Grace Extended.

We send ripples throughout our community.

May we each notice the nature of our ripples.
Grace extended journeys on.

Image by Jaylene Whitehurst, copyright 2010

Image by Jaylene Whitehurst, copyright 2010

October haiku

In silvery notes
Autumn rains down golden leaves
October morning

~~~jaylene whitehurst

Image: Autumn Wolf Woman,  copyright Jaylene Whitehurst.
wolf woman

Somebody has to do it: Shift work

It's 10:25 PM and that's a workday for lots of people.

It’s 10:25 PM and that’s a workday for lots of people.

Somebody has to do it.
Somebody has to care for the sick in the middle of the night or answer the call when shots ring out. Somebody has to haul goods over road or rail, day and night, or keep the machines of industry churning 24/7. Somebody has to work the all-night gas station or sort the packages that eventually land on our doorsteps. Somebody has to stock store shelves to get ready for the next morning and somebody has to clean offices after they are closed to the public.
On any given night, while my head is on the pillow, many of my neighbors are at work, providing safety and protection to the public. Others are on the job, serving the incessant demands of a society that no longer sleeps. They work, driven by businesses that never stop.
Approximately one in six U.S. workers is employed doing a version of shift work. Generally speaking, this term refers to work hours that fall outside the 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. time frame, often including weekends. The National Sleep Foundation has a more restrictive definition of shift work, calling it all work that falls outside of a 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. workday, extending shift work to include early morning and late evening hours plus rotating and weekend schedules. According to the NSF, approximately fifteen percent of full-time wage earners work non-traditional hours.
Most of us know someone who is directly affected by long and late work days that run throughout the night. Whether we work shift work ourselves, are related to someone who does, or are the recipients of the shift worker’s labor, the relationships within many families in our community is affected by this schedule.
While I suspect that in our community that there may be more than one in six employees occupied by shift work, one thing I know for sure: maintaining relationships and a good quality of life, while managing non-traditional work hours, doesn’t happen by accident. It takes deliberate planning.
Like many others, my family members are survivors of shift work. For nearly twenty-eight years, my husband worked a rotating shift and, prior to that, his jobs involved either straight nights or staggered shifts and weekends. In forty years of marriage, he has never worked a Monday through Friday, straight day job.
Yes, he was the one actually at work, but our family became a shift-working family. And that included his parents and my parents; all of our close connections were affected. Even when they knew he was off work, friends were cautious about calling for fear of waking him up needlessly. Frankly, while we were in the process of riding the shift working train, it was all I could manage to hang on and try to not wake Gerry up when he was asleep. It’s only now, with a few years’ hindsight, that I can look back and appreciate how challenging it was.
Decades ago, when Gerry first began working nights because that was the available shift, we didn’t have access to support in managing night work and family/social life. We stumbled along the best we could and stumbling it was. While he was never completely rested, I was always completely frustrated with the inconsistency of our lives, which felt to me like a chaotic mix of gratitude for steady work and deep fatigue, both physical and emotional.
Nowadays there are myriad online resources citing research, mostly about the increased risk of shift work on employees’ health (concerns about heightened risks of diabetes, heart disease, breast cancer, digestive problems, depression, and infertility, among others). A quick online search yields page after page of concerns about how the disrupted circadian rhythm of night workers appears to play havoc with physical health.

However, when it comes to the relationship effects of shift work, the information circulating is mostly anecdotal. From person to person, successfully juggling family and friends with shift work remains a process of trial and error, an ongoing balancing act on the parts of everyone involved.
My perspective of shift work is biased because of its impact on my own family, so I checked in with others to get a fuller picture of how they wound up working nights or how their lives have been affected by someone else’s work schedule.
In several professions, coverage twenty-four hours a day is the nature of the job. Health care workers, law enforcement officers, and fire fighters face this as the reality of the work they are drawn to. These men and women knew the deal going in.
