You'll Feel Better Knowing That You're Done

Yesterday marked the last day of school for my kids. I could reflect upon how I now have a rising high school senior, a rising high school freshman, and a rising seventh grader, but I'll save that for another day. Today, I'll continue to pretend I'm young.

This morning I was sitting at my computer grading assignments for my summer semester when my youngest asked, "Mom, do you want to go on a bike ride with me?"

Now, I'll always say yes to a bike ride with my kids. Perhaps this is because during the pandemic I watched them molt into furniture as they were glued to devices for ungodly amounts of time, so anytime any child suggests physical activity, I'll ride that positive wave. Moreover, today happens to be one of those perfect days -- warm without being hot, breezy without being windy, sunny without being oppressive.

It's utterly gorgeous. I cannot overemphasize the loveliness of today's weather.

I told her that I'd love to accept her offer, adding that we could either leave right now, or I could go in a half hour once I finished my grading.

"Oh, I'm fine waiting a bit," she said. "You'll feel so much better on the bike ride knowing that you're done with your work."

Her words made me smile and pause. She's right, after all. And, on occasion, you've parented long enough to realize that your kids have actually internalized some of the lessons you've tried to teach them, even to the point that they use those lessons to wisely advise you.


When the Grocery Line Gets It Right

Some people are skilled at picking fast lines in the grocery store. I don't have this gift. I'm gifted at picking a line that looks like it would move quickly, only to find that the person ahead of me is paying by check, but they forget their pen, and once the cashier hands them a pen, they drop that pen, and after they slowly pick up the pen, they pivot course and decide, "Oh! I meant to pay in cash. With pennies, actually. Let me count them out for you. What's the total again? Thirty five dollars and sixty three cents? I have that exact amount. I think."

Such was the case when I ran to the store to pick up one last-minute item recently. My lane looked like it would move swiftly, but after a minute or two, I realize that we weren't going anywhere. Nobody had inched forward. Nobody was any closer to the register.

That's when I noticed the woman at the front of the line. She repeatedly swiped her credit card, only to be met with angry beeps from the register that the transaction wouldn't process. A man ahead of me began tapping his foot. The woman behind him made eye contact with me and shook her head. Mild frustration was settling. These people, like me, had places to go.

But that's when something wonderful happened. One member close to the front of the line stepped forward. "I think you're inserting your card upside down."

The woman glanced at her card, flipped it over, and tried once more. Success! As the receipt printed, she turned to the line behind her and line and said, "I'm so sorry! I didn't mean to hold you up!"

The toe-tapper smiled and said, "Not a problem." The woman who had been shaking her head changed her countenance and said, "It's okay. We've all been there!"

And the woman at the front of the line went ahead with her day just as she should, without judgment, without anyone behind her adding another layer of frustration in response to an inconsequential mistake.

My grocery store line? We weren't the fastest, but we did get it right.


Don't Miss The Peonies

Friends, I haven't written this entire month, and we're quickly nearing its end. Let's see, what's happened over the past weeks?

I finished my spring semester and posted grades, then I started teaching two new classes during the summer semester. We celebrated three family birthdays in the span of two weeks. (We eat a lot of cake during the month of May.) I attended track meets, a spring middle school choir concert, and a middle school art show. I watched my oldest daughter attend her first high school prom. I took my car to the shop after the brakes failed. I emptied, painted, paired-down, and then reassembled our bedroom closet. We began hosting weekly summer dinners with football players at our house for my my husband's job as team chaplain. Like I do every May, I conceded to inevitable failure of being behind with end-of-year emails that my kids' schools relentlessly keep sending. With heaviness of heart, like the rest of the country, I attempted to process the news of yet another school shooting.

In short, somehow the past month got filled up. Months do that.

Even in the bustle, or perhaps because of the bustle, I take time for one daily ritual: an evening walk around our yard. If May is busy with birthdays, semester shifts, and end-of-school countdowns, our gardens offer visible reminders to slow down and savor. Our peonies are especially beautiful -- elegant and vivid, but oh-so-friendly with their sizable blooms.

They don't last exceptionally long, but that's a part of their charm. I appreciate them more because they aren't here forever.

So, as we wrap up the month, let me share these beauties with you. I hope you find them beautiful, too.


The Simple Power of a Compliment


We've reached the final two weeks of classes for the spring semester, which means two things:

1) It's fair game for a snowfall, which is exactly what happened earlier this week across central Pennsylvania as if one final shipment of snow was being delivered late. (You know, supply chain issues.)

2) Everyone is tired. Students are tired. Professors are tired. All the people are tired.

