Painful Anniversaries, Part 1: Accidents

calendar1Difficult memories have a way of punching me in the face, each year over and over, and this year is no different. Occasionally, it’s been because I just look up and see the date, like an unexpected but automatic explanation of why I’m emotional or why the day just went chaotic. Other times, like this year, the significance of the number of years has been on my mind for weeks.

Chris was just one week shy of age 20 when the accident happened, experiencing his birthday unconscious and hooked up to all kinds of tubes and machines. He’s been gone twice as long as he was alive. In reality, it was a lifetime ago. And yet it feels like only a few years. As if I were able to see and speak to him today, and things would be no different. He would still tease me mercilessly. And then hug me as if he would never let go.

I was only 14, and just beginning to not be the “stupid little sister.” He had only moved away from home earlier in the year to work and save money for his wedding. He wrote me letters addressed “Stoogehead,” which I still have safely filed away in a drawer. He gave me the ultimate gift in asking me to be in his wedding that summer. He was the first to introduce me to the “big kid” amusement park, King’s Island, for my 14th  birthday less than two months before. (Oh, how I wish there were photos for proof of how special it was for me.)

The news of the accident reached me late in the evening, just before the lights-out bell in the dorm. My family had gone to a state park to celebrate his birthday a week early, but since school had just started, and friends had just returned from the summer, I chose to bunk in the dorm room with my best friend, who is still like a sister to me. I heard my name over the intercom, requesting that I go to the office. (Getting called to the office wasn’t unusually strange for me, except that the school year had barely started and it was 9:00 P.M.) I walked down the stairs and outside to the other building thinking, “Something happened to Chris.” I’m not sure why, but somehow I knew.

The two staff members who told me that Chris had been hurt didn’t know the exact details or how critical the situation was, but told me that he was being transported to a larger hospital. I waited to allow the tears until I left their presence, thinking, “If I cry when I don’t know how bad it is, they’ll think I’m stupid. But I want to cry because I don’t know how bad it is,” knowing that it might be hours or days before learning details other than second-hand. Fortunately, I had friends with comforting shoulders to listen and soak up my tears and even cry alongside me. Morning came, and the school president announced in chapel that his condition was critical, and I shed more tears, wondering how I would make it through a day of classes and get anything from them. During my first hour English, I was summoned from class to ride the 85 miles to the hospital, sobbing most of the way, or trying to shield my eyes from the sun that now just seemed to set them on fire. Arriving at the ICU and seeing this nearly 6 ft. tall, strong, healthy guy breathing only to the tune of the respirator was surreal and unimaginable.  His skull was fractured and he had a blood clot on his brain, I was told. How could this be? Why couldn’t it be me instead of him?

Today, September 17th, marks 40 years since that accident that resulted in the death of my older brother, my only sibling, Chris. It isn’t an event to be celebrated, but it’s there. On the calendar. Showing up year after year. Seared into the memory like a brand that won’t be overlooked. A scar that has healed, but is ugly and can’t be unseen. I want to ignore it, but it won’t be ignored.

Invitation to Your Life

Today I had the privilege of speaking to a group of more than 50 men who have worked hard to complete a substance abuse treatment program inside the local jail, 14 of whom were my direct clients. Many would wash their hands of the chemically-dependent, writing them off as the lowest of society. However, they are sons, brothers, and fathers, and I’m honored to hear their stories and help them see there is hope for a different future. This is what I said to them:

“I am currently reading a book called Love Does by Bob Goff. He writes short anecdotal stories that he relates to the action of love rather than love as a feeling.

One story was particularly interesting to me as I read it and thought of you all and the work you’ve been doing to change. He calls the chapter, There’s More Room, and says, “I used to think I needed an invitation to get into most places, but now I know I’m already invited.”

The shortened version goes like this:

He explains that he has been to the White House to visit on numerous occasions, especially around Easter because of the “swanky” Easter egg hunt happening on the White House lawn, but has never been invited to it. His family would show up and hide eggs along the fence that separates those on the “inside” from the rest of us. They’d dress up and pretend to be part of the “distinguished gathering.” He was always tempted to roll an egg under the fence to see if guys in suits might tackle him and talk into their sleeves. They would use a small area to hide eggs, so they were easy to spot, but his kids were young and probably just thought they were experts at finding eggs. He wanted them to know they were included in important things, that they belonged, that they were invited.

