Staying vertical

When asked, “How’s it going in your world today, Daddy?” His answer is likely, “Any day I’m vertical is a good day.” If asked about how he’s feeling, the answer will be, “Great!” because in saying so, he somehow makes it so in his unique world.

For example, I picked him up one day last week to ride around with me, running errands and gathering supplies. We even stopped to have some brunch outside a favorite local spot–no doctor appointments or vaccines or bad news, just a familiar daily experience of “noodling” around town. It was amazing to watch him simply savor riding in the car, looking at the colorful trees and leaves floating on the breeze, feeling the cool wind on his face, and interacting with others during our time together. At one point, we walked into a downtown bank to drop off some company materials for M and dad left with a lollipop and four new acquaintances who knew little about him other than he’s a witty, personable guy.

While Dad never sweats the small stuff (“preventative worry” was my mom’s job according to him), he embraces the small everyday pleasures with the greatest of ease. He rarely allows his unknown setting or situation to get in the way of being a decent human being. His brain may not hold names, dates, or many memories, but deep inside his heart and soul, kindness and decency prevails. He waves and greets, smiles behind his mask, compliments, thanks, and even holds the door for others. He finds purposeful, meaningful ways to interact and showcase his gratefulness for remaining vertical. As a former private pilot, dad often attributes life’s events and experiences to the weather–the various storms, winds, and pressures come and go whether he can fly in them or not. He simply chooses to be grateful for all of them because each season of life brings it own unique opportunities and blessings anyway. And oh how I marvel with the way he keeps moving forward vertically and in gratefulness for as long as he has voice in this world.

So today: When challenges attempt to prevail in your life, what purposeful ways bring fresh perspective and possibility for gratefulness anyway?

Stay vertical y’all, and as always, be blessed and be a blessing as you care for yourself and others. 🙂

Hey, ‘lil pumpkin!

Pumpkins, pumpkins everywhere…

As my paternal grandfather would say, “Hey, ‘lil pumpkin!”  His booming voice and hearty laugh still linger and while I have few memories of him, the ones I do have are strong, especially this time of year.  He grew up on a Texas farm, so planting was in his DNA. As a youngster, I remember growing pumpkins with my Pop Sam (Sr.) in his backyard. Although I’ve seen similar variations of it through the years, it was my grandfather, Pop Sam, who first shared with me the life advice from a pumpkin’s point of view:

Be well-ROUNDED.  ROLL with it. Grow a THICK skin. Enjoy the SONshine. CARVE out your goals. Stand out in your FIELD. Always PATCH things up. Be grateful for the HARVEST. Learn when to hold onto the VINE and when to let go. Add SPICE to your life…and always dream BIG!

Each October, he found something spiritual in the ritual of preparing a pumpkin/Jack-o-Lantern for each Halloween (something my dad did with his granddaughters as well!). From washing off the dirt and opening the pumpkin up to scooping out the inside “goop” to carve on a smiling face, he felt the pumpkin represented each of us in our unique ways. He reminded me how important it is to fill others with a warm, glowing light. He told me,“we all need to occasionally wash off the dirt in our lives and open ourselves up on occasion to scoop out the yucky seeds of doubt, greed, and more so our own inner light can shine better.” While I seriously wonder what he would say about our world today, I’m grateful for these seeds of sage wisdom and practical advice deep in my memory bank. May you and yours enJOY the harvest season and find gentle ways to shine your own light into our world…and may the glow be with you always!

Do we have the sense of a goose?

While reflecting back over some stories from the past today, I found my beloved mom’s response to this VanAmGram blog from 2011…whew…stopped me in my tracks! So grateful for the powerful message mom and I both shared at the beginning of each school year. May we ALL find our “goose sense” and remember to stand by each other…no matter what! HONK!

Van Am Gram

While walking along the Miller track during recess time with a group of learners today, we looked up and noticed a flock of geese in their famous “V” formation.  It reminded me of a powerful lesson my mom always told her staff and one, in fact, I’ve shared with mine.  In light of the cooler Autumn temps today and the geese we noticed, I shared this lesson with the students walking with me: 

Everything in nature happens for a reason and scientists have discovered why geese fly in the “V” formation.  As each bird flaps its wings, it creates an uplift for the bird immediately following.  By flying this way, the whole flock adds at least 71% greater flying range than if each bird flew on its own.  Truth #1:  If we share a common direction and sense of community, we can get where we’re going quicker and easier…

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Not going back…

“Life can only be understood backwards, but must be lived forwards.”

