When Life Throws Curveballs…

I looked up in the Campbell’s Clinic waiting room to see a boy, ten years old or so, with his gaze on me. He looked over his left shoulder from a row of chairs that faced the same direction as mine. His was a soft gaze, as if I were a older woman he was glad to see, a grandmother or a beloved great-aunt.
When I caught his eyes fixed on me, I expected him to avert his look, embarrassed at being caught, but he was too innocent for that.
Instead he smiled, as much with his crinkly eyes as with his mouth. Shy, yet direct.
And then the boy I imagined was his brother, sitting barely an inch shorter, was smiling at me too. The same blue-green eyes, the same wave to his sandy hair, the same sprinkling of freckles, marked them as more than friends. I returned their warmth with a nod and a smile, glad to be the recipient of their charm.
The older boy hopped up when the name Ethan was called, the lime green cast on his right arm now visible, embellished with an exuberance of neon permanent markers. Ah, he’s the patient.
A woman with the same eyes and loose tendrils herded Ethan, his brother, and a sleepy-headed toddler girl aroused from her mother’s lap, toward the waiting nurse.
Ethan glanced back at me, with the slightest deliberate nod, before his smiling eyes disappeared from the waiting room into the depths of the clinic.

As our wait stretched toward an hour, we moved to more comfortable seats with a different view, my husband with his new knee, and me. The rambunctious liveliness of Ethan and his family was replaced by the slender dignity of a matron in a beige Chanel suit, ever so slightly frayed at the cuffs. Her long thin fingers were manicured with classic red polish that matched her almost smudged lipstick. Her hands were unsteady, wearing the thin skin and blue veins of age. A single diamond ring was on her right hand, tasteful but not tiny. In her younger years, the hair she wore in a classic bob might have been true auburn, but on this day white roots marked the crooked part, an awkward track across her crown.

She wore hose. Subdued nude stockings. Beige pumps. I scanned my inner timeline and I couldn’t recall how long it’d been since I’d seen a woman wearing hosiery and closed toe heels. In the summer. To the doctor’s office.

Sitting across from her erect posture, I sat up straighter, suddenly self-conscious. Her legs were crossed at the ankles, the way I was taught by Mrs. Underwood in Home Ec., circa 1969, and her barely trembling hands rested in her lap. No magazine to thumb through, no phone to fiddle with. I had no idea how long she’d been sitting there, but I was sure that her composure was long practiced and unconscious. I’d given up practicing at about sixteen years old. This woman clearly had not.
Beside her sat a tidy woman wearing comfortable pants and a cotton blouse, maybe ten years younger, maybe twenty. There was no chair left open between them, though there were more vacant chairs than occupied, so I supposed that they were together. The companion read a magazine with one eye and dozed with the other.
The matron tilted her head toward us in acknowledgement, a graceful movement with a wordless smile. She made eye contact and I saw that her glasses (on a pearly eyeglass chain, of course) needed a quick cleaning.
It was only a few minutes later that she arose, her companion reaching out to steady her, when the name Miz Marjorie was called. The way we Southerners drag out the titles of address for our matrons made it impossible to tell if she was Miss or Mrs. Marjorie.
She drew herself up to her full height, her bearing telling her attendant to allow her the privacy of her doctor’s visit.
Hers was a story I’d never know, yet her composure touched me.
Intrigued, I wondered what changes Miz Marjorie has experienced in her lifetime and what changes lie ahead for young Ethan, so bright and perky. All I know for sure is that yet more changes lie ahead for both of them and for each of us. It’s the inevitable reality.
What would Miz Marjorie share with Ethan if she could leave him a set of informal instructions to refer to when life is throwing him curveballs?
If she could leave him gentle guidelines from her lifetime of experience, she might pen something like this:

