Blog Has New Home

Thank you for being a loyal subscriber to my WordPress blog.  My blog has a new home, my website. Email subscriptions have been transferred to the new site and the blog will tweet and post to Facebook, so only WordPress followers need to transfer their subscription.

Not all previous blogs are archived on the new website so this site will remain open, but new postings will be at www.leahslawson.com.

Again, thank you for reading. Please continue to do so and reach out through comments and emails.  I love hearing from you! Screen Shot 2016-03-09 at 6.30.10 PM

Editing: a Lenten Practice

It reveals me to myself.“ I wrote this line in my last blog as I described this liturgical planner with which I’ve entered a complicated relationship.

I also wrote “It’s only January. I haven’t even made it to Lent yet.”

Well, Lent has arrived.in-640516_960_720Wednesday I went to a noon service and received the imposition of the ashes on my forehead. “From dust you came and to dust you shall return,” the priest said to me. Over and over I heard that phrase spoken to every kneeling soul at the altar. It echoed in the sanctuary of wood and stone and now it echoes in my mind and heart.   You are finite, it says. You are one of many; only human, who you are and what you can do and how long you will last are all limited.

That voice seems to be in chorus with the planner. As I struggle with using it, seeing it merge my digital calendar and reflective journal, facing its forcing me out of my denial about who I write in my journal that I want to be and what I actually do every day, I feel the truth bearing down upon me.

I didn’t mean to start this liturgical theme in my blog, but advent brought an anxious waiting, Christmas retold a story, and epiphany began a journey toward something to behold.

It seems a Mystery beyond me is being lived in my story. A wheel-shaped diagram on the inside cover of the book represents the liturgical year of the church. My own story seems to be a wheel within the wheel.

I set myself up last week when I wrote this line…

An epiphany is a moment of pause, a moment of revelation. But the still point of revelation is brief, for we are changed by it and it demands we respond in some way. 

 This made for a nice ending, only I wasn’t thinking particularly about the ‘some way’ in which I would respond. Then came Lent.

Some of theme words on the opening page describing Lent in the Sacred Ordinary Days Planner are self-examine, discipline, prepare, empty, fast, quiet, contemplation, and reflection.

It’s a fitting beginning for Lent: Response. I read yesterday that to ask oneself, “What do I give up for Lent? “ is to shortchange oneself. The better question is what practice will I add to my life, in place of the something I might need to let go, in order to better become who I was created to be.

Oddly, the word ‘edit’ comes to mind. Is that a spiritual practice? It certainly speaks to getting rid of things. The final stage in the writing process, I tell my students, is to re-read your work, to cut out all superfluous words. Where many words are, sin abounds, the Proverbs say. While I know this is true of those of us who talk too much and too often, I’m not sure it applies to essays of AP Lang students, though after reading five or six wordy ones in a row, I’m inclined to think loquaciousness deserves punishment and needs absolution.

Say it as tightly as you can – economy of word – I tell them. The fewer words, the more important the choice of each becomes and the more power each one holds. Editing is both eliminating words and choosing better ones; sometimes it’s putting the words in a different order.

I think about the pages of my life, represented by my journal, my planner and my calendar. Are ‘choice, fewer, and powerful’ the descriptions of the life recorded there? Is the order of things what it should be?  I’m not sure. I fear it lacks power because there are not enough pauses, silences, blank spaces, and careful choices.   Yes, editing is a spiritual practice. A Lenten practice of giving up and replacing, editing the filled spaces and times on that calendar to gain the fewer, deliberative and powerful moments that are born in space and silence.

My Planner: A Love/Hate Relationship

I have a new planner.  A friend of mine found these online and knowing that I was reading Living the Christian Year and trying to live into the liturgical calendar this year,  she thought I might like to try one. I haven’t decided whether to thank her or ‘unfriend’ her.

The first day I loved it! The child whose father owned an office supply store, I had unlimited access to Blue Horse Tablets, #2 Wallace pencils, college-ruled composition notebooks,  and yellow legal pads. I loved fresh paper and new pens.  The teacher, too, loves a clean page on which to write and plan.  Maybe that type of child  becomes a teacher.  I was eager and enthusiastic when I first opened the book.

For the last few years I have used strictly a digital calendar, which I love for many reasons; not the least of which is entering the dentist’s appointment on my phone’s calendar right there in the office. Seconds later that appointment is also on my computer’s calendar. Gone is the small reminder card which once got lost in the black hole of my purse for weeks.  I miss, however, not being able to reflect on the calendar and make notes to myself about what did and did not work.   After I had completely exhausted myself over Christmas one year in the days of a paper calendar, a friend suggested I put a sticky note on next year’s December which read: ELIMINATE ONE THING!  I did. It worked.  I haven’t mailed out a Christmas card since that sticky note got put on December.  I use “old school paper” for my teacher plan book and I write in pencil so I can change easily – which I do often.  I go back and write reflections in colored ink about what works and what doesn’t, what needs more time, or less time.

I thought this new planner would be like that, a place to reflect on my pace of life and note adjustments I needed to make, and a reminder to fuse the practical tasks into the liturgical season. The planner starts the year with a space for writing one’s own rule of life, then each day provides readings from the daily office along with  a list of three projects one would like to accomplish. Underneath the project list is a daily schedule space and a small white space for other notes or thoughts related to the readings or anything else.

This was my first frustration. No way was the book adequate to serve as my journal.  I’m voluble, loquacious, verbose.  For years I’ve kept a black Moleskin journal,  the receptacle of thoughts, prayers, feelings that come tumbling out of my mind. I reflect and ponder and try to make meaning of what is happening in my daily life.  There the words excited, exhausted, afraid, overwhelmed, overjoyed show up.  In those pages is the record of what I felt, perceived, or learned from what happened in my life. Or maybe just a record of what I coped with or survived.

My second pushback was that I’m still going to use my digital calendar – too convenient to give up.

