Category Archives: Children

282 Miles – Zero Distance

Rocco worn out from fetch.

I spent the last weekend with my daughter. She called it the Ultimate Mother-Daughter, Foodie, Coffee Shop Writing, Shopping, Rodeo Weekend. (We need to work on a catchier title. That’s never going to fit on a bumper sticker). The Adventure Days and Mother-Daughter Dinner Dates of her childhood have evolved into weekends at her home in her college town. On the way over, I always stop in Ellensburg (mile 120). The Chevron and Starbucks are just off the freeway and only a couple blocks apart, so I can top off the Jeep, and me, in less than 15 minutes. When I drop down to the Columbia (mile 150), I am just over half-way. Though I am still 11 miles out when I hit the first exit into town, in my mind, I am there. All told, it’s 282 miles—the perfect distance.

There ain’t no mountain high enough
Ain’t no valley low enough
Ain’t no river wide enough
To keep me from getting to you.
Marvin Gaye

I know there are moms and dads who are thinking 282 miles?!?! and perhaps that’s 280 miles too far or possibly that’s 2000 miles too close. For us though, it’s exactly right. There is a sweet spot when a young adult goes off to college. On the one hand, the first years of college are stressful. As a student, you should be close enough to be able to get home when you really need to. On the other hand, college is stressful. You should be far enough away that you can’t run home when you only think you need to. Likewise, as a parent, you should be close enough that you can visit them when they need you. You should be far enough away that you can’t just pop over anytime you think they need you. That distance might be 10 miles or it might be 1000 miles. Trust me, you need to know how far.

You never know how strong you are
until being strong is the only choice you have.
Bob Marley

I found an old spur to inspire me at Boulevard Mercantile.

For us, the sweet spot is 282 miles away. It is not that we don’t want to be closer to her. I would love for her to live around the corner from us. If she lived closer, however, she might not have had to struggle through her first year of college in a way that helped her emerge the happy and capable adult she is today. If not for a mountain high and a river wide, in the words of Marvin Gaye, I would have hopped in my Jeep before the first late-night phone call had ended and had her packed up by dawn. Who doesn’t want to save their child from the inevitable pain that accompanies becoming an adult? The truth is, there is no saving. The only path is through. While encouragement and support are helpful, in the end, we all have to get through it on our own. Learning to be with the most uncomfortable feelings – fear, loneliness, uncertainty, and sadness  – and move forward despite them is a critical step toward adulthood.

Just when the caterpillar thought the world was over,
it became a butterfly.
Chuang Tzu

The Ultimate Mother-Daughter, Foodie, Coffee Shop Writing, Shopping, Rodeo Weekend was glorious.  It was as if all the memories of all of our Adventure Days were photoshopped together in saturated colors and polarized.  We laughed and talked for hours. She took me to all of her favorite places and some new places she thought I would love. I reveled at her confidence and wisdom in managing a full load of classes, a strength and conditioning coaching job, a home, a relationship, and a rambunctious dog. She’s found her path through and our relationship is not separated by 282 miles.

The only thing better than being with my daughter and a dusty Jeep would be my daughter and a muddy Jeep.

When I hit the interstate, though I was only 11 miles away, I was already gone. When I climbed back up from the Columbia, I was half-way home. I filled up in Ellensburg on regular gas and high-octane coffee. By the time I hit Snoqualmie Pass, though I was 67 miles away, I was home. And so was she.  

Copyright 2021 Catherine Matthews

Letting Clouds Get in the Way

I got up Monday and went for a ride, as I do every weekday morning. The skies were clear. I couldn’t see them, because it was too dark, but I could see stars for miles. I knew the sun would come up on a beautiful day. At the end of the ride, that is exactly what happened. I sat in my backyard watching the sunrise with my two Boxers and a cup of coffee.  It was a glorious Pacific Northwest summer morning.

If you read my blog, you know I never pass up a chance to drive with the top down on my Jeep.  After getting ready, I pulled Radar out of the garage and immediately knew something was wrong. In the time it took me to take a shower and get dressed, the skies had become covered by a cloud bank that was low and stretched out as far as I could see.  There I sat in the driveway trying to decide if I should stop right then, take my heels off, climb up on the bumper in my dress, and put the top on.

Rows and flows of angel hair
And ice cream castles in the air

And feather canyons everywhere
Looked at clouds that way

-Joni Mitchell

That took about five seconds. I put it in gear and headed for work, sans top. As I drove along, I convinced myself, with little evidence and even less training in meteorology, that it wasn’t going to rain. The stratus clouds, though dense, probably had little vertical development (I had one meteorology class in college). More importantly, I knew a 10% chance of rain meant a 100% chance of rain over 10% of the geography or a 100% chance of rain over 10% of the geography or….  so really what was the chance of rain at all? So what if it did rain? I had a hairdryer at work. I could safely drive a little faster and avoid a few raindrops. It would be totally worth it to get in one more day of driving with the top down.

But now they only block the sun
They rain and snow on everyone

So many things I would have done
But clouds got in my way

-Joni Mitchell

That is when I realized that, when I really want something, I don’t let clouds get in my way. Those clouds are just water vapor passing through the atmosphere, temporarily obscuring the sun and a blue sky that are always there. When I don’t want to do something, those clouds are like a concrete wall too high to climb over, permanent and unyielding. I have a choice in how I see those clouds. When I feel that resistance to the clouds, it is showing me something I need to see.

If you really want to do something, you’ll find a way.

If you don’t, you’ll find an excuse.”

-Jim Rohn

I have had a few concrete clouds lately. After 31 years in a profession, everything has been turned on its head. The goals are the same but just about everything else has changed in some way. Some days, it feels like those clouds are completely socked in and so thick that no amount of sun and wind will break them up. And then I realize that I am the one who is keeping them in place. My resistance keeps them tethered over my head. I can choose to see them as impending rain or I can choose to see them as temporary. I know that when I want something, I find a way. I drive with the top down when I know it could rain. I innovate. I learn. I lift and lean.  I know that when I choose to see those clouds as temporary, I can imagine the sunshine and blue sky coming through. I remember that the blue sky is always there, waiting for the clouds to pass.

The second thing I realized is that sometimes I am the clouds. I am the one getting in my way. I am the one getting in someone else’s way. More than ever, I have to realize this and check myself. When I feel stressed and resistant, am I causing a cloud that is obscuring the blue skies for someone else? I can be the one to help someone find a way to learn a new way of doing things. I can be the one who says, it will be okay. We can drive with the top down and, even if it rains, we will be okay. The sun will come out. The blue skies will appear. In the meantime, we are okay even if it rains. 

Cloud Bank on Icicle Creek Canyon (1/500 sec., f/4.8, 120 mm, 220 ISO)

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2020

What every kid needs to learn before you give them tuition or luggage.

My daughter went back to college a couple weeks ago after being home for the winter break.  I thought that she would be about 24 years old before I would have this feeling that is exploding from my heart. I can’t really put my finger on it exactly. Satisfaction? No, not big enough.  Vindication? No, too dramatic.  Elation? Yes, that is it. I am elated.  Not that she left. Rather, I am elated that, after just one quarter of college, we have definitive proof that we accomplished some big things we set out to do as parents. Before I go on, I will admit that I made plenty of mistakes as a parent. It is impossible not to make mistakes. Parenting is the most complex undertaking in life, I believe.  Also, I should share, there are many things about our daughter that we are proud of other than the ones in this post. The things I am going to share are things that I think every young adult should learn before getting luggage or tuition, and being sent out into the world.

Ultimately, our goal was for our daughter to leave our house at 18, able to navigate the adult world secure in the knowledge that she had the skills to be successful and independent.  I believe that people do not learn how to be an adult when they are 18. They begin learning as soon as they try out their first “NO!”  As with any skill, adulthood has to be scaffolded with a gradual exchange of responsibility and a commensurate increase in freedom.   For example, one of our goals was for her to be able to travel alone safely as an adult.  When she was little, she traveled with me by airplane.  I helped her pack, understand boarding passes, handle bags, get through security, and navigate the plane. Then, she traveled by plane with a friend, and parents waiting at each terminal.  She experienced being alone on the plane and having to get her needs met. Next, she traveled with her team by airplane, and I traveled on another plane (because I am smart).  She was able to do most of what she needed to do, but her safety net (coach) was right there. She traveled to the opposite corner of the country with a friend on a plane, navigating major airports. She did everything on her own. Last thanksgiving, she even booked her own flight. Gradual exchange of responsibility from me to her. She had chances to make mistakes, with a safety net. Though that safety net was about the same through all of this, she used it less and less. And when there were problems, we started by asking what she could do to solve the problem.  As a result, she learned that she could trust herself to solve problems and advocate for herself. Children need opportunities to try, and even fail, if they are to learn.

These are not in age or priority order. They are all equally important to us.

Banking and Money:  We opened a bank account for her quite young. She went to the bank with us to deposit her money. While we provided for her needs, we reminded her that she had her own money if she wanted to buy something that we did not want to buy for her. I remember the day we were shopping when she admitted, “I like it enough if you are buying it, but not if I am.” We laughed. No one bought that sweater. Our gauge became: Would you buy this, if you had to pay for it? As soon as she was old enough, she got her a debit card. Keeping track of it and her money became her responsibility. Our accounts were linked, and I got alerts on her spending. I never intervened unless I thought there was a possibility of fraud.   As soon as she was old enough, she got a small credit card to establish credit. She learned what it means to have a bill you must pay.

Work:  There are things you can only learn working for someone other than your parent.  She babysat in middle school, and got her first job in high school.  Her first couple of jobs had big challenges.  She learned that money is earned. She learned how hard and how long you have to work to save up money. She learned about being on time, and having a positive attitude even when you really don’t want to do something. She also learned that if you don’t like your job, you can go get another one, but it is always best to leave on good terms.  From unpaid internships, she learned that sometimes you can earn something other than money that pays off big dividends on your future.

Rights:  She probably would not agree, but one job in particular taught her a painful but necessary lesson.  She has rights. Though an employee, she has the power to advocate for herself and protect herself.  We taught her about Labor and Industries, and employee rights. We showed her how to research the law and file a complaint. This was one I had not really planned for because I never had to assert my employment rights, fortunately. I could see that she felt she could not stand up to her boss for fear she would be fired even though she was in the right.  Though I helped her navigate the process, she filed her complaint on her own. It was a powerful lesson for us all.

Self-Advocacy and Negotiation: These are skills best learned young.  Believe me, the first time she shouted “No” at me, I was not thinking this.  But we quickly realized that, if she learned she must mindlessly submit to anyone in authority or power, we would be diminishing her power as a human and putting her potentially in danger.  We wanted her to trust her gut and set boundaries for the treatment she would accept from others. I heard too many stories from teens who were assaulted because they did not feel they had the power to say “stop” or “no”.  We also wanted her to have the confidence to state her case to get her needs met or to address an injustice.  Let your child talk to their teacher when there is a problem.  Coach them about who to talk to when they need help. Stepping in feels supportive as a parent. To a teen, it can communicate that you do not believe that they can solve their problem on their own.

Self-Management: This is a hard one as a parent because it is so hard to see your child unhappy. But it is important. Children need to have some freedom to make choices that could have positive or negative consequences.  Then they have to experience living with the consequences, good and bad. Take homework for example, she was allowed to manage when and where she did it until she began missing assignments. Then we set a time and place. We also set expectations around how she could get that freedom back.  We never had to talk about homework again. She apparently did not enjoy studying with me at the kitchen table as much as I enjoyed spending the time with her.

Cell Phones: They are a fact of life. The sooner kids learn to use one appropriately, the better. We bought her a cell phone when she entered middle school so that we could be in touch with her in an emergency. We made it very clear that we owned the phone and could revoke it if she violated the rules.  We talked about safety rules. Though we never felt the need to do it, we were clear that we would read her texts if a problem occurred, or we felt she was in danger.  She loved her phone.  We only had to take it away one time.

Social Media:   I was a high school principal so I knew all too well the devastating mistakes developing and impulsive minds could make.  I was initially very much against allowing her to have any social media. But then I realized that she was eventually going to have it. Since to that point I knew nothing about it, she could have set up social media and I might not even have known she did.  We all needed to learn about online safety. She needed to practice using social media with supervision to prevent bigger mistakes later. There were only a few issues but they were great opportunities to talk about how easily things can go wrong on social media.

Grocery Shopping:  This seems a bit silly because kids usually go to the store with a parent at some point. There is a big difference between tagging along, dropping protein bars in the basket when your dad isn’t looking, and actually planning for a week of healthy eating.  We sent her periodically to the store with a budget and a list to do the family shopping.  As a college student, she understands how much cheaper it is to buy food at the store and cook it at home, than to go out for dinner.  She understands how to select fruits and vegetables, check expiration dates, and read labels.  For the record, her dad gets all the credit for this one.

Cooking:  We started this one pretty late because she was an athlete who was often home late.  It did not make sense to have her cook after school and practice. In her senior year, she took an interest in nutrition and learned to cook. You are at the mercy of cafeterias and restaurants in the dorms. But when you move out, you might be eating a lot of soup and frozen dinners, if you don’t know how to cook.  Again, her dad gets all the credit here. I do know how to cook, but he is much better at it!

