Kids, Tech & Gadgetry

_1060698It might be a bit early to start thinking about our house rules regarding technology for Cy, seeing as how the fancy gadget that’s really blowing his hair back right now is Dot’s clicker—a little plastic button that pushes onto a piece of aluminum and makes a popping sound. He likes to pop it with his gums. On the other hand, maybe it’s never too early, as technology already infuses his life: he sees his parents on their iPhones probably more than he should, kindles are on the family bed, Dad is at work on his iMac most of the day, we Skype with family half the world away, and we have a couple of “emergency” go-to video/flashy things to play for him when we really need to calm him down and nothing else is working (like, say, on a flight). There’s no divorcing technology from his life unless we turn into Luddites ourselves, but as it’s our connection to loved ones and it’s how Toby makes a living and supports the family, the gadgetry is here to stay.

What got me thinking more about this topic was reading this post by Sarah, from Memories on Clover Lane. She’s been in the trenches for twenty years, and I respect her views. She’s probably a bit stricter about technology than I am—I don’t view technology as inherently good or evil; it is we who must be mindful about our use of it—but I do plan to be stricter about Cy’s use of technology than I think might be necessary, at least to start with, because it is always easier to give than to take away.

Toby and I began talking about what goals we’d like to have regarding technology, figuring that’s the best starting point to guide what rules we make. Here’s some of what we came up with:

First, we want Cy to be able to use technology with ease, to be familiar with it, and to be able to navigate his way around the web, software, and devices so he can pursue any interest he might have. Because it is going to be a part of his life (and certainly a part of whatever job he might have), he needs to know how to manipulate it. Cutting it out of his life for fear of the pitfalls, I think, just becomes a wasted opportunity to provide him with proper guidance. Kids today appear to be “digital natives”, but my experience in teaching (from disadvantaged kids in Thailand, to university undergrads in America) tells me that they are in sore need of guidance. For example, they know how to punch in words for a Google search, but they are lost when it comes to keyword search logic, evaluating source credibility and legitimacy, and finding what they’re looking for efficiently. In today’s world, I think what you know is becoming less important than knowing how to find it out. So we want to encourage his use of technology, as well as guide him in how to use it effectively and appropriately.

However, our second goal for Cy is that we want him to be able to exist without technology. We want him to be able to put it aside and enjoy other pursuits where he can be out in nature, play a real musical instrument, or make something with his bare hands. We want him to experience boredom and how it can become the mother of creativity. We want him to be able to just BE, without constant input. We want him to be able to focus without technological distractions. And we don’t want him to hole up in his room, not interacting with his own family, or choosing to socialize with friends digitally instead of in the “real world.”

Here’s some rules I’m toying around with:

–I like the idea of restricting use of gadgetry to communal areas (like a family office, or the living room, for example).

–I also like the idea of keeping ownership communal until certain ages. I haven’t worked this all out yet, and I’m sure the popular gadgetry will have changed by the time this is relevant, but, hypothetically speaking…

–I’ll probably let him have his own kindle once he gets into reading chapter books because we travel a lot and I’m not interested in schlepping a huge library everywhere we go. On the scale of Potential Disaster, I think kindles are probably on the low end.

–The smart phone stays communal maybe until he can drive. I know the current trend is to give them phones quite young, maybe even around the time they’re 10. I just can’t for the life of me come up with a reason he would need his OWN phone that young. A family phone that he can use for whatever apps he might want should cover it until he makes it to high school at least.

–And the computer or laptop stays community property until we give him one as a graduation gift from high school so he has one to use in college).

–I also like the idea of limits being purpose driven. Instead of setting arbitrary time limits on how long he can use the computer, for example, it seems to make sense to set it around the purpose for which it is being used. Once the purpose is met, it’s good to go take a break and do something else.

But it’s not just about setting limits. It’s up to us to create opportunities for better alternatives. A big part of why kids are so “addicted” to their phones today is because they don’t have the same opportunities to be social, exist in public spaces, and explore the world freely with age mates that they once did. (Danah Boyd documents this well in her book, It’s Complicatedwhich is a really great read on teen social media use AND she provides the PDF available for free to download on her website.) So if we want him to “get offline,” we need to allow him time and space to have unstructured interactions with his friends, where he can unwind and play without adults watching his every move, so that he doesn’t have to turn to social media as his only outlet for being social.

