To be, or not to be.

O God, give us the serenity to accept what cannot be changed, the courage to change what can be changed, and the wisdom to know the one from the other.   – Reinhold Niebuhr

Fairy tales are full of people who won’t share their name, because it gives power. The stories say that if you give someone your true name, then they have some control over you. But maybe, just maybe, fairy stories have some sort of distant relative in reality. Superstitions, after all, are based in practicality – it’s bad luck to open an umbrella in the house, but only because something as unwieldy as an umbrella is likely to knock over and break something.

I’ve never really felt in control of anything, and I wonder if that’s why I’ve always felt awkward when I’m introducing myself to people. I invariably mumble, and then they have to ask again, and then I have to tell them again. I dread being asked what my name is. Is the mumbling caused by the dread? Or is the mumbling caused by distaste? When I was a kid, the first person I had met who shared the same name had already claimed the only logical nickname. It had never occurred to me until that point that there WAS a nickname for “Amanda,” and Mandy is the first person I remember being consciously jealous of.

(I did try, briefly, in high school, to claim the nickname “Alice,” because it sounded vaguely like my initials strung altogether, but I’m insecure enough to have hated it the very first time it was said mockingly, even though I’m sure the person only meant to be funny rather than mean. There is only one person left who still brings that up, and I can’t seem to get her to stop. My own fault, I suppose, for bringing it up in the first place. Que sera, sera.)

I’m not a terribly assertive person. “That’s not what I would have expected you to choose,” or “Oh, no, you really don’t want to do that,” and “We’re going to do it this way,” and “I want you to care about this,” are things I have been in the habit of capitulating to. I don’t confront decisions that I would not have made. I’ve been in the habit of consoling myself that situations are only temporary. That I can just go back and quietly and privately fix it later.

The problem is, when you aren’t assertive enough to do it right away, “later” keeps getting further and further away, and before you know it, temporary situations become long-term, and the starter house and furniture and miscellany of life that you bought 14 years ago, that really wasn’t what you wanted, has become the house you are going to stay in for at least another ten years until your youngest graduates from high school.

I’m afraid that this is who I am now, though. The last time I really tried to be assertive was ten years ago, and I was told that I was pregnant and hormonal, and throwing a temper-tantrum, so I’m kind of in despair that I will ever be taken seriously as someone capable of defiance of any kind. I’m trying to dig myself out right now, to say that “later” is finally here, but I think I let it go too long. I’m afraid it’s no longer possible, and that maybe, since I’ve always lacked the courage to change anything, it’s time to just accept.

I’m really very blessed. I know this. And in the end, I suppose this current sadness is really just another temper-tantrum. Maybe fairy stories have nothing to do with mumbling when you introduce yourself. Maybe fiction is beloved because it gives us the illusion that people exist who really do get to decide their own fate.

Maybe you all feel the same way, and I’m only just now coming to the same “what have I done with my life” mid-life crisis that everyone feels. If so, then I’m going to tell you something that you really need to hear: It’s okay to feel this way. I understand, and you aren’t alone.

Standardized Test Season

I’m still fleshing out how I feel about all of this. But I’ve got some ideas.

My general attitude about school is that a school’s job isn’t to teach kids how to memorize facts. It’s to teach kids how to learn. Because once they know that, they can tackle anything.

And a test doesn’t measure how smart you are – it measures either how well you understand an idea, or tells us what you need help with. By the same token, report cards are only reporting what a child does or doesn’t need help with – not how smart they are.

So what does that have to do with standardized tests, anyway? STAAR testing begins next week, so we had that discussion this morning.

Just like every other test they’ve taken, this test isn’t measuring intelligence. It’s not attempting to take a snapshot of a child at all. It’s measuring how well they understand certain ideas. And, it’s measuring how well the school is helping them understand. If a lot of students don’t seem to understand something that pops up on the test, the school will know that something isn’t quite right.

