Joy and Sorrow…on graduating from elementary school

As I pen words, it is a dreary, soaking-wet, rain-drenched evening outside my sitting room window.  We are all drying ourselves out after a torrential down-pour just moments ago, occurring just as we made a run for it from the van to the front steps.  This onslaught also occurring after we all had walked through a puddle-slick school parking lot to leave for home,  following the Grade 6 closing ceremonies, as that is where we celebrated seven years of completed elementary school education.  Our son is amongst the celebrants.

It is hard to put words to paper how one feels on such occasion, as I am sure there are as many emotions as there are mothers and fathers to feel them.  I am feeling mixed emotions at present- happiness mixed with a tinge of sadness.  Son is gone to a celebration at his friend’s house next door, a party at which I had volunteered to chaperone.

Apparently, he does not really want his mother there tonight. Not a real surprise, but I was a bit hurt about it all just the same.  This must be what coming of age feels like for a mother: sadness mixed up with hurt and bruised feelings with an ample dose of pride and love shown for my son’s achievements and new-found independence.  It is time for the mother duck to pull back and let her baby duck learn to fly.

I often wonder what is the secret to fostering character building and positive energy in one’s children so that they turn out to be those kinds of people that others call high achievers.  Young men and woman of excellence.  For we all want this for our children, but how is it that some children have those keys to unlocking the doors to success early on while others are always eluded by it?

I see in my son new behaviours and characteristics, things that make my stomach turn a little.  He is not as polite as I would like him to be, not as kind, patient or gentle.  And yet, do I point out these glaring omissions in his character or leave things alone?  I am not sure what course of action to follow.  It is hard when you mix the latter in with high expectations of a big night like tonight.  I have come up a bit disappointed with his lack of respect shown toward me this evening- his aloofness and sarcasm.

My son.  So much like his mother.  We are both quick to react, we have short fuses.  We are not naturally empathic.  For me, it has been a learned skill.  We are impatient with others, he is increasingly so.  We both are reclusive and introverted by nature.  We are neither gentle nor caring and nurturing in the way some people are born to be, naturally concerned for others.

But that is not to say that these character traits cannot be present, for I believe they can be.  In my own life, I have watched carefully the ways in which people respond to one another, the ways in which caring people show love and concern for each other.  I have tried to apply those same principles to my own life so that I, one who is not naturally inclined to be NICE, can indeed be a nice person in spite of myself.

And so too, can my son.  He has all the abilities.  He must choose for himself what course in life he wishes to take: a life of treating others with kindness and respect, particularly as it concerns those people in his closest circle of friends and family.   Or not to do so, and fail to understand the richness of a life well lived.  At present, he lacks the maturity to see that choosing the latter will burn many bridges for him, and may have already done so even in the present.  It is unfortunate to watch your child make mistakes when you know the way they should go.  We cannot live another’s life- even if that ‘other’ is our own flesh and blood.

And so.  I go anyway-  to the party.

I have made a promise to help chaperone, and chaperone I will.  I arrive, and I give my son a wide berth.  I try not to make eye contact, to not go in the same areas as him.  All the while, I notice the little things:  my friend’s son with his arm slung across her shoulder, the easy banter I have with Son’s classmates and friends, the gentle conversation between me and a sweet girl named J. that will also be moving on to Grade 7.  I notice that Son is avoiding me.  It hurts, for a time.  But, then I realize that this is his problem, not mine.  It is his issue, not mine.  And, I carry on- thankful that I can be a part of this evening that celebrates the life of my child and his classmates.

And by the end of the evening, I think Son realizes something too- his Mom is not as embarrassing as he thought.  In fact, now that everyone else is talking to me, he actually comes up to me at a point in the evening and asks me a question.  I could have been knocked over flat with a feather.

Which just goes to show that strange things do happen, wishes do come true and miracles are still possible.

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On humility…

On humility.  Are we ever truly as humble as we portray ourselves to be?  Even when we say, “humbly speaking…” or “with the greatest of humility” or the more coarse, “I don’t mean to brag…,” can we ever be that which we say we are: humble?  I am really struck on this because I study those whom I believe to be successful, and some of them claim humility.  But I wonder, can one be successful and remain humble?

To be in the spotlight, to be under the scrutiny of many, to know that you have ‘arrived’ and have been found successful, it must be a dreadful hard place to be.  Because the temptation would be to give in to the pressure and believe that you are truly as wonderful as everyone else says you are. Or worse, as wonderful as you might also think yourself to be.  And thus, think that you have invented the wheel.  That your words are worth repeating.  That your very presence has honored the world.  That you are a wee bit better than the rest of us.