Laundry:  Need I say more?

Doctor and Dentist Appointments: This grew from necessity, but turned out to be a great skill.  I could not manage her schedule and mine. Eventually in exasperation, I told her to call her doctor and make the appointment. We gave her an insurance card and explained how insurance works.  Ultimately, she was comfortable going to appointments alone and advocating for herself.

I remember when she was in high school and she said to me, “I am adulting all over the place.” I thought it was cute. I mean, it’s not like she had to worry about a mortgage. I realized over this winter break, that she was adulting all over the place. Every day, she is adulting more and more. She is right on schedule. When she moves into her apartment next year, I won’t have to worry about whether or not she will be able to feel herself, pay rent, or keep herself safe. I also know that she understands that she can always ask for help or advice. Even adults need a safety net.

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Adulting All Over The Place

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2020.

When Dreams are the Real Deal

Have you ever had one of those dreams that is so real you wake up with a start, gasping for air, heart pounding, momentarily stunned to find yourself in your own bed, safe and sound? It happens to me.  I have always had very real, very complicated dreams. II could remember them allI would probably have enough material to be the next Steph(v)en (as in Spielberg, King or Hawking).  Usually my dreams make no sense to me. I’ve heard that people can decipher dreams.  That may be true, but I don’t think I will spend any time on the one where I am walking backwards in bare feet through muddy jeep tracks in culottes and a Yes concert t-shirt with my Daisy BB gun slung over my shoulder shouting orders at bunny rabbits.  I would never wear culottes, first of all.  I definitely wouldn’t wear them with a concert t-shirt. My fashion choice in that one was not even the most disturbing element, as you can well imagine.  There are other dreams that are more common and obvious, but still truly terrifying. The worst one of all, which has many variants, is the school nightmare.  In that one, it’s my senior year in college. I realize that I never attended a single class and I am late for finals.  That dream featured regularly as a sympathy nightmare during finals week when I was a teacher and a principal.   

Last night, I had one of those dreams. It was so vivid; I woke up nearly in tears.  In the dream, I walk into my kitchen and my dad is standing there.  It isn’t my 2018 dad. It is my 1970s dad. I know that because he is big and booming.  In the 80s, we built a house, he leaned out from all of the labor.  This was definitely 1970s dad.  He is wearing an Aran sweater, thick and soft, the color of milk. I remembered he told me how the Irish clans each had their own cable pattern of Aran sweater so that the fishermen’s bodies could be easily identified no matter how long they were at sea.  He is standing at the kitchen counter and I am stunned to see him. I know he has passed away.  He isn’t sick. He is standing on his own, healthy and strong.  He wraps me in a hug so deep and strong I can feel it in my heart. I can feel his heavy hand patting my shoulder blades the way he did when I was small and sad.  He says a phrase I’ve heard a hundred times, “Hey there, it’s OK pal.”  It is as mushy as he gets.  Someone says to me, “He isn’t gone” but I know that this is not true. I hold onto him anyway because I know I will soon lose the feel of the cable knit on my cheek, the warmth of his hug, the weight of his presence.  When I wake up, I know it is a dream. He has passed. Nothing will change that.  But for a few moments, it felt so real.  

Though I rarely even think about my dreams, let alone attempt to decipher them, I could not ignore this one for the lingering sorrow it evoked.  It made me wonder why we dream at all.  What does it accomplish?  This dream made me miss him so painfully. I certainly wouldn’t choose that feeling, so there has to be something else at play here.  Of course, I turned to research first.  In an article on the Psychology Today website, Michael J. Breus sited these theories on why we dream: 

  • A component and form of memory processing, aiding in the consolidation of learning and short-term memory to long-term memory storage. 
  • An extension of waking consciousness, reflecting the experiences of waking life. 
  • A means by which the mind works through difficult, complicated, unsettling thoughts, emotions, and experiences, to achieve psychological and emotional balance. 
  • The brain responding to biochemical changes and electrical impulses that occur during sleep. 
  • A form of consciousness that unites past, present and future in processing information from the first two, and preparing for the third. 
  • A protective act by the brain to prepare itself to face threats, dangers and challenges. 

(https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/sleep-newzzz/201502/why-do-we-dream, Accessed October 19, 2019) 

I reject the theory that dreams are merely biochemical changes or electrical impulses.  I don’t have any scientific basis for rejecting that theory, I just think it’s unlikely that it comes down to nothing more than a biological process.  As I thought about the dream, its meaning seemed pretty simple really. I miss him. I especially miss the 1970s him, when we were the closest. I miss that time of life when my dad could make everything better.  The purpose of  the dream was not so obvious, though.   

To every thing there is a season,  

and a time to every purpose under the heaven. 

Ecclesiastes 3:1 

I would guess that this is all coming up on a deeper level because I am missing my own child who is away at college. We visited her last weekend. It was so great to hug her and catch up. I soaked up her laughter and wicked wit. I reveled in her emphatic explanations and dramatic stories.  I was filled with joy to meet her friends.  Though she is safe and happy, and right where she should be, I do miss her and I do worry about her. I am pretty sure my psyche was taking advantage of sleep to help me process these feelingsIf I am honest, it helped me to see that, on some level, I have tried to block out missing her because she is so happy and safe, and right where she should be. I want to protect her from missing us as well. That probably is not logical, but then feelings rarely are.     

 

Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there,

wondering, fearing, doubting, dreaming dreams

no mortal ever dared to dream before. 

Edgar Alen Poe  The Raven 

 

Whatever the real purpose of dreams, I got the message loud and clear on this one. My dad is right, it is going to be OK. She is going to be OK. It is OK to miss her. It is even OK for her to miss us.   We do not have to be in the same room to feel that deep love of a bear hug. That is stored in our hearts and minds.  We can touch that feeling asleep or awake, together or apart.  That, my friend, is not a dream. That is the real deal. 

 

Dad 1966

Holding onto my dad in 1966.

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2019.

The thought absolutely counts. In fact, it might be the only thing that really does.   

I just turned 54.  Normally I like to throw myself a big party.  I like birthday parties. I like a house full of people I love- laughing, eating and talking.  I think we should celebrate life every chance we get.  But this year has been a quiet birthday. There is just so much going on at home and work that quiet and small was what my heart really needed.  I got to thinking that size, energy, and extravagance aren’t really what makes those big parties great. It is the tiny moments that happen between two people in those loud moments.  The tiny moments that forge bonds that outlast all that life throws at us. The tiny moments that remind us we are connected in ways that matter.  We are connected not just by blood or DNA but by lifetimes shared, bruises healed, miracles rejoiced, and hands held through the darkest nights and earliest mornings.  If we do it right, that kind of love becomes an avalanche that sweeps up our children, collects our friends and theirs on the fringe, who are afraid to dive in. It is not about gifts but the thought behind those gifts. The best gifts are the moments that we give each other. This year, more than ever, I am celebrating all of that on my quiet birthday.  My heart is so full.  This has been a year of reconnecting with old friends.  It has been a year of learning to lean on my pack and of being there to hold them. It has been a year of forging deep bonds with my sisters.  It has been a year of learning how all those great kids who touched my heart as teenagers turned out. (Spoiler alert for future posts–  They turned out just like I knew they would- amazing. Every. Last. One.)  

The most important moments of this year have been the moments that we have spent as a family preparing to send our daughter to college.  There have been a million, beautiful, tiny moments.  There has been laughter so deep and bold it turned to tears of joy.  There have been tears so deep and painful that only bear hugs and time could cure them.  We have walked down memory lane. We have practiced being adults. We have practiced being just a couple again. We have practiced letting go. We have practiced being in the moment.    

 

Everything is sacred

when you take time to notice.   

Big love happens

in small moments.

– JJ Heller. 

 

So, for my birthday, that is all I wanted- a day of moments.  But I got so much more.  I got 14 sealed envelopes from my daughter.  They are worth a thousand times their weight in gold. They are stronger than diamonds. I wouldn’t trade a single one for one hundred birthday parties.  What greater gift for a mom than to know you are sending a young woman into the world who has a beautiful heart and who knows that it really is the thought that counts in life.  Today I am giving myself a gift that will remind me of all of these moments and the ones yet to come.  Give it some thought.  Maybe your next present doesn’t require wrapping paper.   

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Copyright 2019 Catherine Matthews.

 

The pointless pain of wanting it to be different.

 Suffering usually comes from wanting 

things to be different than the way they are. 

– Pema Chödrön

I have always been a driven person. I don’t spend a lot of time bemoaning a situation.  I am a hunter by nature. I see a problem. I hunt it down to the exclusion of all other things. I solve it and move on to the next problem.  Ambition, drive, persistence, initiative – I feel like those are the hallmark of the American journey. They have been the hallmark of my journey. I was raised under the child rearing philosophy “pull up your bootstraps, dust yourself off, and get back on that horse”.  That came in handy because I have fallen or been thrown off more than my share of horses literally and metaphorically. My ability to move forward despite adversity has served me well. I haven’t been able to overcome everything though.  The truth is that I have “rage(d) against the dying of the light”, as Dylan Thomas put it.  It is not the hard things that I have overcome which wear me out. It is the things beyond my control, the unexpected, the unplanned, which lay me low.

If you are invested in security and certainty, 

you are on the wrong planet. 

-Pema Chödrön 

As with so much in life, I have learned as much being a mother as I ever learned being a daughter.  It is so clear to me that we must teach our children how to deal with the obstacles in life that are beyond our control. To be clear, I don’t mean teach them to just give up at the first sign of adversity.  In fact, I think we should teach them to climb when they reach a mountain.  But when they reach that mountain, and it is snowing, I think we have to teach them to accept that fact. Rather than suffering because they wish it was not snowing, I think we have to teach them to accept that the weather just is.  The weather is not permanent. The weather is not out to get them. The weather is not intentionally ruining their day. No amount of anger or tears will change the weather. I think we have to teach them to be flexible enough to abandon their dream of climbing that day and, perhaps, choose to go skiing instead. Better yet, we should teach them to be comfortable with their disappointment and just sit there enjoying the wonder and magic of a snowfall.

Rather than being disheartened by the uncertainty of life, 

what if we accepted it and relaxed into it? 

What if we said, “Yes, this is the way it is; 

this is what it means to be human,” and 

decided to sit down and enjoy the ride? 

-Pema Chödrön

One of the greatest challenges in life is to learn to be comfortable with discomfort. In fact, I think the pursuit of comfort, the avoidance of disappointment, and the unwillingness to accept our lack of control contribute to destructive forces in our lives and in our children’s lives. I think, as parents, the hardest thing we have to do is to allow our children to experience and learn from difficult feelings like disappointment, failure, loneliness, fear, sadness, and loss. We want to spare them those experiences. I know I do. I would spare my child every single tear if I had that power. But I don’t, and I shouldn’t. We want to solve their problems for them. It is painful to watch them struggle. What we need to do is hold them in compassion. We need to teach our children to hold their difficult or painful feelings in compassion. We need to acknowledge the validity of their feelings.  Most of all, we need to let them struggle with experiencing those feelings without making it better for them. We need to help them understand that discomfort and uncertainty are a part of life that they cannot avoid, and that they are not alone in that.

Nothing ever goes away 

until it teaches us 

what we need to know. 

-Pema Chödrön

Pema Chödrön says that “nothing ever goes away until it teaches us what we need to know.”  I believe that is true.  I believe it is especially true when it comes to suffering from those things in life that we wish could be different.  See if it is true.  When you are standing at the base of that mountain and it starts to snow, put on your skis or, better yet, build a fire and brew some cocoa.  Let go of the wish that it was sunny.  Let go of your suffering from wanting things to be different than the way they are. Accept the snow for what it is – impermanent.

 

I picked this picture for this blog because I think it illustrates my point exactly.  We were at Kalaloch for spring break. As is typical on the Washington coast in spring, the weather was stormy and cold. We bundled up and took our cues from our little girl who could not have cared less about the weather. She wanted to play on the beach.  Rather than bemoan the conditions, we dug in and built a mud castle.  It was bliss!

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Copyright Catherine Matthews 2019

Living in the Moment

I was awakened at 2:51 AM yesterday morning by the unmistakable rumble of an earthquake. It was a relatively small one, 4.7, but it shook me awake.  My daughter shouted from the other room. I realize I have failed her in the Emergency Preparedness training department because she immediately ran to my room and jumped in bed with me. It only lasted a few moments and, in my 54 years, I have experienced many of these tremors living in the Pacific Northwest.  I probably should have run for a doorway.  But my lack of good sense is not the topic of this story so I will let that go for now.  Buttercup the Boxer Pup apparently knew it was coming because she was already hunkered down by the time the quake jolted us awake (apparently it is every dog for herself in an earthquake). We lathere snuggled togetherButtercup and my daughter were very distressed by the whole thing. Buttercup was panting uncontrollably. My daughter was furiously Googling earthquakes which of course brought images and statistics of the worst-case scenarios.  Not helpful.  Don’t misunderstand me, emergency preparedness is very important.  In the end, that is all that you can do- prepare.  When Mother Nature tries to wipe the planet clean or the earth tries to shake us off, we are powerless to stop it.  We can prepare but we cannot prevent most natural disasters.  I hate that. Literally. I hate it. I hate that something bad could happen that is completely beyond my control.  I hate that I can prepare and practice and do all the right things, and still an earthquake (tornado, illness, freak accident, hurricane….)  could change everything. I am a planner. I am always thinking about the long game. I believe what we do today makes a difference in our tomorrows.  I do believe all of that is true.  It is also true that we live in the present moment. It is also true that we cannot control the millions of things that might happen in the next moment. So, the present moment matters.   

