Open Spaces

I love ceilings – as seen from lying on the floor. Their clean lines and absence of clutter openly invite thinking. When I was teaching, I was the lesson plan queen, staying late on Friday nights into the wee hours, planning every detail for the next week’s lessons. Since I was usually the only one in the building, I had no problem getting out of my desk chair and stretching out on the classroom floor to gaze at the ceiling as I pondered and cogitated the most efficient ways to present the lessons. I really enjoyed those nights; instead of feeling tired, I was energized, happy, and very creative.

Until last Saturday, I didn’t know that there is actually scientific evidence that people will think more creatively and expansively in rooms with high ceilings or in wide open spaces. I happened to catch an interview with Robert Cialdini on a radio broadcast called Tech Nation. Cialdini has written a new book called Pre-suasion: A Revolutionary Way to Influence and Persuade. One of the things he talked about in the interview was how to come up with creative and new approaches to problems you face. He said you should go to a room with a high ceiling, because people are more creative in big, expansive places. The room’s openness and expansiveness help people to think in big, expansive ways. Moira Gunn, the interviewer (who is from San Francisco) said, “Go to the library.” She must have access to an old, high-ceilinged library with lots of space. Cialdini agreed and said, “Or, go outside.” Perhaps this is why so many authors and composers take long walks out of doors; it helps them think more creatively.

This leads me to wonder: So often when we encounter problems with people, we sit down at a table to discuss the issues. Sometimes we pick public places, like a restaurant, so all parties will be less likely to lose control and cause a scene. Or we choose a small intimate space in an effort to stay focused on our mission.

I wonder if perhaps we set ourselves up for failure, or at least less than optimal results in these small spaces. What if we met in a park, or bounced our feelings off each other over a game of tennis? What if we gave ourselves enough room that none of us felt as if the weight of the problems were pressing in on us? Some people, especially those suffering from PTSD, need a solid wall behind them and open space in front of them, with more than one way to escape from their position. I think of the classic school principal or counselor/student conference – a small private room, often filled with the principal or counselor’s memorabilia, and the student sitting across the desk from the adult. How intimidating! (Yes, it used to be the norm to try to intimidate students into submission, but not anymore, thankfully.) What if we gave our students space so they didn’t feel trapped, space where they could run away if they chose, space where they could think their own thoughts without being afraid? And parents – what if we didn’t get in our kids’ faces? What if we got out of the house or car or shopping mall, found a wide open space that had nothing to do with the problem, and dialogued together to create a workable solution?

I wish I’d known this stuff when I got married, when my kids were small, and when I was a teacher. Now that I’m a writer, I think I’m going to work out my writing problems from the perspective of floor to ceiling space.

A Taste of Heaven

Gamers have a special relationship. So do sports aficionados. Foodies are no different. Sure, there are snobs in all categories, and ego, pride, and prejudice rear their ugly heads from time to time, but generally there is plenty of room for the thrill of discovery and shared enjoyment.

I happened to see the movie Ratatouille when it first came out. It is the story of the love child of a famous chef who inherits his father’s 5-star restaurant, but the kid has absolutely no cooking finesse. However, a rat, yes, a rat!, who longed for life beyond the garbage bins, started watching the famous chef on TV, the same chef who died and left his restaurant to his secret son. The rat learns how to communicate with the non-cooking boy, and together they turn out amazing food. The worst food critic comes to dine at the restaurant and the rat insists that he must eat ratatouille, which is not on the menu. You’ll have to watch the movie for the rest of the story. Sorry.

I had never heard of ratatouille before I saw the movie, but ever since, I’ve been looking for the perfect recipe. I’ve scoured cookbooks and ordered it in restaurants, but never been satisfied.

I’m sorry if you’re tired of hearing about my anniversary trip, but I promise this is the last post concerning it. For dinner that night, I ordered trout with ratatouille – and went to heaven. It tasted the way ratatouille is supposed to taste. I came home and renewed my quest for the perfect recipe because eggplant, zucchini, and yellow squash are in season now. No luck.

