Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Your political party may be different than mine, but we're still on the same team

From Saturday's Briefing:

I eat lunch with about 10 colleagues each day. We visit about television and movies, families, goals and aspirations, work, the weekend before and the weekend to come. Our conversation runs from silly to serious and back again in the short amount of time we have between classes.
I have no idea how most of these co-workers will vote in the midterm elections.
I sit on the right side of the sanctuary every Sunday morning. There are dozens of folks in front, behind and beside me. We sing hymns together, pray together, consider sermons together. We sometimes chuckle in unison, and we sometimes weep at the same time.

I have no idea which church members cheered for Brett Kavanaugh's confirmation and which shook their heads in resignation.
I volunteer with a group of moms who are trying to get a PTSA running at our high school. We debate how much to budget for hospitality and mini-grants. We estimate how many members we'll have by the end of the year and how much money we can raise to cover expenses.
I have no idea how most of these volunteers feel about Colin Kaepernick or Robert Mueller.
At work, at church, at volunteer meetings, we're all working toward common goals, and we're too busy getting stuff done to get weighed down by superfluous arguments.

My colleagues are there to teach and guide students. Those church members are there to worship, experience community and find truth. My mom friends want to support their children and the people who teach them.
We work toward our goals without regard to which cable news network we watch, which online sources we read, which candidates we support. We may disagree on procedures or small details, but we're willing to compromise, to resolve conflict for the greater good.
My social media world, well, that's a different story. There's an obscene amount of hate being thrown about on Twitter and Facebook. Lines drawn. Names called. Civility tossed.

Yes, these are tumultuous times. We are divided on judicial nominations, health care, climate change, tariffs, FBI investigations, immigration, acceptable forms of protest.
Our country seems to have lost its shared goals. Or we've lost sight of what those goals are, signaling an appropriate time to reflect on meaningful documents and important thinkers.
From our Declaration of Independence in 1776:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
From Martin Luther King Jr., during his Nobel Prize acceptance speech in 1964:
Man must evolve for all human conflict a method, which rejects revenge, aggression, and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love.
Are we still a nation that pursues equality for all, that believes in unalienable rights? Are we capable of setting aside revenge, aggression and retaliation in favor of love?
When my children were much younger and we were in the early stages of grief after my husband's death, Cooper and Katie were bickering more than usual. Tempers were short. I was desperate for a solution.
I spoke with 8-year-old Cooper about the importance of getting along, about not directing our anger or sadness about Daddy's death at one another.
I asked Cooper what his soccer team tries to do.
"Score goals."
And would you ever argue with your teammate on the field when you're trying to score a goal?
"Oh, no!"
Arguing didn't totally shut down in our house, but we rediscovered our shared direction.
No matter which candidates or party we claim, we're all on the same big team — and each of us is valuable and worthy of respect.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. She can be reached at tyradamm@gmail.com.

Tuesday, October 02, 2018

How parenting can be a lot like gardening

From Saturday's Briefing:

To be a parent is to be a gardener — a gardener in an emotional, unpredictable, chaotic plot of land that you're totally devoted to despite constant self-doubt and lack of clear instructions.
You plant seeds all over the place, sometimes in neat rows, sometimes haphazardly in reaction to spindly weeds.
There's no predictable cycle. Sometimes you plant a seed, sprinkle a little water, hope for the best and harvest a bountiful crop. Or you might plant, water, prune, prune, prune, plant some more, water some more, swat away pests, wait a few years, spy a sprout and then eventually, after all kinds of worry, take in a single, precious bloom.
I was folding laundry this week while Cooper was in the next room, on the phone with a friend. She was seeking advice on a major project, one that Cooper had already turned in.
"I told you not to wait on this one," he reminded her. Then he talked her through some details from the assignment's rubric and offered tips and encouragement to finish in the time remaining.
Out of his sight, I danced a silent jig of happiness, in celebration of this rare harvest.
My son boasts a long list of fine qualities, and, like all humans, he has some room for improvement. Time management is what I would call one of his growth opportunities.
Yet this school year has been a little different. Yes, he stays up late each night finishing homework (I would, too, if I were taking four Advanced Placement classes), but he's more deliberate in anticipating his schedule and starting long-term assignments early — the day it's assigned, even.
There have been years of planting, watering and pruning. Years of modeling with to-do lists, reminders and calendars. Years of me reminding, "I told you not to wait on this one." Years of asking, "What can you learn from this experience?"