Thirdly, I was trying to fill in those three project boxes every day and complete them in spite of how much might be listed on the daily schedule – transferred from my digital calendar, mind you. I found myself becoming driven by the tyranny of my own list, obsessing over the boxes. I wanted to check those boxes.  The old taskmaster that drives me to accomplishment was rearing his head again.

I was about to give up on the whole thing, thinking it was only a complicated fusion of the calendar and the journal, duplicating what I already have and not serving its own purpose, but  I couldn’t quite let it go.  Hate gave way to love again.

The liturgical day planner is just that, a complicated fusion which represents me. It reveals me to myself.   A calendar alone lets me feel accomplished and productive; a journal tells another truth – driven, sometimes exhausted, afraid, and pensive.  In either book alone, I can deny the other side.

No wonder I love and hate this new book: it forces me to admit that my ‘to do’ list are too long and that I am the author of the list.  Nobody but me is making that unrealistic list.  When I get to the weekend it asks me to reflect on the previous week in terms of mind, body, spirit, home, relationships and work and reset for the next week.  I’m forced every seven days to look back at how my intention (who I say I want to be) matched with how I scheduled my time and energy.   My Moleskin journal and my digital calendar don’t talk to me this way. They don’t ask me to evaluate my schedule or force me to look back at previous pages.  I can continue my dualism in those two separate books.

It’s only January. I haven’t even made it to Lent yet.  I make no promises about my relationship with the liturgical planner for all of 2016.  We are ‘still just dating’ so to speak. A wise friend once told me, “When you feel yourself resisting, lean in. It’s usually what you need.”  I definitely met resistance within myself.   For now, I’m choosing love and leaning into the planner.

Epiphany: Courage, Movement, Attention

If Advent is waiting, then Epiphany is moving.

In December, in the middle of advent, a season of waiting, I wrote in my journal that “it felt like a marathon – which is a kind of waiting in itself.”  If you read my last blog, my advent was anything but the kind of sedentary waiting one does at the hospital or at the airport; rather it was wrap this, deliver that, attend this, visit them, cook this, pick up that.  The days of waiting seemed consumed with movement — all toward Christmas Day, the finish line.

Then the movement stopped. The waiting was over. We celebrated and enjoyed. Finally, after our kids were back at school, we were back at work and the holidays were over, my husband and I begin to dismantle the Christmas tree and all its trimmings.  We found ourselves finishing the task on January 6th. On the liturgical calendar it is Epiphany, a celebration of the Wise Men’s visit to the Christ Child.   They are no longer traveling, following a small star in the sky. Now they see in a human child the Word which called all light into existence.

We are putting ornaments in boxes and rolling up strings of lights. I’m packing up my collections of Santas and Nativity scenes. The live greenery surrounding them and the wreaths in almost every room come down and the dead leaves and branches shed all over the furniture and the floor.  I’m sweeping and and picking up dustpan after dustpan of needles that have fallen from our brittle tree which my husband has now dragged to the front porch. In a fit of New Year’s decluttering and cleaning, I decide to pull every piece of furniture out of the living room, remove the seagrass rug which is dry-rotted on the backside, and rearrange the furniture.

That evening a friend sent me a text with news that a research project she’s worked on during her recent graduate school experience had just been published.  She’d used her own experience with cancer as an impetus to return to school and do this important work. She’s made some courageous and life-altering decisions along the way.  I responded to her text with these words, “You’re an inspiration of where one can be in a few years with courage, movement and attention.”  And then I had my own small epiphany.  Those are the ingredients of transformation: courage, movement and attention.

In the two years prior to my taking this job, my husband’s job had him working nearly two hours away. He was really only home on the weekends. We considered moving. I’d prayed for courage often during those two years, though really not understanding why, as I didn’t recognize  fear in myself at the time. (That lightbulb moment came eventually.) The relocation of our family didn’t happen but change was coming for me in all kinds of ways and the nudge to pray for courage was the beginning of a Divine conversation.

It takes courage to move. Willingness to move a household and family, to make a job change, to get out of ‘stuck’ place, to let go of bitterness, to get out of a tired narrative, to move your mind to think in a new way, to move your body toward what it needs – courage is the fuel, but the body still has to put one foot in front of the other over and over and over: Move until you reach the destination.  The wise men kept traveling, night after night. They watched the sky, their camels plodding on.

This same friend had said to me, “Pay attention to what comes unbidden.”  The context of that quote was my contemplating an out-of-the blue offer to teach again after a twenty year break from the classroom. I’d been doing free-lance devotional writing and researching pursuing a graduate degree. The job I took was a total shift for me, as I’d been a stay-at-home mom for eighteen years. The four years prior to that I’d been in the business world. Way back, twenty two years before, I’d been a classroom teacher.  I’d been longing for freedom from an uncomfortable family situation; my freedom came in the form of a full-time teaching job. Talk about paradox. Sometimes when you arrive at the scene, it looks nothing like what you expected.

The word ‘epiphany’ means a moment when you suddenly see or hear something in a new or clear way. “The lightbulb came on” teachers say, when we see that knowing look on a student’s face. An epiphany is a moment of pause, a moment of revelation. But the still point of revelation is brief, for we are changed by it and it demands we respond in some way.  Epiphany is movement. The Wise Men didn’t stay with the Christ Child, they went home  – by another way.

Several months ago, a friend brought to my attention the James Taylor song, “Home by Another Way” in which Taylor writes, “But Herod’s always out there, he’s got our cards on file / It’s a lead pipe cinch, if we give an inch, old Herod likes to take a mile / It’s best to go home by another way, home by another way.

All of life is transformation. Epiphanies are ours for the asking and seeing – and then responding  -with courage, movement, and attention.