In desperation, I went to the restaurant’s webpage and clicked ‘contact us.’ I sent a polite note saying that I had enjoyed their ratatouille and was sure they do not share their recipes, but could they possibly point me to a recipe that might be similar?

I was totally amazed when I got an email back from their executive chef saying that they do things a bit differently from what you can find online…and here’s how.

So tonight I feasted on ratatouille at home. No, it’s not exactly the same, but close enough. The reason I write this is that positive relationships are important to me. I encourage you to let people know when they please you. Show your gratitude. And when the food warrants it, don’t be shy about asking for the recipe if you like to cook. Even if the answer is ‘no,’ the fact that you asked is pretty high flattery and will usually be appreciated.

If you’re ever in Kansas City, Missouri, I recommend the Brown and Loe restaurant in the River Market area. Reservations are advised, but the food and the staff are wonderful!

Tying Us All Together

Some people like consistency, with everything in its place, and they like to know exactly what will happen and when. But that’s not me. I happen to like change. I love to watch the seasons changing – I love summer’s heat, winter’s cold, spring’s daily surprises, and the slow dying of fall. I like hosting dinner parties, and cleaning up afterward in peace and quiet. I like challenging projects that take a long time to complete.

But perhaps most of all, I love surprises. I am empowered by the joy I feel when I happen to see a spectacular sunrise or sunset (which happens frequently in Kansas. You should come and see!). I feel so very loved, and humbled, when someone does something special for me, or just takes the time to notice me. Today I share two surprises with you – one was a project of mine, the other, many people coming together to affirm their familyness.

In 1925 my husband’s grandmother purchased an upright piano and had it shipped via train from Kansas City to a western Kansas farm. Many children learned to play piano on that instrument, and when all the kids were grown and gone, the piano was loaned to various friends and neighbors. In 1979 I married into this family. I needed a piano to teach piano lessons, so the piano moved to our house. But five houses (moves) later, the piano just would not hold a tune anymore. We acquired my mom’s piano instead, but what to do with Grandma’s piano? It was part of the family. Over the course of at least 2 years, perhaps 3, I stripped off the finish and rubbed three coats of tung oil into the walnut wood, took out everything but the cast iron frame and the pedals, and turned it into a computer desk. I’m grateful for a husband who spent most of a day helping me to put it all back together and get it into the house. Every time I walk by this completed project, my stomach does a little flip flop, not just because it is finally finished, and because it turned out so well, but because it reaffirms family ties that began long before I came on the scene.

In an earlier blog, I wrote about our entire family gathering in Kansas City to surprise me for our anniversary. What I didn’t share was the part the children had in the event. Whenever we hosted family get togethers as our children were growing up, I always tried to make sure our kids were in on the preparations. I’m delighted to know that our children feel the same way. Our grandkids were ages 8, 5, and 5 months at the time, but our daughters made sure they had a part in our anniversary celebration. With the help of their moms and aunt, the kids created a painting using their hands and feet that represents their part in our family.

(It was probably a good idea that the 5-year-old was stripped down to underwear. I am told that she had as much paint on her as on the canvas by the time they were finished. You can see the 5-month old’s footprints in the upper right corner of the completed painting.)

I love surprises, especially those that tie us together.

Content Without Attitude

American culture tries to keep us discontented with almost everything. If something is good, more is better. If something is bad, there is always worse. Things that are new – well that was yesterday; today you need this because it is newer and therefore better. We are not to be content with our jobs, our income, our possessions, or our marriages. We need more, better, different, more exciting, more efficient, more expensive, more fashionable, or to excel in yet another area, and on and on and on.

But hidden deep inside most of us is a longing to be content. We harbor a secret need to be at peace within ourselves and to be accepted just as we are.