He was learning the whole time. The yield simply took longer than I expected.
Another afternoon this week, I was in my classroom, grading papers while a group of students met to discuss the brand-new Newspaper Club, the brainchild of two sixth-graders who asked me to be their sponsor.
My Katie, an eighth-grader who arrives early and stays late because I'm her ride to and from school, decided to join the club, partly because she enjoys writing and partly because she's already in the room.

The rest of the group was struggling to agree on features to include in the first issue. They have big dreams and fanciful ideas, and there was some conflict, as is typical in group projects with passionate members.
Katie observed, listened, then spoke.
"I suggest that we look at an actual newspaper and its sections. Perhaps we can take one idea from each section for our own newspaper."

I danced a jig in my mind (so as to not embarrass my eighth-grader).
Katie, like her brother and all humans, bears laudable qualities and harbors some growth opportunities. She speaks her mind, sometimes without thinking how her words will be received. You might call it showing signs of leadership or signs of bossiness, depending on your perspective.
But this time, without prompting or coaching, she assessed the situation and provided a route for compromise. She gave no specific answers but rather provided needed direction. The group responded well and made progress, with fewer arguments and more collaboration.
Another harvest after years of tending.
I'm celebrating my family's recent evidence of growth while also noting that the garden still has wild patches. Some spots need a little more water. Others need to be left alone. And who knows when the next invasive species will arrive.
As always, I've got my eye on some long-anticipated sprouts. Their schedule is unpredictable, but I've learned that the harvest eventually arrives.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. She can be reached at tyradamm@gmail.com.
Katie and Cooper, September 2018

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

How will history judge us a century from now?

From Saturday's Briefing:

European refugees turned away from our shore. Liberation of concentration camps. Unfettered slave trade. The Emancipation Proclamation. An East German death tower. Segments of the Berlin Wall, remnants of a dismantled regime.
My family's recent weekend trip to Washington, D.C., served as a reminder of the weight of history, with intermingled grief and triumph, despair and hope.
We have visited our nation's capital half a dozen times, but this was the first time I felt comfortable taking both children to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. It's essential that we study and attempt to understand the causes and devastating effects of the Holocaust, but the exhibits are tough to process, even for adults.
The museum immerses visitors right away, with individual stories of victims. Then you walk through the permanent exhibit, three floors that chronicle the rise of Nazism in Germany, the "Final Solution" and its aftermath.
The primary accounts, artifacts and explanations offer chilling context and lessons in the destruction that humans can create. Few visitors talk while walking through the galleries; words fail when confronted with so much horror.
There are plenty of tears.
Yet amid the evidence of unspeakable hatred and mass murder lay fragments of light and whispers of hope. There are stories of the persecuted who rebelled, of heroes who housed and protected Jews, of insurgency within Hitler's ranks, of Americans who never stopped seeking intervention.
We left with renewed courage to resist conformity and to speak up for those without a voice.
The next day, we were fortunate to get entry to the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture, which celebrates its second anniversary this month.
We could have spent an entire day at the museum and still not seen every exhibit. We had only a few hours, so we focused on the history galleries, which tell the stories of slave trading, the American Revolution, life on plantations, Civil War and Reconstruction, Jim Crow era, civil rights movement and more.
It's impossible to reconcile the words of the Declaration of Independence, "that all men are created equal," juxtaposed near artifacts of slavery.
The galleries offer more complex stories than any history textbook I've read. The exhibits reveal pain and sorrow, yet, because they are about the human condition, they also describe resilience and honor.
We left with a deeper understanding that the only way to tell the American story is to include the full African-American story.
Before we returned to Dallas, we required a repeat visit to one of our favorites, the Newseum, a testament to the First Amendment. The exhibits offer a distinct viewpoint of the past century, with Pulitzer Prize-winning photographs, video clips from breaking news and front pages from pivotal days in history.
The museum's Berlin Wall Gallery features eight panels from the Berlin Wall, preserved after the concrete wall was dismantled in 1989. The East Berlin side is stark, an empty slate, a reminder of an oppressed population. The West Berlin side is covered with graffiti that represents both frustration and freedom of expression, with phrases including "You are power" and "Act up!"
Another exhibit recalls the events of Sept. 11, 2001, with published accounts from around the country and videos that recall the horrors of that morning, 17 years ago. In the center of the space stands a mangled section of the broadcast antenna that once stood atop the North Tower of the World Trade Center.
I remember those days and weeks after 9/11, when amid shock and fear we witnessed the best of humanity, when we both preached and practiced unity.
We are light-years removed from such civility.
I wonder how history will judge us a century from now. Will historians find hints of hope amid evidence of public name-calling and angry divisions? Are we using our power and voices for good?
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. She can be reached at tyradamm@gmail.com.
The Berlin Wall Gallery
 at the Newseum in Washington, D.C.,
 includes pieces of the fallen wall,
with West Berlin's graffiti-covered
side standing in stark
contrast to the bare East Berlin side. 

