13 Lessons I’ve Learned While Being Your Mom

nate fishing picture

Today is Big Sprout’s 13th birthday, and this letter is for him.

Dear Big Sprout,

I started out the morning by writing my annual man-you’re-getting-so-big-I-can-hardly-believe-the-time-is-going-so-quickly blogpost. It is never an easy post to write, but today’s was especially difficult.

Just after dropping you off at school, I learned Zach lost his battle with cancer this morning. Actually, out of respect for Zach I want to amend that statement. Like he said in this Soul Pancake video, My Last Days: Meet Zach Sobiech, he wants to be remembered as “the kid who went down fighting and didn’t really lose.” There is nothing about Zach’s story that says cancer won.

I cannot get Zach and his friends and family off of my heart today nor can I stop thinking about life and your own movement through it. I struggle to keep from imagining what it must be like to be the mother of such an incredible son and to watch him slip away.

We mothers have to do that, you know. In little ways with each passing birthday, when milestones come and go, when college creeps up and marriages happen. We have to let go a little at a time and sometimes, in heartbreaking fashion, what seems like all at once.

Today you’re asked to share the day with Zach. A celebration and a reminder to live life purposefully. To learn as you go and to make the biggest difference possible.

I’m not sure what it is you’ve learned in your 13 years here, but I have a list of a few things I’ve learned from you along the way. Inspired by a recent interview with Jim Higley at www.bobbleheaddad.com, I have compiled a list of some of the lessons I’ve learned from being your mother.

There is such a thing as love at first sight.

I fell in love with you the minute I saw you. It was an overwhelming sensation I had not expected. Don’t tell your dad, but you were the one and only boy I have ever fallen in love with at first sight.

Babies fingernails are hard to cut, and sometimes the pain kids feel comes from a mom who tries too hard.

I vividly remember cutting your fingernails for the first time. (or rather filing because oh my gosh are you kidding… baby nails bend so unnaturally… yet they cut through steak?!?) I filed too closely and your finger bled and you cried. (harder than usual) Trying hard and caring deeply doesn’t make my attempts at motherhood perfect, it just makes the mistakes that much more painful. For both of us.

It’s awesome watching a kid touch grass for the first time. (and all the other firsts he gets to do too)

The joy in your smile when you felt grass for the first time was something I’ll never forget. It is a privilege to witness people’s firsts, and it is worth celebrating each and every one.

Toddler boys don’t sit for story time. (and that’s ok)

Chasing you through the library when I had envisioned a pleasant toddler story time taught me that I need to pay attention to who you are in the moment…and to let go of the made-up version living in my head.

Big brothers can be kind.

You have shattered my expectation that all big brothers are mean to their little sisters. I’ve learned that compassion can come in big brother bodies.

There are scary things in the world and praying is a good defense. 

When you brought me over to the rock pile to show me the black widow you had wisely decided not to touch, I realized I would never be able to watch everything you do nor would I be able to protect you from every harm. It’s true that sometimes I just need to lean harder on my belief that you don’t really belong to me… God has you in the palm of His hand.

People want to feel important.

Someone once told me you were like the mayor of preschool. You knew all the kids names and you would regularly inquire about their well being. Not much has changed since you were four and you’ve taught me a positive way to live is to try to make other people feel important.

Determination comes from within and parents have the power to damage the naturally determined kid. 

When you were five and you refused to stop spinning to catch a tennis ball I had encouraged you to drop-spin-and-catch I learned that you take parental pressure way too seriously. I’ve learned to let you lead the way since.

It is important to listen to stories. Dreams and wishes live there.

Walking into your school conference for first grade, you confided you had made up a story that was supposed to have been true. You said shyly, “I might have written that we have lived in Hawaii and we have a dog named Hunter.” You were reeling from a new baby in the house and your made-up story reminded me how important imagination can be. That… and you really wanted a dog.

Singing is cool.

When you and I were locked out on the balcony of a mountain condo for a few hours, we passed the time by huddling in my jacket and singing any song we could think of. You haven’t stopped singing since and I think it is one of the coolest things you do. Other things will come and go in your life, but music is forever.

