Thursday, July 13, 2017

Deep End

Summer afternoon, summer afternoon, ... to me those have always been the two most beautiful words in the English language. - Henry James

I don't know if I've used this quote before, but it is one of my favorites.  I completely agree.  Summer. Afternoon.  It conjures up images of laying in my grassy backyard, watching my brothers in the pool, playing on the front porch, going down the stairs to the coolness of the Haddon Heights Children's Library and gathering up books, and of course, earning swim bands.  We didn't belong to the pool. My cousins did.  But a few times a summer they took us along.  The Oaklyn Swim Club.  I still drive past and I'm amazed at how it has shrunk over the years.  When I was young it was like a mecca for kids ages 5-15.  I wasn't a part of the swim culture there.  So when I first arrived I usually stayed near the baby pool, with the little cousins and the moms and would "help" get the food ready because we always packed for The Whole Day, which meant all the way through dinner until closing.  Eventually I would venture to the big pool, wade in the 3 foot end, maybe go down the slide, up the steps, line up again for the slide, arms drawn around your waist until it was your turn, splash a little, run around, oh no, we're not allowed to run.  That would get you a whistle.  Nothing crazy.  I would stand there in my stretched out, hand-me-down bathing suit and watch the big kids, the kids in The Well.  They would gracefully rise up out of the deep water with their hair slicked back ever so handsomely, glide over to the ladder, hoist themselves up and then climb the ladder to the High Dive and plunge perfectly into the dark blue water again.  I can still feel the sense of panic as they took their time to surface.  Will they come up again?  Will there be a  RESCUE?  My cousin was the Lifeguard.  She sat on the Stand, in her charming red one-piece that showed her taut muscles, twirling her whistle and chomping her gum, hardly giving a glance down into the Deep End, supremely confident that whoever had just dove would rise again, and they usually did.  So when she challenged me to earn my band, I couldn't exactly refuse, even though I had a lot of excuses.  I'm not a Member.  I never really come here.  I don't like The Well.  I don't know how to dive.  The list could go on.  I have to watch the babies in the baby pool.  But I did it.  I don't know how.  I still don't really swim.  My only stroke is the Breast Stroke.  I feel like I'm really good at it, but my family would chuckle if I said that out loud, actually they would probably laugh out loud too.  I took swim lessons one year in a neighbor's pool on Ninth Avenue - the only in-ground pool around at the time.  It was a simple old-fashioned cement pool that I think only had one depth - three feet the whole way across.  My instructor was one of the daughters who lived there and I remember specifically her teaching me the Breast Stroke, that I had to pretend "your legs are grabbing a football."  I must have been about 6 at the time and I remember being struck at the image.  Why would I want to do that?  Anyway after she applauded me for my form, I got the hang of it.  I enjoyed it.  It made sense to me.  I still don't know how to do a Free Stroke, or Freestyle, or whatever, and so I don't know how I passed the swim band test.  Did I put my head in the water?  Did I kick my feet?  The thing I liked about the Breast Stroke was that my arms and legs were moving in basically the same directions at the same time.  I wasn't coordinated enough to do two different things and to remember to breathe.  Just wasn't.  Anyway, I passed.  That earned me the band to go to the Big Pool, but not The Well.  Not the Deep End.  For that I had to Tread Water for 2 minutes, or maybe it was 3, or 5?  That I was good at.  I was a pro.  I would try it.  If I had one thing it was perseverance - it's the only reason I can run at all, because I'm definitely not fast. But first I had to jump in.  Off the Dive, but not the High Dive.  I know that I would line up at the Dive, wait and watch a few kids, and then get out of line with some excuse.  I had to go to the bathroom (not that that ever stopped any Kid from getting into a pool, ever!)  I had to fix my hair.  I had to... just do it.  I could feel my cousin's glare, her extreme impatience with my little drama.  If you can't do it, don't do it. But don't waste my time.  So, finally, to show I was cool and that I could do it, I did it.  I earned the band.  The band to the Well.  Now you have to touch the bottom. Um, excuse me?  I don't think so.  This didn't earn you another band, just respect.  I'm too tired.  Do it.  I remember trying to go down.  Trying to swim against the buoyancy that was making it so hard to push down.  Feeling the pressure in my head as my ears began to explode.  Couldn't do it.  Seeing the Dark Blue Water of the Bottom.  Remembering that some kids had said there were Sharks down there.  Couldn't do it.  Surfacing.  Swimming to the ladder.  Smoothing my hair back just so.  Climbing up again and again.  Going down, pushing down.  Was it 12 feet?  The Deep Drain just beyond my reach, and then I touched it.  Ok, so you touched the Drain.  Big Deal.  Big Deal.  

