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Rachel

PARENTING

My House and I Are Breaking up. Here are the Juicy Details.

So, I’m moving. Well, not just me, I think my husband and son plan to come along, too. But we are in the process of packing up all of our belongings from one house into boxes and moving all of those boxes into another house.

Along the way, I’m learning some things about myself. The loudest and clearest message is that I really hate moving.

Growing up we never moved. My parents still live in the beautiful brick row-house in St. Paul, Minnesota that has always seemed like home, and probably always will. A house has a way of accumulating stuff. Which is to say, people have a way of expanding their possessions to fit the space in which they live.

Which is to say, I have too much stuff.

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I’ve started reading this book called The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. I want to hate it, but I don’t. Mostly so far I’ve cried when I’ve read it. It asks you to think about asking yourself what items you really care about, what items you want to allow to share your space. When I stop rolling my eyes, I’m wiping them.

It hits close to home. (Pun intended?)

For example, we have two rooms in our house that are filled with items from my past lives. Namely, the room in the basement and the entire attic. I like to think that my husband and I share our space an even 50-50, but I think it’s really more of a 20-80. Except when it comes to the bed. Then he definitely takes up more room.

Anyway, the eighty percent of the space that I am taking up in the attic and in the room in the basement is filled with stuff from my classrooms, stuff from my last apartment, stuff from my childhood, stuff others have given me when they’ve moved, stuff that may be of use to someone, someday. So. much. stuff.

And truth be told, if a hurricane hit our house and I had to itemize a list of what was in either of those spaces I would probably be able to name about a third of the items, and that’s being generous.

Case in point, our real estate agent came over and wanted to see the upstairs, and I said, “Oh, it’s pretty empty up there.” Then I followed her up to see piles and piles of my books, clothes, towels, sheets, and school boxes.

This is the point when I tell you how that moment made me realize that I don’t really need any of those things in the attic, and I gave them all to Goodwill.

That’s not what happened.

Instead, I went up there, and my stuff started grabbing at me with it’s long finger-nailed claws. I sat down and read through boxes of letters, throwing away one for every twenty I kept. Besides the fact that this is a much slower process than I have time for if we’re going to list our house in two weeks, it is also not very helpful in the whole “tidying up” regard.

So I haven’t given it all away to Goodwill.

But it did make me realize that those rooms are not empty. Not in my house and not in my life. There are a lot of rooms with a lot of baggage in my heart and the very physical act of cleaning out a house has given me a close up to stuff, physical and emotional, that is weighing me down.

Which brings me back to the whole thing about how moving sucks. And about how this whole process fills like one big break-up.

As soon as we found out that our bid was accepted and we had a close date for our new house, I did what everybody does. I started crying. I started apologizing to our current house.

I felt like I’d been cheating, looking at MLS in my free-time, fantasizing where I’d put the furniture in my new place.

“Sorry house, I love you, I really do, but I have to think about what’s best for me. I don’t know that I ever loved you the way you should have been loved, etc, etc, etc.”

All super normal.

Moving is supposed to solve your problems, right?

But now that we’ve gotten this incredible house, I’ve started to realize all the things I’m leaving behind. And some of the issues I’ve had with our house are my issues. Like the fact that it’s always a mess. The fact that I can’t figure out how to organize the kitchen. And suddenly I’m starting to see that those are going to be moving in with me at our new house. Unless I deal with them now.

Meanwhile, like a good spited lover, my house is starting to really pull itself together. While I’m gone on vacation in a week, it will have a complete rehab of the upstairs. The walls are getting painted. It’s getting in shape. Just to let me know what I could have had if I’d been willing to stick around.

There’s a lesson in this, right? About how our lives will teach us the lessons we most need if we pay attention. About being awake enough to let the piles of garbage in your life help you to realize the areas of your life that most need tending. About how leaving isn’t always the easy thing, even when it is the right thing. About how you can run away, but your baggage is really good at keeping pace.

Or maybe a box is just a box, a cigar is just a cigar.

Here’s what I know. Each box we take to Goodwill makes me feel a little bit lighter. So as much as moving sucks, maybe my house isn’t the only one that is coming out of this breakup better off.

Also, on a happy note: We’re buying a house!!!

pieces of her life

 

“She left pieces of her life behind her everywhere she went. It’s easier to feel the sunlight without them, she said.” -Brian Andreas

261755_10150290602379874_2436766_nRachel

fathering mothering PARENTING

Will You Be My Friend?

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It’s been a long last couple months. It started when my son projectile vomited all over me at my husband’s thirty-first birthday dinner. His parents took us to one of our favorite Italian restaurants to celebrate. We had just finished the first course of the chef’s tasting menu when my son reached for me, nestled his head into my shoulder, then pulled back to look me straight in the face. It was a sweet moment. Then he threw up for what seemed like hours onto the entire front of my body until I was sufficiently soaked in his vomit. The waiter came by moments later with our next course. I wasn’t hungry. (Though I did manage to finish my martini.)

The sicknesses passed from one to another of us over the next six weeks, culminating in a trip to the ER and the determination that my son will no longer be receiving drugs in the penicillin family.

People have been asking me how my “holidays” went, and I either say fine, or say way too much, their eyes glazing over thirty seconds into my ER story.