It’s important to teach a man to fish…no matter the weather.

There was a time when you felt incredibly uncomfortable being alone. Since finding your peace in fishing, you have calmed that unsettled energy. You’ve taught me to celebrate rain and cold and to relish time outside alone.

Thirteen-year-olds are pretty awesome.

They may wear headphones, laugh at crude jokes and flip their hair to get the flow, but they are loveable and I enjoy being with them.

And finally,

Letting go, in even small ways, is hard…really, really hard. But when we carry something with us, we’re eternally tied to something bigger.  

What comforts me, and what I hope will be of comfort to Zach’s friends and family who are having to let go, is the light that Zach has left for us to carry.  Life is a series of lessons and we are meant to learn from experiences and from people. Lessons are the lights we pass to one another. Zach was very intentional about his light. He carried a huge flame through his short life and he managed to light millions of candles along the way.

Son, you are challenged to carry with you a light from this shared day with Zach. You are challenged to take in all the lessons you are meant to learn and to pass on a light of your own to as many people as you can convince to carry it.

I love you more than I can adequately express and I truly hope this is a birthday you will never forget.

Love,

Mom

Feeling Grief…Embracing Joy

dreamstimefree_80886

“They only have two hours of childhood left.”

It was this fleeting comment by a woman in Newtown, CT yesterday that has rendered me useless. I cannot shake her distraught and heart-broken expression as she explained to the rolling cameras that she was across town to console her friends while delaying the pick-up of her own children. She wanted her kids to enjoy their innocence for just a few hours more.

I sat with the same dilemma while at my desk in Minnesota. I sobbed at the overwhelming loss. At the grief that enveloped my every thought.  I longed to hold my children, to grab their precious faces in my hands and gaze endlessly into their bright little eyes. I knew they would come home from their school-days without a clue about what unfolded in horrific fashion hundreds of miles away, and all I wanted was to stop the vicious clock from ticking.

The clock is the problem, you know. We know all childhood, all innocence, all life will inevitably end, but we hate the truth of that. We pine for more joy than grief as we’re living, and we hurt so much for the children because they are our balance between hope and loss.

When my 12-year-old bound in the door, I greeted him in the kitchen and held him. We embraced in silence until he mumbled into my shoulder, “You alright mom?” “No” I explained and pulled back to make eye contact with him. He had heard some rumblings, and we talked about the news, and the horror, and the overwhelming feelings of grief, anger, sadness, confusion, and despair.

He knew better than to give me away when I hugged his sisters just as hard.

The girls are in fifth and first grades. They are who I picture cowering in closets or hiding in cupboards, and I was hopeful they would stay unaware for quite a while.

I knew the fifth grader would eventually catch on, and when she asked me about an Instagram photo she saw, my heart gently splintered. Our first-grader still doesn’t know, but I can hear that deafening click of the clock hand.

While I cannot help but to consider something will have to be done about this…measures will have to be taken…forward movements will need to be made, there remains this space of time that needs to be lived too.

It brings me to another scene I watched unfold this week reminding me that where grief exists, joy can too.

Most weekdays, about 2:30 in the afternoon, I watch a young man arrive at the house across the street to visit the teen-aged daughter who lives there. Most days he gets his crutches out of the car and slowly makes his way to the front door.

The young man’s name is Zach Sobiech, and he is a 17-year-old boy who is dying from cancer. His ticking clock is loud, and he hears it, but he has made a conscious decision to live in spite of it.

The last few weeks he has been in the news for a song he wrote to say good-bye to his friends and family. 

I can never watch the video dry-eyed and I think of the grief and the loss for this boys’ family and for his girlfriend, Amy.

Then Zach gave me a gift of joy I will never forget.

One sunny and somewhat unseasonably warm day this week, I noticed Zach out of his car. His crutches were sticking out of the snow, and he picked up snowballs and threw them. He launched one down the street, one at his car, and he threw a few gently down at his feet. He walked painfully, without his crutches, over to the snowplowed pile of snow in the middle of the cul-de-sac. I couldn’t take my eyes off of him. He picked up another few snowballs, and after throwing them, he made his way back to the drive.

