What Do You Mean I Can’t Campout at the Scenic Pullout?

This week marks one of those milestones in our family. Our youngest son – the Math Genius Airman – turns 21. OMG! How did that happen so fast? I swear he was just born last week! I blinked and 21 years flew by. I heard it said once that the days are long but the years are fast with kids. I totally get that now. But wait – how can I be old enough to have 21 and 23-year-old sons?! I clearly remember being 21 myself, so that just can’t be right. I don’t feel that old. And what about all those great times we’ve had as they grew up? Are they over now? I don’t want it to be in the rearview mirror. Maybe I can find a way to hang out here a little longer.

That ship started sailing this past summer when we went to Nova Scotia as a family. We were running out of time to get this trip planned and booked (4 work / school schedules weren’t solid until almost a month out from departure – yikes!) and the travel agency must have thought we were millionaires with the prices they were quoting us. The guys were determined we were going to take this trip so they jumped in and put their travelling know-how to work. One researched and booked the flights, one researched and got hotel rooms, I researched places to see and things to do, and my husband got transportation arranged. And it didn’t cost us millions.  Go team! That didn’t happen when they were kids!

We started the vacation as though we were still parents and children. We quickly realized we were either being too polite (like we hadn’t just spent the last 20+ years together) or we reverted to parent – child hierarchy rather than more adult equals. We had a family meeting (like times of old), talked plainly (that was a little new), and dared to change-up the vacation plan in the middle of the vacation (that was WAY new). We called an audible, learned some things about ourselves, and had a great rest of the vacation. We did an After Action Review (we are all military after all – LOL!) and realized something:  You can keep having the same fun, even when everything is completely different.

That was a really important realization for me. Milestones have a tendency to make me sad (it’s probably the Irish in me) because they force me come to terms with the passage of time. I’m always a little leery of letting go and walking away from that idyllic spot. What if that was it? What if I never see that spot again?  Can’t I just campout here?

I’m learning that milestones are great opportunities to take a little time to savor – the achievement, the moment, the passage of time, the “scenic view” – and pause to reflect on what has come before to bring me here. It’s good to rest, celebrate, and be grateful for the chance to be here in this experience. But I have to remember – it’s a scenic pullout, not a campground. If I campout at one spot in my life, I run the risk of getting stuck there and missing out on even more great scenic pullouts down the road.   I remember one of my former Principals used to encourage us to enjoy the scenic vista for a moment, but to get back out on the road soon so we could be on our way to the next scenic vista. Pause – don’t Park! (Thanks Geri!) I’ve kept hold of that thought over the years when I’m tempted to park. I’ve got to keep moving forward.

My sons are grateful I’m learning this early in their twenties, although maybe not as quickly as they would always prefer! But as I’ve started letting some things go and figuring out how to re-imagine others, I’ve seen how that’s already started opening up new adventures, new opportunities, and new ways for us to still be a family in this new season of our lives. I’m seeing that milestones are more like water stations in the race of life, rather than finish lines. And that’s good! ‘Cause I’ve got a lot of race left in me, and I’m looking forward to the rest of the race with my team. Guess it’s time to get back out there on the road and find out what’s at the end of the next rainbow!

Work the Problem in front of You

This little gem of a phrase was put to good use while I pursued my doctorate. Trust me – it didn’t come easily or naturally to me. I’m a “big picture” person by nature and focusing on isolated details or individual issues without plugging them back into the big picture is just . . . not me. Doing that feels like I’m wearing my shoes on the wrong feet. Weird. However during that time, I learned I was not only earning a doctorate, but I was learning how to be flexible, think differently, and do things that didn’t feel normal when that course of action was actually the best way to go for overall success. I applied this idea of “work the problem in front you” as I realized sometimes I had to get out of my natural way of thinking to keep moving forward and do right by those who depended on me to figure it out. But a professor in a university didn’t actually teach that little gem to me; my youngest son taught it to me several years earlier.

My youngest son – the Math genius Airman – always loved solving puzzles and riddles as a kid, and he still does. One summer we discovered the computer game “Sherlock Holmes: Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb”. The game was filled with clues, riddles, puzzles, and hidden things that had to be found and combined to solve other problems.   We loved it! We were hooked. The extraordinary thing was how we worked together. We looked at things very differently, but together we saw possible connections and solutions that built on each other’s thinking. However, we both discovered that in our quest to solve the overall mystery, we often overlooked obvious clues and solutions that were right in front of us, forcing us to go back, relook, and then feel stupid because we’d missed something so simple. He was better at the math puzzles (of course) and I remember asking him how he figured out where to start. He said, “Work the problem in front of you – assess what you know or are given, figure out what the outcome is supposed to be, and start solving problems.” Sounds so simple, and yet it’s so hard to remember to do it when life is coming at you in real time.

