turn around

This is a blog of two pictures and a simple reminder.

So, there I was, waiting in the car for my oldest to finish up at cross country. I sort of dread these evening cross country practices because they mean leaving school after a long day, only to return shortly thereafter. It means, I arrive at school just after the sun comes up and I leave just after the sun goes down…it’s not a short day. So, there I was, sitting in the car while it was getting darker trying to stay awake and slowly coming to understand how it was that my dad always fell asleep waiting for me to be done with whatever activity he was picking me up from. Honestly, if I didn’t work at the school, a nap in the car would’ve been a pretty brilliant use of my time (a picture of the principal sleeping in her car in the parking lot spreading through SnapChat stories isn’t worth the extra sleep…for real).

Regardless, I was staring at a darkening sky and thinking of everything I had to do and it was weighing me down.

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I was spending my time as any weary mom might…wallowing in thoughts of cooking dinner and getting kids ready for bed and writing this blog and wanting to just crawl into my own bed instead. I wasn’t doing much to rekindle my energy…just cycling from sleepy to sleepier.  In the midst of this not so proud moment, I received a text from my husband who had just finished coaching my youngest at soccer practice. My son had asked him to send me a picture of the sky because he knew I would love it…he was right.

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It was in that moment I realized that beauty and light were still present…all I had to do was turn around. Instead of gazing straight ahead into the darkness, if I simply turned around and looked behind my car, I could see these last warm tinges of the day’s glow before they settled in for the night. If I only turned around, I could witness the reminder of all that I have to be grateful for. If I just turned around, revival awaited. This action would take energy, sure. It would also require a little faith that I wouldn’t have missed the moment…faith there would still be light to be shared…faith I wouldn’t just be disappointed.

So many moments in life require this energy, this faith. So many moments feel easier if we just stay in our lane heading listlessly into the dark skies craving sleep instead of experience. So many moments feel too overwhelming to make the effort. So many moments distract us from the awareness that the light is waiting for us to find it. So many moments require someone else to remind us that the there is still warmth and beauty in the world.

As fortunate as I am that my son was that reminder for me tonight, he also helped me to remember that I need to be this reminder for others as well. He didn’t make me turn around. He didn’t badger me or try futilely to revive my mood. He didn’t make any empty promises that everything would be okay, as we are so prone to doing when we don’t know what else to say to someone lost in the dark. He didn’t even know I was sulking in the car all those miles away. He just knew I would love that picture and so he found a way to send it my way. He was mindful; he was present.

Just as we all should be. Mindful. Present.

(this poem came to mind while I wrote this entry… “Mother to Son” by Langston Hughes)

redeeming grief

In December of 2004, I lost a piece of myself that isn’t really retrievable. It was a week before Christmas and I found myself delivering my first child into a world he would never know. There will be no deep dive into the details of my pregnancy with Nathan and what determined our loss–if you want those, you can find them here.

This blog series is aimed at positivity so it seems odd I would bring this loss up at all, but I promise, it comes with good reason. You see, this year, Nathan, had he not been so sick, would be old enough to attend high school…and since I am a high school  principal and teacher, this weighs heavy. I walk around my school each day and I watch the antics of my freshmen–I hear the silly giggles, still tinged with junior high joy; I see the awkwardness settling as they begin to figure out high school; I reassure their parents that their kids will in fact mature and that they will find success. And I do all of this with a bit of an achey heart these days because I should be more deeply involved in this scenario than just the voice of principalian experience (and yes, I just made that word up…). I should be walking campus tickled by the laughter of my own son and his friends…I should be the parent in need of reassurance. In the midst of this realization, I felt my grief, which I have spent so long taming, rediscovering its roar.

Sadness was welling up and I was struggling to push it down.

This was so much harder than I thought it was going to be…and I spent the summer preparing for it!

But as we have wandered through these early weeks of school, I have learned to live my gratitude (which is what redeemed my grief all those years ago). These days, I walk around campus and instead of feeling betrayed by loss, I feel even closer to Nathan than usual. It is almost as if he is present with me just a little bit more each day. Instead of what ifs, I just feel grateful that I have the chance to work with, teach and help all of these kids who are as old as he should be. It is my gift back in some strange way.

