28 years on . . .

Twenty-eight years ago today our son Don Isaac was born, and died, in a government hospital in Papua New Guinea. As always, this day is bittersweet as I mourn what might have been and rejoice in what is. The essay below is an updated version of one I wrote five years ago, and, as I edited the original piece, I reflected on how much has changed in five years, much less 28. I appreciate how my archived writings provide the opportunity to stop and pause over the constant change that is life.

Twenty-eight years on and I still find myself wondering about the “what ifs” and the mysteries and the joy and the pain. Twenty-eight years on and I am still incredibly grateful for how Don Isaac, my first born son, changed my life forever through his brief, sweet life. In honor of him I repost my words, updated, from 2013.

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When my son Sam was 8 years old (19 years ago – when did that happen?) he asked a “what-if” question that caused me to momentarily hold my breath. At the time of Sam’s question, Nathan was 2 ½ years old, a sweet, beautiful boy who’d entered our lives with gusto. (Jack had yet to be born.) While sitting at the counter in our sunny Kenyan kitchen, Sam asked out of the blue, “Mama, if my big brother and sisters hadn’t died, would Nathan be my brother? I mean, it would be cool if Don Isaac and my sisters were here, but I would never want Nathan to go away. Would I have to choose?”

Like Sam, I missed my son, Don Isaac, and daughters, Jennie and Maggie, who’d died during a traumatic delivery. Nathan was born in April of 1997; the girls were born 3 months later so I often compared Nathan’s physical development to where they girls would have been at the same time. What if, in the middle of my pregnancies, I’d been allowed to see the future and seeing it, was given the choice. What scenario would I have chosen if allowed? Knowing Nathan today as a handsome, intelligent, incredibly empathetic 21yo man and Jack as a questioning, intelligent 18yo justice-seeker, I cannot imagine loving them any more, and yet, if faced with THE choice, would I have chosen my biological children over my sons? Would I have chosen to forego all that has transpired since?

What if we imperfect humans were given the ability to see the future, to know beyond a shadow of a doubt the result of our actions and choices before they happened? What if we were allowed the “gift” of changing events before they occurred based on our perception of what would be best? Would that knowledge be a gift . . . or a burden?

Today would have been Don Isaac’s 28th birthday. As I do every year on this date, I find myself thinking of him, wondering how life would have been so very different if he were still alive. A man, possibly married with children, carving his own path separate from his parents. I imagine him kind and caring. Handsome, self-assured. In fact, Don Isaac, in my mind, would be the perfect son in every way imaginable . . .

. . . today, however, I am mother not to a 28-year-old man but to three adult sons, each incredibly unique. Each dearer than life. Perfect? Of course not but their place in our family is perfection indeed. My sons, with their triumphs and trials, were placed in our family by a God who knows best and who is wise enough to keep the future hidden; to sons who fill me with a joy that is hard to describe and that I could have never in my wildest dreams imagined. What if I had been given the choice and had chosen the appearance of best? Oh how much joy I would have missed.

Singer Amy Grant Gill’s album How Mercy Looks from Here includes a song entitled Better Not to Know. The song is based on an experience from many years ago. She recounts the story much better than me, but the gist is that she planted 75 fruit trees on a farm that only a few months later she and her soon-to-be-ex-husband would have to sell after the demise of their marriage. She wonders aloud . . .  if she’d known what would soon transpire, would she have still planted those trees? To plant trees at such a time . . . what a waste . . .

. . . fast forward many years. Amy receives a call from the current property owner who says, “You know those trees you planted back in the late 1980s? You should drive over and have a look.” Driving down the farm’s entrance, a flood of emotions overtake her as she thinks back over her life. She finds those trees, planted during such a bitter time, laden with fruit, so much fruit that the branches touch the ground. In spite of all that was not known, in spite of the sadness and brokenness of certain situations, the fruit still bloomed.  With that image in mind she wrote these words:

We sowed our seeds, watered with tears
Waiting for signs of growth
Took months of days and then took years
We took our steps; we took our falls
Somewhere along the way
We just got lost and lost it all . . .

The risk of living is the pain
And what will be will be anyway

Oh, it’s better not to know
The way it’s gonna go
What will die and what will grow
Goodbye more than hello
It’s better not to know

Those tiny stems became these trees, with dirt and storms
And sun and air to breathe
Like you and me
And some fell down and some grew tall
And those surviving winter thaws
Have the sweetest fruit of all
But innocence and planting day are both long gone
So much has changed
And if we had to do it all again?

Nothing stays the same
Life flickers like a flame
As the seasons come and go
Goodbye more than hello
It’s better not to know
Is it better, is it better, is it better?

We sowed our seeds watered with tears…

Oh, it’s better not to know…

Yes, it’s better not to know. It’s better for me to look into my sons’ faces and know that their presence in our family is not by chance but is by design.  And truly, that is  all I need to know.

 

 

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Happy Birthday Mr. Norris

Mr. Norris and Nathan, circa 2003

Mr. Norris and Nathan, circa 2018

 

 

 

Mr. Norris came into our lives in September, 2003. We were living in Kenya but had spent that summer in the U.S. while Nathan, our middle son, received treatment at Shands Medical Center in Gainesville for a benign tumor (another story for another time). Nathan’s bravery and stoicism while being poked and prodded and jabbed earned him a reward and, for him, the best reward was a kitten.

A few weeks after returning to our Kenyan home, we piled into our orange Daihatsu jeep and made the 20 kilometer trip out to the Nairobi suburb of Karen where the Kenya Society for the Protection and Care of Animals (KSPCA – https://kspca-kenya.org/)  housed dogs, cats, donkeys, and other assorted animals. The cat section, filled to overflowing, included a mama cat and her kittens, born 6 weeks prior in July. The mama and her litter were all calico except one, a black and white fur ball. Nathan, at first glance, was convinced a calico was the only cat for him, even when each one he reached for hissed and scratched. It took him a while to notice the gentle black and white kitty who’d jumped out of the box and circled gently in and out and around his ankles. Once he noticed him, however, he quickly realized that he should probably pick the kitty that had picked him first. That kitty was Mr. Norris.