A few years ago we started taking on Escape Rooms (I highly recommend them – so fun!). We did them as a family and after the first failure we realized we’d forgotten the cardinal rule – work the problem in front of you. We also realized that everyone needed to pick a problem and solve it. Divide and conquer. We hadn’t done either. We got distracted, went off on tangents, tried to look at too much and made erroneous connections with really no evidence to support them. We did everything BUT solve the problems in front of us.

We’ve gotten better and even tackled a level 5 room over the holidays. We got out with 3 seconds to spare!! We were sure we weren’t going to make it, but we stayed calm and kept working the problems until – voila! We unlocked the door! We were shocked we’d actually done it. It reminded me of one of the last scenes from “The Martian” when Matt Damon is explaining to astronauts-in-training that there will be moments when you can either give up or start solving problems. And if you solve enough problems, before time runs out, you get to go home. I get it.

So that gem has been given a workout the last two weeks. It started two weeks ago when we were out of school due to the extreme cold temperatures. We went back on a Wednesday to a pipe bursting and flooding the office plus 3 classrooms. The classrooms are back but the “office” has been reduced to a computer, a phone, 4 walkie-talkies, a folding table, and 4 folding chairs in the back hallway. OMG! The staff has been phenomenal in pulling together, being flexible, and having patience with all the craziness. But for me – I’ve been reduced to “work the problem in front of you.” The new normal – until the office is restored – is steering the ship with a paddle. I work the problem in front of me and then move on to the next. It’s not in my comfort zone at all, but it’s not unfamiliar either. I’ve been here before; I recognize the setup. I know if I stick to the plan, we’ll solve it all and be successful in the end. In the meantime, the new wrinkle to the familiar setup is we’re exhausted, our patience is thin, we can’t get to half the documents we need on a daily basis, and yet school must go on as normally as possible for the staff and students. Unfortunately, I can’t do anything about the main problem – no office – and I can’t do anything about the on-going deadlines, reports, and building goals that are all limping along at half speed. (You know that’s killing me.) Hopefully, we’ll get to go home before I run out of energy or patience or both.

Then today was the Groundhog Run. We’ve been running this race for the last seven years, and it’s always a high water mark for me. Ok – after today I’m thinking this race is cursed for me. I’ve never been able to run it without some catastrophe befalling me. I’ve been training, I was working the plan, and when I checked my watch I was on target to get a PR. I was closing in on mile 3, everything was going great one moment and the next my left hip felt like someone just took a hot poker to it. The pain was so bad I couldn’t breathe for a moment as I staggered to the side of the course. I took a couple of seconds to catch my breath and that scene came back to me: I can quit or I can start solving problems. Freak out and figure out what the hell just happened later. Right now I’m in a race so – think. It’s not over yet. I try running normally but slow. Oh hell no – white hot pain again. Ok – plan C. Can I do anything that lets me sort of run on that leg? I try this zombie / lurching limp gate where my right leg pulls and my left leg comes alongside, weight on the ball of my foot to stabilize long enough for my right leg to pull forward again. It’s slower than I want, but it’s doable. The pain is just OMG rather than throw up and pass out so I decide this is the plan until I can’t do it anymore – then I’ll think of something else. I limped / lurched my way to the finish line and promptly crumbled into my husband’s waiting arms from there. He’d done great in the race, but he knew something was very wrong when I didn’t show up right behind him. It was frustrating and disappointing for me, but I made it. I finished under my own power. And the most ironic thing? When I checked the stats later, I’d actually finished almost 2 minutes faster than I had two years ago. Go figure.

So what’s the moral of the story for me today? Working the problem in front of me is still usually the best course of action when all around me is unclear. Sometimes, the lessons we learn in completely unrelated areas of our life come to our rescue when we need them most. And sometimes, we learn those lessons from the least expected sources so be open to all the lessons that come to us, from wherever they come. You never know when you’re going to need to apply it to your own life in real time.

Mistakes – fix them, carry them through, or just appreciate them?

Last week I resolved to fix a mistake in my life – namely abandoning whole creative pieces of myself in pursuit of a life dream – and go back to bring these pieces home to 2018. One of those mistakes was putting the t-shirt quilts on hold until “later” – and later is finally now, almost eight years down the road. I’m noticing that fixing this mistake is both rewarding and testing my patience, not to mention my resolve. But as usual, there are some interesting things to think about along the way.