Is anyone ever that worthy?

I read blogs of writers far more eloquent than I.  One writer I read is tremendously gifted with poetic prose and descriptive voice.  It is a delight to read her essays.  But I am often put off when she makes reference, often, to how many weeks she has been on the bestseller list for the New York Times.  Is that really necessary? Particularly when it is all about, in her words, grace and humility and gratitude?

I think it should be very hard to be in her shoes.  And that is why I suppose, I cannot judge. For I have not walked a mile in her footsteps.

Humility is to me, the naivety of knowing how extraordinary you are and yet, believing it does not matter.  For, those who are truly humble see in others greatness.  And likewise, see in themselves, weakness.  Weakness not borne of inability, but of imperfection.  For, we know that we are strong when we are able to pull back the curtains and reveal our inadequacies.

And humility does not kiss and tell.

However, one does not need to be an overwhelming success story so as to be humble.  The best example of humility I have known was my that of my grandfather.  Grampie MacLean was neither successful by public standards or great according to his own measure of personal achievements.  He was average in many ways.  What stands out about my grandfather was his humility.  He was a great dad and grampie.  He was a wonderful carpenter and mechanic.  He was a great listener, a modest gardener and a patient friend.  He was calm and quiet, and he never once raised his voice.  Above all, he never gave himself any accolades.  And yet.  He was an expert at humility.  He might not have even known.

Those who are great by human standards could learn a thing or two from my grampie.  And they need to be careful that they do not call themselves a name that is not their own.  Humility is a label that must be earned through quiet perseverance.  And in general, if you tell people you are humble, nine times out of ten, you are probably not.  Humility is not modesty.  It is understatement and grace.

The joy of kindness…

My Jumping Jellybean settled in for the evening inside her bedroom, I lie down on the double bed that serves as center piece, for evening stories and prayers.  Tonight’s Bible verse is this: “…always try to be kind to each other and to everyone else (I Thess. 5:18b).”  That pretty much sums it up.  At all costs, we are to be kind…to everyone.  So, I ask Littlest One if anyone had been kind to her today.  She thought about it for a moment, and then she said, “You were kind when you gave me popcorn.”

Ah, the popcorn.  She has a habit lately of not eating her supper meal.  I have tried packaging it, and re-offering it to her when she is hungry, but what was left tonight on her plate was a pile of peas.  Not sure where the rest went because usually there is a three-course meal left over by the time supper comes to an end. Tonight, all I noticed was the peas.  She knows the rules: “no finish supper, no eat snacks.”  This stings a little more on Friday nights when movies are accompanied by treats.  When everyone sat down to watch The Muppets, and I came out with steaming bowls of salty, butter-infused popcorn, her mouth was watering.  I passed a bowl to her two older sisters, and then I brought a third over to her.  She looked at me with surprise.  “But I never finished supper!” she said, the question hanging over us both like a small rain cloud.

And isn’t that what grace is all about? Getting what we don’t deserve?   She got it tonight- grace, in a dish served up as a bowl of popcorn.  Grace was served, both literally and physically.  I can offer it to her because it has been offered to me in packages that come in as many different shapes and sizes as there are hues in a picturesque landscape.  I receive that which I give to her.

Grace.

So, when she gave this as an example of kindness at bedtime, it made me ask this question to bring home the message of my albeit small, goodwill gesture toward her:

“So, what did you do to show kindness today?”  She thought for a moment, as if searching her soul.  Silence.  Until she came up with this, her shoulders shrugged non-chalently: “I guess I will try to do it tomorrow.”

Honesty counts for something, in my books.

A little kindness goes a long way.  Showing grace in spite of how we feel, in spite of the day we are having, and in spite of how others are treating us, that is the essence of kindness.  Our kindness can ignite a spark of kindness in another person.  The flame will catch on, it will burn bright and long.   A blaze of kindness can be the result of one word or phrase.  A movement of kindness can be the launch pad for change.  Change, done in positive ways, can make this world a better place.

It only takes a little effort for kindness to weave its magic.  That is the beauty of a word fitly spoken.

So often, kindness goes by the wayside in our house.  It is easier to speak (shout?) words in haste, without thought to the receiver, than it is to take the extra moment or two, re-phrase our words into kindly offered gestures of love, gratitude and goodwill.  I love it when a child says thank-you: those words are a bequest I personally elevate to the highest of offerings.  I love it more when I see my own children say those simple words, ‘thank you,’ without my prompting.  I count memories of those times when gratitude was the first response among many other shining moments of parenthood.  These moments of appreciation are times that light the path for weary parent travellers.