“Hind sight is 20/20 after all.”

“Your bag is lighter when you don’t carry the past with you.”

“Don’t look back; you’re not goin’ that way.”

On the longest day of the year last weekend, Summer Solstice (which ironically fell on Father’s Day), every single phrase surfaced.  While I’m uncertain of the official origin for each, these simple, yet profound phrases continued to fall effortlessly from his wise mouth…

On really good days, we have deep and meaningful conversation in snippets, with daddy easily verbalizing his thought processes.  Stories, family lore, past vacations, dog show adventures, friendships, and more tumble into vibrant snippets of delightful conversation.  He can easily speak with friends or family on the phone, follow a pattern of conversation, and so forth.  I do my best on these days to soak up all I can with him, especially when his sense of humor and teasing take over.

On the harder days, we help him dig deep inside his mental well to encourage him onward…take that shower, use his cane or walker, tell a joke, take a short walk with us, sketch, or “read” in his newest book.  Often times, especially during our ongoing home quarantine, he simply chooses to quietly sit on our screened porch watching the birds at the feeder as he listens to nature hard at work all around him. As Daddy likes to remind on occasion:  “I haven’t forgotten, Bethy; I just can’t remember most of the time.” 

Sometimes, without warning, he looks deep into my eyes, straight inside my soul, and says, “When I forget, thank you for remembering for me.”  Those moments of clarity are a divine gift of JOY!  Gratefully, he is still at a point where he usually understands how we see his needs as we continue to find ways to help him fill them.  While never easy, walking this path with him as the keeper of his memories in his greatest time of need is a gift to both of us.

Alzheimer’s may be taking away the vibrancy of Daddy’s mind, but for now, he has us and we have him; we continue to forge ahead on this unique journey together.  We are reminded how some things in life cannot be fixed, but are shouldered with love, help, and strength of others.  Make no mistake; his heart and soul continue to hold what his mind simply cannot, so we choose to follow his lead and “take what you’re given with grace and dignity and move on because we’re not goin’ back…”  🙂

Personal note:  June is National Alzheimer’s and Brain Awareness Month.  Thanks to the thousands who hosted and supported fundraising activities on the Summer Solstice (the longest day of the year) to continue shining the light of hope for a future without ALZ.  Go to alz.org for more information on how you can support this effort.

Seeds of Promise…

“If we had no winter the spring would not be so pleasant; if we did not taste of adversity, prosperity would not be so welcome…”  ~ Anne Bradstreet

Every year at this time (and especially because Punxsutawney Phil predicted an early spring this year), my hands begin to itch to dig in the dirt, sowing seeds for flowers, herbs, and veggies (and new ideas) to blossom and flourish.  While the cold and snow of winter lingers, there’s always hope of a spring that waits to be.  Even in the midst of long and dark cold days filled with uncertainty, changes, and daily transitions on a personal level, there are small seeds of promise emerging as the mind processes all that is.

As a little girl, I marveled how seeds and bulbs would surrender themselves in the ground to be used for a greater purpose.  Even today, as I find myself uncertain of the next steps in this overwhelming journey with dad, I stubbornly plant myself in order to be used for a greater purpose.  After all, Momma herself observed, “when you plant yourself to make a difference, you grow as a person whose harvest will benefit others and, in your unique way, blossom into your own greatness.”  (I still marvel when finding her pearls of wisdom jotted down in unusual places, like this little jewel written inside a book cover hidden on dad’s shelf.)

In this daily journey with dad, I’ve come to see firsthand how many days pass in semi-unawareness, a busy oblivion if you will.  Ironically, we both find value the mundane and the magical moments, especially when dad is truly present.  We both appreciate we are here together and the most important thing we can do in the situation is just show up.  Nothing about Alzheimer’s or his journey in it is a straight line…everything curves, dives, turns, and twists.  It is filled to the brim with mystery, obstacles, defeats, victories, dead ends, delays, detours, and too many questions.  The one thing I’ve come to personally realize is my immediate purpose may not be the ultimate purpose, but it serves as a catalyst to live and share in this time with him.  And just like the process all seeds and bulbs go through in order to become all they are destined to become, we each continue to go through a unique process to become and do what we are meant to do at this time and in this place.