Tuesday, September 04, 2018

Meet Sandy, the shelter dog who gave us reason to open our hearts again

From Saturday's Briefing:

If my children were in charge around here, we would have adopted a dog a year ago, just after our beloved Scottish terrier passed away. They missed the noise, busyness and companionship that comes with a family dog.
I, on the other hand, wasn't sure that I could ever take in another pup. Margie had been our fuzzy friend for more than a decade, a rescue dog who stood sentry at the front door and enjoyed an occasional sprint down the street.
She was loyal and proud, snuggly and protective. I nursed her through two years of chronic illness before she died, and I couldn't imagine going through that pain again. Why set myself up for an eventual broken heart?
Katie and Cooper, eternal optimists, were subtly relentless. They shared stories about their friends' dogs. They fawned over dogs in the neighborhood. They accepted dog-sitting jobs with fervent devotion.
I refused to budge. Until I spied Sandy.
I fell in love with Sandy this summer, when her shelter intake photo was posted online. My defenses dissolved each time I stole glances of her on my cellphone. A few days later, the kids and I met her at a foster home, and an hour after that she was perched in Cooper's lap for the drive to her new home.
Sandy
We are smitten with this scruffy whirlwind of fluff.
Sandy is a terrier of unknown origin. She's blonde and white with a short snout, floppy ears and a significant underbite. She pounces on stuffed animals with a vengeance yet never chews them. She runs laps in the backyard like an Olympic champion. She has reflexes like a cat. She stretches her 15-pound body across the back door when she senses that one of her people are leaving.
She thinks she's the boss of us.
There have been some adjustments. We are resuming daily walks (when summer heat allows). We have learned to hide athletic shoes, as Sandy has an affinity for laces. We're trying to figure out what makes her bark — though it's not often, it's loud, and her triggers are a complete mystery.
When we return home from work and school, she can't decide which need is greater — to devour kibble or to demand nonstop belly rubs. When someone sits on the sofa, she's there in a flash, prepared to receive ear scratches.

She's not a puppy, but she's young enough and new enough to our home that she requires attention that actually forces me to slow down and take a break. She stays up late with whichever child has more homework. She wags her tail whenever we say hello or even glance in her direction.
Sandy is as good for us as we are for her.
This pup is a wiggly reminder that there is joy found in overcoming fear of the unknown. We don't know how many years we'll have with Sandy, but right now we're enjoying each new day. (Of course, that's the only way she knows how to live. Dogs were born to live in the moment.)
I don't regret waiting to find a pet for our little family — my caution led us to the perfect dog for us — yet I'm thankful that Katie and Cooper were persistent. Some decisions are best made with childlike faith, from the heart.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at tyradamm@gmail.com.
Katie, Cooper & Sandy

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

My senior is 100 percent ready for senior year, but my heart is catching up

From Saturday's Briefing:

Dear child on the eve of your senior year,
You are 100 percent ready for this final year of high school. My heart is catching up.
When you stand on the front porch in the morning, posing for our traditional first-day-of-school photo, I will see both a 6-foot-4 young man and a squirmy 5-year-old. Or perhaps I'll struggle to see much at all, vision clouded by tears.
I anticipate many momma tears this year, as you experience all sorts of "lasts" and prepare for a host of "firsts." But I'm also prepared for a whole bunch of joy — and the smidge of frustration that veteran parents have warned me about.
You and your peers were the last group of babies born in the carefree days before 9/11. While the nation was in shock and mourning, we parents held our babies extra tight, fearful for your future, comforted by your innocence.
We have persevered. You have persevered.
When you started kindergarten, your family looked like most of the families in our neighborhood. Mom, dad, little sister. In the middle of first grade, your life took an unexpected turn with Daddy's cancer diagnosis. Your world shattered at the beginning of third grade, when Daddy took his final breath.