Naturally, my kids have heard the rumor that if you don’t pass the test, you don’t get to go to the next grade. I told them that was very rare, and that it’s because if a student needs more time to understand, then it seems like trouble to move them on to other things if they don’t have the right building blocks. To use academics they’ve experienced – being really good at addition helps you with multiplication, and you have to be comfortable with short stories before you’re ready for novels, right? And I think they can all understand. We just need to teach them in the same the way they need to learn.

pencil-clip-art-realpencil

I believe there’s another side to this coin, too. Texas just started a somewhat controversial system of grading schools with an A,B,C,D, or F letter grade. A bill was proposed in this legislative session that would reduce the impact standardized tests have on that letter grade, and put some emphasis on parent and community involvement. This makes some sense to me.

It’s not unusual for me to explain something to the kids in such a way that it makes no sense whatsoever. But when Daddy explains – the lightbulb clicks on. It’s also not uncommon for the teacher to explain something to the kids at school, and they kind of understand, but it doesn’t 100% make sense until we sit down and do it together as homework. This is part of the reason homework exists. It’s not just practice – it’s hands-on, practical application, and sometimes, hearing the words from a new voice or in a new way. Which is why “do some homework” is in the Mommy Rule Book – not just for kids, but for Mom and Dad, too.

(But we don’t do homework to the point of stress. Just enough to reinforce, but not enough to drive everyone nuts. There’s a different sweet spot for everyone, I suspect.)

I think there should be some way to measure a school’s effectiveness. I don’t think it lies in causing stress to anyone – that seems counter-productive. But it really doesn’t seem like all of the blame – or all of the credit – should be heaped on a school.

I tell my Scouts that their school is part of their community. The things that are taught in the school are going to affect the community. Just as school the affects the community – the community needs to remember that it also affects the school. Kids learn, and they grow up and become the people who create reality. Let’s help them make it a good one.

Love for the Humble Shortbread Cookie

We have two Girl Scouts in our house, which means that for the last five weeks, we’ve been consumed with cookies. (Five days left! Woo-hoo!)

So, let’s talk cookies.

shortbreadbox_webSpecifically, I’d like to give some love to the often-overlooked shortbread cookie.

Some of y’all are seeing them as “Trefoils.”

(Not tree-foil. Trefoil. Y’all aren’t climbing anything.)

The thing is, there are two different bakers. ABC and Little Brownie. As I understand it, Girl Scouts owns the recipes, but the bakers own the names (except Thin Mints – Scouts wisely held on to that one). Now, y’all are going to argue that the cookies are a little different, and to that, I answer that my brother and I use the same chocolate pie recipe that Mom does, but if you put all three pies together, they’d all be a little different. Any one who has ever tried to copy a recipe has experienced this phenomenon. So that clears THAT up.

Anyway, shortbreads.

We are celebrating 100 years of cookie sales this year! The cookie sale was started by the Mistletoe Troop in Muskogee, Oklahoma in 1917. And their cookies were handmade, but the recipe was for a shortbread cookie. Yay!

trefoilThe old Grande Dame of cookies doesn’t get much love these days, but she’s still around.

People say she’s “boring.”

But she’s not “boring” – she’s a wonderful building block.

A box of shortbreads and a jar of Nutella? Oh, my.

But there’s also my favorite way to love this cookie. Here you go:

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The very best way to prepare a Shortbread (or trefoil) cookie dessert!

Crunch up a sleeve of cookies – whether you’re in a “Kill the Wabbit” mood…or just feel like banging on them!

 

Now you need a couple of young helpers. Part of what cookie sales are all about is helping our young Scouts with life skills and being independent. I’m extending that by making  asking them to help with making their own desserts.

Get one pair of little hands to mix up instant banana pudding, and another to put some crunched cookie goodness into that unused glassware that’s collecting dust in the cabinet. Mom has been known to use champagne glasses. I’ve seen sundae glasses. Espresso cups make nice little “mini desserts.” Top the crushed cookies with pudding.

