Our plan was simple. Meet for a glass of wine to toast the birthday girl and then walk around the corner for an early supper. It was Monday evening and we’d all had long days, but birthdays don’t wait. We settled down on the sofa, sipping wine, catching up about mom life, children, jobs, and life in general. The three of us rarely get time together. When our glasses were empty we bundled up and headed out. The restaurant looked a little dark and the parking lot empty as we approached. Closed. Oops. We walked back to the house, making a new plan by the time we got in the car. Turning onto the main road, we came upon a road block. Detour. Okay… We took an alternate route and a few extra minutes to drive to our plan b restaurant. Packed. People waiting to be seated were spilling out the front door. And there wasn’t a single open spot in the parking lot. Hmmm. Time to regroup. Again. We turned around and drove to our next choice. Finally. A place to park, and an open table. So much for simple plans. And thank goodness for great friends.
This week I’m celebrating the mess. The mess that comes with living fully. The mess that happens in my busy classroom. The mess my still-home-for-winter break-college kids leave in the kitchen…and the family room…and their bedrooms and bathroom. The mess on my car from our recent snow.
I am perfectly capable of creating messes all by myself, but I do enjoy when my house, car and classroom are tidy- when things are in their place. The order gives me a sense of calm. But the thing is, if it were always that way- spotless spaces and clean countertops- I am certain my life would feel less complete.
My younger daughter Claire has two friends staying with us this weekend. Today they begin that oh so foreign to me sorority rush process. Last night we enjoyed dinner together, and after we’d cleaned the kitchen the girls settled on the sofa in front of a movie. I headed upstairs to find my book. Long after I was asleep they made brownies, and when I came downstairs this morning the sink was full of mess. There were crumbs on the counter. And there were three sleepy but happy girls choosing outfits and chatting about the day ahead. The mess waited while I made coffee and breakfast for the girls. And the mess will wait while I write.
Breathe is my one little word this year. I choose to breathe through the mess. The mess isn’t worth fretting about. It’s something to celebrate.
To be honest, I was more than ready for the break.
Frankly I was tired, and running behind with family holiday preparations and projects at home.
I confess-I didn’t miss being at school.
You see…sleeping in, sitting down to read a book in the middle of the day, having time for exercise and errands and unhurried conversations… I loved every minute.
Truthfully, it crossed my mind more than once that I could get used to a more leisurely pace.
I’d be lying if I told you that I jumped eagerly out of bed this morning. It was dark. It was rainy. My room was cold. My bed was warm.
Let me be clear… the last two weeks were just what I needed.
But as I walked through the front doors of school this morning, and smiled at Meg who is celebrating her 10th birthday today, and helped Alex shift his backpack up onto his shoulders, and reminded Isabel to tie her shoes so she didn’t trip, and as I rounded the corner to my classroom and found a note from Chloe, and answered Will’s question about what I’d read over break, I couldn’t imagine being anywhere else.
And as I introduced books and we explored word sorts and shared news from our days apart, I realized I was just where I wanted to be, doing what I love most.
I arrived five minutes early to meet her train that ended up pulling into the station thirty minutes late. I didn’t mind the wait. It was quiet in my car. I caught up on email and read my book. It felt good to slow down.
When I heard the rumble of the approaching train, I walked out to the platform, and tried to figure out where to stand so that I would be close to the door from which my mom would emerge. The train slowed, then stopped ,and four doors opened, the furthest ones almost a football field’s length away from me in either direction. So I stood in the middle and scanned right, then left, up and back. I was surprised by the number of people getting off.
The platform became crowded and trying to spot my mom was hard. I knew she would be tired after the nine hour trip. I wanted to be able to take her bags and give her my arm. But as the last passengers stepped off the train, I still hadn’t found her. There was a friend’s mom, but not mine. We hugged quickly, my eyes searching over her shoulder.
Where was my mom, I wondered? I decided to walk in the direction of the Quiet car. That is where she usually sits. The crowd was thinning, and I noticed people stepping out of the way for the courtesy cart that was transporting older travelers. My eyes moved beyond the cart, looking for my mom’s elegant, familiar frame.
“Lisa!” My gaze shifted to the foreground, where I’d heard her voice, and then to the cart, moving towards me. There she was, sitting next to the driver, her arm extending out, her hand reaching for me.
My mom was in the cart.
With old people. She looked tired and small. She smiled a small smile. I held her hand and walked alongside the cart until the kind driver stopped near my parked car.
My mom was on the cart.
She stepped off carefully, as I reached for her bags. This year she didn’t insist on carrying them to my car. This time she quietly thanked me and walked gingerly to my car. I swallowed the lump in my throat as I noticed how much she had slowed down.
Music. Perhaps more than anything, music is what speaks to me during this season. More that tree decorating, gift wrapping and cookie baking, music gets me in the holiday spirit. Handbells in church. Choir performances. Even off key carolers in front of the big red kettle outside retail stores. Okay, I do draw the line at radio stations that play holiday tunes nonstop from the day after Thanksgiving until December 26th.
I love the sounds of the season.
This morning our ninth through twelfth grade choir members came through the first and second grade hall and sang. We all stopped what we were doing, and teachers and students gathered to listen to the singers share holiday tunes. Big kids wearing Santa hats and holiday sweaters and green and red striped socks, singing to little kids. Big kids who used to be little kids in my classroom, making music. My heart swelled. My smile grew. My eyes watered.
Today, perhaps more than any day since I first stepped into a classroom nearly 30 years ago, I am grateful for what I do.
Today I will spend my day with children. I’ll teach reading and writing. I’ll pass out pencils and pick up papers. We’ll predict plot twists and discover new words.