Several mentioned that they accomplished more work at night when the administrative staff is largely absent. In fact, they preferred the less intense atmosphere enough to choose nights.
A couple of friends opted for the late shift in order to juggle childcare with the other working parent. One woman looked back, shaking her head in amazement, at her years of working nights as a nurse and then coming directly home in the morning to care for her little one. Fueled by caffeine, she stayed awake, napping only when her child did. Handing her off to the dad when he got home in the afternoon, she got a little shut eye and headed back to the hospital to do it all over again.
The extra income from a shift differential was incentive for some to request nights. And speaking of income, more than one person mentioned that many who work nights have second jobs. Whether they have their own businesses or fit other employment in around their night work, the schedule allows them to bring in more income, be it a financial necessity or a choice.
Night owls opted for the late shift. These are the individuals who will never be perky in the morning no matter how much coffee they gulp down. Even if they weren’t working nights, they’d naturally be cleaning out closets at midnight and going to bed at 3 a.m.
Finally, and most often mentioned, was that employees wound up on nights simply because they needed a job and took what was available.
For some people the adjustment comes easier than to others, but the refrain “It gets harder” was repeated by every single person who’d worked the graveyard shift for years.
No matter the adjustment or the reasons for working nights, there is a thread of isolation that connects all of us affected by shift work. Even the men and women who opted to work nights acknowledged a sense of social disconnection, feeling out of sync with their families and friends.
Those effects ripple throughout the family and social network of the shift worker. Even when children try to understand the absence of a parent and are accustomed to Dad’s or Mom’s schedule, they miss their parent at special events, large and small. And to children, there are no small events. One woman told me about how it was for her as a child, always tiptoeing around the house, trying with all her might not to disturb Daddy because he’d be grumpy if she disturbed his day sleep. She didn’t get to have company because little girls are noisy. The pain lingers to this day because her dad missed so many of her birthdays when she was young and, even when he was off work, missed them because he said he was tired. Her father’s irritability is a touchstone of her childhood memories. The details differ but others shared similar recollections of the isolation of night shift extending through the lives of the children.
Clearly, shift work is here to stay, and it’s acutely affecting individuals, families, and communities for the long term. Either we deal with it deliberately or it deals with us.
From the perspective of my own hindsight and the welcome insight of night working friends and their families, here are some practical thoughts about caring for personal relationships while engaged in shift work:
• Keep a visual calendar so the whole family can see the time structure for everyone in the family. For younger children, one week at a time is plenty to look at. Adults and older children may want to schedule farther ahead, perhaps for the full month. Let children help mark the times when parents are available and also mark their own activities. Aim for time each week with each child, something that the child can look forward to. It may be routine simple tasks done together, but it’s the togetherness that the child will remember decades later. Because committing to every occasion isn’t possible, be realistic about what is workable and plan on that. Children generally handle that better than parents over committing and then cancelling.
• Fatigue breeds irritability. Simply being mindful of this can help the tired parent or spouse get a grip. Three deep breaths help diffuse the automatic reaction to lash out when tired. It takes practice, but the side effect is that it’s also refreshing. If three doesn’t work, take five deep breaths!
• It gets tiring for spouses too, handling children’s problems alone or trying to keep a quiet atmosphere so the day sleeper can rest. Coordinating times when parents can communicate and neither is exhausted is a problem. Except in emergencies that can’t wait, time to catch up on what’s happening is one of the things that must be scheduled.
• Cell phones make it easier than it used to be to keep in touch with family while at work. A quick call during break can mean the world to a child. And a spouse.
• Children need to express their experiences. It may not be possible for a parent to change their times of work; still, it matters that children release, in some way, what it’s like for them. Talking, drawing, making up songs and stories, are all ways to set the tension loose. Although child and parent may both say, “I wish it were different, but it’s not,” the child knows that the parent cares about what it’s like for her.
• Little acts matter. Children look forward to habits, so a note on a pillow or in a lunchbox may be more reassuring than adults imagine. Honor the small rituals. Keep in touch.