 

Now, be the meanest mommy in the world, and wait until after dinner.

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Chill until after dinnertime.

Make them nice and pretty, eat them all up, and then get the approval of the kiddos!

And, because I’m not only a parent, but also a troop leader and a cookie mom, I must now tell you to run out and get some Shortbreads or Trefoils right now! I’ll bet you can find a local Girl Scout to help you out.

But until February 26, you can also get them (and the other cookies!) here:

http://onlinemarketing.abcsmartcookies.com/GirlInternetOrders/Invitation/Open/06e83227-1c6a-4a06-8472-2ca6766c56a1

or here (two Scouts, remember?):

http://onlinemarketing.abcsmartcookies.com/GirlInternetOrders/Invitation/Open/caddcc1f-0213-4f59-8ed7-82ac8136c935

Enjoy!

 

L’État, c’est moi.

I am the State. – Often attributed to, but almost certainly not said by, Louis XIV.

Nonetheless, it kind of illustrates the prevailing attitude towards politics for most of human history. We have forgotten that the Founders of our country came up with something incredibly radical: the concept of loyal opposition. Until they came along, one was not loyal to one’s country – one was loyal to one’s king. At the time the Framers created the constitution, even imagining the king’s death was considered an offence punishable by being publicly drawn and quartered (for men), or burned at the stake (for women).

But then came the concept of loyal opposition. Nationalism. Prior to the American and French revolutions, there was no such thing. If you google quotes about nationalism, you get a lot of negative stuff, but it doesn’t have to be. At its basic form, nationalism simply means loyalty and devotion to a nation.

We’ve refined that, quite a bit. Now we have patriotism: devoted love, support, and defense of one’s country.

Devotion to a nation. Love of a country. Not devotion to a king or ruler or, dare I say, president.

Isn’t that amazing? Our Founders created a world wherein it is possible – even encouraged – to love your country without liking the rulers. Our very government is based around the ability to change our decision-makers at will. We are allowed to say we don’t like them, and want to replace them with someone new. We are constitutionally required to periodically replace our own government.

So, what?

It means that I can be loyal to my country, even if I don’t like the people in charge. Because we do not owe loyalty to a president. We owe loyalty to the Office of the President, and to the United States of America. There have been times when I have not necessarily liked the president, or decisions that person has made. But I will always respect the Office. Regardless of who gets elected today, that is what patriotism and nationalism are. I don’t have to like the president. I am allowed to not like the president. But I will defend the Office.

I believe that one’s love of country cannot be determined by the person they vote for. Can it be an indicator of other things about them? Maybe. But I don’t believe you can ever truly say that a person who takes the time to do their research and vote for the person they think is best has no love of country.

L’État, c’est moi, et c’est également vous.

Gay Guy Friends, Grieving Girl Friends, and Sleeping Babies

She knew that she had a tendency to allow her mind to wander, but surely that’s what made the world interesting. One thought led to another, one memory triggered another. How dull it would be, she thought, not to be reminded of the interconnectedness of everything, how dull for the present not to evoke the past, for here not to imply there.”

-Alexander McCall Smith, The Novel Habits of Happiness

I mentioned in my previous post, that my feelings on grief are evolving and complicated. This is sort of related to that, sort of an expansion of it, sort of barely related at all. And it’s the sort of thing that makes me wonder at how everything is interconnected.

In my freshman year of college, a couple of friends felt it was time for them to “come out.” I realize now that my reaction probably wasn’t as supportive as it would be now. Not being in such a situation, I didn’t quite understand the enormity of such a thing. I’m afraid that in one instance my friend was quite nervous, and had been very serious when he had asked me to meet him. (To be honest, we were supposed to meet in my town, but when he asked me to meet him elsewhere, my first worry was that something terrible had happened, that had made him unable to travel. Having recently had an acquaintance be arrested, my thought went there, and I wondered if conditions of bail wouldn’t let him travel to the next county. Which is ridiculous, because I can’t for the life of me figure out what  he would do to be arrested for in the first place. Dear Husband is not kidding when he says I can be irrational from time to time.) I believe my response was something along the lines of, “Whew! I’m glad it’s just this, and not something bad!” Another friend’s coming out was responded to with a shrug, and “Okay. Where shall we go for dinner?” I am wincing at that response, even as I type it.

