Sunshine and Happiness

Today the sun came out and the air warmed up. And by “warmed up,” I don’t mean the arctic blast from the past few months turned into simply a less Arctic-y blast. I mean it warmed up. It is currently 64 degrees outside. I rolled my windows down in the car on the way home from work and didn’t turn into an ice sculpture. In Nebraska in February, that’s saying something!

The weather alone serves as reason for happiness today. It promises spring, which, at this point, can’t be too far away. In addition to that, though, I had a good thing happen. A few weeks ago, a representative from the Archdiocese of Omaha contacted me and asked me to write a guest post for their school blog! Today I found that had been published. If you’d like to read it, click right here. It’s about homework and perspective and balancing activities and family time and school work. You’ll love it!

I’m going to stop writing and start enjoying the last few hours of sunshiny balminess. Hope you enjoy your day, whatever your weather is!

IMG_0669

My kids love me for posting this picture of them doing homework for the world to see.

Advertisements

Turn It Off; Turn It On Again

Having fun with my mom

Having fun with my mom and the kids during Christmas break.

This year I had a Christmas break for the first time in years. I worked retail for eight years, so Christmas was never, ever a break for me. When we moved to Nebraska, I began working at a college. The offices are closed during Christmas, but I always still went to work at least half of the days while the rest of the staff was off because I was hourly and needed the hours. This year, I got put on salary, which includes some paid time off, including the week between Christmas and New Year’s!

Counting weekends, that’s eleven days of glorious sleeping in, eating Christmas food, catching up on all the stuff I don’t do during the work week. During this break, I began to see the value of rest. These eleven days were sorta like what happens when you call IT for help with your computer and they say, “Well, did you turn it off and turn it back on again?” And you sheepishly say, “Hmmm…what a novel idea. I’ll try that.” And that works.

Finishing Tasks

One thing I noticed about being off for this long was the ability to finish tasks. I  finished a writing project. My laundry basket was actually empty for a day or so. I cleaned the house more than once. I cooked enough food to feed us for just about the entire time on leftovers. These are things that often only get half done because I just don’t have time to do them. I do them in bits and pieces because two hours an evening isn’t enough to complete all the stuff I need to do.

Free Time

When I’m working every day, a weekend is spent catching up on things I didn’t get to do. Saturday and Sunday aren’t days off. They’re days doing other work. OK, so I’m not going into an office and sitting at a desk. Instead, I’m running around doing laundry, cleaning, cooking, doing errands. I feel very accomplished when these things are done, but often they’re done only in time to begin the next week. If I want free time to do any hobbies or even just read a book, I have to stay up and sacrifice sleep. With eleven days off, I got done with the tasks I thought were so important and even got to have free time! I spent hours crocheting and watching Netflix, and when my mom visited I got to spend time with her instead of going to work while she was here. After two or three days, I completely lost track of what day it was, and, while a bit disorienting, that feeling was so freeing! Not to have to remember whether today Hannah had piano or Emma had gymnastics felt so great. I had a vast series of minutes, hours and even days spreading out in front of me, free and unencumbered by the things that usually bind my time.

Rest

We hear all the time how good rest is for us, physically, spiritually and emotionally. I don’t think I really have a grasp on how important it can be and how not getting it can affect my relationships and my attitude. I don’t think most of us know that. We fill our time so we don’t have to spend that time reflecting. We don’t like to face ourselves in silence and think about things we’d rather forget. In some weird way, we like to give up free time because being busy makes us feel important and needed. I know that I feel guilty if I’m not filling up every moment with work, but I keep reminding myself that doing the things that help me feel rested is good work too. It’s important. It’s like hitting the reset button, turning my head and my heart off and turning it back on again. Sometimes that goes a long way toward fixing the things I don’t like in my life.

So here’s to resting, to taking time off work, to thinking about nothing! If this is an indication of 2016, it looks pretty good so far!

