Trading places

change your lifeEarlier this week, a woman I admire bravely hugged her 14YO son goodbye as he set off on a European adventure. Underneath a healthy dose of momma-trepidation, she’s thrilled for him to have this experience. We’ve had a few conversations about what he’ll gain from it, and I–for the millionth time–thought, We need more international youth exchange programs.

Then this morning, a colleague forwarded an article about the Christian church struggling to come to terms with racism. (You can read it HERE, if you’re interested.) It’s crazy to me how segregated the vast majority of American churches remain, and I thought, We really need a church exchange program.

Somehow that thought took me back nearly twenty years, when I was a young whippersnapper with all the answers at a global company. Every time someone from a non-US location would visit or one of my American colleagues would grouse about someone from “over there” just not getting it, I’d think, We really need a business exchange program. In fact, I even tried to float it by HR a couple of times.

Then I remembered that a couple of months ago, while I visited the parent company of my current employer, I was confronted by the diversity of the different lines of business housed in each of our subsidiaries. I found myself surprised at how uninformed our parent was about what we do, and vice versa. Again I thought, We really need a company exchange program.

It seems to have become second nature for me to think of a culture swap any time communication or behavioral hurdles arise, and I thank my experience with youth exchange for that. You see, immersing oneself in a different culture–whether it be geographical, religious, commercial, racial, or pretty much anything else–allows you to get a little bit closer to understanding the why in someone else’s actions. It also breaks relationships into individual encounters, rather than sweeping judgments about a broader group. It not only shapes the person going on the exchange, but also the people receiving her on the other end.

If I had to pick a metaphor to describe the effects of exchange, it would look something like this video that went viral yesterday (PLEASE watch it):

https://www.nbcnews.com/widget/video-embed/1254293059903

As the winning pitcher consoles the friend he just struck out, I’m internally screaming YES! YES! YES! We CAN be friends with someone on a different team.

So get out there and explore someone else’s world. Get to know your neighbors, near and far. Spend time with people who don’t look/think/eat/believe like you. They might be across the ocean or across the street. We don’t always have to agree, but we’ll all be better for it.

P.S. Thanks, Amy, for giving your son this incredible gift.

P.P.S. Here’s a link to another article, shared recently by a friend. Kumbaya, everyone.

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My checkered past

The_Childrens_Museum_of_Indianapolis_-_CheckersReminiscing with my dad the other day, we started talking about the way different family members had shaped our lives–even through lessons they may have never intended to teach.

Enter my grandpa.

I was by far his favorite granddaughter–so what if I was the ONLY granddaughter he knew before he died–and we adored each other. He was sick a lot in the years I had with him, so our time was spent mostly indoors, where he would read or recite poetry to me and we would play games.

Grandpa was a killer checkers player, and even at five and six years old, I couldn’t wait to break out the board. It didn’t matter that I never won; I could feel myself getting better each time, and I just KNEW that the next time we played, I was going to win.

Of course, I never won. Ever. As much as he loved me, Grandpa never let me win. What would have been the purpose? Having achieved my goal, I likely would have flitted to a new favorite pastime, and I definitely wouldn’t have learned much.

Grandpa really played it smart. He could have trounced me from the get-go, but I probably would have lost interest pretty quickly. Instead, he backed off his game just enough to keep me engaged. Every game played meant I learned something new about strategy. I remember him pointing out moves and showing what I could have done, my young brain eager to take it all in. (Once in a while he even let me have a do-over so I could take advantage of the move he had just shown me. He did have a soft spot for me, after all.) I kept playing and playing, my little bitty self just knowing the next game would be my first win.

Although my grandpa died when I was just eight years old, his lessons have affected me all my life. Earn your win. Learn along the way. Spend time with people you love.

Splitting hairs

MF2-2201I work in a building full of office suites, and everyone on the same floor shares a restroom. Frequently, I cross paths there with a woman from a neighboring company, and she almost always comments on my hair–its thickness, the cut, the color. This woman always makes me feel good about a feature that normally gives me a lot of headaches (yeah, I did that on purpose), especially when I’ve never seen her anything but perfectly coiffed.

Until today.

I walked into the restroom, where she stood in front of the mirror with her head bent down. She popped up like a shot when I said hello and immediately began apologizing. I didn’t understand what was going on. I thought she had just been brushing her hair, but she was super embarrassed and said as much.

It turns out that my office neighbor wears a wig. When I walked into the bathroom, she had just put it back on and was adjusting its fit. She told me how several years ago she had experienced a period of extreme stress and lost much of her hair. Of course, the hair loss added to her stress and contributed to this vicious cycle. Eventually she bought a wig to relieve herself of at least that worry.

We had a nice chat, in which I told her I had no idea her beautiful ‘do was actually a wig. (I really didn’t.) When I finally walked back to my office, I couldn’t help thinking that there was a lesson in this. I could never figure out why this lady seemed so fascinated with my hair when hers was always perfect. Now I know that the story ran much deeper.