A dear person close to me just expressed that she wasn’t sure if it was okay for her to still be asking for support after the death of her husband, six months ago. My reaction was better this time, I hope. I told her I was flattered. And, I am.

Because I learned from my kids. Children really do teach us lessons, don’t they? That’s one of the the things I should add to the Mommy Rule Book: Don’t Forget to Learn From Your Kids.

And all they had to do, was sleep.

This precious little thing, sleeping on my lap. Whole naps, snuggled against me. I was quite content to hold my babies for their whole naps, to be a comforting, safe place.

To be a safe place. What a revelation! To be a safe place. It came to me, slowly, that people can be safe places, and that we can be safe places for grown-ups, too.

I was not, by far, the first person any of my friends came out to. I am not the only person supporting my friends and family in rough times. And I am so glad, because we all need many safe places. (As nice as it is, Mommy can’t hold you for every nap, child!) Thank you for considering me one of your safe places.

 

The Etiquette of Grief

I’ve been contemplating this for a while, now. I have discussed it with friends and family, and yet, I still don’t know how to say any of this exactly right. I’ve just about come to the conclusion that, maybe, there is no “exactly right.” Also, as I began to type this, I realized just how complicated my feelings on this are.

2016 has been a rough year. Even as I type this, I am feeling a little bit guilty. There has been so much loss around our family this year. And yet, for all of that, I have been mostly on the periphery. Certainly, I’ve seen it, and felt it, in the way that something that is just there, suddenly is not. It’s like the big tree that used to mark the turn to my parents’ house. A large live oak tree, standing in the island of a divided highway, marking the turnoff to a backroad that was otherwise poorly marked (or unmarked altogether, if the local perennial pastime of stealing street signs was being exercised). And then, the tree was gone. Too many vehicle collisions. Too many years in exhaust fumes. Poor soil. Or maybe even the isolation from other trees wore it down. We were still able to find our street, of course, but the marker that had always been there was gone. It’s been gone many years, now, and that intersection still looks somehow naked. And I think that is a perfect analogy for how I am feeling this year. I miss that tree. Yet, I was not one of the birds or squirrels or other creatures that called it home. For me, it was just a signpost, but for others, it was a vital and concrete part of their lives. I miss it, but it was never my home.

There are not words to express to our friends and family how much I truly wish I could help you. I can’t make it better, though. I can’t become your home. I hope I can help, by not making it be worse than it has to be. There are a hundred thousand things that we do, everyday, that maybe we can take some of the burden of. And that is all I can do.

I am watching my friends and family struggle. They are worried about how their grief appears to others, and in some cases, are even being told (overtly and through hints) that their grief is illegitimate or too-long-lived.

Your feelings are legitimate. You are allowed to feel what you are feeling. You are homeless, now, without your tree, and you are allowed to grieve that loss as long as you need to.

But for all of the different kinds of loss that I’m seeing around me, and all the different ways I am seeing these people cope, or try to cope, I am hearing the same refrain – a worry that they are not doing it “right.” Do you feel like we are watching you, and judging you on the ways you are processing your loss? I’m sure you think we are watching every detail, from the words on the funeral program to the speed with which you clean your house to the day you go back to work.

You’re right. We are.

But it’s not because we think you are doing it wrong. It is because you are guiding us. There is no way to know how to do this, because we have not done it. There is no wrong way to mourn a loved one. There are no signposts. We are watching you, because we are wondering what we would do. What we will, inevitably, one day have to do.

