Friday, June 28, 2013

Working backwards toward peace of mind

As is so often the case, preparing to leave on a vacation this week has been somewhat stress-inducing, despite the fact that I try to keep a sense of perspective. We’re scheduled to board a plane early tomorrow morning, and by midweek that thought had become a source of anxiety rather than the beacon of excitement that an impending family trip should be. But I really wanted to leave for the airport with peace of mind.

So I tried to figure out what peace of mind would look like, and then worked backwards.

And once I broke it down that way, I discovered that some of the tasks I had in mind to accomplish before leaving contributed to the peace-of-mind goal and others, somewhat surprisingly, didn’t. Cleaning the kitchen is important to me; picking up the dry cleaning that we’ll need the week after we get back really isn’t. In fact, I realized, my highest priorities as far as achieving pre-vacation peace of mind fall rather neatly into two categories: being deadline-free with work and leaving a clean and tidy house.

Working backwards toward peace of mind is different from simply writing a To Do list, which is something I tend to do already on a daily basis. The steps toward peace of mind reflect things that will truly make the difference for me in whether or not I start vacation with a sense of serenity. When I write To Do lists, I tend to focus on everything I think should happen, regardless of their intrinsic importance. I tell myself I should vacuum. I should balance the checkbook. I should get the car washed. And so on.

Getting the car washed was a good idea, I realized, but wouldn’t really affect the quality of my vacation. Finishing some work assignments before we leave rather than bringing work with me, on the other hand, will make a tangible difference in how I feel about departing. Knowing that I’m bringing along a suitcase full of clean clothes matters to me, but knowing that all the clean laundry back home has been folded and put away really won’t matter much once I’m halfway across the country.

Now, just 24 hours from departure, I feel like I’m almost there. One of the two articles I wanted to complete before leaving has been written and submitted; the other is halfway done and should be easy to finish later today. I’ve taken trash to the transfer station and cleared off the countertops. I’ve run all the laundry we’ll need for our trip.

A lot can change in twenty-four hours when you’re preparing for vacation – more assignments could unexpectedly come in, for example, or the need for some vital household repair could crop up – but in general, I think this is going to work. My family doesn’t go on vacation often; the fact that we’re all heading out together this week is a big deal for us. And leaving with a sense of serenity is a big deal for me as well. I easily get buried under household tasks, writing assignments, and administrivia, but this time I feel like I’m on top of it. Which makes leaving for vacation an even more joyful and exciting prospect than I anticipated.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Communicating my way through eighth grade graduation

I did not expect to receive a lot of compliments yesterday.

Four months of planning culminated in last night's eighth grade graduation, which I co-chaired with two friends, and it was the kind of task that garners its share of gripes. This isn't a criticism of my fellow eighth grade parents; it's just the reality of planning a somewhat complicated event that involves 97 kids. 

There were parents who thought the beach trip should be to an actual beach. (Fair enough, but the man-made swimming pond is only ten minutes away, whereas the beach would have meant at least an hour in traffic in each direction.) There were disagreements about the theme of the eighth grade dance and the location of the eighth grade class trip. There were even a couple of issues about appropriate refreshments. 

And there were differing points of view from the moment we started the planning process back in February about whether the graduation ceremony should be held inside or outside, and then more disagreements about how many tickets each family should receive if it had to be held inside the auditorium.

However, there was also plenty of enthusiasm, class spirit, and energetic volunteerism. Nearly every one of the 97 families involved helped out at some time or other during graduation season, whether by designing invitations, chaperoning dances, baking snacks for the reception, creating a slide show, or doing countless other tasks along the way.

Still, when the day came, I didn't expect compliments. I expected frazzled rushing around as small details required attention and unanticipated oversights cropped up. 

But it wasn't the number of compliments that was so touching to me; it was their content. Because across the board, people said to me by spoken word, text message or email, "You communicated it all so well."

You see, it's an open secret that communicating by written word is one of my very few skills. I am not someone with a wide diversity of talents. But attempting to impart ideas clearly is both my vocation and my lifeblood; it's how I make a living and it's how I live. So it meant the world to me that it was that very skill that my fellow parents cited yesterday. "Thanks for providing us with so much information," someone wrote. "You've made this all really easy by explaining it so well," said another email.

This isn't about bragging on my part. There's so much I'm not all that good at, and that's what other volunteers and my co-chairs did. I'm not good at arranging flowers or decorating for a dance or figuring out the quantity of paper goods needed for a reception for 600. I'm also not good at inspiring a group of excited eighth graders to behave well while waiting for their graduation ceremony to begin or getting them to stop talking and listen to the photographer's instructions.

So other parents did those jobs. All I really did was send out emails, and it's true that there are now nearly 200 parents in Carlisle who never want to see my name in their in-box again. It turns out graduation requires a lot of emails.