We have persevered. You have persevered.
Your third-grade teacher, guidance counselor, principal and I set a goal in the days after Daddy's death: You would end the year emotionally healthy. I cared little for how many spelling tests you passed or how many math facts you memorized.
You cared a great deal, though. You struggled and persisted and progressed.
We learned in the middle of fourth grade that you had been coping for years with undiagnosed dyslexia and dysgraphia. You cheered the news — literally, as if you'd won a prize — thrilled to have an explanation for the obstacles you tackled daily.
You never backed down in the face of learning disabilities. You adopted new strategies. You advocated for yourself. You discovered that trying even harder can be exhausting -- and rewarding.
I have few fears about your senior year and life beyond because you've already endured some of life's greatest heartaches. And you have flourished.
You are creative. You are compassionate. You are light in the darkness.
Moms and dads who've already been where I am tell me the same thing: Enjoy every moment of this year. It's the same advice I give to new mommas, holding their precious infants, because this journey is circuitous and unpredictable and passes faster than our imaginations can comprehend.
I've got all kinds of checklists in my head: college and financial aid applications, senior photos, yearbook ad, registration for AP exams, campus housing deposit, graduation announcements. And events already march across our calendar: senior breakfast, one more ACT, cross country meets, homecoming, bonfire, prom, baccalaureate, graduation.
I'm trying to leave room for what isn't scheduled, for impromptu moments when you share a new favorite song, when I keep you company while you study for calculus, when you ask with sincerity, "What spices did you use for this chicken?"
Some days will be rocky. You will test boundaries. You won't always agree with my decisions. You will question my logic, and I will question yours.
We will forgive one another. We will persevere.
A year from now, you'll be settled in a dorm room far away, embracing new freedoms and exploring life beyond our little house. You'll be ready before me, but I'll eventually catch up.
Know that when I hug you extra tight in these coming days and weeks and months, I'm storing up comfort. I'm preparing my heart.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. She can be reached at tyradamm@gmail.com.
First day of kinder in 2006, first day of 12 grade in 2018

Tuesday, August 07, 2018

Kitchen adventures put need for control to the test

From Saturday's Briefing:

I like to think that my children have solid life skills, that I've given them appropriate freedoms and responsibilities to function in a home.
In theory, my two teenagers can prepare meals, wash dishes, take care of laundry and clean the house. The work isn't always done with precision, and there's some work I'd rather just do myself, but they don't balk — at least not obviously — at chores I give them.
Some of their domestic skills, and my need for control, have been put to the test recently.

Their youth group was hosting a potluck at church this week, the same week my schedule was packed with deadlines. I asked Cooper and Katie to choose the dishes, create a shopping list, purchase the ingredients and prepare the recipes.
The first step was simple. They agreed on cowboy cookies (a family favorite) and orzo pesto salad (based on no past experience).
Cooper shopped, navigating the store with occasional questions, which he would sometimes ask grocery employees and sometimes text me.
"Where is celery? I'm struggling."
(Produce, near the lettuce.)
"What about orzo?"
(Pasta aisle.)
"And chocolate chips?"
(Baking aisle.)
After he returned home, he realized that he'd forgotten unsalted butter. And that he had mistaken pecans for walnuts in the bulk aisle. He returned to the store.
At last, all the ingredients were assembled, and Cooper and Katie divided to conquer tasks. She was in charge of making pesto and boiling orzo. He was in charge of chopping all the veggies. They would share the cookie duty.
As I worked on a project nearby, trying not to hover, I realized all kinds of tips that I hadn't yet shared. It's easier to chop bell peppers from the flesh side, not the waxy skin side. You can line up two stalks of celery, side by side, for quicker slicing. Basil should be rinsed well and totally dried before being tossed in the blender.
I attempted to stay out of the kitchen and to offer advice only when asked.
With the salad complete, they moved on to dessert. I left the house to run a couple of errands, expecting to come home to the scent of cowboy cookies.
Instead, I came home to frustration. The dough was too thick, Cooper complained. I quizzed him on butter. Did they put in one cup? Or one stick?
The kitchen was silent, followed by frantic rereading of directions and butter sticks. Alas, the batter was missing half its butter.
Their faces fell. "Is all this wasted?" one wailed.
"These are the kind of mistakes we can recover from," I counseled. "You can still add more butter." (It's much harder to remove it, as I learned in the Great Snickerdoodle Debacle of 1994.)
I intervened before they just threw another stick in. I suggested that they scoop the dough into a new bowl, use the mixer to beat another half cup of butter, then return the dough and mix again.
At last, the dough was ready, and together we scooped teaspoons of the stuff onto cookie sheets — cookie sheets that were warm, by the way, because Katie forgot to remove the pans from the oven before preheating.
The whole experience took twice as long as it would have, had I done the work myself. There would have been less uncertainty, less irritation, less mess.
There also would have been no risks and no rewards.
Cooper and Katie gained a few new skills as they prepped for their potluck. I suspect they'll be more likely to remember that lists should be double-checked before leaving the store, that one stick of butter equals half a cup, that the oven should be cleared before preheating. Most importantly, I hope they remember that most mistakes aren't life-or-death matters — they're invitations to grow.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. She can be reached at tyradamm@gmail.com.
Katie and Cooper, hard at work in the kitchen (with special Sandy appearance) 