I am training my kindergarten students to offer up thanks for even little tokens of kindness, and they present these words often without prior encouragement from me.  My husband shared with me this story: recently, at a large-scale event he and another teacher had organized on behalf of the students in their classes, one boy came up to him after the occasion had ended, and said, “Thank- you Mr. Gard for organizing this event for us.  It was a lot of fun.”  Such a brief little string of words, and yet so powerful.  There is power in those two little words: thank you.  Power to shape another’s day, power to change the course of someone’s path, power to shift moods, salvage relationships, mend broken pieces of our lives.  Power for change.

I sometimes miss the thoughtfulness, the kind-heartedness, the consideration that comes across my path. I am too often looking for the negative, the selfishness, the thoughtlessness.  Those moments when kindness has not been shown, and I have been offended.  However, when I truly allow myself to see others the way God sees people, I realize that we are all, or we CAN be, beautiful examples of grace in action.  Each and every day, I am the receiver of kindly gestures.  A word of appreciation, a smile, an encouraging note, a question asked expectant for an unrushed answer, a hug, a kiss, a glance, a wink.  All are, in their big and small ways, gestures of kindness.  And they are simple ways to start a movement towards change.  Even very small changes.

Because for great things to happen, we always have to start with the smallest of actions.  Every marathon runner has to take their first step, every successful vocalist must sing their first note, and every famous orator was urged to speak their first word.

So must we, take small steps toward change.  We must show kindness TO EVERYONE so as to make this world a better place.

And that change in our attitude and behavior starts with kindness.

The Joy of fun parks…

Happy Hour at the Gard residence is officially beginning.  It is that time of the night when mama bear can let her hair down, exhale a whole lot of hot air and cut loose on the computer while the little cubs hibernate in their little dens.  There are no thankfully no audible sounds coming from the nether-regions of the furnace room (a.k.a. upstairs) where we corral our kiddos from 8:00 p.m. until morning.  Although brief minutes ago, World War III nearly broke out over Little One’s musical selections and Oldest One’s statistics that state “anyone who listens to music as they fall asleep at night gets 90% less sleep than those who don’t.”  So, for the sake of keeping the peace, both are now sleeping inside ovens with the doors shut and music turned down low.  I’m sure the hot, humid, stale air must feel good in both their rooms right about now.

Today was… interesting.  Staff and students from our school went to the “fun” park…The Mill River Fun Park.  It is a childhood fantasy land with bumper boats, waterslides, a sea of balls, playground equipment and a hamster wheel, among other things.  For kids, it is a good time had by all.  For parents and teachers, it is a danger zone complete with rusted-out, rickety water slides, one washroom to currently serve hundreds of people, renovations that sit squarely in the middle of the park and uneven patio walking stones leading like a maze hither, thither and yon all over the park.  Did I mention the tree roots that show up nearly everywhere serving to slow our children down by way of tripping them every time they run towards a slide or set of monkey bars?  When they describe it as a “fun” park, what they really mean to describe it as the “run” park because kids run and fall and skin their knees everywhere humanly possible inside this park.  No matter how many times you tell your little ones to walk, they are compelled by unseen forces to run everywhere they go.  It has not been a successful, ‘fun’ day at the Fun Park if your child leaves without a bandaid on their skinned and bloody little knees.

As I was sitting below the Aqua Rage watching children plummet out of the sky on little more than a crazy carpet, I realize that try as I might to ensure all my little students are following the “one-at-a-time” rule for the hamster wheel or the “no- one- over- five” rule for the Sea of Balls, there is no rule indicating safety standards for this death trap.  I watch in horror as one of my boys flies down the 90 degree incline like a stone falling from a skyscraper.  And I breathe a sigh of relief when he emerges fully intact at the bottom and I can again tuck emergency contact info safely back into my shoulder bag.

It has indeed been a ‘fun’ day at the Fun Park.

The Joy of Summer Solstice…

It is about a million degrees in the house right now, this summer solstice evening.  I have just come downstairs for the umpteenth time, floating on heat waves as I ride the banister.  The last trip was to tuck my youngest daughter in bed with throw pillows and blankets all in place along with every other necessity placed around her, just so.  I am in no mood for negotiations- let’s get this show on the road.  I am almost about to leave the room when she gives me the look.  The “aren’t you forgetting something” look.

“What?” I ask impatiently.

“You know,” she says accusingly.  I follow her gaze to a heavy, pink shag throw blanket on the end of her bed that weighs as much as a small dog.  In the still of the moment, I can hear the CD she has picked out for this evening’s listening pleasure.  Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.

Is this child for real?

