Saturday, October 5, 2013

There is No "Position-Perfect" in the Key of Grief

This week, we've been coping with the loss of the father of a close friend of CJ's. It was one of those incidences of seemingly run-of-the-mill symptoms turned into vicious infection whose effects could not be altered or stopped. Very sudden and very tragic. Though we don't know the family really well, the fact that a 14-year-old girl lost her dad resonates here.

I had very few encounters with the dad. Whenever he dropped off or picked up his daughter after a visit or a party, he was always pleasant, smiling, polite. He always treated CJ well, too. His occupation was one I admire--teaching children and youth how to play and share music. It takes a certain demeanor and a great amount of patience to bring out the best in kids learning to play instruments. He definitely had those, and the kids he taught had great respect and admiration for him.

There is one memory of him that I will cherish whenever I see his daughter. It was a middle school talent show night. Several of CJ's friends were performing, and I took her to see the show. The daughter took the stage for a vocal/piano performance. I remember the piano not being in quite the right place and the microphone stand clearly not being at the proper height or floor position. The daughter and stagehands did what they could to make things right, but I knew that it wasn't an ideal set up and could affect her performance.

Then, up from the seats, moving swiftly toward the stage steps came her dad. He tackled that microphone stand like a true roadie, making all of the necessary adjustments with speed and ease. He made everything position-perfect, which I have no doubt is what he would do for any of his students. Then I remember the look from his daughter--the smile that said, "Thank you, Dad. Now, I'm ready to play." 

Though her dad never sought any attention, and left the stage as quickly and stealthily as he got himself up there, he garnered a big round of applause from the audience. I remember thinking, if not actually saying to CJ, "I wonder how many people know that's her dad?"

Of course, she performed beautifully. But the picture ingrained in my mind from that night is the dad who sought the very best for his girl.

*     *     *

It is not easy being 14 and having to navigate what it means to have a friend lose her dad. CJ and I have had a few talks this week. We've talked about how sad we are. How shocked we were at getting the news. Then there are the "I don't know what to do to help" questions. What has made this situation a little more challenging is that some of CJ's other friends had a deeper relationship with the girl's father--being as he was their music teacher. Understandable. But CJ was worried whether she was being supportive enough. 

It's a good conversation to have, because--as other friends of mine have written over the past year--grief is not something that comes in a standard-issue box with an end date. It would make sense that her other friends would feel a different kind of loss than CJ and that their response in this time would also be different that hers. It didn't mean that CJ's grief was any less real nor was her response to the situation any less appropriate. Death is not an easy thing to deal with period, and there are no black-and-white responses. No "position-perfect" postures--regardless of how society might try to suggest that there are.

As a starting place, CJ wrote her friend a letter. What she might not be able to say effectively in person--especially in an environment like a viewing or a funeral--she could surely capture through her writing. I thought that was just right. Knowing that grief is not an event that closes out with the funeral, I encouraged her to keep listening to her friend. Find out what she needs along the way. She and her family will need support for a long time. The most important thing really is the being there.

And, the being yourself....

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

A Touching Story

Part and parcel of the summer schedule at the J's is RJ2's month-long+ tenure in Extended School Year, or ESY. One of the things we discovered early on in her school career is that she needs to keep school in her blood so she doesn't forget what it's like to be at school. Generally successful. This year, challenging. Mondays--especially challenging.

Yesterday was no exception, as RJ2 struggled to accomplish her work. The weekly Monday reports from the teacher were not encouraging and difficult to hear time and time again upon dismissal time in the school's front lobby. "We'll try again tomorrow," is what RJ2 often says on days when she knows she hasn't been at her best. Her aide sighs a smile, as do I.

[It was all I could do not to lose it laughing in the hallway a week or so ago when RJ2 flew into her classroom announcing in her biggest voice, "I'M STILL HERE!" Oh, what her teacher and aide were thinking....]