Let’s just say, in the words of Counting Crow’s Adam Duritz, “A long December, and there’s reason to believe maybe this year will be better than the last…”

So I hadn’t been feeling my best self. For awhile. In fact, that night when we decided to take our son to the ER, as I pulled my son’s pants off to change his diaper and saw a full body rash and swollen limbs hot to the touch, my exact and immediate response fell solidly into the expletive category. Well, expletives and tears. Which would probably be my band name if I ever formed a band.

What followed was a night of holding my screaming, beautiful baby boy while he was stuck with needles and having thermometers shoved into his rear end (there has GOT to be a better way to take a temperature, accuracy or not), while trying to interpret the doctor’s well-meaning but overly technical jargon at one in the morning. (Is it that hard to say fever instead of febrile? Seriously?) It all left me a little bit crusty. Or crustier.

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We had emailed friends to tell them about our ER experience and ask them to pray, and so many friends emailed back and told us they were thinking of us and praying for us. Most of the emails ended with, “Let us know if we can do anything to help.”

I was touched by the immediate email responses from our friends, reading them each to my husband. And then Crusty piped in with her thoughts. “Really? What can you do to help? Come hold our kid for a few hours so we can get some sleep!”

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Without missing a beat my husband (who loves both Rachel and Crusty) replied, “I bet there at least five people who would be willing to come over right now and do that if we asked.”

I didn’t ask.

But he was right. There are at least that many friends who would make time to help us, even at an inconvenience to themselves. So why is it so hard to ask?

My husband I met at church, and got to know one another through a church small group called Faith For Life, where we discussed the Rule of Saint Benedict, hospitality, and spiritual disciplines. I know, words like disciplines are so unbelievably not fun. It reminds me of spankings, dread, and not being able to eat chocolate.

However, one of the disciplines we discussed was asking for help. And we agreed to ask one another for help at least once a week for that summer, to practice what it was like to admit that maybe, just maybe, we can’t do it all on our own. Sometimes we have to reach out for the hand of a friend.

My one attempt to ask for help that summer was to call my husband for directions. This was before Siri could do that for me.

So it turns out that I am really really not good at asking for help. Like really, really not good. And it also turns out that being a parent has made the moments when I need help cluster together like grapes on a vine. (Which is obviously a coincidence and has absolutely nothing to do with life handing me the lessons I need to learn.)

It’s just so hard to be the needy one. It’s hard to be the one who has to ask, who has to kneel. It’s hard to admit that I DO care what people think, that I care deeply if my friends love me. My friends and I joke about “The Friendship Bank”, and I desperately want to be the one with the most money in the bank, and I’m always afraid I’m instead the one making the most withdrawals.

But I also think my fear of those things keeps me from the intimacy and friendship I might have if I was willing to stop keeping score, willing to reach out a little more often, even if all I have is a wrapped present full of my need.

Last Sunday some couples from my church got together, and shortly before leaving I turned to two of my favorite friends, looked them in the eyes and said, “It’s been a hard couple months and I have been avoiding everyone. And I really need connection and my friends. Will you two pursue me?”

They laughed, because who says that?

But they said yes. And last Tuesday we went out to have sushi. And they told me that if I had called them, they would have come to hold our son while we napped.

I’ve had a wonderful few days since then. Which I think is probably related.

So don’t be surprised if your phone rings sometime soon. It might just be Crusty asking for some help.

261755_10150290602379874_2436766_nRachel

PARENTING

How I’m Talking To My Son About Race and Police Brutality (Guest Blog)

I recently asked my friend Conni if she had any ideas about how to raise her white sons to become thoughtful people, engaged in the conversation about race, willing to speak up, but not over. Willing to listen and to learn.

Because she’s wonderful, she agreed. Here is her post:

Right now we are in the throes of what we will come to remember as the glory of boy days. My oldest is four with a blonde, pageboy haircut, bright eyes, and a ready smile. He is, as the expression goes, “all boy” and will spend hours playing with Legos, swords, and cars, and loves rough-housing with his daddy. He is not too old to snuggle in Mama’s lap, to listen to silly poems, or dance with the family in the kitchen. He kisses his baby brother and is a help around the house.

He is also “all four” in his insistence on testing boundaries, his emotional stability (his tantrums call to mind images of drunk rock stars trashing dressing rooms), and in his seemingly limitless curiosity. These days there are scores of questions. He asks all the questions. And no matter what answer I give, how simply it is packaged or how long I take to answer him, there is always a follow-up question. He would make an excellent reporter (just not TMZ, okay? ::crossing self::). And the follow-up question is almost always, “Why?” Thus, nearly every question becomes existential in nature.

Here is an example of a typical conversation:
S: Mama, what does that sign mean?
Me: It means cars need to slow down and look out for each other
S: Why do car needs to slow down?
Me: Because there’s not a lane for everyone in this part of the road
S: Why is there not room for everyone?

See what I mean!

I can’t fault the kid. He’s trying so hard to organize this grey world into neat compartments in that growing mind of his. He wants to know wrong and right. He wants to know how things always are or never will be. What all boys do and what all girls do. Who are the good guys and who are the bad guys. He loves words like always and never. They’re clear. Safe.