There are lots of events he never got invited to – the Oscars, Paul McCartney’s birthday party, or a space shuttle launch. If he did get one, even to the White House Easter egg hunt, he would definitely go. There is nothing like feeling included. He says there is only one invitation it would kill him to refuse, yet is tempted to turn down regularly. All of us get the invitation every morning to wake up and actually live a life of complete engagement, of whimsy, a life where love does. The invitation doesn’t come in an envelope. It’s ushered in by the sunrise, the sound of a bird, or the smell of coffee. It’s the invitation to actually live, to fully participate in this amazing life every day. Nobody turns down an invitation to the White House, but plenty of you have been turning down the invitation to truly live.

Turning down this invitation looks different to all of us. It could be using a chemical substance or any other number of addictive actions to numb some painful experience or memory. Someone called us a name or put a label on us, and we believe we aren’t worthy of the invitation. It could be distracting ourselves from seeing what isn’t normal because we have not been prepared to deal with it appropriately. It can also look like refusing to forgive or not being grateful for what we have or being chained to fear or envy. It could be fear of reconnecting with a friend because it’s been too long and we are ashamed to have allowed so much time to come between us. It could be that our friends have been participating for years and we’re ashamed to show up late.

We receive an invitation to live each day and sometimes we forget to show up because we’re just tired or have convinced ourselves that we weren’t invited. But we are invited. Every day. Over and over again. When you don’t show up, others will. And yet there is still room for you.

Two things happen when we accept the invitation to participate in life.

  1. Obstacles and hurdles that seem insurmountable aren’t. Things we believe disqualify us don’t.
  2. It’s contagious. Others watch and see that life is amazing, and start believing the invitation is open to them as well. There IS room for them, too.

So, you’ve spent about 18 weeks here, clearing your mind and your body of chemicals that are capable of damaging your body. Understanding that the choices you made are not who you are. Opening your eyes to the opportunities that are yours. This place is not a place to live your life. But this is a place to start again. This is your invitation to truly live a life of engagement. To fully participate in the work of showing up. Time to show up for the real party called life. Welcome to your amazing life.”

In reality, these words were not only for the graduates. Much of the content was also directed at me, as a reminder that I need not wait around for the perfect storm to put things in motion. I must get moving, taking each small step after another to create the life I want.

Goff, B. (2012). Love does: Discover a secretly incredible life in an ordinary world. Nashville: Thomas Nelson.

Go For the Gold

Gold MedalI have never been, nor ever will be, Olympic athlete material. I suppose you could say that I live vicariously through world-renowned competitors, as I’m guessing many other folks do. I used to spend a significant amount of effort avoiding anything that resembled running or exercising, unless it had something to do with skating. I never had much exposure to water sports as a youth, so I have what you might consider a healthy fear paranoia when it comes to water I can’t see through and might contain critters. That is the main reason I made sure my daughter was exposed to water at a very early age. At age 5, she became a little fish, and soon after helped me learn an appreciation for swimming competitions (despite the parent-sitting-beside-the-pool-in-extreme-temps-in-Arizona thing). The result has been a glued-to-the-tube-for-five-consecutive-summer-Olympic-games-watching-swimming thing, aka. Michael Phelps fan.

As I was watching the first of swimming trials over the weekend, I was struck by two very different, very meaningful moments. The first was this commercial for Liberty Mutual Insurance, where an athlete replies to the question about what it feels like to receive an Olympic medal. She explains that the medals earned are all around us. It made me stop and think about all the things I’ve accomplished or received because of my persistence. A home I can call my own (kinda), a vehicle to drive, a solid education that has resulted in a purposeful career, supportive friends and coworkers that encourage me along the way – all those deserve at least bronze or silver. And then there is my family, immediate and extended, including some forever friends who feel more like family. I definitely got the gold when they were placed in my life. And then there is my beautiful daughter – the hardest-fought battle was for her existence and continued as I endeavored to raise a responsible adult. She is the most precious gold medal. Did I make mistakes along the way? ABSOLUTELY. I had plenty of false starts, fell off the beam, or landed badly. Were there times I wanted to give up? ABSOLUTELY. But God put some silver and gold-medal friends to lift me up and carry me when my strength failed.