That is what occurred to me as I was snuggled in close to my daughter and our pup.  This present moment matters. It matters to let her talk it out.  It matters to give comfort and reassurance. It matters to listen.  While we were laying there waiting for the aftershocks, I  was reminded of one of my favorite moments from her childhood.  When she was very little, just out of a crib and into a big girl bed, she would listen for her dad to get in the shower in the morning. Quiet as a little mouse, she would pad across the hall and slide into bed next to me. She would snuggle in close and fall asleep with her warm cheek on my shoulder and her tiny hand on my arm.  In the morning, she would have a dreamy look as I would get out of bed to get ready for work.  Invariably the pups would jump in bed with her as soon as I left, soaking up the warmth I left behind.  As I did my hair and makeup, she would chatter away telling me everything that was on her mind. I can feel the smile now, just thinking about it, that I had hearing her describe her adventures and discoveries.  A moment. A string of moments. That is all that life is – a string of moments.  Each one a gift. Not all of them are good. Most we cannot control. We should not miss a single one of them.  I thought that morning:  I should get up and check the house for damage; I should call my husband (I did); I should do something. Then I realized I was doing something. I was having a very special moment with a very special person. A moment I was never getting back.  And so, I laid there awake for a couple of hours – in the moment. 

I selected this picture because it reminded me that when she was little, the best moments were the simplest ones. Just holding her, in my arms, heart and mind, while she slept seemed like the most important thing in the moment. It still is.

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Big Love

Last weekend, our daughter graduated from high school.  I brought three packages of tissues to the ceremony and a camera with a 600 mm lens. I was not going to miss her face as she walked across the stage. I was prepared to weep openly, unapologetically, for two hours. I didn’t open a single package. Actually, that is not true. I got a fingerprint on my glasses and used a tissue to clean them.  I did not, however, shed a single tear.

IMG_2671.JPGDon’t get me wrong. I have cried thinking about graduation for the past year.  I just did not cry that day, as I imagined I would. The truth is that I could not have been anything but joyful on that day.  

As I confessed earlier, I was in a flurry of activity getting ready. My youngest sister and I were planting flowers and decorating the house the day before graduation.

DSC02155.JPGWe strung twine on the walls and hung pictures of my daughter with family and friends throughout her life.  As I looked at all the big moments and the small ones, all my fears and sadness slipped away.  I saw her dressed as a snowflake riding on my dad’s shoulders.  I saw her wide-eyed on her grandmother’s lap reading a book. I saw her giggling in her silly uncle’s arms and snuggling with her cousin.  I saw her bouncing on the bed in a cabin at Kalaloch wearing red suspenders her dad bought for her in an Ace Hardware store in Forks. I saw her growing older in the arms of her aunts. I saw her playing basketball and softball, boxing, skating, rowing, and tumbling. I saw her laughing and hugging her best friends who held her close through heartbreak and loss, and shared mischief, laughter and joy.

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I saw her hand in hand walking down the beach with her dad and riding with me top down in the sun. I saw her with the teachers who shaped her education and her character. I saw her with the community of family we have made with our friends – the aunties, uncles, cousins, and grandparents not of birth but of love still the same.  That string of pictures held the first chapters of a life built on love. Not much to cry about there. Unless you are crying tears of joy. 

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On the day of graduation, my dearest friends pitched in to get ready for the party.  I could not have pulled it off without them. They worked so hard to set everything up while we were at the ceremony so that we could have the party while my family was in town.  I have the kind of friends who grab their keys and are out the door before you even ask for help. They are the kind of friends who pull together for each other no matter what. I realized that she will be just fine. Because I know, in good times and bad, I am surrounded by big love from family and friends. And that is what we have raised her in- big love.

Leading up to this day, as I suspect all graduates do, our daughter has had moments of fear and sadness. She will miss her friends.  Girls cuddlingShe will miss the safety of a community that supports her.  She will be challenged to go farther academically and personally that she has thus far. I have reminded her that she is ready. I know she will make friends. I know that she will achieve her goals.  I have assured her that she has a safety net of people who love her and will be there to support her as she takes these first steps into independence, even when she is away at college. 

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On graduation day, I realized that we too are ready as parents. I realized that we too have a safety net of people who love and support us. They will be there as she takes these steps away from us. They will be there for her and they will be there for us.  And we will be there for them when the time comes with big love. 

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Copyright Catherine Matthews 2019

The Busyness of Avoiding

My father tore the carpet out of our house a few weeks before my sister’s wedding.  The carpet started out the color of sand on a southern beach.  After years of being trampled on by firewood toting teenagers, it had grown dingy and rough.  Once he got a thought in his head, it was like a worm boring in deep and taking up residence. He bought planks of tongue and groove hardwood and piled them high in the living room.  He was invisible save for the tapping of his rubber mallet against the slats.  He moved with the deliberation of a military exercise from the dining room to the living room.  With a hand-held electric sander, he methodically planed each surface on his knees.  In paint-splattered Levi’s, which he was perpetually pulling up, he knelt on the floor and brushed each piece with a thick coat of varnish. It was exasperating to watch. With each painstaking stroke, he seemed more and more oblivious to the tornado of wedding preparations going on around him. He was blind and deaf to the herd of women stomping their feet and tapping their watches.  This was not the first time he engaged in a Herculean task as the timer counted down to a graduation or wedding.  I didn’t understand him at the time. I thought him inconsiderate at best, selfish at worst. But I was wrong, so wrong.

For the last year, I have been planning a party that I have known, for 19 years, was going to happen in the second week of June. I thought I had learned a lesson from my father:  Don’t drive your family insane by doing an enormous job right before a big event. I planned ahead.  A year ago, we tore out our rustic Ode-to-Alaska firepit, and built a circular patio large enough for a crowd and safe enough for old ankles.  We built a 110-foot raised garden to fill with lovely flowers.  We replaced the lawns, which our energetic boxers had decimated, and built a dog run to contain their enthusiasm.  We weeded, planted, and barked.  It is beautiful, exactly as I imagined it would be.

I was wrong, though. I did not learn that lesson from my dad.  The truth is that I dragged my heels on the smaller details. Now that we are a few short weeks away, I am in a flurry, ordering photographs, creating announcements, planning a menu, and locating plates, napkins and decorations in green and black.  I have a long list of things to do and an even longer list of things to worry about. Generally, I am driving everyone around me insane.

I think I have procrastinated, something I am loathed to do, because having a million things to do leaves no time to think about what is really happening.  Our only child is graduating from high school. The glassware in the hutch needs to be washed.  She will be going off to college soon. I must dust the slats of the blinds. When I slow down for even a moment, my chest is heavy and my breath catches in my throat. The entryway has spiderwebs. Even though this is the right thing and she is ready, I am grieving the loss. Did we pressure wash the patio? Soon I will not see her every day. I will not have those right-before-bedtime mother-daughter talks about the little and the big things in life. I need to borrow a cooler for the pop.  I won’t chuckle at her admonishment of my loud music and excessive Tweeting.  We will need lots of ice.  She won’t be exploding through the door ready to tell us the amazing thing she did that day.  The windows need washing.  We won’t hear about the drama of everyday life. I need to order the food soon. I won’t be close enough to hug her when she needs comfort – or when I do.  I need to move tables out for the food.  Mother – daughter dinner dates will be bi-annual events.  The flowerpots in the front need planting.  Adventure Days will be rare. I need to get a journal so guests can write their advice to her. I will miss her laughter and tears. Should I have bought more decorations? I will miss her wicked wit. I will miss her soft heart and hard head. I need to order more pictures. And so, I make lists. Before I cross that last item off, I add one to the bottom. I should refinish the hardwood floors.

I am my father’s daughter. But I am also my daughter’s mother, and, though I may not have learned the lesson from him, I have learned this lesson from her. I must not fill every second with the busyness of avoiding feeling these feelings. More importantly, I must not fill up every second with busyness and miss out on spending time with her.

 

I took this picture on the highway near Verlot.  It was such a beautiful day and we were shooting her senior pictures. I snapped it as she was walking down the road.  It seemed fitting for this post.

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Copyright Catherine Matthews 2019

The monsters under the bed are in your head.

I remember when my daughter finally got too big for the sink.  She was lean and long, and came into this world with her tiny muscles flexed.  Her mighty legs foreshadowed her inner strength.  We knew it was time when she pressed her toes against the far edge of the tub, flexed her miniature quads and glutes, and shot forward to grab the bananas off the counter.  After months of straining to reach the bright yellow torpedoes, she found success.  The mischievous grin that spread across her face warned us of things to come.

It was time to transition her to the ‘big girl’ tub.   As most babies do, she preferred the security of tight spaces.  Her father was a pro at swaddling from the start, wrapping her up tightly in a plush blanket.  He would joke, as he hugged her tiny body against his chest, that he made a baby burrito.  The vast white tub was scary for her.  Her arms and legs pinwheeled wildly the first time we set her in the warm water, much of which was on the floor before we were done.

Trying desperately to avoid lasting trauma, we filled the tub with toys.   I kept my eyes peeled for distractions whenever I went to the store.  I remember finding a Dora the Explorer bathtub doll that would swim when it got wet.  My daughter was a devotee of Dora’s adventures and could be heard each morning shouting “Backpack! Backpack!” I thought the purchase was evidence of brilliant parenting.  Dora’s first voyage in the tub was an unprecedented success. All other toys were immediately relegated to the foot, as my daughter splashed about with her new friend.

My victory over her tub aversion was short-lived, though. We were awakened in the middle of the night by our daughter’s terrified screams. I rushed across the hall and lifted her out of her crib, checking for broken bones and cuts as I held her close and rocked. Through her sobs, I made out the word monster. I told her there were no monsters. Turning on the lights, I opened the closet doors but she would not be consoled.  ‘Monster! Monster!’, she cried pointing toward the hallway.  I rocked her as I walked toward the hall. She clung to me like a spider monkey facing a puma.  She wore herself out crying and fell asleep on my shoulder, her wet cheek blanketing my neck.

I was standing in the hall trying to figure out what had scared her so, when I heard it.  It whirred at first, then a cold, sharp tapping. Whirr, tap, tap, tap.  I followed the noise to the bathroom where I found Dora on her side, legs and arms outstretched. The censors had somehow been tripped and the doll had started swimming in the empty tub. I tried to explain there were no monsters. She certainly was too young to understand what was making the noise.  She was convinced it was a monster. Of course, I knew the circuit was just wet. Once she had the monster story in her head, she just wouldn’t believe anything else. And so, we vanquished every monster until she was old enough to understand. In this case, not wanting to ruin her beloved Dora, I set my daughter back in bed and quietly took the toy to the garage.

While you are probably too old to think that there are monsters under your bed, the truth is we all have monsters. Mostly, they are in your head.  They are the worries about what could happen, the what-ifs and why-nots. They are the painful rehashing of past events.  They are the fears you can’t seem to let go of no matter how much evidence to the contrary you have. They are the false, self-limiting beliefs you hold.  They are old voices telling old lies.  Just as we have courage and compassion when helping children to see that the monsters are in their heads, we can have that same courage and compassion in confronting our own monsters. We can decide to live in the present and not waste it worrying about a fictional future.  We can let go of a past that we cannot change.  We can look at the evidence that our fears are unfounded.  We can recognize that a negative voice in our head is never our own voice and it is never truthful.  Isn’t it time to turn on the lights, look under the bed, and put the monsters in the garage?

I selected his picture of my daughter’s second birthday. She is clinging to her aunt after meeting the large (and I thought loveable) rodent who tried to wish her a Happy Birthday. It took about 2 hours to convince her that he wasn’t a monster.  Eventually she even shook his hand.

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Copyright Catherine Matthews 2019

Give It a Try

About 20 years ago, my sister called me and asked if her daughter could job shadow me to fulfill a graduation requirement.  Hopefully, I hid my surprise.  After all, I was a high school principal.  I could not imagine that any high school student, ever, in the history of mankind, dreamed of being the principal.  I certainly hadn’t dreamed of being a high school principal, and I was one.  Being a principal never crossed my mind, in fact, until my husband remarked one day, “You should be a principal.”  To which I quickly replied, “Are you kidding me?! No one wants to be the principal.”  Did he even know me?  Apparently, he did. You can imagine my angst when I had to admit he was right, and tell him I was going to graduate school.

