Elementary Gifts

This school year has been a gift.

Back in September, God dropped an opportunity in my lap, and I’m so grateful for the chance to help out at my daughter’s elementary school. I’ve volunteered in the past, but this year I began working every day with a fourth grade student (as well as subbing now and then, library work, and miscellaneous other stuff).

Many aspects of the job felt like a gift, but perhaps the biggest gift was laughter. What can I say? The end of the school year brings out the funny.

A couple weeks ago, the teacher was handing out math worksheets. One little boy pushed his worksheet back towards the teacher.

“Do you know if this paper was made from oak or maple trees?” he asked. I was working with my student across the room, but the boy’s question caught my ear (probably because it sounds like a Portlandia sketch).

The teacher seemed reluctant to engage yet remarkably patient. Sliding the paper back across the desk, she said, “I really don’t know what kind of tree was used to make this paper.”

“’Cause I’m very allergic to oak and maple tree pollen, and I really hope this math sheet isn’t made of those.” At this point I’m in awe of the boy’s creativity and cracking up.

He knew that paper was made from trees, he knew he was allergic to certain trees, and he really didn’t feel like doing another stinkin’ math worksheet. The kid’s an unsung genius!

Also, is it summer yet?

Another day that week, I subbed in my usual fourth grade class. Although I knew all the kids well, the afternoon felt a bit hectic. They have a special talent for keeping me on my toes.

At dismissal time, a boy told me he’d left his Spider Man lunchbox at school last week and wanted to go check the lost-and-found box for it. He came back a few minutes later with the lunchbox and a sheepish look on his face. I asked what was wrong and he said, “There’s something in it.” I peeked inside and saw a thermos.

“Ummmm, is it an animal?” I asked, not sure if we were playing Twenty Questions or what.

“I . . . think so,” he said slowly.

At that moment, I hated being the grown-up in charge. Hesitantly, I unzipped it all the way. Under the thermos were five or six roaches of different sizes – a family of roaches staring up at me. I zipped it up as fast as I could and asked, “Do you really like this lunchbox?” He looked confused, maybe a little scared.

I told him there was a whole family of roaches inside – Mama, Daddy, Bubba, Baby Sister, a cat-roach, a dog-roach, a hamster-roach. I was in shock, not sure what to do.

“Maybe we should burn it,” I said, half serious.

“My lunchbox?”

“No, the school. Down to the ground.”

That sweet boy couldn’t tell I was joking. I wasn’t quite sure, either. That’s when his friend stepped in, the tiniest girl in class, and said, “I’ll take care of it!” She took his lunchbox outside the double doors and turned it upside down. Out fell Mama Roach, Daddy Roach, and the whole family, which she stomped to death with her pink Chuck Taylors. It was like a tap-dancing recital right there on the blacktop.

A thing of beauty, really.

Meanwhile I stood inside with the other kids, squealing in disgust. It’s a wonder they still ask me to sub. I’ll never forget how my little friend saved the lunchbox, the school, and the day.

These are just a couple things that made me smile, but there are bursts of joy in every day. One day it might be my student discovering the handicapped stall has great acoustics for impromptu math songs. Another day it might be the sheer exuberance of a second grader with a sequin glove moon-walking in the year-end variety show.

Or it might be hearing twenty-six fourth graders try to sing along with Louis Armstrong’s “It’s a Wonderful World.”

Yes, I think to myself . . . What a wonderful world.

Oh yeah.

-Em

Painted in Waterlogue

Things that Matter

A few years back I heard a speaker at a writing conference who said something that has stuck with me. Author David Dark said that the culture in which we live has one nagging message: “Hurry up and matter.”

Are you famous? Are you rich? Are you a viral sensation on social media? No? Then get busy — hurry up and matter.

I dislike this message. As a mom, I especially dislike the pressure of having to prove yourself special at an ever younger age. And I hate that the measure of mattering has so little to do with character and so much to do with piling up likes and views and subscribers.

Oh, and racking up “friends,” the kind that require quotation marks.

It makes me worry about my daughter, who is naturally impressed by people who have built up a following online, whether by sheer talent or sheer desperation. These people seem to really matter.

I want her to recognize the difference between image and substance. I wonder if this distinction is becoming harder to make.