I have spent the last 15 years of my life trying to figure out the purpose to my grief, and while I may spend the next 15 years trying to do the same, I have learned a few things. When I harness my grief to offer empathy to those who are suffering, the loss is less. When I view my students through the lens of “If this were Nathan, how would I want someone to treat him in this moment?”, I am a better teacher and human. When I transform grief into gratitude, my loss is vindicated. When Nathan feels alive in my heart, when I recognize that I am still his mom, his death doesn’t feel so vacant.

People question my sort of annoying optimism regularly. I feel like if they understood the loss and the illness and the sacrifices endured, those questions would dissolve. I have every reason to live angry with the world. I choose not to. That isn’t easy. It is a daily decision; it is an active lifestyle and it is imperfect. But optimism and seeking gratitude allow me to see greater purpose in the difficulty, in my life. It allows me to put myself on the side and to see beyond the periphery of the moment, of the wounds. It allows me to seek positivity each and everyday. It allows me to truly live.

And that is what Nathan would want most for his mom anyway. I can’t deny him that.

(and because I haven’t offered enough poems lately…here are a couple…“One Art” By Elizabeth Bishop“Lost” by David Waggoner (okay, for real, if you don’t click on this link you need to read this line–life changing! “…Wherever you are is called Here,/ And you must treat it as a  powerful stranger,”)

creativity exonerated

“Hope is always accompanied by the imagination, the will to see what our physical environment seems to deem impossible. Only the creative mind can make use of hope. Only a creative people can wield it.”

Jericho Brown, The Kenyon Review Conversations

“Let the world we dream about be the world we live in now.”

from “Livin’ It Up On Top”, Hadestown

So, it was a long day. Friday shouldn’t make you earn the weekend the way this day demanded I dig in and persevere. My attitude shift from Monday that brought lightness of being and joy to much of my week wavered under the weight of the stress. I found myself losing my breath again, feeling exhausted.

Yet, in the midst of all of that, the two quotes above flitted about my thoughts lending hope and injecting energy.

Being a creative person and seeing possibilities when other, sometimes more practical, people mostly see roadblocks…being a creative person driven by the hope and the belief that more often than we realize, the impossible can be imbued with the spark of life…can lead to a bit of a frustrating existence. The litany of naysaying often easily exceeds the necessary check of optimistic idealism. The constant defense of what goodness will come when we just try the new seemingly unattainable possibility is exhausting. But the hope that is intertwined with this creativity, even and especially when called into question, rejuvenates and restores the spirit so that intensity of vision remains in focus.

As frustrating as my optimistic creativity can be for those that have to work and live with me, it instills in me the hope that drives me forward…that drives progress at my school and in my home forward. It makes me who I am and is the catalyst of any goodness I might be able to offer this world. I refuse to apologize for it any more in the way I used to feel compelled to. And honestly, on a day like today that is filled with demanding stressors, it is this creative hope-filled vitality that impels me forward and that allows me to continue dreaming. (It also doesn’t hurt that today is Friday…)

simplicity

My boys were singing in the car this morning on the way to school…loudly…and giggling the whole time. Effervescent joy permeated the air lending levity to the mundane.As they sang along with Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell to “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” I paused.

School mornings bring a bit of insanity and frustration to my house (I don’t think I am alone here). Getting lunches and backpacks ready…cajoling kids out of bed…debating the “I’m not hungry for breakfast” dilemma…fuel the potential for disagreement and discord. (I should mention at this point that I am an all out morning person in a house full of boys who possess no love for the hours before 8am–like I cannot wait until they are old enough to be caffeinated!) I work to preserve their moods but also my own because it is impossible to walk into your day feeling like it will be successful when you have spent the morning arguing over the location of socks and the necessity of  brushing away morning breath.

The singing without abandon in the car freed all of us from whatever morning drama had occurred. And it reminded me. It is truly the simple moments that populate my day with positivity. Without being present in those moments…noticing and feeling grateful for them…they would flicker and extinguish themselves into meaninglessness. Lacking focus on these smaller moments of delight would make it easier for negativity and pessimism to creep into my internal dialogue. When I’m consumed with the busy-ness of my life, when I let the less important things creep up the hierarchy of my priority list, I don’t take the time to notice and revel in these bits of positivity and in the people I love most…and my entire outlook changes.

The point of this positivity project blog series was to shift my gaze–to realign it. This morning’s pause offered proof that intentionality is certainly a crucial step to mindset and outlook. This morning’s pause set the tone for the day and realigned my perspective moving forward (so, when a student in my AP Lit class wondered if Marianne Dashwood would be a VSCO girl, it was easier to crack up in laughter, lean in and be grateful for the gift of my job and the even greater gift of my students).