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

People in glass houses shouldn't throw Build-a-Bears

From this week's Briefing:

When Cooper was a toddler, some of his favorite toys were the Little People playsets.
He would line up the animals two by two to march in and out of Noah's Ark. He would direct cars up and down the elevator and ramp of the garage. He would spend hours arranging a sheep and a cow, a goat and a chicken, a horse and a pig, plus Farmer Eddie, around the barnyard.
When he finished playing, I would help him place each character back in its own set. It was totally fine for the giraffes to ride the garage elevator or for Farmer Eddie to check out the deck of Noah's boat, but at the end of the day, those pieces needed to find their original homes.
Cooper was still an only child. His toy collection was small. I expected we'd always keep everything tidy and in its place. I was naïve.
One night before bath time, not all of the livestock made it back to the barn, but I didn't notice until it was too late. While Cooper was getting clean, one of our dogs procured the cow and gnawed on it like it was a real side of beef.
All that remained were shards of brown plastic.
I cleaned the evidence, fearful of how our son would react to the mangled toy, and vowed to never mention it. I also began a crazed search for a replacement cow to make the barnyard whole again.
Fisher Price didn't sell individual animals, so I briefly considered buying an entire new set, just to get a single cow. That was pushing it too far, I realized, so I turned to eBay. No one was peddling a lone cow, but there was a bag of random Little People creatures, including the one animal we needed.
I placed a bid, won the lot, ripped open the box when it arrived, fished out the coveted cow, washed it with dish soap and nestled it next to the chicken when Cooper wasn't looking.
Parenthood drives us to some strange places.
It's what causes grownups to stand in line at the mall for hours — hours! — with their toddlers and preschoolers, waiting for the opportunity to buy a stuffed animal at a reduced cost.
Build-A-Bear offered a now-infamous promotion earlier this month, promising to sell stuffed animals for $2 for a 2-year-old, $3 for a 3-year-old, etc. Stores across the country were overwhelmed with customers who lined up and set up camp for the bargain. Some fights were even reported. The promotion was shut down for safety concerns early in the day, long before everyone in line could choose a bear or bunny or unicorn for cheap.
My first reaction to this madness was relief that my children are now teenagers. We are in the bittersweet stage of culling our massive collection of stuffed animals rather than adding to it.
Second reaction: moderated scorn. Who would waste a summer day trapped in a line with hundreds of other families? Do these people not realize the value of their time? How on earth are they keeping those children calm while waiting?
Third reaction: empathy tinged with recognition. I'm not that far removed from the teddy bear days, from wanting a change of pace after being home for days at a time, from going to great lengths to make my tiny child happy — whether they know it or not.
Clearly, based on my shady past as a mom freaked out over an incomplete barnyard for a 2-year-old, I am in no position to question or judge. I can only learn from my own obsessions and questionable choices, while sometimes longing for the days when the biggest parenting crisis was a destroyed cow.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. She can be reached at tyradamm@gmail.com.