And so making dinner at the end of the day, the contents of the stove-top bubbling, the news on the radio blaring, my heart is turning over all the race-based headlines, the discussions on police brutality, comments on Facebook that suggest I must pick a side: blacks or police.

Here is the bottom line about my son and his race: nobody will ever be surprised by his success or question it, they will not assume they know what kind of music he listens to, or question that he has a right to be wherever he is. We know that, statistically, he will pay less for a car, get paid more than female or minority peers at the same job, and if he should have to interact with the criminal justice system (again, ::crossing self::) will be sentenced less harshly than men of color.

In light of this privilege, how will I begin to talk to him about the others who will meet a very different reality? How am I talking to him and his four-year-old brain about race?

As adults we realize that there’s no group of people that are always the “good guys” or always the “bad guys”. We know of others in trusted professions (clergy, teachers) who have abused their authority. But these nuances can be trickier to impart to a four-year-old.

My approach is based on the following Maya Angelou quote, “When someone shows you who they are, believe them.”

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This is what I tell my son, “When people, your friends and especially a group of people, tell you their stories, believe them.” Believe them. Believe them when they tell you it hurts when you climb on their head or that they despise grape jelly. Believe them when they tell you they are afraid of the police (even the people you know and love and trust!) Listen for all the feelings behind their words. Focus on the people as they share their stories and fears.

Someday we will talk about the history and science behind racism. We will discuss what is known about the lingering effects of slavery, Jim Crow laws, the GI bill, the Tuskegee institute, and the mass incarceration of black men and what that has done to black communities. We will discuss the differences in how white and non-whites are sentenced, how they are treated when they apply for a loan, or enter a department store.

But not today. Today we will talk about people we know and their stories.

My friend Robyn is black with a young son and bravely navigating this alternate universe that I had little idea existed. Her boy’s name is Alex and he has amazing chipmunk cheeks and a dimpled grin. He knows all about trains and knows the soundtrack of the DC metro. “Door opening, please step back” he chirps.

In an email, Robyn writes she is thankful Alex smiles so readily at strangers because maybe this means the police will perceive him as friendly, less threatening and suspicious. Because one day soon, Alex will be a young black man and will be perceived as more threatening than my son who could be walking right beside him.

Robyn worries at night. She wonders if her husband has enough storage and charge in his phone so he can be sure to video tape any encounters with the police in case anything should happen to him. I worry about my son and husband getting in car accidents. She worries they will encounter the police.

And here’s the thing: hers is only one story but theirs are the faces I see. I know there are many, many more stories like hers. But as my son grows and I encourage him to believe people and their feelings and respond accordingly, I don’t want him to think abstractly about “black people”. I want him to think about Robyn and Chaz and his friend, Alex. I want him to understand he doesn’t have to abandon what he has come to trust in order to hear and believe their stories and advocate on their behalf.

I know most of this is beyond his understanding now but I can’t help dreaming. Dreaming that together my husband and I can raise a listener, a man who can see and hear and believe experiences that are radically different from his own and then, in turn, use that knowledge to be a peacemaker. To be able to hold two hard things at once and with belief: his love and value for his friends in the black community along with respect for the policing profession.

conniConni

fathering mothering PARENTING

It’s OK to Buy Bigger Pants

Last Saturday some friends hosted a lamb roast at their house. I had worked in the morning, then visited with a family friend in the afternoon, so the fumes I was intending to use to get through the final social engagement of the day were not quite sufficient to get me through the evening. I’m generally an articulate person, but that night I found myself staring at a friend, child on my hip, realizing that a whole chunk of dialogue had passed and it was my turn to talk, but I had nothing to say. I think I nodded and said, “Yeah.” I say “yeah” a lot lately.

So “yeah”, that’s been happening.

On Tuesday night I had a whole night free to myself since my son hasn’t realized that the time change has occurred, and therefore has been falling asleep an hour earlier than usual. There were a million things I could do with my extra time. I chose to watch four episodes of Gilmore Girls while eating pickle flavored potato chips with ranch dip.

So “yeah”, that’s happening, too.

Neither of these stories are newsworthy or even that interesting. But I have found myself really down lately, wishing that I could make choices that got me more in the direction of where I want to be: namely, well rested, articulate, back in shape, consistent with times of reflection and contemplation, balancing work and friends and family. And I am so unbelievably not in that space right now.

To be fair, I don’t know that I have ever been in that space. Except maybe in college, but I guarantee I had too much angst to fully appreciate it.

My friend tells me that the key to getting a healthy relationship with myself is to treat myself with kindness and curiosity. Doesn’t that sound just wonderful? Like, “Hmm, it’s so interesting that I ate a bag of potato chips, I wonder why I did that?” Or “Wow, you must have really needed to watch those four episodes of Gilmore Girls to help unwind. I’m glad you took some time for yourself.” Instead of the tired script in my head that says, “Why did you waste so much time again? Why didn’t you just GO TO SLEEP?” Or, “Do you really want to be fat forever? STOP EATING!”

At the lamb roast, during one of the conversations I did manage to track, one of my female friends was lamenting the fact that her pants weren’t fitting well anymore. Another woman joined in the conversation and said that she makes herself go on week-long diets so she can fit back into her clothes. The first friend just looked at her and said, “Nope, I’m gonna buy bigger pants. I’m gonna do it this week.”