My Dear Ethan,
Perhaps you can use a bit of what I want to share with you now but I suspect that, in a future day, it will be of greater help to you.
As you grow, there’ll be more changes come at you than you can imagine, some expected ones and others that will leave you feeling as if your life is out of control. And indeed, it may be.
You don’t have to like it. In fact, I have found that there’s an odd strength to admitting that I don’t like certain things. I’m not thrilled with all the changes I’m dealing with right now, but honesty is always preferable to denial. So be honest about what you’re feeling.
Maybe you didn’t ask “Why?” when you broke your arm because the reason was clear: your arm came in contact with a surface that didn’t give way and something had to give. Result: a broken arm.
In your future, however, there’ll be things happen that don’t have clear causes. You may find yourself asking “Why? Why? Why?” when the unforeseen comes. It’s that way for most of us.
I’ve learned from experience to ask “what?” and “how?” and “who?” more often than “why?” I ask myself questions about what I can do, how I can help myself, and who is a good resource, and I begin to make a plan. It doesn’t always work perfectly, but even an imperfect plan gets me closer to what might work.
You’re an active boy. Good for you! Keep that up. I totter around but I still make myself move. Get outdoors as much as you can when you’re under stress. Feel the sun and the rain and fully occupy your space on this Earth. Take care of pets, tend a garden, hike, walk barefoot. Nature is a natural therapist and she’s free.
Spend some time each day being still, too. Take quiet time to simply breathe in the experience you’re living in. Pray, meditate, breathe, read. I like to start my day with quiet time and end it the same way, but, I imagine, you’ll find what works for you.
I used to be hard on myself when I couldn’t get used to changes as fast as I thought I should or as fast as others thought I ought to. Eventually, I got it that change is a process. It takes time and many steps to change.
Some changes will take longer than others to get absorbed into your life story and that’s okay. Be gentle with your spirit when others push you to be where you can’t be yet. Ease up.
Even when change is painful, maintain a gratitude practice. Note one thing each day, no matter how large or tiny, that you are glad to have in your life. When I’ve gone through the hardest changes of my life, this one thing has consistently reminded me that life holds more than the yucky place I’m in at the moment.
And speaking of the moment, Ethan, stay with your feelings as they arise. They are temporary. Whether happy or sad, confused or serene, they will change. Acknowledge all of your feelings. They are valuable messengers from deep inside you. You’ll be glad to know that acknowledging them doesn’t make them the “boss of you.” They’re only part of your experience, not the core of who you are.
Question whether your decisions are for your wellbeing or whether you somehow hope to change others. The sooner you learn that you can make effective choices only for yourself, not for others—no matter how much you love them—the clearer your choices will be.
When life comes at you hard, surround yourself with people who sustain you. This is not a time to force yourself to be with draining sorts.
Be cautious when making decisions, because the stress of change may cloud your reasoning. Seek wise counsel. Even then, go to more than one source. I’ve found that advice isn’t always good advice.
Finally, as you grow up, you’ll learn what is deeply satisfying to you. When you feel the stress of change, look toward the activities that have comforted you in the past. Do more of those things. If you neglect those activities, you neglect yourself, so remember that your life is precious. Take responsibility for it. Care for it.
Tuck this letter away, Ethan, and use it when you need it. It is offered with love.
Miz Marjorie

 