That’s something that I think is much easier to accomplish here in Thailand, or in Europe, where there is easy public transportation and teens are welcome in public space, than it is in suburban America, where you need to drive to get anywhere and teens are viewed with suspicion by many. I remember as a teenager in suburban California, I would come straight home after school and spend hours on the phone with my friends because I couldn’t drive to go hang out with them in person, and there wasn’t really any place for us to go even if we could get there. I didn’t want to be on the phone; it was just my only option. I certainly would have done my homework more efficiently if it meant I could have had some time to unwind with my friends too.

And my third goal for Cy is to make him aware of how his actions online affect himself and others. This gets into a sticky issue about kids and privacy. Toby probably guards privacy more fiercely than I do. I believe Cy’s privacy is important, but that I reserve the right to revoke it if I feel Cy is going off track. I feel conflicted about what my responsibility as a parent is—to what extent is it my responsibility to oversee or monitor what he does and how he feels if it could lead to harm to himself or someone else? I want to say that it’s our job to just provide the foundation of good values and moral behavior, but I feel it’s also my job to protect him where I can. Would I second guess myself if something awful happened that I could have stopped? To what extent would his mistakes be mine too?

Boyd’s book offers an important perspective though: that kids need privacy, without the freedom to make their own choices and mistakes, they will be hampered in their moral development and growth as independent human beings. Moreover, they crave privacy, and the more you crowd them, the more they will turn to secretive measures to achieve it. If you don’t extend your children trust, you will undermine the relationship you seek to build with them.

American culture is particularly risk-averse, and as an American, I battle this within myself too. I know from my own experience, how important it is to take risks, how freeing it is and how much growth it engenders. But it’s one thing to know one should let go, and another to face the prospect of risk and danger with one’s child. I think that will be one of the biggest challenges for me as a mother: forever navigating the balance between guiding and letting go.


How do you see your role as a parent? How do you approach technology with children?

Also: HAPPY MOTHER’S DAY to all my fellow American and Canadian mamas!

Thing I Love About Cy Today: When he’s happy about something, he flaps his arms and grins really wide.

P.S. Sorry this is such a long post! It’s just something I’ve been thinking a lot about over the past week. (And trust me, it could have been soooo much longer!) Also, I’m going to try to participate in Little Things Thursday as regularly as I can, so it’s likely that I’ll shift my Momma Chats over to Tuesdays, starting next week. Thanks for stopping by and hanging out here in this space with me!

A Coffee Chat

photo(23)I feel like there were a bunch of things I was going to talk about today…but then last night, I did not sleep well–like, at all–and now everything has gone plumb out of my head.

I did have a productive day yesterday, though. Between catching up on some work for SOLD, doing three loads of laundry, washing dishes that had piled up over the previous day with T being sick, and various other little chores, I managed to get in quite a bit of walking…which, turns out, if done in little spurts and increments, seems to help keep the swelling down in my feet. Then again, it might also be why my back and hips were sore all night.

My goals for today are a bit more cerebral. If I can get enough brain cells to function, I’d like to:

– Practice Thai, since staying at home so much does not give me much chance to hone my language skills (It does, however, keep me at lower risk of catching dengue, so that’s good–seriously, so many people we know got it this year. This season is rough! I never read Dante’s Inferno, but I’m sure there must be a special circle of hell reserved for mosquitoes. And if there isn’t, well, there should be.)

– Read up on what the heck is going on in Syria. I’ve been out of the news loop more than I care to admit these days. Good for my sanity; not so good for my engagement with the rest of the world. A friend of mine linked to this Washington Post article on FB, which I found enormously helpful. Now I just want to read up on various viewpoints of what people anticipate the consequences of and reactions to air strikes are likely to be.

On a more personal note, a few years ago, Toby and I had talked about making a trip to Syria. Some friends had been there and said it was one of the most welcoming countries they’d ever been to (and their trip was during the GW Bush years, mind you)–that far from shunning Americans, the Syrians were excited to meet them and welcome them into their homes for tea and conversation. Now I’m really bummed we didn’t make that trip since it looks like tensions there are unlikely to abate any time soon.

– Then if I feel up to it, I might do some gentle yoga. Probably not a full session, but just a few poses & stretches to strengthen the muscles around my hip joints. They’re ridiculously open and flexible these days, but I can feel that the added flexibility needs to be supported by more muscle strength.