With all that’s swirling in 2020 so far, having little seeds of promise helps to refocus my energy and hope in the days ahead.  This particular season of winter has not been so pleasant, yet the coming spring is planted in seeds of promise.  It’s time to get busy and continue sowing… 🙂

Tears and tissues…

There’s a powerful quote that unexpectedly surfaced this morning as I quietly sobbed about the news of two more mass shootings within hours of each other: “There is a sacredness in tears.  They are not a mark of weakness, but of power.  They speak more eloquently than ten thousand tongues.  They are the messengers of overwhelming grief, of deep contrition, and of unspeakable love…”  ~Washington Irving~

While tears are literally a body fluid serving to cleanse and lubricate our eyes, more importantly, they are often formed by the crying associated with strong internal emotional responses.  Modern culture is more forgiving of crying because of the known health and mental well-being benefits, but many cultures still consider crying undignified or even unacceptable forms of response.  So why tears and tissues?  Beyond the tragic news this morning, several recent situations have shed powerful personal light on the sacredness of tears.

We often joke in our family about the emotional responses evoked from advertising.  Take those Hallmark commercials (“when you care enough to send the very best”) and most of their movies; they get us every single time.  There are a couple of TV shows stimulating emotional responses because the characters are somehow living out our lives on the little screen.  Daily news events, poetry, short stories, novels, magazine articles, cards, letters, emails, social media, and more…all can awaken and summon unexpected emotional responses through shared human connection.

These days, it’s quite unusual to see my dad cry anytime.  His emotions and responses are fairly stagnant due to his advancing Alzheimer’s.  He’s not easily moved to great JOY or deep sorrow because he takes most news and situations with little-to-no reaction (this is how I know he’s not really processing all life throws his way). Gratefully, his witty sense of humor and teasing are still intact, thus we can “spar” with one another on his good days.  A couple of weeks ago, though, he had an emotional meltdown when the reality of my leaving on a short trip came to pass.  I talked him through the plan with his white board, handed him tissues, hugged him up tight, and did my best to reassure him his “team” would be with him every step of the way in my absence.  His favorite caregiver took over and I gingerly climbed into my vehicle to leave for the airport.  It completely broke my heart to experience this surprising response from him, thus I quietly cried clear across the country on the plane until I fell asleep exhausted (sorry, lady in the seat next to me).

My family knows, in an ironic twist quite outside my comfort zone, I cry more now than ever before in my life.  It’s not unusual for me to wipe tears of JOY or sadness on a daily basis.  This new phenom entered my world exactly three weeks to the day after mom’s passing three years ago, when the reality of losing her physical being (long after losing her mental and emotional being from Alzheimer’s) finally surfaced in a powerful delayed response.  I was quietly participating in the Anglican Evensong service at York Minster Cathedral in York, England.  Our little group was sitting in the beautiful choral loft on the opposite side of the chorus and vicar leading worship.  The dam of emotions suddenly broke and a profound flood of quiet but ugly, messy crying ensued.  My traveling companions vividly recall the bizarre scene of continuing to sing the liturgical responses and helplessly scrambling to find just one tissue, a scarf, or anything to help me stop the continuous flow of fluids.  Once the service ended and I managed to somewhat reign in my quiet sobs, the vicar approached our little group.  He quietly handed me his personal handkerchief along with the invitation to walk with him.  The two of us strolled leisurely along the magnificent handcrafted stone structure with its stunning collection of medieval stained glass, talking about loss and hope in this journey we call life.  The vicar ended our conversation by gently reminding me how “shedding tears as Jesus did is a powerful emotional release when dealing with all this season of your life evokes; simply embrace and celebrate the process in all its forms…” 

During a recent lunch with a friend of mine, we commented on the fact we’ve both cried enough tears in the past year to possibly resolve a saltwater shortage.  (Fun fact:  Research shows humans make 15 to 30 gallons of tears each year on a normal basis).  Often times, and in both our cases, the physical aspect of our tears clears the way and helps us gracefully move forward in hope.

I have a wonderful friend who enthusiastically collects and carries bandannas with him each day.  Because of him, I’m always on the lookout for unique designs to gift to him, knowing if I needed one at any time, he would have one for me.  Yes; you guessed it; he recently gifted me with one, thus starting my own collection by emotional default.