A silent tear streaked down my face and I said to my husband, who had turned from his work to watch Zach too, “he’s just a kid playing in the snow.”

The next snowball he grabbed was cupped and hidden behind his back as his attention obviously moved from what he was doing to something down the street. Amy’s car pulled into the driveway, and it was apparent he was readying himself for a surprise attack.

The driver’s door opened and when Amy realized the plan, she quickly shut it. He raised his empty hands in innocence, and Amy made her way out of the car. It wasn’t long before the two of them were in the powder of the yard.  Zach arm-swiped the snow toward Amy first, and she quickly returned fire. She approached him laughing and he offered her a hug. They embraced for a moment in the sun-kissed snow, and then she let him slowly pull her down into the snow with him. They splashed each other with powder and I found myself breathlessly smiling and crying in the same glorious moment.

Life is full of triumph and tragedy, celebration and sorrow, joy and grief. It is only what we choose in even the smallest moments that define the lives we live. There will be those who rise in anger about what happened in Newtown…there will be those who rise in action…and there will be those who will be unable to rise for quite some time.  There’s no telling how we’ll react until we are in any particular moment.

In this moment, in my small kitchen in Minnesota, I hear the girls making play-doh worlds to the backdrop music of some boy band. There is a clock ticking in the background, but maybe my job as their mom is not to do what I can to keep them in an ephemeral childhood, but rather to embrace the fleeting moments, and to throw myself into that proverbial pile of snow to make snow angels any chance I get.

Choose What Kind of Old Person You Want to Be

When I’m old, I want to be in a weekly flash mob.


There is a book I’ll write some day…Choosing to Grow:  OLD. The tricky part will be that I don’t want to wait until I’m old. I know well enough that if I am going to age gracefully, it starts with the habits I have now.

Age happens, and there is nothing…did you hear me? NOTHING…we can do about it.

There are limited hours in the day, limited amounts of energy to expend, and we have to choose how we use the time we have.

My quick glance through Google this morning identified a problem. There are age-defying skin products, age-defying fashion tips, age-defying fitness programs, turn back the clock regimens, and BE YOUNGER ads everywhere. I am pretty sure this is a multi-gazillion dollar business. The movement afoot is about NOT aging.

SHUT UP!!

What a waste of time! (and we’ve already established that we don’t have very much of it!)

The more time people spend trying to turn back a clock that is stubbornly moving forward, the less prepared they are for the inevitable future.

I would actually listen to a company that sold products to celebrate the age I am while helping me to plan for the age I will be.

I can hear the tagline now: “Be the best at the age you are…and plan to be the best at the age you will be.” Now I just need to find a product to go with it.  The thing is, I fear no one would buy it.  Everyone would rather just pretend they can make themselves younger rather than working to age gracefully.

So here we go…for those of you who want to choose to grow in a beautiful way through your life. Spend a few minutes thinking about these questions.

How do you envision yourself as an old person?

Will you be bitter? Will you be kind? Will you be like a neighbor I once had?

When we moved in, my neighbor Edna introduced herself with a plate of food and a hug. She winked at me when she told me she likes to hug people…especially if they don’t expect it. I adored Edna…and I want to be just like her when I grow old.

If you want some motivation to think like an old person now, check out this awesome article: Think like a senior citizen and supercharge your life with happiness.

We cannot change the momentum of aging, but we can choose how we approach the process.

You’ll have to excuse me, I have to go…I have a flashmob dance to practice.
                                                               

Copyright  2012    Meagan Frank                 www.meaganfrank.com                    Choosing to Grow

Don’t Delete the Awkward Pictures

Where’d You Grow Wednesday?
April 25, 2012
Special Edition for

For a few months on Wednesdays (or as close to Wednesday as I can manage) I have chronicled the ways I’ve chosen to grow through my life. It is a snapshot…a bite-sized version of intentional steps I take to improve myself. Very often it is not a painless process.