As to my niece, I said, ‘Yes, of course, you can shadow me”.  I thought it would be fun to have her job shadow me. I knew it would be fun to spend the day with her. When the day finally came, she spent the night at our house and went to school early in the morning with me. That alone should have warned her off the job.  It was about a 20-mile drive, and we chatted along the way. I remember nonchalantly saying, “So, you want to be a principal.”  If she did indeed want to be a high school principal, I didn’t want to discourage her with my incredulous tone.  She remarked, in the way only a teenager can, “Yeah, that, or a dental hygienist.  I haven’t decided.”  I chuckled to myself thinking that neither sounded like much fun, if you were 17 years old, in my opinion.  Then I thought, those two professions couldn’t be more different. Oh, to be a teenager.  A time when everything is a very real possibility. The sky’s the limit.   A time when you have shed the childish dreams of wanting to be a superhero or professional athlete or ballerina for the more likely, albeit disparate, options: principal or dental hygienist.

She spent the whole day with me.  I can’t recall all that happened, but I imagine it was a day in the life of a high school principal: visiting classrooms, talking to students, dealing with some thrilling operational issue (translated: someone is in my parking spot!), meeting with parents, doing paperwork, dealing with discipline, going to meetings, changing the world one kid at a time. Riveting stuff for a 17-year-old.  Of course, she was seeing high school, for the first time, from my perspective, not that of a student.  At the end of the day as we drove home, I asked her, “OK. So, what’s the verdict? Are you going to be a high school principal?”  She did not miss a beat, “Oh, heck no.” She laughed, not derisively, but more like ‘you must be crazy’. Hopefully I hid my disappointment. I asked, “So, you are going to be a dental hygienist then?”  She thought about it a moment and then replied, “I don’t know. But your job is really hard.” (Update: She didn’t end up being either, but is gainfully employed in a career she is very good at.) She was right.  Being a high school principal is the hardest job I have ever had. I didn’t mind the challenge though, because I loved the job.  I loved almost everything about it, even the hard stuff. (Maybe not staying up until 1 am on prom night, but that’s more about my internal clock than anything else.)  It was purely luck, though, that I loved it. If you think about it, I jumped into graduate school, with a considerable price tag, based on a belief that I would be a good principal and I would like being a principal.

College is expensive.  Though I think it is money well-spent, all post-secondary training is expensive.  While I don’t think you have to know for sure what you want to do with your life at 18 years old.  I think you owe it to yourself (and anyone who is helping pay your tuition) to explore what different careers entail.   More and more, kids are doing internships, apprenticeships and job shadowing before they start their post-secondary training. Frankly, I feel blessed that my child is in a school district that is committed to connecting students with internships. My daughter is in her 4th internship experience in physical therapy and sports medicine.  She has never been more excited about her learning. Even though she has had some wonderful classes with engaging teachers, her internship experiences of hands on, deep learning have been the most transformational learning experiences she has had. I am so grateful to the adults who have made this possible and mentored her. The physical therapists, softball coach and counselor, who made these possible, have quite literally changed her life.  Listening to her talk, fast and loud and animated, about some amazing experience she had that day is so wonderful.  Listening to her fluently use the language of the profession she hopes to have some day makes my heart sing.  More important than the learning itself is learning that she does, in fact, have the aptitude and passion to pursue this career. It is about learning what you will actually do in that profession on a daily basis and, knowing that you not only can do it, but you want to do it. When she started, she thought she only wanted only to work with athletes. I think her experience, with so many different kinds of physical therapy patients, and her realization of how rewarding it is to help someone heal and grow, has expanded her world.

It seems that sometimes in life we just jump in because of how we imagine something is going to be without really doing any research or exploration.  We have an idea of what we want to do and we commit.  Sometimes we find success. Sometime we abandon the idea altogether.  Where college and careers are concerned, I think it is an expensive proposition to jump in without exploring both your personal characteristics and the characteristics of the job.  There are so many medical careers, for example, if you like science. If you are not a people person, however, you might want to steer away from nursing into, say, pathology. I have said it before and I will say it again.  This process is not about finding a career you can fit yourself into. It is about finding a career that fits you.  No matter how much you love animals, if you are afraid of swimming, being a marine biologist might not be for you. Trying out a career through a job shadowing experience or an internship is as much about learning what you need in a job, as it is about learning what the job will require from you. Finding out something is not ‘your thing’ is not a failure. It is information. Important information that can lead you to a happy, fulfilling life.  The fact is that our lives contract or expand in relation to the beliefs we have about what we can and should do. We should give ourselves permission to try something out, regardless of our age, our past experience, or our image of who we are right now. We should be open to the possibility that it will be ‘our thing’.  We should not condemn ourselves when we abandon something that just isn’t ‘our thing’.  I know there is the perfect career for everyone.  We just have to give it a try.  What do you have to lose really?

 

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Me circa 2003, doing some riveting principal-ing.

 

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2019

You know, when you know.

It has been my experience that kids hit certain milestones at different times. It’s tempting to think life is like school with its chronological march from Kindergarten to the senior year, as if time were the only determinant.  The fact is that most of what happens in a child’s life is based on a whole host of unpredictable factors, and time is rarely at the top of that list. That is unless we, as parents, try to force children to adhere to a schedule of accomplishments.  While there are some timelines that might, if missed, be a cause for concern, most are not. My daughter took forever to learn to crawl, for example. At first, I was concerned and, much to my embarrassment now, I could be found often demonstrating it on the floor. It didn’t work. Once she finally learned to crawl, she didn’t have much interest in it.  It seemed like she went from sitting up to walking to running, overnight. She’s pretty coordinated now so I don’t think she missed anything by shortening the crawling phase.   

I found I was ready for many things long before she was.  Then there were other things she jumped into right away without so much as dipping one toe in the water.  Riding a bike? She spent most of the time on the ground.  Ice skating?  She was a speed demon from the moment I first laced those blades on.  I remember at the end of second grade thinking that it was time for her to go to an overnight camp. Her cousins all had by her age.  I myself had many fond memories of riding horses and swimming at Camp Don Bosco. As I do, I set about researching the possibilities and came up with a list of camps in our general area with activities she might be interested in.  After dinner one night, I pulled out the glossy, brightly colored camp brochures to show them to her. After extolling the virtues of each camp, I wished that I could go to camp. In my naiveté, I thought we were really just going to pick out the camp and get her signed up. I was a little worried actually that she would want to go to several camps which could get very expensive. She looked interested as she waited patiently for me to finish my sales pitch. As soon as I put the last brochure down, excited to find out which she had picked, she looked up at me with the kindest eyes. She put her tiny hand over mine, patted it gently, and said, “Oh, mama, I don’t think we are really ready for that. Do you?”  Now, my first thought, which I wisely kept to myself, was “Oh. Heck yes, we are ready for you to go to camp for a week!”   I was momentarily speechless. I wasn’t really sure what the appropriate response was. Of course, my mama mind was cycling with ‘is this normal?’, ‘is this a good thing or a bad thing?’, and my favorite ‘did I do something to cause her not to want to go to camp?’.  So, I did what I always did when I did not understand her. I asked, “Why don’t you want to go to camp?”  She did what she always does. She told me the truth.  She wanted to go to camp. She just didn’t want to spend the night.  And so, she did. She went to loads of summer camps. She never went to an overnight camp.  Of course, I worried that it would be an issue as she got older. But soon enough and without us, she went on sleepovers, and then sports trips, and even vacations with friends. She knew when she was ready.  I have learned to trust her to let me know.  

A couple of months ago, she called a Family Meeting. She’s famous for that. Over the years, she has called them on a number of critical topics.  She called one when she discovered that, as far as she could tell, other mothers did not have to go to meetings.  She called one when she decided that her father and I did not kiss in public enough. She regretted calling that one. She called one to make an argument for a cell phone on the basis of personal safety.  I knew we were in for a doozy when she opened this particular Family Meeting with “OK, don’t say anything until you hear all the details. Promise you will keep an open mind.” I could feel the steel doors shutting on the panic room in my mama mind.  She wanted to take a trip with one of her best friends to a city 2700 miles away. While she would be staying with family, they would have a lot of free time to explore the city and sit on the beach on their own.  Slam. Deadbolt. Bar lock.  And then I remembered and said, “Oh, sweetie, I don’t think we are really ready for that. Do you?” I thought I had her. Unlike me ten years ago, though, she replied, “Oh. Heck yes, we are ready for that!”  After lengthy deliberations, her father and I decided that, though this was a big and scary step for us, she was ready. She’s a smart kid with good judgment and so are her friends.  This was a chance to explore independence with a safety net. She would be staying with family friends. This step was not on my timeline.  I was counting on 6 more months before she was in a different city on her own. It was definitely on her timeline, though. She was ready.  I knew I could trust that. This trip was as much about knowing she was ready, as it was about knowing that we are ready. Ready to let go. Ready to trust that she can take care of herself. Ready to trust her to ask for help when she needs it.  Ready to trust her to work things out on her own in her own way.  I do think we are ready for that.  

I selected this picture because it was her first time rowing at the Brentwood Regatta.  She was staying with the team and I loved that she was rowing. That was until I looked out at the ocean bay she was racing on.  But once again, she knew she was ready and she was right. I had to trust her and I am glad I did.

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(1/800 sec., f/6.3, 600 mm, 800 ISO)

 

 

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2019

Worth the Fight 

Our daughter was a fighter from the first breath, maybe even before the first one.  I swear she tried to kick her way into this world.  She was willful and wily, and it was wonderful.    There was a time, even before she could walk, when I could see her flex her tiny muscles as if to hunker down on an idea she could not yet express. I didn’t think that a sprinkling of stubbornness and determination was at all a bad thing.  Since she certainly inherited two dominant genes for stubborn determination, there wasn’t much point in trying to fight nature.  I decided to focus on nurture instead.  I wanted to nurture courage, conviction and compassion in equal measure.   Like much of parenting, I felt a lot like I did in freshman chemistry when I was mixing compounds drop by drop hoping to change the solution to a lovely, bright purple color, and get an A, without catching the lab on fire.  It was a fine line between strength and sass.

Our first indication that she was not going to need assertiveness training came on the day of a family outing to the local fishing and hunting emporium. We walked three astride into the store, her tiny hands grasping ours as she skipped, pony-tail bobbing, across the threshold. We were not 20 feet into the store when she put the brakes on. Mouth agape, she eyed the trophies that lined the walls.

“Look at all the pretty animals…. Hey! Hold on. They’re dead! Who killed those animals!”

She started out with her ‘indoor’ voice but it escalated quickly to ‘drill sergeant’ before ending at ‘riot control’.  She caught the attention of a large herd of hairy, flannelled men no doubt on their way to pick up ammo.  That was about the time my husband dropped her hand, smiled at me and said, “Good luck. I’ll be in fishing.”

Fortunately, her melt down occurred near the camping section, so we sat around the cardboard campfire to have a little chat. Despite the cozy glow of the 100-watt lightbulb shining through the crinkled orange and yellow tissue paper, she could not be swayed. I explained. She listened. She explained. I listened.  In the end, she conceded that it was OK to hunt but only if you lived in Alaska, didn’t have a grocery store, and promised not to put the head on a wall.  She had a very narrow set of rules for hunting.  You can probably guess where I went wrong here.  I was debating the merits of hunting with a four-year-old.  She was a thinker.

It was only a couple of years later when I found her in the basement painting a blue and green earth on a large sheet of cardboard her unsuspecting (and apparently uninquisitive) father gave her.  Polar bears and their dwindling habitat had been the topic of reading group that day.  She was inspired to do her part to save the planet. She had a three-part plan: 1. Paint an enormous sign emblazoned with “Save the Earth”; 2. March up and down our street shouting “Save the Earth”; 3. Ask people for money to save the earth when they stopped to talk to her.  My husband was worried that this was a sure sign she was destined to leave us to join the Sea Shepherd Society as soon as she had the bus fare.  I was worried she was going to be kidnapped.

Fortunately, she was painting in the basement by the fire place, so we sat down and had a little chat.  I explained. She listened. She explained, emphatically.  I listened.  In the end, she conceded that asking strangers on the street for money was unsafe.  I conceded that she could march back and forth on the front lawn, under my watchful eye, shouting “Save the Earth” until a neighbor complained, and then she would have to come in and have dinner.  Since we lived on a cul-de-sac and there was little traffic, she got bored quickly. No one called to complain. Dinner was on time.