I make a habit of offering my students end-of-semester pep talks, reminding them that they're covering distance as they keep putting one foot ahead of the next, encouraging them that the finish line will soon be within sight, declaring that they can do this -- that they can do hard things. It's not uncommon for me to notice students nodding along, visibly reinforcing for themselves what I'm speaking over them, and on occasion, like this past week, I even catch a student wipe their eyes as defenses come down and their exhaustion slips out in the form of a few unbidden tears.

Don't we all need encouragement when we're running and we're weary? Don't we all want to know that someone notices our effort and is cheering us on? Don't we all hope to hear someone tell us "you've got this" when we doubt our strength or capacity to go out and get it?

The funny thing is that I'm used to offering this encouragement, not necessarily receiving it. During the past week, though, I've received unexpected notes of encouragement that have put wind in my own sails. One message came from a student I had ten years ago. He emailed out of the blue, expressing that he had been cleaning out a closet and stumbled upon a folder filled with essays and assignments from my class. "I admit, my undergrad is all a bit of a blur," he wrote. "I can look at my transcript and remember my classes but the names and faces of those who taught me are for the most part all forgotten. Yet, I’ve never once forgotten you or your class. It may have been 'just an elective' I had to take to 'check off another box' to graduate, but it was a pivotal experience in my academic and personal growth."

I was floored. Humbled, really. What a gift for him to not just think these thoughts, but to take a moment to write them to me. It made me wonder, how often do I think nice things about people, but neglect to take the next necessary step and tell them? It reminds me of the adage: "Unexpressed gratitude is like winking at someone in the dark. You know what you think of them, but they don't."

At this eleventh hour in the semester, I feel fresh motivation. I'm encouraged to pay it forward and tell others when I think well of them. Some compliments we hold within our hearts and heads are too good to remain there. There's simple power in a compliment that's actually spoken.


If You Can, Take the Trip


I don't know who I am anymore. For the past five weekends in a row (FIVE IN A ROW!) I've had random travel plans, so this marks the first weekend I've been home in over a month.

Truth is, I like spending weekends at home. I really do. A weekend at home serves both as a mop-up from the prior week and a springboard into the next, a brief moment to get caught up on life, a comma in the chronology. But upon reflection, I'm quite pleased I've made these recent road trips.

Last weekend, for instance, I visited my dear friend in West Virginia. We spent all day Saturday talking, binge watching a show on Netflix, and strolling through her neighborhood between episodes. We made fajitas, ate them while sitting on the couch, and then splurged on ice cream. We discussed everything and nothing: work-life balance, parenting challenges, matters of faith, why it's so difficult to get acclimated to carrying a new bag, whether she'd win if she competed in the Amazing Race, and how I'm rethinking cardigan-wearing.

You know, all the important stuff of life.

Weekends at home are great, but I can't say that I'll remember any of them specifically. But these random travels, these actual experiences, these post-Covid moments that are beginning to feel normal again after such a long absence? These I'll remember.

If you can, take the trip.


Dressing for the Weather You Actually Have

After being teased by warmer temperatures that hinted of spring, this week our central Pennsylvania weather plummeted again. On Monday morning, with temperatures hovering in the low-20's, I pulled my heaviest winter jacket, knit hat, and gloves out of retirement from the closet.

As I walked across campus, occasionally I passed a student who apparently hadn't gotten the memo about the temperature drop at all. They were entirely unfit for the cold. They looked miserable, curled up into themselves and shivering in their sweatshirt and jeans, and understandably so. They had nothing to insulate them from the bitter chill.

I thought of this as I walked. Because I dressed for the weather I actually had -- even if it wasn't necessarily the weather I wanted -- I was fine. I was comfortable enough. I was protected and prepared. Even though I didn't love the temperature, I hadn't caused myself any unnecessary suffering by pretending that it was warmer.

There's life application embedded here. Like these students in the cold, we all pass through seasons where our circumstances definitely aren't what we'd choose. Just wishing that it would be warmer doesn't make it warmer. But putting on a coat makes you warmer.

It made me wonder: How many times have I been in the midst of an unpleasant season in life and forgotten or refused to bundle myself against it?

When we face struggles -- perhaps especially struggles that seem like they've been going on far too long, much like lingering winter when we're longing for spring -- what can we do to be prepared? If our circumstances aren't comfortable, how do we get ourselves comfortable as we're going through them?

I think one secret lies in Ephesians, which advises us to put on the full armor of God when we face our darkest, coldest, worst days. Much like we'd put on a garment, we're instructed to put on the intangible, yet life-changing elements of truth, righteousness, readiness, faith, and salvation. This doesn't stop us from facing challenges; rather, it allows us to stand our ground, and when those dark days have finally passed, to still be standing.

To be certain, I'm ready for warmer weather. Bring on sunshine, temperatures in the 70's, and as an added bonus, low humidity so I can have a decent hair day. But until that warmth comes, I'll dress for the cold. In the same way, I'm ready for some circumstances in life to change, but until those bitter areas warm and thaw, I'll put on the full armor of God. I'll prepare, I'll bundle up, and I'll fight those battles so when all is said and done, I'm still standing.