And together we will do so much more. We’ll think together and listen to one another. We’ll share morning hugs and midday laughs. Today, like every day, there will be high fives, and hard questions, and long pauses, and a loud lunchroom. Today, like every day where I teach, we will look for moments to be kind and find ways to extend support and be inclusive.
Today is a new day, and we adults have an opportunity. An opportunity to lead with love, listen with compassion, and live honest and graceful lives. Today we can kiss our loved ones and extend our hands to strangers.
Today the sun rose. And it will rise again tomorrow. And each day will be what we make of it. We can choose conversation over shouting matches. We can find open paths rather than see closed doors. Today will be what we make of it.
Today I am grateful to teach and learn in a school where this year’s guiding word is “community.” Today, and tomorrow, and the day after that, I will help the children I teach and know learn to learn, learn to love, learn to listen, and learn that sharing stories, solving problems, and working together really does matter.
And today I will let Robert Fulgham’s words rest in the front of my brain: “And it is still true, no matter how old you are, when you go out in the world, it is best to hold hands and stick together.”
“It’s empty nesting lite,” I tell people, half apologetically, and with only thinly disguised delight. I try to keep my smile this side of an all out grin. But, it’s true. When you have a child who attends a university just 15 minutes from home, it is empty nesting lite.
The night before my youngest moved into her dorm, I admit, I was beside myself. The impending reality of both girls’ being away at school settled over me like a cold, heavy fog. I fought tears all evening as we packed her bags, and stuffed the car (for the 15 minute drive!). I had no idea what to expect, other than deafening silence at home.
I made a few ground rules for myself:
Wait for her to ask to get together- don’t initiate plans. And if she doesn’t ask, remember there’s always fall break, parents’ weekend, and winter holidays.
Do not text her after you listen to the local crime report on the morning or evening news, just to be sure she is ok.
Do not go anywhere near her dorm (which is 5 minutes from the school where I teach) unless she has given you a reason to do so.
Pretend she is far, far away.
I wasn’t sure if my heart would break into a thousand pieces, but I was determined to give her space.
She settled in to dorm living, began rigorous classes, found new friends, and discovered parts of her hometown she never knew.
And… much to my delight, before long, she texted and asked if she could come home for dinner. And not long after that, she asked me to have coffee with her one afternoon. We met for last, late summer pedicures one Saturday. And yesterday she came home to do her laundry and get some cold weather clothes.
We took a long walk on our country road, and talked about everything from dirty dorm bathrooms, to long reading assignments. And after her laundry was dry and folded and back in her bags, we packed everything in the car and went out for burgers before she went back to school.
“Okay, okay,” I said as I opened the fridge, and reached for the cat food. I turned around and stretched left to the drawer with spoons. Leaning down toward her bowl, I peeled the plastic cover off the can, dipped the spoon in and scooped out Lucy’s dinner.
“Hurry up!” she seemed to say as she threaded her way between my feet and settled in front of her bowl. Silence descended on the kitchen, and I exhaled.
I was tired. I was hungry. It was late. As I reached for a water glass in the cabinet on the far side of the kitchen, something on the floor caught my eye.
“That is a really big worm,” I thought. My next thought was “Gross. How did that even get in my kitchen?” And then I had one of those moments- you know- like the ones that people create using slow motion apps on their smart phones. I put my still-empty glass down, and looked left and down again.
“That’s not a worm,” I said aloud to nobody but Lucy. I craned my neck forward while simultaneously taking a step back. The dark brown and tan creature slithered closer to the molding at the bottom of the cupboard. I took another step away.
“I’m tired and hungry, and I really, really don’t want to deal with this now….” I thought, continuing to back up. My brain shifted into problem-solving mode.
“Shovel. That’s what I need,” I muttered, heading to the storage area beyond my laundry room. I kept one eye on the snake, who seemed pretty non-plussed about the situation. Grabbing the shovel, I headed back towards the kitchen, wondering how the snake was going to respond to being scooped up on a snow shovel.
I stood as far away as I could, and slowly extended the shovel on the floor toward the snake, trying not to make too much noise. I reached forward and the edge of the shovel touched the snake. He raised his head the way snakes do. I say this as if I am a snake expert. I’m not. But I think they raise their heads- maybe right before they bite?! My heart beat faster.
“Ugh. Please cooperate here. I’m tired. I’m hungry. It’s late,” I said to him sternly as I continued to guide the shovel under him and shimmy him into the center. The last thing I wanted was a snake dropping to my feet as I escorted him out of my kitchen. His head stayed raised. I held the shovel as far in front of me as I could without losing control of the handle, and I walked slowly, then quickly towards the door. I walked to the far edge of the driveway and put the shovel down. He wriggled off and onto the warm pavement.
“I’m hungry. It’s late. I’m tired,” I thought as I headed back inside. “And I’ve got something to write for Tuesday’s slice,” I said to Lucy as I closed and locked the door.
If I time it right, and turn off my gravel road before 7:20, I’m ahead of the school bus that stops often along the first leg of my drive to school each morning. The bus is on its way to another school, and we part ways after about two miles. But even on the days when I end up behind it, I breathe and enjoy the trip.
My drive to work could never be called a commute. I pass rolling fields and newly creosoted three board fences that stretch across gracious properties. Horses graze on hillsides, and the Blue Ridge Mountains frame the edge of my view. The clouds along the horizon shift. I look for shapes and notice patterns. Some mornings the low lying fog blurs the hay bales that dot the wide open spaces. Other days I look up and watch hot air balloons drift high above the stately farms.
It isn’t a commute. I pass a steeplechase racetrack on my right, and on the left, a sweet old country store with an ever changing chalkboard out front announcing today’s hot meal. I drive by memories too- the turn off to my girls’ preschool, an enchanting barn-turned-schoolroom tucked at the back of a beautiful farm.
My journey doesn’t take long- about 12 minutes. I could never call it a commute.