The second meaningful moment had to do with the Team America win in the Men’s 4×100 Freestyle relay. The win alone was huge and showed so much heart. But the best part was watching those four men on the podium receiving their gold medals while our National Anthem played. Seeing a young man sing along, get emotional, and not be able to hold back his tears was inspiring. In a world where so many are encouraged to suppress their emotions because shedding a tear will make them look weak, his humanness and vulnerability showed through. I got a little emotional watching the display, and thought, “That young man is proud of the work he did to get to that place, passionate about what he does, and proud of representing his country for all the world to see.” You can watch it here.

So …don’t spend time comparing your achievements to others’. Count up your own medals and value the things and friends and family you have in your life. Be passionate about what you do, cover your spot on the team, and enjoy the rewards with emotion that shows the effort was worth it. Go for the Gold. And if you go home with a silver or bronze, be confident that you did your best.


Happy Belated Mother’s Day

I know! I’m behind. I’m using the excuse that I have too much on my plate. That’s my story and I’m sticking with it. So … below is a letter I wrote to my mother on her birthday five years ago. Earlier that year, I wrote a letter to my dad on his birthday, nearly ten years after his passing. I decided that maybe I should also write to people still living, expressing gratitude for their impact on my life while they can realize the acknowledgement. Many things have changed in five years, but the acknowledgements are the same. Here goes…

Dear Mom,                                                                                                                                                           5/1/11

Today is your 78th birthday. It seems like just yesterday you were turning 40 and everyone was commenting on the fact that you didn’t look your age. Some things never change. People are still saying it. Just thought I’d write a few things that have been running through my mind. From tales of your experience on the farm in Ohio, your fights with your sister, to your sharing of your faith through art, you have touched many with your talent and consistent prayer life.

I saw so many things that showed me the beauty of God’s creation through the way you experienced color and light. From the early years, life was about expression through art. I mean, who else’s mom drew detailed farm animals or flowers to keep them occupied in church? I fell in love with creating things with my hands because of you and I still love putting things together. When I’m bored in a meeting, you will most likely find me practicing different letter fonts or sketching a posed hand.

You also loved music and have great talent. Combined with Dad’s talent, knowledge, and love of music, you have blessed many. Even today as I sang “His Name is Wonderful” with the worship team, I remembered the privilege I had of singing it with you both and fought back the emotion of a beautiful memory. When I hear you singing a hymn during your devotion time in the morning, I feel blessed to know that prayer is reaching heaven on my behalf every day.

I’m sure you remember my ‘helping’ skills sometime in 3rd or 4th grade. You were planning a party and wanted the house to be spotless. I was helping to dust and wanted to do such a good job to please you. I thought I was doing my best when I completely covered the piano with Old English Oil. You saw how oily it was and got frustrated, telling me that now you had more work to do trying to rub it off. I was broken-hearted and went to my room while you finished. I will never forget your coming to apologize and asking me to forgive you for raising your voice when I had not meant to cause more work. It’s the one thing I have tried my best to model as a mother, because I respected you so much more for admitting a mistake. I’ve had to apologize to Lindsay many times, and I know I earned her respect as well.

Life changed after losing Chris and I know you felt you had to be strong. You taught me that when life is tough and things look the bleakest, there is always strength in Jesus to go on. As I go to practice on Monday evenings and look around the room at your chalk pictures and wood burning, I feel honored to have seen Jesus through your eyes.

It hurts to know you are in such pain and unable to create like you used to, I wonder why God would take away the talent you exclusively used for Him. Then I realize that it is because you have used up all the talent He gave you, sharing it with many, and allowing Him to multiply its effects, rather than hoarding it out of fear.

