LSS: Separate bits, bags and earrings always on

Every time I type the word separate, I actually say six little words. They are the very words Dr. Mary Ann Dazey said to me when I learned, once and for all, how to spell that word correctly.
There is a rat in separate.
She said those words and then turned around to the chalkboard and pointed to a rat in the middle of the word.
“And that’s all you need to know to spell that word correctly forever,” she said.
Given my life of confusion over such, as a senior in college, I hung on her words and changed my wicked ways. Dr. Dazey was one of those rare professors willing to open her heart to her students and embrace them with love and knowledge. She taught me much more than how to spell separate, but that mundane morsel reminds me of her and the joy she shared in the learning process.
By the way, Dr. Dazey often quoted poetry at random moments, Shakespeare mainly.

Every time I stand in front of a group of folks and the time comes for us to move as a group to another spot, I find myself saying, “Gather your bits and bags and let’s go.”
When I hear those words coming from my mouth, I smile and think of the first time a teacher said them to me.
Ovid Vickers taught my first college class. On that summer morning, I was feeling what I consider to be reasonable jitters. I had graduated from high school the day before. (No time to waste in starting college.) Mr. Vickers walked in the room and began to call roll. He enunciated each syllable of every name in an exaggerated way that made me smile. Sometimes, he would call a name and then stare in silence for a few seconds at the person who raised his or her hand. Toward the end of the list, he called my name. He paused, looked up at me and said loudly, “Who’s ya daddy?”
It was the first thing he had said other than calling names and caught me completely off guard. I told him my father’s name, and he said, “Yep, taught your daddy and your mama too. I remember when they met,” and then went on calling roll.
I was completely under his spell. I found nearly everything he said noteworthy. When one day we went as a class to another place on campus, he said, “Gather your bits and bags and let’s go.”
Of all the brilliant things he said, that phrase doesn’t even rank, but to this day it makes me smile and re-live for just a moment the excitement of learning new things.
By the way, Mr. Vickers often quoted poetry at random moments, Theodore Roethke usually.

Every time I’m out and about and realize I’ve forgotten to put earrings on, I am mortified. Fashion faux pas rarely rattle me, but earringless-pierced ears are different. That’s because Mrs. Donna McLean told my junior high school English class that if you have pierced ears, you should never go out in public without earrings.
Like the other bits of English-teacher wisdom, that nugget stuck. In a small Southern town, Mrs. McLean was out of the ordinary. She was from California. She spoke using a different syntax. She was like an entertainer on a stage and could have sold tickets (at least to me) for English class. Her love of language added fuel to the fire of my own. She made me think and encouraged me in ways that make a positive difference in my life to this day. She helped me believe in myself. Her ideas expanded my mind, and her class made me a better writer, student and person. Earrings can’t compare to what she taught me, but they are my daily reminder of Mrs. McLean.
By the way, Mrs. McLean often quoted poetry at random moments, Robert Frost primarily.

Separate bits, bags and earrings. Concrete moments that remind me of what great teachers have thrown my way. Gratitude abounds.

LSS: Learning more than usual

Some weeks, you just learn more than others.
And there are things I learned this week that I really didn’t want to know.
For example, I wish I didn’t know that a nasal swab could, in fact, be the first step of the 11-minute process of determining if a person has the flu.
But I do know that, because I watched the nurse use the long swab to swipe inside my 9-year-old’s nose, exactly 11 minutes before she and the doctor walked in and said, “It’s positive.”
I did not know just how serious it was that people with diabetes not be exposed to other people with the flu.
My parents, both recently diagnosed with diabetes, were scheduled to visit on the day after our youngest was diagnosed with the flu.
I did not know that Tamiflu, despite its hype and high price tag, really doesn’t prevent or “heal” the flu, but it can help — and I was happy for any help available this week.
I also never thought about how much energy it takes to keep my two children away from each other. Once our younger daughter was diagnosed with the flu, I became a woman on a mission. Under normal circumstances, we would let the cards fall where they may. This week, however, was anything but normal. This was the week that our 13-year-old made her grand debut on stage in a leading role in a play.
Which would be a big deal for anyone.
But in my heart, I knew if my daughter got sick and missed the shows she had worked so hard on, things would not be pretty — for a while.
So, I set about trying to coordinate places for her to be and ways for her to get there.
Clearly, I did not know just how much energy being a stage mom would take. Granted, my stage mom status barely makes the chart. We were instructed on over-doing our budding stars’ stage make-up. Yet, my make-up bag is a pencil case and only has four items in it. Let it be known though, that I really go to town with those four items. In fact, add that one to the “I did not know” category, because I did not know just how much fun putting make-up on could be until this week. Putting on my daughter’s stage make-up was one of the few times when I could be still and quiet.
And, I loved it.
Those rare moments of stillness were in stark contrast to all the other running the rest of the week entailed. I did not know that one very sick child and the other in a play could require so much logistical planning.
This week was a microcosm of parental highs and lows. As I held my gangly and aching nine year old in my lap, my heart ached with her. As I watched my budding 13 year old on stage, my heart sometimes leaped with joy.
And yet, through it all, there were still a job to do. Dishes to wash. Dogs to feed. Floors to sweep. Clothes to fold, and bathrooms to clean.
I readily admit that I am tired.
Even though it’s a good tired, it’s one I wish I didn’t know quite as well as I do right now.

