Friday, November 22, 2013

Be thankful for mistakes and the lessons they bring

From today's Briefing:

This Thanksgiving season at the Damm house, we’re making A-to-Z lists of what we’re thankful for.
Depending on which family member you ask, A is for angels, the Avett Brothers or airplanes. B is for the beach, the Beatles or biscuits. C is for Cooper, cooperation or chocolate.
Jump down the alphabet, and M is for Margie (the dog), moms and mistakes.
Mistakes are big on my list — typically when the mistakes are memories rather than fresh wounds.
One Damm child recently suffered through a particularly intimidating competition. Said child didn’t perform as well as expected and was devastated. In the aftermath, I struggled with what to say.
I started with, “You practiced so often and did so well. One small performance doesn’t define you.”
I listened. Waited. Then added, “Next time, you’ll be better prepared for what to expect.”
It may sound like a platitude, but it’s true.
Way back in my middle school days, I was in choir, directed by Mr. Finney, a firecracker of a man.
Every year, he would take on the monster task of staging a musical. In sixth grade, I had small roles in the production Oliver! The next year, Mr. Finney chose Annie. And he told me over and over what a great Annie I would make.
I was petite with naturally curly hair. I was a hard worker. I could memorize lines.
What he didn’t know, because I blended in to the chorus so well, was that I was a not-so-great singer — a particularly essential quality for the title role in a musical.
I didn’t practice much for the audition. After all, Mr. Finney kept telling me that I was ideal.
I stood in the middle of a darkened stage. A spotlight hit me, and I began to warble “Tomorrow.”
Oh, thank goodness for the lack of video cameras, smartphones and YouTube in the early ’80s.
I was terrible. But I didn’t truly realize how awful I was until I was standing alone, mangling a beloved song of optimism, in front of judges. In that spotlight moment, I could hear for the first time my complete lack of talent. And I could see it in Mr. Finney’s disappointed face.
I was cast as a Warbucks housekeeper. Two lines. No solos. All for the best, really.
The whole audition fiasco was the kind of mistake with lifelong lessons. If you want to try for something, by all means go for it, but put some effort into it. Don’t assume that any part, job or position is yours for the taking. And don’t be afraid to admit that you’re not good at something; spend time cultivating your natural talents.
I moved the next year, to a new town and new middle school. As always happened when I moved, I was convinced that at this school, I would somehow magically transform into an outgoing, popular girl. I hadn’t yet embraced the real introverted me.
Not long after arriving, we received notice of a semiformal dance at school. My stepmother created the most beautiful teal tea-length dress with a ruffled off-the-shoulder collar. I wore my first pair of heels. My naturally curly hair was hot-rollered and even poufier than usual — de rigueur for the time.
When I walked into the gym, my confidence fizzled.
The theme wasn’t semiformal (we must have read the flier wrong?). It was Hawaiian luau. I stood out like a less-than-jolly green giant in a sea of Jams shorts, leis and T-shirts.
I escaped to the bathroom to compose myself. A girl I didn’t know pointed and whispered indiscreetly to her friend, “How sad,” as I stood at the mirror.
Again, so many lessons. Double-check the dress code before an event. Be ready to deflect unkind words with witty rejoinders. Most important, don’t let mean girls — or being unique — steal your joy.
I expect my child will one day reflect on that difficult competition and find value in the experience, despite the painful results. I’m hoping there’ll be a list of self-discovered lessons — on composure, confidence, emotional preparedness — plus some thanksgiving for mistakes.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at

Friday, November 15, 2013

I'm grateful for good advice

From today's Briefing:

Mom and me, 1972
My mom passed away on Saturday.