My hope for her is to grow up strong enough to stand up for what she believes in; courageous enough to use her voice not just for herself but for the greater good; and compassionate enough to understand that not everyone feels they have a voice or that they can use their voice.  Though she did not save the polar bears, she continues to stand up and speak up for what she believes in.  That is harder than you would think. Oh sure, there were tears of sadness shed over the polar bears and tears of anger shed over the hunting trophies. Those tears were nothing compared to the pain a young adult feels when faced with something that seems so wrong or unjust that it’s unfathomable anyone else could see it any other way.  She had her first taste of that after Parkland. As she marched with thousands of other people against gun violence, it might have been easy to forget that, if everyone agreed on the subject, marching would be unnecessary. That fact wasn’t lost on her. I felt for her. I remember being a high school student in the late 1970s when the Equal Rights Amendment was being debated. I couldn’t believe a debate was even needed.  I couldn’t believe we needed a constitutional amendment at all.  We were living in Georgia, so my outrage was the minority (and very unpopular) voice. So last night, I sat across from her at dinner, and she shared her outrage and frustration on behalf of a group of students she cares deeply about.  My heart hurt for her, but I knew this was not the time for me to fix things or take over. This was her fight. If she was ever going to have the courage to fight again, she had to get through the frustration and anger on her own. One of the most painful lessons in life is finding out that you can be right and still not be able to change what is happening.  The challenge is to know what is worth fighting for and then get right back up and keep on fighting. After all, glaciers carve out mountains.

This photograph was taken on a trip to Padilla Bay.  From her expression, I can say with some authority that she was saying “No!” at the time.  I picked it because it reminds me of her willfulness and strength.

Worthy Fight

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2019

Kindergarten- Where we all belong.

I started my day in kindergarten yesterday.  Every day that I get to be in a kindergarten is a great day.  First of all, they are adorable. Right there, you are guaranteed to start your day with a smile.  They bounce and bop down the halls, happy as clams that it is Friday morning and the school day has started. Everything is a fresh adventure.  That kind of joy is contagious. It’s winter so they look a little like turtles with their fat backpacks, all bundled up, heads peeking out of their parka hoods. Brightly colored sneakers and rain boots with ducks and frogs fidget in a line outside the classroom door- itching to get in.  They are a hive of activity storing their gear in cubbies, high-fiving and knuckle-knocking their buddies like it’s been months and not 16 hours since they last checked in. They help each other without being asked and without judgment. They accept help gratefully.  They cannot wait to share- share their space, share their pencils, share their expertise in tying shoes, and share their ideas and opinions (I got quite an earful on the topic of pet ownership).  A friend is picked to help with an errand.  Hugs are given to someone who looks sad.  They take each other by the hand unabashedly. They don’t seem to notice their differences. They are a community and it is clear they all belong.

This visit made me think about when it is that we start, as humans, to wonder if we belong. How is it that we start to feel like we don’t belong in a place or with a group of people?  Maybe it starts when we begin to notice how we are different from each other.  I like to play in the woods and get dirty. You like to read. I like to play basketball. You like to sing. You are quiet. I am loud.  Maybe it is when we start to hear from adults that those differences have a value. She’s such a tomboy. He can’t throw a baseball.  He has a beautiful voice. You’re always such a mess with dirt all over your jeans.  Her painting is beautiful.  You are so talented. Well, there are other things you are good at I am sure.  Maybe it is when we start to identify with those values. I am good at this. I am not good at that. Whatever the process, we look for a place we think we belong.  We look for a place that feels right- where we feel right.  We look for our people, our posse, our pack.  It feels good to belong.  I think that is the natural order of things.

But wouldn’t it be great if we never asked ourselves, “Is this where I belong?”   Wouldn’t it be great if we never wondered, “Is this place for me?”  You see, as soon as we do that, we limit ourselves.  We take ourselves out of the game.  We buy the artificial “goodness” and “badness” of our individual characteristics.  We miss out on the opportunity to learn new things- things we might actually like doing and even have a talent for doing. We miss out on meeting new people. We miss the chance to find out that those differences, which we think divide us, really enrich us. We miss out on the very real possibility that we have more in common than we think. We miss out on the high-fiving, knuckle-knocking, hand-holding joy that comes from knowing what every kindergartener knows – we all deserve to belong.

Maybe instead of worrying whether or not we belong, we should be thinking about how we can make others feel like they do.

 

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Copyright Catherine Matthews 2019

Snow Days: Sometimes the warmest memories are made on the coldest days!

If you are reading this, there is a good possibility you are an adult.  I know you have responsibilities and obligations.  Maybe, when you hear that forecast for snow on the evening news, you get a sinking feeling.  You imagine slogging to work at 25 miles an hour praying you won’t slide into the ditch while keeping one vigilant eye on the three-bedroom SUV riding your bumper. You imagine braving the local grocery store only to find the last carton of eggs being scooped up in a mob-induced frenzy rivaled only by doomsday preppers on the eve of the Zombie Apocalypse.   You worry about finding someone who can watch the kids if you have to go to work. Knowing this, I am aware that what I am about to say is controversial, but I am going to say it anyway.  I love snow.  I do. There, I said it. I am owning it.  Now admittedly, I don’t love to drive in it much anymore, especially after losing my beloved Angus last winter.  And I have the luxury of having some vacation time saved up for just this kind of a situation, so I can stay home. But even when I had to get up an hour early, don my Sorrels and a parka, and trek 50 miles past 4 school districts that wisely closed due to snow just to get to my job in the foothills on time, I still loved the snow.  I love the fat flakes drifting slowly to the earth.  I love the heavy drifts building on evergreen limbs. I love the quiet calm that a blanket of snow brings to an early morning.

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Most of all I love those two joyous words: Snow Day!  I probably shouldn’t broadcast this (although literally hundreds of current adults, once-students, know already) but when I was a teacher and I knew snow was coming I would convince my students to do the Alaskan Snow Dance at the end of class.  I told them it was something I learned while living in Fairbanks. What can I say?  Freshmen are gullible – and fun!  It was silly. I only did it when there was a better than 50% chance of snow because, after all, reputation matters. I knew I had to deliver if I was ever going to get them to do the dance and chant “Snow, Snow, Snow” again.

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Just like everything else, snow days bring back great memories.  When I was little, my dad had this enormous toboggan.  It would practically hold the whole family – no small feat if you are an Irish Catholic family.  We would bundle up in layers beneath our winter coats.  Donning our boots, hats and mittens, we would make the frosty trek two blocks to the nearest side street hill.  It was a long walk when your joints barely flexed beneath the layers of wool.  Three little Stay Puft Marshmallow girls trailing behind our brawny dad as he dragged a path through the snow for us. I remember I always tried to walk in his footsteps.  I would swing the whole side of my body forward trying to land my foot exactly where he stepped. Invariably I would fall behind as my sisters tired of my Frankenstein pace.  When we arrived at the hill, he would place the toboggan in the center of the road and take his place in the very front where the wood curved up and back like a sleigh.  Grabbing the rope that allegedly steered the sled, he would shout, “Jump on and hold on tight.”  With a couple bumps of his seat, he would launch us down the hill. We would hold each other by the waist, shrieking as we flew through the snow.  At the bottom, we would fall off the sled into the snow drifts giggling.  Then we were back up the hill as fast as our little legs could carry us, slip-sliding all the way.  We would go up and down that hill all morning until we were soaked and frozen.  I would be so sad when the sun would come out and the snow would begin to melt.

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It was even more fun to have a snow day when my daughter was little.  The first time she encountered snow, she was only a year old.  I bundled her up like the Michelin Man and took her out to play.  My father gave her a sled that Christmas and she giggled her way around the neighborhood shouting. “Again, again, again!” In the way only small children, who are just discovering their world can, she plopped in the snow and rolled around, lifting it in armfuls aloft and letting the snow fall all around her. She searched the sky with her tongue out, trying to catch the flakes.  She tossed it to her dogs as they bounced through the drifts.  That was just the beginning. As she grew, she would search the refrigerator for just the right vegetables to top off her snowmen. She would slide down the lawn with her best friend on flimsy sheets of plastic, collapsing together in raucous laughter as little girls do. Afterwards, wet clothes discarded for PJs, we would snuggle by the fire with cocoa and a movie.  Bliss.

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At our house now, we have our own pre-Snow Day ritual.  My daughter insists, even if there is a 100% chance of a 10-inch snowfall, that we get ready for bed as we always do. We make our lunches.  We go to bed at the normal time. We set our clothes out.  We wake up at the normal time. She is convinced, and I agree, that we must not anger the snow gods, or we won’t even get a late start let alone that mystical unicorn- the Snow Day.  Last week, we had two snow days.  It was a mess, I know, for many people.  The roads were terrible, and I did not want to drive unless I really had to. I realized that our snow days together are numbered.  I am glad I have had all of those snow days with her.  I know, after this, her snow days will be hundreds of miles away from mine. The snow won’t bring a spontaneous pajama day with popovers, cocoa and silly movies.   So, I took two vacation days and spent them with my husband and daughter. We didn’t go sledding but we enjoyed the snow, nonetheless.  We watched movies and talked. We played games. There was none of the usual hurrying to get everywhere and do everything on time.  There were no distractions – just making a few more warm memories on a cold day.

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Copyright Catherine Matthews 2019

The Fear Brain and Reigniting the Curious Mind

We don’t give much thought to our brain. I don’t anyway. I take it for granted most of the time.  If you think about it, that 3 pounds of fat, protein and water (according to National Geographic ) is a truly miraculous organ. It spawned the Sistene Chapel, the International Space Station, the Gamma Knife, War and Peace, Swan Lake, Bethoven’s Fifth, the Hadron Collider and Magnetic Resonance Imaging. The list is wondrously endless. I even read recently that some of the brains at Batelle Labs developed an implant that made it possible for a paralyzed person to pick up a spoon merely by thinking it.

Of course, those are rare and exceptional examples of the brain’s potential when provided with an environment conducive to learning, creating, and innovating. Not every brain lives in those types of environments, and the brain is ultimately a survival organ. Centuries of real and imagined danger have honed its ability to recognize and respond to novel stimuli and threats. If you think about early settlers in the Americas for example, it makes perfect sense.  A frontiersman, let’s call him Bob, mesmerized by purple mountain majesties, who couldn’t spot the grizzly racing down the slopes early enough to take defensive measures, probably ended up as the bear’s picnic lunch. While the bear was finishing Bob off, his more fear-alert neighbor was running off with his girlfriend to the nearest Justice of the Peace and subsequently consummating the union to pass on his fear alerting genes to the next generation.  Mission critical to the brain is the preservation of the body and much of that happens subconsciously.  You only have to touch a hot stove once. You don’t have to walk around saying, “Don’t touch hot stoves. Don’t touch hot stoves.”

While encountering bears is an unlikely threat nowadays (although my first high school lockdown was due to a bear wandering around behind the gym- more about that later), the truth is that children do encounter threats to their safety and it is easy to misinterpret a child’s behavior because we are unaware that an unconscious threat response is happening. I know.  I have, regrettably, made that mistake more than once in my career.  A couple of decades ago, when we were blissfully ignorant of the sheer magnitude of homeless children, I made that mistake and it has stayed with me as a painful reminder that I cannot know what motivates another person’s behavior.  He was new and that alone made him standout.  I knew how hard that was having moved around as a child, so I tried to connect with him.  He always seemed to be looking over my left shoulder like that was as far as he could stand to make eye contact with me. I was suspicious.  My dad always told me that looking someone in the eye was a sign of honesty and respect.  So that was my lens.  It didn’t occur to me that there could be another reason.  His answers were monosyllabic and curt.  He fidgeted like he was itching to get away from me.  He kept bouncing his backpack on his shoulder as we talked- not rapidly but periodically like he was checking to see if it was still there. After a few minutes, I gave up trying to talk to him.  He stomped away without a word.  He was disheveled and dirty.  It made me wonder if he didn’t care. Again, my lens came through, my dad always told me that you should dress nicely because it looks like you care about yourself and, if you care, others will. “If you dress like a bum, people will treat you like one,” he’d say.   It didn’t occur to me that the condition of his clothes wasn’t his choice.  I met him again, under even less jubilant conditions, a couple of days later when he was brought to my office for verbally attacking his teacher.  When I was working on my Master’s degree, one of my professors, a wise and experienced administrator, once told me that every behavior has a positive intention even if I can’t see it.  It was hard seeing the positive intention in his actions that day. It took some time, but eventually he meted out the information. It was like he was testing our trustworthiness with every morsel. The teacher had told him he had to leave his backpack in his locker. It was a common rule back then. That seemed reasonable to me, again through my lens.  He had valuable things in his backpack.  We have locks for the lockers, I told him. He didn’t trust the locks. That seemed silly but I didn’t say that outright.  And then we got to the real issue.  Everything he owned in the world was in that backpack.  My lens shattered. I let that sink in. He was homeless.  I think he was the first kid who had ever said that to me. Everything he owned was in his backpack.  Chaos and uncertainty ruled his life.  What was he going to do, explain to the teacher, in front of the other kids, that he was homeless?  I could not imagine the burden of that for a young man.  Of course he was angry, who wouldn’t be?  Of course he attacked, he believed he was in danger of losing everything.    In the end, we figured out a way for him to feel safe about his backpack. He taught me indelibly to ask first.