In other news, I came across this recipe for Caramel Stuffed Apple Cider cookies and want to bake them, like, RIGHT NOW…but the recipe calls for Alpine Spice Cider Mix, which, I don’t even know what that is. I’m guessing it’s a powdered mix to make hot apple cider, but whatever it is, I’m pretty certain there is no such thing here in Thailand. I wish I knew what the ingredients were because if it’s just a bunch of spices I could probably approximate it myself. But there’s probably some apple flavoring in there somewhere, which means I’d have to figure out what to do with liquid apple cider in a recipe that calls for it dry. Also, I found the exact same recipe on a different website, and one says it makes 16-18 large cookies, and the other (with the exact same measurements for ingredients) says it makes 51 cookies. (!) I really had to laugh. I like the way the first person counts her cookies–you can eat three and call it just one!

For anyone who likes to see this sort of thing, I made another quick clip of Baby Keller on the move. You can definitely see his movements more clearly these days, since, at 38 weeks, he’s significantly bigger. And this clip has the added benefit of not having a soundtrack of the Sopranos cussing in the background!

Before you go, I’d like to share this quote I saw pinned on Pinterest:

Image from:

Image from:

The quote seems widely attributed to Carl Jung, but for the life of me I can’t find the original source so I can’t verify it. Anyway, it really stuck with me, not for being a new sentiment, but for so succinctly capturing one of my heart-felt beliefs and general orientation towards life. It also came at a time when several conversations I’ve had or things I’ve read have, without plan or intention, all kind of coalesced around a similar idea–does that ever happen to you? I haven’t really worked my way through it enough to articulate what I’m thinking about, but it’s something to do with valuing experiences and people over things, choosing to be open to life and expand into it over shying away from difference, that giving our kids the gift of courage and resilience is more important than providing them with the trappings of safety, and how lucky I feel to have found a life partner who feels the way I do about these things. The way I’ve written it here maybe sounds like these are either/or dichotomies, but I believe they’re more like ranges or spectrums of values. But it would be incredibly challenging, I think, to share a life with someone with whom one was fundamentally incompatible on these issues.

It’s funny, too, how people can surprise you. Some people you’d think would be up for freewheeling outside the comfort zone end up not, and those who can appear shy or even fragile end up being some of the strongest or bravest people you know. Not that any of it is a front, per se…I think people are just brave in different ways.

Okay, now I’m rambling, it’s officially time to stop. What’s going on with you? Anything on your mind lately?

Playing the Waiting Game–in Life, Marriage, and Motherhood

Strung out on a line

Strung out on a line

When I was in college, the largely unspoken, but prevailing belief seemed to be that smart, strong women could have plenty of fun dating around, but would want to get their degree and all their career ducks in a row before settling down. For some, random hookups were the mode de jour; for others, dating was one long stream of bad men. Only a few had really long relationships. And motherhood? That was for way later, if at all. Pregnancy would practically mean the end of your life. Taking birth control was the only smart choice.

The trouble is none of us had any idea how difficult it could be to find a good partner after college. When you join the work force, you enter a pool of widely varied, but highly limited options. There’s usually a huge age range—which makes finding unmarried age-mates more difficult, and when you spend the vast majority of your life in one office, meeting people outside that milieu gets incredibly hard. If there aren’t any suitable mates among your coworkers (and let’s not even get into in all the potential trials of an office relationship), you can be hard-pressed to find the time or place to even meet anyone else new.

I remember when I was a teenager, I used to dream that I’d go to college, get a fancy career started, find an awesome apartment in a big city, and then find my future husband, whom I’d marry, preferably around the age of 28. After a couple years of marriage, we’d have our first child, probably when I was around the age of 30. Thirty sounded like a good child-bearing age. That still would give me a couple of years to have my second child at 32 or so, and be done well before that fertility drop-off at 35.

I assumed getting pregnant was easy because all you hear, when you’re young, is about the girls who got pregnant even though they only had unprotected sex “that one time.”

