Friday, December 27, 2013

Here's to more joyful moments in the new year

From today's Briefing:

My Year of Joy is nearing its end.
Back in January, I was encouraged by speaker Jon Gordon to choose one word to help define 2013. (He is co-author of One Word That Will Change Your Life.)
I considered two other words — quality and balance — before selecting joy. Choosing the word in no way guaranteed instant joy.
In fact, when reviewing the past year, it would be easy to list all of the decidedly less-than-joyful moments.
I had the flu.
I tore my left calf muscle.
Our air conditioner broke, causing water to drip from the attic, through the ceiling and into our kitchen.
Budget cuts eliminated some of my freelance work and income.
My mom passed away.
There’s no way to spin those events as full of cheer.
But because I had chosen to define 2013 as my Year of Joy, I made extra attempts to look for good in spite of the bad.
When I was down and out, family and friends picked up the slack.
On the worst day of my winter flu, the weather was damp, cold and dreary. The slightest movement was painful. And then the phone rang.
It was the middle school nurse with news that Cooper had injured himself during P.E. and required pain reliever.
Earlier that day I had pinky-promised (via text message) a friend that I would call on her if needed. So I called, and she changed her plans midcourse and delivered ibuprofen to my son.
A week after my freelance work was severely cut, I received a phone call from a friend of a friend of a former client. Thirty minutes later, I had gained some new work — not enough to cover the loss but enough to remind me to worry less.
In the two weeks after my mom died, I didn’t cook a single dinner. Friends delivered meals or hosted us every night.
Her memorial service was a lovely reminder, too, of the goodness of people and life. Mom’s slideshow traced 62 years of hairstyles and locales, hugs and laughter — immeasurable joy captured and saved forever.
And I haven’t even gotten to the pure, unadulterated good.
I was hired very last-minute to teach fifth-graders at our neighborhood elementary school, fulfilling a goal set back in 2008.
Ever since, I’ve been spending my weekdays with 47 children, teaching the American Revolution and branches of government, collective nouns and superlative adjectives, text structures and elements of drama.
Truly, it’s a dreamy job.
Katie has been playing violin, becoming less squeaky every day. Cooper plays real, recognizable tunes on his clarinet. They both exude joy when making music.
Really, they exude joy most all the time.
Together we watched dolphins play in the waters of South Carolina and gaped in awe of elk walking in front of us in Oregon. We marveled at the vivid colors inside the Library of Congress and paid homage to our collective favorite president at the Lincoln Memorial.
I survived my fourth year as a single, widowed mom. I once celebrated getting through days, then weeks, then months. It’s a big deal that I’m counting only years.
Of course, I don’t expect to give up on joy in the new year or any other year. I plan to keep on rejoicing in little moments and silver linings, big victories and glimpses of hope.
The big question now: What one word will define 2014?
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at

Saturday, December 21, 2013

At a time of much giving, what do we really need?

From Friday's Briefing:

One of my students asked last week, “Mrs. Damm, what would you like someone to give you for Christmas?”
“A card!”
He nodded. “So you want a gift card? Like to a restaurant?”
I shook my head. “No. I’d like a handmade card.”
He nodded. “What’s your favorite restaurant?”
I gave in. I named a couple. He wasn’t buying my (totally true) story that all I want is a heartfelt message written in marker under a detailed drawing of a snowman or candy cane.
I am firmly entrenched in the stage of life in which giving is hands-down more important than receiving.
Being a parent does that to you. You eavesdrop on your children as they talk about Santa wishes. You ask oh-so-casual questions like, “When you see Santa, what do you think you might ask for?”
Then, as an officially sanctioned Santa helper, you squeeze in time to shop — in person if you have to. But it’s preferable to sit on the sofa with your laptop for online shopping — after the kids have gone to sleep, of course.
While you’re ordering, you hope that the planned request is identical to the real request, remembering that in the past a child has been known to call an audible while visiting with Santa.
Some years, there’s not much you can do to fulfill the request, such as when a child — a born and bred Texas child — earnestly asks only for snow on Christmas Day.
That might be the year that Santa delivers an inexpensive saucer sled as a way to acknowledge the noble yet difficult-to- guarantee wish.
In the middle of all that giving to already-fortunate children, you realize how little we actually need.
My children don’t ask for much for Christmas — partly because they’re not overtly greedy and partly because they already have everything they truly need and much of what they want.
That makes gift-giving all the more important. What I choose to spend our money on reflects what I think matters. It’s why we don’t have a big television in the family room or the latest video game system.
Cooper is an avid camper, so I choose to buy quality gear. It feeds his passion. Plus, it offers me some comfort when he’s away from home. Katie is a creator and a reader, so I spend money on paints and paper, books and more books.
And still, on Christmas Day, I expect that I’ll survey the goods and think to myself, “This is too much.”
When you live in the land of plenty plus, it’s easy to add just one more small gift or two. It’s second nature to think of how much you spent on one child, realize that you spent less on the other child, then buy just one more gift to even out the bounty.
It’s easy to tell yourself, “Well, I know I’m not spending as much as so-and-so.”
It’s easy to create entitled children even when you are absolutely certain you would never intentionally create entitled children.
Yet, I’m not ready to stop giving my children the reasonable gifts they’ve asked for, plus a few surprises.
It’s taken me a few decades to fully appreciate that the best gifts to receive aren’t wrapped and under the tree — uninterrupted time with friends and family, a home-cooked dinner, an afternoon at the movies and, yes, a handmade card from a child.
At the same time, there’s great joy found in giving what makes the recipient happy in the moment.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at tyradamm@

Friday, December 13, 2013

Icy days bring appreciation for routine

From today's Briefing:

Wednesday night, Dec. 4. Forecast grim.
The kids and I typically don’t run errands after dark on a school night, but tonight we make an exception. Friends had been texting weather warnings throughout the day, with the most dire prediction of them all: “Entombed in ice.”
We shop at the least busy grocery store on our side of town, buying essentials and firewood — enough to last us at least through Sunday.
Thursday afternoon. Sleet begins to fall.
We go through the typical Thursday night motions — pack backpacks for the next day, study for spelling — with an eye on increasingly gray skies and slick roads.
We settle in to watch The Sound of Music Live. All three of us sing along and blurt out disagreements with staging choices. I keep an eye on social media. At 8:38 p.m., it’s official. No school Friday.
Katie cries herself to sleep, despondent over missing school.
Friday morning.
After a night of the loudest ice in the history of the world falling, we are jolly. We bake cinnamon rolls and watch a little TV.
We are lazy. Pajamas until 11 a.m. I cook lentil soup, and my people rave.
Cooper and Katie bundle up and head outdoors for neighborhood adventures, including sledding on the greenbelt. They return to mugs of hot cocoa and the first of many fires in the fireplace.
I read aloud from Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. (Mostly for Katie — it’s new to her — but Cooper loves to listen.)
We watch some Christmas specials. We unanimously agree that the 2001 version ofRudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and the Island of Misfit Toys is unbearable.
By the end of the night, I realize that my children have watched more commercials in the past 24 hours than perhaps the past 24 months.
Saturday morning. Our sidewalk and street are still sheets of ice.
Katie’s violin teacher texts me to remind me of the morning group lesson. There’s no way I’m driving, but Katie is willing to walk, and Cooper is willing to take her. It’s one-half mile from home. They bundle up and head out.
I take a nap. Being home for so long is exhausting, apparently.
With newfound energy, I grade papers. I wrap every gift in the house.
Icy slopes beckon, and the kids return for more sledding. They come home cold and pink-cheeked. Time to start another fire, though I’m starting to worry about the dwindling firewood supply.
Our senior pastor emails with news that Sunday services are canceled. Katie sheds tears and wails, “But it’s Advent!”
Then we receive news that the Sunday violin recital is delayed. Tears are stymied by the promise of a rescheduled date.
Sunday morning. Still icy.
We are still lazy. I haven’t fixed my hair or applied makeup since Thursday.
We are still jolly, though a smidge less than the days before. Arguments are more likely. Forgiveness takes longer.
Katie is reading a book on British royalty. “Did you know that King Henry the Eighth had six wives?” she says. “And that he had two beheaded? All because the wives were sleeping with other men?”
She is 8 and believes that sleeping is literally just sleeping. I’m too tired to explain more. I just nod.
Cooper is whistling. He’s been whistling off and on since Thursday night. “Can you please stop whistling?” I plead. He doesn’t even argue.
My jolliness has dipped considerably. I attempt to remedy the situation with homemade pumpkin chocolate chip bread. We’re out of vegetable oil, and I substitute melted butter. My people rave.
News breaks that school is canceled for Monday. No tears this time, but drawn faces all around. We need to get out.
We go to bed without a drop of hot cocoa or hint of fire. I’m conserving supplies for both. We also leave the television off. No one even asked.
Monday morning. Cold. Ice. Again.
I’m rationing milk and fresh fruit. There are three logs left. By lunchtime they are ash.
We polish off the lentil soup. And the last of the hot cocoa. There’s a chunk of pumpkin bread left. It’s destined for Tuesday breakfast, along with the little bit of pineapple at the back of the fridge.
Dinner relies on pantry and freezer staples.
At 5:56 p.m., the news is official: School resumes Tuesday. Lazy days are over. All three of us are jolly.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at