• It takes specific planning to maintain family and social life. The spouse who misses events due to work is apt to feel left out and the spouse who goes alone to special occasions is likely to feel lonely. An honest effort on the part of each partner to put themselves in the place of the other can offset resentment and foster connection instead of chagrin.
• Couple time is worth scheduling. The dedicated effort to spend time together, whether it’s a whole day off or sitting quietly over a cup of coffee, speaks more clearly than words about the commitment to the relationship.
If this planning sounds like effort, it is. Taking deliberate responsibility for managing time and honoring relationships creates the structure that allows the shift worker, family, and friends, to function in a mutually supportive framework, rather than in chaos.
Oh, and one more thing. Those of us who get to curl up and sleep the night through would do well to remember not to call the woman who works nights at two o’clock in the afternoon. We might just get a call back from her on her “afternoon” break…at two o’clock in the morning!

The Dance with Color

IMG_1338My front porch in late summer makes me smile. That’s a small thing, but—then again— it’s not. The combination of yellow siding, red front door, and dark green shutters are complemented by greenery tumbling from the window box and clustered pots. As I kick back in an aging wicker chair with the paper and my morning cup of coffee, the scene lifts my spirit.

Yellow, red, and green. The pleasure those colors give me is unfailing.
We are each in a continuous dance with our surroundings, a back and forth process of creating a physical atmosphere and a personal mood. Our emotional states influence our surroundings; our surroundings influence our emotional states. The dance with our environment is a merging of both.
But it’s a dance we may not be leading. We can’t consciously take charge of the spaces in which we spend hours until we wake up to their emotional impact on us. Color, in particular, has significant psychological power to create and enhance mood.
The study of color psychology is an inexact science; our individual responses to color are personal and somewhat cultural, so talking about how color affects us is subjective. No color has been shown to produce the same effect for everybody and it would be boring if it did. Psychologically, we simply aren’t wired for that kind of rigid emotional response.
Still, there are predominant feelings that arise in the presence of specific colors. Being aware of this, plus being tuned in to our own emotions, we can lean toward the colors most likely to help us create an atmosphere we want.
Let’s get acquainted with a few of our partners in the dance with our surroundings:
• It’s no accident that McDonald’s arches and school buses are bright yellow. This is the color to which our eyes are most sensitive. In small amounts, yellow gets our attention, but because it’s highly reflective, it’s also fatiguing to the eye. Yellow is stimulating; a little goes a long way. While it’s a cheerful color, it’s worth noting that, because of its stimulating quality, it can increase sensitivity to frustration, anger, and pain. Simply knowing this, we might consider moderating yellow in classrooms, medical offices, and children’s nurseries. If we love yellow, we might opt for a softer shade or use it as an accent if we’re painting an area where this stimulation could be a problem.
• Red is generally considered the most powerful hue. Intense red is associated with passion, anger, and danger. When I’m mad, I see red. Stop signs and fire engines aren’t red by chance. As the color of blood, red signifies life itself and liveliness, as in “red-blooded.” If we want to send a high energy message, red is the optimum color to rev us up. Think of the Target bull’s eye motif and the red Macy’s star. Red is also an appetite stimulate. Have you noticed how many fast food restaurants use red in their decorating and advertising? Again, no coincidence.
• A blend of the passion of red and the stimulation of yellow is orange. Orange, like red, is often used in the food industry. Akin to yellow, it’s associated with energy and the sun, but its cheerful qualities are intensified by its leaning toward red. Fiery orange can draw out feelings of ambition, endurance, and perseverance.
• Blue has a calming effect and there are suggestions that workers are more productive in blue spaces. Because of its association with the sky, light to middle blues impart a sense of spaciousness and serenity. Deeper blues are associated with stability and dependability. Notice how often financial institutions use blue motifs in advertising and the use of blue in military uniforms. However, blue can also feel chilly and dark shades may suggest sadness. Hence, we get “the blues” when we feel down.
