Sunday, October 25, 2015

tyranny of the urgent

I was driving to to meet my friend Barb for dinner at Green Sage.  And I had an epiphany.

This isn't a huge surprise.  Barb is one of those forever friends that combines intuitive listening skills with counselor level questions.  When Steve and I moved to Asheville  23 years ago, Barb and Vito were the first couple to invite us out.  I spent way too much time overthinking an uncomfortable, fussy outfit only to find Barb in jeans and a sweatshirt, looking perfect.  

Barb introduced me to Asheville's fine arts theatre,  where we would escape from real life to watch movies with subtitles and explore stories from around the world.  Barb was there when both my babies were born, encouraging and photographing.  During the hardest year of my life, Barb and Barbara Thomas met me regularly at The Chocolate Lounge for liquid truffles and group therapy.

And every time we have gotten together in those twenty-three years, Barb has asked me how I am.  I always seem to have the same answer.  "I'm good.  Just too busy.  Things will settle down when..."  and the current busyness is labeled.  -When I get done with this sermon series.  When the baby is sleeping through the night.  When the boys are in school.  When I finish my residency in Spartanburg and can be home.  When my Christmas shopping is all done.  When my patient load drops.  When I finish these classes.  When we get into the school year.  When. When.  When...

Twenty-three years of "If I can just get over THIS hump, then things will be good."

And here I am in the middle of another, extended crazy busy season.  The summer I had envisioned as my oasis, turned out to be hectic.  And I knew things would slow down once school started.  But it's been months of long days, of always being one step behind, of regretting saying yes to so many things, of isolating myself for survival, of juggling and rushing and hopping from one crisis to another.

Years ago I heard Jim Collins talk about the tyranny of the urgent. When we let urgent things crowd out every thing else.  When our lives are ruled by the loudest squeaks, the most recent phone call, the class I'm teaching in 5 minutes, the next doctor's appointment for my son.  Sometimes the tyranny can't be helped.  There will be busy seasons.  But when the busy seasons last for 30 years I have to be curious.  What is in me that can't say "no" to an opportunity for making money or furthering my education?  What is in me that feels important only when I am busy and in demand?  Am I insulating myself from calm and space for a subconscious reason?  And how will I answer any of these questions if I never have time to think about them?

So I met Barb at Green Sage.  We hugged and ordered and caught up.  She asked me how I was.  And I answered as honestly as I could.  "I'm busy.  Of course.  I have a problem with always being busy.  But I'm sure you knew that about 15 years before I had an epiphany about it on the way here.  And I don't know how to get off the treadmill.  That is how I am."

Our waiter stopped by with my coconut mocha and Barb's ginger carrot juice.  That bright orange juice could restart your heart.  So can a comforting friend. 

We are going to meet again soon!  After my board meeting. And the wedding I'm doing.  And Thanksgiving......

Sunday, September 27, 2015


 So I am walking through the school halls at noon.  The sun is streaming in on the scrubbed floors.  The students are all in the lunch room and there is a happy buzz coming from that direction.  As I round the corner to the main hall,  I see a 6th grade student round the corner running at top speed in my direction.  All lean and graceful.  And then he screeches to a halt.  I look behind me to see what made him stop.  Then realize it was me.  That kids aren't supposed to run in the halls.  And I am the enforcer of that.  I see fear in his eyes and don't like that that is his reaction to me. I greet him by name and walk past him.  Today.

I had no idea how much I would be disciplining in this job.
I will get called to speak to a whole class, or a group of girls, or two guys tussling on the field, or a row of wiggling 1st graders after assembly.  Speeches, concerns, expectations, raised eyebrows.  This is so not me.  I don't like being strict, or serious, or intimidating.  I don't like that when asked to speak to a student their first response is to check their skirt length or ask "what did I do wrong?" I don't like this part of principaling.

I had no idea how much I would be disciplining in this job.  
And yet I do it, day after day.  I try to make it reasonable and redemptive, building and not shaming.  But it is still hard and uncomfortable and sometimes tear inducing.  And afterwards I often flop in my principal chair and say to myself "How on earth is this your job Erin?"

I said this out loud one day to my mom and she reframed it for me.  She said "Wouldn't you rather it be you?  It could be someone angry and quick to judgement.  You love these kids and you are as gentle as you can be with them."  And that helped.  Now I try to say to myself "Erin, I'm so glad you get to meet with them right now and not some mean person with an eye for hell fire and retribution." 

It takes a lot of talking to myself to get through a day.

