As the days grow shorter, I’ve begun to notice the lights in the homes on my drive home in the dark. There are so many kinds. The pretty Christmas lights this time of year make me smile. Some outdoor lights accent a home just so, making you feel welcome, even if you don’t know the people who live there. But most lights seem ugly and harsh. Many farm lights, high up on telephone poles, have that yellowish tint of a bug light; they may be ugly, but I grew up in the country and know what a godsend those REA lights are, a shield holding back the blackness over a tiny oasis. The light from a TV is depressing when it’s the only light coming from a house. But the worst are the soul-sucking fluorescents, blue and unnatural.
Most of the lights from the homes I drive by are so ugly, I think, because they are so artificial. We were meant to sleep when it’s dark. It seems like the only legitimate ability we should have to stave off the inevitable night is the light of a fire, which in addition to its gifts of light and warmth, also gives our tribe reason to band together.
I recently read an ex-seafarer say that “a single light bulb on a small ship can be seen from miles away at sea.” It’s a powerful image, yet they weren’t talking about lights at sea at all, but about people: we can all be lights in the darkness for each other. If we each choose to be a light, the sea will sparkle.
“There are two ways of spreading light: to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it.” –Edith Wharton
Many Americans range from dismayed to disgusted to depressed by this year’s presidential election…I’m one of them. It’s easy to be discouraged and want to abstain from the process altogether from fatigue or in protest. But the circus this has become makes it critical to fight the urge to stay home with a glass (or bottle) of wine and feel sorry for us all.
Half the country is angry at the status quo and wants change. The other half is angry that a candidate who routinely makes racist and sexist comments is this close to leading our nation. We’re more polarized than ever. But I’ve always ascribed to the notion that if you don’t vote, you don’t have much right to criticize after the fact. Exactly because we’re so polarized, it’s even more important this year to vote. No matter what happens on November 8th, half of us will still be angry. But November 9th will come, and then the 10th, and we will have to move forward.
America has always been a country of vigorous debate, as designed by our constitutional division of powers and right of free speech. We debate, we argue, we even get angry, but when the chips are down or there’s a threat to our nation, for brief moments of time, we come together as one America. That’s my hope for November 9th and beyond…that when this whole, ugly election is behind us, that we’ll remember that we are all still Americans.
Our best hope for that is ensuring that every single one of us who is eligible to vote…does. We need to know on the morning after that every voice was heard. We need to know that the result–whether we’re happy about it or not–is a defiant declaration that our democracy still works, if far from perfectly. Please register to vote and play your part in pushing our democracy forward. The deadline for voter registration in Arkansas is October 10; in Kansas and Minnesota, it’s the 18th. Info and deadlines for other states are available on rockthevote.com. Most states let you register and even vote by mail, so there’s little excuse. Then please don’t stop there–the country will need us all to come together and to agitate and to hold our elected officials accountable afterward. After all, that’s who we are: we’re Americans.
“Let us not seek the Republican answer or the Democratic answer, but the right answer. Let us not seek to fix the blame for the past. Let us accept our own responsibility for the future.” –John F. Kennedy
Rachel Platten’s Fight Song popped up recently on my playlist. Music has an ability to retain memories, and this song took me back. A friend introduced it to me at a moment in my life when I was feeling particularly powerless. It would be an overstatement to say that the song gave me the courage to take back control of my life, though I did just that a few months later. However, it’s not an exaggeration to say that this friend and others saved my life (or at least my sanity) during that time.
Friends are an amazing invention; good friends are a godsend. They’re almost like family, but different. They make good times better and hard times tolerable. Knowing that someone cares about what I’m going through has meant simply everything when I’ve struggled to cope. One of the really cool things about friends is that there are so many kinds. There are the ones who are sympathetic, the ones who hold up a mirror and gently force me to face the truth, and the ones who make me stretch and grow. There are the ones who make me laugh and the ones who let me cry, the ones who make me feel good, the ones who teach me and make me think. They all have their place and are special in their own way. The only downside is that they don’t all last. Time and distance and life can separate us…I grieve each loss. Yet I’ve learned that even the losses have their silver lining, because they make room for new friends. With each life change, I’ve forced myself to focus not on the goodbyes, but on the new friends I haven’t yet met. So far, they’ve always been there, all for the negligible effort of reaching out.
“No friendship is an accident.” –O. Henry, Heart of the West
School starts tomorrow. As always, the girls are ready, having long ago given in to end-of-summer boredom. I’m reminded this time of year of one of the best commercials ever: a joyful parent skipping down the aisles of an office supply store to the tune of the Christmas song It’s The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year, with their sullen child in tow. It’s also got me reflecting on the teachers who left a mark on my life that still echoes today.
My 10th grade biology teacher, Mr. Pitts, didn’t look much older than we were when he began teaching at my small, rural Kansas high school. He was meant to be a teacher…passionate about both science and kids. Somehow, on what had to be a limited budget, he managed to secure frogs, earthworms, pigs, a cat, and even Moray eels for us to dissect. As we prepared for one of them, he told us a story about bringing a dead possum he’d found on the road to dissect at his last school. I’ll spare you the graphic details of what he found when he opened the critter up, but suffice it to say that I learned a memorable lesson that day. Yes, I learned not to dissect roadkill, but the real lesson that day was what it looks like when you love your job. More importantly, Mr. Pitts was the first person in my life to suggest that science and faith don’t have to be in conflict. If made today, his candid response in a public school classroom to a student’s challenge to evolution might get him fired, but I’m grateful for the permission and peace that he first gave me to believe in both. From my 3rd grade teacher Mrs. Brothers, I got my first taste of adulthood, as I learned how difficult it would be to live on $200 a week as a meter maid, the job I drew out of a hat for a budgeting exercise. I learned how to turn writing into a process from my freshman English teacher Mrs. Starnes, a skill I could not then imagine would so impact my life for so long after graduation. And I learned how special a teacher can make an awkward pre-teen feel from the Hardesty’s. I’m still in awe of how they could be so gruff and yet be so beloved by so many of their students. Though they never had children of their own, they touched the lives of thousands of children in 40 years of teaching, many of them deeply.
