Practicing Mindfulness and Gratitude

Practicing mindfulness and gratitude

Mindlessly, I flip through my most-frequented apps. I check to see what new kids’ clothes I’ve sold on Kidizen. I pop between my Zillow and Trulia real estate apps just for fun — are any good properties for sale in our town? We’d love to downsize and simplify a few things. I check my monthly sales total on my Teachers Pay Teachers app and calculate my goal progress for the month, right on track to surpass my April goals. I open Instagram to whichever of my accounts is logged in and then toggle between the three of them. Without thinking, I open TpT again, only to realize that I just checked that app a minute before. I set my phone down and exhale. My toddler picks it up and hands it back to me, as if it should be a permanent extension of my left hand. He’s so accustomed to seeing it there. I place my phone under the cushion of the outdoor patio furniture behind me and reach for the other things I brought outside with me on this gorgeous spring day — my leather-bound journal, my Bible, and a book, “Not the Boss of Us.”

I read a few paragraphs from Kay Wills Wyma’s newest book and look up, pausing to really take in my own backyard. We’ve lived here two years now and are reaping the benefits of the landscaping put in by the prior owners. The first thing I noticed was the wide-open sky. It reminded me of my honeymoon in Montana, aptly-named “Big Sky Country.”

I’m praying about a lot of things these days. God has been placed a calling on my heart that I can’t quite comprehend without having to unravel a lot of other things. I’m not sure what to do. I want to be obedient, and I’ve been praying for over a year now. It’s hard to not wonder, worry, and try to take control.  I take a break from my futile attempts to play out every possible scenario in my head.

I look around my backyard, practicing a mindfulness exercise I teach my elementary students regularly: Notice five things you can see, four things you can hear, three things you can touch, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste.

It’s an exercise in grounding oneself when thoughts are racing, whether from anxiety or the general overwhelm life so often seems to spiral within us.

I record a few of my observations in my notebook. Later, I’d transfer them to Instagram to steward my words in case they can bless someone else.

  • I see: my toddler eating a lollipop and playing with his fairy garden, my breastmilk ring and all that it symbolizes to me, my neighbor’s dogwood tree, and tall grasses waving in the wind way up on the hill behind my house.
  • I hear: songbirds, trees rustling, far-off train, wind chimes.
  • I smell: familiar scents of springtime and new mulch that remind me of childhood and home.

I also note what I would have missed by staying inside today, on this gorgeous 70-degree spring day: my new neighbor painting a canvas on her patio, wind chimes, the baby figuring out the swing, the way our trees throw twinkling shadows on freshly-cut grass.

My gratitude list:
1. The baby all to myself this weekend while the big kids are camping with daddy
2. Pink dogwood in bloom
3. A fragrant backyard
4. Gentle breeze
5. Everything we need
6. Vacation one month away
7. Chorus of birds outside
8. Good friends
9. Summer within reach

Recently I spent several nights away from home, traveling solo to a conference. I knew, going into it, I would have a chance to meet one of the most famous authors in my profession and ask her my questions about the next steps in publishing my first children’s book. I didn’t know, though, that her keynote would resonate so much with me that I’d spend the next several weeks contemplating hope and its role in combating anxiety and depression. I wondered how I could use the information to help my families at school.

During her keynote, we watched this powerful video by Nature Valley. I’m glad I grew up in a generation when playing outside and interacting with the world around me was natural and expected. Now it seems like going outside has to be intentional. Meanwhile, our fixation with technology seems to be stripping us of hope.

I watch my toddler playing in the fairy garden. “Fade-ees! Fade-ees!” he squeals in delight as he moves the small plastic fairies around the miniature garden we made last summer in a large ceramic planter on our deck. Without his brothers here, he has his pick of any fairy he wants, and he clutches all of them in his tiny fists. He drops one, and it rolls under the woven ottoman. He points up to the playground we built up on our hill and asks, in his words, to go play in the mud kitchen.

“You can go up there,” I encourage him, easing back onto the couch and reaching for my Bible and notebook.

“No. Mommy come,” he demands. I put my books down, thinking longingly of the quiet time I’m so desperate for, but I follow him up the hill and watch as giddily he transfers measuring cups’ full of muddy water back and forth from the 99-cent Goodwill cupcake pans to the matching pans in the sink. A little mulch drips down the front of his striped romper and he is concerned for just a moment, then returns his attention to the cakes he is making me. I notice the blue handprint painted near the sink, the pink dogwood blossoms near the swings and peer through the lilac bush, its blossoms already dropping in the short-lived Virginia spring. If it hadn’t come up here, I might have missed them entirely. I watch my neighbor mow her lawn, amazed at the checkerboard pattern she seems to so effortlessly create every single time. I appreciate whoever hung wind chimes far enough away that I can enjoy them without interrupting sleep over them.