Last but not least is your humorous side. You rarely told jokes because that was Dad’s thing, but the occasions when you let loose with the dry humor were the best! Never feel bad about our giggling session on the way to Dad’s funeral. He was already relieved of pain and I think he would have wanted us to be happy for him.

Love always,

Your Favorite Daughter

If you haven’t done it already, CALL YOUR MOM! Remind her that all the time and effort spent was worth it. And if you have a difficult relationship with your mom for whatever reason, find another mom-mentor and connect for the benefit of both.

Loyalty: Still a Fan

IMG_1651A year ago, I published this post regarding my reasons for being a University of Kentucky Wildcat basketball fan. With a nearly perfect record, last season was awesome. My stance on that subject has not changed. At all.

This year has been a more difficult year for the team. New players. Hurt players. Miscommunication. Lack of cohesion. Some painful, last minute losses. And haters.

There are some things I’ve learned through this season and as the team was eliminated from the championship in the Round of 32 to long-time rivals, Indiana. Am I disappointed? Absolutely! Any fan would be. Is it the end of the world? NO!

While I always want Kentucky to win, I’ve realized that life is so much like the life that March Madness takes on each year. I will always cheer for Kentucky. I will always cheer for the teams who play against teams that have taken down Kentucky in last-minute-unbelievable wins in the past. But I do not hate them. I do not wish for bad things to happen to their team or their players. In a recent game, when a talented opposing player went down on the court in obviously excruciating pain, for two seconds I thought, That’s a win for us. Yeah! But winning because their best player is hurt is not an honest, do-it-or-die win. It’s hollow and cheap. I would rather see Kentucky lose a game than win like that. There will be other games. Other seasons.

I’ve also seen comments on social media harshly judging players when they have a bad day or Coach Cal for the way he runs his program. These are kids, folks. Yes, they are adults according to society’s evaluation of their age in years. But they are kids. They are young. And green. And they have to work hard to not only perfect improve their skill, but to work as a team, supporting each other. I know people far older who struggle with team-building skills at their jobs. Just because these young men are in the limelight doesn’t mean we have the right to demean them. Everyone has bad days. That’s how we appreciate the good ones. And I have to give kudos to Coach Cal for taking a group of young boys and teaching them how to play together for the good of the team. He’s doing an awesome job, and even when he is tough on them, calling out their inconsistencies, he remembers that they are just kids and need to know they are valued for whatever they contribute.

Let’s face it, folks. As another Kentucky fan reminded me recently, we are spoiled. We have gotten used to wins. We enjoy them. We count on them. We expect them. We have 8, count them, 8, E-I-G-H-T, national championships. That’s more than any other school except for UCLA. Add to that numerous conference championship titles. And Kentucky is the number 1 school represented in the NBA. That, my friends, is not shabby. And that is why other school’s fans hate feel intimidated because of us. Recent losses can only make future wins sweeter.

Loyalty is what it’s all about. We can’t hold down our sofas or scream from the stands about what should or shouldn’t be done. At college games or in life. Cheer on the players when it’s their turn to play. Remind them they can try harder the next time. Ask them what they think can improve their game. And when it’s your turn (or mine) to get on the court, DO THE BEST YOU CAN DO AT THE MOMENT. That is loyalty. In your family. At your job. Or for the stranger who needs help opening a door because their hands are full. Life is a game. Some days we win. Others we lose and need to support others who are winning. No matter what, quitting is not an option.


Letter to Myself

Recently I was searching through the files on the tiny thumb drive that contains the entire documentation of my dual Master’s program. I ran across a paper that caused me to stop and take time to read. The class? Human Development. The instructions from the syllabus?

“In this assignment, you are the significantly older brother or sister of a child approaching adolescence. Write a letter between 500 and 750 words in which you explain what he or she can expect socio-emotionally during adolescence. Be gender-specific; choose one or the other to focus upon. Share both the bright and dark sides of this time period and share ideas on how to get through it in the healthiest manner. Let him or her in on what you wished you had known.”

The following is what I wrote (without editing), and four years later, find myself in serious reflection.

