Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Be That Student Who Breaks the Silence

When I prepare my materials at the front podium before class starts, I sometimes think that my students forget I can hear them.  Over the years I've unintentionally overheard many conversations.  Most are benign, like small talk about lunch plans or loads of homework or the weekend's game.  A few have been self-incriminating, like confessions of not reading the day's assigned chapter or nursing a rough hangover.

But over the years, what I've increasingly heard from my students as I'm checking my rosters and pulling up PowerPoints in the minutes leading up to class is silence.

Students sit with one another, collectively gathered in a common location while pulled away from each other and drawn into their own private devices.  They're side by side yet separated by cues that suggest don't bother me.  The earbuds, the open laptops, the lack of greetings, the eyes turned downward into palmed smart phones: all are cues which subtly indicate that the communication taking place within the devices seems a higher priority than that which could take place in person.

Last week a student walked into a scene like this.  He unzipped his jacket, settled his backpack under his desk, and sat down.  He looked at the two students to his left and his right, both of whom were immersed in their smart phones.

"We might as well talk with each other," he said.  "I don't understand why everyone just waits in silence for a class to start."

His two classmates looked up.  One smiled.  The other momentarily regarded him with a mixture of wariness and shock, like she didn't quite trust him or his hair was on fire.

But then something beautiful happened.  The phones slipped into pockets, and they started talking.  The conversation was about nothing in particular -- the cold weather, the embarrassing fall that one of them had taken while shuffling to class on an unplowed sidewalk.

I was happy to overhear it.

Image compliments of Robert Couse-Baker (

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Monday, January 26, 2015

Just Like Cleaning Out the Fridge

I appreciate clean-out-the-fridge dinners.  It's gloriously unplanned -- no recipe, no grocery lists, no trips to the store.  It's  just you in front of the open refrigerator, handing Tupperware containers back to whoever stands behind you, mumbling snippets of sentences like, "There's only a little spaghetti with meat sauce left, but it'll work with the leftover chicken, and those grapes, and this jar of pickles, and this block of cheese, and that one banana that's getting too ripe on the counter."

Given that the snow keeps falling and I have no intentions of driving to the store, tonight's dinner will fall into this free-for-all category.  Incidentally, so will this blog post, which ultimately is cleaning out the loose thoughts thoughts that lately have been streaming through my mind.

Snow.  Snow is beautiful, especially when I see it on postcards and I'm someplace warm.  When snow enters the house via my kids' crumpled snowsuits that they pile by the door, the less-beautiful byproduct is the puddles of frigid water that are invisible to the naked eye but somehow invite you to step on them.  While wearing socks.  ALWAYS while wearing socks.

Worst Cooks in America.  I know I shouldn't compare myself with others, but after watching one episode of this show, I'm now convinced that I'm a culinary genius.

Dry Heat.  While driving to work on bitter mornings, I crank the heat to the highest possible setting and point the blowers directly toward me.  Sometimes when I turn a corner, the heat seems to hang in the air, momentarily suspended, before shifting and reaching my face.  I never tire of this sensation.

Folding Bulky Bedding.  I recently bought a new comforter.  Let me clarify: I recently bought two new comforters, brought them both home, pulled them from their packaging, placed them on my bed one at a time, and painstakingly deliberated their merits and drawbacks.  Then I attempted to fold and repackage the comforter that didn't make the cut.  Have you ever noticed that packaging always shrinks by roughly 30% when attempting this feat?

Indecisive Consumer Habits.  Some people -- among them, decisive individuals and those folks who stick to literal antonyms -- think that the opposite of buy is to sell.  In my world of receipts and merchandise credit, the opposite of buy is more often return.

My new eye shadow palate.  Thirty-six years old, and I'm still trying to figure out how to master the smoky eye.

Learning New Names.  In the past two weeks, I've learned the names of my 90 incoming students with whom I'll spend the next fifteen weeks.  I have no idea what I've forgotten in place of this new knowledge.

What random thoughts have you been thinking these days, my dear readers? 

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Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Good Moms Don't Feel Like This (and other lies we tell ourselves)

In the span of time it took me to shower this past Sunday morning, my children erected a village of paper plates, red Solo cups, strips of paper, and Elmer's glue on our kitchen table.  The village had distinct rooms, walkways, and an elevator system.  By the time my hair was dry, my children had scripted a backstory for the small plastic figurines who populated the scene.

It's the same kitchen table that's marred with scratches from years of use, Sharpie marker scribbles from the four year old, and a piece of Scotch tape that's become one with the tabletop and remains affixed no matter how often I scratch at it with my fingernail.  This particular day the table also was crusted with Play-Doh and a dried white streak that, when in its more viscous state, had probably been yogurt.

My family ate lunch after church around this very table, our plates and cups precariously close to the edges so we didn't crowd and collapse the village which, according to my children, was ready for expansion.

As I chewed my food with my plate nearly on my lap, I had one thought:

I won't miss this.  I really won't miss this -- not a table that looks like this, not the urban sprawl of plastic cups and paper plates, not this mess that spontaneously crops up every single day.

When I'm confronted with these honest thoughts as a mother, it somehow seems wrong.  Shouldn't I be thinking about the benefit of creative expression?  Savoring these brief years of imaginative play?  Shouldn't I be putting my kids before my desire to eat lunch on a clean kitchen table?

But, to be perfectly honest, there are days when I just want a clean table.

