What Everyone Needs

A sense of purpose. Of being needed.

That’s what my mom struggled with the last several years of her life. Her family that had needed her for a long time, was grown and gone. Her husband, who had needed her and provided companionship for even longer, was gone too. Be especially kind to older, single people.

Teaching has always been fulfilling in large part because it has provided me with a clear sense of purpose. Administrative work I’ve learned, not as much. Having done more administrative work the last few years, I confess that I’m in a work funk, probably the result of a less tangible sense of purpose.

That’s why I did something I almost never do, saved a student’s end-of-class “thank you” from mid-December. Despite telling her in a follow up message, I don’t think she had any idea how moved I was by it.

Hello Dr. Byrnes,
Here is my final paper. I have thoroughly enjoyed your class and am very sad it is over. This class was one I could consistently look forward to every week. It was one where I could wake up on a Tuesday or Thursday morning and say, “I GET to go to Writing 101 today!’ This class greatly increased my knowledge, view and perspective of the world. It challenged my beliefs and opened my thinking to accept new ideas. Thank you for leading so diligently and kindly as you did. I count it an honor and blessing to have taken this class. Thank you.

The honor and blessing was all mine.

Like my student, take a few minutes today to tell someone how they enrich your life in small or large ways. Remind them they are needed and that their life has purpose.

The Simplest Way to Change the World

Form a family. Of any sort, biological or otherwise. Eat dinner together nightly. Repeat.

In that spirit, here’s a paragraph to ponder from the reading journal of one of my January-term students*:

“Since both my parents had careers in the Air Force, my family was run in a military manner with strict rules, many activities, and time management. We had timers to regulate our homework, play, and exercise. Our family vacations were notoriously un-relaxing, with us often traversing 6 different cities in two weeks or cycling the entire coast of a country. However, one area in which we were a “slow” family is related to dinner. My mom very strictly required that we have a sit-down family meal together at 6:00 P.M. every night, at which we were expected to try every food item on the table, chat about our days. Skipping or arriving late to dinner was unacceptable, as was leaving the table before 7:00 P.M. My brothers and I rotated through chores of setting the table, helping cook the meal, and loading the dishwasher. I thought this was normal until I found that none of my college friends had routine family dinners growing up. Though I resented this forced family interaction time, it became the stabilizing force in my life, a chance to wind down and reconnect with my family. Is this family priority outdated, unrealistic, and a little ridiculous?”

The “stabilizing force in my life”.

Social scientific research on the effects of family dinners is eye-opening. How can something so simple have so many positive correlations? From “The Importance of Eating Together” in the Atlantic:

“. . . children who do eat dinner with their parents five or more days a week have less trouble with drugs and alcohol, eat healthier, show better academic performance, and report being closer with their parents than children who eat dinner with their parents less often, according to a study conducted by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University.”

Consider the flip side, the negative consequences of families who do not eat together with any regularity:

“There are two big reasons for. . . negative effects associated with not eating meals together: the first is simply that when we eat out—especially at the inexpensive fast food and take-out places that most children go to when not eating with their family—we tend not to eat very healthy things. As Michael Pollan wrote in his most recent book, Cooked, meals eaten outside of the home are almost uniformly less healthy than homemade foods, generally having higher fat, salt, and caloric content.

The other reason is that eating alone can be alienating. The dinner table can act as a unifier, a place of community. Sharing a meal is an excuse to catch up and talk, one of the few times where people are happy to put aside their work and take time out of their day.”

Why don’t we eat dinner together more? Have we convinced ourselves we lack the time or are we unaware of the positive effects?

The more we follow the lead of my student’s mother, the better the world and we will be.

*shared by permission

Blessed Light

Living in the Upper Lefthand Corner of the United States requires a tradeoff that is difficult at times. You must endure dampness and darkness for eight months of the year in exchange for four months of supernatural light and unparalleled beauty. Right now we’re in the sweet spot of the four months meaning there’s no other place on the planet I’d rather be.