What a great reminder that things aren’t always what they seem. Everyone has a story, and it’s probably not the one we imagine from the outside looking in.

Behavior modification

I’m actually kind of shocked that no one mentioned that the same lessons I want to teach my daughter, noted last week in my post Best behavior, would be just as valuable to my maba_pleasebemindful_signson. In fact, I was kicking myself for not acknowledging this in my post, because it’s 100% true. In any case, something had me thinking about my daughter that day and how girls need strong role models, and well, I won’t bore you with the rest. Just know that I desperately want my son to benefit equally from those lessons.

Which brings me to today’s musings. I had a conversation a couple of days ago with a friend, who shared with me her escalating frustration with her ex. The guy lives a couple of hours away, so they meet in the middle to pick up/drop off their son for visitation. It seems that lately, Mr. Ex has been getting quite handsy with my friend.

She told me that it started with Mr. Ex grabbing her backside while she was buckling her school-aged son into his car seat. She ignored it, but she noticed that her son was positioned to see everything.

The next time, Mr. Ex got bolder. He made the same grabbing move, but this time on the front side–if you know what I mean. My friend swatted his hand away and silently swallowed her indignation. Once again, she tried to ignore it.

I asked her why she didn’t tell him to keep his hands to himself (read: to get the he** away from her). She gave me an answer about not wanting her son to see his mom and dad fighting or to see his dad in a bad light or some such.

Back. The. Truck. Up.

I couldn’t stop myself from blurting, So you want your son to think that it’s okay to touch women inappropriately and without their permission? You want him to think it’s no big deal for a married man to grope a woman who is not his wife? You want him to grow up thinking this behavior is perfectly normal?

My friend stopped for a second and blinked. She hadn’t thought of it that way at all. She hadn’t realized that her lack of response was also teaching him a lesson.

My friend is a contemplative woman; she been on a constant journey of self-examination for the past several years. I know she has been chewing on this since our conversation, and I’m pretty sure she’ll handle similar circumstances much differently from now on–for her son’s sake, if not her own.

As I thought about her situation, it just reinforced my conviction about sending messages with our behavior. What we don’t do can be just as powerful as what we do.

Be mindful, always.

PS. In case you were wondering, my friend gave me permission to share her story here. 

On being personable

Humankind-Be-Both-Button-(0127)There’s an author I’ve been following since back in the early days of my own blog. I liked the way she wrote, and she had an amusing way of drawing people into her content by using suggestive titles that made me laugh. Heck, back in those days her blog was even called The Accidental Cootchie Mama.

One day she put a call to action in one of her posts, and I responded. I don’t even remember what it was–something about taking a few seconds out of my day to help her friend. It seemed easy enough, so I did it and commented accordingly. Lo and behold, this person–this author–responded. To little ol’ me. For some reason, that made me feel important.

Fast forward a few years, and The Accidental Cootchie Mama gave way to a real-life author blog. You see, my writer had PUBLISHED A BOOK! This was exciting for me, since I felt a kinship with her, this blogger-has-big-writing-dreams-and-starts-accomplishing-them person. I identified with the first half of that description, and her success gave me hope for the second half. I still follow her because she’s real to me.

Fast forward again, and now she’s three books in. I’m learning a lot about the grueling nature of a book tour and the only-glamorous-on-the-outside life of a published author. This woman works hard for everything she gets. She’s trying to eke out a living on the book circuit while she wrestles with a bunch of personal issues. But you know what, she’s transparent about it. She’s real, and I love that about her.

Yesterday I noticed a Facebook post that screamed for acknowledgement. Her energy and resolve were flagging, so I added a comment. Guess what.

Within seconds, she responded. It made my day.

What’s the point of this rambling post? I wasn’t entirely sure when I started writing; I just felt that there was something important in this incident. As I’ve worked this out on my keyboard, here’s what I think now.

Behind every facade, whether it’s a book cover, a marquee, an athletic jersey, a title, or a pasted-on smile, you’ll find a real person. Don’t ever forget that, and treat people accordingly.

And don’t forget that real people have ups and down, just like the rest of us real people. If it feels right, throw a word of encouragement their way. Or support. Or love. Or even just recognition of the fact that the person is a, well, person. Not an author or an actor or an athlete or an elected official or a teacher or a business mogul or a cab driver, but a person with hopes and dreams and trials and disappointments.

We’re all in this together. And words do matter.

P.S. If you get a chance, check out http://andrawatkins.com/blog/. Whether or not her writing ends up speaking to you, she’d surely appreciate your interest. After all, she’s a real person.

Lessons learned

Teacher-writing-on-blackboard564My kid will be home from college in a few days (four, but who’s counting?), and boy-oh-boy, have I learned a lot this year. Yes, you read that correctly. I, THE MOM, have learned a lot from my boy’s first college year.