I’m So Tired

“I’m so tired.” It seems I hear that or say that a hundred times a day. The last few weeks have been so crazy that even my kids are saying it. When you can zap the energy of a fourth grader, you know you’re too busy! Here’s some of the stuff we’ve been doing this month:

  • At least eight Christmas band/choir concerts in the last two weeks. That’s seven too many, in my opinion.
  • A work Christmas party that involved way too much worry for the amount of involvement I had in it.
  • Making a gift for said Christmas party.
  • Another work Christmas party that required wearing an ugly Christmas sweater and hoping it wasn’t ugly enough to be chosen for the dance off that determined the winner of the ugly sweater contest.

    IMG_0217

    Alex, on the far right, did not participate in the contest. Too cool for an ugly sweater.

  • Hosting three students after the pipes went cray cray and flooded the college (see this).
  • Preparing for and implementing registration for the spring semester 130 students. Sounds easy. It isn’t.
  • Grading a million papers, giving a million tests, and writing a million syllabi–that’s Andrew’s stuff, but it affects us all.
  • Managing life while Andrew was in California last week.
  • Nursing a child with strep throat, two with serious colds, and taking them all to at least seven doctor appointments of various types.
  • Christmas shopping.
  • Surprise physicals for life insurance policies. At work. I mean, technically they weren’t surprises, but since I forgot about them, they were.
  • All the regular piano lessons, gymnastics classes, early band practices as usual.
  • Supervising class evaluations in all of the classes at work.
  • Three, half days of training on the horrible and difficult-to-understand-and-use computer system at work, after which I decided that I should definitely be given at least an associate’s degree in computer programming. Hey, I work at a college. My boss should be able to arrange something, I think!
  • Dealing with days that have gotten so short and cloudy that it seems we are living in the Far North. I would not do well in Alaska in winter.

There are more, I’m sure. I’m just happy that Christmas break is upon us, the kids get to sleep and rest more, and all of the band programs are DONE for now.

The Holiday Rush

It's the requisite holiday concert band picture. I barely recognize my own boy in that sea of blue and khaki!

It’s the requisite holiday concert band picture. I barely recognize my own drummer boy in that sea of blue and khaki!

It happens every year about this time. Between the end-of-the-semester crazy time at work and Christmas preparations, we have all sorts of school programs, band concerts, piano recitals and now, since we have teenagers, finals to worry about. Add to that list cold weather and ever-increasing darkness as the winter solstice creeps closer and closer and the fact that, for whatever reason, in the winter I like to hunker down with a blanket and a knitting project and binge on Netflix until the wee hours of the morning. It’s a recipe for disaster. I sometimes find myself in the midst of a sleep-deprived, caffeine-fueled afternoon scurrying around to try and get as much done as possible at work before going home to get as much done as possible before going to bed. 

Not only do I feel this, but I’ve managed to pass it on to the next generation. My daughter sometimes comes to me at almost 14 years old and laments that she’s tired and doesn’t have time to study amidst all the band practices and concerts of the season and conflicting advice wells up in me. Part of me wants to tell her to let up and give herself a break. Take some time off. Don’t put too much stock in those finals because it is, after all, just junior high, for crying out loud! Another part of me says no way. That’s when she learns how to juggle so much and be productive in a safe environment. I mean, if she tries too much and fails at some of it, she’s just in 8th grade. That failure affects nothing in her future but may teach her a valuable lesson. Besides, she’s got the energy and enthusiasm of youth on her side.

I look around and see that we are not alone in this. In fact, I’m surrounded by a lot of college people who are staying up later and working harder than I am, and I realize I’ve actually learned some things about holiday time management that I didn’t know at their age.

So which one is right? Isn’t that the question all firstborns like my daughter and me struggle with at some point? The longer I live, the more I think it’s both. Let up and lean in. Don’t do too much, but do all you can. And how in the world is that even possible?