During this morning’s run in Priest Point Park I was intermittently blanketed by the sun’s brilliant radiance as I moved steadily through the forest. Shirtless and sweaty at 7a,  I was profoundly appreciative of July. More so than I ever would be if it wasn’t for the damp and dark runs during the eight contrasting months. The contrast is key.

Mid-day, on Mount Rainier with family, the sun ricocheted off the snow surrounding Snow Lake.

Tonight, transfixed by the fading sun on the western horizon, I will sit on the deck eating popcorn and drinking a recovery beer with family. Sunset is at 9:08p.m., but it won’t get dark until 9:45-10p.m. Must store as much Vitamin D as possible.

As a visitor you probably wouldn’t get it, you’d probably say, “Yeah sure, the weather, the trees, the water, they’re all nice, but really, no need to get all worked up about it.” To which I’d say, “I’m selling it short. I can’t do justice to the blessed light that gives me an unspeakable joy and sustains me through the dark.” At which point you’d just slowly back away not knowing what to make of me. Which I would understand and not hold against you. At all.

Addendum: For those keeping score at home, the “find the spelling errors in the initial draft” scorecard currently reads, Cal Lutheran 1, St. Olaf 1, Carleton 0.

 

 

 

Choosing to Be Different

A bright, personable, caring young woman in my writing seminar this fall said she had absolutely no interest in marriage because her parents had failed so miserably at it.

I felt no need to sell marriage, but her passionate rejection of it reminded me of how we often generalize from our experiences way too much.

Then I read this blog post, The In-Between Process, by an exceptional alumnae of my writing seminar. And this sentence jumped off the page, “I get to choose to be different, and I will be.”

As sociologists remind us, the vast majority of time we follow pretty damn closely in our parent(s)’ footsteps. As we see in her friend’s kitchen, some though do manage to “be different” by seeking alternative family mentors and friends.

Those of us fortunate to enjoy happy and healthy families should never take them for granted. Instead, we should look for opportunities to love and support those mired in troubled, dysfunctional families.

The Little Way of Ruthie Leming

Is a successful career or an especially close extended family more important? Why bother being introspective? Why are sibling relations often strained? Can family members reconcile given longstanding dysfunction?

These are some of the questions Rod Dreher takes up in his brilliant book about his sister’s life. Put down whatever you’re reading and travel to rural Louisiana with Dreher and Leming. The subtitle is “A Southern Girl, A Small Town, and the Secret of a Good Life”. Dreher’s book is more novel (or Shakespearean play) than social science essay. He writes extremely well and tells a riveting story that was so sad in parts I didn’t even bother tilting my head back.

Dreher contrasts his sister’s life with his own and finds his wanting. He prioritized career, often moving to pursue better journalism jobs. In contrast, Ruthie married her high school sweetheart, went to college thirty minutes away, and then returned home to teach, live next to her parents, and raise her three daughters.

Dreher’s story made my head spin. He mostly idolizes his sister’s life choices, but clearly he wouldn’t have become as outstanding a writer if as a teen he hadn’t gone to a selective, public boarding school, or if he hadn’t taken successively more challenging journalism gigs. His ambition and career trajectory enabled him to tell his sister’s story so beautifully. And yet, he’s eloquent about the costs of his professional ambition to his relationship with his sister, his parents, his nieces, and his hometown.

As young adults, nearly everyone in my extended family moved far away from their parents. Now sprinkled all over the country, we’re held together by email, airplanes, and an aging matriarch. Except for the conservative politics, I am Rod Dreher, by which I mean I’m often too introspective for my own good. Then again, without introspection, Dreher never would have bothered with the story in the first place.

While reading “The Little Way” I thought about my dad who had unimaginable career success, my sister whose longstanding commitment to her small community and her family reminded me of Ruthie, and most of all, my daughters. What will be more important to them, ambition or relationships? Will they keep the “family moving away” streak alive? Previously, I’ve written about the key ingredient to tight-knit extended families—a vision for closeness coupled with an intentionality that fosters that. Dreher’s experience, especially his father’s regrets in life, makes me think inertia probably plays a part too.

