I noticed that it’s been a while since I’ve posted. There is a good reason for that.
I’ve been writing a book – something that I’ve wanted to do for quite some time. I didn’t think I had 60,000 words to put in print that when put together said something of value.
But I was wrong. I had a number of people in my life who believe that I could. Lucky for me. (Maybe I’ll write a book about ignoring your negative inner voice, or a book about ignoring fear especially when the worst thing that will happen is that you write a book that no one buys. Isn’t personal growth worth something these days?)
I can thank my editor, Todd Brison, for pushing me to the end of this project. It was he that put my absence on my blog in this metaphoric term – I was building a rocket. Why yes, I did! I have built this enormous engine and have been testing it using up lots of fuel to be sure that it will launch.
Several of my previous blogs have been re-engineered. Halfway through the project, I realized that it was taking on a specific shape – one that I didn’t actually set out to design. But surely, Todd saw it for what it was. (Does that make the author a little too close to the forest to see the trees?). I think I used every word, phrase, and even figurative language to talk about this idea of resilience without using that word, but without a doubt, that’s what I wrote about.
I’m back to writing again. Mostly in my black journal. I love the feel of a good pen on great paper. It’s inspiring. Once the ideas take form, then using the computer helps me to fly through the writing.
I’m grateful for those who believed in me when I couldn’t see it myself. With a little prayer and a lot of hustle, I hope you’ll be seeing my title soon.
“If God was here he’d tell you to your face, Man, you’re some kinda sinner”
Tesla had it right…and, so wrong.
Recently, a new acquaintance made an observation about human behavior that was a little curious. I had to go see it for myself.
We have a quiet little place we keep our recreational vehicle along the Wabash River. The entrance into the campground is adjacent to a railroad. As you cross the main highway headed to the campground there are two large signs – one of which is in the middle of the lane – warning motorists that the road is closed ahead. Literally, the signs read, “Road Closed at Railroad Tracks”. That’s pretty specific, so I knew we’d be able to get into the campground, but wouldn’t be able to get into the nearest town using that road.
We proceeded on down and weren’t surprised at the lack of traffic heading in the opposite direction as we neared our entrance. Just feet from the entrance to the park, there were large barricades across the entire road, with yet another sign indicating closure. You could easily see why. All of the asphalt between the tracks that make it impossible for a vehicle to cross the tracks had been removed in anticipation of new tracks to be laid in the coming days. Huge gaping holes between the tracks made it absolutely impossible to cross. Maybe a horse could. A pedestrian. A dog. Not a car or truck.
Yet, car after car approached slowly, stopped, and just stared at the signs and the tracks looking for any way to get around that closure. My husband and I watched this procession utterly amused. These drivers must have not believed that the signs were for them. And, perhaps they also believed there was a way around the signs.
And, there it is: the human insistence that this couldn’t possibly be the end of the road with no option for moving forward.
To be persistent, to be willing to find a way around an obstacle – even the abstract kind – is considered a positive trait. Americans seem to be noted for this kind of dogged tenacity. There is a place for that, for sure, but occasionally, we are confronted with a clear message that we should not go any further. The consequences of forcing such a thing could be devastating, yet we seem to try anyway.
I have reached this “Road Closed” sign several times in my life and attempted to ignore it. Yes, I’m stubborn. That puts me in situations that weren’t so much fun. I would argue that most of the time, ignoring the signs that you need to change course probably is not life-changing, just pretty darned annoying.
I think of the time I played a little pick-up game on the basketball court with a 10-year-old. Other than how slow I was and maybe how much my breathing was labored, it wasn’t until that little twist in the knee that the idea of playing basketball with someone 50 years my junior probably wasn’t the smartest thing I’ve ever done. But, I ignored that “thing” in my left knee for days. I eventually took some ibuprofen, then more, then added ice to the aching knee. It might have been two years before I finally saw a doctor. By that time, I needed surgery. You would think that constant pain was a sure sign that it wasn’t going to get better.
And, that wasn’t the first time. A few years before, I was hurrying to my car after the day’s work with a computer bag on one shoulder. A slight run in wedged heels wasn’t my brightest moment, but I had done it many times before! The fall tore my shoulder so badly that I couldn’t open doors with that arm. Even getting dressed was a challenge. I put my arm out to break my fall and caused a rip in the rotator cuff. I gave that six months before I complained to a doctor and found myself in surgery that time, too. You would figure that not being able to open a door was a sure sign that things were bad.
Relationships are the hardest. We try to convince ourselves that the signs are not there. That maybe we are imagining the worst, maybe seeing things that really aren’t there. It couldn’t be true – he said he loved me! Do I have to tell you the gory details? I remember a book entitled “He’s Just Not That Into You” that began as an episode of “Sex in the City”. The book was wildly popular, so there was no surprise the movie got a lot of billing. (Rotten Tomatoes gave it a 41% for insipid stereotyping.) Why so much attention? Because we routinely miss these signs as well.
I retired in January of 2015 but continued to work part-time for a local university. I truly liked that job, but without a Ph.D. I was no longer useful to them. I’m glad that I wasn’t fired, but the signs were there. “Long, haired freaky people need not apply” And, I’m about as opposite a hippy or a freak (whatever that means) as I can get, but I had to respect the sign.
That led me to another adventure where I found my alternative education experience useful. But, there were subtle signs that this was not my place, nor my tribe. Sometimes the signs are hard to read, yet I felt them deeply. Maybe it wasn’t so much that I wasn’t supposed to be there, but rather I was supposed to be somewhere else.