The Deep End is hard.  It takes us way beyond what we think our capacity is.  Our capacity for love, for friendship, for tolerance.  It pushes us past our breaking point.  It is so easy to stay in the Shallow End, tossing a ball back and forth, wading around, kicking our feet, near the stairs, near the edge.   And we have so much fun there!  Playing Marco Polo with our eyes closed, trying not to laugh, looking for a quarter that has sunk to the bottom.  Up the ladder, down the slide.  Easy.  I watch our kids as they swim around with friends.  There were about 8 teenagers in our pool all playing basketball with the kiddie size nets that stood along the edges, trying to dunk, and 'accidentally' knocking the whole thing in the pool, laughing, splashing, having a great time!  But no one in the Deep End.  Finally my youngest wanted out of the fray, out of the mix, and he calmly dove under water and went down to the Deep End.  He touched the bottom.  He rose calmly and took a breath on the edge a minute and then went back to basketball.  There is something in that Deep End.  It is a prize.  It is a break from the routine, from the mix, from the fun.  But it is also something special, something calming, something we need to hold on to who we are. 

How fun it is to bob around with the floats and the games!  How fun it is to be social and see friends and play at life.  I'm mixed in the busyness of being a mom, sitting at sports events, running into friends at the library, standing in line at the grocery store, sipping drinks on the deck at the pub down the street, talking outside church.  How's so and so?  What are your summer plans?  So good to see you.  And it always is.  Sorry to hear about...  Moving?  Where?  Sometimes these moments linger with us.  We recall the first time we met, how we were acquainted and it brings us back to a piece of our lives, a moment in time.  But then there are the Deep End Friends.  The people we love.  We see them after too long a time and we lock eyes and we see them for who they are and for who we were.  We remember how we needed them, and how they needed us.  Asking the questions that move us beyond the How are you to How are you Really?  We are vulnerable with them. We let down our guard, we share deeply, we forgive when we needed to. We promise to stay close.  We try.  But there is a buoyancy pushing us back up to the Shallow End.  We have to push against it. 

Places are like this too.  When we went looking at colleges, it was the same.  Lots of fun stuff! What? You have 289 clubs?  and they were all founded by students?  Cool!  What?  You have Thai nights and trips to the zoo?  I can study abroad in Cairo?  Sign me up!  (I really did want them to sign me up!)  Play.  But then there is a school that says Welcome Home.  And they say 'You are part of our Family'.  And we say, "Yup, you are part of our family too."  Cause that is what the Deep End is.  You are now going to be part of every dinner table conversation, part of our wardrobe, on the bumper of our car, on our calendar on the kitchen wall.  Part of our memories, part of our etchings in the fresh paint on the hallway walls. "That's from when Jay moved his dresser into the other room.

Experiences are like this too.  I keep trying to find a way to hold on to summer.  I don't want to let these days pass too quickly, but they already are.  I want this to be a Deep End Summer and I don't know how.  I will rehearse the words to myself, "Summer Afternoon, Summer Afternoon, Summer Afternoon." Yesterday I went to Stone Harbor with my mom, and two of my kids.  It's our Deep End place.  I watched and listened as they sat on their towels and and said, "Here, listen to this," as they passed an ear bud back and forth.  They shared laughs and asked each other "Wanna go in the water?"  I talked to my mom about everything and I tried to listen well.  Our umbrella blew over.  My mom's chair got hit by a wave. Charlie missed a spot on his neck and got too much sun.  I will remember that.  My mom made a mess of an orangesicle. We forgot Annie's flip flops and had to go back and find them.  I won't forget that.  We have to hold on to these tiny things that make up our Summer Afternoons.  I think it is a matter of Touching the Drain. Going all in. Pushing against the buoyancy that pushes us back from making moments matter.  