Like me, whether you've consciously articulated it or not, perhaps you don't think that good moms should feel like this about their offspring and their kitchen tables.  Good moms shouldn't dislike byproducts of motherhood.  Good moms should be able to take their kids' childhoods in stride. 

These are troubling thoughts, especially when you are feeling this way, and you do dislike the messy kitchen table, and you aren't exactly taking things in stride.  Guilt and shame well up, muffling any inclination to acknowledge these matters, and you don't say a thing.  You just beat yourself up a bit internally.

This is precisely why I'm writing this post.  I'm hardwired to assume that I shouldn't ever think or feel this way.  But sometimes I do.  I don't think I'm alone.

When we wrestle with parenting silently and privately, it's easy to become tangled in the warped thinking that if we don't savor or appreciate every detail of motherhood then we must not sufficiently love our kids.  If we loved them enough, after all, sequential years of noise, mess, and tiredness  wouldn't grate at us.  If we were better at mothering, we wouldn't feel moments of relief when our kids headed off to school.  If we were truly selfless, as mothers ought to be, we'd stop experiencing the desire to have our own lives.

When I dare to harness these thoughts -- lasso them, drag them to the ground, look them squarely in the face, and then describe them in words -- I realize something, and it's a freeing realization:

I love my children.  I also want a clean kitchen table.  These aren't mutually exclusive sentences.  Wanting a clean kitchen table doesn't negate the love I have for my children.

We shouldn't confuse our children with motherhood.  We can love our kids daily without loving all aspects of motherhood daily.

I can consider my children the most important beings in my world besides God and my husband, and still want a break from them.  I can revere motherhood as sacred and holy and fulfilling, while simultaneously recognizing that there's a call on my life that partially will be answered outside the walls of my home, separate from a direct connection with my three children's individual lives.

Fellow moms, today if you want an entire night's sleep, or a small purse instead of a diaper bag, or a lacy bra instead of a breast pump, or an uninterrupted afternoon to read or sleep or walk through Target without nearing the toy department, or a bathroom sink that isn't streaked with globs of semi-gelatinous toothpaste, or a thriving career or ministry that requires you to periodically leave your children so you can invest in yourself and others, you are not alone. 

And you are not a bad mother.

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Friday, January 16, 2015

Word of the Year: FREEDOM

Like many people, in January I reinvigorate my decision to live healthily.  This year, for instance, I bought two new sports bras and a BPA-free water bottle at Target, which clearly indicates my hardcore commitment to health and fitness.

I've never been a person who sets specific New Year's resolutions, though, and the practice of selecting "one word" for the year, which I've frequently seen across social media, has always vaguely stressed me out.  Keeping one singular thought in mind for an entire year?  Some days, I'm fortunate to keep a singular thought in mind for an entire minute before I'm distracted by something -- or more likely, three little someones -- and, like a dog who drops a chew toy to chase a squirrel, dragged into quite different thoughts and tasks.

But this year is different.  This year, I have a word, and that word is FREEDOM.  (You must say it like William Wallace does in Braveheart.)

Yes, 2015 is the year of FREEDOM.  As I've prayed and reflected, this is one message that God keeps searing in my heart: that as I walk with Him daily, no matter my circumstances, I can be free

Although I'll experience inconveniences and frustrations, like persistent head colds or challenging afternoons with the kids, I don't need to be rattled.  Although I won't please everyone (nobody ever does), I don't need to worry about what others might think or say about me.  Although I might face a crisis or a persistent problem, I don't walk through it alone.  Although I'll fail, I don't need to measure myself according to my performance, as if it had the final say on my worth.

The reason why I can walk in freedom?  It's surprisingly simple.  It's because I'm loved by God, and perfect love drives out fear and establishes security. 

So, this year, as I encounter inconveniences, frustrations, disapproval, troubles, and failures -- because we'll all face these to some degree -- my desire is to view them through the lens of God's deeper workings in my life, not just the immediate circumstances themselves. 

Circumstances, I suspect, are often just the vehicle through which God works His attributes into our character, or how He roots our issues out of our hearts.

We can trust the process of growth, knowing that He who walks beside us is powerful, faithful, and loving.  We can be free.
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Monday, January 12, 2015

Just Take It Bird By Bird

Early this morning I met two of the four classes that I'll teach this semester.  (Technically, it's called the "spring" semester, but that nomenclature fools nobody when January temperatures hover in the 20's.)

After introducing myself and taking roll, I always distribute copies of the syllabus.  These documents outline what content will be covered and what assignments will be due each class from now until early May, those days ahead when it really will be spring.

Even though technicalities are plotted in advance -- what pages to read when, what papers and projects to submit -- we have no idea what lies ahead during these next few months.  Who will these students turn out to be, these faces I saw and names I called for the first time today?  What stories will be told, what insights will be shared, and what goals will be met?

The syllabus is full, but the slate is still blank.  There's great promise ahead.  There's also great amounts of work ahead.  This past weekend I confessed to my husband, "Somehow I feel like my life is ending when the semester is starting."  I know how much coaching and emailing and grading will be required from me.

Just yesterday as I skimmed Anne Lamott's Bird By Bird looking for one writing quote to read to my rhetoric class, I stumbled upon the book's namesake passage:

Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he'd had three months to write, which was due the next day.  We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead.  Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother's shoulder, and said, "Bird by bird, buddy.  Just take it bird by bird.

I've reflected on this passage many times since my first reading of this book, and its simple wisdom struck a chord yet again.  Bird by bird is a good way to live.

Bird by bird.  Just take it bird by bird, buddy.

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