Today, RJ2 started with a great morning at home. "I feel happy!" she said. She dialogued about everything she saw on the way to her room. Everything suggested today would not be Monday.

At the end of the class time, I met RJ2 at the front lobby, as usual. The teacher was speaking with the mom of another student. I waited my turn for the update. The front door opened, and another mom came in with her preschool-aged son, who was to begin his ESY morning.

He looked unsettled and became increasingly agitated, starting to cry. His mother suggested going back outside, perhaps to calm down. I understood this picture all too well. Something would have to change soon or this child was going to have a lobby meltdown. He rejected his mom's thought to go out, pacing the floor with his little steps.

"Are you looking for Ms. R.?" she said to him.

Ms. R. is one of the ESY preschool aides, who just happened to be a helper in RJ2's preschool classroom back in the day, and still makes an appearance every now and again at our school. I knew she was in the building, but she hadn't made it up to the lobby yet. Then, it happened.

A little hand, much like this one, squirmed its way into mine. Soon following was a sweet face looking up at me.

Uh, oh!

Honestly, it was the cutest thing ever! Brought back a flood of memories of tiny fingers coming out of a chubby, warm grip. But, reality snapped shut the flashbacks, and I thought, "Now, what do I do?" He had no plans to let go.

I'm still not sure if he thought I was Ms. R., but he seemed to think I could help--which, actually, I could.

"I'm not Ms. R. Ms. R's class must not be done yet. Do you want to go find her?"

He pulled a little harder on my hand and we started walking down the hallway. I didn't think until later that I hadn't eyed his mom to check for her OK. She didn't say anything, but followed right behind us with his backpack. And that 'us' grew to be four.

"Can I hold your hand?" piped up RJ2, grabbing what was left of his open left hand, as he was already holding a box full of multi-colored pencil-top erasers.

We walked three abreast down the hallway--with mom behind us--toward the classrooms. Immediately upon leaving the lobby, I saw Ms. R. at the other end of the hall, bringing up students who had finished their ESY day. Ms. R. stopped and stooped to check out our new friend's little face, which then looked up at me a little confused. "Here's Ms. R!" I affirmed. He collected his backpack from mom and looked ready to get on with his morning, relieved.

"[RJ2] had a great day today," said RJ2's teacher, who ended up being the fifth member of the hallway entourage, passing us by, but giving me the good news.

"[RJ2] has been a great help," said the little boy's mom.

We left the school lobby and headed out to the crosswalk. "The boy was a little bit nervous, so I held his hand," said RJ2. I told her that she did a really good thing. "He was a little bit nervous, so, he needs to use his words. Or, he needs to hold a hand, right, Mom?"

This is one of those stories I won't mind her remembering and repeating, and recreating....


Friday, August 2, 2013

The Call to Retreat

Remembering the Magic

We packed bags of dreams, junk food, and clothes, 
and set out for Pennsylvania.

They called it a "retreat,"
but four consonants, three vowels
can't capture six days
of truly living.

We bled Mountain Dew and grass stains,
lived for running and jumping,
and being whole. Being young.

We found shortcuts through the woods
and ran through with bobbing glow sticks
under a full moon.

We covered ourselves in war paint--
mud and shaving cream

And we would always sing songs of praise,
sometimes hand-in-hand amongst
the burning spotlights of the stage,
but mostly through shouts and laughs
of jubilation.

They asked us to challenge our thoughts,
to believe in the unbelievable.
We congregated on stone steps one night
to put faith in the unseen.

The last night brought tears as
we exchanged handshakes and
parting words.

And under another brilliant moon,
I filled a glass jar with fireflies in my head.
Memories, glowing brightly.

They still burn.

--CJ, August 2012

*     *     *

CJ wrote this poem as an entry for the PTA Reflections competition last fall. It did quite well, reaching the Richmond district finals. But, so much more than that, this piece captured the place her heart was in upon her return from The Great Escape--a week-long Christian retreat.