On (Middle) Aging, Eye Cream, and a Handsome Italian Salesman

Recently we traveled to Naples, Florida for spring break. My parents, who live in Florida year-round, were gracious to let us stay with them, eat all their food, and track sand and toss beach towels throughout their house for five days.

One morning we visited an outlet mall, and I separated from my family to explore a few stores at my own pace. You know how outlet malls strategically place kiosks in the walkways? Typically, I'm skilled at passing by without engaging or making eye contact, and therefore, not getting sucked into sales pitches I'll inevitably need to say "no" to. But somehow, on this particularly sunny Naples day, I got sucked in.

The kiosk was selling eye cream that (to my knowledge) was made of ancient Dead Sea salts, fairy dust, raw kelp, gold powder, peptides, ceramides, and essence of unicorn horn. The man who applied it to my exhausted under-eye area was an especially handsome Italian in his mid-twenties. Given his job selling eye cream to middle-aged women (no subtlety in that business approach), he was slightly flirtatious, and to my horror, I intended to respond to a question in a friendly manner, but instead offered a reply that could have been construed as flirting right back.

Without question, the eye cream was amazing. He handed me a mirror so I could view my reflection, and half of my face belonged to someone who was a decade younger and no longer tired. Somehow, miraculously, the skin beneath my eye was bright, taught, smooth, supple, and a host of other adjectives I don't typically use when describing my under-eye area.

The cream was $399. He whispered conspiratorially that he could offer me a special price of $299, and then broke down the cost into a monthly expense (under $13 per month!) if I used the bottle for two years, which was how long he claimed it would last, although, to me, this seemed impossible for such a small bottle.

Regardless, my eye looked amazing, and my family was nowhere to be found, and the Naples sun was so sunny and the Gulf breeze was so breezy, that I let the handsome young Italian apply the cream to my other eye. I immediately felt younger and confident, but I knew something that he didn't: namely, while I might be many things, I am not a splurger.

To be sure I wanted the the eye cream, but I managed to awkwardly extract myself from his charming, yet exorbitantly priced, sales pitch. A half hour later when I reconnected with my family, Joel instantly commented that my eyes looked good. (By way of context, despite his ample wonderful qualities, he once didn't notice for over a week that I had gotten a haircut that lopped off seven inches.) In the off chance that you were wondering, yes, this compliment did, indeed, make me curious about how "less good" my eyes typically look to have him perceive the difference so quickly.

I told you all of that so I can now say this: Florida does strange things to me.

Perhaps my musings about the eye cream were accentuated because my birthday fell during spring break, and I might have subconsciously been contemplating aging. Perhaps it was because I reread my two favorite romance novels during the trip, and I might have been emotionally amped up on period-piece courtships. Perhaps it was the stark change in my clothing choices, including the sudden reintroduction of beachwear. (Is the tee shirt and athletic shorts I pulled over my swimsuit really the look I'm going for? Could I be a woman who wears a cover up? A flowy sarong? A wide brimmed hat instead of my ball cap? Pennsylvania clothing choices do not coalesce with Naples realities.)

Or perhaps it was because my oldest is nearly 17 years old, and by virtue of being an active nearly 17-year-old, she falls out of bed with the smooth skin and strong body that I didn't even know I had when I was nearing 17 myself. That eye cream merely teased me with the promise of having the skin she currently possesses.

Regardless of the contributing factors, spring break stirred within me a desire to capture remnants of my youthfulness before it utterly fades. I try not to lament the passage of things, the daily movement of these vanishing days. But is it too much to ask for someone to maybe take a few pictures of me, being gentle with my underlying vanities and insecurities, while also exhibiting skill and patience to find the most attractive backgrounds and flattering camera angles? (This, I know, cannot be done by a member of my family who, depending on age, will either point and click once, take a burst shot of a hundred exactly identical crooked photos, or flip the phone's direction and fill my camera roll with dozens of goofy close-up selfies.)

My generation preceded themed weddings inspired by Pintrest and elaborate gender reveal baby showers, and I don't regret that I didn't experience these things. But, if I'm entirely honest with myself,  I do envy the younger generations' penchants for authentic photo shoots. They have senior pictures that aren't posed in front of blue vinyl pull-down drapes, wedding albums that reflect personalities, and happy-sigh-inducing black and white photos of newborns in their arms.

This Florida trip made me realize that I'd like to have a few pictures where — oh, I don't know — I look the absolute best I've ever looked, while simultaneously not looking like I'm trying real hard to achieve it.

It's quite simple, really.

