Saturday, March 19, 2016


A few weeks ago, my dear friend Penny and I had the opportunity to see one of our favorite authors, Glennon Doyle Melton, speak.  Glennon is a truth teller and hope spreader, with a delightful wit and a spiritual gift of bringing graceful and peaceful (or simply hilarious) words to any situation.  I started following Glennon several years ago, when her "Don't Carpe Diem" post went viral.   Her words cut straight to my heart and I quickly proceeded to read every word she had written and become a part of the Momastery community. Instantly, I knew I had found my tribe.  The women who follow Momastery are kind, gracious and accepting.  They have a heart for the world. . ."there is no such thing as other people's children"  and "sister on" are the kind of battle cries you find there.  They don't sugar-coat the brutiful nature of life, but they choose to be grateful and embrace laughter over complaint.  And they lift their sisters up both in words and deeds, such as through togetHERrising.  To be in a room full of "Monkees" with my dear sister in Christ, Penny, was an unforgettable experience.  With light slanting in the gorgeous stained glass windows and the laughter and tears of women who just "get it" raising up to the rafters, it was pure Love, Spirit and Grace. Glennon said so many amazing things, but one of her final thoughts that came from an audience question has really stayed with me.

A young woman a few pews away from us stood up and took the microphone.  She asked Glennon how we should approach social media.  There are so many good things (like Momastery!) and so many negative things, especially in this very political year.  How do we use it the right way?

"Wow!" I turned to Penny.  "That was a great question."  We all hung expectantly waiting for Glennon's answer.  In typical G fashion it was brilliant and helped give us clarity.  She discussed how social media is a real world for us, we live our lives there. . .people fall in love, make friends, laugh, cry and all of the things we do face-to-face.  But we have to be smart about how we use it, as social media shapes our reality.  I wrote down these words of wisdom she shared at the end.

"Choose who you follow on social media intentionally.  That is who you give power to."
"You form your thoughts by who you follow. Who do you want to be? Arrange your social media news feed to reflect that."  
"We will always be what we consume, be intentional and choose wisely."

How beautifully she articulates and confirms the things we have all suspected to be true.  My reality is very much shaped by the media I consume.  When the kids were very little when someone asked me if I had heard about (insert globally significant current event here), I would ask, "Um, was that on Sesame Street?"  because if it wasn't, I was pretty sure I hadn't seen it or heard it.  I lived in a bubble of DVR'ed episodes of Mister Rogers, Word World, Ellen and Sesame Street.  This was before I had a Facebook account, and now I am a little embarrassed to admit I really do get most of my news from Facebook.  (I'm pretty sure I am not the only one, though!)

Since social media is my reality, I have to be careful about how I spend my time there.  As my television friend Mister Rogers says, "Do you ever grow ideas in the garden of your mind?"  My head is a precious place, and I have to be careful about what I plant there, right?  The internet is full of weeds (COMMENTS SECTIONS, anyone???), and also full of seemingly delightful things that can take over if we let them. I remember my neighbor Jo Ann telling me over the fence when I was quite new to gardening to plant my mint in a separate pot or it would take over everything else in my garden.  I think the same kind of principle can be true of our internet lives.  Even things that seem good and entertaining can choke out the other good things growing there if we let them.  FOR EXAMPLE. . .following the local news SEEMED like a good idea.  Until I ended up so heavy with the weight of the sadness in our city that I would end up angry and depressed with the articles popping up in my feed every three stories.  I decided to unfollow the local news and instead just follow trusted friends who follow the local news, so they could alert me to the important stuff.  Only you know your mind and what you can plant there!

It was delightful one day when a friend introduced me to the "unfollow" button.  I had no idea that this existed, and it is incredibly useful for the people who try to plant weeds in your mind, but you still love them and don't want to unfriend them.  Unfollowing is like, "We're still cool if I saw you face to face, but I can't let you in my head every single time I get on the interwebs.  Not happening."  If you tend to carry the weight of other's problems like I do, unfollow can be a powerful tool for helping manage the load.  If there is someone I haven't seen since 1994 and they enjoy using social media to vent about everything under the sun, you had better believe we are moving our friendship to unfollow status.  Other people may be able to brush it off easily, but I am too susceptible to letting other people's problems take up precious head space.