• A mixture of peaceful blue and energetic red gives us purple. This mix of calm and liveliness in one hue creates uneasiness for some of us and evokes strong responses: we either tend to embrace purple or run from it. This is a color associated with royalty, magic, and wisdom. Light purple is romantic, while deepest purple tends toward melancholy and, in some cultures, is symbolic of mourning. Mysterious and intriguing, purple sets the stage for a wide range of moods.
• Of all the colors, green produces the least eyestrain because the brain focuses the color green directly on the retina. The combination of a green background with white lettering is considered easiest for the eye to read; hence we see green highway signs with white reflective text. Think of the blackboards in many of our classrooms that were actually green boards. There was a reason for that. From the spring green of emerging shoots to the deep shimmering cool of a forest, green is universally linked to nature, growth, healing, and rebirth. Paradoxically, this color that is restful and symbolic of growth also encompasses shades that bring to mind illness and a lack of ease. Bilious green? Green with envy? Green takes us for a ride, running the gamut of responses.
• Currently, pink (named for the flower of the same name) is our most gender specific color, linked with femininity and gentleness, but it was not always so. In the early 20th century, pink was actually recommended for baby boys as a lighter version of the commanding and masculine red. Blue was considered dainty and more appropriate for baby girls. This pattern shifted prior to World War II, but, while pink remains related to sweetness and delicacy, it can also be an intense and lively color on its own, no longer a toned down version of red. When I’m feeling lively, I’m “in the pink,” and that’s definitely not a pastel pink!
• One of the neutral colors, brown is warm and comforting, because it’s one of the dominant colors in nature. While it’s conservative, that doesn’t necessarily mean it lacks presence. Think of a rich chocolate brown leather sofa or beautiful woodwork that conveys substance and permanence. Lighter browns balance intense colors and act as a resting place for the eye. Discreet and reserved, brown can be a grounding influence, without dominating the space.
• Gray, another neutral, enhances the power of other colors. Walls of art galleries are often gray because its subtlety intensifies the color in artwork. In the home or office that has significant hanging art, gray is a flattering option. There is a saying that gray is the color in which creative types are most creative. Though it’s understated, gray is distinctive and timeless, like a classic gray flannel suit.
• In our culture, black is traditionally associated with mourning, death, and fear, leading to negative connotations, like “black sheep” and “black mark,” but black has another side to consider. Sophisticated and elegant, it creates an atmosphere of stylish refinement. Think “black-tie affair” or “little black dress.” Black provides sharp contrast, allowing other colors to pop. While it’s unusual to see a room painted black, I have seen a stunning sunroom that had black walls and white trim: crisp, unique, and dramatic. And definitely not depressing.
• White is symbolic of innocence and purity in our part of the world, but it isn’t that way everywhere. In parts of Asia, it’s the color of death and mourning. Their white is our black, another example of how subjective our responses to color can be. White tends to make a space feel open and airy, eliciting feelings of tranquility and freshness, but, used alone, it can be quite sterile. Fortunately, if we like the effects of white, we can use it in combination with other colors or layer it with varying tints of white to create interest. The human mind can perceive at least two hundred shades of white, so the possibilities are endless.
Beyond these general responses to color, we bring our past experiences with us as we decorate our spaces. Our history with a color shapes its psychological power to touch us on an unconscious level; no one dances with the same color in exactly the same way. Yet, we’re stumbling in our relationships with our surroundings when we miss the wonderful opportunity to truly engage with the spaces we create. As we become aware of the power our surroundings have to enhance the quality of our lives, we can experiment with our color choices with our eyes and our memories wide open. Our stories continue to be told and unfold in our physical spaces.
When I was four years old, my mother sewed me a sundress from a couple of flour sacks, donated to the cause by my Mama Ethel. My bare feet drew the heat of our newly poured concrete walk up my legs, like two wicks, as I spun like a top in the June heat, proud of my sunny new dress.
The flour sacks were yellow, with a pattern of soft red roses and green sprigs. Yellow, red, and green. Just like my porch today.