In the end, Dreher zigs when you think he’s going to zag. He doesn’t offer his beloved sister’s life as a model, or his own, instead he thoughtfully recommends something in between.

One question Dreher inspired is what’s the best way for the GalPal and I to encourage my adult daughters to live within a half day’s drive? I know I probably shouldn’t do or say anything to compromise the freedom I enjoyed in my early twenties, but our laissez-faire approach to extended family has serious limits. Maybe it’s time for some sort of an audible. Reading and talking about “The Little Way” would be an excellent start. We have to do something because I can’t take much more air travel.

imagesNext in the queue—Nate in Venice by Richard Russo. Next next—The Unwinding by George Packer.  Next next next—College (Un)Bound by Jeffrey Selingo.

How To Get Your Child Talking About What’s Happening in School

I could buy Norway if I had a dollar for every time I sat down at dinner and mindlessly asked, “How was school?” only to hear “good” or “fine.” Stimulating four word conversation.

The older the student the harder it is to squeeze any meaningful info from them about what happens between 8 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. Developmental psychologists say that’s as it should be. Elementary age children love having their parent(s) volunteer in their classroom. It’s a secondary students worst nightmare.

I know adolescents need some distance to become autonomous, independent peeps, but I still love the challenge of getting them to talk about their school day. Odds are I’ll never get the chance to interrogate prisoners of war. Here is some of what I’ve learned over the years.

The front “how was school” door is permanently locked. Tip-toe around to the side door and get way more specific. “What happened in Spanish today?” How did you do on your Math test?” What was Schaeffer up to today?” “What are you studying in history?” “Get your English paper back?” “Any interesting chemistry labs lately?” “What was the last film you saw?” “Anyone talk about Glee at lunch today?” “Who is going on the retreat this weekend?” “How’s Kaitlyn doing?” Is Noelle playing tennis this year?”

Notice that even those questions are of uneven quality. Ask my sixteen year old, “What happened in Spanish today?” and she’ll respond, “Nuthin’ really.” “How’s Kaitlyn doing?”? Rest assured, Kaitlyn is almost always “fine”. Instead, ask “what,” “if,” and “why” questions like these: What’s your favorite class these days? Why? If you only had to go to two classes which ones would you choose? Why? Whose your best teacher? Why? If you had to teach one of your subjects which one would you choose? Why? If you were the principal for the day, what’s one thing you’d change about your school? Why?

You can only ask specific questions if you’re engaged. If you’re on parenting auto pilot, forget the front, side, and back doors, no point really in even approaching the house. If you don’t know your child’s schedule, the names of their teachers, the names of the friends they eat lunch with, learn that stuff before going to sleep tonight.

There are exceptions to every rule. When inquiring about drinking and drugs, it’s often better to stay general because they won’t want to out any acquaintances or friends getting hammered. So I’ve found questions like “Much experimenting with marijuana going on?” or “Anyone you know get drunk lately?” yield more info than any “friend specific” drinking and drug-related ones.

At times the dinner table can be a conversation black hole. It’s the ultimate front door. Again, think side-door, back door, even windows. For example, I remember a few times, a decade or so ago, when Nineteen would ride her bike through the neighborhood while I ran. It was great, without realizing it probably, she talked continuously. Just now, Sixteen took the labradude for a pre-dinner walk. I should have joined her. Something about fresh air. Guaranteed I would have learned a lot more than I will at the dinner table.

Adolescents are living, breathing roller coasters, up one moment, down the next. Don’t press things when they don’t feel like talking. Give them a break and yourself. File away those brilliant, specific questions for later.

You don’t have to get any of these suggestions just right. Not even close. Your trying conveys care. Children peppered with questions often feign irritation, but deep down they always prefer being annoyed to being ignored.