Of course, the minutia of daily life and routine has a way of snuffing these desires out. Since I've returned from Florida, I've resorted to the comfortable, yet mundane, rhythms of working, parenting, meal-planning, dishwasher-emptying, clothes-folding, and couch-crashing at the end of a day. I'm no longer actively contemplating whether I could pull off a sarong. I suspect it's safe to assume that very few of us live glamorous lives.

But that week away from home in Florida? And the themes of romance novels, and the hint of Gulf breeze blowing through my hair, and the handsome Italian who introduced me to that magic potion of an eye cream that restored my youth, even if just for an afternoon? Well, it teases me, flirting with my sensibilities, and makes me believe that life, occasionally, really is a little more exciting with a hint of glamor or an indulgence in beauty.

To be certain, I don't lament aging. Middle-age has brought with it too many wonderfully hard-earned life lessons and valuable skills to bemoan that it's also made its mark on my appearance.

I'm content. I really am. But apparently, I also wouldn't mind owning a $399 eye cream.


Just As Flawed and Human As Us

In the dark hours of night, sometimes I lay awake thinking about the many things I want to impart to my kids. They're in middle and high school, which aren't the easiest times. The simpler struggles of childhood, which demand a parent's physical energy, have been replaced with complex adolescent struggles. The adage is true: little kids, littler problems. Bigger kids, bigger problems. The stakes are higher, the hurts are deeper, and as a parent, it's painfully apparent that while you can do a great deal to help, you can't perfectly protect your kids.

You can't always protect them from getting hurt or having their hearts broken. You can't always protect them from battling their own struggles, grappling with their own insecurities, or fighting their own battles. You can't protect them from the consequences of their actions. And while you can instill values, model behaviors, and teach important principles, you can't always prevent them from making bad choices or hurting others.

Because these kids of ours? They're just as flawed and human as we are. And these lives of theirs? They have to learn lessons that emerge directly from pain and personal experience, not just advice. I'd love for my kids to learn from past mistakes — preferably someone else's. The reality, though, is we're all thick-headed enough that learning often comes most powerfully from our own lived mistakes.

This is ridiculously hard to watch.

I spend a lot of time on my knees for my children, talking to God with all my messy impatience and brokenness. And I spend time on my knees in silence punctuated by tears when the rawness is too much for words. God can handle this honesty. Daresay, He wants this honesty.

Even when my heart is heavy, I'm confident in this: God loves my children more than I do. And if you have kids, God loves your children more than you do. Our flaws aren't too much for God to handle, and neither are our children's. Just like our hurts aren't too deep for God to heal, neither are theirs. Just like our problems aren't too convoluted for God to untangle, neither are theirs.

It's hard to watch and wait in the wilderness phases, especially if its our kids who are out there wandering, but God is with them. God is there.


What Paint Can Do: Waking Up a Tired Bench

Years ago, I bought a wooden piano bench at a garage sale for a few dollars. Although its paint was chipping, the bench itself was solid. I brought it home, painted it pale blue-green, and placed it in my bedroom as a place to sit when I put on my shoes.


After a while, the bench's familiarity rendered it nearly invisible. It was something that was there, but not noticed. Plus, during the height of the pandemic, for nearly a year I didn't leave the house often, so who needs a bench to sit on when putting on shoes when you no longer wear shoes?

But recently, for whatever reason, I looked at the bench and actually saw it. I appreciated its compact sturdiness with fresh eyes, but the color, although pretty, receded tiredly into the walls. I didn't want to change the bench significantly; I simply wanted to brighten it. To do this, I painted three stripes in complimentary colors to hug the side and back.

I already had two colors on hand from other projects, but I bought a sample of soft blush paint from Lowes for the third accent color. (Paint samples offer the perfect amount of paint for small projects, can be tinted to any color, and cost only a few dollars.) Thick painters tape ensured crisp lines and equally-spaced stripes. Honestly, the most time-consuming part of the project was letting each coat dry completely before taping the next section for subsequent stripes.

The process was quick and easy, and I love the end result:

The stripes add just enough extra detail to make the bench worthy of notice. Do you have a piece of furniture that's become invisible to you? Take a look at it with fresh eyes. The simplest touch-up might make all the difference to bring it back to life!

Bench color: Delancey Green (Sherwin Williams)
Outer stripe: Green Water (HGTV Home by Valspar)
Middle stripe: Romance (Valspar)
Inner stripe: Belle Grove Sorbet (Valspar)


Winter: A Roller Coaster of Blah

Every so often, Facebook likes to remind me of a memory that happened  on this particular date from years past. Apparently, ten years ago today when my children were watching cartoons, I overheard a line spoken by the narrator on Curious George that amused me:

"Winter. It was like a roller coaster of blah."

Even a decade later, I have to give credit. That's a fantastic line.