                                                            Letter to an Adolescent

Dear Little Sister,

You are approaching adolescence and I wanted to share a few things that might prepare you for what is ahead. It can be a little scary sometimes if you don’t know what to expect.  I hope this will help move you through this time as smoothly as possible.  I have already noticed that you are physically developing into a young lady.  You’ve grown taller and started wearing a bra. I’m sure you’re glad to have gotten past the chubby stage. You will start to be more attracted to boys and they to you.  You are beautiful, but don’t let that be a distraction.  Getting an education and demonstrating good character are far more important than how you look.  Besides, looks change.  Pimples appear.  People get older.  What you develop on the inside will be with you forever.

I don’t think I have to tell you that girls can be fickle and caddy. So many of them will like you one day, and not like you the next.  Find the ones who are always the same, ready to apologize if they hurt you or others, the ones who cheer you on when you do well, and cry with you when you’ve been hurt.  Ignore the rest.  Their words can sting sometimes, but remember that what they say about you is really about how they feel at the moment, and nothing about you.  If you are making good choices, there will always be those who look bad next to you.  Don’t let them bring you down to their level.  You can’t fix them, and you can’t change them.  Be confident in what you need to do and move on.

At some point you will be invited to a party, or friends will offer you drinks or drugs. Know that you do not have to fit in.  It will be hard.  It will seem like everyone is doing it and there is no harm.  But beware.  No good can come of experimenting with drugs and alcohol.  I could introduce you to some really great people who are now struggling with a devastating habit that started because they longed to fit in.  Trust me. It’s not worth it.  If you can’t talk to Mom and Dad about that stuff, then please call me.  You deserve a future free of regret.

I know you are trying to discover who you are and what you’d like to do when you grow up. You have done so well at swim team and in the band.  Keep up the good work but don’t ever feel like those activities are forever.  It’s good to have those activities to do and gives you a good excuse to avoid participation in risky events that might hurt your future.  If they ever become drudgery, it’s okay to move on to something you are more passionate about.  Whatever you do, put everything you have into it.

When it comes to boys and romance, look for a guy who makes you laugh. Watch him from a distance.  Does he offer to help people when they’re carrying a load, or volunteer to help clean up?  Be friends first.  Always expect respect and know that you are worthy of waiting for the physical part of romance until after the wedding vows.  Don’t be afraid to tell a boy that right from the beginning.  If he doesn’t respect that, then he’s not worth your time.  If he does, he’s a keeper.  Watch how he treats his mom or his sisters, because he will treat you the same.

You may not understand Mom and Dad in the next few years. Know that they care so much and only want what’s best for you.  Most of the time, they really know from experience what could go wrong and are trying to keep you from pain.  They will begin to allow you more time with friends, but they will ask questions.  Offer the details, all of them, when they ask.  It will relieve their minds and you will earn their trust.  Always respect them, even when you question why they decline a request.  You won’t regret it.  I’m always here to help.  The only stupid question is the one you don’t ask.  I wish I’d asked more and known all I’m telling you here.  Most of all, love Jesus with all your heart.

Love you, Vicky

On a day that seemed like nothing could go right, I needed to read these words again for myself and remember that difficult times are guaranteed to come and go, but character and kindness last forever.

And just now, I am remembering the advice given by my brother when I was in first grade. A third grade boy had passed my desk and made a negative comment to me, and I in turn stuck out my tongue, which was the only part our teacher observed. She marched me into the corner until I could say I was sorry. But I wasn’t. And I was stubborn. Lunch time came around and I was still in the corner, so my brother, who was six years older, was called in for reinforcement. He said, “Just say you’re sorry, even if you’re not, so you can go to lunch.” At the time, I was sure he just thought I was stupid. Looking back now, I realize he was, in his own way, showing me that it wasn’t worth missing lunch. The silliness of the situation wasn’t worth sitting in the corner for another minute.

And I smile. And I let go of the frustration I felt earlier in the day. And I wish he were still around to tell me, just like the letter above, just like he did years ago, what is and isn’t important.