So, what does this have to do with the brain?  Everything, it turns out.  Whether we flee, fight or freeze when faced with danger (real or imagined), the brain takes over to protect the body.  In the classroom, students may appear that they can’t learn or won’t learn when in fact they may be reacting subconsciously to perceived threats or to stimuli that reminds the brain of a past threat. Every child starts out curious. Every child wants to learn. They soak up the sights and sounds and taste and feel of a world that is new to them.  They want to know how and why. Why is the sky pink tonight and not blue? Where does rain come from?  How do fish breathe?  Where do babies come from? Or my child’s personal favorite, what’s that smell like (usually asked at the most inopportune moments)?  If you are a child, who merely by luck is born into a family with educated parents with financial resources, you will probably hear things like “what a great question”, “let’s look that up” or “I’ve always wondered that too”.  You might even hear an actual answer to the question.  You go to school confident that you ask good questions worthy of adult consideration. You learn that adults think you are smart enough to find or understand the answer. But what if you are born to parents who are not educated or who don’t have financial resources?  What If you are homeless and survival is the most important thing?  You might hear “enough with the questions”, “I have no idea” or “don’t bother me right now”.  Exhausted people in survival mode are not always able to regulate their emotions.  You internalize your parent’s emotions.  You make those emotions mean something about you.  You might feel like you have irritated, angered or offended your parent.  You learn not to ask questions. You learn questions upset adults. You learn questions are dangerous.

These two children will look very different in the classroom. One will look engaged, ask questions, make eye contact and offer answers. The other will appear disinterested, not ask questions or offer answers. It is easy to mistake their learned response for not caring about school or for being less intelligent when, in fact, that is not true. This is why trauma informed practices and social emotional learning are so important in school.  If we want all children to learn, we have to understand their behavior.  We have to help them develop the social emotional skills needed to both keep them safe and help them learn, like growth mindset, grit, social awareness, self-management, and sense of belonging. We have to reignite their curious mind.  None of that will happen overnight.  It takes consistent, intentional behavior by influential, caring adults.  It may not happen overnight, but it can happen. It happens in classrooms everyday across this country.  Through our actions, we can communicate to every child that we believe they can learn.  Through our actions, we can communicate to every child that we think their questions are valid and worth our time.  Through our actions, we can reignite the curious mind. Through our actions, we can quiet the fear brain and make room for the learning brain to grow.  If you are wondering just how to do that, ask yourself “What would I say right now if I were talking to my child?”

If you want to learn more about:

Social Emotional Learning
– Check out Panorama Ed’s work: https://blog.panoramaed.com/
– Check out the Committee for Children’work:  https://www.cfchildren.org/

The Fear Brain – Read The ecology of human fear: survival optimization and the nervous system (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4364301/   Mobbs, D et al, 2015)

How class and race influence the classroom – Read: Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life (Lareau, 2011) https://www.ucpress.edu/book/9780520271425/unequal-childhoods

Trauma Informed Practices
– Check our Edutopia: https://www.edutopia.org/article/trauma-informed-practices-benefit-all-students
– Read: The Heart of Learning: Compassion, Resiliency, and Academic Success  http://www.k12.wa.us/CompassionateSchools/HeartofLearning.aspx

I chose these pictures because they remind me of the curious mind of the child. This was my daughter’s 5th grade Invention Convention project. She designed and made a cover to keep tennis shoes laces clean, dry and knotted.  I think she is brilliant. The greater truth is that, by the luck of the draw, she was born into a home where education is important, her parents have the time and resources to help her, and every time she asked a question (millions of questions actually – just ask her third grade teachers who had to give her a daily limit) she was encouraged to find the answer.  All of that helped her develop a curious mind. Every kid deserves that opportunity.

Invention Convention 2

Invention Convention 3

Invention Convention 1

 

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2019

Endings and Beginnings

I do not like endings.  I do not like finales.  It is probably why I don’t watch the Oscars or stay awake until the last votes are counted on election night.  I much prefer those hours and days before the endings, days that are thick with anticipation and ripening possibilities. Even as a kid, I savored the days leading up to Christmas or my birthday, waiting and wondering like Schrödinger with his cat. I didn’t peak or shake any boxes.  I knew that when the actual day came, and the gifts were opened, it would all be over. It isn’t even about gifts really.  I never liked the last day of school or the finish line in a race or the last page of a good book.  All of those signal the end and knowing how it is going to turn out. Sure, the end was always followed by something new, but I grieved those fleeting moments slipping into my history.  After a year of planning for a wedding, in one day it was all over.  Though that ending was the beginning of decades of adventures in marriage, I am never going to have those precious moments again.  In our checklist world, our accomplishment accumulation culture, it is tempting to be so focused on the end that we forget to enjoy the journey. We forget to savor each of the singular, irreplaceable moments that happen on the way to the end.

New Year’s Eve always hits me as one of the biggest of endings – the end of an entire year. On December 31st, I know how it turned out.  Though it is followed by New Year’s Day and the chance to get on the roller coaster again, I am sad to see the year end.  Frankly, none more than this year.  As the countdown begins and the ball starts to drop in Times Square, it will herald in a year that will surely have more endings and beginnings than most.  In the coming year, our only daughter will graduate. In the fall, we will help her pack and drive her across the mountains where she will go to college. As with any child, she has been the center of our world for 18 years. In that time, I am not proud to say, there were a few moments I wished away.  Carrying a diaper bag comes to mind.  I know I wished life would fast forward through potty training. At the time, I happily would have skipped teaching her second-grade math the year she went into the Highly Capable program.  I remember praying for an end to the “no” years.  Now, as she talks about decorating her dorm room and finding a compatible roommate, I am remembering each of those moments as the gift that they were – the giggles and the worries, the hugs and the tears, the medals and the bruises. At the risk of sounding maudlin, the truth is that things will change around here in her absence.  Her dog will no doubt expect the same welcome at the foot of our bed that she has become accustom to.  We will hear about her adventures long distance which will undoubtedly mute her emphatic descriptions and quick wit.  We will have more time alone together.  We will pick up old hobbies or start new ones.  That is exactly what is supposed to happen. Children grow up, become independent and go out into the world.  It is the perfect ending and beginning all at once.

So, am I going to get rid of all my checklists? Abandon goal setting? Not likely.  However, I am going to commit to the journey as deeply as I commit to the accomplishment in this coming year of endings and beginnings.

  • I will be present every day. I am not getting any of these moments back.
  • I will see things not as ending but as stops along the way in a greater journey. Changing my perspective changes everything.
  • I will say what needs to be said.
  • I will let go and accept the changes that will inevitably come. I know that I suffer more by wishing things could be different than from the change itself.

 

I selected this photograph, which I took outside of Concrete, WA in late winter, because it reminds me of that tipping point between the end of winter and the beginning of spring when the forest is still quite dormant but the sun is beginning to climb in the sky.

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Dawn in Concrete
(1/500 sec., f/11, 20 mm, 360 ISO)

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.

 

Father (-in-Law) Christmas

I get a little nostalgic at Christmastime.  I suppose I am not alone in that. Christmas is such a magical season. It brings back bright and twinkling memories of people and places long gone.  I miss my father-in-law most at Christmastime.  My father-in-law loved having Christmas morning with his granddaughter.  We would travel to his house on Christmas Eve and spend the night just so that he could see her face on Christmas morning.  He made a huge production of putting out cookies and milk for Santa Claus.  He had a special plate just for that night that he put on a table next to his chair in case Santa needed a rest. He would let her pick out the cookies. For her troubles, she would eat a couple and insist that he join her.  My father-in-law waited so long for her. I would like to say patiently but it would be a lie.  He wanted a grandbaby from the time I first met him, I think.  When she finally came along, he was the best kind of grandpa. You know the ones.  They get down on the floor ignoring the roar of their creaky knees.  They hide drawers of candy because they love to hear the squeals of delight and feel those reckless hugs.  They can be talked into any mischief by doe-eyes and butterfly kisses.  They will walk hunched over for miles just to be able to hold those tiny fingers as they explore their old world through their grandbaby’s new eyes.  They know that in the potentially 42,048,000 minutes in a lifetime, this one minute right now is the only one that truly matters.   That was my father-in-law. I was so happy that my baby was his special kid.  I had that with my grandpa. I knew he would not be around forever, but I also knew the memories of being loved so deeply and unconditionally would last her a lifetime.

They got into quite a lot of mischief over the years.  One time she even talked him into a water fight in grandma’s kitchen having discovered that the faucet was actually a hose. For a time after that he was barred from unsupervised babysitting for fear she would talk him into buying a motorcycle and heading down the coast. Believe me, when she aimed those baby blues at him, he lost all reason. He would do anything just so see her smile.

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Caught in the Act – The Fateful Faucet Incident of 2003

One year, I went alone to mass on Christmas Eve leaving her, secure in the fact that she would be safe with her father, grandma and grandpa.  I naively thought that at least one of those adults would be impervious to her wily ways.  When I returned, there was a somber mood in the house.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

“Somebody spilled glue on grandma’s dining room table,” my husband replied.

Somebody?” I asked incredulously.  I wasn’t even there when it had happened, and I knew “somebody” didn’t do it.  I was sure I knew the ‘body’ that did.  I briefly wondered how she even ended up with glue in the first place but, even at the ripe old age of 4, she could have charmed them all out of their car keys.

Sheepishly he replied, “She says the cat did it.”

“Seriously?!” I wasn’t sure if I was more annoyed at her lying or their inability to get her to admit she was lying.

I called her to my side. “Who spilled glue on the table?”

“Grandpa did,” she stated firmly.

I looked up and was met by two pairs of wide eyes signaling their amazement that she had taken it up a notch.  I turned to my father-in-law, who was putting a superhuman effort into not breaking out in laughter. “Did you spill glue on the table?”

It took a moment for him to compose himself and I was grateful that he understood the gravity of the situation.  Laughing at this moment would have launched many more exasperating moments.

“Um, no. I did not spill glue on the table,” he replied in his most serious voice.

I looked her in the eye and said, “Grandpa says he did not spill the glue. I don’t think Grandpa would lie to us. Do you?”

She didn’t bother responding to that.  Instead, dismissing the other adults as possible suspects, she turned on the only other living being.

“The cat did it.”

I had to dismiss the adults as they were now all holding back their laughter.

“Sweetie, the cat does not have opposable thumbs, so I think we can safely rule out the cat,” I stated, hoping she would come clean faced with this undisputable evidence clearing the poor cat.

“Well,” she started (and I groaned), “I don’t know about disposable thumbs, but the cat did it.”

It was time to bring out the big guns.  “Sweetie, do you know what mama does for a living? I am a high school principal. Believe me, I get kids to tell me the truth who’ve done far worse things than spilling glue on a table. You are not even a challenge.  I want you to sit here and when you are ready to tell me the truth about what happened, you let me know.” I walked away. While outwardly I was resolute and confident, inwardly I was a tornado of emotion.  She was lying! She would not admit it. Parenting is so hard.

In the end, I was right. It took her all of three minutes to come clean.  With tears in her eyes, I hugged her and reminded her that it is not OK to lie.  That lying about it is far worse than spilling glue on a table. I also told her that she needed to make things right, especially with her Grandpa after throwing him under the proverbial bus.  She clung to my legs, sniffling. I could tell she was afraid to take that first step.

“Go on. Tell him you are sorry for saying he did it. He loves you. He will forgive you.”

With a teddy bear in one hand and a thumb in her mouth, she walked tentatively to her grandpa. Eyes fixed on her patent leather shoes, she squeaked, “I’m sorry.” He scooped her up in a big hug and told her it was OK.  He told her he loved her as she clung to his neck crying.  She stayed particularly close to him that Christmas.  She probably does not remember this incident except that she has been told the story a million times. I know she will never forget his hugs, his candy drawer, or singing “Splish, Splash”. She will never forget those special Christmas mornings.  She will never forget she was his favorite and he was hers.

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Her First Motorcycle- His Idea!

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.

Heading for the Door

She was three and a half when I spied her heading for the front door out of the corner of my eye.  She shuffled down the hall in a pair of my black heels intently watching her feet.  On one side, her tiny fingers were outstretched to the wall for balance. On the other, she had slung her diaper bag over her shoulder. It skipped and bounced across the carpet with each awkward step.  I was curious, so I let her go.  When she reached the stairs, she carefully grabbed the railing and slowly eased her foot down the way a little kid does when each step is nearly the height of one leg.  I headed to the top of the stairs and sat down, my eyes now level with hers. “Hey, whatcha doing with your diaper bag? You can’t be running away from home already.” I chuckled at the thought. She looked at me quizzically and proclaimed, “It’s my beefcase. I got a meeting.”  After a short moment of cringing (I had 4 “beefcases” and many more meetings), I laughed and scooped her up.  She was squirming because, after all, she had places to be and I was holding her back. Like every other three-year-old though, she was easy to distract and redirect. I was the master of that.  I asked about her meeting and she went into great and emphatic detail about the many important things that had to be done. I made a note to remember that she was a sponge- soaking everything up that she saw or heard.

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It took me back to my own childhood. I loved to play in my dad’s office.  He had fascinating pieces of paper and so many books. Even before I could read, I would pretend to fill out the forms and make notes. I would pretend to read the textbooks.  The pictures filled my imagination – exotic animals, colorful maps, geometric shapes, and paintings.  I particularly liked the Spanish books. I wanted so badly to be able to read so I could read in Spanish. Back then, I had no idea what he actually did, but it seemed so important and I wanted to be just like him.