Generally speaking, I don't dread winter, but I'm less enthralled with it when we reach February, blandly deadened to it during March, and downright huffy when it lingers into April (which its been known to do in Pennsylvania). By then, I want color and warmth and Vitamin D. I want open windows and short sleeved shirts and not to have my garage floor encrusted with a layer of salty winter sludge.

But for now, we simply ride out the cold and trudge ahead through February, knowing that this month, which is simultaneously the shortest and longest one of the year, is just that: a trudge.

Occasionally, when I'm feeling impatient, I chip at the ice crusted along my driveway with the snow shovel, trying to help nature along. Out of habit, I bundle up when walking on campus, remembering the adage that there's no bad weather, only bad clothing. And each evening when I'm settling down for the day, I'll enjoy the cozy comfort of my steaming mug of hot tea and appreciate the merits of reading a good book while curled up under a blanket. This is how you get through February. One day at a time. Bundling up. Hunkering down.

In about a month, we'll turn the clocks back and immediately the idea of spring will be less foreign, more tangible. Until then, though, we ride this roller coaster to its end.


Just Add Free Time

Anyone can do any amount of work, provided it isn't the work he is supposed to be doing at that moment.  — Robert Benchley

I'm teaching fewer classes this semester than I taught last semester. In fact, due to a unique scheduling situation, I'm currently teaching fewer classes than I've ever taught during any semester in my seventeen years of college teaching.

In short: I have more free time than I've had in nearly two decades. It. Is. Amazing.

Of course, work always finds a way to take the available time you have to complete it. It's fluid. It reminds me of the "cats are liquid" theory where any cat can conform its body to fit any vessel.

That's how work works. Give it an hour, it'll take a hour. Give it a day, it'll take a day.

For example, when I left campus yesterday, I had four hours of grading to complete. Four hours later, I still had four hours of grading to complete, except that I now had more knowledge about pre-diabetes since I had Googled the condition after reflecting on how much sugar I consume, and I had spent twenty minutes wandering Rural King to admire their baby chicks and eat their free popcorn, and I realized that the last time I had completed an entry in the wedding anniversary book my mother-in-law gave me as bridal shower present was when we celebrated 13 years of marriage. That was in 2014.

Just in case you were curious, my anniversary is in August -- and to point out the obvious, it's February, so nothing significant triggered me to look at book commemorating my wedding anniversaries. I just happened to be sitting cross-legged on my office floor in front of my bookshelves, surrounded by various piles (read! re-read! who-are-you-kidding-you're-never-going-to-read-this), and I stumbled upon the anniversary book, right next to my wedding scrapbook and our old high school yearbooks. (Fun fact: in addition to soccer and track, yesterday I also rediscovered that I had been in student government as the treasurer of my junior class.)

Of course, even though I can't remember exactly what I did last week, much less last year, it became top priority for me to remedy those blank pages and document our last seven years of marriage.

And I told you all of that so I could now tell you this:

Today I completed four hours of grading.


Before and After Pictures (A Theory)

If you know me personally, at some point you've likely heard me talk about a house project that I've been working on. I enjoy house projects for one main reason: before and after pictures. Who can argue with a good before and after picture? Look! Do you see this thing that once was ugly, tired, and outdated? Well, now it's been repurposed and beautified. New life has been infused!

In a perfect side-by-side visual breakdown, you literally witness change. It gives hope. Take this little shelf display in my bedroom, for instance.

I love the artwork at the top left. The warm terracotta tones get repeated in the small vase directly beneath it. But that artwork didn't originally look like this. I found the picture at Goodwill, and the frame originally was gold and black. After a quick coat of gray spray paint, it now fits better with the rest of my decor.

Over the pandemic, I spent a lot of time completing projects, whether small DIY improvements like tweaking this frame, or much larger endeavors like painting every room in my house. I also spent ample time watching other people complete projects. HGTV and I had quite the relationship, in fact. I'd end most days with a home renovation program, even if it just played in the background.

How will Hillary Farr transform the unlovable layout in Love It Or List It? What forlorn house will Ben and Erin invigorate in this week's episode of Home Town? How much will Tarek and Christina earn when they sell the renovated bungalow in Flip Or Flop? (Those California house prices always give me shell shock.) 

In just an hour, everything that was messed up became tidy, transformed, and new.

I enjoy these shows when I'm happy, but I've noticed that I especially gravitate to them when something in my life needs a touch of renovation. Unlike a TV show, it can take a long time for the "after" stage to emerge in our lives. We might feel stuck in the before of a hard situation, or we languish in the strange purgatory of during where our circumstances resembles an ongoing construction site. Nothing appears in its proper place. Everything feels out of order and uncomfortable, if not downright chaotic, unsafe, or depressing.

That's how I came up with my DIY Sadness Theory. When I'm sad, I want to see something -- anything! -- get fixed up, even if it's a stranger's house in the context of an hour television episode.

