See something, say something

All photos in this post are courtesy of my mother-in-law and gifted photographer, Audrey VanderLugt


The world feels extra fragile to me lately. The big and the small — so many cancer diagnoses in my community, a contentious election and now inaugagration, unnerving daily news reports, an especially dark January, and my own kids constantly picking at each other.

We had an Ice Day today – with school called off – and I’m grateful that I could let the kids laze around for a few hours this morning and for an extra day to recover from a head cold that has lingered for more than a week, making the already muddled world feel a little fuzzier.

As I sipped my coffee this morning, I clicked on one of those Facebook links I might usually pass over as too fluffy, one that promised to make me cry.  I started to watch, remembering seeing this one before — but I was compelled to stick with it — a story about a father who died in a car accident just weeks after his son’s birth, with that infant son critically injured. The story followed the mother’s journey as she went back to the hospital, to the aero med crew, to the entire team of people who had saved her son’s life 10 years earlier to thank each person face-to-face. She then threw an extravagent thank you party for these people who saved her son by doing their jobs well.

One of the women in the story, a nurse, mentioned that she had never been thanked by a family member, “not after;” commenting how you usually don’t “see people.”

Just yesterday, I received the kindest text message from a substitute teacher who had been in my classroom while I was out sick, complimenting my students on their thoughtful questions about a story they read aloud with her. She wrote, “I know I don’t deal with the ‘darn dailies’ as you do, but I love the atmosphere that you have cultivated in your classroom.”

She made my night — not just with kind words — but by reminding me why I do my job in the first place, reminding me of the potential and value of each of those students who fill the desks in my classroom everyday. By reminding me that while the daily work of those long winter months can feel tedious and wearisome, it’s important. That the best stuff can look mundane and be easily missed.

These thank yous, these intentional words of gratitude, turn things around for all of us —  those who take the time to pause and notice, those who receive the words of gratitude, and the bystanders who watch it unfold.

Last week we learned of the horrific shooting in an airport in Fort Lauderdale and were cautioned that when we “see something” we need to “say something.”

But what if we did this not just when we are scared or fearful, but when we witness the goodness of humanity in front of us? When we see a student stop to help another in the hall, when we notice that mom juggling her crying toddler and her groceries in the cashier’s line, when we’re served by a waiter or waitress who continues to smile as she manuevers a busy restaurant?

We have excuses. We avoid speaking up because of fear (“but I’ll sound weird”)  or busyness (“but I didn’t notice/have a chance”).  Yet, maybe those aren’t great excuses.

Our world is fragile and healing rarely happens in sweeping movements, but in the quiet, consistency of kindness that comes from showing up, seeing people, and just saying something.

P.S. Extra shout out of gratitude to that substitute teacher — it’s a rare thing to find someone who enjoys walking into an unfamiliar middle school classroom and following someone else’s lesson plans (for not-so-great money). What a gift — and a lesson for me in doing the everyday things with great care and love.





Truth: My Christmas tree is adorned with Nerf bullets.

My New Year’s Resolutions (or New Year’s Good Intentions) are often like my housecleaning  — I walk in one room to vacuum, then bend over to pick up a few Nerf bullets strewn about from my kids’ last battle, and suddenly I am gathering up old magazines I meant to recycle yesterday, but on the way to the recycling bin I notice the dishes I had started 20 minutes ago. Oh, and yesterday’s laundry is still damp in the washer after I forgot to transfer it to the dryer.

In other words: I can be scattered. There is much to compete for my attention, and I’m easily distracted, easily called in different directions.

Instead of a list of resolutions, I’ve taken a cue from the folks over at #oneword365 and found I do better with picking one word of focus – “one word that sums up who you want to be or how you want to live.”  Tomorrow, I’ll challenge my eighth graders to do the same. We’ll dream, free write, brainstorm, and then they’ll tape index cards featuring their words in their lockers.

This year I’m choosing STILL.

/stil/ Old English stille; from a base meaning ‘be fixed, stand.’