For as many road trips as we had taken as a family, this was the first trip in which she would be away from us for a week. Could not imagine a more fun atmosphere into which to venture nor more wonderful people with whom to send her. Still, the worries about the little things: Would she find something to eat? Would she keep track of her stuff (as past history shows this is an unmastered area)? Would she get to know people more? How would this impact her spiritually?

Reading the draft of the poem left me nodding. I didn't want to give too much feedback; this was being written for a competition, and parental input is forbidden. But, I told her how much I really liked it and reminded her to fill out the accompanying paperwork for the awards application. Honestly, I couldn't wait to share the piece, because it had touched me so much. CJ did have a faith revelation during the retreat, and she returned to us a changed person (even if she still didn't put her clothes away all the time).

But, as happens in a journey of faith, challenges emerged. Distractions. Nuisances. Stumbling blocks. Disappointments. Pressures. The hard wall of life. Something happened--a lot of things happened--and it was as if the retreat had never happened. What she had found in her heart to be true was confronted at every turn by something or someone to make her doubt, which led to a lot of questioning, argumentation and rebellion. In middle school lies the initial years of "Who am I?" We were an audience treated to a season of discovery. (Ouch! Feel the sarcasm....)

Church-related things fell into the mix, as CJ struggled to find her place. I feared she was another piece of evidence in the growing number of analyses suggesting youth-based spiritual retreats were more "polish and glow" than "worship and go [make disciples, etc.]." She would claim on more than one occasion that this kind of retreat brought her closer to God than anything else she had experienced. The "mountaintop" experience is hard to top (pun intended, I guess), though much of daily life is spent on the hillside if not, sometimes, in the valley. Yet the more I tried to explain, the more she had reason to find fault with my years of life experience, been-there-done-that reasoning.

I had actually said that she wouldn't be able to go on this retreat again if she wasn't making an effort to try and take a new look at spiritual things. I wasn't trying to throw religion down her throat, but I'm sure this all would have made more sense if she had heard what I was saying through someone else at a retreat. In the end, I was the one who retreated from her statement, opening my mind to the realization that this girl doesn't take the straight path to anywhere. Several friends and mentors deliberately or coincidentally shared their own faith experiences and the challenges of seeing their kids on their paths. My own faith experience isn't exactly a straight shot of belief. I got the message.

I have taken a lot of deep breaths in this season--some more helpful than others. I booked CJ for the second retreat, leaving certain expectations and hopes behind. (I'm still hopeful she doesn't forget anything.) I might hope that she returns to those stone steps tonight and reflects back to last summer. But I know better than that. She can go back, but she is not the same. And she won't be the same, if God knows what's good for her, which I believe He does.

[Deep breath....]

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

35 "Measures" and Counting

If it weren't for the date on the newspaper clipping, I'd forget that I have an anniversary to celebrate.

August 1978--35 years ago, I picked up handbells for the first time ever.

It was the year in between 8th grade and freshman year of high school. Not exactly the time when you think about taking on new things, other than your course schedule. Graduation had just marked the end of a huge year--first term paper in English; Confirmation class; playing on the school's inaugural girls softball team; algebra; yearbook staff; a pool party with friends. But, a call came in to break up the summer of "life on pause."

The woman who had directed the Junior Choir at our church called to talk with my mom. Bettye Lee had served this choir for years, embracing kids in that challenging "approaching and into middle school age" with a combination of humor, strictness and, always, professionalism--or, as close to that as you get with this age of kid. I was fortunate to have participated in two musical productions under her leadership, not to mention weekly rehearsals and many opportunities singing in church.

Our time together might have been longer had she not followed her husband in taking a work-related leave of absence from the country and moving to England for a time. I still remember on the night of her farewell party begging my mom to take me, and then eating too many fig bars with cream-cheese filling while watching Mrs. Lee open her going-away gifts. Too sad! What I didn't know is that her going to England was a necessary part of this story. For there, she discovered English handbells. Not that they weren't around, but she wrote in a letter to the church that it would be lovely to have these back home.

