Beyond Room 119


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Opportunities in disguise

God sure has a sense of humor.

A friend of mine teased me this morning about the positive spin I try to put on more difficult situations. I texted back, “Challenges are just opportunities in disguise. And I like opportunities.” A few minutes later, I pulled into the parking lot at the lake, where I was planning to spend a relaxing afternoon finishing up a good book.

A car pulled in right next to me, and I noticed the fellow putting on a hat. “That’s smart,” I thought. “I wish I had brought a hat.” A moment later, I realized that I actually knew the individual wearing the hat. He’s a good guy, but is someone who gives me, well, many opportunities for patience, and today, I was really hoping to just read. I’m a bit ashamed to admit this, but I tried to hop out of my car and make it down the path before he got out of his car and saw me. I winced as I heard my name called out from behind me.

“What are you doing here?” he asked. I gestured to the book in my hand, and returned the question. Apparently, he was there to study. Not seeing a graceful way out of it, I invited him to sit with me.

As I made my way down to the lake (he was going to use the restroom and then join me), I took a moment to center myself. I couldn’t help but laugh. Challenges are opportunities in disguise, right? I spoke aloud to God, with the trees and lizards listening. “All right, dude, this is all you. I’m open to whatever you need me to do this afternoon – you just guide me along.” At that moment, I tried to surrender my plan for the afternoon to whatever he had in mind instead.

He joined me shortly, and we did a little bit of chitchat before turning to our respective books. Eventually, a man walked by with his young daughter and paused to look out at the lake. I had finished my book about two minutes ago and was processing it. It’s a great book about making moments every day and living life with intention. The author is very adamant about the idea of “making moments” – creating connections and experiences that otherwise would never materialize.

“Well, self, no time like the present to give this a try,” I thought. So I said, simply, “Hi there.”

The man responded and thus began a long conversation that wove in and out of the weather, life in our city, fishing, kayaking, sailing, and more. It eventually turned to personal training, which is the field my friend is trying to get into, and it just so happened that Brad, our new acquaintance, was a professional body building coach. Those two began talking back and forth animatedly, and I noticed the little girl getting bored, so we started chatting. Ayalla is a sweet nine-year-old who is nervous about the EOG exams coming up, draws up a storm (jungles, flowers, and houses are her favorites), is immensely excited about her upcoming vacation to Disney World, and loves hand games. You know, those sing-song-y things where you clap your hands against each other in a set pattern. I taught her one, she taught me another one, and we had a great time before she and her dad left.

My friend and I went back to our bench and just sat there, looking at the lake before us and feeling the wind brush against our skin. We started talking and actually had a solid conversation. I know he’s trying to figure out a lot right now, both professionally and personally, and I mentally nudged God. “Please give me the words you want this person to hear right now,” I prayed. I tried to listen both to what he was saying and what went unsaid, and hoped that whatever I asked and responded were helping. At the very least, he wrote down the book I recommended he read to help him sort through some of his questions.

Eventually, we went our separate ways. I’m not sure what the odds of both of us going to the same place at literally the exact same time are, but I would warrant it’s a number pretty darn close to zero. I also think the framing of something is so important, and I had just framed that entire exchange because of the text I had sent my friend. Had that thought not been so fresh on my mind, would I have approached the afternoon in the same way? I don’t know.

Some people would say this is all one funny coincidence, but I disagree. I do believe in coincidences, but I don’t think today falls into that category. I’ve seen so often the way that seemingly unconnected pieces come together and the beautiful things that can result from that. I’ll probably never know what impact, if any, this afternoon had on my friend, and I’m okay with that. For me, in this moment, I’m good with just knowing that today, we created a moment that would have otherwise passed us by.

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Blast from the past

I got lost in the past a few days ago. In a search for some clarity, I opened up two old journals and was transported back to a ten-month span of my life from a few years ago.

I was a bit surprised at what I found.

First, a bit of context. This action was spurred by a conversation from the day before. I was talking with my hair stylist, who I’ve been going to for about a year and a half now. Jennifer has hair that matches the orange of a fading sunset, inquisitive eyes, decades of life experience, and we quickly realized that we were kindred spirits. A lot has happened for both of us during this time, and it’s been fun travelling her life with her and inviting her to walk along with me, albeit in bits and spurts every few months.

When I saw her this week, we caught up on some of the bigger things that had been going on. She eventually asked for an update on one particular storyline that had been going on in my life for a while, and I filled her in. After I left, I was thinking more about our conversation and wanted to go back in time to see what I was thinking about it a few years ago.

The next evening, I dug deep into my closet and found the Brooks shoebox that holds my journals underneath the shoeboxes labeled “office supplies” and “crafting materials.” I found the right journals and began reading, right on the carpet in the corner of my room.

I do my best thinking while writing, and it was fascinating to go back and watch myself process through some of my questions, my doubts, and my dreams. I distinctly remember actually writing some of these pages, even though they were a few years ago. For some, I remember the exact circumstances that prompted the reflection, while for others, I remember where I was while writing. The memory is truly an interesting thing.

Let me tell you this: it’s one thing to live your life day by day, and it’s quite another to read about months of your life in a condensed period of time. It allows you to see patterns much more clearly and in some instances, ask, “What in the world was I thinking?!” Two journals, one hour, and a few sniffles later, I realized that my journals were showing me a new lesson: the importance of looking at patterns within our own lives.

