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 Do you see this thing that once was ugly, tired, and outdated?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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