Anxiety and Advent: Between Conception and Delivery

Everybody over the age of twelve seems stressed this time of year.  The students in the high school where I teach are finishing their semester projects and papers, taking final chapter tests and preparing for semester exams next week.  The musicians and the dancers and actors have Christmas concerts, recitals and plays. Though football is done, basketball and indoor track are in full swing and practices follow school everyday.  The teachers are equally busy planning, grading, managing, and trying to make it to the academic finish line of the semester, only to leave school in the afternoon and go Christmas shopping, or home to bake or trim the tree.

Culturally, the ways we celebrate this season are counterintuitive to waiting. We are in Advent; but we are not waiting. We are racing, making list and checking them twice, studying, working, trying to use every available minute to accomplish the most before the deadline arrives.  For the students, it’s next Friday. The pressure is off after that last exam.  For adults, it’s Christmas Day. By then, the shopping, decorating, cooking and entertaining are culminating.

One of my students said this morning, “Sometimes the worrying is worse than the actual thing.”  He’s a pretty smart guy.  One of my school’s most accomplished young men, he is musician, scholar, and athlete:  he has an upcoming concert, is running track, is managing AP classes,  and he’s taking the ACT this weekend. He’s been given the wisdom in the moment to realize that the anxiety of all he is juggling is just that: vaporous dread. The events themselves will occur and he will get through them doing the best he can in the moment he’s got before him. And in a week, it will all be over for him.

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My scholars finishing their 5-week composition projects!

I wonder if Mary, the mother of the Christ child felt this way.  I know she was a teenage Jewish girl in a culture and time unlike modern America, but surely it wasn’t all peaceful waiting.  If she was like every other pregnant woman on planet earth, she felt the anxiety of an impending labor and birth. She must’ve had a “to do” list before the Christ Child was born, gone through the nesting instinct like other pregnant mothers, dreaded the heaviness of the final month and the pain of labor and delivery. She must’ve wondered when and where her labor would start and how long it would take and if she would survive it.  I bet she had a particular way she wanted that saddlebag packed when Joseph loaded her up on that donkey and said they had to go to Bethlehem.

I’ve read countless times the story of the angel appearing to Mary and I know well the words of “The Magnificat” found in The Gospel of Luke chapter 1.  Mary was told she was favored, to not be afraid, that she would be visited by the Holy Spirit and have a baby and what to name him. She celebrated this favor and pronouncement when she visited her cousin Elizabeth who was expecting John the Baptist.  Her famous line, “Be it onto me according to Thy word,” is a breath prayer for all of us who come after her.

Still, she didn’t get a whole lot of detail from the angel (as far as we can read) about the day to day between conception and delivery. She had to live each moment letting the narrative unfold, living in the details, coping with the questions, the anxiety or outright fear, until the day arrived when Jesus was born.  Interestingly, He was with her and in her the whole time.

And so it is with us.

Only we can’t seem to stay in conscious awareness of it so we stress about the details, and worry about the deadlines, and experience the darkness even as we carry the peace of God and the light of the world within us.

Practice Celebration in the Face of Fear

During Thanksgiving holidays, I boarded a plane in Atlanta and headed across the pond to London. Our usual Thanksgiving celebration is to gather extended family and friends from both sides of the family at an ancestral log cabin in rural south Alabama.   Since my husband’s last Navy cruise in 1990,  this year was the first major holiday we had spent apart.  (To his credit, he and our son carried on nicely with hosting duties with some good help from grandmothers and aunts.)

I had already planned the trip before the Paris attacks, and in the aftermath of that, despite the travel alerts that had us all skittish, I was both determined and grateful to go. Our daughter doesn’t finish her studies abroad until later in December and she couldn’t come home to be with us, so it was my job to take home and holiday to her.

We attended a Thanksgiving worship service at St. Paul’s Cathedral with over 2,000 other Americans. We sang all the Thanksgiving hymns familiar to us, were greeted by the American ambassador, and heard a message from a minister currently living in Surrey who is a native Texan.  Though our host were thoroughly British (the ushers wore morning coats!), we Yanks were their guests of honor and their beautiful cathedral was ours for the morning. Security was everywhere outside, metal detectors, armed officers, bag searches –  reminding us of the state of things in the world right now, but inside the church were welcoming smiles, greetings and warm hospitality from our mother countrymen.

My daughter found us a restaurant named Goat that was serving Thanksgiving dinner. We found it delicious irony to celebrate one of our country’s oldest traditions on a site which has housed a dining establishment with the word “goat” in its name for the last 350 years. They got the menu right: turkey, cornbread dressing with cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie. The flannel shirts and cowboy boots and hats of the wait staff, along with the hay bales for seating and drinks with names like “The Dolly Parton”  made with Wild Turkey had us both laughing and wondering about America’s reputation abroad. Alan Jackson, Willie Nelson, and The Band crooned as background music while we dined, and we appreciated the Brits attempts, however comical, at making ‘home’ for us on our holiday.  Even more comical the next morning were the throngs of shoppers at Black Friday sales in London. Who knew? America’s influence abroad!  By mid afternoon, we abandoned the American shopping tradition and took up a British one – a proper tea. For two hours, we sat in a cozy spot, sipped tea and ate cucumber sandwiches and scones, and talked leisurely.

All these traditions, rituals and celebrations, tweaked by time and culture, have me thinking now about the importance of celebration as a practice.  One might argue in the face of the Paris tragedy and now the San Bernardino shootings that celebrations aren’t appropriate, that rituals and traditions seem meaningless.  I beg to differ. Our traditions ground us; they help us remember and they teach our young.  Our liturgies anchor us to words when we are at a loss for our own. Our celebrations, whether a worship service,  a turkey and dressing meal, a barn dance, or a Black Friday sale, remind us to be grateful, to find the good, to focus on it, to point others to it.

Yes, there is a time to grieve. There are times for prudence, caution, silence and inactivity.  The writer of Ecclesiastes reminds us in the third chapter that “To everything there is a season and a time to every purpose under heaven.” Weep, laugh, mourn, and dance  -all four verbs in the same sentence.   There is a time to celebrate.