The dictionary defines discipline this way:  Training expected to produce a specific character or   pattern of behavior, especially training that produces moral or mental improvement:

We are all "in training" aren't we?  I hope for all of us the truth of this Simone Weil quote becomes indelibly clear.

 "Imaginary evil is romantic and varied; real evil is gloomy, monotonous, barren, boring; Imaginary good is boring; real good is always new, marvelous, intoxicating."

I also hope you don't run in the halls.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

time and again

"We meet ourselves time and again in a thousand disguises on the paths of life."  Carl Jung

This summer started out with a bang. - A hectic ending to my first school year as principal. Right into a week of campmeeting where I worked in Kindergarten, leading a tribe of 15 little kids.  Straight to the beach for blissful sun and rest.  And then back to school to pick up the unfinished pieces.  Getting Jake packed for his summer recruiting gig, appointments and meetings and on and on.

By the 4th of July I was in a full tizzy.  We were invited to a friend's farm to watch a huge firework show.  But Jake was gone.  Josh's birthday was on Sunday.  And on that birthday Sunday, I had to leave for a college in TN for two weeks to take a required class for my job.  I hate leaving my family.  My bursts of panic mimicked the exploding fireworks.

On Sunday evening I loaded my car with school books, a suitcase, blankets and towels, dvd's and an ice chest and hit the road.

Three hours later I pulled up at the university.  I had only been there twice in the twenty-five years since I was there to finish my junior and senior years of college.  I moved into a room on the bottom floor of the dorm Steve had lived in those two years, facing my old dorm.

And it was deja vu all over again.  1989-91.  Wondering if I would get a job after I graduated.  Where would I live? Would Steve and I stay together this time?  Would we get married? Would I pass my classes?  Would I make new friends?  I had to stretch my legs after the drive, so I tried to outrun my past worries by looping the campus and track, passed the religion building where I'd had most of my classes, past the church where I went to vespers as Steve's date, passed the girls dorm where I'd had roommate dramas.  And finally back to my little room - home for the next two weeks.

And then I started to relax.  In that tiny, sunny room I made up my bed, hung up my clothes, set up my desk.  I realized that I was excited to be a student in a class, studying brain function and learning styles.  My only responsibility was to learn.  

For the next two weeks I would get up quietly and leave my little room tidy.  I would walk to class.  I would take notes and brainstorm with interesting classmates.  After class I would walk to the village market to the delicious salad bar, and choose yogurt and fruit for my breakfast the next morning.  I would sit indian style at my desk for hours into the evening reading books and writing reports.  I would watch a movie at night as I fell asleep.

One day I met old friends at a Mexican restaurant in town.  Another evening I drove to another old friend's home and ate popcorn, watermelon and fruit shakes while I got to know his family.  One day for lunch my friend and classmate,  Susan,  and I explored a Peruvian restaurant just for a new experience.  Those were the only three times I used a car in those two weeks.  And then back to my quiet room to study.

It was an incredibly restful, enriching time. Every time deja vu anxiety popped up I got to remind myself that it would all turn out ok.  Way better than ok.  Steve and I would stay together.  We'd move to California.  We'd have a beautiful wedding.  We'd get great jobs.  We'd move to Asheville and have two precious blond boys.  We would have a wonderful, traumatic, interesting, adventurous life.

But today I am a 46 year-old sleeping for one more night on a quiet, dorm bunk bed.   I wish I could pop in on 21 year old Erin and tell her to relax, enjoy the journey, be grateful.  In lieu of time travel,  I will just remind 46 year-old Erin that.

Sunday, May 17, 2015


So you think it is just an ordinary day.  Students heading back and forth from school to auditorium to practice for the big Spring concert.  And then it starts to rain.  I grab my keys and start to shuttle students back and forth so they don't get soaked.  I'm almost done when the last student realizes he forgot his music.  He jumps back in and I put the car in reverse and spin back around.  And then CRUNCH.  There is a horrible sound.  I stop.  And crane my neck  to see the previously invisible light pole on a cement base.  How bad can it be?  I was only going about 3 miles an hour.  The student jumps out to look.  "Oh, it's bad." he says shaking his head.

And it was bad.  My 6 month old, perfect blue car had a huge, deep dent. My passenger door wouldn't open.  I was sick.

There was nothing to do but fix it.  I made three phone calls.  I drove thirty minutes to have the car inspected and made an appointment to get fixed.  Then I had it inspected by my insurance for a quote.  Then I reserved a rental car.  Then I drove 30 minutes back to leave my car for 4 days.  Then I waited.  So much wasted time, energy spent, hundreds of dollars out of pocket, all for a stupid mistake.  I just couldn't shake the angry, uselessness of it.
The day I picked up my fixed car I made a quick Target run.  Walking past the kitchen aisle, a bright yellow ceramic lemon caught my eye.  It was on clearance for $3.00.

