Monday, July 28, 2014

Times can be tough, but gratitude moves us forward

From Saturday's Briefing:

It’s been kind of a crummy week around here. The kind that tempts you to wallow in woe.
Schedules didn’t align exactly as I’d hoped, so my children have been gone for 13 of the past 14 days.
In the middle of that, the air conditioner stopped working — not during the blessed dip in temperatures but just after, when real summer returned.
A dear friend is in the middle of a crisis, one without an easy answer.
Grump, grump, grump.
After a middling amount of complaining, there’s not much to do but move on and seek a grateful attitude.
Last week, Cooper and Katie flew by themselves to Washington, D.C., to visit their uncle so that I could attend an education conference in San Antonio.
I’m thankful that they felt comfortable flying without an adult. That their uncle joyfully takes a week of vacation to care for them. That they were able to ride roller coasters at Hersheypark, explore Gettysburg and visit multiple museums in our nation’s capital.
We all arrived back in Frisco in time to spend a day together, and then they were off again, this time to a weeklong sleepaway camp in East Texas.
I check the camp website daily for photo updates, and from what I can spy, Cooper and Katie show no signs of homesickness. They appear independent and engaged. That’s the whole goal of parenting, right? To help grow little people into secure big people who can handle daily life on their own?
I’m thankful that they have found a camp that they enjoy and want to return to every summer. I’m thankful that they are gaining new skills and meeting new people, without the aid of a single electronic device.
My big plans for this week centered on massive, long-overdue house projects. My closet is a disaster. The playroom needs organizing. I’m behind on filing. The garage needs some serious pruning.
I woke Monday ready to attack. The house had other plans.
The thermostat at 7 a.m. showed 79 degrees. Upon further investigation, I discovered the giant air-conditioning unit behind the house wasn’t running.
The trouble — the expensive trouble — was diagnosed late Monday. The inside temperature was 85 and rising.
No amount of determination will help overcome sweltering inside conditions. My big decluttering plans were begrudgingly put on hold.
It takes some work to find gratitude when you’re hot, facing a giant bill and letting go of goals.
And yet, I’m thankful for my savings account, which allowed me to pay cash for the repair. I’m thankful that I have plenty of friends who offered cooler shelter. I’m thankful that while I was escaping my house I was able to watch two movies in a blissfully air-conditioned theater, renew my driver’s license and finally deliver the minivan to the dealership for a safety recall.
I didn’t meet my original goals, but time wasn’t wasted.
I spent some of that time on the phone with a long-distance friend who’s facing the biggest struggle of her life. I’ve listened as she debriefs, formulates steps for moving forward and somehow finds humor in despair.
I’m devastated for her. But I’m thankful that even with distance we can connect. That she’s found the strength to wake up each day. That we could talk about the value of a human: You aren’t defined by your spouse or your children or your job. Your value is independent of all others, rooted in your faith and in your character.
I needed that discussion as a gentle reminder that character includes how you react to disappointment and to plans that change. That character includes expressing gratitude all the time — especially when instinct pushes toward discontent.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at

Monday, July 14, 2014

Imperfect youth is a useful experience

From Saturday's Briefing:

I spent a great deal of my childhood imagining an ideal childhood.

My parents would still be married. We would still live in our North Dallas ranch-style home. Mom would stay home, with lots of time for cooking, baking, cleaning and volunteering at school. Summer would include sleep-away camp for me and fun road trips for the whole family.

My vision was influenced by sitcoms, by the novels I devoured, by disappointment in reality, by my suspicion that every other family around was more normal.

I didn’t often consider that my dream world probably didn’t exist anywhere. And I sure didn’t spend any time imagining how my actual circumstances were preparing me for adulthood and eventual parenthood.

I find myself thankful all the time for some of those nontraditional experiences. My mom, despite her personal struggles, offered valuable lessons about acceptance and creativity, friendship and responsibility.

I know that it’s OK — preferable even — to be countercultural. I don’t consult popular opinion for decisions on video games, social media, music and movies.

I try to support my children if they choose a path outside the norm. This time last year, Katie started considering a vegetarian diet. She eventually settled on pesce- tarianism — vegetar- ianism with seafood — and has been loyal to her decision since. I know that my mom would have embraced a similar choice from her own children.

My mom also taught me the value of a messy space, someplace in the house where it’s acceptable to doodle, cut, paste, paint, sculpt. It’s the reason our kitchen table is rarely clear, why there are constant projects in process around here, why I’m forever buying spools of ribbon. The mess can irritate me when I’m seeking clutter-free peace. That’s why we keep the family room as tidy as possible, as often as possible — I can escape there and avoid eye contact with glitter glue.

My mom is why I root for the underdog and why my children embrace them, too. She was often underestimated, and she reached out to folks in need, even when she didn’t have much to give. She didn’t gather friends because they were popular. She built relationships because it was the right thing to do.

This week our little family has been talking about Central American children who are risking their lives to travel to the United States. About five minutes into our conversation, Katie asked if she could make stuff to sell to raise money for those children — a legacy from my mom, no doubt.

My chaotic childhood taught me the value of responsibility — often because it wasn’t modeled or because it was forced on me and my sister. We took charge of many meals and loads of laundry because someone had to. I learned early on that no one was going to double-check my homework or keep track of when projects were due. That was my job.

My own children are learning responsibility differently, portioned out because they need to learn, not for survival. I constantly remind myself to not shield them from work but to teach them how to work — and then to let go gracefully. I’ve got a whole lot of letting go still to accomplish.

It’s tempting now to shelter my children from disappointments, to maneuver around situations, to hide the fact that folks make bad decisions or use hurtful words. I’m forever cautious about what they see, hear and experience. I want to protect them as long as possible.

And yet I want them to learn to cope with disappointments, to feel the weight of an unavoidable situation and know that they can endure and emerge stronger.

Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at