So here’s hoping my friends, we remember to embrace the sacredness of our tears on our journeys…and please find a little comfort in knowing I’m making it a mission to have a tissue or bandanna ready to give you when your flood of tears flows.  🙂

Leading and power sweeping…

Even in his final moments, he led with his strengths…and he did it in a profoundly calm and peaceful way… St. M’s oldest beloved brother, Tom, passed from this life to his eternal reward today.  While we’ve spent the remainder of this day preparing, pondering, and sharing remembrances, this one particular story keeps resurfacing as an illustration of a man with extraordinary strengths and gifts.  If you will, please indulge me in a moment of personal reflection…and Tom, this one’s for you, big guy…

The legendary coach, Vince Lombardi, once hosted a four-day football clinic for coaches and devoted two full days to just one play, the Power Sweep.  If you know football history, Coach Lombardi and the Green Bay Packers won five league championships, including the first two Super Bowl Games because of that one play (see, St. M; I DO listen to your football lessons).  Everyone, including Green Bay’s competitors, knew the Power Sweep was coming, and yet, they still couldn’t stop it.  Coach and his team developed a strength that became an unstoppable force of positive momentum, and they led with this strength every time.

As a part-time coach of YMCA football for 24 years, Tom often visited with me about teaching and learning.  He was fascinated how educators (and coaches) find ways to be masters of not only their own strengths, but of those in their care.  Tom understood how focusing energy and practice, mastering fundamentals, and developing individual strengths created a culture of personal excellence on the field, and off.  The more time spent developing and leading with strengths, the more each person became successful in them.

After one particularly lively conversation with Tom during a Van Am family meal, St. Michael shared this extraordinary moment from his young life, perfectly demonstrating Tom’s very truth:

“It wGreen Bay Packersas August 20, 1966. In May of the year, I was struck by a car sustaining severe, life-threatening injuries.  Living within a full-length body cast for several months, my father sought to provide encouragement and motivation for powering through during the long recovery process.  As a member of the Dallas Salesmanship Club, he secured sideline game passes for the Dallas Cowboys vs. Green Bay Packers game at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas.  My oldest brother, Tom, wheeled me in my stretcher chair onto the field at the 40-yard-line (what an experience of a lifetime!).  Late in the third quarter, the Packers were driving down the field using their infamous Power Sweep on almost every play.  When they reached the 35-yard-line, we had a perfect view to watch each play develop.  Bart Starr handed the football to Paul Hornung, who followed a parade of blockers around the right end.  The Cowboys defended the play well, pushing the onrushing team of blockers and runners to the sidelines exactly where we were located.  Sensing an imminent collision, my brother Tom sacrificed his quarterback body (because he was the star quarterback on the high school team) to block the blow by diving in front of the onrushing Packers and Cowboys.  Thankfully, eighteen players ran around my location without injury or incident.  After the game, Bart Starr walked over and presented Tom with an autographed chin strap from his helmet, saying, “Bud, you had the best block of the entire game.” 

Now THAT is knowing your strength…mentally, physically, emotionally…and leading with it, even in the midst of possible defeat and bodily injury!

Tom often said, “We don’t need an average team or an average “you;” we need the best you…and when you lead with your strength, you share your best always.”  He never forgot the power of one simple, clear truth:  lead with your strength.

Thanks, Michael, for sharing this most personal of stories and heeding the advice of your big brother all these years; he’s a part of the reason you’re called Saint.  Tom, thanks for sharing the true spirit of brotherhood and love with the world by actively demonstrating how to lead with your strengths as a part of your profound legacy.  May we all take a moment in this season of hope, peace, joy, and love to pause and powerfully reflect on our strengths and how best to lead with them.  Just imagine the possibilities when we genuinely find more ways to create positive Power Sweeps of our own in the coming year…

Silent and Listen

SILENT and LISTEN…the same six letters spell these two words.  Stop for a moment to just be silent and listen.  Really, just stop!  Be silent and listen…

Most days I’m grateful to have the opportunity to stay aware of current events, but lately I find myself filled with profound sadness, grief, anger, and disappoint to watch or listen to news.  On the other hand, my dad (who lives with us) spends most of his waking hours watching and listening to news, regardless of what’s being shared.  While watching a national newscast just this morning the reporter was updating events and speaking with survivors from the Synagogue mass shooting in Pittsburgh when our local news interrupted with “shots fired at local high school.”  I froze; as a recently retired 34-year educator, my heart stopped and breath escaped my body. Silence and intense listening occurred.

As an example, during my tenure I lived through numerous “newsworthy” events–some staged drills and others real-life events. Until retirement, I was truthfully on edge, constantly waiting for “when, not if.”  Educators and learners must train for events (shelter-in-place, evacuation, and lockdown), but until the situation calls for REAL action, there is no way to predict how anyone will respond in the moment.  I’ve been the teacher in the classroom with students in lockdown for four+ hours AND the administrator in charge at the command center until first-responders take command.  I was one of the fortunate ones, thankfully surviving real tornadoes, massive hail storms, torrential rains with a roof collapsing, gas leaks, a building fire, lightening strikes, and multiple active shooter DRILLS, but never a real shooter on campus. After any drill or real event, we did what’s called a “hotwash.”  It was my opportunity to learn…to gratefully be silent and really listen.