What I’m getting at, I suppose, is that she matters. Already.

You matter, too. No need to hurry up and matter.

You are an image-bearer of God. Ignore the voices that say you’re not enough.

You do matter.

Already and always.

peach blossom

That’s all. Love, Em

No Place Like Home

It was a rough winter. Normally, I don’t mind cold weather. I much prefer wearing sweaters and coats to shorts and T-shirts, but at this point, I am just plain sick of long sleeves and fleece.

This winter, with its snow and low temps and days off school, seemed to go on forever. (Note the leap of faith in using past tense here.) And my annual sickness, a nasty cold that spanned February and March, made it feel even longer.

But something interesting happened this winter. While being penned in by cold weather and pinned to the couch by germs, I became really, really grateful for our home.

Out running errands, I’d pick up groceries and then become suddenly homesick. I’d drive straight home, put on my fleece pants and fuzzy socks and plant myself on the couch. The dry cleaning (or whatever) could wait. Home was my haven.

I have always appreciated our home. Yet in the past, I thought of home more as our default place, the place we are when we’re not out. This winter, however, home was the place I most wanted to be.

An upside of being a homebody is having plenty of time to read, and one book in particular fit perfectly the feeling of home-as-haven: Christie Purifoy’s Placemaker.

In short, her book is about home – being at home wherever you may be and making yourself at home by cultivating beauty in your spaces. She writes, “What is placemaking? It is deliberately sending your roots deep into a place, like a tree. It means allowing yourself to be nourished by a place even as you shape it for the better.”

The book is not a hospitality guide, but being hospitable is part of being a placemaker. Nor is the book a home decorating guide, although curating spaces that evoke peace and comfort is part of placemaking. It is memoir-ish, but its narrative arc moves through places rather than life events. Christie is a gardener and lover of trees, and the landmarks of her life – in the various places she has lived – are uniquely botanical.

Christie’s writing is lyrical and gentle, with a way of deftly pointing out things in the world worth noticing. I especially loved her musings on an oak tree: “Each acorn is a wish for more, a dream of a tree, and a desire for enduring legacy.” Reading that sentence, I thought Well said! That’s why I love acorns.

Now that the weather has started to turn, will I remain a homebody? Probably not. I’d go for a bike ride right now if it was warmer outside.

I always love finding a book that speaks to my life at the moment – the right book at the right time. Christie’s book came at the height of a season when I felt the sheer comfort of making home a comforting place for me and my family – not just a landing spot between flitting here and there, but a soft place to land.

Purifoy Placemaker

 

Full disclosure: I’m a member of Christie’s book launch team. Still, I would recommend Placemaker even if I weren’t, and I do not benefit from making this recommendation.

 

 

-Em

Slush and Grit

When we left for school, the world was covered in slush and glazed with ice. It was beautiful. Then the arguing started.

Caroline wanted me to drop her off in the parking lot and let her walk to the school entrance alone. I told her she could walk alone from the drop-off lane but not all the way from the parking lot. She whined about me not treating her like a “big kid,” and I warned her that it was basically my job to watch her walk in.

It’s not that I don’t trust her to make it to the door – I don’t trust the crazy drivers who race across school parking lots and practically toss their kids from moving cars.

Anyway, as we pulled into the parking spot she said, “Okay, you can walk me to the door.”

Stepping carefully across ice-cold puddles, we talked about the wet slush underfoot.

“Would you like a delicious slushie?” I asked.

“What flavor?” she played along.

“Salt and road dirt.”

“Yum.”

She half-hugged me and headed for the entrance.

When I got back to the car, my socks were soaked with slush. That’s when I noticed the handful of kids riding bikes to school, their dark coats splattered with salt slushies. I thought, God bless those winter bike riders. They have grit.

“Showing up is half the battle,” an old professor of mine with a strict attendance policy used to say. It’s what I tell myself when I’ve made some commitment that I now regret. I’ve had jobs in the past where I’d rather be in a car accident-induced coma or abducted by drug lords than show up another dreadful day. But I must confess there’s value in showing up.

I realize kids have their reasons for showing up to school, like being forced by parents, having a warm breakfast on a Styrofoam tray, being with their friends, or even wanting to learn. I don’t know the reasoning of those winter bike riders – I just know they made a real effort to show up, and I admired them.

