I wish I could say otherwise, but this marathon stretches past the normal twenty-six miles into nine new-normal years on a treadmill to nowhere fast. I understand why people quit, and I understand why people can’t pick up the pace. Marathons require stamina and an unswerving belief in the ability to finish, and so I cling to my belief in God and his timing, medical advancements and the promise of stem cells, sun-filled days and peaceful nights.
When I compare each year to the previous one, I measure our progress and remind myself, “The road to recovery is a marathon, not a sprint.” For more of the marathon, click here.
As long as I can remember, I’ve been a mama’s girl. I dropped out of pre-school, and my mother was my safety net. She chose her battles and her strategies, and in the end I finished out the year. I remember her tucking me in each night with a “Good night, Sugarplum” or a “Good night, sleep tight. Don’t let the bed bugs bite.” I remember her chauffeuring me back and forth to school each day and the aroma of banana bread awaiting in our kitchen. I remember changing clothes for dance lessons or gymnastics and jumping back in the car with mom. I remember when those lessons moved south by two hours to Amarillo during 5th and 6th grade and forty minutes northeast to Liberal during the 9th. How many hours did we spend together just the two of us? She was in my every audience at every recital, every swim meet, every school activity. And after my freshman year at OU when I found myself pregnant, she helped me move from my dorm into my first apartment and accompanied me to childbirth classes. Even though I lived five hours from home, she drove ten hours round trip each week and held my nineteen-year-old hand as I became a mom.
My mother taught me unconditional love, stood by me during the best and worst of times, and prayed with me and for me non-stop. Somehow my best doesn’t seem to compare.
Once upon a time, I was a soccer mom, Lauren was highly competitive, and we criss-crossed the U. S. for the love of the game. One spring evening about thirteen years ago, I remember sitting on the sidelines watching practice with Jane, another mom, who confided, “Natasha told me that Lauren pierced her belly button.”
“Oh, really?” I said.
Lauren was a freshman in high school at the time, too young to be showing anyone belly buttons or belly rings. Even though I may or may not have revealed more than my belly button at her age, I sat through soccer practice devising my mom-plan. The next day the girls would be boarding a plane for a tournament, location now forgettable. Practice gear needed laundering, and I would wait until we returned home to “discover” the piercing for myself.
I remember smiling at Lauren after practice and saying, “Nice workout!” I remember the ride home as if everything was completely normal. I remember walking into Lauren’s room once home, pointing at her Texans practice t-shirt, and saying, “Take that off. I need to start a load of laundry.”
On cue, Lauren flipped up her shirt, and I gasped with added Mama drama, “What have you done?”
“I pierced my belly button,” she may or may not have said, the memory a teenager now.
I pointed at her navel and said, “Take that out—It’s going to get infected.” Ripped out on the pitch would have been the scarier possibility, but I hadn’t thought through my words or possibilities or consequences, only my detection tactic in keeping the confidence of both Jane and Natasha.
And on cue, Lauren pulled out the piercing and handed it over. At the time, in my mind, removal of the belly ring was punishment enough.
Flash forward a year, same teenager, now a tenth grader.
Lauren’s friend Savannah vacationed in Amsterdam the summer before sophomore year, and Savannah returned with a wonderful souvenir for Lauren—a sterling silver pair of marijuana leaf earrings. I have to give Lauren some credit for showing me the earrings, but I warned her, “You cannot—ever—wear them to school.” Lauren attended school where I taught, and no way ever could she be seen—ever—with cannabis leaves in her ears.
I remember riding shotgun to school one day, Lauren driving with her learner’s permit, a typical morning and a smooth ride considering the fifteen-year-old behind the wheel. At the end of the same day on the way home, Lauren drove once more. This time, I remember the glint of sterling catching my eye from Lauren’s ears. I remember sitting at a red light and commanding once more, “Take those out.” I extended my right hand, palm up. “Give them to me.”
Lauren unscrewed the backs, dislodged the earrings, and placed them in my upturned palm. I can still picture the open field on the passenger side of the street. I remember rolling down my window with her jewelry in hand. In slow motion, I still see myself tossing the silver weed as far as possible into the weeds. I’m pretty sure she hated my guts for that.