  1. Prioritize. Yeah, I know. That’s what they all say. But seriously, I ask myself this all the time: What will I wish I’d done now when I look back at this time in 20 years? Work harder to do some job with excellence or take time off to play with the kids? Since I stumbled upon this technique of imagining my future self talking to my present self, I have used it relentlessly in decision-making, and I have been amazed at how helpful it has been in helping me focus on what’s really important. It also leads me to the next point.
  2. Pay attention to now. That may sound contradictory to saying look at the future and work toward it, but it’s not. If you’re like me, it can be easy to get too caught up in memories of the past or fears of the future. I can’t do much about past events, but if I’m worried about the future I can affect that by what I do right now. I just realized this morning that our oldest daughter has only five Christmases left before she goes off to college. That’s five, people! The Christmases and birthdays as a solid family unit don’t stretch out endlessly before us anymore. They’re limited. How do I make those count? Not by making the perfect gingerbread house or buying the best present ever. By being present with her right now. I want to decide what I think is important for my kids’ futures and do the things in the present moment that work us toward that goal. That’s not just true for people with kids. We can do that in all areas of our lives. What do you want to remember about this time of your life? Work to be present for it.
  3.  Lower expectations. In school I used to want to have an A in every class. Not just an A, but the highest A. Then I realized that if I implemented suggestions 1 and 2 above I would not get the highest A. I began to lower my expectations because there are more important things to do than study, and studying all the time will not help me be present any more than studying less. If I want a perfect house, I have to sacrifice more important things (like my sanity) to get that. If good enough is really good enough, I have more time and energy to devote to the things I feel are higher priorities.

    Yes, that is indeed my youngest wearing a turkey headband. I’m lowering expectations, remember?

  4. Give up control. This is a big one. I used to be pretty type A. I wanted a schedule. I wanted things to go according to that schedule. I thought if I could list it and plan it I would be happier. But then I moved overseas. There nothing happened the way I thought it should, and every day became an exercise in accepting what I don’t understand. I remember standing at a bus stop and seeing a trolleybus roll up. It had its destination written on a card at the front, but it was in a language and an alphabet I didn’t know at all. I just said to myself “what the heck?” and got on, not knowing where it was going or if I’d get where I needed to be. Guess what. It went somewhere. With me on it. I don’t even remember if it went where I wanted to go or not, but I remember that moment because it was a moment of surrendering control. I’m still alive, so it must’ve worked out ok, right?

So now you’ve heard my ideas for getting thru the holidays. What are yours?

That Christmas Feeling

Nativity_tree2011

I always tell my kids, who sometimes worry there will be a gunman in their school massacring everyone, that this isn’t something to worry about. I tell them it’s rare that something like that happens, despite the fact we see stories about that very thing in the news just about every day now. I tell them they’ve got nothing to worry about, and I have to add even if the unthinkable did happen, God would take care of them and they’d be fine.

Secretly, though, these days I don’t know if I believe myself. We hear statistics about 355 mass shootings in the last year. We hear others saying that statistic is too high, based on loose standards, and if we go by stricter definitions of “mass shootings” the number is lower (see article here). But isn’t even one mass shooting too many?

We hear people say things like, “Guns don’t kill people. People kill people,” and declare that if everyone carried a gun, we would most certainly all be safer. Yesterday Jerry Fallwell Jr. even encouraged all of the students on the campus of Liberty University to carry a concealed weapon (see article here). Now, I’m not trying to say anything bad about college students; I work with a whole campus of them. Most of them are great and would be fine around firearms, but they’re young and impulsive and heaven forbid they get depressed and angry about a grade they got and have a gun in their back pocket! What about the many suicidal college students that struggle every winter? Do we care about them?

We’ve Lost It

But you know what? I didn’t start writing this to talk about gun control. I’m not even really sure where I fall in the opinions about who should have guns. I started writing because sometimes I feel like the whole world has lost its mind. We argue about everything. We’re so sensitive. We get our feelings hurt, we hold grudges. People work to provide an environment where everyone feels included and cared about, and then other people stand up and declare that being polite and kind with our words is politically correct and, dang it, they are tired of political correctness and would prefer just to blast everyone with their hurtful words.

What in the world?!

I hear people every Christmas say that they wish they could have the Christmas feeling all year. I want to say I’m not sure we’re ready to have that Christmas feeling all year. If we want to bring the Christmas feeling into January and February and beyond, we need to be ready to live with the peace and love that Jesus came here for. We need to work.