The name Mr. Norris came from the character Mrs. Norris, the unpleasant cat belonging to Argus Filch, caretaker of Hogwarts. While Nathan’s new kitty (who quickly became the darling of the whole family) was in no way unpleasant, it was a catchy name, and also happened to be the name of our friend and neighbor, Mr. David Norris. (David once shared that he was often humored when he would hear his name echo over the garden wall as we called our pet to dinner. “Mr. Norris, time to eat.”)

Mr. Norris is still just fine to sleep near canines.

It took very little time for us to realize that Mr. Norris was the perfect cat for us. Tiny as he was, he quickly subdued our german shepherd dog, Annie, into believing it was he, not she, who ran the house. In spite of that very cat-like bossy trait, Mr. Norris also displayed many dog-like behaviors. He would follow us around, would generally come when we called, and before long, would curl up next to Annie in her dog basket and snooze away. His attitude exuded confidence that let everyone know he was a major player in our family structure.

One of the many benefits of living in Nairobi was the gorgeous weather that allowed us to keep our screen-free windows open. Mr. Norris took full advantage of this and would hop in and out of the house at his leisure. He would often bring in treasures (?) for our enjoyment, including small snakes, bigger rats, and the occasional bird. One Christmas stands out as a sad but memorable moment when Mr. Norris displayed his hunting prowess. A few days before Christmas we’d been visited by a pin tailed whydah, a tiny East African bird with fantastic plumage, who would peck at our glass windows and flit around our verandah. Christmas morning was warm and sunny so I opened the windows to let the breeze float in. At some point the small bird flew through the window and landed exactly atop our tree where he sat motionless. I whispered to the boys to come downstairs, for indeed, a Christmas miracle had occurred. At the exact moment the boys saw the bird sitting as still as an ornament, Mr. Norris, from seemingly nowhere, flew through the air and made quick work of our yuletide miracle. The boys screamed, I cried, Devan held back laughter, and Mr. Norris paraded his prey proudly. No amount of “bad Mr. Norris” would dissuade him from thinking he’d saved us from great harm and another tale was added to the lore of Mr. Norris, Kenyan Cat.

He doesn’t mind a bath but don’t mess with his watermelon.

You can take the cat out of Kenya but you cannot take the cat out of the Kenyan kikapu.

When we decided to move back to the U.S. in 2006, there was never a doubt Mr. Norris would make the journey as well. He was our cat; we were his people. We went through the nightmare of logistical red tape that accompanies bringing an animal through U.S. customs–quarantine requirements, shots, a binder of paper work–and bought his ticket based on British Air’s glossy brochure picturing animals being gently loved and fed by pet experts. We were reassured that upon landing Mr. Norris would be personally brought to us for our joyful reunion. While waiting in the baggage claim area, however, Jack tugged on my shirt and said, “Mom, look. Mr. Norris is on that machine.” Sure enough, someone had placed our precious kitty’s crate right on the baggage belt and as he rolled down amidst the Samsonites and backpacks, his crate fell and flipped and flopped. The mournful yowls of a terrified cat filled the terminal and he did not cease howling for at least two weeks. Even now, these many years on, the sight of a crate will send him hiding into dark corners.

Eat your heart out, L.L. Bean catalogue dog.

Demure and Grand, that is thy name.

Yes, Mr. Norris is still with us and is celebrating his 15th birthday this month, so woven into the fabric of our family that we cannot imagine life without him. He continues to be more dog-like than cat, accompanying us when we walk leashed Good Dog Macy Mae around the neighborhood or running to us when we call. More than dog-like, he’s simply Mr. Norris. A monstrous cat, weighing in at 20+ pounds, we’ve abandoned all hope of helping him slim down. His extra bulk doesn’t seem to hinder him from all types of yoga-stretch moves but we can see the effect of old-age as he slowly climbs the many steps to our front door. He loves to sit fearlessly close to our winter fireplace and will also lay demurely, his paws crossed one over the other, in the midst of a thunderous rain storm. He is shamelessly aware of his grandiose beauty, and while he doesn’t care for baths, he submits to them with grace.

Happy Birthday Mr. Norris; you are a feline among felines. Thank you for sticking around so long, providing our family a tangible connection to the amazing years when Kenya was home. Thank you for loving the Veatch clan so well and for making each one of us secretly believe that we are your favorite human, when in fact, we know you love yourself most of all.

Happy Birthday Mr. Norris.

 

 

“Indeed, there is nothing on this earth more peaceful than a sleeping, purring cat.”
― Jonathon Scott Payne

“I care not for a man’s religion whose dog and cat are not the better for it.”
― Abraham Lincoln

“Dogs have important jobs, like barking when the doorbell rings, but cats have no function in a house whatsoever.”
― W. Bruce CameronA Dog’s Purpose

“Cats are the lap-dancers of the animal world. Soon as you stop shelling out, they move on, find another lap. They’re furry little sociopaths. Pretty and slick — in love with themselves. When’s the last time you saw a seeing-eye cat?”
― Andrew VachssSafe House

“Cats are a mysterious kind of folk.”
― Walter Scott

“Let’s face it. It’s a cat’s world.”
― Anthony T. Hincks

“Dogs make great pets, but cats make good owners.”
― Anthony T. Hincks

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Dark Snapshots of My Mother

Fifty-two years ago this month my beautiful mother, Jacqueline Virginia Gunter Roberts, took her own life at the age of 36 in a violent act, a month before my 7th birthday. Recently newsworthy people, people who appear to have been loved and respected, have chosen to end their lives, and I’ve again been reminded of the fragility of life and the darkness of depression and mental illness. I’ve been reminded of my own mother, a woman who in many ways is a mystery to me. The few memories I have paint a picture of a loving but troubled woman who for some reason felt she had no where to turn. I cannot tell her story but I can share mine and perhaps, through the eyes of a child, you’ll gain a glimpse of the woman. Perhaps you’ll think of someone in your own life who needs support. I share in hope that we’ll all be aware of those around us who may be suffering in silence.