Momming ain’t easy, even though my mother made the job seem effortless, but she’s a saint. Sometimes emotions stand in the way. As far as I know, there’s no parenting manual on actions to take when your teen-aged daughter pierces her belly button or sneaks around with marijuana leaves in her ears or hates your guts. I think we all do the best we can, and after that, I’ve found prayer my best hope.
And you know what? Here she is now, age 27, my adulting daughter, BBA in Finance, earning a salary, supporting herself, buying her first car without help, and smiling from ear-to-ear.
And anytime I ask my self, What would my mother do? I know, and I pray.
I even had a head start. Starting December 27th, no more.
And so far, so good.
Even now I hate to admit my habit, but here goes.
Goodbye, cigarettes. You comforted me for a time. Thank you for showing me that it’s time for me to work on me.
I remember listening to one of Dr. Wayne Dyer’s audiobooks about ten years ago. He practiced saying goodbye and thanking whatever is bothering him. His daughter had some bumps, I don’t remember the details, but the bumps were a problem, a problem that went away when she spoke to them with kindness and a farewell. Together they wrote a children’s book about it. Recently, Marie Kondo reminded me of the technique in her tv show on tidying up, thanking the items you use and love as you put them away, keeping only the things that spark joy, thanking items for the joy they brought you at one time before bidding them adieu. I try to use these lessons in my life. It’s a work in progress. I believe 2019 will be a year of personal growth.
A second commitment evolved throughout the month. I like to start school each new year on a positive note. A new year. A fresh start. I know for a fact that some kids don’t get much positivity at home, and we can all use an extra dose of positive. Anyway, on January 4th, I read a blog post titled “You need to believe it’s possible.” Click the link to read. Embedded in that post was a sixteen-minute video titled “The Power of Belief.”
I decided to show the video to my students on their first day back, January 7th, and have them journal about what they believe. I watched the video seven times total, once to preview and again with each class. After the third viewing, I noticed an ad at the end for Evan Carmichael’s book Your One Word with a #believe at the bottom of the front cover. I tweaked the writing assignment for my classes to reflect on their one word for 2018 and their one word for 2019 in addition to what they believe.
I didn’t journal at the time, but I thought about my two words and what I believe.
Word of 2018. Hope. When I began this self-imposed writing gig while living in a La Quinta and rebuilding our house that had been flooded by Harvey, I named my blog Faith + Gratitude = Peace + Hope. My dad gave me a silver bracelet engraved with HOPE for my birthday last year, and I wear it almost every day as a reminder that Hope, with a capital H, is a choice. I can choose my attitude, another gift of a lesson from dear old Dad. I’m fairly certain Dad is also a Wayne Dyer fan. Amid crisis, I have a choice. Hope or Despair? I choose hope along with the opportunity to grow.
Word of 2019. Believe. I realize Hope and Believe are practically synonyms. In my mind Belief removes all doubt and fuels the Hope. Belief reminds me to trust God in the process. I’m in a different place now. Literally. Back home and on a new couch. So what do I believe? I believe in a better, healthier future for everyone in my family. I believe in the progress of medicine and stem cells and cures for diseases like paranoid schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s and addiction. I believe that together we are stronger, and our relationships are important. I believe my writing is evolving and helping others evolve. I believe one day I will publish a book. All through the grace of God. Some of these beliefs I shared with my students, and after one class a student came up to me and said, “Mrs. Byers, my grandfather has Parkinson’s, and my mom is like you. She researched and found a place right here in Bellaire that does stem cell treatments and took him.”
“So your grandfather is better now?” I asked.
She nodded, holding our eye contact with a serioussincerity, “I will find out where and let you know.”
And like that, I had a new avenue to explore. I believe it’s only a matter of time. I believe all of it with faith in God, gratitude in advance, and peace in my heart.
