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

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

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

Air

It’s the time of year when I get mad at trees. Normally, for forty-odd weeks of the year, I love trees. I appreciate their beauty, their time-tested grandeur.

Their bright-green vitality or bare-branched endurance.

Their shade.

But right now, I can’t breathe. So thanks a lot, Oak, Hickory, and Mulberry. Thanks for all the pollen in the air.

One nostril has been completely blocked for a day or two. No matter how much I blow my nose, it’s in a state of perma-clog. The other nostril, while sometimes clear, keeps me in suspense.

On the way to yoga class this week, I stopped by Walgreens. As I stood in the Allergy/Cold aisle looking for some remedy I haven’t yet tried, I spotted bottles of Liquid Plumr nearby — haven’t tried that. I ended up buying nose spray “for severe congestion,” or as I think of it, Sinus Drano.

I had signed up for the yoga class before realizing I wouldn’t be able to breathe well. The class was much harder than usual, given that you’re supposed to breathe through your nose.

I’m a yoga beginner, learning something new every time, but when I went to my very first class I kept thinking, “Why are we wasting so much time on breathing? Let’s get to the exercise already.” After a while, I picked up on the idea that coordinating breathing with movement is pretty much what it’s about. I learned that you inhale on lifting or opening movements and exhale while folding or twisting.

When I got to class, I warned the teacher that I was a mouth breather for the day. Rachel understood completely.

Whenever I get congested like this, I think of my friend Julie telling me about her son having a bad cold when he was little. Although he was miserable, he pointed out the bright side: at least he could still breathe out of his mouth. Last night as I tried to fall asleep, I popped a Benadryl and thanked God that at least I could breathe through my mouth.

Until recently, I hadn’t realized how much I take breathing for granted. At some point in the last year, though, I started a new habit. Upon first waking up, I thank God for the air in my lungs. Although my mind soon jumps to other things, I like this new habit of being grateful for that first breath of the day. It’s not promised, after all.

Thinking about breathing leads me to thankfulness for other forgotten things as well, like lungs that work 24/7 without my even thinking about it, the tiny bits of oxygen and carbon dioxide stashed in the backpacks of our red blood cells, the oft-neglected plants in our kitchen that clean the air in our house.

And, most of the time, I’m thankful for the trees that refresh the air outside. Thanks a lot, Oak, Hickory, and Mulberry. (I mean it this time.)

Thank you, Maple, Elm, and Birch.

Thank you, God, for trees. Thank you, God, for air.

A tree that looks at God all day,

And lifts her leafy arms to pray;

A tree that may in Summer wear

A nest of robins in her hair . . .

-from Joyce Kilmer’s 1913 poem “Trees”

capilano

“Grandma Capilano,” the tallest tree in the Capilano Suspension Bridge Park of North Vancouver, BC

Yay for Compulsory Thankfulness

‘Tis the season for Thanksgiving, my favorite holiday. I love that there’s not much hype around Thanksgiving. Minimal pressure or obligation. Family, food, and giving thanks, all good stuff.

Giving thanks is pretty easy. I can rattle off the things I’m thankful for without strain: Phil, Caroline, family, friends, house, clothing, food, Charlie the cat, trees, teachers, church, Jesus. Easy-peasy. Let’s eat.

This year, however, I challenged myself to give thanks every day in the 100 days leading up to Thanksgiving—on Facebook—and include a photo. Sometimes, finding a photo was the toughest part of the challenge, because it forced me away from abstractions and intangibles (love, peace, happiness). Instead, I learned to be thankful for the things around me: dark-red leaves, a blue feather on the ground, a striking wallpaper pattern, Popeye’s mashed potatoes and gravy. These might seem mundane or trivial – because they are – and I truly am thankful for them.

And the challenge became easier the more I exercised my thanks.

At the start, I was trying so hard to find the very special thing, the highlight of the day, the memorable and beautiful this or that. I was just learning to exercise gratefulness, like a kid with training wheels riding so deliberately.

After nearly 100 days, my thankfulness expanded recklessly to include oxygen, blackberry jam (seedless), clean water, cell phone, daughter’s artwork, Dr. Seuss, and the friendly mail man. Whereas I used to say thanks for the same things day after day—this meal, my people, easy left turns—now nothing is safe from my appreciation.

(Beware, friend: I appreciate you.)

This broadening gratefulness reminds me of the tendency to think about your “spiritual life” in limited ways. Your spiritual life might involve going to church, reading the Bible, praying, or maybe some other spiritual discipline. But I’m reminded that this life—all of it—is our “spiritual life.” Kent Dobson puts it this way: “The car ride on the way to church, when we’re yelling at our kids to shut up, is just as much our spiritual life as the music we pretend to like when we get there.”

Similarly, before the 100 Days of Thanks challenge, I had a “thankful life” that was limited to brief, contained spasms of thankfulness. Now I look around with a greater appreciation for all the good there is—not just the stuff I’m lucky to have but the stuff that used to seem like a given:

sunshine on a cold day,

being alive,

a stapler that works,

starlings doing drill routines in the sky,

piano music,

the magic power of spray paint,

the chance to walk my daughter home from school every single day.

(Sometimes she lets me hold her hand.)

The compulsory thankfulness challenge has bridged some of the distance between my small, earthbound gratefulness and Paul’s advice, “in every thing give thanks” (1 Thess. 5:18).