Monday, December 09, 2013

Christmas season should be full of joy, not stress

From Friday's Briefing:

Oh, December. The month we welcome and loathe, anticipate and fear.
Every Christmas season, I promise to scale back, to stress less, to say “no” more often. I’m never successful.
This year, I have a different approach. I’m not messing around with generalities. I’m setting specific goals.
I will not use ribbons or bows on packages. This flies in the face of everything I’ve learned from magazines, Pinterest, crafty friends and adorable boutiques all over Dallas: Presentation counts. Cuteness matters.
I’m ignoring all that and instead placing presents under the tree that are wrapped and tagged but totally devoid of flair. It’s a small step, but in the end it will save me a little bit of money and a little bit of time.
My strong hope is that the people on my gift list — all people who I love — won’t be offended by the lack of adornment.
I will be choosy about Christmas decor. After 20 years of post-college adulthood, I’ve accumulated plenty of stuff to decorate the house. You might say too much stuff.
In years past, I’ve removed almost all of the everyday framed photos and knickknacks from our living spaces to make room for Christmas-themed photos and knickknacks.
This year, if I don’t absolutely love a Christmas item, it stays in the box. It’s less work now and less work on New Year’s Day, when December is stashed away and everyday life returns.
I won’t feel guilty about not sending Christmas cards. I once was a prolific card sender. Cards would include a photo and handwritten note. Envelopes were also handwritten and were usually decorated with fun stickers or stamps.
It’s been six years since I blanketed family and friends with Christmas cards.
That’s because it’s been six years since Steve first started showing signs of brain cancer. We were consumed with medical care.
Then I became a single mom. A grieving single mom who couldn’t bear the thought of sending family cards with one less family member. So I didn’t, and I still haven’t.
But I feel pangs of guilt and regret every season, worried that folks will think I’ve forgotten them or that I’ve lost all joy and cheer.
One day I will return to my card-sending ways, but not this year. I’ve got plenty of joy and cheer stored up — I’ll just have to share it in person.
I won’t skimp on traditions we love, however. There are some non-negotiable December activities. We decorate our Christmas tree with precision and care, leaving almost no branch empty. We host with open arms Little Red Charlie, our Elf on the Shelf.
We attend a live Nativity. We watch ElfA Charlie Brown Christmas and The Polar Express — almost always while sipping hot chocolate.
We participate in the 7 p.m. Christmas Eve services at our church and sing “Silent Night” by candlelight. We leave cookies and milk for Santa.
We eat baked apple French toast for breakfast Christmas morning. We open gifts one at a time. No free-for-all frenzy.
We fall asleep early Christmas night, exhausted from so much celebrating, and we begin to look forward to January — a month with a little less expectation and a little less built-in stress.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at

Saturday, December 07, 2013

Living HorseHorse

Katie recently wrote an essay for school about HorseHorse, one of her stuffed animals. I have corrected spelling. The rest is all Katie.