Those colors made me smile then and they still do.

My dance continues. My story unfolds.

Gifts from a House Fallen Silent

Mom mag 1There were no clattering skeletons hanging in the back of my parents’ closet. Nary a rattling bone fell out of the drawers to turn my unsuspecting world upside down.
No, the sounds were softer than that, more of a rustling between my fingers, as I moved through the work that was in front of me. This house was crammed full with sixty-three years of marriage and two years of widowhood. A younger generation had an expiring lease looming and needed to call it home. Time to get busy!
Many of us have been in a similar position. It’s not unusual to the human experience to find ourselves parentless, and, at the same time, facing the adult task of sorting through a house fallen silent, inhabited only by the lingering energy of memories. It’s an age old situation, but it was my new reality.
When my grandparents died, I’d helped my parents clean out their houses in a superficial way. I’d pop in and clean out a drawer or two after I got off work, but the hardest jobs were mostly theirs. When my mother-in-law died, my husband and his brother had their own system for working through the household. Once again, I played a supporting role.
Suddenly, here I was, one of the leads. My brother came from Huntsville to help, leaving with a few Saturdays’ worth of furniture and family items, but hardly a dent was made in the marathon of sorting and evaluating what to keep and what to dispose of. There I sat in the midst of it, grieving, tired, and out of sorts. Grumbling is what I do best when I’m overwhelmed and you had better believe it: I was doing some first class grumbling. I’m great at being peevish when I can’t get my bearings.
Friends, who knew I was under a time crunch and who were probably sick of listening to me moan, practically begged to help me go through the house. Without fully understanding why, I said “No.” It was, surprisingly, in not accepting their generous offers, but in finally accepting that this was a sacred task, and mine to do, that I found my way.
I am intensely grateful that I did.
The house in which I grew up was modest, with no sprawling attic of trunks and armoires. Beyond the trappings of daily living, were simply drawers and drawers and drawers of cards, clippings, receipts, photos, notebooks, church bulletins. The tidiness that we’d managed to keep up throughout Mother’s Alzheimer’s-driven ramblings belied the sheer accumulation of what had been left behind. To a stranger’s eye, a good deal of this documention would have looked ephemeral, papery and fleeting.
For me, it was priceless, an unbound journal of the marriage of two children of the Depression and their relationships with family and community. Every scrap of paper was a fragment of the past, significant to them in ways I can only guess, touching in its simplicity and poignant in its complexity, the threads of their stories weaving through generations before them and after them.
It takes so long to know a parent, to know THE PERSON that existed before we were born and after we left home. Perhaps we can never truly know those closest to us, least of all while they are alive and able to guard their hearts. We accumulate experiences, stored in the closets of memory, and unless it’s jogged loose with a question or reminder, the past lies hidden, a silent mystery.

We hold back parts of ourselves from those closest to us, maybe to protect ourselves from our frailties and disappointments, maybe to protect those we love from family truths that would set them free, if only we could find a way to bring them to light.
Hard edges develop in relationships when we constantly protect ourselves or others from our stories. We call them “rough patches” in my family, and if your family is anything like mine, you know exactly what I mean. The edges may need only a quick sanding or they may be absolutely jagged, but we’ve all had some degree of bumpiness.
In what my parents left behind, I found unexpected tenderness for the rough patches.
Beneath neatly stacked newspaper clippings, in a flat paper bag that I’m sure came from Sterling’s dime store, my mother left four magazines, undoubtedly tucked away for me. The woman with whom I’d had an uneasy relationship, who was intensely private and spoke of her own rough patches with difficulty, had saved for me an issue of Good Housekeeping from May, 1954, the month of my birth, along with copies of Better Homes and Gardens, Family Circle, and Reader’s Digest from the month of my marriage.
Those magazines touched me in a way that nothing else did. She’d kept every card I’d ever sent, every report card, even notes of phone calls from me, but those magazines weren’t about keeping anything of mine. They were about leaving a marker of the times for me, for the woman I would become. And they were about leaving a part of herself with me, a mother who could express herself more easily in unspoken actions than in words.