Falling in Love

love-05We’d love to just have this special feeling all the time, to feel this love and connectedness with others without putting forth any effort. We all know that’s not really possible. The feelings we have at Christmas are like the feelings we have when we fall in love. We see that special person and the whole world lights up. We feel so happy. We can’t believe there’s someone so very wonderful in the world. We feel like suddenly everything that was wrong about us is now right because that person somehow completes us. That’s the Christmas feeling. Somehow for just a few days, without any work at all, the world seems like a happier, more loving, more peaceful place where everyone feels good and makes us all feel good too.

But staying in love? That takes work. We begin to see the cracks, the flaws, the things we don’t always like about the other person. The things we’ve tried so hard to hide in ourselves start to show, and our insecurities come out. That’s when the real love begins, when we have to start working. That’s what I think happens in January. The shiny veneer the world had at Christmas wears off, and we see the cold, the snow, the harsh winds. We start thinking about ourselves again and how we don’t have enough money or we gained weight over the holidays. We start being irritable with the world and stop wanting that peace and love because it just costs too much. It takes too much work.

This Christmas, let’s go out of our way to give to others. Let’s do the Christmas stuff we like to do: bake the cookies, go caroling, decorate, donate and buy gifts. Let’s say we want the Christmas feeling to last all year. And then after Christmas, let’s put the work into loving other people, accepting our differences and caring about those who need care. Let’s put our words to work all year!

We Made It!

Spring...with a little snow in the background.

Spring…with a little snow in the background.

Days like today, when the sun shines and the temperatures soar into the 50’s, when the birds sing and the kids leave on their first bike ride of the season, these are days when the entire countryside emits a collective sigh. The sigh of warmth and hope and the sigh that says, “We made it! We made it through another winter!”

You could argue that it’s not spring yet, that spring doesn’t really start until March 20-something, and you’d be technically correct. You could also argue that it’ll get cold and maybe even snow again before warm weather hits for good, and you’d probably be right about that as well. You could argue that I’ll probably regret having turned off the furnace and opened the windows, and in a few hours when the sun goes down I’ll probably agree with you on that. But now, when I can sit in my house and hear the birds, when the cats nestle themselves up on the window sills to be close but not too close to the outside world that, in reality, scares them to death, when the dogs run happily in the back yard without threat of frostbite and when the sound of the wind chime means soft spring breezes and not an impending blizzard, I feel like spring.

These flowers are some of my favorites because I saw them every early spring in Ukraine. In Russian, the name means "under the snow" and I sometimes saw them growing up through the snow!

These flowers are some of my favorites because I saw them every early spring in Ukraine. In Russian, the name means “under the snow” and I sometimes saw them growing up through the snow!

When I feel like spring, I actually feel like cleaning the house. I feel like cleaning actually makes it clean and maybe even brings some of the spring inside with the warmer air instead of just moving around dust that I can’t ever get rid of in the winter. When I feel like spring, I feel like writing. Let’s face it, I didn’t write much this winter. I mean, I looked back on my blog, and I only wrote two or three posts all winter. Didn’t do any more than that in my journal, and I certainly didn’t put any words worth reading on any other sort of paper or digital file. When spring comes, though, my brain begins to emerge from the Netflix-induced haze of staying up too late and binging on crime shows. I start thinking things like, “why do I even care about watching that stuff when there’s so much good stuff in my head to get down for posterity?” (This may or may not be accurate, but I do think it nevertheless!)

I did create some stuff this winter. This is a baby blanket made with the most beautiful colors in the world (in my opinion).

I did create some stuff this winter. This is a baby blanket made with the most beautiful colors in the world (in my opinion).