For me, February is the month when winter seems never-ending. It’s the month when my energy is lowest. Do you feel the same? I write this simply to encourage you (and me) to keep showing up.

Winter will surely end and longer spring days will grant us a new dose of vitality. Until then, we have the chance to build up grit. And so, for others, for yourself, for your commitments (even the ones you wish you’d never made), keep showing up.

“So let’s not allow ourselves to get fatigued doing good. At the right time we will harvest a good crop if we don’t give up, or quit.” –The Message by Eugene H. Peterson, Galatians 6:9

snowflake

-Em

The Joy of Spray Painting

Since my daughter hit the age of double-digits, Christmas shopping was difficult this year. Her tastes are more sophisticated now – and more expensive.

However, I was excited about one gift I’d gotten her: a beautiful brocade dress in wintry shades of red and black. I stuck it under the tree, then let her open it a few days early to wear to church.

The dress fit her well, but there was just one problem. She had no dress shoes except for a pair of silver ballet flats from last Easter, which looked bizarre with black tights. And we had to get to Christmas evening church in twenty minutes.

I quickly grabbed a can of black spray paint and took the shoes out to the front porch. It was forty degrees and rainy, which are the least ideal conditions for spray painting. I coated them in black and sat them in a cardboard box while I rushed inside to get ready.

When I came back to the shoes ten minutes later, the paint hadn’t dried a bit, so I brought them to the bathroom and blasted them with a hair dryer. It occurred to me that hot paint fumes might kill me, so I flipped on the bathroom fan. In the midst of the whirring frenzy, the phone rang – my sister. I told her I was very busy blow-drying shoes I’d just painted for church.

“That’s the most redneck sentence I’ve heard in a long time!” she laughed. “I just gotta ask: did Phil know what he was getting into when he married you?”

Just then, Phil walked in from work and asked if we were ready for church. Then he asked why I was blow-drying shoes in the bathroom.

People ask a lot of questions.

Anyway, he wasn’t surprised. What some people call redneck I call resourceful.

We made it to church breathless, with no time to spare. She slipped on her newly-black shoes and hurried across the parking lot, avoiding puddles. As we walked into church, I trailed behind her on high alert for black footprints. There were none. And I didn’t even smell paint fumes during the service!

Rust-Oleum for the win!

Under normal circumstances, I love to spray paint. When the temperature rises above 65 degrees, I start looking around the house for things that might look cool in a fresh, new color – picture frames, small furniture, you name it. While our shoe-painting emergency was not a case of painting for fun, the result is the same: taking something old and making it new. By the magic of aerosol paint particles, nothing is wasted.

I like this idea.

When it comes to yard sale finds and wall décor, nothing is wasted. When it comes to shoes in the wrong color, nothing is wasted. And even when it comes to experiences in our lives –  whether accomplishments or disappointments or heartache or joy – nothing is wasted.

Last week I woke up on my birthday filled with thanks. “Thanks, God,” I said in a sleepy stupor. “I get another one!” Another birthday. Since my last one, successes have slipped through my fingers. I wonder why; still, I trust that nothing is wasted.

Nothing is wasted because God wastes nothing. God is the original up-cycler, turning fig leaves into clothes, water into wine, depression into dancing, old things into new.

So when I wonder, was all that writing for nothing? I know deep down it was not. Truly, nothing is wasted. That’s the joy of knowing God can redeem the unworkable, old silver ballet flats of our lives.

That’s the joy of spray painting.

I Had a Good Day

A few months ago, I began working at my daughter’s elementary school. In short, the job is a blessing. Elementary school kids are endlessly amusing and pretty amazing.

When I got to school this morning, snow lightly drifting through the air, the student for whom I’m usually responsible was absent. Instead, my day was a series of fortunate events.

As the principal jotted down my hourly assignments on a sticky note, I sat on the opposite side of her desk. The first couple tasks on the list were familiar, but the afternoon entry appeared to be, “surprise in library.” I silently wondered who I was supposed to surprise in the library. When I picked up the sticky note, it read, “supervise in library.” Which made much more sense.