Ideas can be like this.  It is easy to say we accept others, we believe in love, and God, and forgiveness, and Love One Another.  But then there is the practice of actually doing it.  Of Touching the Drain.  When we do, we can make something beautiful happen.  
I have been married for 21 years.  Deep End.  When I am out and about in my day I see so many things, so many people, so many places, but when I look into his eyes, his face, the tiny creases that have started to form, I am in the Deep End. I am in the calm and it is beautiful, out of the fray, somehow safe in our bottom of the ocean.  Does it sound like I'm drowning?  I'm not.  I have my band to prove it.  We earned this one together.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Alarm Clocks

For some reason my alarm clock is set for 5:30am, despite the fact that I always hit the snooze button. For some reason the snooze is set for 9 minutes.  Not ten, not fifteen, not five, but nine.  It must have been some preset.  Regardless, I usually just need 5 more minutes.  I just kind of want to savor the feeling of the warm bed, I want to stay oblivious just a little bit longer, and then I can face the day - sort of.  Some days, and even weeks, are worse than others and I will hit the snooze button more than once.  I just can't face it - whatever it is - a person, a problem, the unknown of the day.  I just want five more minutes!  "Can I just have 5 MORE MINUTES?"  It reminds me of my kids at birthday parties, or their grandparents house when their cousins are there, or the worst, the beach.  I remember a birthday where I had taken all four kids to McDonald's.  I told them 5 more minutes. A woman next to me, who was a grandmother of another party-goer, looked at me and said, "There is no way they are going to leave, you know that, right?" I just looked at her.  "We'll see."  You see, I think the 5 more minutes lets the kids know, lets me know, I have to savor this.  I have to hold onto the moments as much as I can because they are slipping away.  It's like an alarm clock that says, Watch out - it's going to be over soon! And our reaction is one of escalated joy, not sadness.  The leaving is still bittersweet, but we've made it a little sweeter by savoring the experience.   Every time we had to leave any place that 5 More Minutes was like a gift I could give my kids and it was free, just for the asking.  "Can we PLEASE stay 5 MORE MINUTES?" they cried.  "Um...," I would say, (build anticipation) "Yes!"  "Yeah!" they screamed as they ran back to their cousins (always a tough departure) or their friends or the party or to the waves on the beach, "We got 5 MORE MINUTES!" The best!  That doesn't mean there aren't tears.  I still cry, literally, every time we are driving home from the shore after heavenly days of bliss with family and friends and the ocean.  And I'm forty-..., well, old enough not to be crying!

A few weeks ago I was in a breakfast cafe with a friend.  After many patrons had come and gone, and many tables had turned over, and the waitress had brought the check and we paid, and then had one more cup of coffee, we finally turned to look out the window.  It was raining, and there was a line of people waiting to get in.  We looked at each other and said, "We should really leave!"  But we both shook our heads no, laughed, and said, "5 more minutes!"  It increased the intensity of our conversation.  We quickly ran through the list of things we had yet to talk about. And what about this?  And what about that?  And yes, we will do this, and we will do that!  And our five minutes was so vital, so important.  We accomplish a lot when we know our time is running out.  We had a new determination to suck the marrow out of our five minutes.  I suppose it is mindfulness.  Living in the moment, because there are only five of them left!  A new increased awareness of how special our time was and is together.  A grander appreciation for our friendship and our conversation and our laughter.  Everything was heightened!  The joy was more palpable.

Maybe you know where I am going with this.  Maybe you are feeling an alarm clock going off in your life or in your house.  The alarm clock going off here is College.  My oldest is leaving.  He is going to leave his bed, our kitchen, our stairs, our milk, all the countless little things that I hear and see throughout the day that let me know he is around, and he is going to travel off to the unknown. We won't be asking him if he left clothes in the washer, or if he needs anything to go to the dry cleaner, or money for gas, or if he wants chicken or burgers for dinner, or what cereal he wants at the grocery store, or if he will pick his sister up from school, or how the party was.  I am going to miss those things so, so much.  The alarm is set for August 18.  That is less than 3 months away, so I am now shouting "3 More Months!" and the patron saint of alarms is listening.  And everything we do, everything we say, is filled with that heightened awareness, the knowing, the appreciation and the intense Joy of the last five minutes, the extra, the more - as the Jesuits would say, the Magis.  I know it will not feel like 3 months, it will feel like 3 seconds.  Between graduation parties and trips to the shore and having to go here (Mom, I have to go!) and work and chores, out of the 50,000 minutes we may actually have left together, it will feel like 5.  Just 5 more minutes.  But they will be filled with all the Joy and Love we can muster.  A heightened awareness, a grand appreciation, and a palpable joy.

