Satisfaction. It’s a form of contentment. A feeling of being fulfilled. It is an experience of pleasure, happiness and joy. A state of being gratified. Grateful for what one has, whatever that “what’ might happen to be. Grateful for the small- grateful for the vast. It is a sentiment that calls one to give thanks for the gifts ones has been given, seeing the gift in the ordinary simplicity of everyday life. Feeling satisfied with commonplace, everyday pleasures. Commonplace, everyday blessings. When we are no longer able to feel satisfied, something happens. We start feeling ungrateful. Unappreciative. We start looking around, noticing that what we have is less than what others might have- not as special and unique as what someone else has in their possession beside us or next to us. We start evaluating our stuff, our things, our situation, our people- on the basis of what we see around us. We place unfair expectations on the gifts we’ve been given, unwisely wanting them to be something they were never meant to be. And then, there is a feeling of desire that ensues. Desire that craves something more, something bigger, brighter, better, bolder. Something beyond.

It’s a nasty cycle. And it can lead to darker places by the name of Greed and Envy and Jealousy and Dissatisfaction. Trust me, I’ve been there. They are not places you’d wish to visit.

We all know our vulnerabilities. Our area of weakness. It’s how we shift our thinking so as to make our response one of satisfaction, one of sweet contentment rather than one of discontentment and irritation. This is what that determines our joy.

And what a difference a day can make.

Yesterday morning, I woke up feeling frustrated. I was not happy with anything- the state of my house, the state of the day’s affairs, the people around me, the fact that it was August. I mean August: the summer might as well just end RIGHT NOW, now that August has arrived. Am I right?

And no. Nothing made any difference. I was just miserable. The more I thought about how miserable I was, the more miserable things were. I found bugs in the beds (seriously? Gross me out the door), dirt on the floors (okay, so this is every day, all day), clutter on every conceivable living space in my house (ditto). I couldn’t seem to get out of the kitchen for the life of me, one project led to another and then to another and so on. By noon, I was hot, sweaty and tired. I felt a headache coming on. And I was just ready to throw in the towel.

I might have thrown in the towel. There have been a lot of towels going through my washing machine lately. But at the end of the day, I went to bed, only to wake up again this morning. And I discovered something. I have a lot to be thankful for in this little house of mine. This little world I call my own.

What a difference a day makes.

Nothing in my environment really changed with the dawning of this new day. Same house, same mess, same people. It’s just that here we are together again- in this brand new beautiful day. We are alive, we are together…and we’re here. And what’s not to love about a fresh start? This is not to say that feeling frustrated and discouraged is wrong or shameful. It’s just to say that it is not really much fun. It’s actually depressing. And so I choose today- joy. Joy, and peace and contentment. I choose to see all that I have as the gift it is, rather than as the burden it might seem to be. I choose to see what I have been given as delight rather than trouble. And in so doing, I find myself feeling more and more content.

In so doing, I find myself satisfied.

So today, I am satisfied for the fact that I found no bugs in my bed. Score. Satisfied again because I wasn’t baking anything today- I bought a store-bought cake for precious Sarah- and she loved every bite of it. Score again. And I got to race my Husband and beat him FOUR TIMES ON THE WATERSLIDES. Score, score score. And they say that three times is a charm.

It all is- it’s all a gift. And for all this and so much more- I’m satisfied

Why I need my kids

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I stand beside her, tipping the muffin tray ever so slightly so that the batter will have that much more of a chance of making it into the hollow. She is intent on her task: lifting two ‘full-to-running-over’ spoons dripping with banana cupcake batter up and over the side of the porcelain bowl, toward the final destination- the muffin tray. It is tedious work, requiring a steady hand.

“I don’t need you to hold the bowl,” she says more than once. I do not concede her the victory on this one, and so we continue to work side by side. I believe she needs me. She, one just learning this art of food preparation; albeit, I will admit that each time she takes on a culinary project, that much more competence is shown in her attention to detail. Even so, I stay- diligently by her side until every last rounded chamber has been filled with creamy goodness.

We are finishing off one cupcake tray and sending it to the hot oven to bake, when she turns and says to me, “You do the rest- I am baked out.” Which is to say, she’s had enough. And so, the Little One who didn’t need me moments before now suddenly discovers that she indeed does need me to immediately finish up her task. As I am her Mama and I love her dearly, I bow to her request. She needs me.  I intuitively know this, meaning I am ever at the ready to step in when she needs a helping hand.