“No,” I say firmly.  “No blanket tonight- it’s too hot.”

She starts. It begins as a low grinding noise and it will soon escalate into full throttle space shuttle mode if I don’t get that blasted buffalo rug wrapped as tightly around her as is humanly possible.  Is it possible to kill your child with kindness?   Because I have a little hotdog roasting up there over an open spit (a.k.a. the room temperature in her neck of the woods could fry an egg)

I leave the room to cool my jets, but then feel bad about storming out in a huff.  So, after a short cooling off of my own, I head back up into the furnace, walk in to her room, place my hand on her forehead, and she says this to me:

“I’m, like, SWEATING,” in her bestest Valley-girl voice.

No kidding, Sherlock, really?  Happy Summer Solstice to all my blog readers!

The joy of summer vacations….or better titled…

How Not to Have the Vacay of your Dreams…

I have had this recurring dreaming for the past couple of weeks .  The dream goes mostly like this:  I am finished work and school is out for the summer.  In the shade a brightly colored beach umbrella, I am relaxing poolside with my favorite book of the hour and a cold refreshing drink.  The mid-day sky is a brilliant blue, and there are white, fluffy clouds that look like exploding marshmallows dotting the picturesque backdrop.  The summer sun is shining brightly, and song birds can be heard in the distance faintly chirping a tune.  I tilt my head back and allow my drooping eyes to gently close, as my weary bones and muscles ease into an afternoon siesta.

Ah, this is the life…

Through the haze of my dream, something jars me awake.  Far, far away, I can hear this sound.  Piercing the calm of moments ago.  It is an irritating, fingers-on-chalkboard kind of scratching sound.  I try to ignore it, but it won’t go away.  What could be possibly making such a commotion?

“Moooommmmmmm, so-and so won’t let me get on the computer and it’s my tuuuurrrnnn.”

“No, it isn’t!”

“Yes, it is…you were already on for, like, an hour!”

“Gimme the mouse….”

(scuffle, scuffle, scuffle….)

“OWWWWWWWWWWWW!”

MOOOOOOOOOOOOMMMMMMMMMMM!!!!

Reality check.  I am no longer sleeping, although I still find myself drooling on the couch while the right side of my face has permanent pillow marks implanted along my jawbone.  I have fallen asleep in the fetal position on the sofa while all heck breaks loose around me.  I can hardly move from the dreadful pain shooting up from my legs through to my neck and shoulders.

Someone please tell me that it is not really summer vacation already?

Alas, summer dream vacations are not all they are cracked up to be.  But, if there were such a thing as an ideal summer vacation or fantasy trip to an exotic location in the works for me, here is what I would deem essential to making that vacay the stuff dreams are made of.

If you were going on a dream vacation, you probably will not be bringing along four cranky, over-tired  children.  Unfortunately, I cannot make the same claim.  What can I say?  You are smrtR than I am.  Can it really be considered a vacation, dream or otherwise, when you take children along?  After all, nothing really changes.  Reality still follows you to the ends of the earth.  You still have to clothe, feed, groom, discipline, console, growl, cuddle, bathe, snuggle, growl some more and potentially sleep with your children when you are on vacation.

My hubby and I took a vacation with our four children to Dominican Republic, and my youngest daughter threw up five times on the plane before we even touched down on tropical soil.  The plane we were on was a party-plane, and the Spring-Breakers that shared our aisle were understandably less than thrilled to be sitting in a section with our sickly clan as we made trip after trip to the postage stamp-sized washroom at the rear of the plane.  Not to mention the smells.  As this all happened right in the middle of the evening meal.

As if this was not enough to dampen our spirits and discourage us from vacationing with kiddos, another daughter decided to follow suit mid-week, just when we were all starting to unwind.  This time around, she had three days of all-you-can-eat buffets to enhance the senses.  Thank goodness for daily room service and balconies with railings (and that little spot at the bottom of the stairs just the right size for storing dirty, stinky bed sheets.)

Let’s be serious.  If you are really going to consider a dream vacation, take a little advice from me.  Leave the kiddos with Gramps and Grandma. ‘Nuff said.

As well, try not to sandwich your dream vacation in between back-to-back work/extra-curricular commitments, as I have made the mistake of doing in the past. I have literally worked up to the minute before I have left on a trip and found myself collapsed on a seat somewhere in a vehicle or on a plane, of absolutely no good value to anyone including myself for about 24 hours into the trip.  And likewise, I would suggest avoiding at all costs the red-eye flight home, particularly when you have an 8:00 a.m. appointment the following morning followed by your first day of a new job.  Can anyone say, ‘pass me the java and prop my eyes open with a two-by-four?’