That’s not to say I haven’t done anything this winter. On the contrary, winter is the time when I bury myself in blankets and, while vicariously chasing the latest serial killer on Netflix, knit and crochet enough scarves to warm a small village of the homeless I watch giving tips to the cops on Law and Order. It’s the time when I go to work and then come home and put on pj’s and don’t leave again. And if I have stuff to do in the evening and can’t hibernate, I lament the lost knitting/Netflix/pajama time alone. Winter should maybe be the time when I read more, but I hate to admit that I barely read because when I do I fall asleep. Probably because the night before I was up until 2 am…you know, twisting endless strands of yarn into clothing and keeping in touch with my cop friends.

Crochetin' it up! Sweet stuffed animals I made my kids for Valentine's Day.

Crochetin’ it up! Sweet stuffed animals I made my kids for Valentine’s Day.

I’ve thought a lot about this cycle. It happens every year. I like to do different things in different seasons, and the thought of doing them in other seasons really sorta repulses me. For example, give me a crochet hook and a ball of yarn in July, and I might just throw it back at you. No interest. Tell me to go and put on workout clothes and run a couple of miles on the treadmill in a dark (the lights won’t work for some ridiculous reason) garage in January, and my guilt cannot overpower my sense that nobody really notices the extra 18 pounds I’ve put on this winter, so why bother?

Just kidding…I don’t think I’ve put on 18 pounds…I may have…but, anyway, that’s all to say I don’t want to run in the winter, and in the summer I can’t imagine not.

IMG_7592

I used to feel bad about this, used to think to myself that I should enjoy my pursuits all the time and that I should practice them year round because I probably lost some ability, maybe diminished my talent in those times when I ignored something. In the last ten years or so, I’ve stopped chastising myself for my predictable inconsistency. I’ve started realizing that this is how people are. I mean, even nature in my part of the world reflects that. Always changing but always the same. Just about the time I think I’ll burn alive in the glaring sun of summer, fall hits and cooler weather brings relief. I break out my favorite sweaters and recall how comforting it is to wrap up and snuggle in and forget the world outside all winter. Then when the cold hangs around for a few months and I feel like my feet are permanent icicles and I move the heater under my desk at work closer and closer as the cold creeps deeper and deeper into my core, the sun comes out and ta da! It’s spring, and the cold becomes a thing of the past!

Snuggle up!

Snuggle in!

Ever notice how almost the moment spring hits, it’s hard even to remember snow? I mean, I still see snow piles at the end of my driveway today if I look for them, but I’m forgetting it already. That’s how it goes. If I didn’t have snow and cold, I don’t think I’d appreciate warmth and sun as much. The darkness of winter makes me more thankful for the light of summer. When the cold, dark days end and the spring arrives, we can start to forget the snow and the wind. If we didn’t, we’d move to Florida in despair!

Winter is Coming

Just a little chilly. Maybe put on a jacket.

Just a little chilly. Maybe put on a light jacket.

Before we moved to Nebraska, people said things like, “You’re gonna freeze out there. It’s practically the tundra.” I read books like My Antonia where the endless Nebraska winters produced suicidal tendencies in settlers living in dugouts. Even cashiers in grocery stores and people in our new neighborhood, upon finding out that we had arrived in June, said things like, “Oooh! You haven’t lived through a winter here yet.” I began to wonder if we had moved ourselves to Siberia on accident.

Prettymuch what we expected before we moved here.

Prettymuch what we expected before we moved here. It turned out to be more like what Cincinnati got after we left!

Then the winter hit, and it was cold. Temperatures reached down into the -20’s with wind chill factors in the -30’s. But guess what? Back in Cincinnati, our friends had the same kind of cold with one additional fun thing: lots and lots of snow. Like, many-snow-days-of-cancelled-school snow. Our kids pouted as they trudged to school day after day with only one cancellation the entire winter. We had very little snow here. I couldn’t help but smile when remembering the warnings about moving somewhere so violently freezing.

Around the end of April something interesting happened. It got warm. Really nice and really sunny and really warm, and the grass actually started getting green. Spring! By now, it’s summer, and we are experiencing the beginning of hot weather. Last summer it got up to around 105 or so, and I expect the same this year.

Summer view of the area around the college where I work.

Summer view of the area around the college where I work.