Sheila

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My mother and brother Jimmy, 1953.

My memories of her are jumbled together as if I’m putting together a jigsaw of a 1000 piece puzzle, the bits and colors so small that they’re hard to recognize when spread out across the years. Raven black hair, a preference for red lipstick, a generous laugh, and eyes that could go wide when startled. She was a small woman, at least I think she was, who loved dresses, belt cinched tight at her slender waist. She had a penchant for high heels. I don’t remember her hands, not even a little. I wonder why I can’t remember her hand

While her physical features are sketchy in my mind, a few specific places and events are as real and vivid as if they’d happened a few weeks ago, not 52 years. There are only a few, in fact, precisely six. But these six memories paint a picture of the woman who I called Mother.

 

Olin Mills Memory

Spring, 1963. Downtown Bradenton. Sharp’s Drug Store. This is my first true memory of Mother. At the age of almost 4, I have no recollection if she and I boarded the city bus on a regular basis or if it was a special event but there is one day that is so vivid and real that it is like I have a recording in my head. The bus picked us up a few blocks from our home and I sat on Mother’s lap while we made the 3-mile trip. Sharp’s had an elevator operator and I remember going up and down several times that day, the tall man (Was he tall or sitting on a stool?) opening and closing the scissor gate with a gentle smile. There was a soda fountain and Mother bought me a chocolate soda. It dripped down my dress and Mother became agitated. Apparently she’d planned on taking me to have my photograph taken at a downtown studio and was so upset that my dress was spoiled. Fast forward to the  photographer reassuring Mother that all was fine as he buttoned my cardigan sweater up to the last button (I recall the sweater as blue but the photo is black and white so I’m not sure)  and saying, “See. The stain doesn’t show.” I still have that photo, my bangs freshly cut, the sweater buttoned tightly, and the whole day comes rushing back each time I come across it.

 

November, 1963. I am now 4 1/2. My older siblings, two brothers and a sister, were at school; I had yet to start. Our family’s boxy black and white television sat in the corner of our living room. I don’t remember the events leading up to my mother’s tears, only that I was scared as she sat quietly crying. There was a black horse and a carriage and a woman in a black dress and veil. The woman had two small children beside her. Mother held herself, rocking a bit, tears spilling over her wide eyes. I distinctly remember patting her back and asking her not to cry but I have no memory that she ever spoke to me during the whole encounter. I was the comforter.

Fall, 1964. Kindergarten. Samoset Elementary School. Miss Mary’s class. I would be the fourth Roberts child to have Miss Mary and I was incredibly excited. Mother, however, was not. We lived close enough to school that we walked (my mother did not drive) and I recall her telling me to be brave and to be a big girl and she would see me at lunchtime when the local fire whistle blew right at noon and then she covered me with kisses and she cried.

I did not cry. I wasn’t sure what I needed to be afraid of, especially when I entered Miss Mary’s magical domain, filled with dress up clothes and a wooden kitchen set and colorful books and little rocking chairs. But Mother daily insisted I should be afraid, so much so that it only took a few weeks for her to convince me as well. By Thanksgiving I stopped attending and stayed home with Mother each day. Thinking of my own temptation as a mother to hold my three sons too close, I now have a tiny glimmer of understanding that it was her fear of being alone, her fear of losing her baby, and her fear of change that pushed her to seduce me into staying by her side.

Winter, 1965. First Grade. Mrs. Wiley. I was allowed to advance to first grade in spite of my lack of kindergarten training. It must have been a cold day. In the early 1960s girls were not allowed to wear pants to school, only dresses, and I seem to remember a red and black plaid dress, high waistband, sash tied in back, short sleeved and a red cardigan with clear buttons. I sat at my desk, the kind that the top raised up, when I heard Mrs. Wiley in the back talking low in a calming voice. When I turned to look I saw Mother and she caught my eye. She was panicked, scared. Mrs. Wiley called me back and Mother knelt to explain that she’d brought corduroy pants for me to wear under my dress, as she’d been sick with worry that I was too cold. Even at the age of 6 I remember turning red with shame. My friends’ mothers’ had thought ahead of time, dressing them in black tights, just thick enough with warmth against the cool Florida day. The corduroys she’d brought were ugly brown and bunchy and didn’t match my dress; however, I knew that refusing to put them on would cause more angst so I obediently slipped them under my dress. Girls snickered. Boys pointed. Mrs. Wiley told everyone to get busy. My mother smiled and backed away, her baby once again safe against the world.

Spring, 1966. Late afternoon, the ebbing sun peeking through the jalousie window, shadow dancing across my small bed. I don’t recall if I was sick or just playing on my bed when Mother brought me a brand new coloring book and box of Crayola crayons, eight, sharp and crisp. She said I could have the book and crayons if I promised with all my heart to not get up. She said she needed to go somewhere and Granny Roberts was coming and I was not to get up until Granny got there. Mother then kissed me atop my head but I don’t think I responded, the joy of the unexpected gift filling my thoughts. The next thing I knew Granny Roberts—strong, kind, wonderful Granny Roberts—was at my side, a bit winded, asking for Mother. “I don’t know where she went,” I answered. “She just told me to stay put.” That’s where my memory stops. Years later Granny filled in the blanks. Apparently my Mother, after securing my promise to “stay put,” called her mother-in-law to tell her she wasn’t feeling well and was afraid and could she come. Granny recalled, “I knew something wasn’t right.” My mother was found hours later, wandering in a local orange grove, no awareness of how she’d gotten there or of leaving me or of anything. Granny reassured me. “Your mother loved you and Angie and Jimmy and Lynn; oh how she loved you, but oh how she doubted herself about everything. When she felt strange she knew to take care of you first then call me. She did the best she could.”