Finally, as this list could go on ad nauseum, I will end with this.   Try not to make the dream vacation too much fun.  When you plan on having fun, nine times out of ten, something goes wrong and you end up feeling gyped and bummed about your dream vacay.  Set the bar really low, and then everything you do and see will look and seem stellar.  There is nothing quite like low expectations to brighten up a trip.  Dream or not.

Happy Summer, everyone!

Joy in small moments…

I broke a fourth tooth in less than a year, all while eating a bagged lunch the other day.  A lunch that my husband had prepared for me, nonetheless.  I was eating alphabet pretzels when the tooth crumbled, in case you are wondering- creating a taste sensation of unparalleled proportions as it mixed in with all the other crunchy bits and pieces in the process of being swallowed down gulp at a time.  I had originally purchased the bagged snack/teaching tool for my students so as to make learning fun. FUN, I say.  Just like I was having now that my appetite had suddenly vanished.  Glad my little friends never had the joy of eating these tasty little morsels, as they are like crunching on driveway gravel. Particularly when mixed in with enamel.

I have been a bit of a cranky Mama bear lately.  And for good reason.  Turns out I have been grinding my teeth into gunpowder while trying to catch a few zzz’s in the process.  The dentist today remarked on the extreme power in my jaws which would have been flattering if he hadn’t had my mouth propped open with a two-by-four made out of a cotton ball and a piercing bright light shining on the gaping hole in there, further magnifying my chipped teeth and swollen gum line.

I look like a light-weight boxing competitor who has seen better days.  And indeed I have.  Seen better days, that is.

Life is all about perspective, right?  So with that in mind, I set out this evening to find a little piece of joy in nature so as to cast some illumination on an otherwise expensive ($2,200 worth of upcoming dental work), depressing (there goes the camper we were going to buy) and discouraging (I am wondering if false teeth are an option for a 38 year old mother of four) day.

I took a walk sans children, husband or friends.  I set out with a view in mind, that being the picturesque Mill River winding its way gracefully along the shores of red clay in Western Prince Edward Island.  It was for me, more of a pity party at first.  Poor me, why me, why now…yada yada.  Then, I began noticing a few things.  A  fuzzy caterpillar, and then another, crawling along the side of the road.  The elegant lupins, just beginning to emerge in hues of pink, fuschia and indigo.  A broken clothespin.  How did that arrive in my path?  The Queen’s Anne Lace, stooping to touch soft grass growing beneath.

And after a few more moments, I drew my gaze up and far down the path I was travelling, and the view of the water quite took my breath away.

The deep blue of the river, gently lapping the red sandstone. The road leading fishers to a point of entrance.  A boat floating tranquilly in shallow water.  The jagged rock underfoot.  Wooden staircases from cottage lots down to the shore.  A black dog, standing still and free in the river.  The sound of a lawnmower in the distance cutting blades of green summer lawns.  The smell of the water- pungent salt mixed with sweet algae. The beauty of the evening, soon fading to twilight.  This glorious evening of an almost-summer day.

And in the beauty of these moments, these brief interludes of time, in between reality past and reality future, I realized that I could be happy.  Right now.  I did not have to make a promise for fifteen minutes away, nor did I need to make compensations for the misery of hours ago while under the drill of my watchful dentist.  I could just commit to right now.  This was pure, unadulterated happiness.  To be alone in nature in blessed quietness. Does it get any better than this?

When we allow ourselves brief moments in which to feel joy, we find happiness is not so elusive.  And what makes us happy will in turn bring us joy in wave after wave of memory, as we return to that place of pleasure again and again in our minds.  Like those waves on a shore formed of red clay that I experienced tonight.  Our memory, that collective of sounds, sights, triggers and emotions that help to form for us reminiscences of those freeze-frame windows in time that we hope never to forget.  It is a gift.

We touch the face of joy, those of us who can live out our days as small moments rather than large time periods.  I can say I have had a bad day, but really I had a few bad moments.  Those moments will surely lead to more unpleasant moments in the days to come, as I seek to remedy these chipped and broken teeth.  But, there were moments in this day that were pure pleasure.  The moments right before bed when I cuddled with each of my children, one by one.  When I snuggled the youngest, read with the next in line- my middle child, when I kissed the warm forehead of my oldest daughter, and shared a laugh with my very oldest, my son.  Those moments are just as much a part of my day as were those horrific ones at the dentist’s office.  And so, I choose. JOY.

Again, and again and again.  I choose joy.  In the small moments.

Because that is not too much ask.  And I can commit to something small like a moment.