She did come back home, too. Flash forward several years to the Spring of 1977. The church hosted a handbell concert with a guest choir. [Pretty sure it was The Klokken Ringers, because their director, Betty Garee--lifetime handbell enthusiast, composer and arranger--later hooked up with our Bettye to go to a bell festival together.] Not sure how it happened, but my family attended the concert that afternoon. I remember very little about what the group played, but it was interesting to watch them. Fairly certain I was too shy to approach their table to even look at a bell up-close. It was not long after that concert that the Teen Tintinnabulators became a reality, with Mrs. Lee directing high school students from our church.

When the call came in to my house a year later, it was a little surprising. I had not even started high school, remember. But, Mrs. Lee was in a pickle. About half the Teen Tintinnabulators were heading off to college leaving quite a few openings for new ringers. She was seeking the newest crop of high-schoolers with the thought of training them under her remaining group--most of whom were rising seniors who would head out the door the following year. She was calling her former Junior Choir members, scouting out interest. My mom gave me the scoop. Nervously, I would give it a try. (And, the newspaper came a few rehearsals after that. It was kind of a novelty to have handbells in the county, back in the day.)

The arm motion has always been totally natural for me. 
I think 9 years of ballet lessons helped with that.

That first year left indelible marks. I not only learned to play, but learned so much of the behind-the-scenes. With each rehearsal, we were all involved in the regular set-up and clean-up of the bells, and their needed accessories. I had only sung in choruses before, and playing alongside others in a musical group was a completely different experience. With handbells, you handle your own part, but that part must fit seamlessly with everyone else's parts. Rehearsals were intense because musicality and professionalism were mandates. But I learned to appreciate being in a group and found a comfort level with people that I hadn't before experienced.

At the end of the season came my first multi-state handbell festival at the University of Orono in Maine.

At that time, handbell festivals lasted 3 or 4 days and were held in the summer on college campuses. We stayed in the dorms, ate in the cafeterias, and went to morning chapel and bell classes in between massed-ringing rehearsals and ensemble concerts. We performed two pieces at one of the ensemble concert venues--one of which was supposed to be "Variations on Chopstix," which got nixed fairly last-minute by Mrs. Lee in favor of a newer piece released by the festival's main conductor [Donald Allured]. No pressure switching out the fun crowd-pleaser for the more difficult composition in front of the big cheese himself! (Mr. Allured did complement us after our performance and told us to work on our triplets, to which Mrs. Lee responded with something like, "You see? I told you....") I also participated by choice in a music theory/bell composition class. It was out of my league at the time, but I still have the handouts....

I would continue to play through high school, eventually having two of my sisters join the group. My college, which had a music school, didn't have handbells, so there was a gap in playing regularly until life in a new state brought me back into the church--one with a handbell choir. From there, more festivals, solo-playing workshops, conducting and concerts led to a 7-year church choir directorship with more than 100 outreach performances and services--and lifetime friends. 

Now, I'm a two-choir gal with the most amazing collection of people playing.

The Prime Chimers of Meadow Glen

The Verena Ringers

Still schlepping, setting-up and tearing-down bells and assorted equipment; taking that music theory interest and applying it toward scoring parts for handbells, so more can play in more types of playing opportunities more easily (and it's on the computer, now, JuBELLees--thank you so much!); facilitating a group environment that allows everyone to participate and have fun while making great music (though I'll never be Bettye Lee). And, of course, still working on the skills of playing. 

Because bells are my instrument, and "measure" 36 is coming up....

Friday, March 8, 2013

They Need to Write Something Today

It started out as the good parent thing to do: reading the E-mail update from the middle school language arts teacher about the current topics the kids were studying, projects, due dates and the like. The teacher even went so far as to question the parents about their experience with said topics. "What is your writing process like?" "What are your thoughts on revision?"