Some weeks are better than others, and I never shy away from the growth that is uncomfortable.

I Choose to Grow the same way I deal with my digital pictures. It’s easy to take hundreds and thousands of digital pictures and then delete all the photos that are not perfect.  I make a point to keep at least one awkward picture with every grouping that I print.  The awkward photos tell a story too…and I am not good at pretending that everything is perfect.

Awkward Picture of the Week

Saturday night, while I sat at my writing desk, Big Sprout, our nearly twelve-year-old son, came in and sat on the wooden music chair my daughter uses to practice her french horn. This is rather common behavior for him.  My husband trailed quietly behind him and lay down on the foot of our bed.

I should have thought, “This is going to be an important moment.”

I didn’t know that.

The conversation started rather simply… Big Sprout asked questions about how his dad and I thought he played in his two hockey games that day.

There was nothing about that conversation that I had planned.

After more dialogue than I can explain here, I hadn’t planned to say, “Your chances of making it the NHL are pretty slim.”  I hadn’t planned to watch his face sink and his eyes well. I hadn’t planned to get the look of “What the hell were you thinking?” from my husband. I hadn’t planned to feel like the worst mother in the world.

I scrambled back to better parenting when I explained to him that it wasn’t that I didn’t believe he could, but that it only matters that he put action behind what he believes about himself. I believe he is destined for great things, and I will do anything he needs to help him get there…but the work it’s going to take, has to come from him.

Doubting and dissecting every part of that conversation led to a blogpost on my sports blog. Dialogue started. Debate began. And now, that snapshot of parenting will be the feature topic of conversation on Hey Coach Tony’s ESPN radio show this upcoming Saturday morning. I hadn’t planned that either.

Sharing that awkward moment of our lives has led to growth for a lot of people…and had I just pretended it didn’t happen, the story would have ended there. Instead…the story continues.

To our son’s credit, he chose a better reaction than I could have possibly scripted for him. Instead of wilting with my comments or being pushed down because of them, he chose a new attitude about what hockey (and work) mean to him right now. He may not completely understand how it will pay off for him in his life, but he made a step on Sunday toward embracing work ethic…determination…grit. I couldn’t have been prouder of him… nor more relieved.

I didn’t take a picture of my son as he sat on that chair, with the background sillhouette of my husband on the bed. I didn’t need to. That image is a permanent part of me now.

I’m not sure who grew more in that moment, me or our son, but I know, without a doubt, we both made a choice to grow because of it.

What sorts of choices did you make to grow this week?

I would love to hear how you are choosing to grow.  Either comment here, or send me an email:  choosingtogrow@meaganfrank.com.

                          

Copyright 2012     Meagan Frank              www.meaganfrank.com                            Choosing to Grow

Mr. J says, “A Good Teacher Can Be Taught!”

Mr. Jamal Abdur-Salaam, Wellstone Drumline Instructor Photo from "The Lab" blog

A reminder for anyone who cares about how children grow best…

Before he summons a beat…the stage is subtly littered with trash cans, lids, buckets, and drumsticks. It’s lined with chairs and the auditorium echoes silence.

Then they come. They come in from everywhere, funneling down near the stage, and settling near where he is. Except for a few who carry school books, their hands are empty.

It is recess after all.

The morning classes have ended at Wellstone Elementary School in St. Paul, Minnesota, and something special is about to begin.

It’s rehearsal time for the drumline, and they’ve come… to be with him.

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On the day I visited, Mr. Jamal Abdur-Salaam, a Behavior Intervention Specialist at the school, was already in the auditorium with a pair of students. One student was outfitting the buckets with drumsticks, and another was playing a game of cards with Mr. J.

I quietly found my seat at the table of the card players, and it became immediately apparent that this was no ordinary game of cards. With each card played, I realized that I was watching a lesson in character. The young man who calmly listened to Mr. J talk about classroom expectations and how it was possible for reactions to be different than they had been in the morning…the two of them kept playing cards.

Not too long before the drumline members congregated in the auditorium, this young man was quietly encouraged to change his behavior for the classroom teacher. He smiled in agreement and headed back to class.