We are entering into one of the most celebratory times of the year.  Ritual and tradition and opportunities to celebrate abound everywhere. I wrote a few weeks ago about love casting out fear.  What is celebration but a ritual of love?  We acknowledge our blessings with those whom we share our lives. We drive out fear every time we celebrate.

This week at my school the kindergarteners presented a Christmas program that has been virtually the same for about twenty years. The students and teachers alike love it because the songs are familiar and the speaking parts don’t change. The same three tiny kings walk the aisle with their gifts for the Christ Child.  The camel and the dove sing their songs and the shepherds hold their crooks and the angels make their proclamations.  The juniors and the seniors can still recite the lines they spoke when they were the five year old shepherds, angels, stable animals and holy family. We will close the week with a chapel of the Service of Nine Lessons and Carols. Our French teacher prepares this every year with teachers reading the lessons and students singing the ancient hymns while she plays the organ for us.  We look forward to it, maybe more than we realize, because it is the same every year.

The 24 hours cycles of news, mostly bad lately, will rob us of joy and cause us to fear if we let them. I choose to celebrate this season, to drive out fear and pessimism with acts of gratitude and celebration, to participate in every ritual and tradition that I know of that causes me to remember the blessings of this life and the love that I have been given.

Fear and ritual. Football and religion.

I wrote last week trying to figure out my own response to a day when the world felt chaotic and frightening.  The following morning, my husband and I went to a college football game at my alma mater – Auburn University. That is unusual in itself if you know us at all.  I married a graduate of the University of Alabama.  Unless you hide under a rock or choose to avoid all mention of football in America, you have know the tension that football season can bring to such a household.  Since we moved back to Alabama after our Navy days, we have primarily attended his football games with his family and business associates.

Last week, before the Parisians were terrorized and everywhere I turned people were talking about Syrian refugees, friends invited my son, my only Auburn fan in the family, and me to attend the Auburn-Georgia game in Auburn.  He was unavailable, so these generous, gracious friends extended it to my husband who promised not  to smirk when Auburn fumbled or smile when Georgia scored.  We joke that college football is a religion in our state; and well, there’s a little truth in every joke. There’s probably some wisdom in not marrying outside the “faith” too.

So on Saturday morning my husband and I drove across town to our friend’s house to load up for a trip to “the loveliest village on the Plains”.  As we started toward their car, my friends said, “Let’s circle up and say a prayer for your daughter and all the American students abroad and their parents.”  There we stood, the four of us,  her husband and mine both veterans, clasping our hands and talking to God in their kitchen about what was happening on the other side of the world.  Four children, almost all grown between us, who have to launch lives of their own and lead in the future – what do we do for them, what can we say to them?  We are frightened ourselves and we’re supposed to be the grown-ups.  So we turn to prayer; it’s a ritual cultivated over a lifetime and the older we get the less we know for sure and the more we need Divine Love.

The day was as beautiful as a fall football Saturday in the South can possibly be -clear blue sky, leaves turning, jacket weather.  As we walked onto campus a nostalgic feeling flooded over me. I grew up coming here. From the time I was nine years old until I married my husband, I came to every home football game at Auburn, sitting in the same seats where my sister and her family sit today. I spent four years and a summer studying there. The comfort of the familiar was palpable.

Inside the stadium, the pregame ritual was much like it was thirty years ago when I was in school. The eagle makes his flight around the stadium while we all yell “War Eagle”. The ROTC students line the field holding the flags of all fifty states, the colors are presented and the Auburn band plays the national anthem. The announcer called for a moment of silence for the Parisians.  I look at the men dressed in USN uniforms and thank God mine came home to me in 1991.  This week, the band played “God Bless America”. People spontaneously began to sing.

Though we Auburn fans like to joke about our campus being the Holy Land and every football game, especially the Iron Bowl against Alabama, is a metaphorical battle of good vs. evil, there was a moment in the stadium Saturday that I was aware of the sacred space I inhabited.  Sacred because of the memories of love, family, friends, and shared celebrations on the campus. Sacred because I grew up there and many people invested in me as a human being along the way.  Sacred because before anything else we, like many other similar gatherings across the nation, were remembering our French friends and all others in harm’s way  and singing and reminding ourselves of our blessings as a community of Americans.  That’s what rituals do. They remind us.  When we are at a loss for words, we ‘go through the motions’ to remind ourselves what is real.

We lost the game, but it didn’t matter all that much to me. I saw two of my nieces  and the daughter of a dear friend at this game, and each girl I hugged a little tighter because my own daughter was so far away and so recently in Paris.

A few days later, she sent me a text: My roommates and I are eating risotto with broccoli and red velvet cake and listening to Christmas music while cutting snowflakes and paper chains with a mini Christmas tree.  It’s not even Thanksgiving, which these girls  plan to celebrate with American family and friends next week in London, but what are they doing a few days after the Paris attack? Lighting tiny Christmas trees, cutting the red and green strips of construction paper and gluing together the paper chains of their kindergarten years, making snowflakes, and listening to Christmas music. Ritual – going through the motions to remind ourselves of what is real.

A Mom and a Teacher’s Response to Fear and Terror

I was out taking a walk Friday afternoon when a friend’s text asked me if I was watching the news?  “Multiple terrorist bombs in Paris,” it read.

My daughter is studying abroad this semester in London, only she doesn’t stay in London much on weekends. She doesn’t have Friday classes so she’s been to eight countries in the last twelve weeks. Paris, France was one of those destinations just a few weeks ago.   My friends know she is somewhere abroad and immediately became concerned.  Numerous texts begin to come in and I was glad to report that my child was safe in London this weekend.  At least in the moment I felt gladness and safety.  When we think about the randomness of what happened in Paris, does anybody feel safe anywhere?