Why is this? I think it links back to my love of before and after pictures. When you watch a renovation, you're visually reminded that bad situations don't always stay stuck in the before stage. This is biblical. 

Our current situations are not necessarily our ending points. 

Lives can be restored, problems overcome, troubles mended, and heartbreak salved. God specializes in making all things new. Even more, He empowers us to endure through the painful and confusing during stages.

Today, if you're stuck in a before or during stage (like I am with a few areas of life), I pray you'll have strength to endure, with hope, until you can see the after. Carry on.


Let the Sun Do Its Work

Late Sunday night into Monday morning, our area experienced the first real snowfall of winter. Originally, predictions called for 8-12 inches, but as the storm made its way our direction, it downgraded to a mere 4-6 inches.

I know a lot of people who dislike snow, especially as they age, but I still relish the promise of a good snowfall. On Sunday afternoon I visited the grocery store to buy the obligatory pre-snowstorm fare (bread! milk! eggs!), and by Sunday evening, we had cozied up to eat an easy crock pot meal and watch the Steelers convincingly lose their playoff game. (That was inevitable.)

On Monday, of course, came the subsequent snow cleanup. Joel paced up and down our driveway pushing our snowblower while I focused on the sidewalk and porch with a shovel. After a few minutes, he turned off the engine and reminded, "You don't have to shovel perfectly. That's what the sun is for. We can let the sun do its work."

I need these reminders occasionally. I'm a person who thrives on order and precision, but not everything needs to be perfect and neat and tidy. So, I heeded his advice. I shoveled the bulk of the snow, clearing an adequate path for the main walkway, knocked the excess snow off my shovel by whacking it into the ground a few times, then went back inside to the warmth.

Within two days, just like Joel had said, the sun had done its work to melt the snow my imperfect shoveling job had left behind on the sidewalk. It happened without me lifting a finger.

What a good reminder. We don't always need to muscle things. Sometimes, we can just let the sun do its work.


Adoption Anniversary: One Year with a Cat

When I was a child, my next door neighbors had a cat named Patches. Patches wasn't a house cat, and she wasn't an especially friendly cat. She roamed outside and rarely heeded any human.

I loved Patches. When my neighbors went on vacation, they'd ask me to keep an eye out for her. I took my job seriously, checking her food bowl in their garage every morning and evening. They had given me their garage door opener (a major sign of trust for an eight year old), and when I'd exit their garage, I'd carefully pause the door during its descent so there was just enough room for Patches to enter, but not enough room for a burglar to slip through the crack. (My eight-year-old self always looked out for burglars.) Patches rarely ate from her bowl, but I'd keep the food fresh just in case she'd come home hungry.

Throughout my childhood years, I loved watching Patches walk with her perfect feline balance along the line of Belgium blocks that edged our Pittsburgh back yard. I loved the rare moments when she offered affection and brushed against my mosquito-bitten legs in the summer. For all her aloofness, I was convinced that Patches loved me.

My neighbors moved away to a nearby town the summer before I entered high school. When they locked their house on their final departure, they hadn't been able to find Patches. This wasn't unusual; she often disappeared for longer stretches. They drove away, asking me to keep an eye out for her, stating that they'd come back for her.

Later that day, I swore I heard Patches meowing outside their house. I circled their yard while calling her name, but couldn't find her. The next morning I heard distant meowing again, and once more, I circled their house methodically. By the third day, I had grown concerned. I'd periodically hear faint meowing from the sides of their house as I looped the perimeter of their yard, but I never heard her when I stood in the front or back yard.

That's when it struck me: the exterior vents to the attic were on adjacent sides of their house. Patches wasn't roaming outside -- she had been trapped for days in a sweltering attic! We called our neighbors, who immediately drove back from their new house. Since they already had turned in their house keys for the new owners, my dad grabbed our tallest ladder (the one reserved for his summer exterior house painting jobs across Pittsburgh), propped it against the side of their house, and extended it to the third story attic peak. My neighbor climbed the ladder, busted a hole in the vent, and dragged Patches out of the attic.

I still remember my dad asking my teenage brother to carry the ladder home quickly, insisting that he should walk it behind our neighbor's house through their back yard. I found this secrecy unnecessary, but then realized its brilliant timing when, a moment later as our group reconvened in my yard with Patches in my neighbor's arms, our brand new neighbors pulled their car into their driveway.

I'm still not sure if that family ever knew we dragged a nearly-dead cat out of their attic mere minutes before they moved in.

Someone rushed to fill a bowl of water for Patches. My mom opened a can of tuna from our pantry and set it down on our sidewalk. We all stood around, heightened from the drama but trying to act casual: waving hello to greet our new neighbors, sighing in relief as Patches devoured the tuna, whispering under our breaths, "Man, that was a close one."