And I laugh thinking about it right now, since it is literally the monologue that goes on in my head, the tension I ride between restriction and resignation. And it isn’t just about the size of my jeans. It’s about everything. My use of time, the hot and cold of relationships, the way I spend money, my commitment to generosity toward others, carving out space for prayer and contemplation.

My husband and I had a heart to heart this past week. It’s been a rough couple weeks for both of us. The ebb has been more than the flow. He said he had been feeling badly about not running lately. A five time marathon completer, he has been hoping to get back into the pattern of running again. When he said something about it to his father, also an avid runner, his dad just said, “Why? When you were a baby I didn’t run for years.”

And so we talked about how there are seasons of life, and having a small child may just be one of them, when maybe we have to lower the bar for ourselves a little bit. There are seasons of our life during which our triumphs are less about the fifty pound weight loss, and more about our ability to convince a fourteen month old to eat green beans. There are seasons when we need to buy the bigger pants, not out of resignation, but out of grace.

My friend Brittany, after reading one of my blogs about my body image issues, said, “You know what, Rachel? That stuff is hard. It takes time, but you’ll get there. And don’t even bother getting into shape between the first and second child. ”

It’s amazing how easy it is to treat others with curiosity and kindness, and how hard it is to do the same for myself. But in the midst of everything else, I admit that right now, I like the idea of buying bigger pants more than the idea of going on a week-long diet. At the very least, it seems much more manageable. Maybe that’s giving in and giving up. Maybe it’s resignation.

Or maybe it’s grace.

grace not perfection

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fathering mothering PARENTING

Making Time for Making A Marriage

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Last night I got home, took out my computer to watch some Gilmore Girls while cleaning my living room, and immediately realized I’d forgotten my power cord at work. It’s a sinking feeling, knowing that you don’t have access to your favorite toy, and that you won’t have access to your favorite toy for a whole day. I circled the room about six times, rushing because it was the small sliver of time for me to accomplish housework before my husband and son arrive home from work and daycare, and also because it turns out not having my computer when doing said housework turns me into a chicken without its head.

After settling on playing music on my phone, I accomplished approximately one tenth of what I was hoping to. Nonetheless, I could not wait to snatch up my kiddo and kiss his rosy cheeks the minute he stepped into the door. After our greetings and settling in, I told my husband about the computer.

Me: “I forgot my computer cord at work today. So I guess we will have a technology free evening” [checks Facebook on phone]

Ok, maybe I didn’t immediately check my Facebook. But I did immediately realize that not having one of our laptops hardly would guarantee a technology-free evening.

And we didn’t have a technology free evening. We didn’t even have a phone free evening, since I got a work phone call on the way to Mariano’s grocery store (our date destination, because we like to live it up).

I don’t know about you, but my husband and I do it about three times a week. By it, I mean watch several hours of Netflix. We enjoy finding a show and watching it together start to finish, processing the characters and plot as we go. It provides inside jokes and entertainment. It’s a great way to relax. It’s fun and simple, requiring little to no pre-planning. In a period of my life when I seem to be running a half hour late for everything, that is nothing to take lightly.

With the million ways that “to do” and duty pull at my mind and my day, it is easy to let it end there. My husband and I make a point to intentionally spend time together. But sometimes I think back on the month or the week and wonder, when is the last time we had fun together? When is the last time we talked about our goals for our relationship, our family, our money?

Having a toddler can sure slow all of those conversations down. But I don’t think I can place all the blame on him. I found plenty of ways to be distracted even before he entered our lives. When I go through my Netflix queue it can be a little startling to notice how many television series I have watched start to finish, and the sheer number of hours that represents. Have I spent at least that many or more hours in conversations with my husband (or my friends)?

So last night the idea of having a technology-free evening, one that we could use to play a game or have a conversation, felt like a good one. A great way to have fun together. Because I’m me, and make grandiose plans, it also felt like the beginning of something new.

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We put our son to bed, ate dinner together, opened a bottle of wine. We talked for awhile, mostly about how tired we both were feeling. And we were about to get grab one of our board games to play when our son started crying. Screaming, in fact.

The best laid plans.

But we have made some important strides in intentionality. Like, for example, sectioning off Wednesday night as a night that we won’t schedule other things. The occasional exception may arise, but I don’t offer Wednesday as an evening to get together with my girlfriends or to stay late at work. We also try to keep our phones away during dinner time. And sometimes it surprises me how hard it is to keep this time sacred.

But more often, it surprises me how sacred the time is, how desperately I crave it. Even more than I crave the next episode of Doctor Who. I notice how easy it is to default to the easy, like watching a movie together, instead of being honest about what has been going on in my life. And I notice that when we do take the time to hear about what is going on in one another’s lives it is a lot easier to be kind and thoughtful and go the extra mile for one another.

Or maybe that’s a coincidence.

To sum up, I believe that my husband shouldn’t be finding out about my inner thoughts and goals from my blog, he should be informing my blog through our conversations. And in the interest of including him, you should know that the line about doing it three times a week was his. We make a good team.

