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The Zen of the Jigsaw

I sat down with my kids on a recent, rainy summer afternoon, to lay out a jigsaw puzzle on our coffee table.

I love jigsaw puzzles. My mom and I used to work puzzles together. I have very specific dallas jigsaw.jpgmemories of having puzzles strewn across the formal dining room table. Specifically, I remember the Dallas yellowpages puzzle, and the night before christmas jigsaw.jpggreen Night Before Christmas puzzle. (Funny, I guess other people remember them, too – a very quick googling brought them up right away.)

 

I have so many other puzzle memories, too. Working the US Postal Carousel puzzle on the coffee table, watching the news, when the famous OJ Simpson white Bronco car chase was going on. Spreading out the Paris Cafe puzzle on my apartment kitchen table. Working the Visit from St. Nicholas puzzle on my own kitchen table, while my oldest baby sat in her high chair next to me, eating (read: playing with) her afternoon snack. Spreading the blocks from the kids’ farm puzzle all over the living room floor. Having a collage of all the kids’ puzzles spread on the coffee table. Sitting up way too late with my husband, working puzzles on the puzzle board. Spreading a tablecloth over the puzzle on the kitchen table so we can have lunch; giving up and going out for dinner, because every hard surface in the house is covered with a different in a jigsaw in progress.

Yes, I love jigsaws puzzles.

I once had a coworker who confessed that she didn’t like them, and didn’t understand them. “What do you do with them when you’ve finished it?” And it’s not just her – I’ve heard other people express similar sentiments.


In January of 2013, my oldest daughter and I had the amazing opportunity to witness a group of monks from the Drepung Loseling Monestary, as they worked towards creating a sand mandala in the atrium of one of our local university’s art museums. A sand mandala is designed with the specific purpose in mind of destroying it when it is finished. It is meant to represent the impermanence of material life, and its value is not in the having, but in the creating. The act of its assembly is a sort of meditation.


The concept of mindfulness seems to be something that our culture struggles with more and more. There is a facebook ad that keeps popping up on my news feed, encouraging me to just breathe for 15 seconds. There is a dutch trend called “hygge” (pronounced hoo-guh), which really doesn’t have an direct English translation, but which basically means being mindfully cozy. Do a quick google search on “stress addiction” – it seems that being addicted to cortisol – the hormone released when the body is placed under stress – is a thing.


My jigsaw puzzles get assembled; displayed on the table for a day or two; carefully (and completely) disassembled and returned to their boxes; stored on a shelf for a year or more; and greeted once again like the old friends that they are, for the process to begin again.

Despite the display and the return, the joy is in the peaceful assembly. The gentle, quiet, socialness of sitting with a friend or loved one over the project, and the ritual of working the same Christmas puzzles, year after year after year.

For many of us, I suspect it is the closest we will get to creating our own sand mandalas.

I would like to make a humble, and perhaps biased, suggestion for all of us who are searching for peace and mindfulness. It might be time to just sit down, and work a jigsaw puzzle.

 

There are no extra pieces in the universe. Everyone is here because he or she has a place to fill, and every piece must fit itself into the big jigsaw puzzle.  – Deepak Chopra

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.

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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.

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

Unhelpful Hints and Teasers

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It is part of a parent’s duty to engage in good-natured ribbing with your kids.

This is MRB Chapter 12 (Just Because…) and, to a certain extent, Chapter 9 (Education. Yes, really – I think this leads to a certain level of mental gymnastics that is helpful to figuring out other things).

Our kids have sort of embraced it. They’ve started with the puns and sarcasm and ribbing of their own.

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At Eldest Progeny’s request, here is her list of Unhelpful Hints for Gift-Giving Occasions (her words; my comments are in italics):

Kid: Mooooom, what did you get me?

Parent: Here’s a hint:

  • Not an elephant.
  • Not a giraffe.
  • Not a house.
  • Not a swimming pool.
  • Not a hippo. (My addition – this is the point where I would probably start singing “I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas.)
  • Not a home on Mars.
  • Not a bowling ball (flat presents only).
  • Not extra homework.
  • Not a huge spacecraft headed to the moon as we speak.

Kid: Daaaad, what did you get me?

Parent: Sweetie, I got you nothing but…..

  • socks. (I would start singing that MLP classic Nothing Says Christmas Like a Pair of Socks)
  • pink fluffy unicorns (for boys).
  • shoes (for girls). (She’s young, and doesn’t appreciate the value of a perfect pair of boots under a Christmas tree...)
  • a wolf.

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And, that’s what life is like in our house. I’m so proud.

I hear you.

Being heard is so close to being loved that for the average person they are indistinguishable. – David Augsburger

Listening is an important tactic for getting along with just about anybody. It’s amazing how just knowing that someone is listening to you brightens your day.

This is a big reason that little kids have big tantrums. They have something that is very important to them – but they don’t know how to say it. Even bigger kids – we had this same problem just this morning. Littlest was frustrated, and just needed someone to understand why she was frustrated. Even though there wasn’t anything I could do about it at the time – we were late for school – she knew I understood, and that was enough for that moment.

This is the very first tip from the wonderful book by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish, How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk.

Listen with full attention.

But this is important for more than kids. Do you ever find yourself hanging up the phone and filling terribly unfulfilled – because you heard a lot about what was troubling the voice on the other end of the line, but didn’t get to speak what you had to say? It matters to know someone is listening to you.

Everybody has the same need. To know that someone has heard you. Because that is the same thing as saying, “You matter.”

I think the world would be a better place if we all just listened a little bit more. Is it going to solve all of the world’s problems? No. But it might get us started. At the very least, we’d all feel better, and maybe learn something, too.

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