Like, retired!! And, that brings me to what I think Tesla got wrong.
God IS here, and there are plenty of signs for sure. And, while God knows we are sinners, He is a God of grace and mercy. The problem is that we aren’t so full of anything but ourselves.
I forgot that He had better plans for me. I was watching (reading) the wrong signs. He gave me the beautiful relationships and experience of helping people better their lives – something that has always been important to me and fills my heart to overflowing. But meanwhile, I wasn’t spending as much time with my husband who was anxiously waiting for me to quit working so much so we could spend this amazing time of our lives together.
It used to be an invective we shouted to anyone that we thought was a ‘fraidy cat.
This is me especially when I think about chickens. Dead chickens in meat trays with wiggly pink meat – not the characters that poke their beaks into the dirt and ruffle their feathers when you scoot them out from under your feet.
The live ones are interesting. Colorful, most of them. Loud, if they’re male. Darned adorable, if a tiny pale yellow fluff-ball when brand spankin’ new.
I had a chance to experience them in a way that this Midwesterner hasn’t ever when I visited Key West. They are everywhere. No, I mean it! We were greeted with huge roosters in living color at the airport. They were smart enough to avoid the roads. The volume of traffic was enough to encourage them to stay off the streets, but that meant the restaurants, stores, and sidewalks were filled with them.
One of my favorite Cuban restaurants had an entire dynasty in the outdoor portion of the restaurant. Of course, this just added to the sense of authenticity. (Does Cuba have a lot of chickens?? For whatever reason, I think it might.)
I was leary of the cocks. Ornery little peckers.
Still, I have always had a poultry bias. Yes, I admit it. I think they are dirty. Nothing says “wet market” like bird poop everywhere mixed with moulted feathers and a constant cheaping, clucking, crowing, and all the other chicken chatter. It’s not a long leap to the wet, wiggly pink flesh that makes me want to urp.
I should have learned to cook when I was growing up, but I didn’t have much opportunity. By the time I turned 13, we were in a new house 600 miles from anything familiar. Mom’s alcoholism was on the verge of being out of control and, well…you know…thirteen. It’s a really hard year for the parents. We moved into a slightly smaller house – downsizing since it was just the three of us. With sibling four out of the nest, there was no need for all those rooms to clean. The new house had a galley kitchen that didn’t allow for more than two people that liked each other to work at the same time. So, I was sh*t out of luck for learning to cook from that point on. My role was dishwasher. I was pretty good at it, if I may say so.
Chickens. I like them fried, grilled, in casseroles, even kabobs are good. Just not raw.
Having spent most of my college career in one dorm or another, it wasn’t until the winter of 1978 that I moved into a slum of a duplex with my new husband. The place was filthy but, well-ventilated thanks to the 1-inch gap under the front door where I could watch vermin take refuge inside. The kitchen base cabinets had rotted floors, so I avoided putting anything that wasn’t rat or roach poison inside. Needless to say, we had a very small budget for food. We were pretty excited about the market that opened up near our duplex that might have been considered today’s precursor to Costco. Buying in bulk is still hard on a budget, but we were careful. The meat was a godsend. It was cheap, and lucky for us I could get animal protein on our budget. I was hungry for something other than hamburgers and Kraft macaroni and cheese dinners so I bought a couple of whole chickens with the intent to cut them up and put them in the freezer.
She could hear me crying and cursing at the top of my lungs. Between grinding that damn cartilage with my dull knife, and rushing to the sink to hurl, my neighbor, a tall husky woman of German descent, started beating on the door. Oh, great. Just one more thing to make this already-crappy day, crappier.
God bless her soul! I don’t know if she is still alive, but if she is, I hope God has blessed her richly in this life for doing the one singularly Christian thing anyone can do: take the knife away!
To this day, I still struggle with raw chicken, but I’ve learned a life-hack (Imma gonna let that pun go, too) that makes it a little easier: Defrost the meat about half way, then cut with a recently honed knife — quickly.
That wasn’t the only mishap with poultry. It was on Thanksgiving Day of 1982, with a ragtag group of new military friends from 3 or 4 branches of the service in my tiny little Seattle apartment, that I asked a Marine to slice up the turkey while I finished getting a few things on the tables. (What he didn’t know was that I simply had no idea where to start on a project like that and hoped desperately he did or at least was brave enough to venture in. He was a Marine, after all. Don’t we send them in first???)
It got really quiet in the apartment. Usually that’s not a good thing. I looked towards the kitchen to investigate. Ken (not his real name) was pulling a bag of body parts out of the cavity and asking, “Are these supposed to still be in here?”
These stories and too many others have served as fodder for my family’s sick sense of humor. I have literally dozens upon dozens of chicken things from coffee cups to exquisitely quilted wall hangings with chickens and roosters all over them. I’m certain not a birthday or a Christmas has not served as an opportunity to present me with the latest in feathered finery. Frankly, I’m surprised there isn’t a coop in the backyard!
What I Know Now
Has nothing to do with chickens.
It has everything to do with not taking yourself too seriously. I love that my family has sent me chickens for lo these many years. The stories are amusing, if not a bit self-effacing. I mean, really. How can you demand much shock and awe when you wield a knife in one hand and a barf bag in the other?