Monday, July 09, 2018

What I learned on my summer vacation

From Saturdays' Briefing:

Cooper and Katie on Shipwreck Rock
Life away from home offers unique insight into how independent my children really are, how much more they need to learn — and how much I have to learn, too.
They both can navigate an airport security line with ease. They can speak with adults, ask questions and advocate for themselves. They can walk into a store on their own, make wise decisions and check out without me.
There are some life skills we're still working on, though, including some I never thought to cover.
We spent a couple of days last week in a charming vacation home on the edge of Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs, Colo. The owners lived at the front of the property, and they've furnished the rental home like an extension of their own.
Cooper was thrilled to find a stereo complete with a turntable and collection of albums. He wasted no time in selecting some tunes (Dean Martin, the Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel) and turning on the equipment. He quickly learned the delicate balance of placing the needle at the beginning of the first song, without allowing the needle to slide off the edge. He had no context for the flipside of an album — he's never had to turn over a CD, itself a dated medium.
Halfway through a Rolling Stones song, a snippet of words and notes repeated again and again.
"Pick up the needle, Coop. It's stuck," I told him.
Katie thought for a moment and exclaimed, "That's why people say, 'Sounds like a broken record!'"
Later that night, Katie chose a movie to watch. Most of the family's collection was on VHS. Katie held The Hunchback of Notre Damecassette as if it were a fragile antique. She looked back and forth between the VCR and the cassette, unsure of how the two should meet. I coached her through, and when the movie came on the screen, it was about halfway finished.
It was an excellent opportunity to teach the lost art of rewinding.
After some hiking and river rafting, we left Colorado Springs to join family farther west in South Fork. The rental car was packed with suitcases, bottled water and snacks. I set my navigation app to lead us to South Fork, and we hit the road.
We were about an hour into the journey when an electronic road sign warned that U.S. Route 285, the upcoming leg of our journey, was closed because of wildfires. Cellphone service was spotty, and the navigation app wouldn't respond with an alternative.
I'm no expert on Colorado roads. Those mountains get in the way of direct routes. A wise traveler in such a situation would have at least placed a printed map in the car.
I was not such a wise traveler.
Cooper was eventually able to pull up a map on his phone, study the roads and find an option other than turning around. While I continued driving, he directed me to take State Highway 9, a detour that would add almost two hours to our trip but would protect us from wildfires or an even longer route.
We're a good team, the three of us. When one of us struggles, someone else is ready to swoop in. We're independent when needed, but we're not afraid to ask for help. Not a single one of us knows everything, but we're curious and eager to learn.
A year from now, Cooper will be preparing for his freshman year in college. Four years after that, Katie will leave home, too. My continued prayer is that they will be ready to navigate on their own, that they will ask for directions when necessary and that they always feel anchored to our family team.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. She can be reached at tyradamm@gmail.com.
Rafting the Rio Grande

Monday, June 25, 2018

What to do when life twists in ways you don't expect

From Saturday's Briefing:

A dear friend and I met at a park last week, sat at a picnic table in the shade and discussed her cancer treatment options.
This mom of two children never anticipated making these kinds of decisions. She never planned to spend this winter, spring and now summer at medical appointments and in hospitals. She never expected to take on life-and-death worries at such a young age.
Life often twists in ways we don't expect. We can't totally prepare.
As we continued to visit, I shared with her a story that I'm not proud of.
It was the summer of 2006. Our family of four was halfway through a weeklong vacation.
We had flown from Dallas to Milwaukee, rented a minivan and drove north to Calumet, a tiny town in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. We spent a couple of days exploring my grandfather's hometown, learning about copper mining, eating pasties, walking the same streets he'd walked decades before.
Then we drove east, to St. Ignace, to catch a ferry to Mackinac Island, a charming resort area with no motorized vehicles.
The trip was unfolding exactly as I had planned it. We'd eaten at the restaurants I'd researched. We'd arrived at all of our destinations within 30 minutes of my estimation. In the back of the van were carefully packed bags — suitcases for the island and suitcases we could leave behind.
We pulled in to a ticket office, purchased fares for the next ferry and piled back in the van to drive to the docks.
Steve waited for an opportunity to turn left on a busy four-lane road. A car on his left stopped and motioned him through. Steve didn't see a car in the second lane, a car that wasn't stopped, a car that hit the minivan on the driver's side.
The minivan was totaled. We were not. Steve suffered some cuts from the airbag that deployed. We were all a little achy. Mercifully, we walked away from the accident.
We did not make the next ferry. We talked with the rental car company (that was an unpleasant phone call). We talked with our insurance agent at home. We gathered all those bags — even the ones I had carefully packed to stay behind — and climbed in a police officer's SUV. He drove us to the docks, and we made a later sailing.
I should have been thankful that we weren't seriously injured, that the other driver wasn't injured, that we had a place to stay that night. And though deep down I was thankful for all of those things, I am embarrassed to say that I was mostly angry.
Angry that my plans were disrupted, that we had to lug all of our stuff on that boat, that we'd lost sight-seeing time, that we'd have to arrange for another rental car when it was time to leave the island.
My plans allowed no room for variables.
Six months later, we were hit with the devastating news of my husband's cancer. When I had time on my own to process his grim diagnosis, I reflected on that summer vacation, our accident and my crummy attitude — and I was grateful for the lesson, a harbinger of much tougher circumstances to come.
Our family's short-term and long-term plans did not allow room for a tumor and all its associated baggage. But rogue cells pay no attention to human plans. I realized that I could spend energy on anger, or I could spend energy on seeking solutions and recognizing blessings along the way.
I still need reminders to leave room in my plans for unexpected twists — both the welcome and the uninvited. I don't always succeed, but experience has offered perspective that tempers my frustration.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. She can be reached at tyradamm@gmail.com.
Arch Rock, a natural limestone formation,
on the back side of Mackinac Island, July 2007