I don’t know if it’s by luck or by choice, but I never had a string of bad men or bad relationships. Sure, I dated a jerk or two and a few guys who, though nice, weren’t going to captivate me long-term. But those were always obvious from the start and I never was one to stick around with a losing bet (I distinctly remember one relationship that had a shelf-life of “Four Tuesdays”—my best friend from college will get this reference; there were lots of fun, crazy memories from that episode in our lives). My relationships either lasted a few weeks or a few years—the long ones, even the ones that didn’t work out, were great while they lasted, and important learning experiences in preparation for marriage.

It turns out, I met my husband in college—though neither of us was anywhere near ready for marriage at the time. But we fell in love, probably to both our surprises, and we stuck around each other, even though “not ready” was a big light flashing above both our heads. Toby took a year to travel the world after he graduated college, and in the interim, we had both grown a lot. By the time he came back, I knew I was ready to think about marriage, even if we weren’t anywhere near ready to marry each other. We loved each other; we knew that much. I probably broke a slew of dating rules by doing this, but I told him, in no uncertain terms, that if we were going to be together, it would be with an eye towards marriage. Though we both knew there were no guarantees in this trial run, I wasn’t going to waste time with someone who was only in it “just for now.”

Luckily for me, he was on the same page, more or less, and the years following were a steady learning experience in which we tried out what marriage might look like, what commitment meant, and what it would mean to devote ourselves to another. By the time he proposed to me, I was 26 and we were ready. We had grown into marriage together. We had become ready together. When we did exchange vows, I had just turned 28.

But marriage isn’t the only odyssey one embarks on—there’s also parenthood. Having just gotten married, I wasn’t in any rush to have a child. There was my doctorate to finish and a career to start. Toby was only just getting his career off the ground, and a job in the tech industry at that time seemed volatile and uncertain. We lived in a tiny one-bedroom apartment and had other dreams too, namely involving travel. Maybe living abroad for a while. There was still adventure to be had and a baby seemed more like a huge complication and intense responsibility than the next inevitable step in our life progression. The biological clock had started ticking, but I ignored the bell toll.

Though I had heard that fertility decreases with age, I still assumed it would be easy enough to get pregnant. I did have one friend who was trying to get pregnant and had started fertility treatments. She warned me getting pregnant could take time. I heard, but didn’t hear.

When I turned 30, I finished my doctorate and we made plans to move to Thailand. Work with The SOLD Project was already lined up; all I had to do was get to northern Thailand. We were leaving everything we knew behind. That wasn’t the time to start thinking about babies.

After we got settled in Thailand, and Toby’s work situation seemed solid, I was getting integrated at SOLD and halfway through writing a manuscript, I began to listen more carefully to that biological clock. I went off the pill slightly before entirely ready, thinking it would take a few months for the pill’s effects to clear my system, so that, fingers crossed, I might be 100% ready when it did.

Then, I didn’t get pregnant. Our jobs got even better, visitors came and went, we had grown into life in Thailand…I still didn’t get pregnant. My best friend from college was also enduring her own trial of fertility problems, and my best friend from grad school had suffered miscarriages, and another friend was going through a divorce…so by this time, I was really hearing it: Yes, it can be freaking hard to get pregnant. We traveled to Hong Kong and saw more of Asia. I still didn’t get pregnant. We spent a month in Europe, I didn’t get pregnant. We went back to the U.S. for a month…if I didn’t get pregnant soon, we’d have to think about fertility treatments. I didn’t even want to know what that cost would look like. My mother and sister had both had miscarriages before being able to carry a child to term. My cousin is 40 and still unable to get a baby to take, despite almost a decade of treatments. I knew that even if I did get pregnant, it might not work on the first try, and I had to steel myself for that possibility.

It turn out that it was only when we no longer had a stream of life and travel plans that, after more than a year and a half off the pill, I got pregnant. I’m turning 33 next week, and my dreams of having two kids are now looking more like I’ll be blessed to have one. I’m okay with that, and even saying this, I want it to be clear that I’m not complaining. I doubt I’d make different choices even if I had the chance. I love the years Toby and I have had together, and I think the stability we’ve built and the life experiences we’ve had, having had that time, will only serve our child better.

But I feel incredibly lucky. I feel like it’s only partly our choices, and mostly by chance that things have worked out for us (so far—I don’t want to jinx this!). I look at women I know who’ve been trying for years and years to get pregnant, or friends who’ve suffered miscarriages, or others who still can’t find a life partner, and I know how easily it could have gone a different way.