I identify with those silly chickens. I fear things I don’t understand. I’m insufferable when my ideas are overbaked. I can get my feathers ruffled on occasion. However, it is moments like these that it is important to enjoy because they are the ones that make you a real person. Accepting your foibles and your fumbles develops a sense of humility. They level the playing field making you approachable and accessible to the people who need you the most.
It was gorgeous. A midnight blue with tiny sparkles, a stretchy fabric that hugged my curves and revealed my shoulders. It was greatly marked down on a Black Friday in a mall I didn’t want to be in spending money that I honestly didn’t have, but I felt so feminine in that dress and I knew my husband would like it, too. I bought it and dreamed about where I would wear it, where we would go.
We had two small children at the time. Life was good, but it was also hard. We scrimped and saved so that we could give our kids experiences. Things, too, that would make their growing up special. We didn’t often splurge on us because of it. Please understand that we have no regrets. We have great memories of their years in our home.
But, there weren’t as many of those moments when it was just us. Alone, spending time looking adoringly into each other’s eyes. Holding hands, me stealing glances of his beautiful soft blue eyes. Him, caressing my umber tresses, still long at this point in my life.
We decided that we would go down to the city for an overnight stay. We chose a date in December during my Christmas break from school. We would stay at a lovely hotel downtown (I still rave about that bed!!) and have dinner at the revolving restaurant atop a sky-scraping hotel. We planned for a carriage ride with white horses around the city’s circle.
The date was set and the kids had a place to stay overnight. Now, to figure out what he would wear!
The 160 dollar savings quickly dissolved into a very expensive date. First, Ben didn’t have a suit. He had a few sport coats and assorted khaki trousers. He had retired from the Air Force without much of a need for fancy clothes, so there was no black suit. His shirts were probably two decades old and his ties were mostly cast off from his father. No clothing maven, this dude! I saw it as an opportunity to begin adding nicer clothing to his ragtag collection. He didn’t feel quite the same about it as I did, trust me. But, he was a good sport so off to a local men’s shop for a good black suit. To which we added a new white button-down shirt, a fresh red tie, socks and undies. Oh, and shoes. Yes, I know. He owned the tacky Florsheim’s that the military foists on their members. And so, he needed new shoes, too.
It didn’t stop there. It was winter and we both needed appropriate winter coats to go with such finery. And, I needed, well…foundation garments to support my middle-aged frame not much more than a half dozen years from delivering two babies. (Ladies with a few curves will understand this.) And, shoes. And, jewelry. And, a trip to the salon.
By the time we spent the money on the clothes, the hotel, the dinner, and the carriage ride, my $40 dollar dress cost us well over two grand!
What I Know Now
I wouldn’t have traded that special evening for all the tea in China, but I did learn a lesson. That time alone could have easily happened wearing our ordinary clothes, eating at a local restaurant and spending a quiet night at home – for a LOT less. The point of the night was to be together childfree for a span of 24 hours! All the trappings were completely unnecessary.
Why are the lessons we learn about money always some of the hardest lessons? And, why do we have to learn them over and over?
Especially today, when our cell phones bring us dozens of advertisements by the hour via social media, our emails, when we watch videos or read content, we must be ever watchful that we don’t get reeled into the latest great sale. Most of what we have serves us just fine, so that cute doggie bed, the make-up that you thought you needed, the shoes, the weight loss supplement – all those…you are not better with them. Yet, we keep clicking away in search of the next thing that will bring a revelation to our lives or at least a little momentary thrill.
Moreover, for every site you click on and every piece of information you surrender to these “businesses”, you sell pieces of your life away. Digital cookies allow websites to cater to your tastes, tempting you with more buying, but more concerning is that you open yourself to being hacked potentially having your identity stolen.
Consider a few of these questions before you lay out your hard-earned cash:
Is it a need or a want?
How will it improve my life?
Is there anything that I already have that I could use instead?
What will happen if I don’t buy this item? (Consider other opportunities “lost”. Did it irreparably change your life because you didn’t buy it?)
Do I actually have the money?
Am I in debt now and how will this make that worse?
Do I have room for this item, or is my house filled to the max with items that I haven’t continued to use?
If I die tomorrow, will this item be a legacy to my life in a positive way? Will my children who have to clean up after me, be glad that I bought it or be annoyed that it is one more thing to throw out?
Can I borrow the item? Or, do I really need one for myself?
Why do I really need this? Is this an emotional purchase?
Does this fit with my values? Is it in my budgeted priorities?
What else could I do with that amount of money that is better for me?
Twenty-five years from now when you begin thinking about retirement, you will wish you had every dollar you spent on these frivolous things back in your savings account. For every dollar you spend, you fail to save for true needs and wants and for that lifestyle you will desperately need as you get older.
I don’t mean something stupid like evading the police in a car chase or jumping off a cliff. I’m talking about something that is out of character for you like speaking in public if you are an introvert, or quitting your job before you have something else lined up?
Taking risks sometimes means you must overcome the fear of the unknown.
I had a chance to do something I’ve never done before. I wanted to snorkel. I had seen all those amazing pictures and videos of a beautiful blue sky on a calm sunny day. The water, clear and azure, with barely a ripple on the surface and colorful fish of different shapes and sizes wending in and out of coral.
I could see myself doing this in spite of the fact that I don’t like to put my face in the water. Somewhere over the years, I’ve developed a strong disinclination to be underwater. It is unexplainable. There are no traumatic events that I can account for this, but it is one of the reasons I don’t join my husband when he swims laps at the local community pool. I don’t like the waves in my face and it seems about the time I come up for air one of those waves ends up in my mouth while I’m trying to breathe. I just don’t make a very good fish.