Universality: Strength in Numbers

love-in-any-language-is-the-same…Often it’s the smallest little detail shared that makes me realize I’m not alone in my struggles, nor can I overcome or move through them single-handedly. In this post from nearly a year ago, I wrote about stories – everyone has one, and all should be heard before instead of passing judgment. Stories are a significant part of keeping us connected with other human beings, reminding us that lessons can be learned from everything experienced in life. But relating to others’ stories is not the end-all for learning life lessons and feeling supported.

I provide my clients with a worksheet about the benefits and concepts of group work, because that is primarily the venue that is used in my position as a counselor. (It seems like group work was originally promoted for it’s financial benefit of serving more clients by using fewer resources. However, the more I facilitate groups, the more I see the other benefits as the most critical.) The worksheet lists various terms that are familiar to the average person, such as hope, tolerance, feedback, and imitation, and explains their meaning related to group work. Other words are not as familiar – insight, cohesiveness, altruism, catharsis, and universality. Universality is a big word, and some struggle to even say it, but it has a very down-to-earth meaning. The worksheet’s definition – “others have my problem.” There it is. That simple. Others have my problem.

One of the reasons we struggle with a problem so much is that our thoughts lead us to believe we’re alone. Isn’t that special? I’m so unique that I’m the only one with this problem? I could be famous, maybe, because no one else in the history of mankind has ever experienced this problem? Maybe they’ll make a movie about me? But then no one would understand it and no one could play my part, except for me. Why do we struggle and isolate, thinking that we will somehow gain kudos for handling a problem all by ourselves? Will someone really believe we’re less of a person, whiny, or weak because we share our challenges? I drill this concept into my clients, having them share their stories, and watching as walls of pain and judgment come down. When a friend or a client shares their situation with me, I don’t judge them. And yet, I hold back and feel alone because someone would think I’m crazy for the feelings I have about a challenging situation.

This week, I had a conversation with a forever-friend, and realized there are similarities in a specific struggle going on in our lives. As I felt comfortable to share and relate, my friend was free to share as well. I saw so clearly this lesson I work to help my clients understand. Others have my problem. The details are different, but the underlying issue is significantly similar and warrants the emotional stress it causes. And sharing it, getting it out, gave relief and a very personal understanding of what universality means. Someone else in my world understands from experience what this is like. (What a relief that I’m not crazy.) I would never wish similar problems on an enemy, much less a friend, but discovering that this is the case gave me a boost that I needed, as I hope it did to my friend.

I am not alone. I have friends all over the world and coworkers close by who lift me up and understand when issues are overwhelming. I am fortunate. I am blessed. I can get through the tough times, because I know someone understands what this feels like.

And knowing that helps me believe that others also have faith and hope and respect and kindness . . . and LOVE.


These are a few of my favorite things …

Just a couple of weeks ago, I wrote here about accepting the discrepancy between my reality and my expectations of end-of-the-year holidays. As it turned out, Thanksgiving and Christmas this year were nothing spectacular. However, there were some events and realizations that moved and inspired me, helping me value what is. Here are a few of my favorite things over the last couple of weeks:

1. A giving daughter. I believe it is in my child’s nature to give. But I also know that I nurtured those characteristics in her from the beginning. I love watching her get excited about the gifts she has carefully and thoughtfully chosen for friends and family members, knowing what each will love. And she glows with delight when they do.

2. A grateful daughter.  No matter the monetary value of a gift, new or repurposed, she receives, she is grateful for the thought, time, and effort put in to presenting it to her. I never need to ask or remind her to offer a word of thanks. I know it’s already done.

The Nutcracker

3. Enjoying the ballet with my daughter. My favorite gift, from said daughter, was attending The Nutcracker. I was raised in a music family by a musician father who made sure that I learned to appreciate classical music, so I’ve heard the musical score all my life. Sitting next to my daughter, engaged in the elegant strains from the symphony, watching the talent of ballet dancers, and feeling my toes automatically tapping to the rhythm inside my shoes filled me with joy and peace, and made me feel like my father was right beside me.

4. The lights of a Christmas tree softly illuminating a dark room. There is just something relaxing about sitting and allowing the warm light to calm the busyness of the season.