The other thing Glennon urged us to consider is who we DO follow, as in following the people who live lives that we admire, who call us to be our best, who reflect our hearts. I am fortunate to have a lot of those friends.  I love encouragers, and we all need more of them both virtually and in our real life.  Don't you just love those people who just make you smile every time you get on facebook??  And it is helpful to follow people with views different from our own. . .they expand our perspectives!  So I don't instantly unfollow anyone who votes differently than I do or eats differently or spends differently or lives differently or whatever.  I look, I watch, I listen, I learn.  That's what being human is all about!!  But if someone constantly uses an attacking, negative, hurtful, or complaining tone, I need to make the same kind of decision about them that I make about people in my real life- If I know someone like that, we're not going out for coffee or sitting at the same lunch table, OK!?  We're just going to be on, "I'll say hi to you when I run into you in the grocery store" status, and maybe I'm not even stopping.  We can't let those toxic peeps in our personal space on social media, either.  

Since I'm seeing more how media shapes our reality and Glennon's words are so fresh in my mind, I am going to take a few days off of Facebook to really contemplate them.  I've been really upset recently about some things that have been going around in our community and in our nation.  Since Facebook is shaping my perspective of the humans around me, I feel like the world is angry at each other- everyone from my friends to our local and national leaders and POLITICS- UGH!!! - and my heart hurts.  It just hurts.  And then my mind just starts spinning and I'm sad.  I was worrying over this in my kitchen last night when Paul came home.  

"What's wrong, Jen?" he asked, as I forlornly dropped sun dried tomatoes on some pizza.
The kids were arguing in the basement and my mind was spinning with something angry someone had just written to a friend of mine on social media and I was just so. . . SAD.  I wanted to fix it all and I couldn't.
"Honey, I just want peace on earth.  I want peace in my home and in our town and in our world.   How do I get that???  I'm just so heartbroken."
"Jen," he said.  "Start here."
And he yelled down the basement stairs, "HEY YOU GUYS!!!  BE KIND TO EACH OTHER!!!"
And we laughed.  
He's right.

 I need to start here.  Peace starts here.  Just like Mother Teresa said. . .it begins at home.  I need to immerse myself in my surroundings to get a more real perspective, and do some serious reflecting on who I follow and read on social media. . .who do I give power to?  Who do I let live in my head?  I hope after I do this, I am able to come back with a  more fresh and healthy perspective of the good in the world.  I know Facebook will go on without me for a few days, as much as I like to imagine that everyone NEEDS me to like all of their pictures. . .their pictures are super cute and lots of other people will like them in my absence.   LIFE WILL GO ON WITHOUT YOU, Jen.  Step back.  Plant your mint in a separate pot before it takes over.

I've gotta protect my heart and my head.  
I've got too many people right here to love.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

The Bar.

St. Patrick's Day is a special day for my family.  My Irish grandma, Darlin, loved St. Pat's and we always celebrated with green carnations to pin on our shirts, yummy food, stickers, cards and all things sweet and Irish.  Paul loves it, too, and from before we were even married and up until I was pregnant with the third Zink boy, we hosted an annual bash at our basement bar.  So many fun times were had, and I have two rubbermaid tubs full of St. Patrick's Day paraphernalia in my garage (and lots of incriminating photos of our friends tucked away for when we are old and gray) to prove it.

After we moved into our new home, one of our first goals was to build a bar just like we had at our Irvington bungalow.  We optimistically brought the 4 barstools with us, boxes of glassware, beer signs, kitschy decorations, the whole deal so we could recreate the experience.  Then we realized that we have a lot of kids, and we're doing good most days just feeding them and giving them baths and keeping them in clean clothes and let's face it. . .alive.  So, we had to set the bar for our bar a little lower.  After four years of sitting in our basement just waiting for a bar to be built, we finally had the realism and common sense to move the barstools to our garage so our kids had more room to play Lego.   Someday, those barstools will party again.  Maybe not with us. . .maybe at a frat house at Purdue or something. . .but someday.  For now, they hold our car mats and we use them to climb up and get high stuff.  Whatever.

Even with the demise of the Zink bar, we still loved St. Patrick's Day.  One year on March 16, as I geared up to get out all of the decor (still in the boxes) and Lucky Charms and green outfits after the kiddos went to bed, I had some disturbing things happen.

First, Phil came home from preschool COMPLETELY JAZZED and asked if a leprechaun was going to come to our house like the leprechaun that came to visit them at school.  Um, what??  That's a thing??  My world of what I thought St. Patrick's Day was (drinking delicious beer and wearing green shirts) was shattered by the fact that in some parts of our culture, the celebration of this holiday involves imaginary visitors that I need to fabricate and then incorporate into my web of lies.