But an opportunity arose on a recent trip to Florida. A snorkeling trip had been part of the plan for a spring break trip before the pandemic of 2020 ended that opportunity. That means this has been in my head for a long time. I knew that it would be a challenge but I felt I was up for it. Besides, I have conquered other things in my life that at least for me began with a little trepidation.
When I was young – probably 10 or 11 – my father, then a lineman for the Commonwealth Edison in the Chicago suburbs, allowed me to go up in one of the buckets they use to reach the top of utility poles. (That’s something I am absolutely sure our litigious society doesn’t allow anymore!) I was petrified when the lineman engaged the bucket and took us up above the vehicles in the parking lot. I crouched down inside the bucket and begged to be taken back down. I remember being really upset with myself for being such a coward and talked my father into another ride when the opportunity came up a few years later. This time the lineman allowed me to work the controls. I’m pretty sure he was sorry that he did! I commanded that bucket like a pro – well, maybe a pro-stuntman or something.
I’ve known this about myself for all these years. I feel great anxiety the first time that I do anything remotely out of my comfort zone. I break out in rashes, sweat profusely, have stomach aches and gut problems for days afterward due to the stress. Then I dig in and try the thing.
I typically don’t do all that well – at least by my standards, but then I’m ready to do it again. Not necessarily fully willing, but mostly fully armed with a little knowledge.
So it has gone with a lifetime of trying things that I fear. Speaking in public. I know that doesn’t make sense since I’m a classroom teacher, but most people don’t know that the first day of class is always a panicky time for me. Riding a motorcycle. I have the burns on my legs to prove this one. Water skiing. I’ve lost two pairs of eyeglasses in the process. Dancing in public. A few adult beverages helped me overcome that. Joining the Navy. Taking calculus classes long after college. Sailing by myself on our Sunfish sailboat.
I’ve done these things and more because I refused to be held back by my own fears. How, though, you might ask? There is plenty of advice about how to overcome fears. Some of them are interesting – like hypnosis. Some of them obvious – like breathing through the moment.
A rough start…and finish
One site on the Internet suggested that you get calm. That was very difficult for me on our snorkeling trip. Remember that I had a very specific vision in my head about what the experience would be like. When we went out we were more than a 30-minute boat ride away from the shoreline. When we dropped anchor we were in 8 – 10 feet of deep water and not really near the reef. It was windy with two-foot swells. I tried to visualize what I was about to do and this entire set-up was completely different than that. My panic was strong and pushing hard on me. I tried to breathe deeply. I donned the vest. Put the mask on my head. I hate hats, so this wasn’t my favorite, but I dealt with it, but the snorkel in my mouth created instant panic. I spit it out. Mind you, I’m still on the boat!
Another site recommended that I use my brain in a different way. It suggested that I employ the logical side to problem solve. My husband was a diver, a strong swimmer, knew water safety, and as a former instructor knew that there was nothing to worry about. He reminded me that I was going to be in saltwater and I was not going to sink. I would be very buoyant. I tried my best to engage the logical side of my brain to accommodate all of this information. I was going to be just fine. My fingers tingled. I was familiar with that physical sign. It told me that I was not breathing deeply enough to oxygenate my body or my brain. I also knew that the adrenaline that was strongly coursing through my veins was taking priority over the oxygen my brain needed to problem solve calmly.
I focused on how much fun everyone else was having. I focused on the gorgeous blue sky, that I love boats and the sea. I focused on the lure of the mimosa awaiting me after we left the reef!
And still, I continued to be anxious. I let everyone else go ahead of me. I inched down the ladder to face the swells. The water was cool, but not completely uncomfortable – just not the soothing warmth of our hot tub. I got in and immediately got a shot of saltwater down my tube. I didn’t have enough breath to blow it out so I ended up swallowing it and then more. I tried to swim out to my husband just a few feet in front of me. I tried to turn so that my back was to the incoming waves but was pushed into the boat. I couldn’t clear my mask.
And, then I began to hyperventilate. I could no longer get a full breath as hard as I tried to slow my breathing.
The boat captain asked if I needed help. Ben came closer to calm me down and move me closer to the step. I lied. “I’m fine. Just give me a minute! I’ll be fine”. But I just wasn’t. I was getting angry and that never helps because being that angry usually makes me cry.
The next thing I know his first mate is hauling me into the boat and helping me to slow my breathing.
I was so terribly embarrassed. I felt bad for my husband who should have been out on that reef having the time of his life, but he was worried for me. Worse, I wouldn’t let him help me. I really messed it up.
So, goes the first attempt at these scary things that I do. And, this is precisely why I had reserved the “Double Dip” package that allowed us two opportunities to dive that morning.
Once we motored over to the second spot, I told Ben to go have fun and leave me to figure this out for myself. I donned my gangly gear, waited for the other snorkelers to depart the boat, and then I began my descent down the ladder. It took me two or three tries, but I focused on breathing. I knew what to expect – not that serene travel brochure set-up but got real with the business of getting in, clearing my mask, and breathing through the snorkel. It was clunky. The first mate kept an eagle eye on me, and me on her. I ventured away from the boat. I tried to put my mask face down and then swim forward. This produced panic, so I just tried to relax in the water and enjoy the buoyancy. I swam about 20 feet from the boat, tried one more time with the mask down, then felt it was time to go back.