I did send her a message to make her aware of what was going on across the channel.  It had flashed through my mind that it could easily be London or New York, or anywhere else within moments or months.  She had seven friends in the city of Paris that night.  Eventually we learned they were all safe; but I couldn’t help but fear for them and empathize with what those parents, stateside like me, must be feeling in the first few hours after the news broke.

As the hours passed and the tragedy unfolded on my TV screen, my body became increasingly wound up on the  inside while being fatigued at the same time outwardly.  I noticed an unsettled feeling in my stomach, a weakness in my legs, almost a magnetic pull toward something that I couldn’t locate.  I couldn’t seem to get a deep breath in or swallow very well.  Finally I recognized the sensations as being  familiar in a “been here before” kind of way.  My body remembered something.   When else had I felt like this, I asked myself.

And then it hit me. In 1991.  My husband was a navy flyer, stationed in the Red Sea during the 1991 Gulf War.  When the first bombs were dropped, I was driving home to Virginia Beach from my job in Norfolk, listening on the radio. CNN was covering it live, Bernard Shaw reporting from under a desk.

I pulled in the driveway and was met by a neighbor who insisted I come over to their house and watch the news with them.  As the hours passed, I found myself with my legs not only crossed but twisted around each other and wound so tightly they hurt when I tried to unfold them.  I had no script for what was happening in front of my eyes.  The Navy had all kinds of protocol and I’d been through my obligatory ‘spouses’ school’ to learn about how notifications occurred, but nobody foresaw and thus trained us wives on how we should watch a war our husbands were fighting happen live on television during the dinner hour.  It would be a few days before the military and the media could get in sync on reporting downed aircraft before families were notified.

This was the familiar feeling I felt Friday night. My body recalled it before my mind did. I’m watching the news tell us during the dinner hour that college-aged adults at a rock concert in Paris are being summarily executed while my own child sits a few hundred miles away in another of the world’s major cities.  There are numerous students just like her in Paris and the other major cities of Europe.  Geraldo Rivera’s daughter, whom he talked to live on television, is one of them. Studying in Paris for the semester, she was at the soccer game when the explosion occurred.

It was just too close. Hearing him tell her that he had a plane standing by to come get her the next morning but the airspace was closed, I broke into tears.   My daughter was a first grader, six-years-old, when 9/11 happened. She processed that though the eyes of her parents, which meant that her daddy would take care of her and our family.  He was strong and brave, like most daddies of six-year-olds, and she needn’t worry.   What do we tell her now?  She is not a little girl. She’s a grown woman living temporarily on the other side of the Atlantic and we cannot shield her or protect her.

What do I tell my students, not yet to adulthood, about the world they are soon to enter?

The fact of the matter is that the control we think we have when they are with us, under our roofs, in our arms, in our classrooms, is but an illusion. None of us have the power of life and death in our hands and none of us can really ever keep our children safe, though we are designed to die trying. The challenge I find before me is how to instill courage without denying reality.  My daughter isn’t six. She is twenty. My students are seventeen.   And the world is not a safe place.

But we can’t retreat in fear and let evil have its way, so I will trust in Divine Love and I’ll give it to them, as far as I am empowered to do so. 1 John 4:8 says, “Perfect love cast out all fear.”  Words, flimsy as they feel sometimes, can communicate love.  The smallest deeds towards one another can translate love. It doesn’t seem like much, but it’s a place to start today. A thing to give our attention to in the midst of confusion and tragedy. Drive out fear by loving someone a little better today.

A Good Question

Where do you write?”

It was a surprising question from a guest at a party in my home.

It shouldn’t have surprised me. I write. I even sometimes call myself a writer.   I’ve worked with this woman for seven years. She knows this about me, reads my blog, and owns a copy of my book. Why did her question catch me so off guard?

I proceeded to explain that if it was morning I wrote at my dining room table because I love the morning light on the golden walls of that room. If the weather is mild, I sit on a back patio by a small fountain, where the sound of the trickling water and the green walls of trees and shrubs surround me. That spot, in fact, is where I wrote my devotional book a few years ago, and I showed her the exact chair where I sat on Saturday and Sunday afternoons, pulling together the week’s worth of handwritten notes and scribbles and somehow turning then into seven devotionals a week in order to meet a tight deadline.

It took only seconds to answer her, but long after the guests were gone and the last dish put away, the question still lingered in my mind.   Though in the moment I was serving as hostess, and day-to-day this person signs my paycheck as a teacher, her question spoke identity to me. She sees me as a writer.

Where do you write does two things for me. It acknowledges my identity as a writer and my need for space and time to work. The question validates writing as work, real work that must be done in a particular space at a certain point in time. CFOs have offices; teachers have classrooms; surgeons have operating rooms. Writers have… desks, tables, laptops, coffee shops… patios?

The inward response of surprise I felt when she posed her question, along with the lightness in my spirit I felt afterwards tells me two things as well. I’ve begun to believe it myself, that I am made to write, that it is who I am; but the surprise tells me that I have yet to conceive that others see me that way. The satisfaction in having the very question posed tells me I long for that – to be seen by others as a writer.

It’s all fine and good to say one should write because she has things to express or one should write whether anyone reads it or not (there are some valid reasons for that – not everything I write is to be public) – but at the end of the day, writing, though extremely solitary in the doing, is not solitary at all. It’s a conversation. I am writing TO somebody, maybe to several “somebodies”. Writing is relational. It’s my side of the topic and I need a reader to ‘talk back’. Whether she ever literally speaks to me about what I’ve written is not the point, but I need to know that someone nods and smiles and underlines and cries and argues as she reads my words – the same way I do when I read my favorite writers who may never know I exist.

The first week of class in AP Language and Composition we cover the rhetorical triangle: speaker, audience, and subject. Without the audience, the triangle collapses. We can’t write into nothingness. You, the reader, must be there for us, in our mind’s eye and ear. We shape our sentences and choose our words for you.