"Um, guys, WHAT ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT?" I said, totally floored by this new information.
"Mommy, all we have to do is leave him a note!  He'll come to our house and mess stuff up and leave us treats!"

I looked around my house.  It already looked like multiple leprechauns lived there, along with perhaps a treeful of Keebler elves.  The last think I needed was some damn leprechaun coming in and jacking up my already beautiful mess.  There was flour all over my kitchen counter, the floors were filthy, breakfast and baking dishes piled in the sink, sticky bowls and spoons on the counter, the bathroom was trashed, the rug was littered with toys, and I still had snack, another meal and baths left to go before closing time.

In order to process this information, I did what all good moms do, which is turn on PBS kids and go in the other room to figure things out ALONE.  With my phone.  And some caffeine.  Sometimes when I am just mentally lost, I zone out and get on Facebook.  You guys, this is the most horrible of horrible ideas.  When am I going to learn?  Guaranteed if you are feeling confused or down on yourself and you get on Facebook, the first thing you are going to see is people living beautiful sparkly lives who share none of your struggles and being flat out awesome in your face.  I have a generally healthy self concept, so I can normally handle people's highlight reels without any personal toll but this was not a good day for scrolling.

Of course, the first thing I saw when I got on Facebook was the beautiful and precious St. Paddy's crafts that my friend had prepared, and pictures of the green toilet water and funny things their leprechaun had done to them (like put flour all over the kitchen!) while the kids were napping.  I looked around my house again. . .hey, my leprechaun spread flour all over the counter, too!  And is yellow toilet water kind of like green toilet water?  Kind of like a pot of gold??  I started to laugh.  There is no need to compare myself to that awesome mom.  I've got my own beautiful kind of St. Patrick's Day right here.  I quickly came up with a plan B before Super Why was over, excited to put it into action before the morning.

We made it through the rest of the day, making mess upon mess, and the boys left Shaun the Leprechaun a little note before Paul and I tucked their sparkly clean and p.j.'ed up little bodies into bed and kissed those squishy cheeks.

"Jen," Paul said as we entered the kitchen.  "The house is trashed."
"I KNOW!" I said.  "I have a plan.  Trust me."

Now, I'm not sure if after all of the years Paul has been the sidekick to my plans if he REALLY trusts me or not, but he went along with it anyways.  Good husband.

"Get down the decorations, honey.  We've got a new kind of leprechaun up in here."

For the next two hours, I cleaned the house while Paul vacuumed and decorated with all of the fun accessories from our party days.  The flour spills were erased, counters were buffed to a sparkly shine, toilet cleaned, floors mopped and even some dusting with ACTUAL PLEDGE might have occurred.   I wrote the kids a note from Shaun the Leprechaun, explaining to them what just went down.

Hi, Philip, Daniel, and Josh,

I got your letter! Thanks for helping cleaning up your house before I arrived tonight. I wanted to answer your question, Daniel. . .yes, I can act like a stinker sometimes. A real stinkpot, as you say. All of us leprechauns do. But to be sure, the very same leprechauns who are bad sometimes are the very same leprechauns who are good sometimes. So, tonight, I took an idea from my cousins the elves. Do you know the ones? The little guys who helped the shoemaker and his wife? Well, I know your Mommy and Daddy work really hard. And that your mommy has been busy playing with you in the sunshine all week. . .so that means she didn't have a lot of time to clean up all of the sand and dirt and messes! So, tonight while you were sleeping, I cleaned it all up for you and your mommy and daddy. . .right down to the toilet! I even put up some decorations. I hope you like them! I also hope you like the pot of gold that I left for you. Enjoy and be good boys. . . and just remember even us stinkers have good deep down inside!

With love,
Your friend Shaun the Leprechaun.

They woke up in the morning elated.  TREATS!!  They were a little confused as to why their Leprechaun cleaned instead of made mischief, but all I am saying is you need to set your own bar.

You hear that?
I don't like to toss out advice but this is one thing I am pretty sure of.
Set your OWN BAR.
So, this St. Patrick's Day, wear green or don't.
Drink Beer.  Or don't.
Do fun crafts.  Or don't.
Have a leprechaun that comes.  Or don't.

But whatever you do, do you!!  Only you can be yourself!  Have fun!

Happy St. Pat's from the O'Zinks!

Memories of St. Patrick's Days past. . .

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Before you know it.