But hearing that they found my communications ultimately more useful than irritating was genuinely important to me. I'm a big believer in core competencies, the idea that it makes sense in a lot of cases for entities -- whether businesses or individuals -- to figure out what they do well and concentrate on doing that, rather than trying to develop other talents or abilities.

But in this one case, I stopped apologizing that I didn't know how to arrange flowers or set up beach volleyball games. Instead, I sent out emails, and to my surprise, people thanked me for them.

Years ago, I was giving my husband what I thought was a useful and critical piece of information when he implored "Could you please just stop explaining things?" He gets tired sometimes of my need to communicate and perhaps occasionally over-communicate. And he's probably right. Some things may not require quite as much explanation as I tend to give them.

And yet at times I feel like it's all I really do well, whether useful or not. Yesterday, after four months of planning, I felt richly rewarded when numerous people told me that for the most part it was, in fact, useful. I explained things and they benefited from it. It's a small thing to be proud of, but yesterday it made the whole graduation undertaking seem entirely worthwhile.

Friday, June 21, 2013

No one looks at the floor

At some point yesterday I noticed something. Of the twenty or so women standing in my kitchen, not one of them appeared to be looking at the floor.

Some were stirring milk into their coffee. Some were helping themselves to the blueberry muffins I'd made the night before. Some were hugging old friends; some were introducing themselves to new friends. The clamor of cheerful energetic morning conversation rang in my ears: talk of summer plans, of the school year just wrapping up, of meetings recently attended and tennis games played.

But no one was looking at the floor.

So at least for that moment, I could stop worrying about the fact that the imaginary timer on my party-preparation minutes had run out just before I was able to take out the vacuum.

Two hours earlier, vacuuming had seemed like the most critical task in the world to me. I had twenty women (and one man) coming over to my house for the annual school library volunteers appreciation coffee. And as always, there was a generous scattering of sesame seeds under the breakfast counter where Tim eats his bagel every morning, not to mention a little dirt I'd tracked in from the deck after watering the herbs that morning, not to mention a few little shreds from a spiral notebook Holly had been tearing homework pages out of before she left for school.

But the fact that no one seemed to notice my omission of vacuuming reminded me once again of something I never seem quite able to remember when the responsibility of entertaining is starting to feel like a burden sure to outweigh any fun I might potentially have at the event: no one goes to a party to judge your housekeeping.

More specifically, I've come to realize in recent years, they're just happy that you're hosting and that they're invited.

It's what author Gretchen Rubin might call one of the Secrets of Adulthood, one of those little eye-opener nuggets that takes most of us years to discover, but once we do, it gives us a whole new perspective on our world.

It wasn't as if I'd been a slouch about getting ready for this party. I'd brewed coffee, washed strawberries and raspberries and blueberries, baked muffins and coffee cakes and cranberry bread, cleaned the bathroom, put out seltzer and ice. I'd even put a small sign out on the common driveway helping people to find our house, which can be something of a feat for anyone who hasn't been here before.

In short, I'd focused on the things that common sense tells me really matter to a guest. Good food; strong coffee; friends; conversation. Clean dishware probably matters, and a generally sanitary look to the kitchen. I'd been at a get-together not too long ago where there were tufts of dog hair scattered across the living room furniture; I admit that bothered me a little bit.

But not having vacuumed yesterday morning before my party? It just really didn't look to me like anyone noticed, or particularly cared if they did.

So if I had to distill this into a Secret of Adulthood, the way Gretchen Rubin does for some of her basic tenets in The Happiness Project, it might be this: guests care far more about food, drink and conversation than the level of housekeeping you've done to get ready for a party.

A little bit later, my friend Jean snapped a photo of me talking to our guest of honor, the retiring school librarian. I was self-conscious as I always am when having my picture taken, sure that my outfit would look silly, my hair frizzy, the background cluttered with items I hadn't remembered to put away.
But later in the afternoon, Jean emailed me the photo, and I was pleasantly surprised. I didn't see frizzy or frumpy or messy. I just saw myself, smiling and talking and looking happy.

All of it serves to remind me that I might sometimes have a tendency to worry too much about appearances: that of my house, and that of myself. In Jean's snapshot, I looked nice enough, and to my guests, my house seemed like a fine place for a party, even if the floor hadn't been vacuumed.

It's so easy to be self-critical, and sometimes it's a constructive stance to take, but other times not. Sometimes the best tack to take is just to enjoy your party. Eat and drink and be merry, for tomorrow you may vacuum. But only if you really want to.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Afraid of the storm

As I drove home during rush hour yesterday evening, I remembered our Minister Emeritus’ favorite Bible passage: “Be not afraid.”