5. Encouraging words of colleagues and friends. When doubts try to hinder the progress of doing something I feel passionate about, hearing that someone relates to my challenges fuels continued motivation to pursue a dream.

6. Word that clients are doing well. I don’t take any credit for the hard work they put in to make changes in their lives, but hearing of their success is equal to a Christmas bonus. I appreciate the opportunity to have been a small piece of their puzzle picture.

7. Good health. I don’t feel fabulous every single minute of the day, but I can’t take good health for granted. Having sick time available to use if I need it and paid vacation days for “preventative” health . . . that is a huge blessing.

8. Granddogs who are always excited to see me. No matter if I’ve been gone five days or five minutes, Maxine and Russell have butt and tail wags, respectively, and slobbery kisses to welcome me home.

I’m sure if I spent a few more hours, I could name many more things that fill my life with joy. I’ll stop here for now, because sleep is a favorite thing, as well. How many favorite things can you name to remind yourself that your dreams and passions are worthy of every effort you can give them?

Holiday Expectations: Fantasy vs Reality

IMG_0930When I think about the various holidays of my childhood, I realize my experiences clearly formed my expectations about how those celebrations should occur in adulthood. Holiday celebrations were always about family. I was the youngest on both sides of the family, so I grew into already-established traditions. Feelings could be described as “warm and fuzzy,” with plenty of humorous conversations, cozy hugs from grandparents, uncles pressing me for “favorite” position over each other, and fondly looking up to all my older cousins. Oh, and food, of course. Lots of scrumptious, down-home food. I always imagined a house full of family, laughter, and hugs as an adult. Having adulthood turn out significantly different makes for a generous range of emotions when the holidays show up on the calendar. Managing those feelings is challenging, at best.

Starting in mid November through January 1st, most of us have at least some level of expectations regarding holiday celebrations. This year is no different. As I have been pondering my expectations of the season, my thoughts have been playing ping pong between what I want (not gifts) and what is.  The vision of multiple grown children and their children showing up to create a houseful of laughter and warmth has clearly turned out to be a fantasy. My extended family is spread out across the country, and although we have time together, my two close family members are in completely different, generational stages of life. To be clear, I’m not talking about this to initiate a pity party nor point a finger at someone or some event as the cause of my reality. It just is.

As I was sharing about this situation a couple of weeks ago, struggling with my conflicting feelings, I was reminded by a very wise person that my feelings are conflicted because my expectation has not evolved parallel with my reality. And my perception of others’ realities is more than likely due to my perspective. When I think of a large family’s holiday gatherings as warm, memory-making events, it’s based on a comparison of what I knew as a child. (I do know that after years of adulthood and being away from the extended family celebrations, a reunion would still be loving moments without discord.) But that is not everyone’s reality. When I hear people talking of dread as they prepare to visit or be visited by family members, I cringe. If only I had that kind of opportunity. And I have to take a deep breathe and refrain from offering a disgruntled lecture about appreciating family.

So, if you have a family celebration that includes singing, or games, or watching football together, or hugs, or laughter, or other memory-making events . . . consider yourself blessed. And then remember the people with whom you rub shoulders who have a very different reality. Maybe they are alone or just feel alone. Or experience significant family conflict. Or recently lost someone they love. Or just can’t physically be with family.  Or see Christmas time as a reminder of some devastating event. Not everyone’s Christmas is Merry, but many will not share their challenges without prompting.

I’m intentionally working on accepting my reality, and that starts with acknowledging that I have a beautiful, cozy place to call home. I’m healthy enough to spend time at two jobs that fulfill my passion. I have a lovely adult daughter who is smart, compassionate, grateful, and loving. I still have my mother who, despite some physical challenges, is able to communicate her love to me as I care for her. I have coworkers and friends who care about what is going on in my life. And I have the means to be generous in word and deed to others who might be experiencing a less-than-ideal Christmas.

What do you need to do to accept your reality? I’m only expecting God to show Himself to me in grace and love as I celebrate the first Christmas gift – a baby!

Evaluations: Is Satisfactory Enough?