It then became an opportunity for me to share, thinking the teacher would use the responses as part of her teaching material. I took on a few questions in some detail. What I wasn't expecting was the follow-up E-mail from the teacher, asking me to be a guest speaker to share directly with some classes about my experience with writing.

Suddenly, I had a Dad moment, as in my Dad. Being a now-retired professor, he loves any opportunity to get back into a classroom environment to share his stuff! I definitely didn't accept my invitation with the same kind of confidence and excitement that he would have. This is middle school in 2013 after all. (Not to mention that I have a middle schooler who could potentially be subjected to this presentation!) But I did think I had something to offer.

Thankfully, the teacher had some thought questions in mind, which gave me some structure for a talk out of the gate. I am not a writing or English major. I don't teach writing. Still, I have had many, many opportunities to write, for different audiences, in different formats, for different media. I could just share "My Life as a Writer," which sounds like a composition I would have written back in fifth grade. (I wrote so many "My Life as a..." stories that year that my teacher finally told me I had to write under a new premise. Good for him!)

I outlined my talk question by question, filling in details as if I were teaching students why we write and how to do it. Then, I hit the attic for the box of writing samples. There are so many items in that box, even as I have tried to pare things down over the years. I've thrown away diaries, but I still have a file full of lyrics to marching band fight songs and numerous work-related song parodies. Lots of newsletters, magazine articles, brochures and, now, even a book entry, but, more importantly, a story behind the story for each. Plenty of things to share!

I went in with some expectations. I figured I'd know some of the kids. Some, but not many, as it turned out. I figured there would be some issues with gaining their interest. Although my girl is a language arts aficionado, I knew most of the larger eighth grade class was not. This proved to be quite true, even beyond the point of my expectations. I expected the kids to participate by the time we got to the end of the talk, at least having one question or comment in mind. Hmmm......

The teacher, on the other hand, wrote down so many things on a piece of paper the first time I spoke that I had to wonder what all I had actually said. When I spoke the second time, it was clear that she had taken notes, as she had my basic skeletal outline for the presentation up on the screen for the class to copy down. YIKES! No pressure.... Nothing but encouraging, she thought I had offered up just what was needed, as the classes were to begin their pursuit of subject matter research in preparation for a writing project.

She and I spoke afterward of how much language arts has changed from when we went to school. We both remember having English being taught seperately from Reading. Now, all of the elements of both are taught together throughout middle school, which is how high school still works. But the loss of time in being able to focus teaching on and for students to perfect the basics of writing shows. The advancements in technology are not helping in this regard, as I tried to persuade the students that their future success will require more communication than text talk and emoticons.

I polled the classes to see how many students were interested in pursuing writing as a career. Only one or two per class. I changed up the question: "How many of you think you'll be writing in your jobs?" Again, the same one or two plus another one or two. Really? I reminded them that they will all need to write a college essay or a cover letter for a job application.

Walking away from this experience, I take away a couple of things. I did connect with a few students, helping them to narrow down research topics and suggesting ways to get started with research. That was especially gratifying. The teacher reminded me that it was important to give the students the lowdown on writing, even if they did not fully appreciate it. At some point, they will look back and think, "Oh, yeah--what she said that time." Planting seeds. Good reminder! 

I also see the opportunity for another talk, if not a change in the curriculum. Students are not making a connection between 'writing' and communicating using words. Kids too often see writing as a have-to-do, as in, "She's making us write 5 paragraphs about this!" The larger picture of being able to share with others what you have learned through writing is not operative for students today. Kids are getting their information from the Internet, videos, radio, and their friends on their phones. But, doesn't anybody think about who is writing up all of that information?

Even when texting or posting to a social media site, they are using words to communicate thoughts and information. Are they going to choose to do it well, with intention and purpose? What lands in print, even electronically, is hard to erase. What you write speaks to who you are. It really does. 

It's time--past time, honestly--to revisit what our kids are learning and opining about writing. The world needs writers!