Spring, 1966. I have no idea why I was snooping or what led me to peer under my parents’ bed but when I did I found several wrapped Christmas presents. It was so odd; Christmas was months and months away and didn’t Santa bring presents? Why were they under the bed? When mother came in and found that I discovered the secret she sat on the side of the bed and cried, big fat silent tears. I told her I was so sorry, that I would never peek again, and would she please not spank me? She said nothing, just silently cried. A spanking, which she rarely ever delivered, would have been easier.

That’s it. Those are the specific memories I have of my mother; six framed episodes of this woman who gave me birth. Other thoughts of her provided by those who knew her longer, who knew her more deeply, add to my recollections, but their snapshots may or may not be authentic to me. The memories end here for me for a few weeks after I found the gifts under the bed, gifts my mother had bought and wrapped in expectation of what was to come, she took her own life.

Once I asked my father when Mother had started to show signs of depression. His answer was short yet explained much. It especially made me aware that we don’t have to know the why but we must be willing to help. My dear father did all he could but for her, it wasn’t enough.

“Every time she had another baby she just got sadder and sadder. Nothin’ I did seemed to help. She was just so sad.”

Sad; such a broad term for such a deep emotion. There are those fleeting sadnesses that flit in and out and leave us fairly unscathed but then there is a sadness, THE sadness, that creeps in and unpacks and takes up residence. A sadness that demands attention and help and support, a sadness that is taking far too many people before their time, a sadness that has moved in with me on many occasions. My story ends differently than my mother’s and I am filled with wonder and humility at the Grace I’ve been given. May I now be that Grace in the life of another.

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If you know someone struggling in the darkness of depression, be Grace in their life. Reach out, call, visit, pray. Be actively involved in local mental health initiatives and advocate for legislation that will provide solid help, financially and practically, to all who suffer. We as a country can do better. We as a people must do better.

If you are personally struggling, I beg you to seek help. Confide in a trusted friend, talk to your doctor, rely on your support system. Even as I type, I realize there may be someone reading who has none of those resources and not a single place to turn. If that’s you, please email me – srv759@gmail.com. Please use the contacts below. You are precious and of worth. Please get help.

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline

We can all help prevent suicide. The Lifeline provides 24/7, free and confidential support for people in distress, prevention and crisis resources for you or your loved ones, and best practices for professionals.

1-800-273-8255

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Her Name is Gloria June

Waldo Street                Groveland, Florid

One of the things Devan and I are trying to be more intentional about is spending quality time with people–taking time to sit and listen and be with those we know well and those we’d like to know better. Today’s visit to some of the dearest brought back grateful memories. My first, of what I hope to be many, posts of 2018 . . .

The year was 1991, the month was July, and the place was Groveland, Florida. Devan and I had just landed in the United States after spending three years in Papua New Guinea as teachers. We were broke, pregnant, and jobless, and many school districts had already hired for the coming year. The Internet was not something available to the general public and even if it had been, we certainly didn’t have a computer, so the job hunt equaled countless hours on the phone, calling districts to request lists of job openings. Chemistry and Physics. Groveland High School. Devan called for an interview and after an initial phone conversation, was asked to come in for a second talk.

Driving up to Groveland High was like going back in time. The building, charming and old, made me smile. Principal Gray, the kind of man who most likely carried a pocket protector at one point in his career, greeted us with a broad smile and firm handshake. While he and Devan went into the office, the school’s administrator introduced herself and showed me around. Her name was Mrs. Potter, Gloria June.

Gloria June Potter is one of those people you never every forget, nor would you ever want to. Petite and lovely with a strong central Florida twang, from the moment I met her I sensed that she would be a Person in my life . .  and my sense was correct in every way.

Our Rental On Magnolia

Devan was offered the teaching position that same day and we faced finding affordable housing quickly. The next day a call from Gloria June led us to her neighbor, Mrs. Marie Padgett, who had a rental house that had just come available directly across from the Groveland High School football stadium, a 3 minute walk to the main building. We passed Mrs. Padgett’s rental criteria and found ourselves moving in soon after. Hardly a day would pass without Gloria June stopping by with a casserole or some canned tomatoes or a simple, “How are y’all settling in?”

Gloria June and her husband Bill, a giant of a man deserving of his own story, opened their arms and made us part of their large extended family, including their church family, and it was at church two months after our arrival that Gloria June was with me when I went into premature labor with Sam. His due date of December 20th was usurped by almost three months on a Wednesday evening midweek service and Gloria June held my hand and prayed while Devan called the ambulance. At one of the scariest moments of my life, Gloria June was there. I can remember tears streaming down her face as she whispered, “Father, don’t let this baby die.”

Examples of Gloria June’s Canning Expertise

Over the next few months as we made the hour long trip daily to visit Sam at Orlando’s Florida South Hospital, Gloria June cooked and visited and prayed and loved and cried and laughed and supported. Once Sam came home, she helped us find a reasonably priced washing machine so I wouldn’t have to go to the laundry mat with Sam’s diapers. (Yes, I was one of those cloth diaper moms.) She baby sat for free (I would trust very few) so Devan and I could have an outing alone every so often. She and Bill hosted Sam’s first birthday party during a hurricane when the planned park party was cancelled.

Gloria June’s thriftiness included recycling long before it was trendy.

Our time in Groveland was not meant to last forever–we soon realized we were only dropping in. Two years after arriving we accepted the offer to teach at the International School of Kenya and began moving plans. There was a window of time between moving out of our rental and departing that we needed a place to live as Devan was still working a part time job for the University of Florida Research department. There was never a question in Gloria June’s mind of where we’d stay while preparing to leave–they offered us a room in their not-so-huge home, a room for which they refused payment. And when we left it was as if their own blood kin was leaving, such was our send off.