Though I’m decades past ten years old, I’m reading over Ethan’s shoulder. When change comes at me fast and I’m not sure I’m thinking clearly, I still want the wise counsel and living example of a Miz Marjorie to show me how to live above my present circumstances.

~~~~~~~~
Alcorn County resident Jaylene Whitehurst is an artist and Licensed Professional Counselor. She may be reached at 662-286-5433 or jaylene@heartworkccl.com. She contributes to Crossroads Magazine and the Daily Corinthian.

Merry Mandala!!!!

May we live the cycle of embracing the darkness and being pulled toward the light.

May we live the cycle of embracing the darkness and being pulled toward the light.

The celebration of Christmas isn’t over for me. There’ve been years I feel a let down on the 26th, but not the past few years. Rather than the end, this feels like a beginning. Every Christmas, every Winter Solstice, every turning of the dark season toward the light, is more an opening to continue expressing the light than an ending of anything. I no longer rush to take down my little tree. It is no longer a chore but an unfolding, a changing of the environment gradually.
It is a relief to let it be beautiful a while longer. To know it will be tucked away when the time is right for me. To know it is all a process of Love.
Whatever, however, you celebrate this season, may you linger in the warmth.
May we carry it forth. May we be changed.

Abundancing!

True abundance isn’t a substance that can be banked; there is nothing of “grabbing and snatching and stashing” that relates to Life’s wealth.
Nope, real abundance is experiential; it is fully experiencing one’s own Life; it is active.
Right now I’m inventing the term “abundance” as a verb.
I abundance.
You abundance.
He, she, it abundances.
It is born of allowing ourselves to stay with what is showing up: The expansive moments and the tight emotional spaces that are claustrophobic, the exhilaration and the sorrow, the generous and the miserly gestures, the tension and the release.
Abundancing is waking up with the realization that an intention has become tangible with substance as solid as the mountain that has finally been tunneled through. It’s knowing that a decision has arrived under it’s own steam rather than been determined by analysis, as if Life were a game and decisions toted up in won/loss columns.
Abundancing is hearing the train leaving the station and getting on board with a ticket stamped “Trust the process.”
Let’s ride.
Let the abundancing commence.

Sometimes it feels like a mess. Sometimes it feels glorious.

Sometimes it feels like a mess. Sometimes it feels glorious. Trust the process.

The Gift of Right NOW

She has no idea that her legs are too long. She's having fun :-)

She has no idea that her legs are too long. She’s having fun 🙂

Here is my column that appeared in the Crossroads Magazine today. I’m happy to share it here.

It’s a Saturday morning in October as I sit down to the key board with a vague optimism that inspiration for this column will mysteriously appear. Editor Mark Boehler has requested uplifting thoughts about the coming holiday season, so I wait for a flash of inspiration about what to lift up. And I wait a while longer— for a lightning bolt that doesn’t strike.
Now, please, don’t get me wrong; it’s not that I feel at all down. I don’t. In fact, I feel pretty dandy. It’s just that, as I sit here to write, Halloween is still more than a week away and I don’t want to think about the coming crunch packed into the thirty-six days between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day.
Sheesh, that’s hardly more than a month for all the doings of Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day to speed by in a blur. Makes me dizzy to contemplate it.
The fact is that I want nothing— absolutely nothing— but to fully live this one splendid, ordinary moment. Right now.
The granddaughter is in the adjoining room, the sitting room of my office. Her usual chatter is replaced by a singsong, contented hum…hum…hum. From the corner of my eye I see the reason for her satisfaction. This child is never as happy as when she is arranging and rearranging “stuff” and her MiMi has stuff galore. She’s in heaven.
She’s not thinking about school or what she’s going to wear for Halloween or what her dogs are doing; she is simply the mistress of a universe housed in one room and her mind is nowhere else.
Throw pillows are systematically displayed according to criteria that only she knows. Candles are aligned. Books are stacked on tables just so, and then restacked. She steps back with her head tilted to one side, and, assessing her design, she adds a glass bird before she nods approvingly and moves on to deal with a quartet of ceramic rabbits. Her hands are firmly planted on her hips: Bunnies, beware!
I am touched by how thoroughly present she is in this moment. Right now.
I sink as deeply into the reality of this clear October morning as an old cat with aching bones sinks into a basket of towels, hot from the dryer. This is a moment worth holding but it can’t be held; it can only be experienced and the experience folded into these words. I breathe it in and am grateful for the quiet gift that it is.
