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

 

 

The Loafers and the Fishes

By the time the calendar turns to August, I am over summer. Over it.

Summer is fun, summer is freedom, but summer is way too long. As an introvert, I go crazy after two months of family togetherness.

Crazy is how I was feeling the week before school started. Since Phil found a great travel deal, we took a quick weekend trip to the gulf coast of Florida, one last hurrah before school. We soon discovered why the hotel and airfare were such a great deal: the red tide, a toxic algae bloom in the ocean.

Arriving in Florida in the afternoon, we put on swimsuits, slathered on SPF, and headed out for the beach, only to find the beach closed. The hotel worker explained that the red tide had left hundreds of dead fish on the beach, and it can cause respiratory problems.

“Maybe tomorrow,” he said, giving us Midwesterners hope for a beach day.

However, the red tide is persistent. Although we didn’t get our day in the ocean, we were happy at the hotel pool. And we took the opportunity to walk on the beach, at least.

The moment I left my sandals behind on a shallow sand dune I felt much closer to sanity. The sun’s rays beat down on our shoulders and on the decaying fish scattered on the beach. Still, the beach is my happy place.

There were very few people on the sand and none in the water. We ignored the smell of decay and searched for cool shells, stepping around bloated fish. I couldn’t help but feel sad for all the dead sea creatures as we quietly loafed among the fishes.

Waiting for the flight home, I wanted to learn about what causes the red tide. Some sources claim it’s a normal, natural occurrence, documented on the gulf coast every year for the past century and a half – but this year just happened to be worse than usual. An opinion piece by Erin Brockovich, the environmental activist, placed the blame on pollution.

I don’t purport to be an expert on the environment; a month ago I thought red tide was something related to Alabama football. Walking along the beach that day, I sensed the mess signified not only destruction of a marine habitat but desecration of God’s green earth. The fault likely lies with some combination of nature and culture.

Whatever the reason for the devastation, seeing it compelled me to do something in our little household to help the environment. We recycle, we try not to waste energy, we walk or bike whenever possible, we use stainless steel straws – efforts that seem tiny in proportion to threats to our environment. Anyway, the step I took was to use cloth napkins instead of paper in our house. Honestly, it seems like such a piddling thing.

As we walked the beach that day, sidestepping dead fish, I remembered the story of the loaves and fishes, when Jesus used just a couple loaves of bread and fish to feed thousands of people. This is the kind of miracle I hope for: that my puny efforts – and the efforts of countless others who care – would be multiplied many times over.

sarasota dead fish

Thanks for reading! If you like, find me on Facebook. -Em

Ferdinand Jasper, a Pigeon Parable

In our house, we love animals. Caroline and I constantly dote on our Charlie-cat, we get excited when a hummingbird hovers at the window, and we give way too much attention to the caterpillars devouring our parsley plant.

We also tend to anthropomorphize every creature we meet.

We make up elaborate back-stories about squirrels, like one Dr. Paul J. Crumb who knows in his heart that chicken nuggets are bad for him but just can’t say no. The pigeons that hang out in our driveway we’ve named The Pigeon Brothers; they sell home appliances to local birds. And don’t even get me started on Stormie and Gloria, cats that roam the neighborhood.

***

Our summer vacation to visit friends in Hawaii required a night in an airport hotel. We checked in early in the evening and braced ourselves for a very early flight the next morning. Since this hotel is right across the street from LAX, we could look out the window and see planes landing and taking off, one after another.

Before the sun went down, Caroline spotted a white pigeon on the ledge of the seventeenth floor. He sat there with his little bird’s eye view of the airport, apparently absorbed in the non-stop action of take-offs and landings.

Suddenly, another pigeon had the nerve to land on his ledge. The white pigeon appeared to tolerate it for a brief moment, then squawked and shooed it away. Alone again, the pigeon sat there eyeing the giant flying beasts.

***

We couldn’t resist. And so, this pigeon quickly became Ferdinand Jasper who began to speak in a high, lispy voice about his longing to fly in an airplane.

“Oh, how I wish I could fly,” he said to no one in particular, having fended his ledge from every friend or foe.

Of course, none of his winged colleagues were there to remind him he actually could fly.

Maybe not as far as an airplane,

maybe not as fast as an airplane,

but more gracefully,

with more spontaneity.

After watching the others, comparing his wing span to theirs, dreaming of their faraway destinations—like Honolulu and Boston and Akron—he failed to remember what he was capable of.

All the hours spent watching the enormous aluminum birds—with fancy names like Southwest and Delta and United—had diminished his view of what he could do.

Ferdinand Jasper was a bird

who forgot his birthright.

His birthright was flight.

 

And what, my friend,

were you born to do?

pigeon 2 looking away

Safe Keeping

My parents cleaned out their storage areas last week—attic, garage, nooks, crannies—a time-consuming ordeal. They got rid of stuff that had accumulated over the thirty years they’ve lived there. Although it’s been twenty years since I lived there, Mom and Dad uncovered some old treasures of mine, including:

a faded Mickey Mouse Pez dispenser,

an artificial flower lei from my friend Leslie,

a sock monkey, made with love by our neighbor Mrs. Wheeler,

and much, much more.

Mom also spent an entire day laundering our old Cabbage Patch Kids, doll clothes, a Prayer Bear, and a Sparta High School cheerleading doll. She handed them over with the stipulation that I keep them until she’s dead.

Ummmm, okay.

Since Caroline has never been interested in dolls, she doesn’t want to play with them, so I plan to pack them away in the basement for some unknown future. They now hang in limbo, sprawled on the floor behind my desk chair, dead eyes staring at the ceiling.

(Poor Sock Monkey’s eyes fell off. He lies blindly on the floor.)

There’s already quite a stash in the basement – school yearbooks, dolls from my grandma, and many other things I can neither recall nor bear to part with. Soon I’ll add my Cabbage Patch Kid (little Hortense) and sock monkey to the stash for safe keeping.

These are the days I wish I were a minimalist. When I read about people who live in tiny houses with one cooking pot and seven items in their wardrobe, I think: that sounds intriguing. Then I remember how much perverse joy I get from decorative items that serve no other purpose than pleasing the eye.

My parents did the big clean-out for us – my sister and me. They are healthy, but they know the challenge of sorting through your parents’ belongings and making hard decisions about what’s worth keeping, what goes in the yard sale pile, what should be donated. I appreciate their foresight.

But as I contemplate adding another box to the basement, I’ve started cleaning out nooks and crannies in my own house, starting with the file cabinet. Goodbye, “Teaching Composition,” “Literacy Training,” and “PR Portfolio” files. Even the act of tossing you out bores me. If ever I teach composition again (held at gunpoint, perhaps), I’ll just have to do it without my old notes. With every leaf of paper that falls in the recycle bin, I feel lighter.

Some things are meant for safe keeping – for a time, for a reason. Safe keeping is for the things that help us remember the people we’ve loved and the ones who loved us even before we were born. Some things are lost – to moths, to rust, to death, to decay – and these are kept in the safest place, wrapped in memory. That is, the heart.

prayer bear