261755_10150290602379874_2436766_nRachel

PARENTING

Facebook is Ruining My Life

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I’m getting a new phone on Saturday. My iPhone 4S (yes, people still have those) has been slowly dying. First, my son ate the Otterbox Defender case. When I went to try to replace the case at Verizon I was told that they no longer keep the 4S cases on the floor. After convincing the salesclerk to go into the back and retrieve the box of unwanted iPhone 4S cases I decided it might not be worth $60 to buy a case for a phone that doesn’t even warrant display in a Verizon store. (This made the salesclerk’s day.)

So my phone has been naked for the past several months, and during that time I have dropped it approximately three hundred fifty seven times, and my son has chewed on it more times than that. Only one speaker works, it shuts off completely at random intervals, the battery runs out after twenty minutes, and the screen has a small crack in the corner.

Still, all in all, I’m pretty impressed with this small piece of technological wonder, and its ability to defy all odds and power on with 95% reliability.

However the newest development has caused me to bite the bullet and purchase a new phone. Why? Well, my phone no longer opens any programs except phone, chat, and music. While it technically opens Safari, it only provides a 3G network. According to the Verizon representative I talked to, that’s the equivalent of dial-up. So basically, my phone has the computing ability of my 2007 Motorola Razr.

This development has meant that none of the apps I have downloaded will load. The phone crashes when I try to look at Facebook, for example. Just an example.

Well, technically, it’s THE example. Because I look at Facebook a lot. A LOT. And not being able to access Facebook on my phone for the past week has shed some light on the depth of my addiction.

My average day, it turns out, generally starts by turning off the alarm on my phone, and immediately checking to see if I have a red number hovering over the blue f on my phone’s home screen.

But it doesn’t stop there. Oh no. When stuck in traffic, car at a stop, I find myself reaching for my phone. Yes. Please shame me for this, because it is terrible.

Then there are the moments throughout the day, those moments when there is even a tiny little pause. It’s those moments when I get the sensation that I am forgetting something, that there is something I am meaning to do. Then it hits me. Facebook. I should be checking Facebook.

The evening continues with much the same. Facebook is a constant fixture in my life. I’ve checked Facebook four times already while writing this post.
But seriously, does that even matter? I can’t possibly be checking Facebook any more than anyone else. How many times have you checked Facebook today?

But not having Facebook has forced me to spend my time differently. I’ve been sending longish emails to some of my friends. I’ve been tracking what I eat into My Fitness Pal. I talked to my coworkers at lunch today. I ordered reeds for my clarinet so I can start practicing again. I’ve been reading books.

And then when I do get on Facebook, generally at night after my son is asleep, I notice that there are 12 notifications and I quickly browse through them to see if there are any I even care about. And the answer is that I mostly don’t.

But I sure do like that red number. Especially when it is such a high number after a long day away from the page. But there’s a lot I don’t like.

I don’t like that Facebook is controlling so much of my life. I don’t like waiting for my Facebook to load, hoping that someone somewhere has noticed something I’ve said or done, and feeling badly when the red number doesn’t appear.

I don’t like that I’m the person who looks at other people’s kids and thinks about whether they are as cute as my own. Obviously none of them are. Except for that one. And that makes me angry.

I don’t like the news stories that leave me hopeless.

I don’t like looking at pictures of my friends with kids and hoping to see that they, too, still wear their baby weight.

I don’t like hating the posts from my family members who disagree with me politically. I don’t like how self-righteous I become, justifying how balanced and fair I am because I get angry with people on both sides of every issue.

I don’t like the jealousy when I see someone has bought a house, or published a book, or discovered the secrets to the universe while I fumble along learning a new job.

I’m tired of the compare game, because I always lose. And even when I win, I still lose.

For the record, I have checked Facebook two more times while writing that last part.

So maybe, as much as I don’t like those things, I can’t help myself.

Wouldn’t it be great if I could end this post by telling you that I am quitting Facebook? Wouldn’t it be a fantastic declaration of mindfulness and balance, rising above it all by quitting the comparison game? Wouldn’t I be so incredible?

Well, I’m not quitting Facebook. I love the updates from family and friends. It’s still my primary source of news, local and abroad. It’s still where I look to find the funniest memes.

It is, after all, a pretty incredible means to keep in touch with my family, spread between three continents. And I do actually enjoy seeing my friends’ babies, even the ones that aren’t as cute as my son. Especially the ones that aren’t as cute as my son.

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And I like being liked. In the Facebook sense and the real world sense of the word.

So there are no declarations of quitting Facebook to end this post. But maybe when I pick out my phone on Saturday I will think twice before downloading my Facebook app.

261755_10150290602379874_2436766_nRachel

Education Teaching

Minding Your Own Business

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For my third year of teaching, along with switching schools for the third time, I also started teaching third grade. Previously I had identified as a middle school teacher, ending the day reeking of sixth and seventh grade hormone dust, much to the chagrin of my roommates. The transition to becoming a third grade teacher was, let’s just say, tearful. For everyone involved.

For starters, third graders are tattle-tales. The neighborhood rubbernecker has nothing on a third grade student. They are relentless in their scrutiny of their peers, and itch for the moment to tell on anyone who falls out of line. This can be tiresome. Multiply it by thirty students and it is downright exhausting.

The result: I coined my first third grade teacher catch phrase. After intentional instruction and “family meetings” with my students on the rug, the mantra we created and reiterated was, “If, for the rest of your life you only worry about yourself, that will be enough.”