It’s a myth we tell ourselves when we’re young that we can somehow control life and when and how it happens to us. We make plans for what sounds like a good age to marry, and to have children…and these days, that “perfect age” is getting later and later. Instead of right after college, many push it off to their late 20s. Some women, realistic about demands certain careers make, push it off into their 30s, or even later. We don’t factor in the potential for complications. When we make our timelines, we don’t consider the possibility of divorce. We don’t consider the possibility of infertility.

Though I did get married at 28, the truth is I met the man I would marry when I was 20. It took us 8 years to get where we needed to be. If I hadn’t taken my feelings for him seriously way back then, when I still felt I had other life goals to meet first, or vice versa with him for me, who knows where either of us might be? Maybe we would have found other people to love. Maybe there is such a thing as soul mates, and we really are the only ones for each other. Who can really say? Meanwhile, people perpetuate this fear that marriage really hampers one’s freedom and independence. We’ve found this to be entirely untrue for us. Marriage has given us each a strong foundation from which we can both fly—both separately, and together. It’s made us stronger than we would have been alone.

We tell ourselves, when we’re young, that to be real strong, smart women, we have to put education and career before absolutely everything else. The truth is, life goals can exist side by side. You don’t have to put your ducks in a row…sometimes, you just kind of herd them along together. The trend now is to stave off marriage and family until you’ve lived your life first. What makes for “the right time” is an incredibly personal decision and it varies widely from person to person, but I do think we women do ourselves a disservice when we don’t make clear to each other that there are potential tradeoffs when we put off childbearing; that while you’re busy living your life, it can become increasingly harder (and harder than we think it will be) to be able to bear life. We underestimate how fragile life can be, and how uncertain fertility is. We all popped our birth control pills every day for years, each of us never knowing if we’d be the one who’d get pregnant on the first try, the one who would need years of fertility treatments, or the one who couldn’t get pregnant at all.

We can’t control when life happens to us, but we can be honest and informed about the consequences of our choices, and we can listen carefully to our inner guides about who is right for us and when we’re ready. From an employer’s perspective, there’s never a good time for a woman to get pregnant. But your life is your own. External deadlines matter little compared to the timeline we feel ticking along inside.

*   *   *

This post was inspired by this one, “26 and Already Pregnant,” by Kate from Eat The Damn Cake. If you’re interested in more fun facts about delayed marriage and child-rearing, check out this post, “The Sweet Spot for Tying the Knot,” by Susan Walsh at Hooking Up Smart.

New Territory

Via Joie De Vivre (I think - not actually sure about the original source because tumblr's horrible for tracking that.)

Via Joie De Vivre (I think. Not actually sure about the original source because tumblr’s horrible for tracking that. I’m not even convinced this is a precise quote from HH Dalai Lama.)

I came across this image pinned on Pinterest and felt instantly both happy and guilty. I felt happy because, ever since I was about 20 years old or so, I’ve made it my life’s goal to travel someplace new every year. For me, travel is an essential part of a life lived with intention: it exposes me to new sights, sounds, people, cultures…ways of thinking, ways of interacting, and ways of being, so I can be more intentional about my habits of thought and action, choosing which ones are worth keeping and which are worth sloughing away. I’m the kind of person who gravitates towards friends I admire because I love to learn from them. It’s my friends who help me be more generous, more kind, more complimentary, more willing to stand up for myself, more funny, more open, more creative, and more courageous than I would have been, if left to my own devices.

Travel does that for me too. While others might worship power, money, status, or prestige, I bow to the altars of Freedom and Experience. I choose an unfettered life in which I can continually explore and learn and grow. I chose a lifestyle that affords me opportunities to do so, even if it means being far from people we love and that I roam outside the box, fall off the corporate ladder, and don’t fit in anyone’s pigeonhole.

I couldn’t always afford travel, of course. The greatest irony, I discovered when I graduated from college and started working at a publishing company, is that the college life afforded plenty of time to travel, but no money. I started working and had plenty of money, but no time. Nevertheless, I made my resolution stick. By hook or by crook, I would see some place new every year. It didn’t have to be exotic and it didn’t have to be fancy, or even comfortable. Sure, flying off to Greece would be lovely, but there were plenty of things to explore in my vicinity.