Even if Patches never could tell me, by that point, I knew she loved me.

It was a year ago when this story resurfaced in my memories. I hadn't thought about Patches or her attic rescue for years, perhaps decades. This is because one year ago -- on January 16, 2021 -- my family adopted our own cat. We named her Peanut.

Of all the members in my family, I had been the person who dragged my feet throughout the years whenever anyone broached the topic getting a pet. I had enough responsibility already, I thought, and I surely didn't need to be in charge of keeping one more thing alive and well.

But last January we were nearly one year into the pandemic, and, quite frankly, everything and everyone was a mess. I rarely left the house, my kids were miserable, and all of my resolve had been worn down. Somehow, we ended up filling out an application, and on a frigid Saturday afternoon my family walked from room to room through our local PAWS, thoughtfully regarding all the cats before we unanimously settled on Peanut.

Have you ever finally gotten something that you had long desired, but you hadn't even realized that you wanted it until you got it? That was me, at 42 years old, when I brought home the first pet I've ever had.

It was like a floodgate had opened, like a childhood desire from decades ago not only had been remembered and rekindled, but also entirely fulfilled in one fell swoop. Day by day, I'd marvel when I saw Peanut walking around our house. I'd stop in my tracks and watch as she curled up to sleep in a cozy corner. I'd find myself laughing at the sound of her tiny nails clicking against the floor when she careened down our hallway and slid around the corner.

I thought I had been in tune with myself, my wants, and my emotions, and this unexpected depth of feeling surprised me. I had loved cats my whole life, apparently. I suppose I always had wanted a cat. I just didn't know it. Or at some point along the way, I had forgotten it.

But now I have a cat.

If you'd ask anyone in our family who Peanut loves best, everyone would have the same answer. Hands down, it's me. My kids find this unfair, and they have a point. "You didn't even want to get a pet!" they remind me, as Peanut brushes her way around my legs. They're entirely right. I didn't want to get a pet. Thank God we don't always get what we want, and thank God we sometimes get what we don't think we want.

I should tell you that when I taught class remotely from my bedroom from that January through June, Peanut would perch herself on top of my desk to watch. She often sits beside me when I read. She sleeps near me every night -- sometimes on top of me. She seems to sense when I'm sad, and during those moments, she won't leave my side.

I think back to eight-year-old Robin who watched over Patches, making sure the garage door was left ajar the perfect height for her to slip in and get food. I think back to fourteen-year-old Robin who cried in relief as I watched my neighbor pull Patches from the attic vent, tuck her against his chest, and climb down the ladder. I think of all the times throughout my childhood when I observed Patches, or tried to pet her, or imitated her by walking along the Belgium blocks that lined our back yard, my arms extended for balance, as Patches deftly darted ahead of me.

So many years have passed since I've been those versions of Robin, but apparently, that young girl is still in me. I'm grateful that I've gotten what my heart desired, even though I hadn't been aware for a long time that I desired it.

Happy one year anniversary, Peanut. You are so loved.


A New Community Waiting to Be Built

Classes for Penn State's spring semester started on Monday, and so far, I've had two sessions with my new students. This morning I reflected on how, after 22 years of teaching, I still love what I do. I love engaging with students. I'm not sure how many people can say this after two decades, but I'm in the exact career I want to be in. I'm doing exactly what I love to do.

Each semester has its own rhythm -- the early weeks where everyone feels out the class, the familiar middle when we're in a groove and know our routines, the three-quarters slog when motivation wanes, and the last weeks as we sprint (trudge? limp? plod?) toward finals and grade submissions. Right now, I focus on these initial review-the-syllabus, forge-our-routines, and get-to-know-each-other days.

Because here's something that I've learned: a good classroom atmosphere doesn't just automatically happen. As an instructor, you get to shape how it happens. You work to ensure that when a classroom environment does emerge (because it always does, perhaps except when you're on Zoom), it's healthy. These opening days are the perfect time to work toward this end.

On the very first day when I walk into the room, warmly greet the class, and head toward the podium to pull up our materials on the projector, I notice how students sit silently. They're still bundled from walking across campus in the cold. They're masked. For some of them, you only see a horizontal sliver of their faces at eye level underneath their winter hats. They're entirely unfamiliar with each other, and nearly all of them kill the minutes before we start by turning toward something safe and familiar: their phones.

That's when I offer my first instruction of the semester. As I pull off my own coat and drape my scarf across the back of my chair, I say, "We'll get started in just a few minutes, but for now, take a moment to introduce yourself to the person beside you. Learn their name. Then turn to the group behind you and learn their names, too."

It's so basic that I feel foolish writing it here, as if what I'm doing is special when, in reality, it's remarkably simple, but those few statements completely change the atmosphere. The room comes alive. Students talk. A group in the back laughs. Two people in the corner realize that they come from neighboring high schools. My materials are now ready, but I linger longer, happy to observe them forming connections, knowing that actual classroom work is being done in these moments.