I tend to focus on details. What’s going on? Why is this happening? What did that person do? How can we make this better? These are all questions that are at the top of my toolkit. The bigger questions about vision or the big picture don’t come as naturally to me.

But as I read through multiple entries with very similar questions, those bigger concepts jumped out at me, reinforced by entry after entry.

There were many conversations with God put into writing during this time period. Prayers of petition, of gratitude, to seek understanding, and some, just to share what was on my mind. Those were all fun to read through and see both where that relationship was and what I chose to bring up there.

I also saw myself struggle with some of the same questions and doubts, page after page. The angle or approach was always a bit different, but the underlying foundation was often the same. It got to the point where I wanted to ask my younger self, “Really? This again?” (I’m grateful to have friends that never once asked me that.)

It’s an interesting thing, to return to the past with the perspective of the future. You can see the thoughts of the past so clearly preserved, and it was easy enough to get frustrated with my younger self. These patterns nearly jumped out at me and I wondered why the person a few years ago didn’t see them, too. But experience alone doesn’t lead to growth; experience and reflection together do. Those experiences were crucial to get to where I am now, but in themselves, they were insufficient. It took time and intentional thought to create the bridge between the two selves, past and present. And unfortunately, it’s that time component that we often fail to prioritize. Every day, moments pass, actions occur, and words are spoken. In the busyness, we move on to tomorrow without processing today.

If we let that build up, we risk remaining stagnant. Growth, however, often involves pruning. Just as a gardener carefully examines the rose bush to decide what needs to be trimmed back and what branches should be allowed to flourish, we must do the same with our lives. Experience + reflection = growth. It’s a useful equation to remember, and our future selves will thank us for it someday.

Or, barring that, if you write things out the way I do, at least you’ll give yourself something to laugh at in the years to come.


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Why I do what I do

How often do we get a sign that what we are doing makes a difference?

How frequently do we doubt our jobs, our impact, or our very selves?

I don’t know about you, but my answers to those questions are, “not a whole lot” and “far too often,” and unfortunately, in that order. So when I have those moments that whisper to me, “Hey, keep it up!” well, I listen.

In the last few weeks, I’ve had meetings with a few students that have stood out in a special way. One of them, Amie, was in my caseload last semester. She’s a mother of four and her kids all live back in Gambia with her mother. She enrolled in school to earn her degree to could make a stable living, bring the kids over, and provide for them. In our first meeting last September, she was surprisingly open about her struggles with her ex-husband, her doubts, and her fears. I tried to help her look at her past experiences to find strength that she didn’t realize she had and in doing so, to give her encouragement and confidence to continue. Fast forward to last week when she came by to talk about summer and fall classes. Turns out she can’t take summer school because she’s going back to Gambia to bring the kids back to America with her. As she shared her excitement with me, I couldn’t help but compare the woman before me to the woman who had entered my office almost eight months ago, vulnerable, scared, doubtful, and alone.

The next day, Kayla walks into my office. Kayla is a bubbly young woman who dreams of earning her BSN. As she sits down, I start with my standard, “How’s it going?” This question is my go-to with friends, family, my students, and well, pretty much everyone. I love it because it allows the conversation to go wherever the person wants it to, and I never quite know what answer will come out. Goodness knows, I could never have predicted the conversation we were about to have.

She starts by sharing that there’s been a recent death in the family, and it’s been hard to deal with that, especially because she’s picked up a lot of the responsibility that her family member did. We talk about that for a while, and it segues into her family life and the difficulties she has with her parents, particularly when it comes to her trying to prioritize school. As we continue to chat, I become more and more impressed with the person before me. Here is someone who has gone through so much and has more responsibility than most 18 year-olds, and never once did she slip into self-pity, whining, or complaining. At one point, she pauses, and I’m not sure where she’s going to go, and she shares some things that happened in her childhood that I’m pretty sure she had never told anyone before. She continues to sit there before me, dabbing at the tears on her face, and I just sit there silently with her, letting her process. We spent more than an hour together, and at the end of it, she pauses. “You know,” she says, “I wasn’t planning on saying any of that. I was just going to say everything’s going fine and that was it.”

I look at this incredible person before me – someone who has just said that no matter what she’s gone through, she wants to be a light for others and be a positive influence in the world – and I just think, “Wow.” No other words were coming to mind, and frankly, nothing else wouldn’t have captured that moment, anyways. I give her a hug goodbye, and after she leaves, I walk to my window. As I stared out at the world, I knew that at this moment, I was exactly where I needed to be.

 

Each of us has a number of interactions with others on a daily basis, and I warrant that we don’t receive gratitude or a sense of purpose from most of them. One of the great paradoxes of us humans is that although we love to be appreciated and validated, we often fear appreciating those around us. Perhaps we are afraid of wearing our heart on our sleeves. Maybe we’re afraid of what the response might be. Or maybe we just don’t think about doing it. Whatever the reason, we don’t encounter these special moments often.

But when they do happen, they have an impact far beyond the immediate present. They give us the energy to keep going. They relight our candle when it burns low. Thy remind us that each moment is a new opportunity to impact someone’s life. And in doing so, those moments can give us the gifts of energy and perspective. The challenge? It’s up to us to accept the gift, and in doing so, to use it to change the world around us.