In the early 1900's someone coined a phrase "when life gives you lemons, make lemonade.  According to wikipedia this phrase is "used to encourage optimism and a can-do attitude in the face of adversity or misfortune. Lemons suggest bitterness, while lemonade is a sweet drink."

I love this 1940 poem called The Optimist.
"Life handed him a lemon,
As Life sometimes will do.
His friends looked on in pity,
Assuming he was through.
They came upon him later,
Reclining in the shade
In calm contentment, drinking
A glass of lemonade."

I bought that Target lemon.  I carried it to my pretty-again car and decided to be thankful for people who fix dents.  Now it is on my desk.  It's shiny, happy yellow reminds me that life will always have purposeless challenges and unplanned bumps.  My dog will have fleas, students will have unhappy parents, my favorite blouse will get stained, and occasionally I will dent something big.  But I will always have the choice of growing bitter, or plowing through with "calm contentment".  It's all about making lemonade.

Friday, April 10, 2015

small exchanges

It's possible to get from our house to school in 7 minutes.  If we hit the light right.  If we don't get behind a school bus.  If it's not trash pick up day.  Today we left the house with 9 minutes to spare.  But it took 13 minutes.  I tried to direct the speed and direction of the other cars on the road.  And I fumed, and sighed and rolled my eyes.  Why didn't I iron last night?  Why did I push snooze?  Why did I ask Josh if he wanted hot chocolate with his breakfast?  I hate being late.  Again. ARRGH.

And then I looked over at Josh sitting quietly in the passenger seat.  Josh is not a morning person.  But he will make conversation as we drive.  He will point out a colorful hot air balloon overhead, laugh at my jokes about downtown Candler, count wild turkeys at the side of the road. Today he sat quietly, looking out the window.  I suddenly wondered what effect my 13 minutes of road rage and impatience would have on my boy's day.

Twenty years ago, I heard a lecture by Daniel Goleman on Emotional Intelligence and bought his book.  These three paragraphs are the main thing that stuck with me from either, but I never forgot this picture he painted.

Say a two-month-old baby wakes up at 3 a.m. and starts crying.  Her mother comes in and, for the next half hour, the baby contentedly nurses in her mother's arms while her mother gazes at her affectionally, telling her that she's happy to see her, even in the middle of the night.  The baby, content in her mother's love, drifts back to sleep.

Now say another two-month-old baby, who also awoke crying in the wee hours, is met instead by a mother who is tense and irritable, having fallen asleep just an hour before after a fight with her husband.  The baby starts to tense up the moment his mother abruptly picks him up, telling him, "Just be quiet - I can't stand one more thing!  Come on, let's get it over with."   As the baby nurse his mother stares stonily ahead, not looking at him, reviewing her fight with his father, getting more agitated herself as she mulls it over.  The baby, sensing her tension, squirms, stiffens and stops nursing.  "That's all you want?" his mother says.  "then don't eat."  With the same abruptness she puts him back in his crib and stalks out, letting him cry until he falls back to sleep, exhausted.

These two scenarios are presented by the report from the National Center for Clinical Infant Programs as examples of the kinds of interaction that, if repeated over and over, instill very different feelings in a toddler about himself and his closet relationships...All the small exchanges between parent and child have an emotional subtext, and in the repetition of these messages over the years children form the core of their emotional outlook and capabilities...outlooks that will flavor their functioning in all realms of life, for better or worse.  Goleman, page 195

Our world is geared for the Big Deals.  Top stories on the news in the morning.  Squeakiest wheel at work gets the oil.  Vacation highlights go on Facebook.

But life is really made up of thousands of unnoticeable, unremarkable small exchanges.  Making lunches for my boys, feeding the cat, greeting students when they are dropped off at school, hugging my husband when he gets home from work.  Small exchanges that, according to Goleman, form and flavor all realms of life for people I love.   If it's true then I want to make the most of the small exchanges.

I only have a few more years of driving to school with Josh.  7 minutes a day.  Or if I'm lucky - 13 minutes.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

oxygen choices

I have a thing for sweet, off-beat movies.  That Thing You Do.  Salmon Fishing in the Yemen.  Larry Crowne.  I play them over and over again while I'm unloading the dishwasher, loading the washing machine, cooking.  The boys groan "not again." But then they forget their protest and at some point we end up sitting on the coach watching the end together. Again.