Flashes of delight fill our days, but they don’t wait around too long hoping to be noticed. We have to be in the moment, expectant, hopeful, ready to grasp them in gratitude and to store them up like fireflies in a jar.

Things don’t have to be complicated to be worth our attention. Embracing simplicity can change everything…if we let it.

story stones

“Before you know what kindness really is

you must lose things,

feel the future dissolve in a moment

like salt in a weakened broth.

What you held in your hand,

what you counted and carefully saved,

all this must go so you know

how desolate the landscape can be

between the regions of kindness…

 

…You must wake up with sorrow.

You must speak to it till your voice

catches the thread of all sorrows

and you see the size of the cloth.

Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore…

only kindness that raises its head

from the crowd of the world to say

It is I you have been looking for,

and then goes with you everywhere

like a shadow or a friend.”

–Naomi Shihab Nye—excerpted from “Kindness”

 

Tonight I witnessed something so beautiful that it called this poem to mind immediately. In this world we talk so much about the importance of choosing to be kind, but in this poem, Nye speaks to the interwoven relationship that empathy and kindness share.

Lately, I have been helping a dear friend facilitate a book study at her church. The book? Rachel Held Evans’InspiredThis book is a gorgeous testament to one woman’s struggle with the difficulties and questions she found in reading and understanding the Bible as a part of her faith life. Evans reveals through her vulnerability,  her creativity, and her honesty the mystery and frustration brought about in wrestling with faith. Yet she also carries her reader to the other side of the struggle in smart and sensitive ways. This book came to me when I needed it and sharing with others has been the greatest gift.

Over the last couple of weeks, we have been working through a chapter on Deliverance Stories…stories of times in the wilderness…stories of struggle that end with physical, emotional, mental salvation…stories of striving to know ourselves all over again. In order to really dive into this material, we couldn’t convene in conversation about Evans’ text or about the Biblical texts she references. In order to truly realize the weight and depth of these stories, we needed to reveal the truth of our own time spent in the wilderness. We needed to be vulnerable and to trust each other. Our small community needed to believe that our stories would be cherished and held as sacred.

That kind of bond is tough to create 4 weeks into a once a week study.

Yet, somehow, it happened. Tonight, I watched the women of this group share their deliverance stories in an incredibly bold and courageously honest way. I sat in awe of their willingness to not simply narrate their stories loosely but to extend insight and emotion that allowed us to walk the path with them…into the dark and disorienting wilderness and then out to the other side. I walked away from that room not only knowing each member of this small group better, but knowing myself better too.

Stories have this effect, when we are available to listen and to be present, and when we are willing to share our own honestly with those around us…when we feel we can let others in. Shared lived experiences create a sense of empathy within us that allows us to live more deeply into our community, to keep kindness more readily available. We are more likely to live in love and act in kindness when we have access to the knowledge that there is always more to the story than what we think we see, what we think we know. We are more likely to be better humans to each other, to celebrate each other when we empathize rather than judge, when we lean in rather than walk away.

Tonight was a reminder…of the comfort that can be found in community, of the value of story, of the nuances and shades of kindness. And I will walk into tomorrow carrying the lessons of humility, empathy, and honesty that inspired that reminder.

(Day 6 Positivity Project)

phenomenal

 

“Now you understand
Just why my head’s not bowed.
I don’t shout or jump about
Or have to talk real loud.
When you see me passing,
It ought to make you proud.
’Cause I’m a woman
Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.”
(excerpted from “Phenomenal Woman” by Maya Angelou)

In early December, I received this gorgeous thank you note from a student of mine. The thought behind this handwritten note alone would have been enough to remind me that the weight of my job delves deeper than the daily decision making that occupies so much of my time as principal/teacher. Our young people, my students, lead busy lives that create a constant hum of events, studying, clubs, family life, work and  more. College pressure and the pressures of figuring out who it is they wish to be in this world rests upon their shoulder’s as Atlas’ burden sat upon his. Amid all of this, she escaped her own needs and responsibilities and found the time to write a thank you note.