So, sometimes that new place involved a flight overseas (my 25th birthday present to myself was a trip, all by myself, to Germany). Some years it was as exotic as South Carolina. Or it was a festival in the desert, like Burning Man. Or just a new city in my home state. And I’ve bunked on couches, camped in tents, shared rooms in hostels, and even spent nights sleeping in a car to make it possible.

When I came across that pin, I felt so happy because this one life goal has brought me so many experiences and a life that I already feel has been so enriched.

But I felt guilty too. Because this whole living life with intention thing is an ongoing process. I’ve flown halfway around the world and landed in the tropics on the other side, but that grand gesture doesn’t let me off the hook. Just because I did it once, doesn’t mean I get to be complacent. If I want to still learn and see and experience and grow, I can’t forget my life goal.

And this year, I almost had–might have entirely, if I hadn’t seen that quote. Since getting pregnant, I’ve lain low. We had talked about going to Bangkok for a shopping & eating expedition at our favorite shops and restaurants, but I mentally shoved it aside, feeling uncomfortable with too much exertion when I felt I should focus on the baby. This year we’re celebrating our 5th wedding anniversary not by jetting off like we did last year, but by staying at an uber-fancy resort right here in town. (Turns out, when you don’t have to pay for transcontinental flights, you can put that money towards some swank accommodations!) And maybe that’s okay. The Parent ‘Hood is definitely new territory for us–a whole new wealth of experience and learning that I can only begin to imagine.

Now that I’m thinking about it again, we’ll probably work in a day or weekend getaway to one of the little towns near us that we haven’t yet seen. I hear Chiang Dao is beautiful, and it’s only a few hours’ drive away. I do wonder though, whether a new place in life constitutes a new place for being and seeing. Maybe, as Proust has said, it’s about seeing things with new eyes more than it’s about just seeing new things period.

Either way, every now and again, it helps to get that reminder to stay open.


Education, In Essence

Every year that I spend working at The SOLD Project brings me new lessons and deeper understanding about what education means and the purpose it serves. For those of you who aren’t aware, my life role as an educator began at UC Santa Barbara, teaching undergraduates while I completed my doctorate. It was rewarding, and challenging – with the deepest challenge being how to engage kids in material that would make them better American citizens, while half of them were only in college because their parents had insisted upon it and they had no clue what other life purpose they should have.

Perhaps paradoxically, my favorite class to teach was also one of the most difficult (and the one almost everyone else tries to avoid getting assigned to) – Research Methods – but I loved it because nowhere else was there as stark a connection between effort and reward, both for me and for my students. The class brought humility to the students for whom the whole school schtick was far too easy, and then there were moments when I felt I was physically pushing my timid ones to overcome their fears. Life lessons served with a side of statistical analysis. My hours spent teaching that class (and consoling the lost) were longer than any other – but then so were the letters of gratitude slipped in my end-of-quarter evaluations.

At university, educators commonly bemoan students’ inability to craft complete sentences despite 12 years of primary and secondary schooling, and the major value we consistently work towards is cultivating children’s critical thinking and skills in analysis. Supposedly, primary and secondary schools attempt to teach this as well. If so, we on the college end feel we see little fruit of those efforts. Students trained on endless state and national testing continue to come to college wanting to be told what to think. By college age, you should be curious and seek information on your own steam. So our job as educators becomes teaching kids how to think – which means kids must relearn the capacity to ask questions, natural to them at the age of 4, a chore at 19. And we do the best we can, and if we can’t change the lives of our undergrads, we hope at least we might do better with our own children.

This is the background I had before starting my work with at-risk, disadvantaged children in rural Thailand. I had plenty of high-minded ideas about how I could come in and challenge these children to think critically, to analyze, and to help bring them up to speed to compete on a global stage.

It’s kind of laughable, really, the gap between my highfalutin’ ideas and the reality. The first year was a lesson in humility for me, a constant stepping back and back and back to realize that the “basics” with these kids was even more basic than what I had ever known in my middle class, born to highly educated parents, upbringing. I couldn’t teach them to write or analyze poetry if they didn’t even dare to put words to a page, or utter a question (because in some classrooms here, asking a teacher a question implies the teacher isn’t teaching properly – a major loss of face). I had kids who were too afraid to color for fear of coloring incorrectly. They copied each other incessantly, too afraid to do anything on their own. If they did anything wrong, then at least their friends were wrong with them and there was safety in numbers.