Winter 2011

A few years ago, in the midst of my gray-skied, messy-haired, smudgy mascara, exhausted hot mess of a winter with three kids three and under, I found myself reading a powerful little book called Loving the Little Years.  I recall turning on two consecutive episodes of Sesame Street to finish it as I sat on our couch (which was devoid of cushions) and kids squirmed all over me and bounced on the bare springs.  I couldn't put it down.  There were so many gems of wisdom, but one that stopped me in my tracks was a moment where she said something to the effect of, "If things get crazy, just look at the clock and in ten minutes it will be over.  Just put your head down and power through."

I thought to myself, "Oh, hell, no.  That can't be true.  That's too good to be true.  There's no way."  But, since she had like five little kids under the age of five I figured she might know what she's talking about.  So, the next time things got crazy (Example:  5:45 PM: Phil had just thrown up on the floor, Josh was crying for a bottle, Daniel had just gleefully dumped out an entire basket of toys in the middle of the kitchen and dinner was not even close to in the oven.) I decided to give it a try.  I looked at the clock.  Instead of wallowing in self pity and despair and wishing Calgon would just come and take me away already, I put my head down and got to work.  By the time 5:55 had rolled around, everyone had stopped crying, the vomit was off the floor, kids were playing with the dumped out toys and the frozen pizza was in the oven.  And I was in awe.  It worked??  It WORKED????  IT WORKED!!!!!!  And it continued to work, over and over again.  I have had ample opportunities over the past 5 years since reading that book to put it into practice.  At LEAST once a day all of my kids are crying at the same time or the couch is unstuffed or there is marker all over someone and someone else has to poop and someone can't find their shoes and someone isn't wearing pants and mommy forgot to do the laundry and we have to leave the house in five minutes.  But as long as I power through instead of locking myself in the bathroom, it's over before I know it.

Just yesterday, I was teaching a class at the boys' school.  As a former high school science teacher and general lover of kiddos and science and all things kiddos and science, I was having a blast teaching my little after school enrichment class about flight as we designed and redesigned our own paper airplanes.  But Daniel was super disappointed because his design didn't live up to his expectations.  He started to cry mid-class and by the time we reached the car he was in epic tantrum kicking the seat meltdown mode because he felt Mommy didn't help him.  I was exhausted from a full day of parenting followed by teaching and the fact that I had hauled Josh and Noah along with me for this little adventure.  I knew when we got home I would have to not only unpack everything, but get all of these kids on some sort of task WHILE MAKING DINNER because it was already 5:30.  And then homework?  And baths?  And stories?  And bedtime??  Oh, no.  Honestly, I wanted to scream at Daniel because he would not stop crying and kicking and Josh and Noah WERE screaming at Daniel to be quiet.  But as we rolled closer to home, I looked at the clock.  "It will be over before you know it, Jen," I said to myself.  "Just do the next thing." With that perspective, I took a deep breath.

"Daniel," I said.  "I love you even when you are really mad at me.  I love you all the time."
His wails subsided a bit.
"I am sorry that you are mad at me but I want you to know that I love you."
A little ray of light broke through, even though he was still protesting that it was "the worst day ever."
We got in the house and I shuffled Phil to the basement, turned on a Mr. Rogers for Noah and Josh and started to make dinner.  Daniel stomped into the living room with a book.  After a few minutes I went in.
"Hey, buddy.  You want to come make some muffins with me?"
This is his FAVORITE THING that we used to do all of the time when he was little, and he is always sad that he doesn't get to make muffins with me anymore now that he is in school all day.  I figured it was worth switching up my dinner menu from to have a moment with my boy.
"REALLY??!!!" he said.  "YES!!"
He bounded in the kitchen where I had some orange juice and popcorn waiting for him, and after he fortified himself he started to push his chair over to the counter where my muffin-making mess was in progress.
"Um, Daniel, do you think you might be a little tall to stand on the chair?"
"Oh, yeah," he giggled.  "Maybe, Mommy." and he grabbed a stool from the bathroom so that we could stand shoulder to shoulder.  To be honest, he barely even needed that.  
Wow, those days were over fast.
We mixed the muffins and I looked at the clock.  A little more than ten minutes, but still pretty true after all these years.  The mess had subsided.  It was over before I knew it, and it was peaceful in my house. . .at least for that moment.  I'll take 'em when I can get 'em.  I patted myself on the back for mastering that art of putting my head down and powering through the difficult moments, but God wasn't quite done with my heart yet.