They're a community -- and although they don't realize it yet, they're just waiting to be built. I've never had students balk when I ask them to greet their neighbors and learn names; they dive in like they've merely been waiting for someone to give them the permission to do so.

For the first two or three weeks of class, I start every session this way as I make my way toward the front of the quiet classroom. "Good morning! How are you? We'll get started in a few minutes, but until then, why don't you refresh yourself on the name of your neighbor and greet someone else in the row next to you?"

Every single time I make this request, they play along. Within a few weeks, I won't need to prompt them. When I enter the room, some of them certainly will be on their phones, but they'll also be talking. They'll be greeting each other by name.

And it all starts on the first day, in those first minutes. Bundled in their jackets with their heads lowered toward their phones, they might not appear like it, but they're simply a community who's waiting for that initial nudge to actually be built into one.

In this new year, just get on the bus.

Way back in the day -- specifically on Christmas day 2021, which was less than two weeks ago but feels like a small lifetime past -- after our gift exchange and a festive breakfast, my family finished packing our bags and we joined the Penn State Football travel party of players, coaches, trainers, and staff to head to Tampa, Florida for the Outback Bowl on New Years Day.

Traveling on Christmas adds a unique nuance to the holiday -- still wonderful, but with an adherence to a schedule that wouldn't otherwise characterize a Christmas spent lounging at home. We ate an airplane dinner instead of a roast or a ham and the traditional holiday sides, and we experienced the striking (even if pleasant) temperature adjustment from a chilly Pennsylvania Christmas morning to a balmy Florida Christmas evening.

I wouldn't characterize myself as a widely-traveled individual. Beyond these Bowl Game trips for my husband's work, I've flown only a handful of times. My other travels have been in the form of road trips. This being said, I'm savvy enough to know that traveling with a group, like this particular travel party, that has access to chartered jets and bus convoys is the way to go. There's no waiting in terminals; instead, luggage checks and metal detector screenings are done directly on the tarmac. There are no tickets to manage; instead, our names appear on the roster with our assigned seats.

Essentially, besides from packing our own bags and showing up on time, there are no real logistics we need to consider about the trip. It's all been done by competent individuals who make sure things run smoothly for the travel party.

I thought about this during our week in Tampa. Whenever our group needed to travel -- whether to the Beach Day in Clearwater for the pep rally, to downtown for the New Year's Eve parade, or to the stadium on game day -- we'd exit our hotel to the back parking lot, find our bus in the convoy lineup, and climb aboard. Without fail, I always felt better once I took my seat on the bus. I knew I was going to get where I needed to go.

I didn't need to know the directions. I didn't need to navigate myself. I simply trusted that the drivers knew where they were taking us, and because of this, I could enjoy the ride without any thought, without any work, and without any stress.

I'm not sure what's ahead for myself or my family in this new year. The nearly two-year trudge through a global pandemic has taken a toll. I find myself wound more tightly in some ways and unwound more loosely in other ways because of it. I still enjoy being social, yet I secretly love wearing masks in stores because if I see someone I know but I don't have any social bandwidth, I can -- quite literally -- hide behind my mask. (An introvert's dream!)

On the home front, like any parent at any given time, I enter the new year with concerns for my children. They're navigating their own life struggles typical to middle and high school, on top of how the pandemic has shaped their school experiences, social lives, and mental health. On the work front, I'm gearing up for the new semester, which starts next week, and yesterday I completed my classroom visits in preparation to meet a fresh crop of students.

In short, new things are forthcoming. Many of them will be exciting, and, of course, some will be hard. At the same time, challenges from last year still linger. (We've certainly learned from these past two years that troubles have no problems crossing the boundary of a new calendar page, or even a new year.) But one thing I know in this sea of unknown -- something that was solidified last week as I was bussed around an unknown city and safely transported by drivers who knew where to go and what to do -- is that my journey ahead is in good hands. I can sit and rest easy. God loves us, and he doesn't expect us to always know the directions, navigate ourselves, or plot our paths.

I think of a wonderful passage from Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird where she writes: "E.L. Doctorow said once that 'Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.' You don't have to see where you're going, you don't have to see your destination of everything you will pass along the way. You just have to see two or three feet ahead of you. This is right up there with the best advice on writing, or life, I have ever heard."

We've started another year. We'll finish it, Lord willing, by moving forward, perhaps an inch at a time, doing our best with what we know and trusting that God not only sees the full route ahead, but also that he can safely navigate us where we need to go.

I realize how secure I felt during those bus trips around Tampa, how I could rest my head against the back of my chair and be at ease, just enjoying the ride. If I can rest easy like that, I can strive to rest easy as I ask God to navigate my life this year.

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