The problem was that I was afraid, a little. Dark pewter clouds hung overhead and there was an ominous stillness in the air. Though no rain was falling yet, every few minutes a line of white-yellow lightning made a vertical streak through the clouds. All afternoon, my office window had offered a tableau of blue sky and sunshine, but I had already received word that there were thunderstorms at home, 20 miles away, and I sensed as I merged onto the highway that I was driving straight toward them.

But then I remembered our minister saying that his favorite phrase from the Bible was that ever-so-simple one of just three words, that remarkably unadorned command: Be not afraid.

Driving on a highway in a thunderstorm should not be a scary experience, I reasoned with myself. This is rain, not snow: ice is not going to be a problem. On this wide interstate, there’s no threat of trees falling. And even if I don’t have as firm a grasp on the physics of electricity as I should, I do know that cars offer fairly reliable protection from lightning.

So as the clouds opened up and buckets of rain started falling into the roadway, I repeated it to myself again: Be not afraid. Yes, there’s something intuitively unnerving about so much noise and so many bright flashes. And yes, the sheets of water pouring down from the sky do decrease visibility a little bit. But it was broad daylight and everyone seemed to be driving carefully. I knew my fear was just general instinct and not common sense.

Being afraid is almost never productive, I reminded myself. Its opposite, being brave, can however be very useful. And its corollary, being cautious, is often a positive thing as well. But straight-out fear? Over being in a car on a wide straight highway when it’s raining? Not useful at all.

So I tried to focus on other aspects of the storm besides its improbable dangers. The color of the lightning against the gray sky was beautiful. The rain would help my newly planted herbs grow, as well as everything else that had recently been planted in gardens and farms all around me. And the slower traffic might actually make my commute safer than it was on an ordinary June evening.

It rained hard for a while, and then the storm lessened. I thought of one of my grandmother’s many peculiar turns of phrase about weather: “It has to get it out of its system.” Not withstanding the linguistic awkwardness of the repeated “its” in that sentence, we were always a little bit amused by her arbitrary interpretation of meteorology, but the thought that the rain would purge itself was indeed comforting. Maybe this means it will be clear for Tim’s class beach party on Wednesday, I reasoned, and even better, for his graduation next Monday.

Maybe. Or maybe not. But it was true that I didn’t have much to fear in this particular storm. Be not afraid: a message that once again reminded me of the uselessness of fear. Next time I’m driving in a storm, maybe I’ll be slower to let anxiety take over. I was safely home an hour later. My herb garden was flourishing in the fresh rainfall. And everything was fine.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Next stop: Graduation

This coming week I'll help finish the preparations for my son Tim’s eighth grade graduation. I'm one of three event co-chairs, which seems fittingly symbolic: I'm executing tangible tasks -- overseeing programs and flowers, scheduling the graduation dance, renting the folding chairs -- to symbolize the end of his nine years at our local school.

Sometimes I think I've changed more than he has in these nine years. I was so starry-eyed as we registered for kindergarten. This is one of the most desirable school systems in the country; I felt so lucky to be able to live here and send my child here, and I was sure everything would be perfect. He'd have perfect teachers, make perfect friends, do all the right activities: soccer, band, middle school dances, Student Council. This was, after all, the same school I attended myself for grades kindergarten through eight, and almost all my memories of it were happy ones. 

But of course, public school isn't Disney World, no matter how highly rated the school system. Parents spar with the administration and gripe among themselves about teachers. Even the most exclusive suburbs, with parents who lavish every possible benefit on their children, produce kids who are occasionally unkind. And it turned out my kid didn't like soccer. Or band. Or Student Council. The middle school dances were fine -- until he went through his first break-up and didn’t want to go anymore for a while. That was one milestone I most definitely was not anticipating back at kindergarten orientation.

So Tim and I will both spend next week preparing for our departure, both emotionally and in practical ways as we finalize the graduation preparations. Next fall, he heads off for the first time in his life to a school that I did not attend and cannot picture. Since I went to private school and he'll go to public, I don't know the smell of the hallways or the color of the auditorium seats or where the buses load at the end of the day. This time Tim will learn it all for himself.

But really, he did last time, too. My notion that I knew all about our local school was an illusion. it was a good nine years, but things are more complicated than I anticipated. There were good parts and bad parts, and next week, as the other graduation volunteers and I confirm with the photographer, proofread the programs, and watch the kids head off on their daylong beach trip, Tim will be saying goodbye to teachers and acknowledging that there are friends he will hardly ever see next year. Eighth grade graduation is hardly a notable accomplishment. The truth is pretty much anyone can pull it off. But it's a milestone nonetheless.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Learning from other people's stories

At the Unitarian church my family attends, this past Sunday was the special day that the first graders receive their Bibles – illustrated versions designed especially for kids their age. 