A couple of days ago, I stood in my office and looked out the window. I saw green fields and a few trees, their branches swaying in the wind. I saw beautiful blue skies with puffy white clouds. I stood there thinking about how beautiful it was outside, and I realized something. I realized I could not remember what that view looked like just a few months ago when the cold wind ravaged that prairie. I mean, intellectually I remember that it happened. I know in my mind that I used to dread Tuesdays and Thursdays because I had to walk from the building where my office is located to the building where chapel was held and the cold wind forced me to lean into it and stuff my already-gloved hands deeper into my pockets. While I do remember that, I don’t feel it. I don’t feel connected to it. I caught myself thinking, “Eh, it wasn’t all that bad.”

Winter view of almost the same spot as the above picture.

Winter view of almost the same spot. Note the side mirror in the picture…no way I was leaving the car for this one!

Maybe this is a Midwest thing. Maybe we’re so used to the extremes in weather that we just accept them. We complain about them, but we accept them. Then when they leave, we enjoy the new season. I know that some people love living in places where it’s warm all of the time, and I can definitely understand that. However, a big part of me thinks that the change of seasons is a gift. Right about the time I’m sick to death of hot weather and think I won’t be able to stand walking from a nice, air-conditioned house into the near-jungle humidity that is the Midwest summer, fall hits and cooler temperatures bring a sweet relief. When winter drags on and the darkness feels oppressive and the gray colors drab and I think I’ll be able to double-wrap my house in all of the crocheted items I’ve been creating all season to medicate my winter brain, spring comes, and I forget about winter.

One of those crocheted items I created to keep my fingers from freezing in the winter weather.

One of those crocheted items I created to keep my fingers from freezing in the winter weather. Yes, I may be showing off just a little.

Two weeks after I graduated from college, I moved to Ukraine. I spent the next five years there. The first winter dragged on for me. Weather that winter was colder and icier than any of the subsequent four I spent there. I lived alone, and, even though I had a job and spent most of the day doing it, I had lots of long, dark, quiet evenings full of reading and watching ten-year-old reruns of Santa Barbara. When spring hit, I learned two things:

1.  If you are the first to stop bundling up and start wearing regular clothes in public, everyone thinks you lost weight over the winter.

2.  When you survive something that was difficult and long, you remember it, but you also sorta forget it.

That spring, my friend and I were talking about whether we’d ever get married and lamenting the singleness that was our life at the time. I remember saying, “It’ll happen someday if it’s supposed to, and when it does the single times will be like last winter. We’ll remember them, but when the spring comes, they’ll seem like the distant past!” That goes for more than just singleness (and, let’s face it, some seasons of married life make the winter of my singleness look pretty good!). I’ve found that to be true for the Winter of My Children’s Babyhoods, and the Winter of Difficult Job Situations, and the Winter of Stressful Family Times. When those times subside and the spring hits, the intense emotions of the winter fade. Just as the pain of childbirth seems less after the baby is born (well, so we mothers claim!), the cold of winter and the pain of difficult times lessen when spring or resolution hit.

The gravel road leading to the college did get a little snowy. At least it kept the dust in place!

The gravel road leading to the college did get a little snowy. At least it kept the dust in place!

Don’t get me wrong here. I’m not saying that surviving hard times doesn’t require work. Sometimes getting through the winter requires resourcefulness, ingenuity, and downright toil! When the bulk of the work is done, though, and the light of spring starts to show through the cloudy, gray winter, and when the moment comes when I can stop and look out the window and finally take a deep breath, I realize I don’t remember winter the way I thought I would.

Ahhh! Spring has arrived!

Ahhh! Spring has arrived!

I write this because I need a reminder to enjoy today while I have it and not to stress out over the difficult things. I write this as a reminder to myself that if I focus on what’s good today, someday the bad things will seem like one of those distant winter memories. “Eh, it’s not so bad after all.” I write this so that this summer, when it’s 110 degrees and spending even three minutes outside threatens to turn me into a burnt ember, I will remember that soon all of the heat will be a memory, and the cool temperatures will rescue me!