Outstanding evaluation.  Red pen on evaluation, with "outstanding" checked.

According to Webster’s Thesaurus, the terms satisfactory and enough are synonymous. On an evaluation form, satisfactory generally means “meets minimum standards.” For some reason, that choice bothers me as much as unsatisfactory or “below minimum standards.” Maybe it’s because I know there is more in me than average. Maybe it’s because I spent my childhood and teenage years thinking I was average others saw me as average. Maybe it’s because I knew there was more, but didn’t have a clue how to get beyond the thinking that others saw me as average.

I did well in elementary school when I applied myself, and I had the support of educator parents who continually made me accountable. But I wasn’t the best. There was always someone better. In academics. At piano playing. At drawing. At popularity. At fitting in. At everything. (I’m sure there were some who were behind me at some of those things, and I suppose it’s a good thing that that didn’t make me feel better. I truly never wanted anyone to feel “less than,” as I did.) Consequently, I felt lost in the crowd. Average. Unexceptional. Unnoticeable. And, consequently, I frequently made choices that might make me noticeable in the wrong way.

A few things in my life made me feel valued. First, I was born into an exceptional family. I was the baby on both sides and was quite aware of how much impact my extended family were and still are. Second, my brother who was nearly six years older trusted me with the secret that he possessed a Carpenter’s album, carefully hidden under his clothes in a drawer, and discreetly played when our parents were out of the house. (Yes, I know some of you are shocked to know the secret, while others are questioning the need for a Carpenter’s album to be hidden. For any reason. It was my life, folks. Challenging to explain to those who had different experiences.) Third, my brother not only chose to marry a beautiful girl I already considered a friend, but they both wanted me in their wedding, and they both wanted my 14th birthday to be special – my first time at King’s Island, riding roller coasters and laughing at Chris’ antics. It was special indeed.

Less than three months later, my world changed drastically. The dynamics in our home were something akin to attempts at keeping a full glass of water from spilling a drop on a table with one leg significantly too short. Suddenly an only child, I was lost in a cloud of grief. I didn’t expect comfort from my parents, as they were experiencing more grief than most can handle. Somehow I survived by minimizing my grief, telling myself I wasn’t important enough to feel so sad. My grades dropped because my head wasn’t in the game. The feelings of “only average” became my automatic thoughts, supported by average grades and average standings as I graduated high school and continued in college until I quit after only three semesters. For twenty + years, those thoughts ruled my life and led me to make choices that proved them valid.

Until ten years ago. When I started believing in myself. And started back to college. I can’t say that I’ve “arrived,” but I gain ground each time I step forward and believe I’m capable of accomplishing, not just doing, what I want in life. And I remember a conversation from a few years back. I went to a movie with a much younger male coworker, for a break from studying. Somehow the conversation became an unexpected sharing with a trustworthy friend my struggle in feeling average over the years. When we parted ways, he said, “You are not average. You have plenty to offer.” I held onto that and had to start believing in order to be exceptional.

As I worked at being exceptional in obtaining my degrees, I encountered those who challenged my effort, telling me that as long as I got the diploma, employers rarely notice the actual grades. That could be true, but I can know that I did my best, and that is not average. (I was  actually surprised when friends told me they knew all along that I had exceptional in me.) And as I recently received my first evaluation on my latest side hustle of teaching college students, having challenged myself to be “better than I was yesterday” has proven worth the effort. Previously, I would mentally take myself to the proverbial woodshed each time I made a mistake. Now, I ponder what I can learn and how I can do better the next time. And I look objectively at constructive criticism. I’m not better than anyone else, but I strive to be above average. And I find it much easier to offer grace to others who aren’t at the same place in their journey.

Albert Einstein once said, (Vicky’s translation), “Try not to become a [woman] of success, but rather try to become a [woman] of value.” When I see behaviors in others that are less than complimentary, I want to give myself a check of accountability to prevent curb that behavior in myself. Satisfactory is NOT enough! My desire is to be exceptional. Not better than the next person, but my best self! I have a long way to go. It won’t be easy, but it is possible.