The realization blew my mind. So the second year of my teaching focused on building the kids’ self-esteem and confidence, to teach them not to fear trying and to teach them that they could produce something of worth and value.

When a volunteer came and started them on entirely new projects and they jumped right in, I began to hope that our efforts were working. When I saw a previously shy 13-year-old jump up on stage in front of 200 people and lead a dance troupe front and center stage, and a quiet 15-year-old belt out two solos in English in front of said crowd, I began to believe the foundation had been set.

But I don’t have forever with these kids. I’m not starting at scratch with 5-year-olds. I have some 5 and 6-year-olds, some preteens, some teenagers. We dream big for them, but realistically speaking, not all of them will go to college. Probably only a small handful will obtain higher than a high school diploma, though we hope to continue to keep our kids in school through the end of high school. Likely, very few will hold desk jobs, and even fewer will obtain upper-management positions. What can I impart to them that will be useful in their world?

If you spend enough time in rural or distressed areas, you begin to hear stories about people: how so-and-so got into this scrape or that, how that person’s neighbor went to jail for this crazy thing that was only sort-of his fault, and how the other person’s sister got taken advantage of by that guy everyone knows is a crook, etc., etc., etc. You probably know somebody like this too: someone who, no matter what they try to do, always ends up in some crazy situation or another and needs to be bailed out and everyone’s afraid of that one time things go too far and you can’t help them anymore. It’s not really about rural or urban, poor or wealthy, schooled or not…there are people like this in all walks of life, though you see them more often in less-advantaged areas.

And you wonder: how does this stuff always manage to happen to them? Why do they trust people no one else would go near with a 10-foot pole? How do they find these scrapes to get into?

The reason, I believe, is and isn’t education. Education, done well, leaves people not only more knowledgable, but also more capable of assessing situations and other people. It’s never taught directly, but these skills are a by-product of careful study and experience. Also, the more highly educated you are, I believe, the more you begin to appreciate your self-worth and value, and are thus less likely to trust where your instincts tell you something is off. Education isn’t totally the answer though because, when you’re facing a class of 30 or more students, it’s a blunt instrument. Children are individuals, not sponges. They come with their own histories and proclivities and the same information is not going to affect them all equally.

But, in essence, this is what I believe education is all about. Sure, you learn what year the WWII began, the makeup of mitochondria, algebraic functions, and how to communicate more effectively through proper spelling and grammar. But what I think education’s key underlying goal is – or what I think it should be – is to help kids learn how to function independently in the real world, in whatever capacity they find themselves, whether as sales clerks or high court judges. Knowledge and information is critical, of course, but so is critical thinking, exercising good judgment, and learning how to ask the important questions.

Which brings me right back to needing to teach these kids how to think critically – but I need a shortcut because I don’t have years with them, I have only moments. So this year, my challenge is to take the foundation of self-confidence that we’ve begun with these kids and turn that into a sense of self-worth and value. My belief (and hope) is that if the kids begin to believe in their own worth, they will be more self-protective and less likely to follow trouble. If we can cultivate their sense of value as individuals and human beings and that protective instinct, then maybe we can talk more cogently to them about how to determine who’s worthy of trust, how and why to avoid situations that feel wrong to you even when your friends or family are telling you it’s right, and what healthy, loving relationships look like and how to cultivate them, so you don’t end up in the arms of abuse.

Maybe I’m back to my highfalutin’ ideas again. This may or may not work (and next year, I’ll most likely be right back at the drawing board again), but I’ll keeping trying because their lives are valuable. Each life is a miracle and has value. If they believe that, then maybe they’ll do an okay job of protecting their own.

Each Thursday, we come together to celebrate living life with intention by capturing a glimmer of the bigger picture through a simple moment. Have you found yourself in such a moment lately? Share it with us!

Live. Capture. Share. Encourage.
This week we’re linking up at Melissa’s!
Tuesday, February 5, 8:00 p.m. CST: Fiction {Host: Jade}
Wednesday, February 13, 8:00 p.m. CST: Memoir {Host: Hyacynth}


Simple Joys

This week two of my favorite holidays begin to coalesce: Loi Krathong and Christmas. Like East meets West, all in one week. Loi Krathong is a festival of lights, where the entire holiday surrounds spiritual time at temple and then releasing paper lanterns into the night sky and floating it down the river in an annual cleansing of sins. I’m also preparing for Christmas: gifts that need to be shipped overseas, cookies that need to be baked with kids before we close for the holidays, decor that needs to be hung and joyful tidings strung.