The problem is, I am wired to notice the faults in others, and so are most people I know. We feed our egos by comparing us to them in ways that give us the advantage. We are quick to see that he’s overweight, (and we are disgusted at the same time that we are proud we maintain a proper weight); she has no sense of fashion, (and we feel superior in our trendy clothes); he can’t organize his time, (the fact that we are efficient makes us a much more valuable employees than he); her grammar keeps her from getting a higher paying job, (and we enjoy our arrogance because high school and college were easy for us – and she didn’t even go to college). This built-in negative comparing makes us restless. We want to escape, to go where people are “like us.”

It also makes us hard to be accepted and loved.

Contentment works backward, really. It’s like the old saying, if you want a friend, be one. If you seek personal contentment, learn to be content with other people the way they are. I’m not saying that you allow abuse or misuse of power or anything like that. But I am saying that if you dwell on what you would change in others, if their “faults” attract your attention more than their personhood, you breed your own discontent. The golden rule of do unto others as you would have them do to you is good advice. Only this isn’t doing, it is thinking, feeling, and reacting.

Our attitudes make us who we are. If you want to be content and accepted as you are, well, you have to be that toward others. It’s that simple – and that hard.

Bright Spots

Many years ago I taught in a school where probably 75% of our students lived at or below the poverty level. These kids knew what abuse was, and they knew how to become invisible when situations became difficult for them. Sam was one of those kids. He always wore a smile to music class, but if he was unsure or uncomfortable with a task, it was like he disappeared. I simply didn’t notice him. (I wasn’t the only teacher who experienced this, so it wasn’t that I was blind.)

In an effort to bring out the best in my students, because some of them had little use for education, I copied off yellow paper circles that I called bright spots. If I noticed a particular action or behavior that I thought deserved merit, I wrote the student’s name and what I noticed on the circle and gave it to the student. Sometimes I wrote these after school, so I slipped the bright spot in the student’s music folder for him to find when he came to class the next time.

When we cleaned out our folders on the last day of class, Sam pulled out all his bright spots and stuffed them in his pocket. “I’m keeping these,” he told me.

I often wondered just what those bright spots meant to Sam. I think I know now, and I wish I had back then. Sam needed to be noticed. He needed to know that his being there had made a difference. Life hadn’t been kind to him, and it probably still isn’t, but Sam needed to know that there was someone out there who cared enough to notice him.

I think about the people who struggle in life. Most of them are quite good at coping, figuring out how to survive, and just getting by. But they are afraid of people who are different from them, and people who have fewer problems in life scare them. I have learned that it is not a good idea to do things for people, unless they specifically ask me to. If I feel action is needed, it is best to act with them. But I have discovered that the very best gift I can give people who struggle is to notice them, to speak with them, to spend time with them, to eat with them, and to treat them as an equal human being. In other words, I become a bright spot to them.

I wonder, how many problems could we help solve not by trying to solve the problem, but instead by empowering people with our gift of attention? What if we believed in them enough that they believe in themselves? And if they believe in themselves, would they be more willing to risk finding permanent solutions to the struggles that are their way of life? I wonder…

Commitment?

Commitment is hard to come by these days, at least according to some people. I’m not so sure I agree. I think people don’t commit to the same things they used to commit to, but they are still willing to commit – if conditions are right.

It used to be true that a job was who you were, a career would see you through to retirement, marriage was once in a lifetime, and family lasted forever. Pretenses were important, sometimes at any cost, and family status, name, and honor were the keys to stability. People committed to things that made them socially acceptable, honored the family, and guided them up the ladder of success. None of this is true anymore.

One thing has remained constant: the importance of relationships. Each generation has had its own kind of relationships. When I was a youngster, families and social organizations were where relationships were built. The military, service organizations, common social causes, political groups, civic and cultural activist groups, sports, and religion have all served as relationship-builders. But today’s youth are not prone to joining in. They stay connected through social media – at least they think they do. Actually, even they will admit that social connections often leave them more isolated than connected, yet they lack the skills to build real relationships.