This provided plenty of humor when students would come up to me and say, “I know I’m supposed to be worrying about myself, but Anaya just ate the eraser on her pencil.” But oddly enough, making this part of the daily rhetoric helped calm down the tattling, and helped steer the conversation toward self-reflection, a skill that has recently been difficult for me.

I’m generally a reflective person. Probably an overly reflective person. I’m the person who reflects on my reflecting. I have full conversations play out in my head and have, on more than one occasion, been known to make hand motions or facial expressions in fitting with my rehashing of an event. I promise I’m not crazy. Well, not too crazy.

But lately there’s been some stuff going on. Lots of big life changes. Family members are moving to other countries. I’m missing my parents, who live 400 miles away. The routines of my job are not automatic, so the mental requirement is taxing, and I’m examining every movement under a microscope. Reflecting on my reflecting, if you will.

While this has been going on, I’ve noticed a trend. The more stuff going on in my personal life, the more pissed off I get at the news. Mind you, there is always plenty in the news to get worked up about. It never disappoints. But a lot of the time I can still find that inner calm and resolve, keep chipping away at my piece of work to do, my part in creating the world I want to see. Or something like that.

Not lately. Lately I’ve been seeing Facebook status updates and having twenty minute rants to my husband, or my friends, or the check out person at the grocery store. No seriously. Lately I’ve been seeking out information from friends that will allow me to get opinionated and ornery. Lately I want to get out my measuring stick and start whacking knuckles to keep everyone in line.

There’s this rush I get when I am angry. It’s heady and powerful. There’s something so satisfying about identifying as righteous and holding myself a full two feet (two hundred feet) above everyone else.

So anyway, I go to church, at least a couple of Sundays a month, and one of the things that we talk about in church is when Jesus says to look at the log in your own eye before being concerned about the fleck of dust in your neighbor’s eye. And I think it’s pretty amazing how easy it is to see those small flecks in everyone else’s eyes, and how hard it is to notice the log in my own, weighing me down day after day.

Put another way, by my favorite Ani Difranco, “I’ve got something to prove, as long as I’ve got something that needs improvement.”

Maybe part of it is that it is so much easier to feel powerful than to feel powerless. It’s so much easier to look at Facebook and the world news and pronounce myself the arbitrator of right and wrong, and hypothesize whether or not our country should go to war than it is to do the pile of dishes that has migrated its way into our living room.

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It’s so much easier to look at my friend’s financial decisions and raise my eyebrows and shake my head than it is to reflect on whether or not we should be eating out for the fourth day this week.

It’s so much easier to look out than to look in.

This past week I have been coaching first year teachers. There have been so many surprises, so many ways in which the teachers have already surpassed my expectations of what it means to teach for a first year (my expectations being set, of course, at the most basic, fall on your face level of my first year). There has been one refrain I’ve heard over and over.

“They are (fill in number here) graders. They should know how to act by now!”

My response has stayed the same. Maybe they should know how to do this by now. But let’s say that they don’t. Let’s say that they don’t know how to do this. How are you going to teach them?

Because, after all, there’s a lot of things I should know by now.

I should probably know by now how to worry about myself. I should know how to spend time in quiet and reflection. I should know how to cry when I am sad and how to laugh when I’m happy and how to hold other people in love and kindness. And sometimes I do. And sometimes I don’t.

Thankfully, I’ve had a lot of good teachers in my life, ones who have assumed that regardless of what I should know, sometimes I need to be taught again.

I have teachers who remind me what it is to be the person I am, the person I want to be. Like my husband gently reminding me that the first week of the school year is always impossible. Or Karen reminding me that it never hurts to go out for a walk. And Lenora telling me that maybe it’s time to lay off of Facebook for a little while, at least until a little balance returns to my life. My teachers step in and tell me it’s time to put down the measuring stick, all the knuckles are broken.

In short, they remind me that If, for the rest of my life I only worry about myself, that will be enough.

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I’m going to a bonfire tonight.  And I certainly have some firewood to contribute, at least metaphorically speaking.

261755_10150290602379874_2436766_nRachel

 

Teaching

Never Ready: #TeacherConfessions #FirstDayofSchool

“No one is ever ready!” My father barks (1)

Today is the first day of school for millions of kids, parents and teachers across the country.  And for weeks, everyone has been getting ready.

Kids and their parents have been getting ready for weeks, tracking down items on the school supply list, watching carefully for those awesome sales at Staples, Target and Office Max. Last night, backpacks and lunch boxes were painstakingly loaded and uniforms were carefully laid out, ready for that early morning alarm and new school day schedule.

Teachers have been getting ready since the final day of school last June (yes, really). They have spent the summer recharging and planning for the year ahead – new units, fresh classroom management plans, and innovative strategies they learned at professional development over the summer (No, teachers do not get the summer off); they’ve carefully set up their classrooms and have worked to incorporate the expectations of the school administration that has never left the building over the summer. School custodians have cleaned the building from top to bottom (those floors are waxed!) and are ready to see their handiwork scuffed and fingerprinted by noon the first day.

Excitement fills the air. The first day is filled with great expectations. Everyone seems ready for the first day of school.

Except me. I was never ready. Not as a kid. Not as a parent. Not as a teacher. Try as I might, I was the teacher who was never ready for the first day of school. Not even at midnight the night before.