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

It's time to widen our circles, because no one can afford to be trapped in isolation

From Saturday's Briefing:

I live in isolated worlds at times. We all do.
My past week has felt paradoxically isolated and connected, with hours spent with education colleagues, writing curriculum for the next school year, and a few more hours spent with United Methodists, celebrating and dreaming for our church.
School people — these are my people. We speak the same language: power standards, TEKS, formative assessments, rubrics, SAMR and vertical alignment.
Students have barely settled into summer routines, and here we teachers are, evaluating last year's learning and creating new lessons. (Take note: Only 66 days until school begins again.)
We try to anticipate student needs and misconceptions, relying on experience and data. We are devoted to our content and our students — so much so that sometimes we bicker over processes or word choice or document formatting. (Chocolate is often the solution for smoothing discontent.)
This community of educators fuels my passion for learning and for teaching. I am thankful for each one of them. At the same time, I am wary of becoming too attached - and therefore detached from the reason we started teaching in the first place.
I need this circle of teachers to help me become a better teacher. I also need connection with other communities to help me become a better learner. I need to understand pop culture and demands on children's time. I need to live in their world so that I better grasp their background knowledge. I need to live in our world so I know what I'm preparing them for.
Church people — these are my people, too. We not only speak the same language, we sing the same songs, with verses passed down through generations.
Clergy and laity from the United Methodist Church in North Texas gathered for our annual conference, with voting, awards, meetings, meals, keynote speakers, workshops and worship services.
Just like in public schools, there's some inside-baseball work in the church. The content is crucial to the people doing the work. The difference between a deacon and an elder, for example, means everything within the organization — but not so much to the outside.
When we church folks are together, we're working toward a common cause. Our conversations revolve around how to serve the hungry and the poor, the grieving and the oppressed.
This community of like-minded believers fuels my passion for listening and for serving. I am thankful for each one of them. And yet, I am wary of becoming so isolated within this group that I forget the larger purpose.
I need my circle of church friends to help me live my faith with integrity. I also need connection with other communities to help me become a better neighbor. I need to recognize my own privileges and be aware of what others lack. I need to be less attached to the security of a building and more open to going where called.
When I reflect on the mass shootings and suicides that plague our country, I'm struck by a common theme — isolation.
The men who open fire on crowds of people often seem to have no connection to a community. They lack a group to hold them accountable.
Suicide, meanwhile, is the 10th-leading cause of death in the country, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. There's no question that many of these weary souls experience debilitating desolation.
While the nation continues to debate appropriate levels of gun control, security in public spaces and access to mental health care, we have the opportunity to take a more personal approach.
Who can we invite into our communities? Who needs our love?
The better question: Who doesn't need our love?
One of the worship services last week featured three choirs singing together the words of Mark Miller, a professor of church music and beloved composer: "Draw the circle wide. Draw it wider still. Let this be our song. No one stands alone!"
We can't afford to live in isolation. We need community. We need wider circles that overlap to take in every single soul.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. She can be reached at tyradamm@gmail.com.
Choirs from Hamilton Park UMC and Highland Park UMC
joined together to sing "Draw the Circle Wide."