January 11th was our daughter Lauren’s 27th birthday, and Kody and I gave her a three-month membership to a local boxing gym, which included a three-month membership for me. We would go together. Now mind you, I had not worked out in any way for approximately a year and a half, but I believe in a healthier future. Right? So on January 13th, Lauren and I found our workout clothes, drove to the gym with over fifty suspended heavy bags, wrapped our wrists and knuckles, and started our first class—kickboxing. The fifteen minute warm-up included jumping jacks and pushups, lunges and squats. My calves started screaming after about one minute. Somehow I pushed forward. Then we pulled on our gloves and punched and kicked our way through eight, three-minute rounds with the bag before the abdominal-focused cool-down using weighted medicine balls. If that sounds hard, it is. On January 14th Kody joined us, this time for boxing, and he signed on the line for the membership. By January 15th, I could barely walk up a flight of stairs, but two weeks and five classes later, I’m feeling pretty fantastic, and Lauren has made it to at least three classes without me. And the bonus…this gym is motivational, the instructors are motivational, I am motivated, and it’s quality family time.
Last weekend I traveled the three-hour road to Austin to hang out with my like-minded childhood besties overnight. I am so very thankful for Denise and Pamela and our forty-ish year friendships, speaking of sparking joy. For the trip I downloaded Rachel Hollis’s audio of Girl Wash Your Face. I like this girl Rachel, and I can’t stop thinking of something she said, and I want you to read it:
“A few months ago after I was out to dinner with my closest girlfriend which was an impromptu happy hour that turned into an impromptu dinner and ended up going later than any of us anticipated, I went downstairs to the basement where our old treadmill is hidden and ran a few miles. I put the evidence of that workout on Snapchat, and later my girlfriend saw it and sent me a text. “You worked out after dinner? What in the world?”
I wrote back, “Yes, because I planned on doing it and didn’t want to cancel.”
“Couldn’t you just postpone until tomorrow?” She was genuinely perplexed.
“No, because I made a promise to myself and I don’t break those, not ever.”
“Ugh,” she typed back. “I’m the FIRST person I break a promise to.”
She’s not the only one. I used to do that all the time until I realized how hard I was fighting to keep my word to other people while quickly canceling on myself. I’ll work out tomorrow became I’m not working out anytime soon—because honestly, if you really cared about that commitment, you’d do it when you said you would. What if you had a friend who constantly flaked on you? What if every other time you made plans she decided not to show up? Or what if a friend from work was constantly starting something new? Every three Mondays she announced a new diet or goal and then two weeks later it just ended? Y’all, would you respect her? This woman who starts and stops over and over again? Would you count on the friend who keeps blowing you off for stupid reasons? Would you trust them when they committed to something?
No. No way. And that level of distrust and apprehension applies to you too. Your subconscious knows that you, yourself, cannot be trusted after breaking so many plans and giving up on so many goals.
When you really want something, you will find a way. When you don’t really want something, you’ll find an excuse. I know that blowing off a workout, a date, an afternoon to organize your closet, or some previous commitment to yourself doesn’t seem like a big deal—but it is. It’s a really big deal. Our words have power, but our actions shape our lives.”
Wow, Rachel, why haven’t I realized this before? You, my young friend, are right. Okay girl, three times per week, at least. That’s my boxing commitment for the next three months.
Thursday I came home to a package in the mail—inside, a silver bangle bracelet with BELIEVE in capital letters and a note from my Denise–Believe is a powerful thing!!
The winter break approached, exam stress visible on the faces of the students. Of my four sections of Advanced Placement Language and Composition, one class tested Monday, one on Tuesday, one Wednesday, and one Thursday. On my white board I wrote: Happy Holidays! Do your best! Be your Best! The underlying message—Don’t Cheat! I would be naive to believe that students wouldn’t try. Yet I want to trust them, really I do.
Monday’s scores were consistent with student averages and other tests taken throughout the semester. Tuesday’s test had two paradoxically high scores, but the students missed different questions, so I didn’t think too much about it as I was still grading my brains out with essays, which would comprise 50% of test scores. By Wednesday after walking in on five girls just hanging out in my office, which connects to two other classrooms besides mine, I knew in my gut that my test had been compromised. There was nothing I could do in the minutes leading up to the test that day.
After passing out Wednesday’s exam, I noted the darting glances from “Felicia.” Every time I looked at her, she met my gaze, and even though this test consists of reading passages and comprehension, “Felicia” failed to even fake read as she bubbled her answers. I monitored like a hawk. She wasn’t copying off of anyone. However, after tests were submitted, I discovered four more inconsistent scores including Bad Faker “Felicia” and three of her friends who had seemingly coordinated well enough to miss different answers.