First, I met with a student who recently moved to the U. S. He’s learning English, both from school and John Cena, so we work together on recognizing letters and sounds. He teaches me Arabic words and laughs at my pronunciation. I ask him to think of a word that starts with “w,” and his face lights up as he says “Wal-Mart.” Aside from John Cena, is there anything more American than Wal-Mart?

Our conversations require a lot of pretending to understand each other, which is possibly the secret to world peace. As I walk him back to the classroom, I tell him he’s doing a good job of learning his letters. I’m not sure if he knows my name, but when he says, “Teacher, thank you,” my heart melts at the edges like grilled cheese.

After that, I’m off to meet with another student to review math. English is her second language as well, but her conversational skills are impressive. Last week I asked her to pronounce her name, but today I can’t recall how all those consonants go. As we work through math problems, she watches the clock, asking how many more minutes in our session. She seems more anxious than bored, anxious to get to her next class. She’s a great kid. I send her off on time.

When I return from lunch, it’s time to “surprise in the library,” I mean, “supervise in the library.” So, it turns out I’m supervising something like detention, but not really detention. I’m not sure what it’s called, maybe “reflection time.” Anyway, I’m supervising some students who apparently need time to reflect on their choices.

An hour of contemplation is right up my alley – on the surface. However, I’m nervous because discipline is not my strong suit. It is, in fact, my weak suit. I resolve to not smile, to keep eye contact minimal. I resolve to withhold warmth, to be a cold, cold statue. This is hard because my personal mission is to extend kindness to every student every chance I get. Anyway, a couple hours of stony silence later, it’s time to release the contemplatives and report to my last post of the day.

My final station is a kindergarten class where I’ll be supervising dismissal, which is almost scarier than reflection time. I must make sure each tiny munchkin gets where they need to go. As the teacher introduces me to the class before she leaves, a little girl says in a little voice, “Welcome to our classroom.” She is straight out of Central Casting, Adorable Kid Division, and I appreciate the welcome. Dismissal goes smoothly, in spite of fat, wet snowflakes falling from the sky.

I smile as I collect my favorite fourth grader and head to our car. I remember what the Rolling Stones sang: “You can’t always get what you want / But if you try sometimes, well you might find / You get what you need.” Although I didn’t know it, after many years as a stay-at-home mom, what I needed was a job where I get to help children in small ways every single day.

And that’s why I had a good day.

-Em

Thanks for reading! I wrote this several weeks ago and am now enjoying winter break. Dear Reader, I wish you only the best in 2019!

Painted in Waterlogue

Nothing but a Number

Lately I’ve been more aware of my age. My body creaks when I bend down to pick something up. There are strands of gray in my hair. My eyesight isn’t what it used to be. At 42, I notice these things.

In the middle of a sweaty yoga class, one of my favorite teachers gave this advice: When thoughts come to mind, don’t dwell on them and don’t drive them away. Just notice them. So that’s what I’ve been doing with signs of age: just noticing them — like slow-drifting clouds in the sky.

Several weeks ago I sat around my friend’s dining table with our Bible study group. Next to me sat a sharp-dressed, sharp-minded woman in her nineties. Across the table, an equally sharp woman in her eighties. As twelve individuals, we span the decades. One of the things I appreciate most about these women is the wide range of ages – and the wealth of wisdom and experience that comes with it.

Recently a friend who’s about a decade younger invited me to lunch out of the blue. As we caught up over soup and sandwiches, she described herself as “over-caffeinated.” Maybe so, but she also radiates the energy of youth. I’ve been meaning to tell her it meant a lot that she reached out to me. She wasn’t even selling lip gloss or vitamins or energy drinks — just a lovely friend connection.

Differences in age shouldn’t set barriers between people. Once I was twenty-seven; someday I hope to be seventy-two. God, please give me the memory and imagination to relate to youngsters when I am a bona fide oldster.

The latest season of my favorite reality TV show – The Real Housewives of NYC – opens with this unexpected nugget of wisdom:

“Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter!”

All truth is God’s truth – and isn’t that the truth?

Our days are numbered, but let’s not make too much of the number. If you don’t mind, age doesn’t matter.

youth-and-experience.jpg

Hey there — thanks so much for reading! If you’re on Facebook, find me here! -Em