LSS: I love Lucy.

I never liked Lucy.
Don’t get me wrong. I loved Lucille Ball, but when it came to Charlie Brown, I did not like Lucy.
She was crabby.
She was mean.
She was a bully.
Lucy Van Pelt’s character represented what bothered me about childhood.
In a lovely little twist of fate, my 13-year-old daughter decided to audition for the role of Lucy in You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown.
As she worked so hard on her audition, I walked the parental tightrope of encouraging her to do her best and bracing her for the possibility of not getting “her dream role,” as she came to call it.
But she did get the role of Lucy — and our whole family was walking on clouds.
I couldn’t stop smiling. The feeling reminded me of a note my mother had written me after she watched me play a game at basketball camp when I was 13. The essence of her note was that she was proud of me, but there was one line that has stuck with me all these years later. She wrote, “Even if you were a lug, I would be proud of you. But, you’re not a lug.”
That line made me smile then, and the thought of it has continued to fill my heart with gratitude through the years. I can imagine my mother consciously deciding that, in fact, her only daughter was not a lug — even though she wasn’t completely proud of my behavior throughout the game.
To explain: Long before water bottles were everywhere, we were playing basketball in July in an un-air-conditioned gym in Mississippi. Pre-game, I had fixed myself a mayonnaise jar full of ice water. During one of the timeouts, I reached for my water when a girl who hadn’t been playing decided to start drinking it. I said something to her that wasn’t filled with compassion — and my mother heard me. I happened to look in the stands and see Mom looking at me at that moment. I knew I was in for it. I had, after all, been acting a lot like Lucy Van Pelt, and my mother did not tolerate Lucy-like behavior.
Now that I have my own 13-year-old daughter, I understand the whole scenario much better.
Even in moments when she does things I know she’ll later realize may not have been the best choices, she is still not a lug.
When I watch her and the other incredibly talented actors rehearse their play set to open Thursday, I know the feeling of any parent who has ever watched a child achieve a dream.
It’s a feeling I first identified long ago as I begged my parents to read and re-read one of the few books I had in pre-school days. It was a book called Gordon and the Glockenspiel. I loved it with all my heart and had memorized each page by age four.
The book was about a boy named Gordon who wanted to be good at something. His parents tried to help him. They brought various musical instruments home because his mother loved the song Yankee Doodle and dreamed that one day her son would play her favorite song.
Gordon tried his best to play each instrument to no avail. Finally, he spotted a glockenspiel. With a little effort, Gordon was an excellent glockenspiel player. In fact, the mayor asked him to play Yankee Doodle and lead a parade.
As the band walked up the street, Gordon’s parents stood watching with pride. When Gordon appeared leading the band, his dad pointed and yelled, for all the crowd to hear, “That’s my boy.”
As a kid, I loved that line.
And next weekend, when Lucy hits the stage, if anyone happens to look my way, trust in knowing there is little doubt what words will be running through my head.
“That’s my girl.”
After all, she is not a lug, and I love Lucy.