  1. Noun: deep silence and calm.

Quiet is not my default setting. Silence does not naturally abound in my life – I teach 8th grade and I have three young boys at home. But, I’m asking myself, how do I create more calm in the chaos? How can I clean out a bit of space in my soul, even in the midst of noise? I could blame all the commotion on everyone else in my life, but that’s not fair. I fill my calendar too full. I’ve gotten worse at waiting. (I once heard someone say that he wished when a light turned green all the cars could just go simultaneously so that no one had to wait…and I laughed. But since then, I’ve caught myself wishing the same thing.) We live in a world of instant gratification, and I fall easily into its traps. I have to remind myself, sometimes force myself, to pause and then react. I want to practice this kind of stillness in small ways this year: wait to put something in my shopping cart to see if I still want it next week. Avoid rushing to grab my phone the moment it buzzes — or turn it off, set it aside. Wait to open and respond to emails until I have the time to do it well.  Breathe before speaking (or snapping or screaming), or maybe just choose silence instead. Allow a day or two to meditate and pray on decisions.  Active stillness may look a lot like more like doing nothing when my instinct is to do something now.

2. Adjective: not moving or making a sound.

As I sit writing this on the final eve of my Christmas Break, I’m all too aware of the pace — the movement — waiting for me tomorrow. But maybe stillness is more of mindset, or even a discipline, than a physical state.  I often measure my day in to-do lists and items crossed off the calendar. I awake to an alarm on my phone, and the glow of that device is the first light I see. I find myself, first thing in the morning, scrolling instead of praying and centering — checking messages instead of stretching, breathing.  I may need to resist the temptation to fill up every window of my day with noise or a screen – often false productivity. To set limits for myself and the people in my house so we look each other in the eyes and talk more often.  Set limits so that I pick up more books, read more poetry, and put the work (that will surely be there tomorrow ) aside and go to bed at a decent time. I want to create space to pay better attention, to live deeper rather than just scratching the surface of my days.

3. adverb: nonetheless; despite/in spite of.

This past April, my dad had major heart surgery. Once he was safe and sound in recovery, my husband, siblings, and I went out to lunch, where we sat talking about the enormous sense of false urgency that usually governs our days. Nearly losing my dad hit a reset button for all of us; it was a reminder that our usual stresses were trivial compared to what mattered at that moment. I don’t want to lose that awareness — I want to think about what still, what nonetheless, what truly matters. I recently made a sign for my house that reads, “Life is not an emergency.” (It sits in my bathroom, hanging next to my toilet — get the irony?)

4. verb: make or become still, abate, subside, ease up.

Last, I’m going to have to ease up on myself. Because STILL is a work in progress. It’s tiny steps. It’s January 2, and I’ve already snapped at my children too soon, stared down at my phone in the car instead of having a conversation with my husband, and looked at Instagram too many times today. I know that when I need silence and calm most is when I’m quickest to get short and snappy with others. The calm and serenity of morning is often challenged from the minute I wake my darlings to get dressed and ready for school.  I will still need grace. I am still not in charge. The Psalms say, “Be still and know that I am God.” Or, as my favorite author Anne Lamott interprets this verse, “Put a sock in it—you are in charge of very little.”

Late this morning, two of the boys and I went for a walk. It was cold, but the sky was blue, and that barely ever happens around here in January. It was marvelous. I remembered to breathe, even when I had to wait while they threw sticks in a creek for 20 minutes and my fingers were frozen, and the little one’s legs broke down and I had to carry him on my back the last half of the way. But by late afternoon, the skies had turned grey, it was already getting dark, and a cold rain began. I had to think about backpacks and making lunches for tomorrow – which is for no good reason my absolute least favorite chore in the whole world. Then I stopped to flip back through the pictures I had taken from our walk earlier in the day, and I was reminded that high beyond those grey clouds, there is still blue. That we can’t always see the big picture. That some days we just have to sit and breathe in and out while we make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, but there is solace and assurance and even restoration in the small, everyday things of life. Still.