These grounding exercises lead me to a conversation with our Creator that only He can orchestrate. The feels of the breeze against my face slows my own racing thoughts of what I could be doing right now to prepare for the workweek ahead and the rest of my family’s return from their camping trip. The scent of lilac brings me back to the present moment. God has called me to notice this very scene before me. “Truth,” Wyma writes, “Truth that tomorrow’s worries and yesterday’s happenings don’t get to overinform or steal from today.” My two-year-old has not a care in the world as he enjoys his red lollipop and sloshes water around the mud kitchen we fashioned from a yard sale kitchen sink, old wooden pallets, some extra boards, and a corrugated steel roof. It is their favorite activity, and all three of my boys still fit side-by-side in front of the sink. Just as spring will segue silently into summer, there will come a time when they won’t be able to all fit across, forming and serving mud cakes together. And so I’ll soak it up now, instead of looking ahead to the next thing, the next house, the big picture. God is calling me to see this very moment before me before my littlest toddles back inside the house to snuggle against me for a nap. Laundry and packing lunches and Friday folders from school can wait a little longer.

Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?” (Matthew 6:26, NIV).

Great references for getting outside with kids:

  • “There’s No Such Thing as Bad Weather” by Linda Akeson McQurk
  • “Free Range Kids” by Lenore Skenazy
  • “Last Child in the Woods” by Richard Louv 

More of my thoughts on mindfulness:

 

Trading Gridlock for Slow and Steady Rhythms

IMG_8206Driving back to my hotel after a day spent just outside Washington, D.C. at a work conference, I needed to get on the Beltway and go South. I had been dreading this particular stretch all day, knowing I’d be up against the D.C. commuters returning home in rush hour on a Friday, a Friday which, for many, was also the start of spring break. Not even on the Beltway yet, I could see its ripple effects on the on-ramps and even spilling up onto the highway where I was, cars already at a standstill.

Ignoring Siri’s insistence to get into the right lane to begin merging, I believed there must be another way. A slower way. I glanced at my anticipated arrival time.

6:09 pm.

I continued on the slow, steady highway, and sure enough, Siri rerouted — this time, to a toll road. Again, I held out for a slower way, and she recalculated, making small adjustments to keep my commute moving forward.

Suddenly and without warning, my lane became a right-turn-only lane, and I was forced to ease off of the highway onto a side street. My steady road had ended, and without knowing my way, I planned to make a U-turn, but Siri had other plans. She recognized another route, and I continued forward.

This newest route wound through sleepy neighborhoods, a mixture of older homes and McMansions, the off-street parking so tight, the roads appeared one-way. Still, I was grateful for this quieter unplanned route, and I continued to weave through the stop signs and quiet streets. Eventually, the road spit me back onto the main highway leading to my hotel, with only a stop sign against a steady stream of traffic in both directions, and with an additional two-way cross-street between me and the stop sign to the main thoroughfare.

Finally, my opportunity came, and I darted into the first available lane and then watched for opportunities to get over. I persisted and was soon swinging into one of the last parking spots in front of the hotel. I breathed a sigh of relief, my car finally in park, and glanced at the clock.

6:07 pm. Earlier even, than the Beltway would have delivered me.

The route I took had its own unique obstacles, but it was another way, albeit the uncommon way. And in this case, uncommon meant less-congested. When I felt gridlocked in traffic, I sought a new direction, a slower, quieter route.

I’ve been practicing this in my life for several years now as well, and I know this season with three little ones, working a full-time job, and now publishing my first children’s book will not last forever. I’m learning as I go, stepping out in faith. My responsibilities, while all good, do not leave wiggle room for much else, and that is both frustrating and stressful.

Tonight I finished Emily P. Freeman’s “Discern and Decide” course, one of her pre-order bonuses accompanying her latest book, “The Next Right Thing,” a national bestseller just days after launch. I loved diving deep into exploring the rhythms I’ve established in this season, reflecting on what is and isn’t working. I love the suggestions Emily gave for how to reflect on the past season. An avid writer, I didn’t think I needed this extra direction, but her practical suggestions encouraged me to reflect on things I might otherwise have missed. Breaking down my personal and communal practices, I was able to highlight rhythms to ingrain and rhythms to abandon. Instead of feeling guilt over the places where I’ve said “no” lately, I felt affirmed. My decisions lately have aligned with what I value most.