That is the natural course of things. You look up at the significant adults in your life. You mimic what you see and hear. You play house and school and super heroes.  Then you grow up and, as you do, you test the waters of individuality and independence.  You discover your own passion and that puts you on the path that will be your life. As a parent, even though I want to scoop her up in a big hug and distract her, I know that it is nearly time. It is nearly time to let her go out that door.  When that time comes, we will both be ready. After all, she has places to be and I’m not holding her back.

 

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Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.

Adventure Days!

For the last couple of weekends, I have been shooting my daughter’s senior portraits.  It was so special to me that I was able to do this for her- that she wanted me to do this for her. Though I have shot a number of senior portraits and I always feel honored to do it, this one had a weight to it. I was at once thrilled and saddened at the mere thought of it.  All summer, it was on my mind. I searched through hundred of images for interesting poses. I looked at images of every park in the greater Puget Sound and into the Cascades. My husband and I even braved 14 miles of washboard and loose gravel on the Mountain Loop Highway from Granite Falls to Darrington looking for the perfect spot.   Washington was very dry last summer though.  Dismal browns covered the normally lush, emerald greens.  So, we waited until fall when the leaves began to turn to scarlet, orange and gold. Unfortunately, September was quite rainy, and we had trouble finding a dry weekend.

When the sun broke through one Saturday morning, we quickly loaded the Jeep with four changes of clothing and my camera gear and headed into the mountains. As we drove along, my daughter commandeered the stereo and the conversation. It was bliss to listen to them both.  As the miles rolled by and the cell towers disappeared, we really had the chance to talk.  I love long road trips with her. I am tickled by her quick wit, strength  and passion.  Without the distraction of social media, we have space for all the things there is never enough space for.  Finding space, I thought, was so much easier before cell phones, AP classes, Friday night football, work, sports, friends and cars. It made me think of that long stretch between diaper bags and dating boys when we just hung out together any chance we got.

When she was very young, I pronounced that, whenever she had a day off from school, we would have an Adventure Day.  I would take a vacation day and off we would go.  Sometimes we would throw around ideas for weeks ahead of time. Other times, we threw caution to the wind and waited until Adventure Day arrived.  Either way, no decisions were made until we were seated at O’Donnell’s awaiting their amazing French Toast.  Then the true negotiations began. We would throw out ideas.  Should we paint ceramics?  Drive to a city we had never visited?  Swim in the salt water at Colman Pool?  Ride a ferry? Sit on the beach?  Explore the Market? Ride bikes? The possibilities were endless. She would always say, “Let’s compromise and go with my plan.”  I would remind her what compromise means and then we would go with her plan.  After all, the truth is I just wanted a carefree day of singing to the stereo, talking about every little thing going on in her life, and listening to her laughter.  My personal favorite was Adventure Day in Bellingham.  We spent the night in town and the day exploring Fairhaven. It was a weekend that alternated between giggling girl and growing up.  On a side street, we found an antique shop that had a display of old hat with veils and feathers my grandmother might have worn as fashion. We cracked up as we tried them on, posing in the most ridiculous way and exclaiming “Daaahling, you look fa-bu-lous!”  A block away we found our kryptonite: a bookstore.  She begged me to buy a history of Africa that weighed more than her head and was sure to fill it.  She was enamored with Africa having listened to the childhood stories of my best friend’s father.  And then I was dragged into a fireplace shop whose resident dog was a Golden Retriever- apparently with a gift for getting people to stop and scratch his ears. She is powerless to pass any pup by.  And on it went, and, as usual, I was filled with wonder and awe at this growing sprite.

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Adventure Day 2014

As we drove up the Mountain Loop Highway, and the sunny skies turned to mist, then drizzle, then rain, I was not disappointed even though I knew we were not going to get the shot that day.  For I had hours that day in the car with her, scouting spots and marking them for the next sunny day.  And we talked about every little thing. And we sang to her playlist.  And we laughed.  Though not an official Adventure Day, it felt like one. (Thanks to the rain, I knew I was going to get another one.) Though unplanned and meandering, that day was precious because I knew these opportunities were dwindling fast.  Sure, we will carve out time even when she was in college, but it is time for her life to grow outward. It is time for her to have some Adventure Days without me.

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Adventure Day 2018
(1/125 sec., f/4, 55 mm, 200 ISO)

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.

A Girl’s Best Friend

I remember when we picked him up. After months of looking, we found him at a breeder in Omak.  My husband has a knack for tracking down the best pups.  Dog-less for a year or more, we finally decided it was time for our daughter to have her own dog.  After much negotiations on breed, color and sex, we settled on a brindle Boxer of either gender. We weren’t planning to breed so it was a moot point anyway, although personally I leaned toward female dogs as I found them much more protective and loyal than males.  As the days slowly passed, I started to think that this new puppy was going to be very lonely. I mean there he would be, all day in his kennel, no one to play with.  If he was cold or scared, he would be alone.  One dog? Two dogs? How much work was it really?  Besides, they would play with each other.  If they were playing with each other, they wouldn’t be bored and eat things.  So really, two dogs are less work, if you think about it.  I can make a compelling argument for just about anything.  So, I made one -or three. I can’t remember. Fortunately, there was one pup left in the litter.  So, I was getting a puppy for her birthday too, which was totally fair after 19 hours of labor.

I am not sure how we hid this secret from our daughter, but we did. We wanted it to be a surprise and, until we had a healthy dog in hand, we did not want to get her hopes up.  On Friday, we dropped her off to spend the night with her godfather and his family.  I felt so mischievous keeping this secret that I just wanted to blurt out.  But I held it in. After all, I’m the mama and a grown woman…on the outside.  On the inside, I was a little girl, hiding at the top of the stairs waiting for Santa, holding in my giggles with both hands.

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After procuring the basic puppy necessities (and several that were definitely not), we headed east of the mountains.  We fell in love the minute we saw their googly eyes and fat bellies.  One brindle for our daughter and one fawn for me.  I had named the fawn Sir Finnegan McMuggles, but we called him Finn.  On the long ride home, the brothers (who we affectionately referred to later as the Bruise Brothers) snuggled in the back, alternately lying on top of each other. They were still asleep when we led our daughter to the truck and told her that her birthday present was on the back seat.  Of course, that didn’t last because no one can sleep through the gleeful shrieks of a little girl discovering a puppy.

“Are they mine?!” she asked.

“The brindle one is your’s. Finn is your mom’s,” my husband replied.

“Does he have a name?” she asked earnestly.

“No,” I said, “You get to name it.”

“I will have to think about that, “she said. “I will just call him Buddy for now.”

My husband and I looked at each other and said, at the exact same time, “The dog’s name is Buddy.”

And it was. And he was.  He was her Buddy every day.

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The Bruise Brothers were playful and loving.  I found them often sleeping on her. Later, she would sleep on them.  I was right that they would keep each other company. I was wrong that they would be less destructive together.  They were about three months old when they ate my kitchen one day. I don’t mean that in a hyperbolic way or a metaphoric way. I mean that literally. They ate my kitchen.  We had to remodel it.  We built them a kennel in the garage.  Boxers can jump five feet in the air easily.  Though we built the walls high, they were hard to contain.  One day, they managed to pull a Skill Saw off of a high shelf. To this day I do not know how they did it but one standing on the other’s shoulder is not beyond the realm of possibility.  By the time we got home, the only thing left was a cord, a couple bolts and the blade.  It was hard to be mad at them though. They would look at you like they knew they did something wrong, and they were really (really, really) sorry but couldn’t make any promises about better behavior in the future.  They were soft and sweet.  We always forgave them.   They always forgave us.

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Being litter mates, they were inseparable.  We kenneled them once apart and they nearly broke the wall down trying to get back together.  I made sure to tell the kennel they had to sleep together after that. Boxers have the unusual habit of sitting on each other.  These two were no exception.  At first, I could not figure out what was going on. Buddy would be laying there, and Finn would walk backward until his was on top of Buddy. Then he would just plop right down.   They both had this expression on their jowly mugs like “What? There’s nothing weird going on here.”  It was both bizarre and endearing.

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Finn passed away suddenly after having a seizure while on a walk with my husband and me.  It was such a jarring tragedy for all of us, but none more so than Buddy and our daughter. They spent days snuggled together. As she cried, Buddy burrowed in and loved her the only way he knew how- with all his heart. And he had a very big heart.  They were inseparable.  At night, I could hear her talking to him as they fell asleep.  It reminded me of all the pups I had as a kid. I was so grateful she had this loving animal to keep all her secrets.  I always knew when she had a bad day because she would lie down with him on his bed in the living room and pet his ears.  He would put his big jowly head on her belly like he was anchoring her to the earth.  He would rush to the door when her heard her car pull in and greet her with such joy.

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Two years ago, we decided he needed a friend.  It was a tough decision as he was already an older dog and we didn’t know if he would accept a puppy.  Again, my husband went on the hunt and found a breeder in Yakima.  We picked a fawn female.  Our daughter was older and much harder to hide a secret from, but we pulled it off. We needed a night without her to make sure that Buddy was fine with this new addition.  I remember I was sitting on the floor of the kitchen with her when my husband let Buddy in.  Buddy rushed to us and I was momentarily afraid that I might have misjudged the situation.  As soon as Buddy saw little Buttercup, he stopped in his tracks.  He leaned down and gave her a sniff.  He looked up to my husband.   He looked down to me. And then he started bouncing on his front paws – a sure sign of joy in a Boxer. He loved that little girl and she gave him a whole new lease on life.  He had been slowing down.  As soon as she came into our lives, he started acting like a young pup himself.  Oh sure, he schooled her more than once when she got out of hand.  Mostly though, he let her goad him into playing with him. They were inseparable. (You can follow Buttercup’s antics on Instagram: @buttercupboxerpup .)

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Last week, we said goodbye to Buddy.  We are all mourning his loss deeply.    It is worse, I think, because it is so painful to watch your child grieve the loss of her best friend.  Buddy had an accident and broke his leg. He couldn’t recover from it. We had time together to care for him. We had time to talk as a family.  Still the pain of loss is sharp.  It seems this year, we have experienced a lot of loss- too much really.  We have to remember that this is the price of big love from a big heart. What is the alternative?  To insulate yourself form the pain of loss by refusing to give or accept love.  For me, I would cry a thousand tears now than to have missed even one minute of knowing true love.  Knowing the love of a big-hearted dog – true, unconditional, freely-given, forgiving, endless, unselfish, loyal, trusting – I would not trade one tear.

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Buddy and His Girl

 

 

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Buddy in His Prime

 

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.

Have You Thanked a Teacher Lately?

I have a confession to make.  I have a box in my garage that I take out every time I am wondering about whether I am making a difference in this world.  It’s not full of trophies.  There are no framed awards in the box.  Nothing is engraved or embossed.  It is a box of notes and gifts I received as a teacher.  Some are on beautifully printed cards. Most are on college ruled paper.  Some of the things in the box only I would understand- like the blue ribbon from one of my seniors that he got for showing his dog; or the watercolor a father painted for me after I coached his son in track; or the flyer commemorating the march from Selma to Montgomery that a graduate sent me with a small rock she picked up on that very bridge. The handwritten notes thanking me for things I would have said were “just doing my job” but that seemed big to a teenager. Unnecessary apologies from kids who were just being kids but who were mortified by their actions as they matured.  Candy canes stuck to notecards wishing me a relaxing winter break without homework to grade.  Invitations to graduation parties. College graduation notices. Wedding invitations. Precious remnants of life as a teacher.

You see, teaching is a really hard job. Whether you are an elementary teacher working with 30 students all day or a secondary teacher seeing 150 students in 55-minute blocks throughout the day, you are completely focused on them the whole time. You spend your free time thinking of new ways to engage your students in the learning. You worry about not reaching that kid in the back who seems to be fading out of school.  You cheer for them to succeed in and out of the classroom. You hope they believe you when you tell them that they can do it; that they are smart enough. You pray they will be persistent enough to get it and resilient enough to survive the painful times they come up short.  I believe that at the core of every teacher is a desire to make a difference in the lives of their students. It is not just to impart academic knowledge but to play a part in developing healthy, happy, competence adults.  It is helping them navigate growing up, solve problems, and negotiate with adults. It is helping them discover and develop their talents and passions. It is helping them overcome their fears. Failure in any of that is, frankly, painful as a teacher. Being a teacher is not just a job like any other job. Being a teacher is central to who you are as a person. It is a calling.