Trying again must happen
I am ready to go again. I have talked with several who have said that I tried it the hard way and suggested quieter, less wavy locations. I have not conquered my fear totally, but I’m making progress.
I will prevail. I will prevail.
What fear do you need to conquer?
Truly, there are a number of great approaches to successfully overcoming fears, but for me, I had to be good with a rough first attempt. I had to be okay with embarrassing myself. All of that had to come before the breathing, the visualizing, the thinking logically about the effort, and all other manner of mindfulness necessary to overriding panic.
I rewarded myself with not one, not two, but three mimosas. Oh, yes, I walked off that boat just fine, and I needed a nap after we returned.
My next risk-taking project is to drive my husband’s big Kubota tractor. Watch out world!
I received a newsletter from a missionary friend who is studying at a Massachusetts seminary. I know Aaron wouldn’t mind that I write about Jesus or even borrow his thought in his newsletter. (He called me brilliant…what a nice guy!!)
Aaron’s main point is this concern: the ratio between input and action for most modern Christians is an abysmal commentary on our passion for Christ.
Aaron says that in our age where we have a huge amount of information available to us that the action we take based on that information is increasingly and shockingly low. Today, we have not just the Bible to inform our knowledge of God and God’s will, but we have an endless number of books, podcasts, sermons – both in person and via audio, subscriptions to automatic feeds daily and weekly of the interpreted Bible.
One would think we are smarter because of it. One would think our actions as Christians would reflect this knowledge.
However, I think the main problem is information overload. Maybe this reticence to act is more about the brain (and maybe the heart) being overwhelmed with too much information. I talk a little bit about our brains ability to take in information in this article. But, here we have not just a cognitive dilemma but moral and ethical dilemma.
Today is Easter 2021. What does that mean for the Christian?
Think about three days ago. Good Friday. Jesus was betrayed by his own people and brutalized in unthinkable ways and though he was as much God as man, he could have said that we just weren’t worth all this. The Evil and sin that were perpetrated on Jesus on that day should have been enough for Him to say, “Forget it. I’m outta here.”
But He didn’t.
He suffered for each one of us – believer or notl.
He took action based on one simple thing. He wanted us to be with Him in Heaven. So He took the unimaginable brutality against his human body anyway, suffering for each one of us.
And, yet what do any one of us do who are believers? You know as well as I do. And, I am ashamed. I’m ashamed that I sit comfortably near my Bible which has grown dusty over the last few weeks in favor of a few snippets of podcasts or websites, a Bible verse here or there and a sermon once a week claiming that I stay in the Word. Claiming that I stay close to my Savior with a few quick prayers. Claiming that I follow His will as I use a stray verse to uplift another believer.
I am convicted.
Maybe the way out is less information. Maybe the way to revitalize my passion for Christ is to keep it simple. A daily read in my physical Bible – a primary document that goes right to the Source. A study of a topic or one of a chapter. Maybe I need to get my journal back out and keep track of my understandings as I read, the applications of the reading and the prayers for those I love.
That’s an action I can take today. I ache for my Savior. I want to be closer to my Jesus and to feel His presence. And so I will. I hastily bring this to an end because I have to get ready for Easter service!
I’ve noticed something strange lately. I’ve decided it is a byproduct of the pandemic. It’s an aggression – sometimes a passive-aggressive reaction, too – toward rejection of community.
Think about it. If you turned down someone’s invitation prior to the pandemic, most people accepted it and moved on. The assumption, perhaps, was that you were busy. Because of our isolation in the last year, the assumption is that you have no reason to avoid a Zoom meeting or whatever opportunity you are turning down. In fact, you must have nothing better to do.
The last year has provided some of us an opportunity to find a certain peace in the disengagement. The quiet and the slower pace has allowed us to see that we truly don’t need to be plugged in all the time and it’s allowed us time to truly figure out what matters.
I don’t know about other people but I’m not sitting around watching hours of TV or movies. I’m not even really doing something that is considered to be hobby-ish or leisure activity. I’ve actually been very busy and very productive! So, imagine my surprise this week when I met with an overly assertive response to the fact that an 8-hour Zoom conference was not my main priority of the day. (I mean other than the fact that sitting in front of a screen for 8 hours isn’t my idea of fun any day…) I honestly had more important priorities for that time. Then when I made the decision to cancel another day-long conference, I was surprised at the lack of acknowledgement at all.
So here’s the problem. I’ve reached the point in my life that if YOUR plans for my time don’t meet with MY priorities, I don’t engage in that activity.
The problem isn’t mine. The problem is yours. No apology is necessary.
No, I don’t regret that I got a BSW – a social work degree. It’s what I’m good at. I wanted that. I don’t regret that I chose to add a license to teach Language Arts and work at a school for at-risk student later on. I did it well.
But, my journey is not unusual for a woman…unfortunately.
As a girl, I didn’t sketch flowers and hearts; I penciled out floor plans and home elevations. I never learned until my late twenties that I might have been good at architecture because I have a knack for design. Nobody bothered to encourage that. I did give it a moment’s thought after I left the Navy and wanted to go back to school. Ann Arbor has a wonderful architecture school, and it wasn’t too far away.
But I didn’t go. I hate math.
Let me explain.
I knew early on that I wasn’t moving as fast as the class in our math lessons by 4th grade. I was good in music, loved spelling and reading, but math…. Why wouldn’t those numbers stay in place on the page? One minute it was this, the next, something else. It made me frustrated to hear I was wrong, wrong, wrong, and wrong again.