I fought for the space to have time of reflection this weekend. Here I am, at a hotel, sans kiddos for the first time in years. When I first asked if I could go on this work trip, I was met with resistance. My admin said there was no money. I decided to pay for it myself, and in the meantime, found funding another way. My husband, of course, was supportive of my going, but it meant a lot of sacrifices on both of our parts. I’d miss my oldest son’s school recital and my middle son’s soccer game, and I’d have to pump milk for the days spent away from my youngest. It also meant several hours of writing lesson plans for my substitute. Meanwhile, my husband was doing 100% of the things.

But I persisted, knowing I needed the time to slow down, and so here I am, relishing the white space I carved for myself. I’ve had time for uninterrupted thought, uninterrupted writing, and mostly-uninterrupted quiet. (There was that charter bus of middle schoolers just outside my door that pulled in and unloaded at 11:45 last night…)

Today I went to a huge shopping center and perused slowly — another luxury I’ve never had. At my conference today, I talked to an author I’ve followed for 13 years now. (Check out @counselorstation on Instagram today to see who she is!) I tried a new face mask. I moved slowly and finished entire thoughts. For once, I didn’t have to leave unfinished projects scattered around. I savored my coffee and strawberry crepes in a quaint little French cafe.

The small adjustments Siri made so that I didn’t have to join the gridlock on the Beltway are not unlike the small adjustments I make in my life to stay balanced, avoiding a gridlocked schedule but also recognizing that a kid-free retreat will not always be realistic. I learned from my “How Things Work” college physics professor that a bicycle can stay balanced on its own if it’s pedaled (he was making the point that it’s not all that impressive when people ride a bike without touching the handlebars). I like to think that pedaling with these tiny, almost unnoticeable adjustments helps keep it balanced. Right now I’m pedaling between these two extremes, the gridlock and the quiet. And I’m finding where I can dip into each, covering my responsibilities and saying no as needed, while also taking time for self-care. But if I lean too far into either one, I become unbalanced and something major gets neglected.

The steady rhythm of moving forward, listening for cues from the Lord, being open to consider unexpected opportunities, and seeking out those uncommon paths help keep me from falling. I’m grateful for it all.

A Letter to My Son on His Last Day of Kindergarten

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To my newly-minted first grader:

You’re home and you’re ready for a fun-filled summer, reunited with your baby brothers for the next two months. I’m already looking ahead to how we will fill our days together. I have lists… oh, I have lists– projects I’d like to tackle, places I’d like to take you boys, camps you’ll be attending. And still lots of wide-open time together, room for spontaneous playdates and airplane rides on my feet, water fights and bike rides.

For a moment though, can we just pause?

You just finished KINDERGARTEN. As fast as this year flew by, and as eager as we are to start the summer, let’s not forget to relish this moment. Let’s celebrate this milestone, take this pictureLet’s go out and celebrate tonight, as a family, because we know how far you’ve come since the first day, even if we didn’t see all the incremental changes. You’ve gotten taller, and you’re wearing bigger clothes and shoes, but you’ve maintained your character, and it has truly shined this year as you’ve come out of your shell day by day.

Your kindergarten teacher wrote you the most beautiful letter. I love that this letter is written in the book that all your preschool teachers also signed, the book all your future teachers will touch, I Wish You More by Amy Krouse Rosenthal, one of my favorite authors, one who touched so many people before her passing.

“…I have loved being your kindergarten teacher. You have grown so much this year and it has been my pleasure to be able to witness your growth! You have blossomed from a shy boy with a sweet smile to a more outgoing boy with that same sweet smile! 🙂 I have loved watching you become a role model to your peers. You have a strong sense of right and wrong and you make great choices. You are respectful and responsible and just enough mischievous to remind me that you’re still a little boy. 🙂 I hope you keep your love of learning and love of life. You are so, so special! I will look forward to hearing of your successes…”

Let’s pause, before marching onward, swept into looking ahead to what’s next and what first grade will hold for you, to truly savor the brand new experience we just had, soak up your achievements, and learn from the mistakes and losses. Before we turn toward the next milestone, let us be thankful and grateful for where we’ve come from and the people who touched us along the way. I love that in addition to being your mommy, I got to be your school counselor this year and came to know all your classmates– another unique experience for me and for both of us.

Most of all, I want you to know that I love you.

And I’m so very proud of you.