When I started this post, I intended to write about all the things my boy has conquered, is in the process of conquering, or even wants to conquer. If you read The pomp following the circumstances, you’ll remember that his academic journey hasn’t been easy. Now that he’s finding his footing, I realized that the rest of the story–still being written–is his to tell.

So I’ll tell you mine.

After years of trying to find the right buttons to push, I’ve handed my bub the control panel. That hasn’t been easy, but it hasn’t killed me, either. In fact, I’m starting to like it.

Here’s what I’ve taken away from these first two semesters.

  1. True motivation comes from within. We all know this, right? The concept is easy enough to apply to ourselves, especially when we want to push back against someone who is pushing us to do something. I’ll do it when I’M ready, not when you tell me to. Or think about any time you’ve tried to lose weight for a wedding, a high school reunion, or a trip to the beach. I don’t know about you, but once the event is over, I jump right back into my old habits. Oh, it’s not intentional, but once the external motivator has passed, I’m rudderless. So how does this apply to my first year as a college mom? I’ve had to recognize that my boy has to find his motivation the same way. I can’t push and prod and cajole and wheedle him into learning, not at this level. I can and will support him any way he wants me to, but the drive has to be all his. Not being there to look over his shoulder has helped us both grow up.
  2. Sometimes you have to screw up to understand the lesson. Failure is a part of life; it teaches you how to handle adversity. You learn what doesn’t work so you can get right back to trying what does. (CLICK HERE to check out this short vid if you question the value of failure. It’s worth the eleven minutes.) I screw up all the time, and it teaches me to not do the same thing in the same way if I want to succeed. That may seem self-evident, but when it comes to my kids, reason flies out the window. I know it in my head,  but in my heart, Momma wants to make it all better. … You know what’s coming. I got a phone call from my son midway through the first semester. He had screwed up, and he called to tell me about it. Thankfully, I kept my mouth shut and listened. I found that he was mad at himself for being stupid, and he had already taken steps to deal with the incident. He had a plan and he followed through on it, correcting his mistake and moving forward. The phone call wasn’t to ask for help. It was to give me the courtesy of letting me know. Lesson learned–for both of us.
  3. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander. I’m usually the first person to share introspective commentary; heck, I have years of blog posts to show for it. But those are for me. If you find value in them, great, but my kids? I have to protect them! Keep them safe! I have to take care of things! Umm…yeah. Clearly humility is not my strong suit. It’s pretty egotistical to think I can fix everything, and it’s downright selfish to buffer them from life’s important lessons. If I had to learn them on my own, they probably do, too.
  4. Letting go is rewarding. I’m much better at the end of this year than I was at the beginning, but I still have a lot to learn. It hasn’t always been easy (though the miles have helped to remove daily interaction in the minutiae), but I love this new phase. The conversations about philosophy and politics and just regular life stuff have started to outweigh the exchanges about logistics and to-do lists. I’m seeing him as a person and not just my kid–and I really, really like this guy.

It’s hard to helicopter from 1100+ miles away, so I’ve had to assume a sit-back-and-try-to-relax posture. Some of my lessons have been hard-won, and others have sneaked up on me. Hopefully they’ve sunk in. Spending the next three months under the same roof will make it easy to slip back into old habits; check back with me at the end of the summer to see if I’ve really taken these lessons to heart.

P.S. I’ve got one more year till my daughter leaves for college. She’s a completely different personality, so I suspect I’ll be blessed with a whole different set of lessons. Stand by.

Chew on this

SONY DSC

For nearly two years, three tiny Tootsie Rolls have made their home in the console of my car, nestled among a pile of pennies. I can no more bring myself to eat them than to throw them away. Every time I try to do either, I remember.

My son and I were headed east to visit colleges. We’d stopped for lunch at a Panera a couple of hours away from home, where an old man tottered through the restaurant, handing out cheer and Tootsie Rolls. He was just trying to brighten people’s day, making even the grumpiest adults giggle like children when he placed his candy in their hands. I loved it.

When we headed back to our car, I noticed my son carefully place his candies on a ledge outside the restaurant. I scooped them up, afraid that the old man might see, and hopped in the car.

“Why did you do that?” I asked.

“I’m not going to take candy from someone I don’t know,” explained my son.

Oof. The wind went out of me.

Apparently all those don’t-take-candy-from-strangers harangues when he was a kid actually stuck with him. Mom win, right?

At the same time, I felt sad. Had he missed the joy of the moment? Do we find ourselves in a world where even the smallest gestures of goodwill must be rejected for safety’s sake? Would I have let a seven-year-old take the candy I was so willing to let a seventeen-year-old eat? There was lesson in here somewhere, but I wasn’t quite sure what it was.

I’m still not sure what it is, actually. There are so many options. Don’t take candy from strangers. Take joy in the small things. Be careful. Be grateful. 

I can’t throw away those three chocolate tidbits because I don’t know which lesson is the right one. Somehow, they both have merit, and neither claims victory over the other. Maybe the lesson is found in the balance.

And so they remain, giving me something to chew on every time I see them.