In my own life, teachers have been so important in helping me to become who I am today. I am sure every one of them would say that they were just doing their jobs.  But they are wrong. They were doing so much more.  Ms. Rassmussen was my kindergarten teacher at Sunset Elementary School. She was so kind and patient that even today, when I think of her, I picture a fairy princess.  I was so scared to go to kindergarten and she made it a place I wanted to be. Sister Estelle at St. Luke’s gave me big bear hugs for seemingly no reason at all.  She knew I needed them even when I did not.  Mrs. Elam at Redan High School wouldn’t cut me any slack when I did not understand freshman science. She believed in me even when I did not.  Mr. Rabitoy at Mt. Si High School made me want to be a biology teacher. Mr. Byrd at Redan High School taught me that the only person who could limit what I could learn is me.  Mr. Harshmann at Pinelake Junior High, who noticed I was not acting normal in class, took on the school bully for me.  I became a principal because of Mr. Venn at Mt. Si High School.  Dr. Lokken gave me my first shot at teaching with a job teaching CHEM101 lab at the University of Alaska.  Dr. Guest taught me to live my best life to the very last moment even if I know that moment is coming soon.  Madame Seay at Redan High School taught me that smart girls are powerful girls.  Mr. Odum, who was forced to enter me in the 100 m lows (I’m 5’4”) to satisfy the district rules in track and field, taught me to lose with grace and to win with grace.

I have written my share of thank you notes to teachers as a student. Now that I am a parent, I feel that gratitude so much more deeply.  It is an amazing thing to know that your child is surrounded by caring adults who know her well and want her to succeed.  Though I have thanked many, I know I can do better. I think it is natural to thank a teacher at the end of the school year. Those are very special notes.   I know teachers appreciate knowing that they are making a difference throughout the year too.  In December, when everyone is tired and cold and waiting impatiently for the winter break, a note of thanks will make a teacher’s day, or week, or even year.  A thank you note to a teacher is like a long drive in golf- getting one will keep you playing with a smile for a very long time.  In fact, I know teachers appreciate knowing they made a difference whenever you are ready to tell them. You might be thinking of a teacher right now that you had many years ago in school.  It’s not too late to tell them that they made a difference in your life.

To all the teachers, school counselors, school staff members and principals, thanks in advance for making a difference in so many children’s lives this year!

I selected this picture of a Eurasian Eagle Owl because it reminded me of the first teacher I ever knew- my Aunt Marita.  She loved owls and had a jewelry box full of owl necklaces. I think owls look wise, as teachers are, so I always thought that was why she had so many.  Perhaps she only liked them because they were beautiful.  I took this photograph in a bird photography class I recently took. I learned so much in the class. I am thankful for that teacher for this beautiful shot.

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Class!
(1/250 sec., f/6.3, 450 mm, 1600 ISO)

 

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.

Just the Facts, Mom.

One of the challenges of parenting is knowing how much information to give your child. I remember my daughter once asked me where rain comes from.  In retrospect, the correct answer at the time was “It falls from clouds in the sky.”  But I was a science teacher, so I was a full paragraph into the technical aspects of the water cycle before my husband intervened wisely with “It comes from clouds in the sky.”  Her eyes had glazed over and it took a moment before it registered that he had answered the question. As she skipped off happy with this explanation, I knew my instincts in this area were not to be trusted.  In fact I had an assistant principal once (ironically who had no children) who repeatedly reminded me to answer the question that was asked and only the question that was asked.  I was not a quick study in this area.  Sometimes my ill-advised explanations were met just with an eye roll. Sometimes I made a mess that I had to clean up.  Such was the case when the first dog my daughter knew passed away.

I had gone three long years without a dog of my own when we found her.  My husband had cats. They hated me. I don’t mean that in a hyperbolic sense. They actually hated me. In fact, I am pretty sure they were actively trying to kill me or at least run me out of town.  In the middle of the night I would be awaken by Fallon who would try to push me out of bed by burrowing under the covers and putting her claws to my back. She and her partner in crime shredded all of the long skirts in my closet. They took turns slinking silently atop the shower door where they would wait patiently like feline ninjas until my head was soapy.  Once my eyes were closed, they would strike.  I nearly broken my neck every time I felt a paw hit me in the head.  Suffice it to say, they gave my husband fluffy and cuddly.  They gave me claws and teeth.  I was so excited when we finally moved to a house where we could have a dog.  It was late fall (which is actually mid-winter in Fairbanks) and I heard about a litter of Spring Spaniel / Border Collie pups.  It is not ideal to have pups at this time in Fairbanks as the frigid temperatures and snow pack made housebreaking nearly impossible. Despite the challenges, I fell in love with the pups right away.  They were in a crib wrestling around like puppies do.  One was clearly bigger than the rest and moved about like a bulldozer.  He was plump and fluffy and bold.  I picked him immediately.  When we came back a couple of weeks later to pick him up, the runt of the litter attached herself to his ear and held on for dear life. I couldn’t bear to separate them, so we took them both.  We named them Levi and Strauss.  Strauss was a sweet girl. She went just about everywhere with me. As soon as I picked up my keys, she would jump into the bed of my pickup. In the winter, she would sit beside me on the bench seat, leaning gently against my shoulder as she stared through the windshield. True to her Border Collie nature, every living thing that entered our house became her herd.  When we played in the yard, she would stick close to my toddler contently enduring the petting, which was much more like awkward slapping.  She started to slow down at about 14 years old and I knew her time was short. She was 16 when the time came to let her go.

I pulled into the driveway one afternoon to find my husband waiting in front of the garage bay where I normally parked.  He put his hands up to stop me.  I remember he said, “I’m glad you’re home.  Strauss can’t get up. I am going to run to the store and get some toenail clippers.” With that, he jumped in his truck and left.  My husband is a strong man with a big heart.  Though his comment really made no sense, I knew he was trying to make things better. He knew how much I loved that dog.   I could tell just looking through the windshield that toenail clippers were not going to solve this problem.  Strauss lay on the cement panting though it wasn’t hot.  She wouldn’t move and barely acknowledged me when I called her name.  I called our vet and, with tears in my eyes, told her it was time.  She was a big dog so it took all the strength I could muster to lift her into my car.  She whimpered, and it broke my heart that she was in such pain.  Our vet was a kind woman who allowed me to sit on the floor with Strauss as she examined her. When the time came, I held her in my arms as she passed.  I could feel my heart break.

As I drove home, I sobbed. I called my dad crying so hard that I could not talk.  At first, he thought something had happened to my husband or daughter but I finally choked down the sobs long enough to tell him that I had put Strauss down. He was a dog lover and I knew he understood how sad I was. He tried to comfort me by saying that, “You loved that dog more than most people love their kids.”  I asked him how I could tell my daughter. She was going to be heartbroken too.  He said, “You are going to do what every parent does. You are going to tell her that Strauss went to heaven to live with God. That is all you are going to tell her. Keep it simple.”   I pulled into the garage dreading what I was about to do. I blew my nose and wiped my tears. I found my daughter on my bed watching cartoons.  I took her in my arms and asked her to turn off the TV for a minute.  Then I said, “Strauss isn’t coming home.”  She asked, “She’s not?  Where is she going?”  I took a breath in hopes that I would not break out crying again and said, “She’s in heaven with God.” She searched my eyes, “She is in heaven? With God?” “Yes”, I said.  She pursed her lips and said, “OK, can I watch Sponge Bob now?” I could not believe that worked!  My dad was a genius! I was home free.

But grief, even realized much later than the passing, still must be experienced. Sometimes the distance from the event does not really lessen the pain. Several months after Strauss died, I was driving my daughter to daycare on the way to work.  We passed a cemetery that saw every morning. On this particular morning, she noticed it.  She asked what it was and I told her the name. She asked what happened there.  I explained that when people died, they were buried in a cemetery.  She asked if I knew anyone who died. I explained that my mom had died.  Her eyebrows stitched together.  “Your mom died?”  I said, “Yes. She is heaven with God.”  Her eyes grew wide. “She is heaven?!  With God?!” “Yes”,  I said.  She looked at me stunned and screamed, “Strauss is dead?!”

It was in this moment that I learned three important things about parenting.  The first was to answer just the question asked.  Kids will let you know when they are ready for more information.  The second is that you might think a child understands what you are saying when they really don’t.  Finally, never talk about difficult or complicated things on the way to day care… or work… or school… You are going to be later for work and your shirt will be covered in tears and snot. Worse than that, you will relive the situation all day long.

 

I chose these photographs of my daughter and her puppy posse: Strauss (black and white) and Sadie (fawn).  I remember this day vividly. I was weeding the front garden and I put her on her blanket in the spring sun.  The dogs immediately took their places next to her and sat patiently as she crawled on them and patted them. At one point a young dog got loose from down the street and Strauss jumped in front of her while Sadie ran down to chase him off.  Once the threat was gone, they resumed napping in the sun together.

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Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.

I Got This, Mama!

In a couple of weeks, my daughter will begin her senior year. Stamped in my mind and on my heart is a picture of her decked out in pink from head to toe; smiling from ear to ear; proudly carrying her backpack filled to the brim with fresh school supplies on her first day of kindergarten.  She was raised in school. She was only a few weeks old when she attended her first wrestling match. She toddled on the track in the spring and by fall she was learning to walk at the football games. She gazed pie-eyed at the glittery cheerleaders and clapped gleefully at band concerts. Sometimes on the weekend, she would ride her trike up and down the hall outside my office.

So, when it came time for kindergarten, she was filled with excitement for this new adventure.  Kindergarten made her one of the big kids. I remember her earnestly checking her understanding with me one morning, “OK. So, it’s kindergarten, then high school, then college. Right mom?” To which I responded, “Uh not quite…. but close enough for now.”

I loved school.  By the time my daughter was in kindergarten, I had had 35 first days of school either as a student, teacher or principal.  But I was not prepared for this first day of school at all. I remember that I took the morning off, so I could drive her to school.  As we drove, she chattered enthusiastically from the back seat – all her questions and thoughts tumbling out in random order.  Do my friends go to this school?  Where do I eat lunch? I know my numbers, so the teacher doesn’t have to teach me that. Do I have to share my crayons? I have a backpack! What is recess? I can’t wait to have a desk.

Random stuff, earthshakingly critical to a five-year-old. She had (has) such a curious mind.  I knew she was ready for kindergarten. She could read. She had strong social skills – emphasis on social.  I knew she was ready, though I was constantly wondering if I had done enough to prepare her or made the right parenting decisions. My heart ached because this day signaled the beginning of so many changes. People would be coming in and out of her life. There would be influences beyond my control. Not just classroom learning but life learning was about to start. While I was excited to watch her grow into an adult and experience all the wonderful parts of life, I had worries too.  I had seen firsthand how challenging growing up could be even if you had the best possible parent.  What if kids were mean to her? What if she was sad or scared or needed me? What if she didn’t like math?!? What if she lost a shoe? Or went to the wrong bus line? Or daydreamed through science? Or talked too much? She is a talker and we love that about her but what if her teacher didn’t love that about her? Random, earthshakingly critical worries of a kindergarten mom.

I put a smile on my face because I thought weeping openly might put a damper on her excitement. If your mom, who is a principal, is crying on the way to kindergarten, that has to be a bad sign right? So, I smiled on the outside. I parked near the classroom. Before I could get around the car, she bounced out of the back seat dragging the backpack behind her. She shrugged it on and grabbed my hand. We walked (well, I walked, and she skipped) to the classroom where pairs of students and their parents were standing.  The parents looked around nervously, afraid to make eye contact.  I think the general feeling was that seeing someone else who wanted to cry somehow would open the flood gates. The kids took those tentative first steps toward friendship with the awkward ‘hi’ or ‘what’s your name?’ spoken in tiny voices.   Finally, the door opened and a petite, curly-haired woman exclaimed “Good morning, boys and girls! Come in.”  Some children grabbed their parents’ legs.  Others stood stock still.  Others took a step then waited unsure.  Mine turned to me and smiled.  Then turned back to the teacher and took two bouncy steps in her direction.  I called her name.  She stopped and twirled around. I took a step toward her, but she put up her hand in a wave and said, “I got this, mama.” She smiled and disappeared.

I stood there amongst the leg holders, criers and huggers, and I felt a bit embarrassed.  I mean, I just got unceremoniously dismissed by a five-year-old.  I wondered if this was a serious problem. Should I have read more books on parenting. Was this evidence of a lack of bonding somehow?   Why was my child not clinging to my leg begging me to stay?  But then I got a grip on reality and I knew that all this uncertainty was about me. It wasn’t about her. I just wanted to be the best mom I could be.  The truth is that she was (and still is) a capable, confident, bold girl.  We prepared her for that moment by giving her the tools to be successful. We read to her. We talked about feelings. We helped her learn to solve problems.  We played.  When she needed us, we were there for her. So that moment was more about my grieving the loss of being needed just a little bit less, than it was about her. She was right when she said, “I got this.” She did.  She got it alright.

So here we are twelve years later.  On the first day of school, she won’t be covered head to toe in pink. I doubt she will be smiling ear to ear at 0630. She’ll drive herself to school.   There won’t be any hand holding. Even though I will worry that there is something I should have done or should have done differently or better, in my heart of hearts I know she’s got this.  In case there’s any doubt, I’m going to tell her just that, “You got this!” I might even throw in “Piece of cake!” In the end, she knows we will be right here if she needs us.

Kindergarten girl

I Got This
(1/50 sec., f/3,2, 9.2mm, 400 ISO Cybershot)

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.