And that’s where we come in. You and I know one-on-one, personal relationships are the key to just about everything. YES, they take a lot of time and a tremendous amount of work! But relationships are what hold us together as a human race, and if we don’t make the effort to establish relationships, who will? It has to start somewhere…

As I ponder just what shape my now-retired-from-teaching life will take, I see people all around me who need someone to care about them, someone they can trust, someone they can call a friend. I feel that I am being called to be in relationship with these people in ways that will help them to build resilient relationships that will withstand the tests of time. I want others to know the joy of being committed to people, regardless of the circumstances.

Message Sent: Message Received

After the choir sang their anthem for the worship service, they exited en masse through a side door and did not return to the sanctuary. The pianist stayed to play for the vocalist during the offering, and then she, too, left. I know this because I tried to find her – she’s a music colleague, and I was visiting her church over the Memorial Day weekend. The pastor, admittedly a substitute, spoke at great length about himself and his experiences, but did not tie his thoughts in any way to the scripture, the hymns, or the prayers that had been offered. Message sent: Well, I’m not sure what the message was supposed to be. Message received: This is how we play church. We all do our part because that’s what we’re supposed to do. But it’s all for show; it really doesn’t mean anything.

A teacher handed out numerous awards at the closing ceremony for middle school students. She had made a couple of mistakes, however, and the affected students went to find her after the assembly. Sadly, the teacher had gone home after her part on the program. Message sent: Good job, students! It’s been a great year! Message received: We students, parents, and community members don’t matter outside the classroom. This teacher is interested in us only so far as her job is concerned.

Four foster kids get a visit with their dad for three hours once a month. They all go to a movie, but it is the movie Dad chose, not the one they wanted to see. Afterward, they all get McDonald’s milkshakes. Dad checks his messages on his phone the whole time and yells at his kids to stop messing around. Message sent: Good to see you, kids. The judge has given me this time with you, and this is something we can all do together. Message received: We really have nothing in common. I’ve got my life and you really aren’t part of it. Thank God for foster homes!

This grandma agreed to watch her granddaughters while their parents got away for a much-needed kid-free weekend. Life intervened, and Grandma was prevented from just relaxing and enjoying her grandkids. The kids ended up helping more than usual with meal preparation, cleanup, and evening baths. 

But, they also learned new ways to entertain themselves so Grandma could work on a project that couldn’t wait.

We always took time out for our tradition of 4 o’clock tea, though, complete with princess garb and proper manners.

 

 

 

 

 

 

And when Grandma’s projects were finished, we celebrated at a town festival and got our faces painted.

 

 

 

 

 

Message sent: I love you, I want to spend time with you, but it just won’t be in the usual way this time. Message received: I have found new skills, I am capable, I enjoy being trusted to make good decisions about safety and appropriate play when I’m out of Grandma’s sight.        

Never Give Up, NEVER

A young man stumbled into his parents’ home in the wee hours of the night and passed out on their couch, drunk. His parents, light sleepers from years of worry about their son, heard all this. The man’s mother got out of bed, and his father assumed she was trying not to bother him as she went to another room to cry. But the father didn’t hear anything, and presently he went to look for his wife. He found her kneeling beside the couch, stroking her son’s matted hair and speaking gently to him.

“What are you doing?” asked the father. “He’s doesn’t even know you’re there. Come on back to bed.”

The young man’s mother shook her head and said, “He won’t let me love him when he’s awake.”

Kids do disappoint their parents sometimes. And way too often parents disappoint their kids. In my parenting days, I was too quick to throw in the towel and call it quits. Granted, I always tried to make up for it later, but the damage was done.

The young man’s story has a happy ending – well, a happy continuation. Today he is a focused, successful middle aged man, happy in his profession, his marriage and family, and his life. He is able to love himself and others, and enjoys being loved by friends, colleagues, and family.