Rewind with me to a scene earlier the same week when I am having lunch with my friend Rita at Borroum’s Drug Store. We stroll in early to claim a booth so the lunch crowd doesn’t force us into the tiny table in the front window. The taco salad is satisfying and the companionship is even more so. It’s an easy friendship that goes back to before I was a mother and when her children were small, that has endured stretches when work schedules and family demands made meeting for lunch harder than it is today. I know when we sit down that I’m going to be leaving a generous tip because we’ll be there awhile, and we are.
We mull over our recent visit to a friend from decades ago who is now under hospice care, and tears smudge my mascara; the paper napkins substitute for tissues. Our stories overlap and we talk about the young women that we three were then, puzzling over the different paths our lives have taken, paths that none of us foresaw. Knowing our stories have found a safe landing spot, we voice thoughts we wouldn’t share with just anybody.
And then we laugh! Hysterical, table-slapping laughter bubbles up and trickles out of my eyes. Rita’s ability to get lost under any circumstance is legendary and she has more than one tale to tell about finding herself in places that she didn’t know existed. More napkins please, but, this time, for tears of laughter.
As we make our way to the counter to pay, we pass a table of four women, each fully absorbed in her cell phone, either talking, texting, or holding her phone in rapt anticipation. Rita and I look each other in the eye and realize we’ve spent two hours absent from our phones and totally present with each other.
This has been true communion, the kind that only happens in undistracted moments. Right Now.
A flicker comes: I see that this holiday column is going to be more about what we can drop during the coming weeks than about what we might lift up.
Beginning with our phones, let’s put them down for a while. Let’s look each other in the eye instead of looking at a screen. Let’s listen to a child’s tone and a friend’s story, instead of listening for a ringtone. They are wonderful devices and they certainly have their place, but that place isn’t to contribute to digital dementia. They are in our hands. It’s up to us to drop them into our purses.
Let’s set aside our fretting over getting things perfect. There will be years the dressing is just right; the sage is spot on, and it’s moist to perfection and then (if your cooking is like mine) there’ll be those other years. The tree might be a dazzling vision and others times, well…we barely replace one string of lights before another burns out. To a child, though, every Christmas tree is magical. The coconut cake may be a tad tilted, but this is the South, where there is no such thing as a bad coconut cake.
Maybe the cards are unsent and the gift wrapping wrinkled. So be it. Perfectionism sucks the joy out of life and we have only this moment, right now, so let’s live it.
And then there’s Facebook. If we don’t drop it entirely, could we at least work on letting go of any illusions that what people post on there is the whole story? Because it’s not.
If we get caught up in what other people share, it may look like everybody’s family except ours is sitting down to a Norman Rockwell spread, has a new car topped with a huge Christmas red bow sitting in the driveway, and is heading off for a beach vacation as soon as the table’s cleared. The rest of the story may well be that they can’t afford the car, the credit cards are maxed out, there was a huge fight on the way to the beach, and the kids threw up in the backseat. So how about it? Could we drop the illusions that anybody actually has it all together? Could we let our families and our plans that go awry simply be crooked and human and funny?
Finally, how about we drop our attempts to please everybody? We probably can’t please them, but even if we can, the price of over-commitment is an exhausted kind of major crankiness. There’s no crankiness like the crankiness of having said “yes” to everyone except oneself.
Prioritizing and being realistic about we want to do during the holidays doesn’t come easily to some of us, but in order to slow down and enjoy the celebrations that we personally find most meaningful, we may need to smile and firmly say, “No, thank you, my plate is full.” With some folks, pesky persistent types, we may have to say “no” more than once.

Start practicing now!
The hum of a child puttering about, the tears of tenderness and amusement shared with a friend, these are the pure and humble gifts of ordinary days, gifts that aren’t tied up with bows but with cords of connection.
The gifts of sharing stories, listening from the heart, keeping old traditions and creating new ones are timeless. They were never meant to be contained in a treasure box and, yet, at this time of year, as we gather with friends and family, we’re reminded of how precious they are.
As we pull out the roasting pan and wrap gifts and hang ornaments, let’s listen closely to each other. Let’s look each other in the eye, enjoying the blessings of the simplest gifts.
The only time we have to unwrap them is now.

Right now.

Jaylene Whitehurst is an artist and Licensed Professional Counselor located in Corinth, Mississippi. She may be contacted at 662-286-5433 or at jaylene@heartworkccl.com.

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.
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To the teachers in our community, may you have an enjoyable summer break. You’ve earned it.