From the first methods class in composition as an undergraduate, I was taught that a good writing teacher writes with her students. I believed it. I still believe it. How can I teach what I do not know and do? I have always found this extremely difficult, though, perhaps because I took it too literally. While my students write, the temptation is too strong to be reading the last thing they wrote or conferencing with one who needs help. The marking of papers is never done!

But I do write with my students – daily, weekly, and regularly. I struggle with blank page, the distractions, the frustrations of revisions and edits, and the balancing of more urgent things vying for my time just like they do.  I don’t write in the classroom while they write, but I do write with them – in my dining room and on my patio and in the red leather chair in the den.   It was an excellent question: Where do you write?

Interrupt the Process

The last two weeks of school have been unusual and hectic. First was homecoming week, in which the days are themed and the students are in costume and there’s a powder puff football game and skit practice, float building, door decorating, and a parade. That week was followed by a Monday holiday and then testing – PSAT and Practice ACT for two days with community service thrown in the mix. Even though class must go on, a realist knows that not much gets done after hours, and students’ attention is not at its best in class.

You can only imagine my students’ frustration when in the middle of that chaotic two weeks, I assigned a timed rhetorical analysis essay in class. Some were resolute and resigned; others were complaining; but none was optimistic. Still, I pushed on, handing out the passage to be analyzed and the ‘practice AP’ paper upon which I make them write.

The room went quiet and then they dug in. Fifteen minutes went by as they read and annotated the passage. Another five passed as they began to formulate ideas and outline how they might tackle their essays. Then suddenly with no warning, I stopped them and assigned them a partner or group with which to meet.

This technique, compliments of my APSI instructor, Valerie Stevenson, is called Interrupt the Process.   Here is what it looked like:

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IMG_1467The relief on their faces was obvious, even though they didn’t know where I was going or what the outcome of this assignment would be. They didn’t yet know I wouldn’t take them up for a grade when class was over. All they knew was that in this moment, they got to collaborate with a friend, get another’s perspective, share the burden and the stress of this difficult writing assignment, and not have to face it alone.

This look on their faces was priceless to me, and then even more valuable were the conversations I began hearing once they pulled their desks together and began talking and exchanging ideas. That’s when I grabbed my phone and snapped the pictures. I wasn’t even sure why at the time I was doing it, though I figured I’d feature them on my blog somewhere.

Later that afternoon, as the blog post began to write itself in my mind, I realized the importance of “Interrupt the Process” as a metaphor in my own life. Where would I be without community? When life gets crazy or difficult, I need a friend to ‘interrupt the process’; to speak up and give me a new perspective, or reach out and tell my that the idea I’ve come up with is actually not bad! Both intervention and validation come from the mouth of another. When I’m stuck in something difficult, I need to turn my chair and my face toward a friend and get help.

The value of the technique in my writing class is to give the students practice in timed essay writing, insuring they take the practice seriously, yet not turn every writing assignment into an assessment. It also enables them to learn analysis techniques from their friends and helps them see in new ways and gain multiple perspectives.

I had surgery a few years back and remarked to a friend a day or two after that I was trying not to take the pain medicine that the doctor had prescribed for 10 days post-op. “Why not?” she asked. “They aren’t going to give you badge for not taking it.”   (She has her doctorate in education!) “Doctors prescribe medicine for a specific length of time after surgery because people generally need it for that length of time,” she said.   Why was I treating recovery from surgery like some test on which I would be scored according to my teeth-gritting endurance?

Most days don’t end with a gold star by your name. Most of them are ‘just practicing’. Most of life is not for a grade. By design, it is intended and necessary to “interrupt the process” and get all the help that we can.

Accepting What Is Can Set You Free

One of the parts of my job is serving as a mentor to new faculty hires in the upper school. For eighteen years I have been hanging around this place as a parent, room mother, PTO volunteer, board member and most recently, a teacher. If anyone should know the school culture, I should.; and hopefully, I help our new hires navigate the first year of working in it. As is true in any good teaching relationship, though, the learning goes both ways. My new teachers teach me while I am formally supposed to be leading them.

Last week we sat down at lunch to chat about some of the ups and downs of their first two months on the job. One of the teachers began to talk about how a certain class, who had been difficult to train under her preferred classroom style. She and I had talked earlier in the year about strategies to deal with the group, about some of their history as a class before she came to this school, and why they might be challenging her in ways her other students at another grade level were not.

Somewhere in her reporting that things were going better with this group now, she made the statement, “I think I’ve begun to accept what is.” As soon as she said it, I had the ‘lightbulb in my head” experience. Accepting what is in front of you as a teacher is the most liberating and creative-unleashing experience, even if there is initial grief in that acceptance. We all want students who are trained to attentiveness and show up prepared for our classes every day. We all want students who learned and sufficiently practiced all skills from the previous year so that they are ready for the curriculum we are prepared to lead them through. But…they are real people, and so was the teacher that had last year, and real people have problems and bad habits, and sometimes just life happening to them. And what shows up in our classroom is not always what we wish it to be.

“Accepting what is” is one of those phrases that sounds like compromise but has freedom on the other side of it. As soon as the teacher said it, I responded that this realization would carry over into her parenting, marriage, and most any other relationship in life.

We had one child for whom “time out” was not effective at all. Why? Because he is a natural introvert who loved nothing better than being alone in his room studying what made his ceiling fan turn or the light switches come on. If that got boring, he proceeded to take the back off his toilet and study the inner workings of the float valve. The other child rarely needed more than the threat of a few minutes of solitude. Gregarious and fun-loving, she would self-correct almost immediately rather than be banished from the group.

I had to rethink technique constantly in parenting as my two children, a boy and a girl, an introvert and an extrovert, were two completely different creatures. Moving from frustration to the truth -accepting what is in front of you – can set you free.