 I spent much of the summer honing my craft: reading, learning, going to professional development, creating units, gathering materials, and re-designing my classroom.  Oh, and constantly thinking and talking about my classroom (to my friends and family, I apologize).  The amount of planning and preparation I undertook, the amount of time I spent setting up my classroom, putting together my classroom library, writing letters to my students – it made no difference.

I was never ready.

I am talking about not just the first day of my first year in the classroom but each and every first day up to and including my last year in the classroom.

The more you teach, the more you know that Murphy’s Law applies with an unrelenting vengeance to classroom instruction: “What can go wrong, will go wrong.” And, as the poet above points out, the “shoelaces” will ultimately wear out and break and you may have to make do with a “belt” that is not your best.

I tried so hard to be ready for that first day of school. But, alas, within 10 minutes, I discover that what I thought was the perfect morning meeting classroom rug shed like crazy, covering my students’ freshly ironed uniform pants with a layer of fuzz (yes, the one I paid $89 for at Crate & Barrel – we vacuumed that sucker every day, but still, it kept on shedding). By noon, there weren’t enough desks in my room, as I hadn’t planned for the steady flow of students sent from the school office who weren’t listed on my roster because they hadn’t registered until the first day of school (always forgetting that the classroom size limit in the union contract has no real meaning the first 20 days of school).

But somehow, despite the fuzz and lack of desks, despite not being ready for everything (including my sweet new student from West Africa who spoke no English except for “Hello” and “Thank You”), we are off to our “life-or-death destination”: another year of teaching and learning.

And somewhere in the middle of that first day chaos, I remember that I will never be ready for everything that happens – on the first day of school or each day that follows.

I won’t be ready for the moment when Quavonte, Joe and Conwanis bring me the Reader’s Theatre translation of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and request to use the original or “real” language in their fight scene between the Montagues and the Capulets, because, “like you said, Mrs. Dempsey, there’s nothing like iambic pentameter. Shakespeare just sounds better. He’s got the beats.” I won’t be ready for the January that every student turns in their “winter break” reading and writing packet because it was “kind of fun to write poetry and stuff.” Be still my heart.

I also won’t be ready for the moment when a student, in a flash of temper, grabs a pair of scissors and stabs another (minor flesh wounds, thank God). Or the morning my gifted writer and rapper shows up to school drunk out of his mind, having poured his mother’s cognac into a bottle of sunny delight (and still carrying the evidence with him into the classroom).

Despite Breathless Preparation, I

The first day of school preparations that leave us all breathless remind me that despite the fuzz, the wounds or the spiked sunny delight, my students and I will continue to learn as I teach. Preparation is critical. But so is bobbing and weaving, and incorporating and appreciating the unexpected.

And so, at the end of the first day, I have arrived. I finagle extra desks from the kind custodian, add and cross-off names in my no longer pristine gradebook, and I stop at the Dollar Store on my way home to buy multiple lint removers, so that we can be ready for the fuzz tomorrow after morning meeting.  And then I remind myself that no one, including me, is ever ready.

 –261755_10150290602379874_2436766_n - Version 2Karen

Education PARENTING

I am so sick of the ice bucket challenge

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I’m in the middle of a full blown carb and sugar bender. It started when, for my son’s first birthday, my husband and I made the decision to buy not one, not two, but THREE cakes from Costco. (Red Velvet, Key Lime, and Cheesecake). Oh, and we bought M&M’s, too, which I ate by the fist full until they were gone (actually, until I told my husband to take them to work, which is what happens to most of our junk food).

But the news this week has not made it any better. People are being beheaded by for their faith in Iraq and Syria. Over a thousand people have died in West Africa from Ebola. The country is blowing up in Ferguson, a nine-year-old boy was shot and killed yesterday evening in Chicago, and Robin Williams just committed suicide.

My Facebook feed has been reading like something out of a young adult dystopian novel.

This evening, while half way through my Costco sized bag of tortilla chips (but hey, they are ORGANIC!) I started thinking about the ice bucket challenge. There’s been some criticism of the challenge, mostly of people who are sick of seeing their entire newsfeed full of hard-to-load videos of friends dumping water over their heads. This is fair, especially considering the people who have used the challenge as an excuse to take video of themselves in bikinis. 

But on a serious note, I get the feeling of not wanting to engage. I get wanting to sit on my couch and watch episodes of my favorite TV show streaming on Netflix and zone out. I get wanting to believe that I am only one person, that I am only responsible for myself. 

Hence the eating binge. Maybe if I eat enough I can push down all the feelings of helplessness and hopelessness and fear.

But I realized that the ice bucket challenge offers something unique. Unlike the situation in Ferguson, the murders in Chicago, the disappointing way we treat mental health in our country, the unbearably awful realities in countries whose names and geography are unfamiliar–unlike all of that, the ice bucket challenge is an opportunity to do something. Even if that “doing something” is as simple (or dumb) as dumping water on your head.

When I’m not stuffing my face with M&M’s, I want to do something, ANYTHING to help. And the ice bucket challenge did exactly that.

So I have spent the evening researching how to be helpful in the other problems, too. I don’t think that giving, compassion, prayer, involvement, and kindness are a zero sum game. I don’t think you have to avoid doing the ice bucket challenge because something more important or more devastating is happening somewhere else in the world. I want to believe there is enough room in the world and in our hearts to engage with many issues, to hold the idea that ALS is a horrifying disease and racism is, too, and many of us have the resources to help with both.