When you’re hurting, allowing yourself to be loved makes you very vulnerable. Fragile people do their best to protect themselves from more hurt, often turning their backs on people who want to love them.

For the sake of those who struggle, (and we all do at some point), never give up on people. This doesn’t mean you let them walk all over you, it doesn’t mean there are no consequences. But it does mean that you are always there to offer hope, to encourage, and to believe in them when they can’t believe in themselves. Please, never give up. Not on yourself, not on your partner, or your parents, and especially not on your children. Be the possibility for each tomorrow.

To My Children, In Honor of Mother’s Day

Our road wasn’t always smooth. You didn’t come with instructions, and I often preferred to do it my way, anyway. I tried to be a good mom, though, and even though I got an awful lot wrong, it seems you have grown up to be people whom others like and respect. That’s huge! And wonderful! Every time I see you, I am so grateful for who you are and for the care you take of other people.

On this Mother’s Day, I ask that you give yourselves the gifts you have given me:  Acceptance
Forgiveness
Belief
Hope

And may your children, and all those who look to you for love and guidance, pass on these gifts to their children, all because you accept, forgive, believe in, and hope for them.

Love, Mom

Aspirations and Avocations

In fourth grade I aspired to be a concert pianist. This didn’t happen, and that’s probably a good thing. Next I wanted to be a submarine captain, but needing glasses in seventh grade put a stop to that. (In those days, you had to have perfect vision in order to serve on a submarine.) As a freshman in high school, I was extremely active in the music program, but also debated on the varsity team. I knew I had to make a choice my sophomore year. I couldn’t do music and debate, there just wasn’t enough time. (This was before the days of computers.) I chose music simply because I had more years of practice invested in it. So, by default, really, I became a music education major in college. (By then I knew I wasn’t good enough to be a piano performance major.)

I did well in college – until student teaching. I had decided I’d like to teach on an Indian reservation since I had spent several years in childhood living next to the old Rosebud reservation in South Dakota. My teaching supervisors arranged for me to student teach at a government boarding school for American Indians in Riverside, CA. They didn’t have a music program, though, so I literally winged it student teaching in math and English.

I came away from that experience not wanting to teach at all, so I took a Greyhound bus back to my family in Kansas and told my parents I didn’t want to teach. My dad, thankfully, sternly told me that I’d get paid more teaching than anything else I could do, and that I should try it for two years. I did, and became a school band and choir teacher.

And then I got married – to another band director. We spent the next 30 years living in towns where he taught, moving whenever he wanted to change school jobs. I took whatever teaching positions I could find. I had dreamed of having outstanding high school bands or choirs, becoming a noted composer, and being nominated as an outstanding music educator. None of those ever happened, and I often felt cheated in life.

But I have discovered something. Though I am comfortable in front of people, and I love sharing the lime-light when the occasion arises, I am happiest when I am in the background making it possible for other people to succeed. This afternoon I stopped by the grocery store on my way home from work. An elderly lady in the checkout line in front of me had bought eggs. The cashier asked her if she had checked her eggs and she replied that she had. The cashier double-checked, and one egg was cracked on the bottom. Without thinking, I said that I’d run back and get a replacement carton of eggs for her. Both the lady and the checker stared at me as I left, and I think they each thanked me three times before the lady left. To me, it was no big deal and I was glad I could help. To them, however, it seemed to be a highly unusual act. To me, it was no different from my greeting worshippers on Sunday morning at our church elevator door entrance. It’s just a polite thing to do. And yet – I’m really happy when I do things like that. Spontaneous kindness just feels good.

To tell the truth, I did have two years of good choirs in my last full-time teaching position. But it wasn’t the grand performances that made me the happiest, though they were fun. It was the individual student achievements and accomplishments, the students that started with little talent and blossomed into real musicians.

I guess I’ve spent most of my life chasing the bright lights, forgetting to realize that life happens in the small, spontaneous, and genuine moments that almost never get noticed. I’m glad I’ve been given enough life to find my real avocation.