Some Simple Lessons from Kids

As a volunteer docent with our local art museum, I got to spend a few days last week with elementary school students. My own children left the nest more than a decade ago, and I’ve been retired from teaching for a few years, so I almost forgot how meaningful time spent with kids can be. Here are just a few simple lessons they reminded me.

  1. Be Energetic. From the moment they tumbled off the school bus, the students exuded a contagious sense of energy and excitement. I think it’s possible for adults to maintain a youthful energy without bouncing around like Will Ferrell in Elf.
  2. Share. Kids are used to sharing. Whether it’s a crayon, the water fountain or space in front of a painting, they know they have to wait their turn.
  3. Learn. Kids are proud of what they know and are little sponges for learning new things. As adults, every day is a chance to learn something new.
  4. Create. Give a dozen kids the exact same art supplies and they will confidently create a dozen completely different things. Creating stuff keeps us young and sharp.
  5. Follow the Rules. Kids know there are almost always rules to follow, and they understand there are consequences if they don’t. Imagine if adults did the same.
  6. Give Hugs. Spend a day with little kids and you are guaranteed to remember the sweet gift of a hug.
  7. Play. If you’ve forgotten how to play, watch kids for five minutes. They will remind you how.
  8. Be Yourself. Look at any group of children and you will quickly see their individuality even if they’re wearing the same school uniform. How wonderful it is that we aren’t all the same.
  9. Keep it Simple. Show kids an ornate marble sculpture and they just might be more impressed by the ladybug crawling on it.
  10. Think About the Future. Children remind us we will be replaced by the future generation. What kind of world do we want to leave them? §

My Cat is Teaching Me to Set Boundaries

Last July, my husband and I took in a scrawny, flea-infested two-pound kitten that showed up on our back porch. Mr. Darcy is now a healthy 12-pound cat who thinks he’s lord of the manor. While he is quite dashing, my Mr. Darcy lacks the refinement of his namesake from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. One thing this endearingly aloof cat has taught me is how to set boundaries.

Setting boundaries wasn’t a phrase I heard until the past couple of years. According to the Wellness Center at the University of Illinois Chicago, boundaries are an invisible line that defines what behaviors are acceptable and not acceptable to us. Setting boundaries is a way to create clear guidelines about how we expect to be treated. Setting boundaries is a form of self-care, and though it may not always be simple to do, it will simplify our relationships and our lives.

We all know people who test our boundaries by crossing the line time and again. These people may be may our children, spouse, friends, relatives, neighbors, co-workers, boss or even strangers. As a lifelong people-pleaser, I’m not great at setting boundaries, but my cat has offered me some good practice.

A few of Mr. Darcy’s boundary-crossing behaviors include grabbing my pen while I’m writing, pouncing on the sheets while I’m making the bed, attacking my leg as I pass by, and pulling the hair tie out of my pony tail. At first, I endured his antics because they were kind of cute. Stopping them brought up some familiar fears. What if he thinks I’m mean? What if I hurt his feelings? What if he stops liking me? What if he leaves me for a more tolerant human? I know you think this ridiculous, unless you, too, struggle with setting boundaries.

I realized my inability to set boundaries with my cat indicated a need to improve this skill in general. In her book Set Boundaries, Find Peace, Nedra Glover Tawwab says setting healthy boundaries requires self-awareness, good communication skills and assertiveness.

Tawwab outlines these three steps to setting healthy boundaries:
1. Be as clear and as straightforward as possible. Do not raise your voice.
2. State your need or request directly in terms of what you’d like, rather than what you don’t want or like.
3. Accept any discomfort that arises as a result, whether it’s guilt, shame or remorse.

My cat is highly intelligent, but when he doesn’t seem to understand steps one and two, I gently pick him up, put him in his room and shut the door. Even if he meows pitifully and looks at me with those big green eyes, I leave him there until I am able to give him my attention. Setting boundaries with my favorite four-legged friend is teaching me to do the same with the two-legged variety.

Setting boundaries is a serious and important interpersonal skill that can improve our relationships and our well-being. Author Brené Brown said, “Daring to set boundaries is about having the courage to love ourselves even when we risk disappointing others.”

As for my cat, Mr. Darcy, I do believe he is beginning to behave in a more gentlemanly manner that would even please Miss Bennett.

Making a wish for a boy in Uganda

For as long as I can remember, I’ve made a wish upon the first star I see at night. My childhood wishes were inspired by Jiminy Cricket who sang, “If you wish upon a star, makes no difference who you are. Anything your heart desires will come to you.”