So (1) there was the situation with unsupervised students in the office where tests were not visible but also not under lock and key. And (2) I did not physically collect phones or Apple watches during this testing season though none were visible. And (3) normally I give more than one version of any test, but this time, with keys having to be entered into an unfamiliar computer system and too much to do and too little time, I did not. This time I stapled a cover sheet on top that either said Form A or Form B and copied Form A in white, Form B green. Lame, I now know.
So on Wednesday after school with one semester exam to go, I assembled a new test and made copies with the same cover sheet, Form A in white and a green Form B.
Before the test on Thursday, I made eye contact with every single student as I handed out scantrons. To each one of them, I said something like, “Good luck today” or “May the force be with you” or “I’m thinking of you as you test today.” Some of them probably thought/think I’m creepy, but most of them were amused. I added a new note to my white board next to Be Your Best—No Cheating. Before distributing tests, I didn’t mention anything about the suspected cheaters or the new test, I just said, “It’s been my pleasure to be your teacher this year.”
“What? Aren’t you coming back?” they asked.
“Of course, I mean, 2018 has been great, and I’ll see you next year. I hope you all have a wonderful break. Are you ready? Do your best! Please keep your eyes on your own test and keep your answers covered.” Then I passed out the test and proceeded to walk up and down the aisles for two hours.
Immediately I recognized two scantrons with the same bubble pattern—A, B, B, D—the answers from the original exam. These two students weren’t even trying to read and see if those answer choices made sense, and they weren’t keeping their answers covered either. However, I had left one clue that this test was different. The first test had 37 questions, and this one had 39. I kept my eyes on the two, and about an hour into the test they both exuded an air of defeat—heavy exhales, eyes rolling, corners of mouths turned inconsolably down.
Fast forward to the scantron machine that sounded off like a machine gun and left six scantrons bleeding red. Six. Six students had stuck to the familiar A, B, B, D pattern, their scores to the tune of 10-20%.
Skip ahead once more past me telling some co-workers and my dean. Our math teacher had a similar cheating scandal, and I heard many a conflicting opinion on dealing with my cheaters. If I gave these six kids zeroes, they would all fail for the semester, and six more whom I suspect also cheated, but couldn’t outright accuse, would get away with it. If I gave my little cheaters their 10-20% and averaged that score with their essay scores, they will still pass for the semester. The math teacher and I both entered zeroes into our grade books and left the school that Friday, December 21 for a two-week respite. Grades would not be officially due until our January return.
In the meantime, I’ve reflected on the times I’ve cheated in life. I remember my freshman year, still in junior high. It was just math homework. I’m sure I was too busy with my ninth-grade life to worry about school, so I borrowed the homework of a very smart, kind, and well-respected friend who had diligently completed hers and whose name I will protect to this day. I proceeded to copy her assignment in my history class, and my teacher Mr. Watkins, also the dad of one of my classmates, walked over to my desk, picked up both papers, scrutinized the names, and handed them back to me without saying a word. And I felt ashamed of myself. That’s not to say that I didn’t find a way to cheat my way through business calculus in college, and I don’t relay my own dishonesty with pride.
I say this to illustrate the imperfection of humanity. I realize that the pot should not call the kettle black, and I ask myself, “What would Jesus do?”
I remember the story of a prostitute kissing the feet of Jesus and anointing them with perfume and her own tears and wiping them with her own hair.
I remember Simon saying, “If this man were a prophet, he would know this woman was a sinner.”
I remember Jesus saying to the woman, “Your sins are forgiven…go in peace.”
(It’s all in Luke 7:36-50 with a powerful parable in between*).
There will always be Simons who say, “Let them fail. Teach them a lesson.”
There will always be Jesuses and Mr. Watkinses who teach lessons in other ways.
There will always be people, like me, who choose wrong from time to time, but continue to try to be better than who they were before. Isn’t that what we all do in January? Resolve to be our best selves?