There were receipts that brought tears to my eyes. My heart broke for the bereft couple that my parents had once been, arranging the funeral of their first child at McPeters Funeral Home, his having been born too early to survive; ordering his simple headstone; paying his hospital bill. I don’t remember a time of not knowing about their baby, Stephen Jay, but seeing the steady signature of our grieving father on a receipt from W.E. Boatman Monument Works took my breath away.
There were others, finds that blended the daily activities of house holding with the sad times and the celebrations of life. Photos and receipts, obituaries and awards, birthday cards and letters, all these formed a collage illustrating the intricacy and resilience of their modest lives. But if I’d found only the magazines and the funeral receipts it would have been enough to make real to me that there is only so much we can know about those closest to us.
If we’re fortunate to find clues and if we pay attention, we may someday pencil in the unknown aspects of those who’ve gone before us. When we face our own hidden stories and frailties, we have a chance to touch those parts of previous generations who left legacies in ways they couldn’t foresee.
Whether we leave skeletons in our wake or a string of receipts, our stories keep unfolding for those who care to follow our trails.

Kindergarten: Little Eyes Need Resting Spaces

This column was in today’s Daily Corinthian newspaper. With their permission, I share it here.

When I sat down to begin fumbling round with words this morning, I was certain about where this column would begin, if not exactly sure what direction it would take.
Before I settled in with my coffee and key board, though, I took a minute for a quick Facebook check. Maybe you know how that goes? So much for my planned column. My dear friend Donna, a middle school librarian with a passion for all things educational, had shared a link to a New York Times blog that snagged me and completely derailed my plans.
You might want to check out Jan Hoffman’s blog for yourself. Here’s the link to her entry, Rethinking the Colorful Kindergarten Classroom. You read that right. Is it possible that the colorful room is not the best option for learning? Maybe it’s not, especially for children who already have trouble focusing. It’s a thought provoking read for teachers, parents, and anyone interested in early childhood: http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/06/09/rethinking-the-colorful-kindergarten-classroom/?_php=true&_type=blogs&_r=0

When I realized that I’d high jacked Donna’s Facebook thread with three lengthy comments, I knew I had the beginning of an unexpected column, one that I was hesitant to dive into because education is not my background. I’ve never been a classroom teacher.
What I am, however, is an artist and counselor, an explorer of the differing ways in which we process this experience of being human. I’m curious about and attuned to the impact of our surroundings on how we function in the world. Most significantly, I’m the parent of a former student who struggled throughout his school years with staying focused and completing tasks.
The blog snagged me because I’ve thought about the very questions raised in the studies Ms. Hoffman references. I wondered about them when my son was in school, but I never raised them. I lacked the confidence to bring this up to the professionals and, I suppose, I felt it wouldn’t make any difference.
As if it were today, I can still hear my young son saying, “Mama, I don’t mean to but I see everything. I can’t help it. There’s so much going on.” It’s no wonder this gripped me.
Ms. Hoffman discusses a study of whether the colorful and highly decorated classrooms that have become typical of kindergarten could, in reality, be hindering learning due to the visual distraction, rather than encouraging it. Many classrooms are brightly colored, some decorated with commercially produced posters and educational material, frequently changing bulletin boards, and colorful borders (you know the ones that are corrugated and scalloped and have been around forever). Lots of color, lots of pattern, lots of texture.
It’s a big business. Design-wise, it’s also a lot of busy-ness.
There’s pressure on teachers about how classrooms should look. Parents may walk in with expectations about the ideal learning environment. Fellow educators may not understand the teacher who opts to provide a less intense atmosphere for students. I’ve thought about what it would be like to be that teacher whose room was more sedate. How is that teacher perceived by colleagues and parents?
This is from the blog entry Rethinking the Colorful Kindergarten Classroom:
In the early years of school, children must learn to direct their attention and concentrate on a task. As they grow older, their focus improves. Sixth graders, for example, can tune out extraneous stimuli far more readily than preschoolers, the study’s authors noted.