I will still cry when he leaves, just like I do when leaving the ocean.  But the ocean is always there and he will always return.  A little different.  A little changed.  I will be a little different too. But for now, I will make sure I listen to the story of his favorite pair of shoes, and why he likes to wear corduroys even in 80 degree weather.  I will listen to his laugh and record it in my heart.  I will watch him a little longer when he comes into the room.  I will study his face and his hair and his hands.  I will still ask him what kind of cereal he wants at the store, even though I should know this already.  I will soak it in when he sits at the counter with his two brothers and they banter back and forth and laugh and look at each other.  I will hold on to the moments when he laughs and teases his sister and rolls his eyes about her latest story. I won't ask him to get his shoes off the stairs for the thousandth time, I will just look and soak it in.  I won't mind that he left his retainer on the downstairs sink, or that he has 8 glasses up in his room that belong in the kitchen, in fact, in the dishwasher.  I will watch him as he leaves and says, "See ya!" and I will remember that he will be leaving for good soon, hearing that distant alarm clock.  I will watch him when he returns and says, "Hey, I'm home!" and I will yearn for the day when he says it when he comes home from college.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017


Hello, friends!  Thank you for reading my blog.  It has been over 5 years since I began and I appreciate you taking the time from your life to read what I have written.  It brings me great joy to know I can share the journey with you despite the fact that we all have busy days or may be far away. I finally updated my page and I'd love your feedback.  Charlie is no longer 9 and it was time to get rid of my kindergarten picture.  I hope you find time to spring clean - not with cleansers, but with some project you've been meaning to get to!  Happy Spring Break!

The Last Bowl of Oatmeal

We have a lot of changes going on in the Miles house.  Our kitchen is packed entirely in boxes on the back porch so that we can make way for a new one.  Since the old kitchen cabinets were from 1940, it was time to let it go.  The funny thing was how the process started.  We gradually packed the canned food and took it down the basement.  The dishes that we never use were easily loaded up and carried away. And then the pots and pans.  Then the plastic ware.  Then the glasses.  Then the water bottles. Then the plates were replaced with paper.  It happened over days, not all at once.  We had our last dinner in the dining room, our last cooked meal in the old kitchen.  But we just can't let go of the bowls.  Or the spoons.  The dining room table sits in the middle of the living room with a tray in the middle piled with the paper products and a "spooner," which holds a bunch of spoons and was a wedding present from my wonderful friend Cathey, who grew up in the South and introduced us to this concept years ago - Best Thing Ever!  So can you get the picture?  The living room also holds "the silver rack," not a wedding present, but a great buy from Target that kind of makes us feel like we are going for a retro-look bakery.  On this is peanut butter and jelly, bread, tea bags, and about five bags of opened and half eaten snacks, and a dwindling supply of every cereal ever known to man. Cereal is the best.  No cooking.  No prepping.  No cutting. No spreading.  It's so stinking easy! Oatmeal - not so much.  You have to have it hot and you have to add liquid, and that means finding a water supply - not easy without a kitchen. Anyway, the house is a mess.  So the last bowl of oatmeal had already been served.