I don’t mind being needed.

Yes, I am still in that stage of life- where I am needed.  Although this stage is seemingly passing quickly, like sand in an hourglass. This shifting stage wherein I find myself: a time of life when I feel the pull, the tug- of little hands. Little voices calling out, “Mommy?” Little cries. And then again, big cries sometimes too. Even the Big Ones need their mother. The steady constant in my life at present is that these little (and not-so-little) people in my life are always in need of a mother’s touch. A mother’s hand, her patient reassurance. I am needed, even in this evolving phase of motherhood. Even as the years move at lightning speed toward these uncertain years ahead of parenting, where I know I will find myself meeting new needs, new requests. Where I will find myself being needed by my Fearless Four in new and different ways.

As the years press on, I am coming to see that I need them too. I need my children. This care that I have given them- it sometimes aches for something back. The returns are there- I am reminded daily to keep my eyes open to see them, my hands at the ready to receive them. But I am aware: I need them as much as they need me.

I need my kids.

This afternoon, I was feeling pressed. I had twenty coming for a birthday supper and by 3:00 p.m., I knew I was either going to have to tear myself in half or invent an assistant. Daughter hopped into the van for a ride up to the dollar store to buy the necessities (plus a treat for her- of course) and on the ride back, I asked her to help me with a certain task for which I knew I would not have time to do otherwise. She agreed. The job: to decorate our log cabin for her brother’s birthday get- together. I handed her a bag and did not place any expectations on her one way or the other. As I drove away from the cabin and towards our house to prepare the meal, I regretted that I had not given her any string to hang the balloons.

Whatever would be would be.

Upon my return, I loaded up my arms with food and assorted other items, then walked the few short steps it took to take me into our cabin to unload. My eyes caught sight of the party center which my daughter had undertaken to prepare in my absence. And I was immediately taken aback. Not only had she decorated- she had arranged things far more neatly and tidily than I would have ever thought to do. A banner hung over the table, balloons graced the fireplace mantle. She had arranged candy on the table as party favours. The table was set with a brand new tablecloth and cutlery was sitting in cups ready for the taking. It was all arranged and displayed beautifully, again- more attractively than I would ever have taken the time for. And all this, from a daughter who had initially stated her uncertainty to take on such a task.

She had no idea how much I needed this.  Needed her.  And I wonder, do our children know how very much we need them?

We assume as parents our role is to be the providers, the caretakers. The ones who meet the needs. But if we never allow our children to take on this role, how will they one day be able to care for the significant others in their future lives? Forget the future- our children must also learn to care in the here and now, for there is value in coming to care for others even in the present. No child is ever too small to care. Our children from a very young age need to know what it means to take care of another’s needs, for the sheer value of contributing to those people in their lives at present as well to prepare them for one day being the caregiver themselves to those dependents they will ultimately responsible for.

I think children are born for this. Born to care. A newborn gurgles and coos in adoration at the sound of their mother’s voice. This is a responsive gesture, acknowledging the relationship that is being built between parent and child. Without that coo, that giggle or smile, the mother can easily find her own resources drained. We need our babies love and response- it is what keeps us going in those fragile first days when exhaustion threatens to undo us. A toddler’s little arms are made for hugging, for reaching out and stroking hair, lovingly caressing their loved one’s face. Their little bodies crave the physical touch- it is their way of meeting the need of their parent- a need to be loved in the best three-year old way that child knows how, love shown through touch. And as children grow, there are so many ways they can learn to say ‘I love you’- love letters and notes left hidden under a pillow, simple words of thanks, unspoken gratitudes expressed by a wink or a nod. These are all ways children learn to show care- things parents need and crave and desire in our relationship with our kids. So that we can sustain our own caring back to them.

We need these gestures as parents- they carry us through these long days that challenge and tire us. Because let’s face it: parenting is a tough gig. Parents are always giving. Always offering more and more of ourselves. Always sacrificing and placing our childrens’ needs first. And so we should. But sometimes we need to learn to receive a little- for the benefit of our children.

So that they can learn to care.

Because at the end of the day, when our children are enabled to give back, are enabled to learn how to care because we as parents afforded them the exquisite opportunity of experiencing the blessing, they are then given a blessing in return. The blessing of caring for another.

Truly, what greater human blessing can we give our children than this?