But could information-dense kindergarten classroom walls, intended to inspire children, instead be overwhelming? Could all that elaborate décor impede learning? Some experts think so.
“I want to throw myself over those scalloped borders and cute cartoon stuff and scream to teachers, ‘Don’t buy this, it’s visually damaging for children!’ ” said Patricia Tarr, an associate professor at the University of Calgary who researches early childhood education and art education, and was not involved in the study.
Dr. Tarr has long railed against the notion of “decorating” a classroom. In a 2004 paper called “Consider the Walls,” published in Young Children, the journal for the National Association for the Education of Young Children, she argued that classrooms could become so cluttered with commercial posters and mobiles that they obscured the children’s own drawings and writings, posing special challenges to any child with attention deficits.
Over the years, as a parent and with various jobs I’ve had, I have walked into classrooms that had so much visual activity that it set me, an adult, on edge. Bright primary colors dominated. Complementary colors (those that are opposite on the color wheel) naturally make each other “pop” more intensely, so they compete for attention. My eyes felt the strain.
Admittedly, I’m a bit distractible myself, given my quick shift of column topic this morning, but my ability to regulate my response to the stimuli is more mature than a five or six year old. If the visual energy made me edgy, I wondered how a little person could possibly concentrate.
No one wants totally colorless classrooms, though. That would be trading one extreme for another; it’s not even realistic.
From my perspective as an artist, the key consideration is simply the fact that the eye seeks out spaces to rest. In design, whether in a painting or a classroom, the negative space (the open area) provides this necessary visual rest. When there is pattern and color everywhere, it actually becomes more chaotic and less visible. A design stands out precisely because of the space around it. We can see it more easily when resting space sets it apart.
Thinking back to the classrooms I was in at West Corinth Elementary, I pulled out my class pictures to be sure my memory was accurate. There were bulletin boards, pictures of presidents, writing guides, flip charts, and the like. Most rooms had at least a couple of potted plants. The pictures and charts were few but good quality; there was a sense of continuity and a lack of clutter, especially as the year began. I knew that kids before me had sat under that same portrait of George Washington, and that in three years my little brother would too. I wouldn’t have thought of any of my classrooms as austere. Maybe they were or maybe they simply had enough resting space. I called what they had a sturdy warmth.
One of my earliest art experiences was getting to help put up bulletin boards and then later being allowed to design and post them by myself. Our drawings and class projects were proudly displayed and visible. As the year progressed, more of our work accumulated. Our progress was in view, easily seen. By the time I left each room at year’s end, it had become partly mine. I carry my investment in those early learning spaces with me still.
Natural light flooded our space from windows that rose almost to the ceiling. Those windows opened onto a naturally shifting scene. Seasonal and subtle. They’re the display I remember most.
That was another time. A time before lamination and die cuts, back when the mimeograph ruled and stomachs knotted up on test day.
There have been changes to how classrooms look since the 1960s, but stomachs still knot up. Children still take with them beyond their school years the images from their classrooms; they carry the emotions that they felt as they succeeded or didn’t, as they belonged or didn’t. Teachers still put more into the sacred task of teaching than seems humanly possible.
May our young children and grandchildren learn in surroundings with enough to interest them and not so much as to distract them. May they have space where their unique contributions to the classroom are seen and celebrated, where they feel valuable, and where the unfolding process of learning is the liveliest decoration.
May each classroom be a living work of art.
______________
To the teachers in our community, may you have an enjoyable summer break. You’ve earned it.

The Red Toolbox: Lessons on Living

Red ToolboxThe Red Toolbox is now mine. An open wooden rectangle, cobbled together from leftover scraps of previous projects, it’s not too big. Made for use, it has a round dowel handle, easy to grab and go.