Even though it can feel overwhelming. Even though its easier to eat tortilla chips. (I’m sitting in the crumbs with you, friends.)

Warning: what I found isn’t necessarily as easy or sexy as the ice bucket challenge, and it certainly isn’t as viral. Some of the information took some digging to find. But a lot of the ways to get involved don’t involve any money, just some time, some concern, and a bigger belief that what is happening around the world, often to people who may look differently than me, believe differently than me, or speak differently than me, still can matter to me.   

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Some Ways To Help #Ferguson

1. Donate to the Bail and Legal Fund to help citizens who have been arrested.
2. Educate yourself about some of the issues: here
3. Donate to #feedthestudents to make sure school kids are getting enough to eat
4. If you’re white, consider reading some of the articles talking specifically about what white people can do about racism in the United States, like this one or this one

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Some Ways To Engage With What is Happening In Iraq and Syria (ISIS)

1. Change your twitter or Facebook picture to the Arabic letter N, which is the letter drawn on the doors of Christians, marking them to be killed. Join the #WeAreN movement to raise awareness.
2. Sign this petition to try to encourage UN involvement.
3. Write a letter to the editor to raise awareness of the issues in Syria.
4. Give money to one of the many charities providing aid and support for refugees and victims.

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Some Ways To Help End the Stigma of Mental Health Issues
1. Become educated. Check out Bring Change 2 Mind for lots more information and ways to contribute.
2. Don’t talk about suicide, or attempted suicide, as selfish.
3. Check out the suicide prevention lifeline for ways to help those you love, help yourself, and encourage the people around you.

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Some Ways to Help the Ebola Crisis

1. Become educated about the situation and the disease.
2. Give to organizations like Doctor’s Without Borders who are working in Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea to help treat patients with ebola and prevent the disease from spreading farther.

If you’re like me, you may have your doubts about the usefulness of any of these activities. Point taken. But also if you’re like me, doing any of the above is probably more productive than going on a sugar/carb bender or sitting on your couch doing nothing. 

Now that my tortilla chips are gone, I’m springing into action with you. 

And don’t forget to contribute to help find a cure for ALS. (You can check out our Teacher Reader Mom “Post-it note ice bucket challenge” here) 

261755_10150290602379874_2436766_nRachel

Education fathering mothering PARENTING Teaching

The Death of A Child

Five years ago, on the Saturday morning of my first day of winter vacation, I was woken up by a phone call from one of my best teacher friends, Erica. Sobbing into the phone, I could barely make out her words.

“He’s dead. Ashton is dead.”

Ashton, a sixth grade student in our school, had been shot and killed the night before while sitting in an idling car with his father. The spray from the shotgun hit him directly, killing him while critically injuring his father.

Returning to my third grade class two weeks later I knew that I had to provide my students opportunities to grieve their schoolmate and friend, though I had barely processed it myself. I spent most of my two weeks of vacation sitting in a numb hollowness, repeating Erica’s words over and over.

What happened? Ashton’s dead. How? He was shot. What happened? Ashton’s dead. How? He was shot. What happened? Ashton’s dead. How? He was shot.

On the day of the memorial for Ashton our class gathered together to share memories of Ashton. During one of our conversations the students talked about their fears, and how Ashton’s death had made them afraid for their own lives. Then Kelton said, “Why do they keep killing us kids?”

Without hesitating Miles replied, “Yeah, because I wanna know how tall I’m gonna be.”

I can’t tell this story without crying. I can’t type this story without crying.

The meaning and poignancy of Miles words hit home in a new way one year ago when I gave birth to my own son. With his birth I joined the ranks of women all over the world who watch their hearts walk around outside their body.

Becoming a mom took gasoline to the flame of love in my heart.

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When news of Michael Brown’s shooting death in Ferguson, Missouri hit my newsfeed, I knew what I was supposed to do. An unarmed black teenager shot by the police. I’m supposed to shake my head and think, “What a shame.” I’m supposed to like the status updates of my liberal friends who post articles that shed light on the racial tensions present in our country, acted out in the riots that have broken out since Michael’s death. I’m supposed to be outraged.

And then I’m supposed to let it go. Because people don’t want to see that shit in their newsfeeds.

But I can’t let it go.

Because of Ashton. Because of Miles. Because of Michael.

How tall would Michael have become? Where would the aging lines have formed on his face and around his eyes? What songs would he have sung to his children?

I can’t stop thinking about Michael’s mother and the gasoline flame of love she has for her son. The same love that burns in my heart.

What happened? Michael is dead. How? He was killed by the police. What happened? Michael is dead. How? He was killed by the police. What happened? Michael is dead. How? He was killed by the police.

And I think about all the people for whom this news never goes away. I think about all the mothers who aren’t given the option of deciding whether or not to “let it go”. I think about all the children who grow up scared.

“Why do they keep killing us kids?”

I still don’t know how to answer Kelton.

Shouldn’t every child get to see how tall they will be? Doesn’t every mother grieve for her lost child? Isn’t it time we stop killing kids?

261755_10150290602379874_2436766_nRachel

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