The minister addressed in very simple terms the relevance of the Bible to the Unitarian Universalist faith, which has no written creed. She told them that the Bible contains stories about things that happened to people in the past and stories about how people lived. She explained that unlike some faiths, Unitarians don’t see the Bible as an instructional manual telling us what to do but rather a reference for us to learn about choices and actions committed to by other people.

It occurred to me as she explained it that this is really the value of almost all stories, whether fiction or nonfiction. I have often thought that biographies, memoirs and novels generally have far more impact than self-help books on readers like me. In a way, it’s a bit of a paradox. In order to make compelling literature, each character – whether actual, historical or fictional – needs to have a unique story. 

And yet in order to have meaning, stories must be universal, must have some element that resonates with any reader. So the goal of good story-telling, fictional or nonfictional, is to be able to home in on these universal elements while also telling a story we haven’t heard before in just those same words or under just those same circumstances or with just that same outcome.

My father, who taught English for 40 years, recently told me about a high school junior who marveled over a character in a novel she was reading for class, “That’s just how I feel! But I didn’t know anyone else felt that way!” My father told me that to him, she seemed a little bit old to be making this discovery for the first time; most readers discern this aspect of literature when they are still children. But in fact, most readers have this experience again and again, and for some of us it feels new each time.

When I interview article subjects or memoir clients, I look for what is unique in their story but also what will resonate most with readers. Unsympathetic characters are just less interesting than those with whom we have some small element, however small, in common. As our minister said, Bible stories tell us what happened – whether historically accurate or not – to other people and give us ideas about how to live (or how not to live) our own lives. So do novels, biographies, and memoirs. From each person’s experience, we derive common experiences. And from each character’s lessons, be they fictional or nonfictional, we all learn.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Eighth grade class trip

I dropped Tim off at school at 6:30 yesterday morning. He was wide awake, alert, and eager to get going, even though it was an hour earlier than normal middle school drop-off time. In his backpack, in place of the usual pencils, notebooks and calculators, were toiletries, t-shirts, clean socks and underwear. Also two one-pound bags of his favorite candy, Sour Patch Kids, and a deck of cards.

In half an hour, after checking in at his homeroom and having his backpack searched for contraband substances, Tim, along with his 96 classmates, would be boarding the bus for the eighth grade class trip: two full days in the wilds of the Berkshires, one overnight at the Comfort Inn.

I’d gone to the parent meeting last week and had a pretty good idea of what the itinerary was for the trip. They’d spend the first day at a camp doing ropes courses and other team-building activities. Even though they weren’t spending the night there, they’d get to do the same nighttime activities that make nights at summer camp so memorable: dinner, campfires, reflecting upon the day’s activities. They’d spend the night at a hotel, three or four kids to a room, where the chaperones would check them in and then tape the doors shut. The kids were allowed to stay up as late as they wanted with their roommates, but no fraternizing between rooms. The second day would be spent at the Shakespeare & Company campus in Lenox, watching and taking part in Shakespearean scenes. They’d be home by evening.

“Which part are you looking forward to most?” I asked Tim as we drove to school. Despite the early hour, we hadn’t had to rush; Tim had been up in plenty of time to shower and dress and brush his teeth. He was refreshed, cheerful and energetic. “The camp visit? The play?”

“The hotel overnight,” said Tim. “Me and Austin and Will are going to stay up all night playing poker and using Sour Patch Kids in place of poker chips.”

This wasn’t on the itinerary that the eighth grade teachers distributed at our meeting last week. But I appreciated his honesty, and I was just glad that he was prepared to have a good time, whatever the means. He hasn’t gone away much. He’s never been to summer camp. One-night sleepovers with close friends are really the extent of his time away from home, at this point.

So I was a little bit apprehensive about his departure. But only a very little bit, because he was going to be with kids he’s known for nearly a decade and teachers he’s known all year.

It was a precursor to later this summer, when he’ll finally have his first summer camp experience. That’s for only a week, and he assures me he’s not anxious in the least. He’s probably telling the truth. I’m anxious, though. It’s always hard to separate from your children, whether it’s at the infant daycare center your first day back at work – I did this when Tim was four months old – or the first day of kindergarten or leaving them at the soccer field for their first practice.

And this is only the beginning. But he’s ready, and I need to be also. Saying goodbye for a two-day trip didn’t seem like a big deal, until I thought of all the goodbyes that this one presaged: college, eventually; maybe studying abroad; maybe military service. This one is easy; but it’s only a lead-in to more complicated separations.

Nonetheless, it’s a start. We’ll drop him off at summer camp in a couple of months and hope again that it will be a good experience. I’ll say goodbye and then worry a little, just as I am now. But one step at a time. I know he has good emotional coping skills and is happy and confident about this trip.

Besides, he has two pounds of Sour Patch Kids. He’ll be fine.