Sometimes I think my stuffed animals come to life. I got HorseHorse when I was little. I will treasure her for the rest of my life. HorseHorse is very valuable to me. I love her.

The is what I will start with. HorseHorse's ears are small from me rubbing on them lightly and kindly. On her head she has two blue eyes and reins. She is entirely covered in a soft, smooth blanket of red.

Now I shall get to her body. She is still covered in beautiful red. She has a small squiggly blue line on her back. HorseHorse has cute little legs. I love HorseHorse!

HorseHorse is so delicate that stuffing is falling out. I will pass her down to my kids. So that's about it for the amazing and wonderful … HorseHorse.

Monday, December 02, 2013

Team sports may be fun, but lazy days are delightful

From Friday's Briefing:

It’s officially gift-buying and gift- giving season, but for months I’ve already been enjoying one of the best gifts ever: the gift of no weekend sporting events.
I realize that this is borderline sacrilege in my chosen community, the land of competitive cheer and soccer, hardcore hockey and volleyball, serious softball and baseball, cutthroat lacrosse and football.
I’m no stranger to the parental sacrifices of Saturdays and sometimes Sundays (not to mention weeknight practices). Cooper was a longtime member of a soccer team that was an extension of our family. Katie has dabbled in sports — soccer for a while, then gymnastics, then basketball.
For eight years, our lives partly revolved around recreational sports schedules. When birthday party invitations arrived, I would hold my breath while opening the envelope. Would schedules collide, forcing a decision between a game or celebration?
Same with Cub Scouts and Girl Scouts events. Possible weekend trips out of town. Children’s theater performances. New museum exhibits. Plain ol’ time to relax at home.
This autumn, though, has been the first since 2005 that we haven’t been beholden to a weekend sports calendar. Cooper is playing tennis at school. Katie jumps rope and runs at school. Not a single Saturday or Sunday sports date.
It’s been a welcome gift.
Some Saturdays we have slept late.
We have stayed in pajamas past 8 a.m.
We have ventured to the Dallas Arboretum to explore the new Children’s Adventure Garden. We stayed as long as we wanted, not worrying about getting back to Frisco in time to suit up.
We have gone to a movie in the middle of the afternoon. We have lazed about at the public library.
We have played Skip-Bo and Sequence at the kitchen table. We have baked homemade cowboy cookies.
We have camped at the lake.
I have still ferried children to extracurricular practices, competitions and performances — but with less stress because there are fewer overlapping commitments.
I’m certainly not anti-team sports. There’s great value in children working together toward a common goal, in parents practicing the art of silence so coaches can coach, and in children and parents learning to win and to lose with grace.
I don’t necessarily regret the hours spent driving to and from fields and the hours on the sidelines. But if new parents were to ask for my advice, I would caution them to evaluate how much time they want to devote to a child’s pastime and how much time they want for everything else.
It’s not an easy decision to make, especially when the competition seems to get a little fiercer a little earlier every year.
We have a third-grade friend who wanted to try basketball for the first time this year. She was on a team with other first-time third-grade basketball players.
Her fledgling team was destroyed by veteran teams. The new team would lose games by more than 30 points. In the third grade. Because they had apparently started playing too late to be competitive. Washed up at age 8.
My own third-grader hasn’t played weekend basketball for a couple of years. I no longer worry that there’s ignored latent athletic talent in Katie, gifts that need to be developed now or else they will never be seen again.
I’m not forcing her to try more sports. If she asks, we’ll consider it. If she doesn’t, I rest easy knowing that middle school isn’t too far away, and that she’ll have access to middle school programs and coaches.
In the meantime, I’m enjoying the unexpected gift of more time.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at