I also would have been moved by her simply mentioning of how grateful she is for the introduction she received to poetry in my class last year…for the opportunity to explore her new found passion fully in her writing (instead of forcing her to maintain the plan I had set out for the class). Students often come to my classroom with only negative feelings toward poetry. Once they are immersed in it, once they have the freedom to find their own meaning, once they venture into writing their own stories poetically, doors open, confidence blooms, they become writers.

But, what struck me most was the line that is underlined: “Thank you for being a strong female leader I can look up too [sic]” Well, it would be easy to forget this responsibility in the busy days of the school week. One could quickly become numb to the rest, to the fact that the kids are always watching. One could lose sight of the example we set just by being ourselves. Across this nation there are heaps off female high school principals–I am the product of an extremely impressive one, after all. But at my small school, the only leadership that has ever presided over the high school has been male. I know that I felt a small victory in breaking that barrier and assuming this position but I don’t think I realized until I read this note the impact that my students (especially my girls) felt by witnessing that changeover and the days that followed.

It has become increasingly important to me to uphold that responsibility, that honor with the dignity it deserves. I don’t necessarily do my job any differently or better than I would have before; I do, however, act with intentionality and a mindfulness of what my words and actions create. I feel an extraordinary  duty to exemplify that a leader can have an empathic heart and also enforce rules and enact change. I am more keenly aware that it is ever-important for me to display that a good leader has vision for the future and creates plans to achieve that vision but without sacrificing the heart of the institution. Honestly, every leader should be conscious of these qualities. But, I am also cognizant of the need to demonstrate that a woman is equal to that task. It is imperative that I use my voice wisely and not be afraid to assert it just because I fear being seen as noisy or abrasive. When I speak for the good of my students and the good of the school, I am working toward bettering learning opportunities and I should not cower from that because of possible perception. Because when it comes down to it, the reverse, the depiction of female leadership as always needing to be told what to do, of always waiting and never acting, of being quieted rather than elevated, is a far more dangerous example to set.

I am blessed to work in an institution that values my voice and my brain and so the confidence I am fighting is more from what the world around me has said for my lifetime rather than what is actually being enacted around me. Breaking that common societal narrative for the girls in my school has become paramount. My hope is that they will seek leadership roles in their lives, as many already have, and that they will assume those positions with grace and confidence because they are more than equal to the task and no one has ever made them think or feel otherwise.

So, these days, I am willing to walk the line a bit more. I am working to own the confidence it takes to do that. I keep this note with me all of the time as a reminder of purpose when the job feels too much…like another path would be easier. Ease isn’t always better; simplicity can also bring emptiness. The task is hard, the job demanding (seemingly impossible at times), but I am up for it…

“’Cause I’m a woman
Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.”

 

(Day 58–tomorrow is king cake day!!! I would expect a super early post because I am anticipating king cake for breakfast and maybe again on the parade route!)

magic

There’s a magic that happens when a baby enters the world. An enchantment stirs inside of the hearts of those who, for months, have been anxiously awaiting the moment that tiny new life would pronounce its presence in person.

What never seems to allow itself into definition or explanation is that the depth of that love grows as the child does. I tell my kiddos everyday that, without fail, every time I think it is impossible to love them more, something inside of me stretches to lend a bit of extra space. And that is a true statement.

Today is one of those days. One of my boys turned ten (double digits…how?!) and the other opened with a leading role in the school play today. As I watch these boys grow into the world shaping the humans they will become, it is pure joy to witness the avenues they travel while seeking their passions. Whether soccer or the stage, watching each in his element swells my heart a bit more.

Not sure what I’ve ever done that warrants the treasure of these children, but it is one that I cherish and honor (even when it isn’t like tonight…even when it is hard…even when there is attitude…because that is all part of the job). And this job pays richly.

(Day 34!! It’s short and down to the wire but still got it in!)

Her Story, Mine

There is a story I’ve been told for as long as I can remember…

The first time my mom met her future father-in-law, my grandfather, and revealed, upon his request, that her major was Secretarial Sciences, his response was, “What are you gonna do with that?”

I like to imagine my mom in that moment…taken aback by the comment, polite in response, but accepting of the challenge—as though her thoughts spoke even more loudly this– “What am I going to do with that? Watch.”

As an English major at LSU, I ran into similar commentary from more people than I care to admit. “English, huh? Well, that’s a husband hunting major.” Which, in case you were wondering, translates like this: “Well aren’t you cute, little lady, with your fluffy major.”

“What am I going to do with that? Watch.”