Over the years we’ve stayed in touch, stopping in when we were able and when they were home. (Their own hearts took them to all 50 states as well as to northern Canada and India, teaching at Bible schools and loving strangers well. There are many Potter stories to be told.) Our visits always included a table ladened with Gloria June’s amazing country cooking, tons of people, (“I hope you don’t mind. I thought you’d like to see a few folks during your visit.”) and much laughter. Our visits always included Bill’s prayers for safety and mercy and grace. Our visits always overflowed with love.

A Gift of Cake and Love                  December 27, 2014

When Sam and Heather were planning their wedding, it was Gloria June who called to offer the gift of a wedding cake. The tiered cake and cupcakes were beautiful to the eyes and delicious to the taste. The photo of Sam, Heather, Gloria June and the gorgeous cake serves as a testimony of friendship that endures distance and years. She was there the night he was born and 22 years later, she was there the night he was wed, still giving, still loving.

Homemade Pepper Vinegar in Recycled Bottle

Today Devan and I drove to Groveland to start our year off with a Potter visit. Just like much of Florida, parts of Lake County are unrecognizable as growth encroaches former farm land. But there on Waldo Street, time has stopped. Their dear red brick home–the home originally belonging to Gloria June’s mother–still welcomes (it does have a new tin roof and they enclosed their carport and the new bathroom is lovely) and the dining room table is still laden with far too much home cooking. Bill moves a bit slower but his sharp mind is quick and engaging. Gloria June pats his hand and the conversation often includes their words of appreciation towards each other. They hosted 18 for New Year’s Day dinner. They have plans for a spring garden. They gave us homemade pepper vinegar to take home. They asked that we not wait so long to visit. They prayed for our safety and peace.

Gloria June and Bill are examples of lives well lived. They display true character and charity when our country seems to have fewer and fewer examples of what it means to authentically extend the hand of Christ. They are the kind of people Devan and I long to be as we age–generous, welcoming, non-judgmental, wise. Even an iota of their hearts would make us better people.

In 1991 I met a woman named Gloria June who taught me how real love must be active and out-flowing; in 2018 I’m still learning from her.

These People Here January 6, 2018

 

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The Year of Writing More

 

 

 

Those who know me best love me in spite of the fact that I struggle with time management. My best ideas too often come at the last minute and setting my watch ahead in an attempt to trick myself usually backfires as I compensate for the reset. So even though the holiday has come and gone, wishing each of you a Happy 2018 on the 6th day of the new year, at least based on my track record, is actually pretty good . . . and I am determined to continue to get better as I work on being more timely this year.

Another thing I’d like to work on in the upcoming year is writing more consistently and more often. Anne Lamott, author of the writing guide “Bird by Bird” and one of my favorite authors and humans, recently tweeted:

“If you write for a while today, you have a feeling of excitement, even if the writing is inadequate and too long, which it almost certainly will be.”

Lamott reassures writers that most days the writing left on the non-scrunched up paper will be fairly lousy but to continue putting ink-to-paper anyway. While writing daily won’t necessarily make me a super-star writer, NOT writing guarantees that I’ll never get better than I am in the now.

So . . . brace your inboxes as my goal is to put stuff out there. Words, lots and lots of words. Many will be lousy, some will not interest, but each will force me to stay the writing course. As always, feedback appreciated.

Love, hugs, and much joy to you in 2018 –

Sheila

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To My Teaching Colleagues – Once Again, Your Time is Now

 

Photo Credit Tampa Bay Times 2016

I’m sitting here in a small, locally owned coffee shop, sharing electricity, Wi-Fi, and coffee with a packed room of fellow St. Augustinians. People are obviously stressed and most look as though they haven’t bathed in a while, but there is smiling and the trading off of electricity sockets, giving all the chance to recharge their beloved devices. The AC is cranking out coolish air as much as it can but the number of humans, as well as the bright Florida sun pouring through plate glass panes, diminishes its effect. I’m grateful to be here. (Thank you and shout out to the wonderful people at https://www.dosbar.com/. You are a refuge.)

My original week’s schedule included visiting schools to provide professional support but those plans have changed due to so many schools statewide being closed. Some districts were able to open today, some will open tomorrow or Friday, and some next week or later. Getting back to normal is based on floodwaters receding and power companies working overtime to get school buildings up and running. But open they will, eventually, and teachers will be there with open arms, listening ears, and active love.

My daughter-in-law, a 2nd grade teacher in Seminole County, will most likely greet her students Monday, September 18th, after not seeing them for over a week. We spoke yesterday and discussed the reality that returning to school after this type of event is truly like starting all over again. Her students will return to her overly excited, apprehensive, perhaps a bit scared. More than anything they will return to her with hope that school will be normal, the same, a place of safety. She will be all of that to them, and more.

This is one of those pivotal moments when I am reminded of the all-encompassing role played by K-12 teachers. In 2015-16 2, 791,525 students were enrolled in Florida’s public schools. For many of those 2 million plus students, school is the only safe and sure thing in their lives; it’s where many receive consistent meals and for some, it is the only place they are heard.

Sometime this week or next, school doors will open and the kids will come back. Teachers will be there to greet them. Many of those teachers will still be without power in their own homes, many will be displaced, many worried about what will or will not be covered by insurance. But they will come and do what they do best—care for children.

Credit The Greenville News, 2017

You see, many teachers went into the profession for just that. They are caring empathetic individuals and for them teaching is a calling. In spite of low pay, increasing criticism, and outrageous demands, they remain because they believe in what they do. It’s why they work countless hours off the clock, spend thousands of dollars of their own money to buy basic classroom resources, and remain steadfast even as elected officials use them as political pawns.

In the midst of all that insanity, teachers are now returning to classroom expectations that will remain in place; high stakes assessments will eventually be given, test preparation will be encouraged, data will be gathered. But for a moment my hope is that teachers will allow themselves time to just be, that they will gather their students around and reassure them that in spite of a world that seems upside down, things will gradually turn right side up again. Rather than hushing them and telling them to “pay attention” and “stay on task” my hope is that teachers will follow their gut and know their time would be better spent just listening to their students’ stories, giving them moments to process through drawing and writing and speaking and listening and being.