By that summer I was riding my bike into town for math tutoring. I remember the look on Mr. Bundy’s face in 5th grade. I knew he was already ticked he had to teach me math. My heart withered whenever he looked at me. I was struggling but trying very hard. He told the others that he would “allow” them to read Snowbound when they finished this certain section. I never got to read it. I felt left out and became more discouraged.
I still don’t like Mr. Bundy.
I managed to get through to 8th or 9th grade when THE lone teacher that ever gave a damn about whether I learned math or not became my teacher. Mr. Smith made it seem fun. He was encouraging. He created teams where we competed with a partner. I’m guessing as a teacher he partnered us up with other students that weren’t too far out of our talent range. Because that’s how Rowena Edwards, the dear girl, became one of my best friends. I think I made ground that year. I even considered that Biology might be within my intellectual reach.
Then there was Geometry. God help me! That was also the year, my boyfriend gave me mono. The teacher had decided just to move me on. I’m not sure he ever answered my questions, nor did I think he tried to wake me when mono hit the hardest. So that class was a bust.
Somehow, I managed to pass my SAT and go on to college. I didn’t need a lot of math for my BSW and squeaked by my classes with C’s. The teacher in my finite math class forced me to sit in front because he said most women were just too dumb to sit anywhere else in his class. In his opinion, I should stay home and make babies. I seethed.
Here’s what I learned. I was too dumb for math, and likely not bright enough for much. Maybe that guy was right. I should just find a husband and be done with it. Except I didn’t want that. I wasn’t interested in babies. I didn’t want to stay at home – I wanted to see the world! I ached to do something interesting and fulfilling. I wanted to be busy and fruitful.
I joined the Navy when I realized during my senior year that, at least in central Missouri, nobody was hiring social workers to work with middle schoolers in small groups and in individual counseling, or to work with parents. Silly me – I was ahead of my times.
After 2 ½ years in Seattle, I was offered a “path to Captain” if I would step into Space Operations. As a woman in the early 80’s, opportunities weren’t plentiful for something like that so I jumped at the chance. My detailer wrote me orders to school in Colorado, then on to Naval Space Surveillance in Dahlgren, Virginia. I was pretty excited. School went well. (Not the least of which included a new love interest who lasted another 36 years!). The work in Virginia was interesting.
I got a call from my detailer not long after I arrived in Virginia. She said that she had been reviewing my college transcript and in order for me to go to the Space Operations School in Monterey, I would have to have 2 5-hour classes in calculus and a physics class. My heart sank.
Instant fear set in. I held my breath throughout the rest of the phone call and when she hung up, I burst into tears. When I held that diploma in my hand, I thought I was safely away from having to mess with math ever again.
I was sick to my stomach. I gave into the feelings and reeled for a day or so. The following Monday, I drove over to the local junior college and told her my story. I told the nice lady that I was starting over. She needed to treat me like I’d never met a number a day in my life. She was so terribly kind. I had no idea how I was going to do this crazy thing, but I just didn’t feel like I had a choice.
I wasn’t going home.
She loaded me up with 5 or 6 math workbooks and sent me out the door with a hug and good luck. Lady, you have no idea how much this kid’s gonna need it.
I cleared a space in one of my spare rooms in the town house I lived in. Set up a good light, lots of sharp pencils and BIG erasers. I treated it like a second job. I arose an hour early every morning Monday through Friday, put on the coffee pot and worked on math until I had to shower and get out the door for work. The first book went pretty well. It was familiar stuff and it made me feel good to reinforce the basics. The second book began to get a little harder. Clearly this was information that I kept missing as I grew older and as I avoided classes, or I just didn’t understand it and the teacher just simply moved on. But, I persisted until I understood each lesson.
Occasionally, I would spend Saturday’s reviewing the week’s work and noting where there were weak spots. Then came the third book, really diving into Algebra. Things began to grind down and I knew I needed some outside help. The advantage of working for a space agency is that it is crawling with engineers, so I mustered up my courage, swallowed my pride and sashayed down to the coffee mess where I walked up to a crowd of engineers and said, “I need a math tutor. Anybody interested?” That bunch of guys was like talking to a dozen different Einstein’s all at once. Smart, funny, but so big-hearted! When I would get stuck on a lesson, I’d head down to the mess with my workbooks. They would ask me to tell them what I was doing, like I was teaching them. When I got stuck, they would ask questions that would help me see where in the procedure I had gone wrong. Mostly, they went my pace. And, critically, they were patient and encouraging. I think they wanted me to succeed as badly as I wanted this!
I had about 5 months to prepare for the first Calculus class. It was challenging, but I never felt completely over my head. Somehow, when I got confused, I would stick with it until I figured it out. I got an A.
And, I got an A on the 2nd of the Calculus classes as well!
I ended up leaving the Navy before I could go on to the Physics class, but I’m absolutely sure that I would have been fine. I truly believe that even now.
If you’ve stuck with me this far, you are probably someone who feels the same way about math – or maybe it’s words that cause you trouble. Either way, if you’ve read this far, you want to know the secrets.
In looking back, what people tell you, what you believe about those words, and finally, what you believe about yourself matters. I had come to believe that I was too stupid for numbers and math procedures. I had come to believe that I wouldn’t amount to much because of it. Just a dumb girl. If you are a teacher, be careful what you say, and be careful what your non-verbs speak to your tender charges. If you are the one who believes these things, you MUST learn to speak kindly to yourself – especially if no one else will.