Once my children went out on their own, I found it comforting to know no matter how far away they were from me, they could look up at the night sky and remember we were all safe under the same blanket of stars. The wishes I’ve made for them are as numerous as the twinkling dots in the sky. This evening, I will make a wishful prayer on one of those stars for a little boy in Uganda who turns ten years old today.

Several years ago my husband and I began sponsoring Lukas through Compassion International, a Christian humanitarian aid organization. Lukas lives in a small village 300 miles away from the nearest city. Through the work of Compassion, Lukas and many of the children in his village are able to attend school a couple of days a week. On the other days he helps his father tend to animals, gather firewood, carry water and care for his brothers and sisters.

Uganda is one of the poorest nations in the world. Most families depend on subsistence farming, and water shortages frequently cause food scarcity. Many Ugandan children are significantly malnourished. I don’t know if Lukas understands he lives in poverty. If so, his smiling school photos and crayon drawings of him playing soccer, climbing trees and laughing with friends outside his little home with the blue roof belie the fact.

When I find myself wishing for material things or for even more ease in my life, I think of Lukas and the three billion people on our planet who live in poverty. There is a quote I turn to when my life seems inadequate, when I let advertisements and social media make me feel small and envious.

Rainer Maria Rilke wrote, “If your daily life seems poor, do not blame it; blame yourself. Tell yourself that you are not poet enough to call forth its riches. For to the creator, there is no poverty and no poor indifferent place.” Rilke’s words both shame and inspire me. I keep the quote close at hand, just in case I need to snap out of it.

Our sponsorship of Lukas includes annual Christmas and birthday gifts. He always writes to thank us and tell what he purchased with the money. Once it was a chicken. Another time he bought mosquito netting. Last year we were happy to know after buying a mattress there was enough money left over for a piece of candy. I am reminded of a quote by Ghandi, “Live simply so others may simple live.”

This week I sent a birthday message to Lukas through the Compassion website which an interpreter will help him read. I asked him to look up at the sky this evening. “Remember that we live on the same planet, under the same sky dotted with the same stars,” I wrote. “I am making a special wish on one of those stars, a prayer just for you, Lukas, for a very happy birthday.”

A Covid Wedding – 5 simple lessons for this mother-of-the-bride

My daughter was a Covid-bride. She and her fiancé cancelled their September 2020 wedding due to uncertainty about the pandemic. In accordance with CDC guidelines, my daughter and her fiancé would be married before an unknown judge and witness wearing medical masks at city hall in downtown Chicago.

The picture I’d held in my mind of my daughter walking down the aisle on her wedding day surrounded by family and friends faded from view. A civil ceremony followed by toasts at a rooftop restaurant with only a few masked guests wasn’t the vision I had for my little girl’s wedding.

This practical mother-of-the-bride secretly began lamenting a fairy tale wedding complete with an orchestra playing Pachelbel’s Canon in D and white doves released the moment my daughter said, “I do.”

I don’t know what got into me, but I was a tad difficult – a real MOB. I credit the bride’s younger brother for snapping me out of it by offering sage millennial advice like, “It’s not your wedding, Mom.”

Yesterday my beautiful daughter married the love of her life, a wonderful man whom I adore. Their wedding day is over, and it was simply perfect.

Let me wipe away my tears of joy and share five lessons in simplicity I learned from the experience.

1. Accept What Is – As much as I wished a pandemic didn’t upend my daughter’s wedding plans, it did. The Stoics embrace the idea of Amor Fati, or love of fate. Epictetus said, “Do not seek to have events happen as you wish, but wish them to happen as they do happen, and all will be well with you.”

2. Relinquish Control – I admit I’m a control freak. In my mind, I’m only trying to help. The problem is it undermines others’ abilities and shows a lack of trust. My daughter’s wedding day was absolutely lovely without me pulling all the strings. Pandemics remind us how foolish it is to believe we are ever really in control.

3. Manage Emotions – There’s a reason people cry at weddings – it’s freaking emotional. Milestones in our lives, and that of our children, bring out all the feels. When emotions are surging, remember to take a deep breath and make sure you’re not over-reacting to a fleeting feeling.

4. Banish Comparisons – Thanks to social media, Pinterest, reality wedding shows, bridal magazines and a slew of Hallmark movies, there’s no shortage of ideas about the perfect wedding. Actually, doesn’t that apply to just about everything in life these days? As Theodore Roosevelt wisely warned, “Comparison is the thief of joy.”

5. Remember What’s Important  – There are few people the pandemic hasn’t affected – some much more than others. Yet in many ways, it’s reminded us what’s really important. Health, not wealth. People, not things. The marriage, not the wedding. Sometimes we need to step back, see the big picture, and ask ourselves what truly matters.

From this day forward, do I vow to remember the lessons I learned from my daughter’s wedding? I do. §