So to my teacher friends and colleagues statewide, your time is now, as it always has been. I have no doubt you will rise to the occasion and be that sense of normalcy desperately needed in moments such as these.

 

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Learning to Rejoice

“Rejoice with those who rejoice; weep with those who weep.” Romans 12:15

One of the things with which I am most comfortable—something I recognize as one of my better qualities—is my ease at mourning with others, holding people when they are hurting or listening when their hearts are breaking. My ability to be present with people in their darkness most likely comes from learning through the many times others have been present with me and my grief; their care of me has in turn allowed me to see how important it is to do the same to others. Tears do not scare me; there is no awkwardness for me when reaching out to friends or strangers in their distress. Being with others through their sorrow is a gift I embrace, and when reading the second portion of Paul’s counsel—weep with those who weep— I believe I can say, “Yes.” But the first half of the verse? Not so much.

I confess here and now that I have much to learn concerning rejoicing with others over their good news. “Really Sheila? I’ve seen and heard you graciously offer congratulations or seem interested in my joys.” And you’re right; I do try to be aware of others and celebrate their victories and I can honestly say that my happiness is usually sincere when others share their achievements, their victories, and their joys. I keep my ungrateful cards close to my chest for I have learned that I will end up with few friends in this world if I do not cultivate a sincere cheerfulness when others win the jackpot. But there are times when I simply wallow in the comparison game.

Last week I found myself wrestling my ungrateful demon when all the back-to-school photos hit the Facebook universe, especially all the high school senior images. Kindergarten through 12th grade, there they were on full display . . . new backpacks and shoes, smiling faces, each one eager to meet their teachers, face new challenges, make good grades, and enjoy the ride. As an educator, seeing families and students who value and enjoy the school-experience is a gift in itself as the family connection is vital to school success. But as a mom I felt as those the smiling faces were mocking my pain and all I wanted to do was take my cup of coffee and crawl to my dark place and lick my proverbial wounds. Let the pity-games begin.

Because you see, last week my baby, my last-one-at-home, my man-child who turns 18 in 129 days, also experienced his first-day-of-his-last-year-of-school. Having had two older sons who joyfully (?) posed at each and every request (and who were active participants in a traditional high school experience), the experience of letting my youngest be himself has been hard, and when I ponder the perceived golden standard of school success, in so many ways my youngest doesn’t measure up to that ideal. During high school he has attended 7 different schools or programs, including three months in Montana and almost a year in South Florida. A talented athlete, organized sports lost its attraction in 9th grade. There were months of silence and open hostility, our home at times resembling a war zone. We fought to cram him into our ideal of success and then fell back when we realized that plan was our plan, not his. At some point we were handed Grace in the form of a 12-step program and my husband and I realized that perhaps we needed as much, or more, help than our son. We made the decision to do our own work. Committing to a weekly family program, meeting with others weekly as they traveled our path with us provided a path. We sought counseling. We prayed . . . a lot. We set healthy boundaries so our son could experience our love in a safe environment. We released him from the burden of being responsible for our happiness, realizing that is an unwieldy load for anyone to bear. And things got better and things are getting better. Just as I advise many teachers to always find the thing their students do well, I had to take my own advice and look for all the goodness my youngest offers.

” . . . and he sends me texts and gifs that elicit raucous laughter (and sometimes happy tears) . . .”

Over the past year, as we’ve allowed our son to live with each and every consequence of his personal choices, he’s more times than not risen to the occasion, facing consequences with acceptance and responsibility, no longer playing the blame-everyone-else game of just a few years ago. He got a job, a hard, hot job, doing prep and dishwashing at a local seafood restaurant, working over 30 hours a week, getting himself there and back (he can walk – it’s 3 blocks from our house), and garnishing praise from his employer. (I had to recently drop something off and the kitchen manager came out to tell me, “I wish they all worked as hard and were as pleasant as your son.”) While assisting at our church’s service of feeding the homeless in our community, the organizer remarked on how gracious he was to the clients, treating them with respect and dignity.

My son makes me smile. He has a wicked sense of humor (at times too wicked) and he sends me texts and gifs that elicit raucous laughter, sometimes during meetings or other inopportune moments. He has good taste, using his hard earned pay to purchase clothes and shoes that he knows I’d never open my wallet for. And in spite of all the turmoil of the past three years, my son entered his senior year with enough credits to graduate. He never quit. (I was amazed when he had to take the state-mandated-graduation-requirement reading test after not being in an English class for over a year and solidly passed the first time; he said he didn’t see what the big deal was all about.) While he isn’t completing his senior year at the school of his first choice, he accepted that the school he did decide upon would provide the support and guidance he needs in order to graduate on time. We let him make that decision. He is still here with us in our home, never running away when circumstances and discord were at their darkest, and I can honestly say life with our son is better than it has been in years.

So back to last week. My son’s school journey that began in a Kenyan preschool has fast-forwarded to 12th. As I clicked through the

“His smile can light up a room and I capture those candid moments whenever I am secretly able to do so.”

perfect photos of others’ offspring, Jealousy tried its best to blind me to the gift of my son. No, I didn’t get a first-day-of-school photo and there’s a good chance I won’t get a fancy senior photo either. As he reminded me a few days ago, “Do you know how many really good photos you have of me just hanging around?” He’s right; I do. His smile can light up a room and I capture those candid moments whenever I am secretly able to do so. Maybe those captures portray him far better than any staged photo could. As I pulled out and tried to play my disappointment card last week, God reminded me of all the good staring me down.

Are things perfect? Is our family perfect? Of course not. Except on Facebook, what family is? But is our family restored and healing one day at a time? Absolutely.