Am I saying give up or give in? Absolutely not. I’m still goal-oriented in my classroom. I train toward what I want. I keep the standards high. But I surrender the ideal – which is the theories they taught us in education courses – for the real, those flawed human beings who show up in front of me every day. They do the same for me, I hope; and then the creativity begins.

This Page Is Intentionally Left Blank

I sat outside on my patio on a recent Saturday morning grateful for the day before me. The sky was blue; the temperature, mild.  The sweltering Alabama summer is finally leaving and fall is on the way.  It wasn’t just climate and season, however, that had me exuberant that morning.  It was the blank day before me.   Not one thing – nothing -was on my calendar.  This is rare in my life, even for the weekends. I made a list in my journal of things I might do – cook soup for the freezer, do some much-needed yard work, catch up on some grading from school – but I was careful to list them as options.  Choices, I labeled them, not a “to-do list”.

A couple of years ago, I wrote about having margins in our lives.  Mainly confessing to my own weakness of over-scheduling and fearing I’d passed on the vice to at least one of my offspring, I was thinking about the need to have unscheduled time in a day, leaving room for the unexpected crisis and spontaneous opportunity.  Margins – blank space on the page –  are not enough anymore.  Sometimes whole pages need to be blank.

It’s good for the body and the soul to wake up and have nothing and no one demanding your presence, your attention, your labor, or your time.  To be able to lose yourself in a project, a book, a conversation, or a nap with no regard for an alarm ringing or a reminder pop-up is not just luxury but essential to well-being.  Too often, we relegate these kind of days only to vacations, yet the more I try to honor my creative life, the more I realize that unstructured time is critical to the creative process.

Like children who need unstructured time for play, we need blank space too – to move from one thing to the next in exploration and wonder.  Jesus chastised his disciples when they tried to exclude the little children from coming to him.  In fact, he took the children into his arms and blessed them and told us all to receive the kingdom of God as children do.  Could it be that living in the Imago Dei means leaving blank pages on which we can create?

For most of us, it isn’t that our every waking moment is filled with gainful employment or as students with scholastic endeavors. It’s often our entertainment and leisure that is over scheduled. Ballgames, gatherings with friends, volunteer positions and church work – it’s all good stuff and it has its place in our lives. Connection and community are as important as solitude and creativity.  But I fear it’s the latter that take a backseat for most of us.  Why is that?

Do we fear the blank day the way my students fear the blank page when writing? Despite the fear, not once at the end of the class hour, has a student turned in a paper with nothing on it. They may not write a masterpiece, but they always get words on the page and are better for it.

Sometimes in legal documents, manuals, or standardized tests such as the ACT and SAT, the words “THIS PAGE IS INTENTIONALLY LEFT BLANK” appear.   This serves to alert the reader that there has been no printing error but rather the page is there to separate content or hold a space or  prevent working ahead or even cheating on those timed test.  It’s a useful phrase.

We can and should create; we need to wander around and choose rather than check off a ‘To Do List” every day. We need to write on our calendars occasionally: “THIS PAGE IS INTENTIONALLY LEFT BLANK.”

Honor the Edge

Different teacher. Different class. Same word. 

Last week I wrote  about honoring the transitions, inspired by a phrase I heard in a yoga class that week.  This week, in a different studio with another teacher, I heard a  similar phrase: Honor the Edge.  The teacher went on to say that the whole class was going to be about edges.  Turns out my whole week was going to be about them.

To honor the edge in yoga is to stretch to the point of discomfort, but not to the point of actual pain, a ‘good hurt’ as the teacher described it.  You want to go to the edge, to the place where the muscle is stretching and working and pushing the boundaries of what it normally does for you.  You stay there, breathing into that place, trying to create more space and elasticity.

I couldn’t help but think of this phrase when I read Donna Lamberti’s blog  about remaining silent and letting her students stumble and be frustrated because they’d refused to follow directions on a project.  She disciplined herself not to step in and rescue them, going for the larger life lessons and seizing the opportunity to help them grow.

I watched  “honoring the edge” play out again at my school with a student who struggled on an initial assignment in a rigorous course.   Because of a scheduling problem this student is taking a class normally reserved for students an entire year older, thus she finds herself sitting among students with an extra full year of knowledge, practice and experience in that subject. She has heretofore been a straight A student, but the rigor of this class is challenging her and she is not having the instant success that she, her parents, and her previous teachers are accustomed to seeing, rather she’s playing ‘catch up’ to her peers for a few weeks or months.   This challenge actually should be expected and is a good thing…if you can stand the stretch at the edge.

To push to a point of discomfort, not to pain or shame, just to a bit of frustration of confusion is usually where the learning takes place.  Problem is, as parents and teachers, we sometimes have a hard time letting our children or our students stay in their discomfort. For that matter, we probably don’t allow ourselves to stay in it either.

My own child, a college junior studying abroad this semester, decided to buy herself a train ticket, make a hostel reservation, and travel alone to a coastal town in her host country for a weekend adventure.  I was quite proud of her as I would have never done this at her age, but at the same also worried about her traveling alone in a foreign country, staying in a hostel with strangers, and navigating her way around a town where she knew no one.  When she arrived there the first day, she sent me a few texts indicating things were not quite as she expected to find them.  I immediately sent back that if she felt unsafe or the hostel was unclean that she should get on the train and go right back to her flat in the city.  She said it was neither unsafe or unsanitary, “just weird”, which told me she was experiencing the discomfort and stretch of traveling alone in a strange place, going to a restaurant by herself, figuring out what to do and settling in to the idea of sharing it only with her journal and her camera.  Still, she didn’t sound like her usual confident happy self and my mother’s heart wanted to tell her to go back to the comfort of the city she has become accustomed to, even though she was clearly in no danger.  My next move was to go online and start researching the destination.  I had the idea that I could could send her links of where to go, what to do.  I’d stay in constant communication with her so she wouldn’t feel lonely.  I was going to try to have the experience with her if she stayed.