Later that night I was reading another book that has been challenging and encouraging me, Hands Free Mama.  I love her message and one of those messages is that it will all be over soon, so don't miss it.  I like to think that I am not a distracted mom, but in many ways I am so guilty of living in my head. This book gently calls me to accountability.  I read a passage in here that stopped me in my tracks just as Loving the Little Years did years ago.  Rachel was talking about how she used to dread when her kids brought their folders home from school and she hated unloading them.  Just one more thing to worry about or sign or look at or throw away, just one more input in her already busy and distracted life.  Ouch, I could relate.  I kind of dread all the folders, too.  And the WORST part is, Josh is so, so excited to show me his papers every day yet I am so worn out by 2pm when we slosh in the door from preschool pickup that often I barely even look at them, or promise he can show me later.  Then, as if she hadn't gotten me enough, at the end of the chapter Rachel asked if there were times in your child's day, such as bedtime, homework, meal preparation or carpool that you currently view as an inconvenience that you could instead use as a time to connect.  Crap, I thought.  Am I supposed to just pick ONE of those???  Because I pretty much wish those parts of the day away EVERY SINGLE DAY.  The past few weeks especially, I have not been able to get the kids showered and in bed FAST enough, have been totally guilty of turning off the music and asking for silence on the way to and from school and cringed and grumbled about homework more than my second graders do.  But Rachel's book was a kind reminder that these times, the busy and challenging and mundane and boring and tedious and all hyper kids and repeating yourself a million times and big messes and buckles and snaps and zippers and brushing teeth and combing hair are the IMPORTANT times.  In fact, most of my life appears to be made up of these times so it does not seem in my best interest to wish them away.  How often do I just try to power through: get those kids on the bus, get them buckled in the van, get them tucked into bed and will them to fall asleep so I can just have a hot second to relax.  Yet these are the times I am going to miss.  They will be over before I know it.  How easily I forget.

So, there's the delicate balance, friends.  The two sides of the coin once again.

Power through, it will be over before you know it.
Savor it, it will be over before you know it.

Today as we came home from preschool, I cranked the music that Noah had selected and told Josh I couldn't wait to see his papers.  He was so excited.  He couldn't make it to the big blue couch fast enough and we went through all three papers in his folder in excruciating yet glorious detail.  It took LESS than ten minutes, even with the full play-by-play, and the look on his sweet little face was so worth savoring.

There's a time to power through and a time to savor, a time for every purpose under heaven, right?
God, help me discern when I need to power through.  When I need to savor.  
It will be over before I know it.

My favorite boys on the big blue couch, 2013

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Melting Snow.

Dwelling in the present moment
I know this is a wonderful moment.
— Thích Nhat Hanh

Last week was the first snow of the season here and the kids were beyond excited.  It was pretty enough that I think even most of us grown up folks were excited, too. . .there's nothing like that first snow clinging to the trees and making everything sparkle to brighten a dreary winter.  The boys couldn't WAIT to go sledding!  But school days and early darkness meant that the days of the week passed by and we still hadn't loaded everyone up in the car to make it to the big hill.

"Mommy, can you please, please take us sledding after school on Thursday?" Philip and Daniel begged me.  "We are big enough now you don't even have to worry about us.  You can just watch Noah and we'll take care of the rest.  Pleeeaasseee??!!!!"
The thought of taking all four of them sledding by myself was about to give me a panic attack, but one look at their hopeful little faces and I knew I had to say, "Yes."
"Oh, Mommy, YES!!  This is going to be awesome.  Pick us up from school.  We'll be car riders!  Can you come get us early?  How about right after PE.  We don't want to miss PE."
"Nice try, kids, but I don't think they are going to let me take my kids out of school and miss the NWEA test to go sledding.  HOWEVER, Noah and Josh and I will come get you right after school and go straight there, OK??!!"

And for the next day they planned and giggled and decided who was going to be on what sled and what kind of cool tricks they could do and all "Can we take the snowboard?" and "Don't forget to pack my warm gloves!"  I  looked at the weather forecast and it was supposed to warm up on Thursday, but the temperature looked like it was going to at least start cold and steadily increase during the day.  Eternally optimistic, I decided there was enough snow that even if it got warmer and started to melt, there'd still be enough left after school for at least a little bit of sledding.  It would be even warm enough we wouldn't even have to bundle too much!  Although I have a science degree and a little more than the basic awareness about the temperature at which phase changes occur, I'm not so easily constrained by things like reality in my daily living.