When I go back to school, I’ll give my students credit for their essays and say little, maybe even nothing like Mr. Watkins, and like Jesus, I’ll forgive with grace and peace for new beginnings in the new year.
*Luke 7:40-43, New International Version, biblegateway.com
40 Jesus answered him, “Simon, I have something to tell you.”
“Tell me, teacher,” he said.
41 “Two people owed money to a certain moneylender. One owed him five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. 42 Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he forgave the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more?”
43 Simon replied, “I suppose the one who had the bigger debt forgiven.”
I find myself a little twitchy these days…when I feel like writing, but have nothing much to say or perhaps too much to say but nothing of importance. Ideas spin in my hippocampus* and cerebral cortex*, and I Google words like medulla oblongata* (in case I want to use it correctly, and I find words like hippocampus and cerebral cortex and use them instead), and I question this desire not only to write, but also to share details of my life on the World Wide Web.
Speaking of Hippo Campus, have you heard of them? They’re an indie rock band from St. Paul, Minnesota, and a side note, I dig indie rock with a shovel, so here you go.
Anyway, I began blogging fifteen months ago when an actual hurricane blew into town and dumped 20 trillion gallons of rain on Houston (according to ABC News). Twenty trillion. Can you imagine? Well, Harvey flooded me and my family and our dog Rain right out of our house (along with another estimated 13 million people and countless animals region-wide). Friends and family called and texted their concern and support, and in a post-traumatic stupor, I couldn’t talk about it. But—while propped up on pillows with laptop on lap in my king-sized bed at my post-hurricane home, AKA the La Quinta Inns and Suites, I typed out a little memoir titled That Time When I Met Harvey. I planned to share it with my sophomores as an introduction to a writing assignment, and I did, but suddenly I found myself creating a WordPress account and publishing my first blog post. I chose faith and gratitude during that time, and guess what? Faith and gratitude granted me peace and hope, and that’s the message I wanted to share.
And now, fifteen months and thirty-nine posts later, I realize that not all posts can be about hurricane evacuations or psychotic episodes or purse snatchings. Thank God! And now I waver over possible material. These days I consider writing about the cockroach in my classroom that I silently snuffed out as students sat scribbling down semester exam essays, which I should be grading by the way, but then again cockroach murders do not fit the faith and gratitude theme, unless you count the way I saved the classroom peace. And now I wonder, who really cares to read my ramblings and why am I writing anyway? These questions cannot escape my hippocampus (or is it my cerebral cortex?), and although I do not have all of the answers to life’s big questions or for my own baffling behaviors, I hope in some small way, YOU can relate.
(WE are not alone, and I wish you PEACE and HOPE).
* According to Wikipedia, “Humans and other mammals have two hippocampi, one in each side of the brain. The hippocampus belongs to the limbic system and plays important roles in the consolidation of information from short-term memory to long-term memory, and in spatial memory that enables navigation.”
* The cerebral cortex “plays a key role in memory, attention, perception, awareness, thought, language, and consciousness” (Wikipedia). I’m fairly certain Hope lives in the cerebral cortex, but Hope in the Hippocampus sounds as cool as the band.
* “The medulla [oblongata] contains the cardiac, respiratory, vomiting and vasomotor centers and therefore deals with the autonomic functions of breathing, heart rate and blood pressure” (Wikipedia). And it reminds me of Bobby Boucher (pronounced boo-SHAY) in Waterboy.
Sunday morning of Thanksgiving week included my parents and my sister, Philippians 4:6-8, and a blood-stained sock.
After breakfast, Dad drove, and I rode shotgun to Mom’s memory care home, where she sat alone with the Christmas tree in the community living room. Dressed for church, she was ready for the day when we arrived, and her eyes lit up like the tree at the sight of us. Dad grabbed a brush from her bedroom and demonstrated his skills as a stylist. I attempted small talk. Alzheimer’s is a thief, stealing more all the time from one of the kindest people to ever walk the earth. Dad helped Mom stand up. He helped her with her coat. He helped her to the car and buckled her in, and together the three of us took a Sunday drive to kill some time before church.