As another example, as one who sits in the choir loft looking into the congregation on any given Sunday morning, I’m constantly scanning the back of the church, watching anyone entering or exiting, and waiting for “the event.”  In fact, every time I enter any building, form of transportation, or anyplace other than my home, I’m scanning for the nearest exit and creating a quick plan for safety purposes.  SOOO much training!  My family has come to appreciate this about me because they’ve learned to just be silent and listen.

In the unfortunate age of mass shootings in the country I call home, it somehow still stuns me to face a constant barrage of talking heads on social media, TV news, radio waves, and other forms of modern communication.  They talk and act like they know and understand.  Unless you’ve lived through an actual situation, you do not know and understand.  You can appreciate the seriousness of the situation, but placing words into others’ mouths, speculating, wool-gathering, and more will not bring back human loss.  Just be silent and listen!

Love, encourage, uplift, and strengthen one another…these are words I gratefully grew up hearing from the adults in my life.  In these troubling times of more questions and few answers, it is more important than ever to respectfully be silent and listen.  There’s a time for talking, asking questions, building others up, problem solving, and finding solutions, but learning the fine art of being silent and listening first is critical.  After all, most of us have two ears and only one mouth. We are ALL part of the problem; we can ALL be part of the solutions and actions needed in moving forward  First, we must be silent and listen.

So…on Day #16:   What’s your personal plan to be silent and listen? 

I’m gratefully and lovingly continuing to work on this daily.

Grateful Game…Day One

I know; it’s been months since the last post.  So much life…

Today, however, marks 40 days until my personal favorite holiday of the year, Thanksgiving.  In an effort to jump start the season of thanks and giving, these next 40 days are all about GRATEFULNESS.  As a way to express appreciation, share kindness, and reflectively narrate on gratitudes of gratefulness, there will be one question posted each day (similar to prior years with Christmas Questions) so feel free to play along with the Grateful Game.

As you know, being grateful is an extraordinary feeling of appreciation for a kindness, a welcome experience of gratitude and thankfulness.  Being authentically grateful brings pleasure and contentment on a level we could genuinely use in our daily world.  The word itself comes from the Latin derivative, gratus, “showing grace, blessing, and JOY…” Just like daily physical exercise, we must create mindful ways to powerfully practice daily gratitude in order to benefit mind, body, and soul.

Day One:   What is ONE thing you are grateful for today, only today?

This is personally easy:  rest.  It’s been a challenging week of weather-related anxieties, preparations, cleanup, regroup, and more.  Being grateful for simple, comfortable rest, including deep sleep, rejuvenates all functions.  Purposefully planning an entire day of rest with little-to-no agenda is a self-care tool to gratefully embrace. My favorite Transcendentalist, Henry David Thoreau noted, “I am grateful for what I am and have…my Thanksgiving is perpetual.”   What’s your ONE grateful thing today?

Mommas…

My momma always told me the best sermon is a great example, thus she and daddy (for better, or worse sometimes) taught us daily by their example.  My sister and I know we “chose our parents well” because in the midst of everyday life, there were the daily lessons by example.

As I watch moms today in the grocery store or at the park, it occurs to me how moms must be as wise as Solomon, as smart as Socrates, as unconditionally loving as Mother Teresa, and as disciplined as Coach John Wooden.  My mom demonstrated daily who she was and lived by the legacy she created with sass, grit, humor, and a dash of humbleness.  She shaped our character, expected integrity, and encouraged us to dream big for the future.  We learned to control our attitude and effort because those are really the only two things in our constant control.  And just like her classroom, mom set the bar extremely high but provided a cushion when we stumbled along the way.  Our mom was our first and most important teacher, advocate, and disciplinarian; she set the rules and we followed them (mostly).

While mom’s physical voice is now silent, the echos of her lessons ring strong inside my soul.  I’m grateful and thankful for the example of my mom.  At times I was so busy growing up and then raising two little women of my own, I often forgot she was growing older too, but mom was always smart enough to hold on, and then brave enough to let go on her journey…  I’m abundantly grateful and thankful for the example of my mom (and dad) who raised me well so I could one day be a mom to the two grown miracles who shower my world in JOY!  Happy Mother’s Day to all you moms!