I long to be better at the rejoicing part so I will practice. As I practice, I recognize that I actually do enjoy seeing how my friends’ children have grown and changed and matured. I will keep work on sincerely congratulating parents when their children excel in sports and make the dean’s list and get accepted to an Ivy League, reminding myself that my youngest is his own person and follows his own path, a path that is his, not mine. I will stop trying to live vicariously through his choices or compare him to anyone, recognizing that destruction is the only thing that results from such pressure. Praying that as I learn to rejoice with those who rejoice I’ll recognize the goodness surrounding my family and know every day that another’s joy does not negate my own.

 

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Please read.

 

Dear Teachers,

It’s the first day of school here in lovely St. Johns, Florida. You’ve already been back for a week, participating in professional learning, attending staff meetings, setting up your classrooms, getting ready. Today is the reason you’ve worked so hard to ensure all is right when the bell rings this morning.

You and your teaching peers are serving so many students across the Sunshine State. Of the 3,138,030 statewide total PK-12 student enrollment in the 2015-16 school year, 345,796 (11.0%) were private school students, and 2,792,234 (89.0%) were public school students1. (Homeschoolers add another 90,000 students based on the most recent estimates.) What do all those numbers mean on a Thursday morning, the first day of school? Simply put, dear public school teachers, YOU are facilitating the learning growth of almost 90% of Florida’s future leaders. You. What an honor. What a responsibility.

As you take up this monumental task, there will be so many things vying for your time . . . new progress monitoring programs to learn . . . last year’s test data to analyze . . . new legislation resulting in new scheduling concerns, forcing you to examine class time down to each precious minute. There will be the unknowns that eat up time but never make it into the lesson plans . . . children arriving late through no fault of their own . . . technology that might fail at the precise moment needed . . . students who come to school fidgety or sad or hungry or sick . . . parents and guardians who also have needs and questions and concerns. Your job is not for the faint of heart.

There are many answers to the question of how to best assist students in growing towards their full potential. Teach like a champion, teach like a maniac, teach like your hair is on fire, or teach like a Zen master–each view has unique merits that provide insightful advice on how to be better at the teaching craft or delivery; each is useful in different ways to different people. My quest for simplicity, however, leads me to offer a modest suggestion as you embrace this new year.

Read.

Just read.

Please read.

In these times of overflowing schedules I sadly hear teachers too often lament, “I know independent reading is important. If only there were time.” Somehow, public school teachers at every level, you must figure out how to make time.

The American Association of School Librarians (and Thomas Jefferson) makes the case for independent, voluntary (choice) reading as the key to school achievement:

Voluntary reading involves personal choice, reading widely from a variety of sources, and choosing what one reads. Alliterates, people who have             the ability to read but choose not to, miss just as much as those who cannot read at all. Individuals read to live life to its fullest, to earn a living, to understand what is going on in the world, and to benefit from the accumulated knowledge of civilization. Even the benefits of democracy and the capacity to govern ourselves successfully depend on reading. Thomas Jefferson believed that informed citizens are the best safeguard against tyranny. He believed that every citizen must know how to read, that it is the public’s responsibility to support the teaching of reading, and that children should be taught to read during the earliest years of schooling. In a letter to Colonel Edward Carrington, Jefferson (1787) wrote: “The basis of our government being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”

 So much of what is done in the name of education is compiled of what teachers do to students rather than what students are doing on their own. Students are given test prep, cold reads, non-fiction articles, novel studies (of which perhaps only half the students are interested in reading), all of which have their place at certain times, but those things must be balanced by the practice of reading at one’s independent level. How relevant and timely to teach a lesson on determining the theme of a piece of text, for example, then actually allowing time for the students to practice that skill in the context of their own reading level. When that happens on a consistent basis, literacy takes root.

 

An example I’ve used of late is that of learning to play the piano. A child goes to his first piano lesson, eager to learn. The instructor places Chopin’s Minute Waltz in front of the child, saying, “This is what good piano players play.” The child glances at his copy of The Itsy Bitsy Spider , a song he learned to sing with his mom. He really wanted to learn to play that piece. The well-meaning teacher, however, presses him to use the more difficult (impossible piece), even though his piano skills are light-years behind Chopin. After a few sincere attempts—he wants to please his teacher—he finally gives up. He decides he must be too stupid to ever play the piano. (And to all the amazing piano teachers out there, this is purely hypothetical. Thank you for starting with Itsy Bitsy Spider.)

Unfortunately that is what too often takes place in the classroom. In an attempt to prepare students for high-stakes assessment, teachers (myself included) have too often forgotten the importance of authentic practice at an independent and joyful level. Students are too often asked to read at a level that is out-of-reach based on the idea that, “Well, that’s the level they’ll get on the test so they better start now.” The reality is they can’t start there and will eventually come to believe they’re simply too stupid to read at all.

Students need to experience success in reading every single day in order to counter the lie that they are stupid or unteachable. They need to experience the pure joy of reading through an interesting text with ease and confidence. As daily reading practice is reinforced and encouraged and conferenced, reading time during which teachers observe and get to know the reading lives of each child and provide guidance and instruction as needed, students will move on to the next level, and the next, and the next.

Okay, I realize I make this sound easy. “Read. Just read.” Easy? It is not. In the midst of evaluations and VAM and computer testing and prank bomb threats and hurricane days and the lack of time and exhaustion, the reality is that every choice you make as an educator is weighted. I urge you, however, to give it a try. Work with your administration on creative scheduling. Do your own research on the impact of independent daily reading. (A current favorite of mine is Who’s Doing the Work? How to say less so readers can do more by Jan Burkins and Kim Yaris. It’s user-friendly and based on best practice research.) Spend time getting to know the interests of your students. Ask friends to donate magazines—Field and Stream, Popular Mechanics, National Geographic—for those students who prefer non-fiction. Become best friends with your school’s media specialist. Do whatever it takes.

Kylene Beers, educator, author, and researcher, recently tweeted:

 If we raise test scores but fail to raise readers, we have failed the child.