It was the second time I had been impressed by the effectiveness of this gentle giant. The first time I saw Mr. J in action, he was rapping to the entrance beat for the Wellstone Drumline.


His energy was apparent, his enthusiasm contagious, and there was something else that came through with every word he uttered.

I watched the performance with my daughters and on the way home I asked them what they thought.

My oldest daughter said, “I would want to be in that group.”

Her younger sister agreed, “I want to drum too.”

“What did you like about it?” I asked them.

“That teacher was really nice,” the oldest explained.

“What did you notice about him?” I pushed.

“He was so positive,” she said.

That’s what I had noticed too. He had a passion for music, an energy for drumming, but more than that he had a belief in every child in that group that was undeniable.

I had to learn more…about him, about the drumline, and about how teachers, parents, coaches and mentor adults can learn from his approach.

So I went to Wellstone the Friday before their spring break to soak in their rehearsal and more of the man who helped to bring those 5-gallon buckets to life.

The pre-spring-break energy was palpable, evidenced in the wriggling bodies and distracted attention. I marveled at how he quietly reminded them why they were there and pulled them in to connected concentration. The rythem started…the synchronized movement of arms and sticks that forced a welling-up in my own chest. Watching that drumline come to life is truly an awe-inspiring experience.

The drumline started in 2005 in response to a need for some of the older boys in the school.  The building where Wellstone had been housed, did not have much room in the play-yard for the bigger more energetic sixth-grade boys.

“Recess wasn’t going the way it was supposed to,” Mr. J explained. A behavioral intervention was necessary and several of the boys were invited to join him at recess while he piddled on his drumset.

“Let me try!” they begged him, and slowly it became apparent that there was power in those drums. He let them take turns, but he realized he was going to have to find a better way to offer drumming to the number of kids interested.

So, the drumline was formed.  The boys who participated that first year made music out of anything they could find. They generally had a 5-gallon bucket each, one drumstick and a free hand.  They created beats, expended energy in that recess-time, and started to get good enough to share their talents with others.

After the first all-school performance, the music pounded through the audience, and it didn’t matter what anyone thought of them, Mr. J fondly remembers, “those boys became rock stars.”

Since that first year, interest in the drumline has exponentially grown. This school year, there are thirty members of the team, twenty-eight of whom were at rehearsal the day I visited.  Eighteen boys and ten girls lined up next to one another. They seemed invested in their individual job and compelled by the energy of the entire group.

Erik, a two-year member of the drumline explained, “Drumming helps me to be a leader…be a role model for younger kids.”

Drumline “teaches kids how to behave in school,” Shacara agreed.

The drumline is no longer just an alternative to recess, it is a privilege earned by lottery for the oldest kids in the school, and it is too popular to let every kid interested take part.

It’s not just about the drums.  With every instruction, Mr. J uses the opportunity to drive home positive character mantras. He asks them questions…and they reply in unison.

Everything you do is part of what?

A performance

Who are you?

WELL S-T-O-N-E

Why do you come?

To learn

And why else?

To figure out what we can do.

And why else?

To become.

The beat and the message are drummed in to the very soul of the kids who gather for drumline at Wellstone.

The students who are so drawn to this drumline know that Mr. J values each of them.

Caleb, a sixth grader who has been drumming with Mr. J since he was in second grade said, “He has faith in other people. He likes helping people.”

“He treats everyone like a niece or nephew,” first-year drummer Anthony explained.

And indeed he does. He wants to make a difference in the lives of these kids that goes well beyond the forty-five minutes he can tap out beats with them at recess.

“Even though we don’t always show it,” Erik said, “he helps us express how we are for real.”

The kids feel accepted and appreciated exactly the way they are. It is similar to the way Mr. J felt when he was a student in fifth grade.

Mr. John Mueller was a fifth grade teacher for Jamal who encouraged him and believed he could become something great. It is this belief that finds its way to the instruction that Mr. J uses with the students he teaches now.

“I want to be to them what Mr. Mueller was to me,” Mr. J said.