Teachers have a unique ability to impact the lives of others; that’s why the good ones choose to do it. But we don’t have to teach to make a difference. A hospital visit, a well-timed card to a friend going through a difficult time, even a cheery ‘hello’ and a smiling ‘thank you’ to the store checkout clerk have the power to change someone’s day. In honor of all the great teachers out there, this week I’m going to especially focus on paying forward the impact mine had on me. Watch out for kids on the street, and may all the students and teachers have a blessed school year.
“A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.” –Henry Adams
I celebrated a milestone birthday this week. It was a great day, in the middle of a ten day vacation in Florida visiting our son. We miss him a lot since he moved a thousand miles away. On the trip, we hit a couple of theme parks, swam (a lot), and just enjoyed time together as a family. I had originally planned to let the milestone slip by as quietly as I could, having snuck out of town for it. But as the family time and friends’ birthday wishes made me reflect, I decided to go public.
None of my other milestone birthdays have bothered me, but as this one approached, I found myself wanting to hide my age. As a logical person, that makes no sense…fifty is only one more than forty nine, and I was fine with that one. The illogic of my reaction made me decide to face it, because something’s obviously bothering me about it.
I don’t fully understand what it is. We hear (and say to ourselves) that age is just a number, and that we’re only as old as we feel. I’m not scared of dying, and my genetics say I’m barely over the halfway mark. I don’t have many regrets. My best guess is that, even with a lot of life likely left, I still feel like I’m somehow close to done. Of course that’s ridiculous, because the only thing I’m remotely close to done with is work, and I am looking forward to that. I just have no idea what I plan to do next, though I know I will do something. Perhaps this is just another example of my bad habit of trying to look forward too far, to plan too much. Since I can’t see around the next big corner, I shouldn’t even try. Instead, I’ll just have to keep working at living in this moment of my life. It is, after all, a pretty good one.
“You can’t help getting older, but you don’t have to get old.” –George Burns
I attended a leadership development class this week at work, which included an afternoon defining my personal values. We were given 36 cards with phrases like ‘Financial Stability’, ‘Responsibility’, and ‘Teaching Others’ and asked to sort them from most to least important. My top two of ‘Spirituality’ and ‘Healthy Relationships’ were expected, but my third surprised me: ‘Hope’. Of all of the difficult choices in front of me around personal development and money and accomplishment, Hope came in behind only my relationships with God and my family and friends. Why Hope?
Being an optimist has always been a strength of mine, but ironically, I’ve also been aware of how critically important it is to my well being. Though I’m good at holding on to hope, I’m also terrified of somehow losing it. But until I went through this week’s ranking exercise, I’d have never realized it was that high on my list. I’ve always assumed that everyone needs hope – revolutions and violence stem from its absence. But I’d be surprised if anyone else in our group of 20 had it ranked that high. It clearly matters to me even more than I knew.
The last part of the exercise was to develop an action plan around our top values, what we would start, stop, and continue. But how do you develop an action plan around hope? My other top values were easy…I had start/stop/continue plans in minutes. But I nearly didn’t get done in the allowed time, sitting staring at the word ‘Hope’. Stop was the easiest: I committed to stop beating up on myself when I mess up, something women are especially bad at. For start, I decided to start replacing nagging of my girls with more of the positive, affirmative language I know they need. And for continue, I will continue to provide support to beyond-stressed families on the histio sites. I don’t know if it makes much difference, but I distinctly remember the support I got in the darkest moments of Megan’s illness from those who’d walked in my shoes, including the mom who saved my life when she told me “You’ve got this.” I survived on that stranger’s faith in me for weeks. As I look around, I see that, indeed, everyone needs hope. I can’t fix much, but I will do what I can in my tiny corner of the world.
“Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.” –Vaclav Havel
I hate goodbyes. I’ve tried making myself feel better by spouting the nonsense about every ending also being a beginning, but let’s be honest: they’re also endings, and endings stink.
Endings are times of reflection, when what we really care about is brought into stark relief, especially if it won’t continue through the beginning. I’m changing jobs and companies (again), and I’m faced (again) with leaving behind some wonderful people. Luckily this time I’m not moving, so it will be easier to maintain these friendships. But we can no longer grab coffee between meetings; I will have to put more effort into what had been too easy before. I’ve been through this enough times to know that not all of these relationships will survive our good intentions.
I’ve also learned by now that, while sad, this is ok. These wonderful people made a difference in my life when I needed them. They listened, made me laugh, let me cry. And when I unexpectedly think of them, even years later, I will smile again. If I am really lucky, their memory of me will do the same. Yes, it is ok; that is enough. In fact, it is everything.
“Remember me and smile, for it’s better to forget than to remember me and cry.” –Dr. Seuss