You, dear teachers, are some of the hardest workers and generous souls in the world, working countless unpaid hours and spending precious dollars to provide classroom environments that are conducive to learning. You do all in your power to prevent students from failing or feeling like failures. As you do the hard work, make sure your carefully designed and inviting reading nooks are not just for show but are filled with students doing the work, the work of reading. Embrace independent reading as a key strategy that allows students to practice and grow. As you jump into a new school year, eyes wide open, know that authentic reading will be one of the most positive choices you’ll ever make.

P.S. – Many of you reading this post are masters at what I’ve just described. Please share and comment below on ways you guard your students’ independent reading time. The more you share, the more we all learn.

 

One of the masters of independent reading, Catie Grimes, 6th grade reading teacher extraordinaire, creates inviting places in her classroom to support independent reading.

 

 

1 Public Education in Florida (2016). Ballotpedia: The Encyclopedia of American Politics. https://ballotpedia.org/Public_education_in_Florida

 

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Risky Business

Patty’s Giving Garden

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Happy Birthday Aunt Virginia

Aunt Virginia with my mother Jackie, and Vernon (Dobie) DeSear, Samoset, circa 1949

One of my most vivid memories of childhood holiday dinners is my Aunt Virginia’s congealed-orange-carrot-celery salad. Served on individual glass plates—an extravagance in itself—atop a single leaf of lettuce with a dollop of mayonnaise, those perfectly cut little squares represented the thought and care that had gone into every step of the family feast. Even the way in which the carrots and celery were chopped in the tiniest of pieces made one aware that a labor of love had taken place.

Aunt Virginia seemed always to keep multiple plates spinning at the same time. Not a birthday would pass without a sweet card and a carefully written check from her account at the First National Bank of Bradenton, her place of employment for years and years. She had a brass nameplate on her desk that read Virginia R. Barco, Vice-President. For a long time I thought she was THE vice-president until one day she humbly told me, “Oh Sheila, there are countless vice-presidents; I’m just one of many.” Aunt Virginia worked away from her home before it was the norm for women to do so. Choosing to leave an abusive marriage in the early 1960s, in spite of the social stigma that was divorce in that time, Aunt Virginia provided for her two children through hard work and commitment, and always had time for others regardless of fatigue or discouragement. Prior to our first son’s birth, she mailed us a blanket she’d stitched by hand, simple, soft, and perfect for cuddling. It arrived in Papua New Guinea a few days before sweet Isaac’s death and we chose to wrap him in it when we laid him to rest. Knowing her blanket surrounded my precious son brought me comfort and hope in one of my darkest times.

Another meal at Aunt Virginia’s table, circa 1979.

The Roberts’ women have always carried a load of worry on their backs like a badge of honor, and my Aunt Virginia took worrying to the next level. She worried about everything but mostly about others. High cholesterol plagued her for years and she was incredibly consistent in watching her fat grams. One day while eating yet another meal at her table (one always ate when visiting Aunt Virginia), she gently chided me for the large slab of butter I smeared on one of her homemade biscuits. “Sheila, that’s going to catch up with you, you need to take more care.” (Of course, she was right; it has caught up with me big time.) I still remember the day I told her we were moving to Kenya with her precious great-nephew Sam, who was 18 months old at the time. Her eyes filled with tears as she lamented, “Oh Sheila, it’s so far away and he’s so little” but even with her misgivings she sent us off with prayers and hope. A year later, she and her daughter took the long flight to Kenya even though her idea of a grand adventure was a Sunday school trip to the Lake Wales Passion Play. I have no doubt that her longing to reassure herself that her Sam was safe and sound gave her the courage to board the plane. (The story describing her lack of sleep due to drums in the distant night will have to wait until another time; it’s a tale worthy of its own entry.)

Aunt Virginia and Jordan, Myakka State Park, circa 1983

Aunt Virginia may have been a worrier but she was also a prayer. She loved Charles Stanley from First Baptist Church of Atlanta and faithfully listened to his sermons on cassette tape, drawing strength and hope from his words. Bob Franklin, one of her pastors at Samoset Baptist Church, a church in which her parents – my grandparents – were charter members, challenged her to have a time of daily quiet, a practice she embraced and practiced for years. Her faith kept her free from bitterness and discontent, allowing her to live life graciously.

My precious Daddy loves Sister, the only name I have ever heard him use when referring to his older sibling. Sister, not Virginia. “How was Sister doing today?” he asked me recently after I had been to visit her. Their love for one another was, and is, true and authentic, a love forged through growing up in the Great Depression in Samoset, from being there for each other, whether through “Sister’s” divorce or my daddy’s loss of his first wife and his son. Together they cared for their father, my Grandaddy Jim, in a way that allowed him to die at home, surrounded by loved ones. Daddy would head to her house after a long day of work and together they would gently bathe their father, feed him dinner, and love him in practical ways. Theirs was a partnership known by the fortunate few.

A few of her beloved great-nephews, circa 2000

There is so much more to say about Virginia Ruth Roberts Barco. Her pound cake was hands down the best pound cake ever, even when she adapted the recipe with egg white and non-fat margarine. When she “blessed” someone’s heart it wasn’t always meant in the kindest of ways; “She never was a smart girl, bless her heart.” She loved pretty dresses, especially when they were on sale at Belk Lindseys or Maas Brothers. She loved those around her well—her children found her devoted, her nieces and nephews found her available, and her friends found her faithful.

Today is Aunt Virginia’s 93rd birthday, 93 years of a life well lived. In most ways, the woman described above is no longer with us. Her health has declined greatly over the past few months and when I visited her just a few days ago, I am not sure she recognized me. My hope is she did. I long to know what she’s thinking but, even more, I long for her to know that she is, and always will be, a fundamental part of the woman I have become. If there is any good in me, part of the credit goes to her.

Happy Birthday, Aunt Virginia. You, dearest one, are beloved.

Sister and Billy

 

 

 

 

 

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