It is an effective teaching strategy that teaches so much more than academic content. It is a way to teach children to believe in their own potential.

And maybe that’s what we all need to be taught…that belief can come in five-gallon buckets and it can come in creating entertaining beats for a team. It can come in subtle investment in the kids in our lives as long as it comes from a genuine place of encouragement. Teaching, when done right, is too big to contain, and you never know how far it will travel…or how loud it will get.

It’s Not Just Jazz-her-cise

Celebrating a Choice to Grow

Friday, March 16, 2012

Jazzercise…

When you hear that word, what image pops into your head?  Do you picture the long-haired blonde of the eighties with her leotard, spandex, and leg warmers? Or how about the older woman who finishes a water aerobics class and then saunters in for a few movements on the jazzercise floor? What about the Grinch?

If you laughed out loud, you are why the writers of The Grinch Who Stole Christmas inserted Jazzercise into the Grinch’s monologue of excuses for why he couldn’t attend the holiday party. It is one of the funniest scenes in the movie and it’s also one of the first times that 20-year-old Jacob Krech ever heard about Jazzercise.

Whatever visual you have, I would venture a guess that it doesn’t immediately include the Grinch, and it most likely doesn’t include a man.

I have been Jazzercising for several months now. (some of you may remember my admission in a previous blogpost) I was immediately struck by the fact that there were no men in these classes…that is until Jacob showed up.

Not too long after I started, a young man began dancing in the row in front of me. He jumped higher, slid further, and moved bigger than everyone around him. It took everything I had to try to keep up with him, and I was usually reminded (for days) that I am not young enough to move like that.

His passion for dance and movement is immediately evident, and I was thrilled to hear that he wanted to instruct.

He is now a certified instructor and he teaches Jazzercise classes in Woodbury.

He joined his mom and his sister at classes in the fall of 2011, and it did not take long for him to realize that it was a good fit for him.

“I saw how much enjoyment my mom was getting out of it,” he told me, “and I thought it would be fun.”

Jacob has been passionate about dance since high school, becoming particularly interested in modern dance while attending St. Paul Conservatory for Performing Artists.

When I asked him if it bothered him that he was usually the only guy in a Jazzercise class, he said, “It’s kindof been my whole life. I’ve always been outnumbered.”

The younger brother to only sisters, Jacob feels incredibly comfortable being the only man in the room.

The other thing about Jazzercise, he wrote in an email to me, is that “No matter who you are, everyone will welcome you in with open arms, and be happy to see you.”

He’s right. It is what keeps people coming back and a reason why men would be warmly received if dance is something they enjoy.

Will Henke, a friend of Jacob’s and the only other man pictured above, is a college sophomore who played football in high school and is currently training for his first marathon. He has had dancing experience, but he was still nervous about going to the classes. He worried about keeping up with the movements, but his mind was quickly put at ease.

Will told me that it was a good workout and a lot of fun.

“Everyone just does their own thing,” he said.

It’s true. You hardly notice what anyone else is doing, (except of course if Jacob is dancing in the row in front of you) and you just do what you can to keep up.

There are no mirrors to distract you, and the music always compels you to keep moving. You are accepted exactly as you are and inspired by the dancers around you.

Jacob has a challenge for all the guys who are unsure about trying something that seems so far out of their comfort zone.

“Try not to get set in stereotypical things,” he said. “Go out and try new things. When you try new things, you’ll open yourself up to  a whole new set of opportunities.”

Jacob Krech has made a choice to grow through dance, and there is something incredibly inspirational about watching someone do something he loves.

 Besides teaching Jazzercise classes, Jacob works 4 am shifts at Target and he has recently been cast in The Hobbit at The Open Window Theatre in Minneapolis.

If you know someone who needs to be celebrated for Choosing to Grow, I would love to hear about him/her. Send nominations or story ideas to choosingtogrow@meaganfrank.com.

To learn more about Choosing to Grow or Meagan Frank, visit her website:  www.meaganfrank.com.

2012 Copyright   Choosing to Grow                                             Meagan Frank