As a teacher for the last 20 years, the script has seen few revisions. “Well, I mean, it’s not like you have a real job…you get off at 3:00 after all and those summers, I would love to have summers off…I mean if you were really capable, you wouldn’t be justa teacher” And nearly every time I’ve heard these words, I’ve simply imagined my mom facing my grandfather, the challenge she met with a quiet fury, and the accomplishments that followed. Sure I’ve been baited into argument over these statements…I am the daughter of an attorney after all—I know how to build a pretty formidable case and sometimes, I cannot resist. But more often than not, my response is a quiet, internal impulse to excel, to achieve, to succeed.

“What am I going to do with that? Watch.”

These diminishing questions make a statement that extends far beyond a major or a profession. Women have been enduring “well-meaning” demeaning commentary for centuries and continue to carry the burden of having to prove themselves equal, worthy of being heard, and strong enough to lead.

This past August, my mom and her business partner sold their court reporting firm and she finally stepped into a much-deserved retirement. As she began planning for her days without the stress of work and owning a business, I was stepping out of my classroom and into a far more stressful position—Head of High School. The juxtaposition of these two moments struck me and I think that maybe for the first time in my life I fully understood the weight of my mom’s example in my life.

You have to know this before we go any further here: I have a really amazing mom.

The kind who finds out her adult child is sick and spends every waking hour for two straight days cooking so her sick child won’t have to…the kind who shows up at the hospital when she has the full out flu because her little girl is giving birth to her first child—20 weeks early, too early…the kind who teaches you that “nobody ever said life would be a bowl of cherries” and then comforts you when it isn’t…the kind who owns Thanksgiving like a boss…the kind who you can emulate but deep down you know you will only ever be able to be a shadow of the mom she has been and continues to prove herself to be.

My mom is certainly not the first working mom. However, in a world where so many moms feel judged and judge themselves even more harshly for the choices they make (stay at home, work, nurse, bottle feed, etc), her example enables me to feel validated in my decisions—to feel that I’m not sacrificing selfishly. She has always been fully a mom and has also always worked—first from home, then for a boss in an office, then in her own office as she and a partner bought the company and kept it going for nearly 23 years. She had to be creative at times both in how she worked to keep her company afloat and successful and in how she worked to still be absolutely present in the lives of her family. Her notebook was always in her bag and she was always at the ready to answer calls “Alliance Reporting, this is Karen speaking…” And this was true whether she was at home, at the hospital with one of us, or spending the day with a sick grandchild. Work was always present in her life, but so were we, and as she strove for balance there, the love and kindness she poured out were undeniable.

My mom has this strength that is formidable and a savvy intelligence that I’m not even sure she recognizes. I have a vivid recollection of the hours she spent ensuring a software patch was installed that would survive the feared Y2K crisis. I mean countless hours with the tech guy, on the phone, in the office.  A lot of people did this I suppose—things were so uncertain and planning felt necessary. However, I feel it is pretty important to note here that in that same year, in those same moments, she was also making my wedding dress (that’s right-making it without an actual pattern) and doing the lion’s share of wedding planning as I was in the middle of my first year of teaching and sort of just threw it on her. Needless to say, my dress and wedding were gorgeous and her company survived Y2K without a hiccup—but none of that would have happened without her tireless persistence and resilience

I could go on at length with examples like this but what does it all come down to besides the fact that I have been blessed by her ever-present love and strength?

It comes to this.

I never gave her enough credit for being more than a mom. I never stopped to think about the example she was setting for me. I never paused to realize that all my feisty independence, all my “don’t you tell me I can’t…” came from her quiet presence. I never understood that while I look up to all these women who have proven that women are more than they are often given credit for—and there are so many—the woman who has influenced me most in this way is my mom…the woman who has enabled me to fight (hopefully with grace) for people who need a voice is the woman who gave me my own.

As I begin this new rather auspicious job that kind of terrifies me as much as it exhilarates me, I’m leaning on her example more than she realizes. As I blindly seek balance between my school kids and my own kids, between my coworkers and my family, I remember that my mom has done this already, that we all survived, and that we always knew she loved us. When I fight for kids whose voices desperately need and deserve amplification, I remember the spine and integrity with which she led those she worked with and my own is strengthened. When I feel like I have so much to prove and that there are those who will second-guess, the quiet hush of my heart speaks these words:

“What am I going to do with that? Watch.”