I’m starting with my marathoning Airman’s running quilt first because I stupidly thought it would be the easiest to tackle. I make decisions and God has a good laugh over how silly I am. I swear no two shirts are the same size square – OMG! At some point I had started cutting out the designs / fronts of some of these t-shirts in preparation for the quilts, but whatever plan I was looking at then is long gone now. I found a great t-shirt quilt book by Martha Deleonardis and collaborated with my son about what he envisioned for his running quilt. (I was really hoping he’d go for one of the more freestyle formats that would allow me to put all these odd-sized shirts together easily. Hilarious that thought even went through my head!) He likes symmetry and balance so of course he wanted the overall effect of the design to be traditional squares all the same size. Insert first test of patience, resolve and calming breathing here.

But I found a basic design he liked, we decided on the color palette, I found the fabric and off I went. Of course, I cut the border sashing pieces at two different times – and promptly forgot on the second go around that I’d changed the size. I merrily cut out half the sashing 2½ inches too short! I belatedly realized my mistake when I went to start sewing the squares. My heart stuttered and dropped down somewhere around my knees. What had I done?! That’s a lot of fabric; I can’t just throw it away! Insert second test of patience, resolve, and calming breathing here.

As I calmed down and thought, an old useful lesson from my doctorate class days floated to the surface, so I applied it again here: A mistake is just an opportunity to look at things in a different way. Quit freaking out and fix the problem in front of you. Ok – my problem is my sashing is too short FOR EVERY BLOCK! Ok – so we add the needed fabric onto every piece of sashing and carry the mistake through the quilt as though I meant to do that. I get to use the fabric and I keep going on the quilt – problem solved. Whew! Of course that means I just added an extra step to every piece of sashing I sew together. Sigh. So be it – it’s a small price to pay for my lack of attention to detail. Maybe if it is annoying enough I’ll remember not to do that again . . . I hope.

So on I go and get the first row done. I’m so proud of myself I feel like I just ran a marathon at the Olympics! Feeling pretty confident, I started on row 2, and that’s when all the happy in my balloon poured out and I landed back in reality with a thud. I realized I’d made the first square with one of the smaller t-shirts and hadn’t added the extra width that I had to every other block in the row. NOOO!! I messed it up again! What the heck?! Insert third test of patience, resolve, and more breathing (and a couple of bad words) here. Ok – I got this. I’ll just carry that mistake through as well. It’s not obvious to any but a serious quilter. Adjust which shirt goes first in all the other rows and we’re still good to go. And for heaven’s sake – PAY ATTENTION from now on!

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I’m over halfway done with the top now and as I meticulously measure, pin, and re-check everything twice, I’m realizing that this quilt is a lot like the profession I’m in and the students I work with everyday. The quilt wasn’t going well when I tried to rush through it. I couldn’t rush because EVERY SQUARE IS UNIQUE. Each one has its own quirks, its own challenges as it tries to connect with its peers and into the larger overall community. When I didn’t take time to really see and work with each block on its own, I ended up messing up the whole quilt. If I give every block my full attention, the quilt takes care of itself; it comes together because each block works, mistakes and all. Sometimes fixing the mistake in the form of starting over just isn’t feasible or doable; it is what it is now. Sometimes, you just have to adjust and carry the mistake throughout the entire quilt. However, now that I’m many rows into the quilt, the mistakes are actually adding character to the overall design, not unlike the actual mistakes and work-arounds my son encountered in his middle and high school running days. There’s a symbolism and beauty to that which I couldn’t have planned for intentionally; the metaphor emerged because of the mistakes, and a deeper beauty emerged because of the response to them.

So where does that leave us as teachers, leaders, and coaches? Maybe we can draw from ancient Japanese Zen culture in its appreciation of that which is not perfect. There is beauty and harmony to be found when we appreciate the perfect alongside the imperfect. Together, they provide a deeper meaning and poignancy than when we look at either separately. Everyone is a mix of mistakes, triumphs, hard times, and unplanned outcomes. Every block deserves our full attention – whether it be the easy one or the one that challenges us at every turn – so that together we create something not perfect, but beautiful in its own imperfect way, nonetheless. Maybe we need to remember that our students’ stories are made up of many small blocks – perfect and imperfect – and remaining calm and appreciating where we all are at in any given moment is just as important as the end product we are striving to achieve.

Tomorrow’s another opportunity to decide again – fix them, carry them through, or just appreciate them? For me, I’m going to try to focus a little more on giving my full attention to the quilt blocks and yell at myself a little less about making mistakes. The mistakes might just be opportunities to see things in a different way.