But really the greatest change happening now is getting ready for my oldest son, my first, to go off to college. It started gradually, much in the same way the kitchen packing does.  I can go all the way back to preK and think about how it began.  First they go off to preschool.  I was so worried that day that he would fall into a puddle of tears before walking in, but as soon as the teacher came to the door, he scooted right by her and up the steps and never looked back.  I walked home that morning in a bit of confusion.  What just happened?  Did he really go in without a tear, without a glance back? I'm his mother - at least he owed me that!  I remember our first parent teacher conference - how nerve wracking!  That is an experience that is way underrated on the emotional scale.  Then grade school, and middle school, and high school.  All the firsts that comprise a life with a child.  The first baseball game, the first lost tooth, the first hockey coach, the first broken bone, the first date, the first car accident.  I can remember somewhere in the midst of that when he came in to our bedroom and lay down on the bed to tell us about his day and I thought, "Is this the last time he will do this?"  When do you get too old to hang out with your mom on her bed?  Then the first college application.  It all seemed like a natural part of the course that we were on.  But it is more like knocking a wall down in your house. First you kind of have an idea of what you want, then you have all these papers to fill out to see if what you want actually fits in the space you have. You invite all these people to take a look at all you have done and critique you and your ideas and "let you know..." Then you try out different colors and styles and you make adjustments.  While the pictures and videos of California universities look really good, do you really, really, REALLY want to go all the way there right now?  It's fun to vacation there, but to live there, FOREVER? Just like the black windows and brown walls and orange ceiling might look good in a coffee shop, they don't really work for everyday life in your own kitchen.  So we make plans and we dream big and then we adjust. We make guesstimates at what it will actually look like.  Kitchens and colleges.  I can't even imagine him gone.  I was going off to college when Cathey lived next door to us.  Her husband jokingly told my mother that she had to 'break the plate' that I had eaten on, another southern tradition.  My mother was not happy.  I'm not either!  I'm making guesstimates about how our life is going to be and what it is going to look like.  And he is making his own about what college life is going to be like.  On one college tour, the guide asked him, "Do you really think we say Go Irish to each other all day long?  No, we don't."  Ok, good to know.  And so it goes.  Dream. Adjust. Learn.

What I wasn't counting on in the midst of all the changes were the other adjustments going on in our house at the same time.  The family room is full of the cabinets we are putting together ourselves and there is quite literally no wiggle room.  Same with college.  Jay might be getting ready to leave, and I might be sad or happy, depending on the day, but everyone is impacted. The boys are angling for who is going to move into Jay's room, while Annie is counting on the fact that she gets his car.  But there is also some tugging of the heart strings there too.  I can see when they talk to him, they gaze just a little bit longer, laugh just a little bit harder, or at least I think they do.  This process of a slow goodbye is squishing out into all our other spaces in our lives in ways I wasn't prepared for.

So now we've been counting the lasts.  The last homecoming, the last football game, the last tournament, the last hockey game, the last class, the last Mother's Club event, and last sports banquet. The school years are no longer a string of celebrations of firsts, but the quick pass through the season of lasts. And at home too.  One night just before we took the oven out of the kitchen, Jay came home late from practice.  For some reason there was no dinner left.  He was hungry and looking through the cereal boxes.  "Do you want me to make you Oatmeal?" I asked.  He looked around, trying to judge how busy I was and if I really meant it.  "Would you?"  he said.  "Of course!" I jumped out of my seat and got busy, thinking all the while, would this be the Last Bowl of Oatmeal?
I know there is something that will linger through the change, like the bowls and the spooner.  I will find something to hold onto him, to keep me hopeful, something to keep out on display to say to ourselves, "There will be more bowls of oatmeal."  There will be trips home and laundry and dinners together.  There will be first football games and parents' weekend.  There will be time at Christmas and time in the summer and family vacations.  I will keep his picture - maybe right in the middle of the kitchen table. In the bowl I used to make his last bowl of oatmeal.

Monday, February 20, 2017

8 degrees above normal

Today's weather forecast:  8 degrees above normal. There will be a high pressure system moving in that will blanket you with sunshine.  You will smile and breathe deeply because it feels so good to get out there in the sun and the warmth.  It will feel like a little gift. But then you will say, "Wait, this is February.  This is not normal."  You're right, about 8 degrees above normal.  And that's not just the weather.

It seems like our world is now operating at 8 degrees above normal. Can we just go back to normal?