For those who I have not supported as well as I should have: I did not understand. I still don’t fully understand. But much to my sorrow, I am learning. And I am sorry. I’m so, so sorry that I didn’t see. There are some lessons, I suppose, that we don’t want to learn, and so we simply don’t acknowledge that the lesson is being taught. And there are some things, that because they are scary, we willfully decide not to understand. Maybe that is part of maturing – learning the lessons that we never wanted to recognize.

There are those who are going to find this to be an alarming post, and worry that my thoughts are going to dark places.

But I am troubled by a coincidence that cannot go unremarked. My father-in-law passed six months ago. His family is wondering what the statute of limitations on grief are? How long can they be forgiven their sadness? An acquaintance’s husband passed two months ago. She is already getting implications that she should be moving on. This horrifies me. There is no cap. Nor should there be. That is one of the important lessons that I have learned, just recently.

If I have ever made you feel like you have passed the allowable limit on grief in the past, I owe you a profound apology. I had no right, and you are allowed to feel what you are feeling. No matter how long it’s been.

So many of you have taught me these lessons, some gradually over the years, and some who have hit me over the head with it like a proverbial frying pan. I thank you. And sincerely wish I had not only been better to you, but that there was a way to make things better for you.

I am always ready to learn although I do not always like being taught. – Winston Churchill

My Spiritual Adviser is a Grocery Clerk

There are two ways of spreading light – to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it. – Edith Wharton

I cannot count how many times I’ve heard phrases in the family of “God never gives you more than you can handle.” Or, “God is bigger than your worries,” or “Give God your weakness, and he’ll give you his strength.” There are probably 10 different memes telling me this on my facebook news feed, right now. Sometimes, it feels kind of aggressive, to tell you the truth. Have you ever just tried to vent a little bit, and gotten a very assertive affirmation that if you just “Give it to God,” it’ll all be okay? Many times, I would rather sit for a few minutes in a quiet, empty church on a random Tuesday, than be told it all again. (My youngest child and I are alike, in that. We find our peace in quiet places.)

The thing is, there is a clerk at my local grocery store who says the same thing. But there is something about the way she says it – I believe her.

Perhaps the other folks I’ve heard the same message from are just not the people I’m meant to hear. Perhaps Ms. J doesn’t resonate with everyone, and there are folks who find her as jarring as I find some people. But she resonates with me. Perhaps because she’s quiet, like my favorite churches. She’s a very soft-spoken woman.

She’s not a trained theologian. (At least, not that I know of.) She’s a grocery store clerk. An elderly woman, whose son and his family have just moved in while they build their own house. Who raises chickens, but because the rooster is just too much of a character to get rid of, she sells chicks instead of eggs. Who cannot manage to keep her kitchen garden alive. Who loves to go camping. Who remembers her regulars, and asks after my kids and how they’re doing in school, and lights up on school holidays, when they go with me to the grocery store and she gets to see them.

I will wait in a longer line, just to be checked out by Ms. J. It is entirely possible that I have decided to cook a dinner I do not have all of the ingredients for, as an excuse to visit with Ms. J. (I’m not saying it’s absolutely true, but it’s possible.)

Does she know? Does she know that she has customers who prefer her? (I know I’m not the only one. I’ve spoken to other customers who agree that “Ms. J is worth waiting for.”) I hope so. I made it a point to tell her, today, that she brightens my day.

I want to make it a point to tell people that they matter.

We’ve had some losses this year. Our own family is missing some loved ones, and friends (both close friends and developing friendships) have lost people, too.

Tell people they matter. Tell the grocery clerk that she brightens your day. Tell the guy who patiently walks the limping dog every morning that you look for him when you drive the kids to school, and were happy and excited to see the dog running yesterday. Tell your kid’s teacher that for the first time ever, your daughter thought the math homework assignment was fun. People are surprised, when they find out they did something that matters to you. And I’ll bet you don’t know the impact you’ve had on other people, either. You and I, we may never know.

I don’t know if Ms. J knows that she is special. How many other people don’t know? It’s time to go reflect some light back at them.