Then I caught myself.  This was a “growth mindset” moment for her and I was trying to prevent it.  I need to be available only if she asks my advice, but she needs to figure out whether to stay or go, to stick it out or hop the first train back to familiarity.   The confidence or the regret needs to be hers.  Turns out, she stayed, pushed through the first day and night of uncharted territory,  went to museums, galleries, and dinner alone and the second night sent me a text saying she was 180 degrees from where she was the previous day. Text messages couldn’t mask her confident tone.  She honored the edge, breathed into the stretch, and grew stronger for it.

Last year our faculty read Carol Dweck’s Mindset as a summer read. It made me want a ‘do over’ for many days of both parenting and teaching that are already behind me, but it also inspired me to stay in the moments of discomfort, lean into resistance, breath into the stretch, and see what it can teach me – and to do that for my own children and my students.    Like on my yoga mat, the stretching and staying at the edges in life create the strength and flexibility I need to face the next challenge.

Honor the Transitions

Recently in a new yoga class, I heard the teacher say, ‘Honor the transitions.’  She went on to say how important it is to be mindful  of how one moves from one pose to the next.  This is a time for your body to ‘reset’ itself after intense stretching or working of muscles on one side before you move to the other. The transition is important for preventing injury and gaining maximum benefit from the poses both before and after it.

That short sentence, Honor the Transitions,  got me thinking about transitions beyond the yoga mat, mainly because they are all around me right now.  My own child, a junior in college, is transitioning to another country for studying abroad this semester.  A close friend just sent her firstborn off to college. Another friend’s child has changed schools.  My students and I are moving from summer to fall,  from holidays to school days.

As I think about transitions,  I remember a coupIe of years ago I had a young teacher completing her internship experience with me.  Her university sent a supervisor out to observe her on a few occasions.  She was a natural in the classroom and had a well-prepared lesson, so about the only critique he had for her after the first observation was this:  Work on your transitions.   He went on to explain, and I agreed with him completely, that this is the hardest part of classroom management for an inexperienced teacher. Nothing in the textbooks can teach you how to do this; you must get in front of the students and practice.  You learn how to do the transitions in the classroom with the students.    New teachers have the tendency to either move too quickly through them, not anticipating the time the students need to shift from one activity to the next,  or they fail to give specific directions opening the door for chaos to erupt.

Here the classroom and the yoga mat are reflecting life back to me.  Transitions should be approached with time, space, and intent, recognizing what was before and what is to come.  They are also messy –  in and out of the classroom. Even with the best of plans, the transitions sometimes yield up confusion and turmoil,  at least temporarily.The place where we most feel the loss of control is in the transition points. Only the oldest, wisest among us are really good at them and that’s because they’ve learned from  experiences – many of those difficult ones.

If you’ve walked a child into kindergarten or moved one into a dorm room, you know the conflicting emotions of grieving an ending and celebrating a beginning at the same time. If you have bought car insurance for a sixteen-year-old or a corsage for a prom date, you know the feeling of ‘first time’ and ‘end of an era’ at the same time.   Those rites of passage are worth attention, not just for the pictures to post to social media; but to pause in gratitude, awe, and humility at what has gone before and to prepare for what is to come.

Both as mother and teacher, I’ve barreled through many transitions without time for myself or those around me to segue from one thing to the next and I’ve entered ‘the next thing’ too often without reflecting upon what I left behind. My lesson this week from my classroom and my yoga mat:  Honor the transitions.

So What Happens When…You Do Hurt Them?

So what happens when…. this was the subject line of an email I received a few days after I wrote my last blog post.  I smiled. I knew before I opened the emailed what the rest of it would say: …You do hurt them?   My smile was not because hurting anyone is pleasant or funny, but because of the inevitability of it.  When you interact with other people all day long, somewhere in all those words somebody will get hurt occasionally.

My colleague went on to explain that she’d refused to let a kid off the hook in answering a question in the beginning days of school.  She assumed, like most of us  high school teachers would, that he was apathetic and unprepared.   Later she learned that he had “serious academic issues –  some processing problems,”  and now she feels “awful!”

How did I answer her?

You just do what you are doing.

Buried in her question was most of my answer.  She had already recognized what she had done.  She’s self-aware, a reflective person by nature, and willing to grow and change as a professional.  She had the presence of mind to think about what she had done and put a name to it.  To recognize is to identify, to acknowledge, to accept, to admit.

Secondly, she confessed.  In reaching out to me, in telling another person, “Hey, I messed up,” she is finding solidarity and accountability. Those two things can carry a person through most anything.   Confession to another person means somebody to feel my pain and  share my regret because they’ve had this experience too and somebody to help me lessen my chances of messing up again. Telling our stories has tremendous power both to heal ourselves and help each other.

Thirdly,  I told her to start again with awareness. We are given a sunrise every morning.  Mercy is extended to us upon waking.  She could, the very next day, just be kind and supportive to that student. He will in time see that she genuinely cares for him and her ‘push’ wasn’t personal. The beauty of the Gospel is that even our messes are redeemed and used for good purposes in the lives of others and ourselves.

Some occasions call for apologies, not an easy thing coming from the teacher to the student. We mostly expect them going in the other direction.  But there is tremendous power in that act to create a lasting relationship with a student. To show yourself as a flawed human being, to show them what humility looks like, to recognize the dignity of their feelings, to show them that power doesn’t exempt us from continuing to learn out of our own frustrations and failures,  those may be some of the best lessons we ever teach them.

Then, I told her to let it go.  In starting again, mindful of what you have learned, don’t waste time and energy and emotion on the guilt.  Nothing creative comes out of guilt and we need creative teachers in our classrooms.

And lastly,  don’t be surprised when you mess up again.  Pride is the problem when we are continually shocked at ourselves for imperfection.   If you’re like the rest of the human race, you’ll make mistakes and you’ll hurt someone with your words once in awhile.  When you do, start with step one: recognition… and repeat the above process.