In the sanctuary, Mom, Dad, and I found spots at the very back, where friends stopped by to say hello and check on my mom before the service, and my sister slipped into our row next to me. The graphic design on front of the bulletin read, “…in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God,” and the minister spoke on the same theme for another few verses. The words of the apostle Paul turned over in my head and resonated with me. I remembered my mother’s voice. I remembered times gone by when she spoke these same words. I realized the meaning had stuck. I realized that every meant every. Pray with a thankful heart in every situation. I heard my mother’s voice, now silent. I heard God’s voice, “Peace…which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts” and “if anything is excellent…think on such things.” Leaving the sanctuary that day, I felt thankful for the message, for my safe trip from Houston to the Oklahoma panhandle, for a week of vacation and time with family, for more time with my mother, and for the peace I carried with me.
Dad and I took Mom back to the nursing home. I helped her change tops and took off her shoes to help her change pants, and that’s when I spotted the blood stained sock. Mom’s toe had been bleeding obviously, and I’m not good at this type of thing. “Um, Dad?” I said. He was hanging up her church clothes. “I think Mom’s toe is bleeding.”
I stepped away and let Dad take over. He rolled down Mom’s compression sock and pulled it off her foot. I caught a glimpse of the horror. Dad left the room to find a nurse. Mom’s toenail stood perpendicular to her nail bed, bleeding. It seemed as if the nail had caught on the sock when they had gone on. Then the foot had been shoved into a shoe. My stomach still turns, four days later.
A nurse showed up promptly, filling a pink plastic basin with warm soapy water and submerging Mom’s foot to soak for awhile before the inevitable toenail removal. I’ll skip the details. “Now, are you her daughter?” The nurse darted a glance at me from her position on the floor before further examination of my mother’s toe.
“Yes,” I replied as my mother made a funny face and laughed with unrestrained joy. I looked back at Dad, sitting directly behind the nurse and caught him mid-face-contortion. Mom cackled some more.
“Does that tickle?” The nurse asked Mom, oblivious to the mostly silent comedic flirtation of my parents.
“No, they’re making faces at each other,” I replied for Mom.
“I love seeing them together,” the nurse said. “They really have something special. You just don’t see that very often. She looks at him with so much love.”
I always knew my dad hung my mom’s moon, but over the last year or so, I’ve come to realize that Mom hung Dad’s moon, too. And these excellent things, I will think upon.
A couple of years ago, before we moved to Houston, one of my favorite students gave me a gratitude journal and wrote on the inside cover, “Because you have truly taught me to appreciate the joys of life, no matter how small. Thank you.”
Copyrighted by Chronicle Books with text by Catherine Price, the introduction speaks of our tendency as humans to be consumed by our problemsand how to combat this inclination with a happiness strategy called the “three blessings” approach.
The first prompt says, “PICK OUT THREE THINGS IN YOUR DAY THAT ARE BEAUTIFUL. Take time to notice and appreciate them in the moment; then, when you get home, jot them down in your journal.”
I completed my first entry on a day when I desperately needed to shift my focus…
Aug. 27, 2017
In the midst of Hurricane Harvey.
Today Kody, Drew, Rain, and I were rescued by HFD on an emergency truck with sixteen people including our neighbors and first responders and seven dogs. Water shin deep flooded our house when we left. Our yard was submerged to my knees. I’m thankful for being able to communicate via cell phone and Facebook. I’m thankful for those who have prayed and continue to pray for us. I’m thankful for the La Quinta and breakfast and a room, actually a suite, and space for Drew and for a shower and dry clothes and for our next-door neighbors Boaz and Megan (also sheltered here) who brought us water and snacks and for the restaurant at the Hilton across the street that had wine!!
Looking back, I only grabbed what I needed for an evacuation and packed what I could carry in an over-the-shoulder bag. I suppose in that moment I realized I needed God and gratitude.
Flash forward fourteen months to November 2018. We have a place to call home again, and this month I renew my commitment to gratitude and my journal. Admittedly, I’m behind, but I like the idea of focusing on the little things and journaling three a day.
The next blank page of my gratitude journal says, “Let us be grateful to people who make us happy; they are the charming gardeners who make our souls blossom.” —Marcel Proust (1871-1922), French novelist
Would you like to join me in my gratitude practice? Let’s call it a happiness experiment.