It's February.  Normally a blanket of snow would cover the ground.  You would be making hot chocolate and cherry pie for President's Day.  You would light a fire and a candle and snuggle up with a book.  But with that sunshine and high pressure also comes the compounding guilt of lying on the couch.  "Get up, get out, get busy, get moving," it screams.  And you can't.  You. Can't. Move. Because for the last 6 weeks since Christmas, you've been moving. You've been busy. So today you say, Enough. High pressure be damned.  I've been moving at 8 degrees above normal for too long.  I need a BREAK.  This is the season of hibernation.  We just finished Winter Sports and are in the peaceful lull before Spring Sports.  We need this time to breathe, to relax, to rewind.  To Lay Low.  I need a little low pressure system - bring on the snow! But this high pressure stuff is all around.  The news... overheated, overcharged.  High Pressure.  Way above normal!  The news is having a trickle down effect too.  My kids, my colleagues, all of us under added pressure.  8 degrees above normal! With a relative in the hospital - 8 degrees above normal.  Getting ready for college - 8 degrees above normal.  And it's official - 4 teenagers in the house - though that probably puts us at 20 degrees above normal!  Even a trip to the grocery store - 8 degrees above normal.  Why?  You can't eat bread anymore and Milk is how much? Oh, and wait, we're not supposed to drink milk anymore? That was my normal. Now everything is 8 degrees above normal.

Could we just turn down the heat? Can we just have a simple normal winter, without the odd temps creeping in? I get it that people don't look forward to snow. I know it's a pain to shovel and travel, but cold isn't so bad.  In fact, it's normal!  Where is our normal now?

I keep trying to find it.  Not on the weather channel, not on the news channel.  Not on National Geographic.  That stuff is getting scary!  8 degrees above normal is just not good for our earth.  Or for us.  And yet the systems we had in place to curb the 8 degrees above normal just got a big roll back politically.  Soon the 8 degrees above normal will be twenty degrees above normal.

So what are we to do with this high pressure, high temps? I'd like to say the answer is finding your own new normal.  Shorts in February?  Just go get the boxes out of the attic and shut up.  Watching the news?  Just have a glass of wine first.  Four teenagers?  Read a book about how to deal.  But I can't.  It's so not normal.  I'm resisting all these things.  Maybe I'm just too old.  About a week ago I felt young and primed to cope, but that's probably because there was snow on the ground!  Today it's just too far above normal.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Let's Talk About Happy Things

I grew up in a family of seven, five kids and two loving parents. But I also had a large extended family of grandparents, countless cousins, and aunts and uncles. We had our share of heartaches like any family. I remember books lying around with titles like, When Bad Things Happen to Good People and I'm OK, You're OK and If Life's a Bowl of Cherries, What Am I Doing in the Pits? Our kitchen table was a constant host to not just family, but also friends of my mother, who shared stories of joy, pain, and conflict about all of life's ups and downs. As she said, "My teapot is always on", and the back door was always open, literally. Friends would gather to lend an ear, share worries, or offer support. My brother was the frequent topic of conversation, sad conversations about his health and questions about his recovery from the next round of treatments and surgery. I can remember images from when I was very young of my mother crying in a tea cup. Yet whenever all that could be said was said, all the talk had been talked out of them, and someone was ready to leave, my mother would inevitably say, "Let's talk about happy things!" and they would make sure to leave on a good note, a funny comment, a word of reassurance. Usually it was the notion that it would soon be summer and we would be gathered down the shore, and "the beach would still be there". My mother applied this helpful reassurance to us when we faced obstacles as well. "It's almost over," "You're doing good," "Keep on going," or my least favorite, "Things could always be worse." Then there was my father's advice, "Drop back and punt." Anyway, things always seemed a little better after talking them through and trying to focus on the positive. I use the same techniques with my children. When they were young and had to get shots at the doctor's, I asked them to picture the beach, or whatever made them happy. They were some of the few patients who really never cried getting shots! Then they were so proud of themselves afterward. Not that they never cried, or that I didn't want them to cry, but the visualization worked.

We know this to be true. Throughout history, every major religion has fostered the idea of prayer and positive belief systems to help us through life. Have faith. Now mindfulness and meditation are hot topics, proven to cure almost any ailment. Positive Psychology is a graduate degree program at University of Pennsylvania. I know my mother never had a course in Positive Psychology, and neither did St. Ignatius, founder of the Jesuits, back in the 16th century. Yet they know a profound secret to combat human suffering: focus on the positive in life. Their faith keeps (kept) them focused on the good that God want us to have in our lives. Dr. Barbara Fredrickson confers: "Positive emotions play an essential role in our survival. Positive emotions, like love, joy, and gratitude, promote new and creative actions, ideas, and social bonds. When people experience positive emotions, their minds broaden and they open up to new possibilities and ideas."