My latest repeat is The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.  About an ordinary man who breaks free from his limited life and becomes who he wants to be.  I have lots of favorite parts, but one that has become The Quote in our family.

Walter Mitty: [taking on cell phone while climbing a Himalayan mountain] Hey Todd, I'm gonna keep this short. I have to make oxygen choices. 

Oxygen choices!  I love that.  For Walter Mitty there is a limited amount of oxygen available.  Does he want to use it to make it down the mountain alive or to talk to the salesman from e-harmony?  It's really a life and death question.  There is nothing wrong with talking to Todd.  It's just not going to help him reach his goal.  

Last night Josh wanted Jake to play a video game with him.  Jake said "Nope, I have to finish my homework.  Oxygen choices, Josh."  

That echo'd in my ears this morning when I got an invitation to be part of a panel discussion at a University 3 hours away.  Interesting.  Informative. Networking.  But also time consuming in an already really busy time.  Two days away from work.  Two nights away from family.  So I said no.  I have to make oxygen choices.

Best over good.  Here is how Steve Jobs described it.
“People think focus means saying yes to the thing you've got to focus on. But that's not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. I'm actually as proud of the things we haven't done as the things I have done. Innovation is saying no to 1,000 things.”

Best over good.  No to 1,000 things.  I just found two articles on line that talk more about this.  They look so interesting.  But it's 60 degrees out, the sun is shining and my tennis shoes are waiting.  I'm headed out.  Oxygen choices....

Monday, March 30, 2015

speaking office

This story starts on Christmas Eve and ends today.  A little before Christmas Eve actually....

There is nothing that motivates me to finish house projects more than company.  I had family coming in for Christmas and that meant stuff was getting done.  Our six dining room chairs for example.  Ten years of two boys eating spaghetti marinara, strawberry jello, blueberry pancakes and chocolate ice cream had done them no favors.  They looked like seats from a war zone.

I bought new material.  I borrowed a staple gun.  I just hadn't had time to re-cover them.  And then it was Christmas Eve morning.  The boys and I had the day off.  Presents were wrapped, food was made.  Just time to chill and play together. And re-cover the chairs.  Which should only take like 45 minutes right?

I hadn't counted on how long it takes to pry out 600 former staples and stretch the fabric.  And re staple. Two hours in, I was sweating and had two chairs done. I was getting faster, but a mutiny was forming.  "This is suppose to be a fun day." the boys said.  I had to finish the chairs.  And I wanted it to be a good day.  I had to think fast.

The boys had had a recent conversation about pranks. And I had told them about the show The Office we used to watch. How Steve and I had cracked up over Jim's constant pranking of Dwight.  And then I found the first few seasons of The Office that we'd been given as a gift.  I grabbed Season One and pushed play.  From the moment Dwight's stapler was found encased in Jello, my boys were hooked.  Four episodes later, the chairs were recovered, clean and beautiful.  The boys were laughing.  Christmas Eve had officially started.

So did our new tradition.  An episode or two of The Office when we got home from school each day.  Curled up on the couch together, laughing as we watched every day people, in an ordinary office, form life-long friendships.  I had forgotten how, underneath the funniness, the show had such heart.  The characters learned to see past each other's quirks, to value each other, to forgive and appreciate, to become loyal and grow together.  Without easing up on the unending stream of little tortures and practical jokes of course.

Nine seasons later, we loved them too.  Josh and I finished on Saturday night.  (too fast I know, but what else are you going to do through a long winter if not binge watch TV with your children?...)  We waited until Monday night when Jake got home from a school trip, to watch the finale.  Yes, I cried again.  And was touched by profound statements like Andy Bernard's "I wish there was a way to know you are in the good old days before you actually left them." So true Andy.

Speaking of the good old days....when I started Chaplain school, our supervisor taught twelve of us about the Enneagram, an ancient personality test to navigate workplace dynamics and spirituality.  He told us it would help us understand ourselves better.  And that it would help us see each other's strengths more than our differences.  Most of all, he said that it would take twelve strangers and quickly give us a common language to speak as we learned about each other.

I feel like the boys and I have new common language.  We are speaking Office.  We tease each other about being a Michael or so Dwight.  Any cockiness gets a Ryan label. And me trying to recover the dining room chairs on Christmas Eve?  Such an Toby move.   We are also trying to be more aware how much joy and value are lurking all around us every day.

Or as Pam said at the very end of the show,  "There is a lot of beauty in ordinary things."