LSS: Exchange Value

Through the years, my family has hosted a variety of exchange students from around the world.
The truth is that sometimes an exchange experience isn’t worthy of its own vignette in “It’s a Small World.”
However, there are times when all is right, and it turns out to be a small world, after all.
Seventeen years ago, my parents became the rebound host family for a 17-year-old girl from a small town near Dusseldorf, Germany.
Her name was Herdis. I was living in Washington, D.C. at the time. My family called to say a German version of me had taken the back bedroom.
“She even looks like you, Jan,” my mom said.
It was the beginning of a long friendship across the Atlantic. Her parents came and visited. After Herdis returned to Germany, I went to visit her and her family there. In 2006, my parents went back to Germany for Herdis’ wedding to a wonderful fellow named Martin. All total, we’ve visited each other’s families on one side of the big pond or the other more than a dozen times.
Last week, Herdis, Martin and their baby girl came for their third visit to Lafayette. However, it’s the first time any of us had met their almost 2-year-old daughter. Having watched Herdis make the transition from a schoolgirl to a young lady to an incredible mom has been a gratifying experience. She may not see any of us for more than a year. However, the moment we see each other, we all pick right up. She understands our family and our eccentricities — and we’ve spent enough time with her family that we also understand them.
During their visit this week, my brother and his wife introduced Herdis and Martin to a young girl and her family. The 18-year-old girl may end up going to Germany to be an au pair for Herdis’ daughter. The girl’s father asked, “Why would you do this? Surely you could hire a German girl who could keep your daughter.”
Herdis’ response was simple.
“Since I had the opportunity to make this big experience, I would like to give it to someone else.”
I asked Herdis what she thought the exchange experience did for her.
“For the first time in my life, I had to make decisions and feel the consequences. My whole life before, my parents did that for me. I got much more self-assured while I was here,” she said.
But in the big picture, the experience changed the course of her life.
“It taught me how to get along with strangers. It helped me to realize that family and friendship is important,” she said. “I know this is not my real family, but they are somebody else I have — somebody who, if I fall, they will catch me.
Her husband said, “She has more of an open mind because of it.”
She agreed. She realizes that travel changes a person and is almost always a character improving experience.
Travel is one of the many topics Herdis and I fully agree on.
One of the few things I missed out on growing up was having a sister. I’m 11 years older than Herdis. So we come at things from slightly different angles, but our perspectives are close enough to connect more often than not. I’m grateful my relationship with Herdis provides a glimmer into sisterhood.

LSS: New year a chance to reflect on life

Janus was the Roman god of gates and doorways. He was usually portrayed with one face looking back toward the past and the other looking forward toward the future. The Romans thought it appropriate to name the first month of their year after Janus, hence our January.
These first few days of the new year require a certain amount of navel gazing. Too much self-introspection turns into self-absorption, which sometimes causes us to get stuck by digging ourselves into a hole — not going forward or backward. But, a certain amount of self-examination is good for us all.
These days of the year offer the ideal perspective to reflect on the good, the bad and the ugly of year that’s ended and all the hopes, dreams and possibilities of the year that has just begun.
Spending time and energy looking toward the past and toward the future can be tricky business. For me that mental balancing act came into clear focus this holiday season as I spent lots of time my children and parents. Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.”
Tiny matters.
The irony is that both our children and our parents, while not tiny matters, hold a crazy blend of past and future bundled together. Throw the holidays in that mix and my head runs wild with the possibilities.
Watching my daughters reminded me of myself years ago and of the eventual adults they will become. Sometimes they make the same mistakes I’ve made and learn the big and little stuff along the way. Other times, much to my dismay, they don’t learn a thing and repeat the same mistakes over and over.
Watching my parents has an eerie similarity. I don’t need an old family photo album to remember their vibrant younger versions readily. Those are the people who shaped my future. Watching my parents deal with the complexities of aging makes us all reflect on what the future holds.
But if I get back to the crux of Emerson’s wisdom, I can let so much unproductive worry go.
I don’t have to be Janus.
Right here, right now, I can’t change the past or predict the future. I don’t have to be perpetually stuck in a doorway looking at where I’ve been and where I’m going.
All I can do is focus on what lies within and live in the moment.
Making peace with what’s within me opens doors all around, as opposed to being permanently paralyzed, analyzing the past and fearful of the future.
Getting what lies within me into peaceful order may require my making right with people and places of the past. But in those brief and wonderful moments when I have that inside stuff right, I treat those around me with more grace.
And living with grace creates a cycle of beauty and joy — a fine hope for the new year.