Let's talk about happy things.

So why now? When I returned to the classroom in 2007, after a few years pursuing personal and various professional goals, I was shocked by the kind of negativity that had overtaken even the most basic conversations. Sixth grade classrooms sounded like and reflected the popular culture of Simon Cowell and "You're fired!" It was to be expected. American Idol hit the air in 2002, followed by The Apprentice in 2004. A trickle-out theory of life reflecting art had taken hold. Now the language of the day was, "I'm just being honest," "It's for your own good", and innocent sixth graders thought that was okay. Ironic, because when I had started in the classroom back in 1991, the language we used was to foster self-esteem and build up rather than tear down. I can't help but think that the purveyors of this new talk, of reproach, embarrassment, condemnation, confrontation, interrogation, and demoralization of peers never had any self-esteem to begin with. The sad thing is, most of us thought maybe it had some merit. We sat back and laughed, happy that we weren't the recipients of such harsh words. And now a new idea is emerging, Grit. You've got to take the bad, learn from it, and move on. If you're not successful, you just don't have the right character traits. Toughen up, have grit, and be happy. I would like to argue that this is not the true intention of Positive Psychology. Positivity of mind encourages all of us to act out of love for others. Relationship building is key to ensuring the success of everyone, not just one's ability to endure and persevere through hardships. If we are listening to someone berate us, we better be sure that someone is worth listening to and has our best interests at heart, not just his own. So, in response, in 2004, came the book How Full is Your Bucket?, and in 2009, How Full is Your Bucket For Kids, a small book about being kind. Parents were torn, do I push my kid to have grit or do I worry about filling his bucket all day? It's tough - so much supposed "research" and so much at stake. What is a parent to do? Well, Let's talk about happy things.

Kids love to talk about Happy Things: Shoes and shoelaces, birds and birdfeeders, pizza and parties. I have overheard the best conversations about Velcro, as if the kids are mini-researchers on the application, use, and purpose of Velcro. They can't get over the fact that there is velcro on their shoes and on the laundry sorter used for recycled objects! I have heard conversations about Coffee Cake and whether or not it tastes the same as coffee - this was a big deal! Isn't that an intriguing question for a six-year-old who has never tasted coffee? The hard part for us is thinking of these things as valuable or important. We rush our children along, ignoring their cries for Happy Talk. The sad thing is they learn from that too: that we don't value Happy Talk as important or necessary and we teach them that there are more important things, like how they did on their history test or what they want to be when they grow up. I am learning that I should never dismiss Happy Talk. I not only need to pay attention to it, but I need to model and coach around it. When I posed the question, "What do you like to do in your pajamas?" to my first graders, each child smiled and giggled as we went around the room sharing ideas and it became a novelty. These conversations should not be novelties, especially in our world of turmoil and upheaval. These conversations should be our shield, our reprieve from the assaults of the world, the media, and just too much information. We can talk about the beach, about bike riding, about nearly anything that brings us joy, and when we do we build the necessary, vital connections and increase endorphins and serotonin and all the other things that Positive Psychologists have long known, all the way back to Aristotle. Then we can build on that. Acts of kindness, physical health and wellness, positive relationships toward others, will all fall into place. Maybe it can heal our world.

I'm making time each day now for Happy Talk, with my own kids, with my students. You can look up the lyrics to Happy Talk from South Pacific, one of my all time favorite movies. "Talk about a moon floating in the sky..." I think my mother was really on to something. My son knows this too. He says, "Whenever you talk to Marmee, she's happy. And then you tell her something and she just gets happier!"

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Where is the Brown Blanket?