It’s also given me new eyes for the world. Elizabeth Barrett Browning said it first and best: “Earth’s crammed with heaven, / And every common bush afire with God . . .” Truly, there is happiness in giving thanks.

orange-fall-leaf.jpgHappy Thanksgiving!

-Em, as always, thankful for you taking the time to read and respond

Summer, Bird by Bird

Summer, Bird by Bird

Fleeting. That’s the best word for summer.

“Where’d it go?” I ask, staring at the calendar.

Summer was a migratory bird, fleeting.

Summer was thirteen birds, fleeting.

Bird #1: Browsing Savers, I search for a book I owned nine summers ago: Lorrie Moore’s Birds of America. My eyes catch the spine, and I can’t believe my book is here, a bird on a shelf.

Bird #2: At Bellevue Park. We laugh at the brazen geese, then squeal at their babies. The cuteness is too much: fuzzy goslings, four, five, trailed by one fierce mama.geese

Bird #3: Playing with my phone we stumble across the flight call of the American goldfinch, apparently a sound like “potato chip!” For days after, we surprise each other with random, high-pitched calls of “potato chip!”

chee cheeBird #4: I spin the card stand in the souvenir shop. A notecard catches my eye, three Canadian geese painted by Benjamin Chee Chee. Its title is “Friends,” but it looks like my family.

Bird #5: From the whale watching boat, high in the treetops: a huge bald eagle.

Bird #6: A cab ride to Granville Island. When the rain slowed, we met the biggest, baddest pigeon. His body was gray as the dull sky, but his neck was a striking iridescent lavender and pale green. He hoped for food.189.jpg

Bird #7: I searched the beach and found some chunks of coral, shells, and a sun-bleached bone. This bird—what was left of it—became my souvenir.

Bird #8: In Maui I came across a book about the early settlers of the Hawaiian Islands, led there by a bird, the Pacific golden plover.

Bird #9: Walking along the Kapalua Coastal Trail, we saw the nests of wedge-tailed shearwaters hidden in clumps of grass.

Bird #10: At home, my daughter saw a baby blue jay in the street in front of our house. I grabbed a dustpan to scoop it out of danger, but it hobbled to the neighbor’s yard on its own.

Bird #11: Caroline and I went to an animal show at the library and saw a fierce-looking Lanner Hawk perched atop a leather-gloved hand.

075Bird #12: Spotted: a duvet cover at Ikea with a trippy pattern of bees and flowers and honey and birds. I ripped open the seams and made it into curtains. When I turn toward the window thirty identical sparrows stare back.

Bird #13: In Chicago we stood on the platform waiting for the train. A pigeon sat on the wooden planks, oddly still. I snapped a pic and wondered why.pigeon

I still wonder why birds were the recurring motif of our summer. They seemed like messengers, but I’m not sure of their message.

Or maybe it’s this: birds are as at ease on earth as they are in heaven—there is no stark line of division between one realm and another.

Maybe their message is to bring that sense of easy trust into our daily lives, making earth more and more like heaven.

“His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me.” –Civilla D. Martin

-Em

Toad at the Crossroads

A toad sat in the middle of the sidewalk, just a few steps from the store entrance. There was nothing remarkable about the little fella—brown and bumpy and a smidge smaller than my fist—except that he was casually hanging out in front of TJ Maxx.

My daughter and I squatted down to get a better look. Yep, he was breathing. But he didn’t move, even when I tapped him on the rear.

A woman walking into the store stopped to check him out. She was much braver than I, stretching out each of his legs to see if they were broken.

“See this front one,” she said. “It’s a little smashed. Somebody must have stepped on the little guy.” She advised me to carry him over to the pond about a hundred yards away. I wasn’t eager to pick up a partially squished toad.

TJ Maxx is in an old shopping center—Crossroads Centre—and has been there for as long as I can remember, the early to mid-‘80s. This probably wasn’t the first time a toad found his way there.

The longer I stood with the injured toad, the less I wanted to carry him across the parking lot to the retention pond. Still, I didn’t want the creature to get completely squished.

I sent my daughter to wait in the car with her dad and shivered as I picked up the poor toad. As I crossed the asphalt into the grass I felt his cold belly against my palm. Which of us was more nervous?

I peeked between my hands and met his hard stare. As he eyed me I said, “Don’t worry, Toad. I’m taking you to the pond where you’ll be safe.” His cold belly fluttered against my palm, but he didn’t argue.

Gently, I placed the toad in the grass a little ways from the water and watched him for a second or two. He sat there, just as still as he’d been in front of TJ Maxx. I wished him luck and told him to get well. Suddenly, I hated to leave him.

Phil and Caroline were waiting for me in the car. I hopped in, pleased at my good deed, when Phil joked, “What if the toad had been trying his whole life to get to TJ Maxx, and you just set him back to square one?” We laughed at this speculation, but I felt it in the pit of my stomach—the pang of futility.

What’s sadder than a toad with a crushed leg? A toad with a crushed dream. But here’s a lesson from the toad: when you find yourself in the wrong place with a cold belly and stepped-on toes, remember it’s not just a setback but a crossroads as well—a crossroads with heretofore unseen possibilities and opportunities to choose what is good.

At least that’s what I heard.

“So let’s not get tired of doing what is good. At just the right time we will reap a harvest of blessing if we don’t give up.”