So, all day I prepped for our plan.  Noah and I went to Target to buy a 4th sled.  We even went to the sledding hill to test it out.  The snow was melting but there was still enough left on parts of the hill that we had some good runs.  We made snowballs and laughed and enjoyed our wintry fun.  But by the end of our time there we had to shed our coats.   It was getting downright warm, enough to send Frosty the Snowman into panic mode.  I looked at the sun beating down on the hill and listened to the sound of dripping water everywhere, did a little more math as to how much of this was going to melt before 4 pm and thought, "Oh, dear, this might not be good."
But, STILL ETERNALLY OPTIMISTIC, I went through all of the motions. . .packed the bags with the snow gear, loaded the four sleds in the back of my van, tossed bananas and fruit snacks into my bag, buckled in the little brothers and headed off to school to pick the boys up.  The sun was smiling (a little cruelly, I might add) upon us as my van sloshed through melted puddles of snow all the way to school.

I found the boys chattering with one of their sweet former teachers.  "We're going sledding!!!!"
She looked at me quizzically.  "Here?" she said, "Or. . .are you driving someplace. . .far away!?!????"  
"Um, here." I said, now a little embarrassed that my lack of connection with reality was on display for all to see.  "We're just going to check it out and see what we can see!"
"Oh, well, have fun!" she smiled at me and gave me a worried look.   I gave her a confident thumbs up and headed out into the lovely 50 degree sunshine-y day to go sledding.
As the boys herded to the van they were still chattering away.  "You know," said Phil.  "The top of the sledding hill is at a higher altitude.  It might even be colder up there so there's more snow!"  
I giggled, enjoying his optimism, too.
"Hey, there's snow between those trees!" Daniel exclaimed, pointing at a hill covered with large trees, snow still filling their tangled roots.  "Although, we probably couldn't sled there.  That'd be kind of painful."
"We could sled on the grass, right, Mommy?  I mean, that would be fun??" said Josh.
"SLEEEDDDIIINNNGGGG!???!!!" Noah squealed as we turned the corner that headed towards the hill, his memories of just a few hours before getting him psyched for the adventure ahead.
"Guys, we're just going to check it out.  We'll give it our best shot, OK?" but at this point I was getting more than a little worried.
I turned into the drive and in front of us was a bare sledding hill.  The gate was closed and locked shut to block the parking lot, I am sure to deter optimistic/crazy folks like us from coming to sled on the soggy remains of snow.

In the back seat, Phil instantly burst into tears.  "We were car riders for THIS!!!?????!"  
Daniel and Josh looked forlorn. Noah, ever cheerful, started pointing out other patches of snow in neighboring yards, "We sled dere?  Nook, dere's some snow!"

I pulled out of the lot and out onto the main road.  I didn't really have a Plan B but it was time to come up with one on the fly.  "That's OK, kids, off to our next adventure!" And I steered the van towards a nearby park.  There was no sledding hill (or any large hill there, for that matter) but I remembered from when I used to take the boys there in their toddler days there was some shade and also lots of little hills.  Maybe there would be a scrap of snow left and a little bit of fun to be had.  As I navigated into the muddy parking lot, Phil's cries in the backseat got more desperate, "HERE!!!??  This is NOT what I had planned!!!"  Daniel told him to cut it out, and Phil reached across the seats between them and punched him in the chest.  A knock-down-drag-out-fight was about to take place in the 3rd row.  It was time to get out of the van- AND QUICK!!

"Guys, let's just see what we can see."
Noah was out of the van in a hot second, off to explore the playground with Josh right behind him.  Daniel looked at the (still crying) brother next to him, his two other brothers playing happily on the playground and said, "Hey, Mommy.  I think I'll take those snow pants now."

This left Phil and I in the van alone.  As we watched his brothers play, tears continued to streak down his face.  "Phil?" I asked him gently.  He crossed his arms, turned his head and made a tearful grunting sound.  

I was at a critical crossroads here.  There was a large part of me that wanted to be angry with him and tell him to get over himself, as the tears of an eight-year-old throwing what was by all appearances an epic temper tantrum are not my favorite sound.  But as I felt that agitated and frustrated feeling welling up inside of me, I decided to just pause and take a deep breath.  As I let him cry, I thought about the lesson that this might be trying to teach me.  How often do I cling to my own plans, and grumble and drag my feet when my day or my week (or my life) doesn't go the way I imagined it would?   It's certainly OK to be disappointed.  When things don't meet my expectations, how hard is it for me, even as an adult with YEARS of experience with things not going my way, to shift my mind into forward mode and release the vision I had in exchange for the reality of what is happening the present moment?  I needed to give Phil some grace, as there are many times I so desperately need it myself.