She had lived with excruciating pain. Her quality of life was minimal. Yet for many years she summoned daily the strength and willpower to live.
In August, she asked for her loved ones to visit. She was ready to let go.
And so we gathered. In the middle of that nursing home visit, one of my best friends texted me unsolicited yet wholly welcome advice: “Today would be the day to tell your mom anything that’s been on your mind that you want her to know.”
And so I did.
For the rest of my life I will be thankful for those last moments with my mom and for the gentle advice that reminded me to speak of love, gratitude, forgiveness and grace.
As I’ve been mourning my mom’s too-short life, I’ve also been considering the best advice I’ve received — whether taken or ignored — from Mom and others. And I asked some friends to share some wisdom they rely on themselves.
Listen (from Julia): When I was a teenager, I was arguing back and forth with my dad about something, and he stopped me and said, “Are you listening to what I’m saying, or are you just waiting for your turn to talk?”
I didn’t understand it at the time, but as adult, I’m very aware that in most conversations, people aren’t really listening. They are just waiting for their turn to talk. A lot of people think I’m quiet, but I’m not. I’m just listening.
Love (from Angela): My mom told me that you can’t spoil children with too much love. My kids don’t get everything they want, maybe not even most of what they want, but they get all the love they want and then some!
Take risks (from Melissa): The best advice I’ve ever received is the advice I didn’t take when I should have! Don’t be afraid to take risks. I did not take enough risks when I was younger relating to my professional career. I will always regret that.
Be you (from Rodney): My dad told me to find out who you are early and be that person. It’s been a great thing for me because you really just be yourself and don’t worry about anything else. You don’t spend a second of your day worrying what anyone else thinks about you.
Good credit (from Kelli): My dad always told me good credit is something that can never be taken away from you — not very fun, but great advice that I appreciate now. When I bought my car, the salesman told me I had the credit of an 80-year-old.
Attitude (from Kalvin): “Your attitude, not your aptitude, will determine your altitude,” from Zig Ziglar.
Journey preparedness (from Stephanie): Never embark on a trip, regardless of distance, on foot or in a car, without emptying your bladder and filling up your water bottle. And always carry your own toilet paper. (From years of camping with the Boy Scouts.)
10 years (from Jen): On the day my 12-year-old was born, my mom said, “You get 10 good years to pour into him, that is it. Use them wisely.”
Forgiveness (from Kristin): Forgiveness is a gift you really give yourself (especially if it’s yourself you are forgiving).
Keep connected (from Katrina): Don’t leave the workforce 100 percent. Always keep connected to your profession and keep an updated résumé. You never know what life will bring.
Be (from Tammy): “Wherever you are, be 100 percent there,” from missionary Jim Elliot. This quote totally changed the way I look at each day and each moment. I don’t want to be 50 percent present and 50 percent checked out. Attempting to give 100 percent of my focus to each moment has allowed me to enjoy the little and big things in life, and also recognize that God is in the center of it all.
Let go (from Roger): I tend to let my disappointments hang around, thinking about what I should have done or what might have been instead of focusing on the present, and making the rest of my life better. I was on a Seattle vacation recently, and lost my camera — my wonderful, expensive, digital camera — on the first day.
I was in a funk for two days before someone told me to shrug it off and not ruin the rest of my vacation. It took some effort on my part, but I put on a smile, stopped dwelling on my loss, and made good use of my limited-function cellphone camera, and certainly enjoyed the remainder of my time in beautiful Seattle.
Lip gloss (from Valerie): I remember hearing as a little girl, “Always wear lip gloss, it lights up your face!” It’s a Southern thing! I have always taken this to heart. A few years ago I slipped in my kitchen and my kneecap popped out of the socket.
My older son tells the true story that while lying on the floor waiting on the ambulance, the only thing I cared about was him bringing me my lip gloss to put on before the paramedics arrived!
Loose ends (from Shannon): My wonderful father said, “Remember, life is a series of loose ends.” It let me know that nothing will ever be “all done” or neat and tidy. It releases me from performance pressure.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at

Monday, November 11, 2013

Fun mom peeks out now and then

From Friday's Briefing:

I have a new favorite snapshot.
It’s me, Katie and Cooper — a group “selfie” taken with my smartphone in the front yard on Halloween.
Cooper is wearing a straw hat and a checkered, button-down shirt trimmed with strands of raffia. Katie has braided pigtails and a gingham Dorothy Gale dress. I’m sporting a pointy hat and a black dress.
It’s tangible evidence that sometimes I actually am a fun mom.
Most all the time, I am a reliable, responsible, get-things-done mom.
If you’ve got an appointment or a practice, a tutorial or a game, I will get you there on time or find someone who can.
If you need your Scouts uniform washed and dried in the 90-minute window between camping and a meeting, I’m your mom.
If you need help studying for a spelling test or practicing multiplication tables, or if you need ideas for a campaign poster or someone to proofread an essay, I’m your mom.
I am a health-conscious, safety-conscious mom.
I will always remind you to wear a helmet, to look both ways two times before crossing the street, to eat five servings of fruits and vegetables a day, and to say no to fast food.
I am a cuddle-on-the- sofa-and-read mom.
If you want to laugh with Anne of Green Gables or the Penderwicks, I’m your mom. If you want to explore Hogwarts or Klickitat Street, settle in.
But a fun mom? Not often, I’m afraid.
I don’t play board games as I often as I’d like. I’m not super spontaneous. I don’t expect I’ll ever be the mom who chaperones kids on late-night toilet-papering escapades.
Though I’ve tried, I still don’t completely understand the world of Minecraft.
During summer months, you’ll find me on a chaise longue more often than you’ll find me playing Marco Polo or practicing cannon balls.
And I never wear costumes.
Except maybe just this once.
My children pleaded year after year and I finally said yes, even though I’m more content to blend in the crowd than to stand out.
This Halloween, after a string of Halloweens in which I disappointed my dramatic, costume-loving daughter, I gave in.
On a whim, I bought a pair of purple-and-black striped tights, marked down to $2. The next day, I found a $3 hat. Those two accessories — plus a simple black dress already in the closet — equaled a costume good enough for Katie. (I drew the line at green face paint.)
On Halloween, after I braided and beribboned Dorothy’s hair and adjusted the scarecrow’s raffia, I made a quick change from schoolteacher clothes to witchy wear.
Dorothy and Scarecrow obliged to photos in the front yard, and then I snapped an arm’s length photo of the three of us.
We left for dinner and trick-or-treating with friends. Throughout the candy-coated night, Katie thanked me at least 10 times for dressing up. She even gave me a freshly acquired fun-sized Heath bar.
Success was declared before 8 p.m. Both children had cavorted with friends and devoured snow cones and cotton candy. They carried baskets heavy with more candy than I’ll ever let them eat (even during my most fun mom moments).
Later that night, as I set aside my pointy hat and peeled off my striped tights, I considered how I might incorporate more fun mom moments into our days — because, you know, I’m not exactly spontaneous.
Then, in a manner mostly uncharacteristic, I stopped worrying. I gave myself permission to be the mom I naturally am — a mom who plans, limits screen time, offers advice as you’re walking out the door, favors books over video games and advises strongly against breaking rules of any kind.
A mom who loves all the time, even when she’s not exactly fun — though she’s got a photo to prove that sometimes she is.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at

Friday, November 01, 2013

Traumatic morning ends in redemption

From today's Briefing:

Katie and I are standing in the narthex at church. She twirls a brass processional candle — not yet lit — as we review the procedure.
As soon as prelude music begins, she will carry the lit candle and walk slowly yet purposefully down the aisle. When she reaches the altar, she will light two more candles, then return to the narthex and extinguish the flame.
While we wait for cues that her time is near, we talk about how long we’ve looked forward to this day, her first as acolyte.
“I’ve wanted to do this since I was 4,” she says, “when Cooper was first an acolyte. I knew I could be one, too, when I was 8, and now it’s finally here!”
“You were baptized on that same altar eight years ago, Katie,” I say. “Daddy and I took turns holding you. And now you are going to light candles in the very same place.”
The pipe organ comes to life. Katie takes a deep breath, and she begins her journey.
Three steps forward and the flame dies. Katie’s enthusiasm dims slightly.
I light the candle again, staring at the wick, somehow convinced that I can will it to cooperate.
Alas, I do not possess supernatural fire skills. By the time Katie reaches the altar, the flame is gone, and her slumped shoulders reveal deflating joy.
A nearby church member helps her light the processional candle again, and success seems within reach. But the altar candles won’t comply. They refuse to light.
Katie tries over and over again. All efforts are fruitless.
She leaves the altar, candles still unlit, and bolts out of the sanctuary, sobbing.
She runs into my arms, and I hug her tight. My sweater is damp with her tears, and my eyes are damp with my own. Our minister joins us to tell Katie that she did everything correctly, that there was trouble with the oil candles, that no one is upset, that everything is going to be OK.
Katie struggles to take shallow breaths between sobs.
What we don’t see: Another minister adjusting the oil candles. An usher repairing the wick on the processional candle.
After a little more crying and a lot of comforting, Katie says she wants to try again.
My first instinct is to say no, to shield her from the possibility of more disappointment, to cradle her like a baby for the next hour.
First instincts aren’t always admirable.
So she tries again. I light the wick. This flame is more confident.
Katie proceeds during the opening hymn. She steps on to the altar and lights two candles. I fight the urge to applaud.
She smiles as she returns to the narthex. We exchange high fives. We hug. Her tears are dry, yet mine return.
On the drive home, we rehash the traumatic, redemptive morning.
“Katie, we all would have understood if you hadn’t tried again,” I say. “But you didn’t give up. You were brave.”
In another month, Katie will be acolyte again. I’ll probably hold my breath the duration of her walk to the altar, and she’ll probably have no hiccups at all.
But she’ll always remember the Sunday morning when a big plan faltered — and she made a big recovery. I hope she’ll always draw from the same well of courage.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at