I had something to motivate me. A career option was a strong motivator. Motivation matters. Someone whose self-image and self-esteem are damaged will not be motivated. I was also a bit prideful – early on that hurt me because I refused to ask questions when I needed to go slower than others. Later, it motivated me because I was not going home in shame.
I treated learning like a second job. I was religious about my schoolwork and refused to let things distract me from it.
I learned to ask for help from people whom I knew had the skill to help me.
I worked hard to make it happen. I had to go slow, but I never quit.
Persistence, humility, utilizing resources, taking opportunities as they came, staying focused on the goal and understanding what doors would open by accomplishing the goal all helped.
Fast forward three and half decades, I was chatting with my brother who is an engineer. I told him a little bit of this story. He just kept looking at me, his head cocked and a knowing grin. He told me that he had trouble with math.
Our dad had trouble with math.
I sat blinking the swell of tears in my eyes. All three of us are dyslexic. I think I always knew. Even letters get messed up for me, but numbers create instant anxiety.
I asked him how either of them made it through school. How did either of them make it so successfully in their starting engineering business?
6. Here’s the last secret: go slow and check numbers multiple times.
In retrospect, I admit that I’m still angry that it was just assumed I should just stay home and make babies. What a bunch of lies perpetrated on generations of women. It’s called gender bias. But still, I can look back on a life well-lived. I believe that I’ve lived my life purposefully. So, no regrets. As a teacher and a mother, I believe my story will help others who feel confused, intimated and embarrassed.
I hope my story gives you hope. And, in the meantime, here’s a <hug>!
Ever wonder about why bad things happen to you? You’re pretty sure you didn’t do anything to precipitate the event but still you’re in this situation that seems untenable. People are hard against you. You feel no matter how good your ideas are they are not just shot down, they are appropriated by others as their own. Rumors. Lies. Isolation. Plots to ruin you.
After a while it is easy to join the chorus of naysayers. You begin to think, “They’re right. I’m not all that. I don’t deserve better.” Maybe a pity party sets in. Then, you’re shut down.
You’ve shut yourself down.
Let me tell you something. You aren’t special. Yep. Know why? Because this happens to every single one of us.
These times will always be with us. The negative people will never change. They will never see you in any different light. Events that slow you down will continue to occur. Remember that flat tire that Friday night in the pouring rain just before your date with that cute chick? Or, the credit card that was stolen? You say they got your identity, too? What about the heater that went out on the coldest day of the year? That job loss or passed over for promotion? The failed relationship. And all those opportunities you weren’t ready for.
Welcome to the human condition.
But, there’s a difference between those who plow through these circumstances and come out smelling like a rose on the other side and those who get buried in them. Want to know what it is?
Focus, the ability to face failure, and unfailing optimism.
These mindsets or attitudes toward the challenges you face are critical to whether or not you just make it through or you triumph. Let’s take a look at these three.
Take a look at the sports greats that have made it into our popular conscience by their amazing abilities to achieve as they do. Like him or not, consider Tom Brady. Jim Gray, author of Talking to GOATS: The moments you remember and the stories you never heard, says that Brady has literally focused on two things: being the best athlete in his sport and being the best husband, father, and son he can be. That’s it. If it isn’t about football or his family, it simply doesn’t get his attention. Considering he’s just won his 6th Super Bowl at 43, we should sit up a bit a pay attention to that.
I teach Humanities at a high school for adults who want their high school diplomas. I hear constantly about how hard it is to get their work done. I usually try to engage in some kind of problem-solving conversation with them. Unfailingly, older adults tell me that life gets in the way of getting their work done: Kids with no boundaries and not enough to do. Employers who call at the last minute and request another shift. Cars and appliances that break down at inconvenient times (when is it ever convenient?) Fatigue. Nonstop. I get it: Brady has staff. Most of us don’t, so it’s extra important that we fight to maintain boundaries and plan to keep the little stuff little.
The younger generation invariably tells me that friends with no boundaries, cell phones and games come before their schoolwork. And they defend their right to be interrupted by these things!
I do an imagery exercise with some. Imagine what your life looks like with the job of your dreams and the ability to meet responsibilities. You are working 40 hours a week, taking care of your health (exercising and cooking fresh food at home) and taking care of those tasks like maintenance on the house, paying bills, and walking the dog. Now, tell me where you have time for endless video games, constant scrolling on social media, and people in your life with no boundaries.
Most who do this exercise with me understand that there isn’t time for these time and soul sucks. Then I ask them why they aren’t living life NOW like the one they want to have?
There. I said it. It’s your choice where you put your attention.
In the 80’s, Steven Covey made a powerful statement when he showed his audience what happens when you do all your little things first and then try to do your most important, time consuming projects afterward. It is a visual that you will never forget. On a table, he had two large containers. In one, he poured in sand representing the little things that take up most of our day, then medium-sized rocks, but when he tried to add the big rocks last, they wouldn’t fit. In the second container, he put the big rocks first, then the smaller rocks and finally, he poured the sand which filled in between all the larger rocks. All of this fit neatly in the container. A powerful metaphor for ensuring that the important things you need to focus on are done first in your day.
What are your big rocks? Why aren’t they getting your attention first in your day?
“A person who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.” Albert Einstein.