"Honey, have you ever hear of Plan A?"
"That's not even a word.  Have you HEARD OF PLAN A???"
"Again, a yes or no would work."
"OK, yes."
"And if I said, 'Life is all about Plan B, what do you think that would mean?"
"I don't know," Phil said, avoiding my eyes.
"It means, sometimes things don't go the way we planned.  But then we have to try and find a new plan. . .plan B!"
"OK, have you ever heard the phrase, 'Wherever you go there you are?"
"Again, merp is not a word.  So let me enlighten you.  It means you can't change the past, all you have is the present moment.  Where are you right now?"
"The playground"
"Riiiiggghhhhhhtt.  The sledding hill is closed, we're at the playground.  We can't go back and make the snow un-melt.  This is where we are."
"Alright, I've got another one for you.  Have you ever heard, "When life hands you lemons, make lemonade?"
"Kind of."
"So, when things don't go your way, you just have to make the bet of it, sweetie.  I know, I'm disappointed, too.  I've been planning for this all day.  This is something I struggle with, too.  We just have to choose our attitude and make the most of it."

Later when I recounted the story to Paul he asked me if I could have possibly worked any more cliches into that conversation.  Maybe, maybe not.  But, I think it worked.  I shut off the van and left the door and trunk open, then I headed over to where Noah was playing.  Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Phil sneak out of the van.  He had pulled his boots on and was in the middle of the snow in the adjacent field making a snowball.

It wasn't long before he made his way over to the playground. 
In a few more minutes, he was back to the van for his hat and warm gloves.
And a few minutes later, returning for his snow pants.
And after about 10 minutes, he asked for a sled.
Then another.
And another.
And another.
And before I knew it, all four sleds were out of the van and four little boys were gleefully sledding down the tiniest hill imaginable, having the time of their lives.

In the van on the way home, Josh was overwhelmed with how things turned out.  "Mommy, I didn't think that was going to be fun but that was AWESOME!!"
"I agree, buddy!  
I agree."

I am realizing that there is so much beauty to be found in the "melting snows" of life.  The moments that don't go the way I planned can have a divine loveliness all their own. . .but the only way I am going to have eyes to see that beauty is if I release the vision in my head of what I thought it was going to be.  Once I let that picture go, I am free to live in the present moment.  "It is what it is" my Dad always says.  "Live in the now, man." in my best Garth Algar voice.  "Today is a gift- that's why it's called the present." (I had to work in JUST A FEW more cliches in case Paul reads this.)

It wasn't what we had planned.
But it was fun.
And it was beautiful.
An hour of sweet childhood, savored in the melting snow.


Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Little Golden Thread.

We're all just walking each other home. ~Rumi

When I was a first-year high school science teacher, I spent a LOT of time at school, as all first-year teachers do.  Everything was new and overwhelming and I had no depth of previous experience to draw from, so I usually spent each evening pulling together my lessons for the next day while feebly trying to recover from the ones I had just taught.  Although in later years I would still often work late, there is nothing in the world quite like the particular exhaustion of the first-year teacher.  Around 6 pm I would still be slumped over the keyboard of my Mac, three hours past the end of my "day", high heels discarded beside me, the sides of my hands covered in Vis-a-Vis marker, the sleeve of my denim jacket dusted with chalk.  A human eraser, if you will. My desk would typically be littered with a half-eaten bag of M&M's, a lukewarm Coke, piles of papers, broken pencils and random things I had confiscated from my students during the day, love notes. . .gum. . .those little skateboards you skate with your fingers.  My heart would be full but my mind would be vacant as I tried to pull my act together.

And this is where Bruce would find me.  Bruce was our evening custodian, in charge of cleaning my room in the science wing as a part of his rounds.  If you are a first-year teacher, my prayer is that you will have a Bruce in your life.  Just when I felt like I couldn't go on, there was no way I could get together the energy to make it to the copy room and run that lab I had just created let alone set it up, Bruce would pop in with his big smile, his white hair, and his hearty laugh.  That little bit of friendship and human contact would be just enough to bring me back to the land of the living, and he'd send me off to the copy room with a smile on my face.

Our conversations were usually nothing profound, he'd tease me about being a "rookie" and how late I was working (again) and we'd catch up about family and weather and the like.  At Christmastime, he noticed I was stringing up a few lights around my room and offered to bring me some trees from his house to decorate.  Of course, I couldn't turn him down so we trimmed my room together, giving it that little touch of cheer that was even more special because it came from a friend.  We chatted so often about so many of the same things that I can't remember, but one conversation in particular has stayed in my heart all these years.