That old box has been a part of my world for so long that I have no idea when my dad made it. The red paint’s worn a bit chippy from decades of projects and repairs, a disconcerting number of those at our house. “Go get my hammer out of the toolbox.” “Put the toolbox in the truck.” “Leave that tape measure in the toolbox.” The thing was ever present. I grew up and grew older with it.
Oh, sure, there was a bigger toolbox, also handmade, but The Red Toolbox was the go-to box with the dependable basics: Daddy’s favorite hammer, nails and screws, heavy duty tape measure, a couple of crescent wrenches, several screwdrivers, nail set, small chisel, pliers, scissors, those flat carpenters’ pencils that intrigued me as a child, and a couple of last-minute items that got tossed in.
Daddy always kept a few tools in his vehicles, a set of wrenches and a screwdriver. But if he was going out of town, The Red Toolbox rode in the back. Just in case….
His toolbox and his workshop were basic to my image of him and the foundation of how I knew the man. I called on him to fix everything because I thought he could. As a son of the Depression and sharecropping parents, keeping tools and machinery in repair was a way of life that stayed with him.
Giving care to what he had was a ritual of appreciation for the use of what God had given Daddy. He attended to what he used. Keeping things in good shape was his giving back; fixing what was broken was his creativity. Leaving things in better shape than he found them was his “Thank you.” He was a simple man and it was simply the right thing to do.
In my own life, attending to brokenness took a different form. I became a counselor, an attendant to the pain of being human.
Caring for brokenness calls upon a common wisdom, whether it’s a human spirit grown dry or a hinge, un-oiled and rusting. Both creak for attention, habitually and loudly. Wisdom doesn’t rush the process of caring.
Daddy brought to his projects what he brought to his life: practicality, confidence that he could figure out a solution to whatever was awry, and a worrisome stubbornness that left me thinking he was determined to get hurt rather than get help. The man would look at a problem inside out and upside down with a dogged determination that could my impatience threadbare.
It was exactly that tenacity that had him putting a motor in a car when he was eighty-one because he’d never done that before but he thought he could, if he took his time.
Clearly, when it comes to a model for dealing with whatever is broken in this experience of being human, I don’t have to look far.
Daddy never jotted down a list of rules. Like so many of his generation, he didn’t need to.

These tenets were simply how he lived:
1. Be sure your foundation is solid. Fix it if it’s not.
2. Get familiar with the problem you’re tackling. Look closely. Look at problems from every angle. Get down on your hands and knees
3. If small repairs need to be done before the big job, DO them. There are no shortcuts. It’s time well spent.
4. In painting or staining, do the prep work. Prepare the surface to be receptive. You’ll regret it if you don’t.
5. Keep The Red Toolbox handy. You never know which tools you might need. Put the tools back in it when finished.
6. Buy the best quality materials you can afford.
7. Seeing a job as a puzzle of small pieces makes it manageable. Oh, and lay the pieces out in the order you removed them so you know where they go. Every piece has its place.
8. When a job isn’t coming together, take a break. Go work on something else awhile, even a little task. It’s good to accomplish something, even if it’s not what you intended.
9. If that still doesn’t help, do the best thing you can come up with at the moment. If it doesn’t work, you can rule one thing out.
10. Have good resources: make friends of the guys at the local hardware store and garage. The folks at Biggers’s Hardware and the Gilmore boys are your friends.
11. Good tools make the job easier. Keep them sharp and dry. Never put tools away dirty. Absolutely never!
12. Fixing one board saves a whole wall later. Do the job while it’s small.
13. There are times, when in spite of your best efforts, repairs won’t hold. The original is simply too worn to work with. That’s when it’s time to let it go and start fresh.
And
14. ALWAYS clean up after yourself. The job’s not finished until the floor is swept.

No, Daddy, you had no need to jot them down. You were living them.
I was watching.

Happy Father’s Day,
J.C. McCrary
July 11, 1923—May 9, 2009

This column was published in the Daily Corinthian newspaper, Sunday, June 15. 2014. I am happy to share it with you here.

Peace,

Jaylene