Seriously! It’s just that simple. If you don’t try, you won’t fail, but you won’t succeed either. Have you ever wondered why we are so risk-averse? Well, yes! Failing is embarrassing, but rarely fatal. I’ll be the first to acknowledge that there may have been (or are now) people in your life who were quick to knock you down when something didn’t go right or simply left you with the feeling that you shouldn’t bother trying anything or convinced you that you won’t amount to anything. Just as problematic, there may not have been the cheerleaders you needed just at the right time to encourage you. Not all of us are raised in a Brady Bunch-like home. That leaves it up to us to develop the grit necessary to forge courageously in the face of the fear of failure.
Frankly, most of the trepidation we experience about doing something we might fail at is wasted emotion. Most of the time. All those other times, there is a handy lesson available for us to learn.
Do you seriously believe that some people are so good at what they do that they never fail? I think you might want to follow Tiger Woods for that line of thinking. I’m betting he’d tell you differently. In spite of his very public failures, he kept pushing forward. He is the original comeback king! After several back surgeries and a not-so-flattering personal scandal or two, 2019 was his year winning his fifth PGA Master’s title scoring 13 under par. And, he was 43 years old at the time of his last Master’s, but hey, don’t read anything into either of those facts. Yes, I imagine Tiger has staff, too.
Still, you don’t get to use that as your excuse. Get up and keep trying. Keep pushing forward. This is the time to ask yourself: What is the worse thing that is going to happen?
This is probably the point I should discuss the importance of one other attitude or mindset that is critical: Unfailing Optimism
No, I don’t mean that you should become a Pollyanna. And, frankly, you’d likely find a few haters, if you did. But, an unfailing sense of hope that you CAN do this is absolutely necessary. Remember the imagery exercise I mentioned earlier? You really must see the end point to get to the end point. You really need to believe that it can happen, that you deserve it, and that you have the ability to get “there”. Wherever “there” is for you.
I ask my students to write about how people maintain hope when things are tough. We discuss the tools we have within ourselves to push against the seemingly impossible. Character traits such as never letting an opportunity pass by, having empathy for those around us, being responsible and accountable, having initiative are all traits that can be developed. But also one’s sense of faith in a higher power has immeasurable benefits. There are countless studies in the power of faith as well as positive thinking that can push us forward.
However, there are also people and events that spur us on. I call these catalysts. By definition in the field of chemistry, a catalyst is something that produces a change in another chemical without itself being consumed or changed. In everyday situations, a mentor can be a catalyst because they are capable of producing change in another. I asked my students to think of catalysts in their lives that have helped propel them forward in a positive way. I’ve never known a true mentor to be less than an enthusiastic cheerleader for helping another see their potential and rise to meet it. They do this because of the belief in the ability of the other person to get “there”. They are inveterate positive thinkers and vision-makers.
There are also events in your life that become catalysts for change as well. Growing up with an extreme situation may be enough to convince you not to live like that. A death of a loved one, catastrophes like a home burning to the ground, abuse or violence against you – are all events that can profoundly change you. For some, these kinds of catalyst can tow you under, but not always. Sometimes they are the very push you need to move forward.
I’m convinced every day that God put my husband in my life as a catalyst to create change in my life that I might not otherwise would have had the wherewithal to create on my own. As a ACOA, I know my weaknesses, and I believe that God put people – catalysts – in my life to define what my life should – and should not – look like. Coupled with that handsome cheerleader in my life, I developed less fear in the face of failure, more focus on what is important, and all that allowed the little bit of the Pollyanna in me – there, I said it – emerge.
Do you remember the character Edith Ann played by Lilly Tomlin on Laugh-in in the 70’s? She used to tell a story from a 5-year old’s perspective and end with “And, that’s the truthhhhhhh!” Turning that “th” into a big raspberry sound.
In the summer, I love to sit on my back deck, tinkling the ice in my tea glass, wearing a floppy hat to shade my eyes while I survey the wildlife in my backyard. I enjoy the myriad of birds – their colors, different shirts and songs, and their busyness. I sit amidst the umbrella of trees and plants and the arbor on my deck hidden in dappled shade where I’m just able to hear the fountain pouring out its liquid measure.
We have many (maybe too many) unabashed four-legged creatures that – when it’s quiet of human-generated noise – dare to dart here and there to steal a sunflower seed or to hide under the canopy of the wildness of my backyard landscaping. I imagine that those fidgety chipmunks probably are watching me, too. Maybe wondering the same thing: What in the Sam Hill ARE you doing up (down) there?
Even later in the day, when the sky is wrapped in shades of peaches and roses, I swirl my bourbon, waiting for the bats to take charge of the sky above the deck. I love how the white barn at the neighbors loses some of its angularity. The goats begin to make their trek back to the safety of their lean-to. Maybe a light shines from within where our neighbor has gone down to ensure they have water for the night or to throw feed in their buckets. The kids cry in anticipation. The crickets, the frogs and cicadas begin to own the night song, slowly but, then deafeningly.
I love this noise. It’s my white noise against the background of that Rolodex in my head – the summary of my day in all its impressions on my mind, the to-do’s that didn’t get crossed off which are left for me to wonder, if, indeed, they should have even been on the list in the first place.
I didn’t have this opportunity raising my children and forging a full-time career. And, what a shame. There might have been so, so many things I would have done differently. So, though while I choose not to live with regrets, I am a woman who continually learns. I will not let another day pass without these moments of observation and reflection.