It was a spring evening and the sun was just slanting in when we ran into each other in the hallway, I on my way to the copy room and Bruce pushing his trash can towards the Physics end of the building.  We stopped to chat as usual, but when I asked how he was I noticed tears starting to form in his eyes.  It wasn't long before tears started to spill out of mine, too.  Cancer.  He had cancer.  They found spots on his brain.  I can't even remember the details because my mind was swirling, "How could this happen to my friend?"  Of course, in typical Bruce fashion, he was trying to be positive as he explained everything to me, but I could feel the undercurrent of hurt and uncertainty in his wavering voice.   Time froze there in the hallway, the moment etched in my mind.  Then he said the thing I will never forget.

"I just didn't know.  They never told us.  They never told us smoking was bad for you!  If I just would have known, maybe. . ."

As his voice trailed off, the look on his face, the confusion and pain in his voice, they were enough to break my heart.  Although he could have easily been my grandfather, he looked at me pleadingly as a small child would.

"How could he have known?" I thought to myself.  And if he had known, would it have changed anything?  There are no guarantees in life, no magic formula one can follow for a perfect one free of pain.  The one thing I did know, even at the ripe old age of 23, was that there was no use in him beating himself up about tobacco or anything else for that matter.  Forward is the only way time goes.

"Bruce," I said, trying to comfort him.  "There is no way you could have known.  It's OK.  It's OK, Bruce.  It's not your fault."  And I made sure I caught his eye so he could see how much I meant it.
"It's not your fault."

He bit his lip and nodded.
I hugged him.
I believed that with my whole heart.
I still do.

I think of Bruce often, especially any time I feel myself getting hung up or worried about the choices I make for myself or my family.   Sometimes we just don't know.  I believe we're all just trying to do the best we can with the physical, financial, and emotional resources we have available to us.  So any time I get hung up on a decision and researching and thinking and weighing options, I tell myself,  "You know, Jen, sometimes you just aren't going to know.  Just do the best you can."  And what kinds of choices are the things that are the most essential about us, really?   What remains when we are gone? The answer, from my friend Bruce, is simple.  
The most important choice is how we treat people.
What remains is kindness.
What remains is love.

Bruce and I cried a little bit more together that evening before we parted ways.  The next few years brought many changes in our lives.  My classroom was moved and I had a new evening custodian, Bruce was on and off work, I became a much more efficient teacher (spending less evenings slumped over my computer in exhaustion and more actually living an adult life) and eventually left for my first maternity leave.  Shortly after my son was born, I learned that Bruce had passed away.  I wept for my friend, but mostly for myself.   I would never see his tall white-haired frame rounding the corner to greet me with a smile, we would never share a laugh or a story or a lukewarm Coke again.
I rejoiced that he was free from pain.
But cried because he didn't know. 
He didn't know the impact he made on my life, the little golden thread of friendship woven into the tapestry of my being.  I had been blessed just from being a beneficiary of his kindness and warmth at a time when I was a little bit lonely and more than a little bit tired.
And he'd never know because he thought he was just being himself. . .emptying the trash, doing his job, sharing a smile on the way.  Never imagining that there was anything special or "golden" about it.

I am also imagining that there are some things you just don't know, too.
There are people out there whose lives you are touching today that will remember you for years to come.  
You are weaving yourself into the tapestry of the world by your mere presence in it.
Just you. . .showing up at work or yoga or preschool, just you. . .going to the grocery store, going to church or the gym or the library.  Just you. . .working on your latest project, taking that conference call, picking up the mail or the dry cleaning, posting on Facebook, reading stories to your kids, taking your car for an oil change.   
Yet even below our awareness, through the simple living of our daily life, we can be making a difference in someone else's.
Who knows what stranger or friend our kind smiles are touching today?  Who really needed a laugh and we gave it to them?  Who was lonely and our "hello" made them feel less alone?  Who saw our Facebook post and it gave them encouragement?  
Were you the answer to someone's prayer today?  Was that kind word you said going to be a golden thread in someone's tapestry, the way Bruce was in mine?
It's awe-inspiring to imagine the impact you are making in everyday ways.
So, just keep being you, little golden thread.
You're being woven into so many people's lives, and all you have to do is be yourself.
We all have a lot of choices to make today, and sometimes we just aren't going to know.
But the most important choice is how we treat people.
What remains is kindness.
What remains is love.

Hope and faith will both come to an end when we die.  But love will remain.  Love is eternal.  Love comes from God and returns to God.  When we die, we will lose everything that life gave us except love.  The love with which we lived our lives is the life of God within us.  It is the divine, indestructible core of our being.  This  love not only will remain, but will also bear fruit from generation to generation.
Henri Nouwen