When I first started teaching 25 years ago, (yes, this is something of an anniversary) I sat in my parents living room during August making sailboats out of construction paper.  Each sailboat had a different color sail and each child's name was lovingly printed on the sail.  I think I had to make 26 sailboats that year for my sixth grade class.  I then cut out the letters "Sail into September."  I taped them all up in the windows of my classroom.  I had pictures of blue skies and pink sunsets in mind when I wrote that, and although I know none of my students at Saint Luke's sailed, I thought that I was setting the stage for a peaceful entry into school.  It was cute and that was part of what I was going for.
Nowadays, not so much.  I have dinosaurs on my bulletin board (they are pretty cute) and we are "Digging New Discoveries."  The work implied is intentional.  Gone are my visions of pink sunsets and peaceful harbors and smooth seas.  September, for a student, for a teacher, for a mother, is nothing like a smooth sea.  It is full of rocky shores (I missed two meetings in the last two weeks) where you cut your toe and it bothers and nags at you for days.  There are rogue waves (Meetings you didn't plan on or that go on way too long) that set you crashing back into the rocks, and they can leave bruises.  There are unfamiliar places to go and we are not always catching that wind in our sails the way we dreamed about in August.
Today I picked up Matt from Outward Bound.  I learned that Outward Bound is a sailing term used by ships as they head out to sea, leaving the safety of the harbor without protection from the storms that lie ahead.  They are "outward bound".  Matt spent almost a week in the 'wilderness' on a backpacking expedition.  He headed out from the safety of his sheltered home for a trip with complete strangers with no ties or even any means of connecting to home.  For days we all worried about him. "What do you think Matt's doing?"  "I wonder if it will rain."  "Do you think Matt's ok?"  "I wonder if he's eating, hot, lost, scared, alone," etc.  Being Outward Bound is not pleasant.  There are so many variables.  So many unpredictables.  So many unknowns.  All you have is you - and maybe some friends you can count on, hopefully whom you can trust.  You come prepared and ready to try.  That is all you can do.
September is the Outward Bound month.  We are all setting out on new adventures to unknown places.  Will we like our class?  Will we like our teacher?  Will they like us?  It is not easy.  It is really not easy.  There is so much work to do!  Homework, signing papers, setting alarms, packing lunches, readying school clothes, taking showers.  (I think my kids showered maybe 4 out 7 nights during the summer)  Whether you've known your class of friends since Pre-K or not, things are new and things have changed.  If you're the new kid, things are totally different.  Our kids have been the new kids more times than I'd like to admit - just by sheer change in circumstances.  You have to navigate new relationships every day.  And find new ways of getting things done.  The anxiety in our household leaches into everything.  We run out of milk, we forget that we left bread in the oven last night, the dryer breaks.  It is really amazing that we accomplish anything in September, and the stakes are so high!  We are setting the tone for the year - meeting new people while not necessarily at our best.
In some ways we are all Outward Bound.  It might mean new jobs, new experiences, new places to live.  Maybe it is new definitions of who we are, or who our close friends are.  Maybe it's a new life they've longed for, maybe it's a new life they've dreaded for a long time.   How do we survive?
I know one of the lessons of Outward Bound is that you have within you the strength to do it.  You can accomplish anything, even the things you think you can't.  But the other thing that makes it ok to go Outward Bound is someone or something that makes us know we will be okay.  Perhaps the most important thing to take on your journey is the knowledge of the Safe Harbor.  You have someone to return to, someone to greet you when you get back to shore.  A warm smile, a familiar face, a soft hug, or even a soft blanket.
Matt hugged me when he saw me.  He had found his safe harbor again.  He ate.  He showered.  He ate again.  He jumped in the pool.  We sat at dinner peppering him with question after question.  He answered all our questions.  And then some more.  And at the end of the day he said to me, "Ok, where is the Brown Blanket?"  The brown blanket is something of an icon in our house.  It is the one everyone looks for when they are down, or not feeling well, or whatever.  It is the softest, just-long-enough, just-the-right-weight blanket there is.  Although I have tried many times to purchase a blanket that is just as soft, just as good, there is no equivalent in our house.  Funny, after all was said and done, that was the best thing - the ultimate in his safe harbor, it's what brought him truly home. So, when your child comes home crying, or worn out, or exhausted, or whatever, I hope you can find a brown blanket to wrap him in.  And no matter where your day takes you, I hope you have a safe harbor to sail into this September.