As different as these two festivals may be, at root, they do have similarities. They both offer time for spiritual reflection. And they both encourage us to revel in the simple beauty of lights shining through the dark like little beacons of hope and warmth.

The pure joy of Loi Krathong lies in watching lights ascend in the night sky. No crazy commercialism, no pressure, no expectations. Just pretty lights floating like stars.

As complex as Christmas can become (Just what is that perfect gift? Who’s going to be here when? Is Auntie Susan still not talking to Uncle Mark? Will we have time to do everything I’ve pinned?), when it comes down to it, the highlights are always the simple things: that look of joy when a loved one does open that perfect gift, stolen kisses under the mistletoe, pecan pie, champagne glasses clinking, and hands holding hands while hymns are sung.

The joy of giving.

It’s going to get all kinds of busy real fast up in here.

But for tonight, I’m grateful for the simple joys. Incredibly generous friends and family*, cuddles with a warm puppy, a husband who makes me laugh, comfort food, and a good book. These are my lanterns in the dark.

*I only wish I could give a shout out and link up to everyone I’m grateful for.

For the month of November, we’re focusing on Gratitude and sharing what joys in life we would like to give thanks for. Share your blessings with us, and link it up at Hyacynth’s this week!

Ten Things…

Note: New Writing Circles dates have been announced! Two new dates hosted by yours truly in October! Check my sidebar on my home page or click here for details.

This photo has nothing to do with this post. I was just in the mood to take it.

Ten Things I Know to Be True: (in no particular order)

1. Forever friends are rare in life, and it can be a surprise who turns out to be one.

2. Food is one of life’s greatest pleasures. I miss good cheese.

3. Everything we do in life is a choice, even if we are not actively deciding.

4. The older I get, the harder it is to pinpoint things I know.

5. I’m tempted to log out of Facebook until the election season is over.

6. The universe is very, very big and I am very, very small…

7. …but even fragile leaves and wee sea shells can leave an imprint behind.

8. I like me better when I wonder more and worry less.

9. Getting good at anything takes practice, practice, practice…and even maestros never stop practicing.

10. Love is magical. Instead of diminishing when shared, it grows. The more deeply and widely you love, the greater expands your capacity to love. The more you give, the more you have.

Ten Things I Should Have Learned By Now: (Must I stick to only 10?)

1. The discipline to stick long term with healthy diet and exercise.

2. That most people don’t consider it “helpful” when you correct them.

3. Basic car maintenance, like changing the oil or a flat tire.

4. Anything related to finance. Once I get any deeper than “this is what I have in the bank” and “this is how much those shoes cost,” I’m generally in over my head.

5. How to shoot in full manual – and to not be too lazy to use a tripod.

6. That there’s a difference between being busy and being productive.

7. Patience.

8. I will never be taller.

9. Things are much simpler if you just tell people what you want. You may not get it, but you do get to skip the annoying mind games.

10. It’s silly to be shy about complimenting someone for fear of looking stupid. When I think something positive about someone, I should just tell them.

This post was inspired by spoken word poet, Sarah Kay,
who bowled me over when she said:

“Getting the wind knocked out of you
is the only way to remind your lungs
that they like the taste of air.”

What caught your breath this week?

Each Thursday, we come together to celebrate living life with intention by capturing a glimmer of the bigger picture through a simple moment. Have you found yourself in such a moment lately? Share it with us! 

Live. Capture. Share. Encourage.
This week we’re linking up at Melissa’s!
And head there for your daily dose of creativity:
prompts for photos, for words, for inspiration,
and for a life lived mindfully!

The Power of the Olympics, London 2012

With thanks to artist Pashabo and

I was sitting around the TV with my family and dog watching the Olympics the other night, as the girls competed for the gold on the balance beam. As we switched from women’s gymnastics – a sport evidently designed to crush little girls’ dreams – to men’s vault and horizontal bars, I was struck by the difference in camaraderie between the athletes.

On the girls’ side, none of the athletes seemed to interact with any of the others, and most strikingly, when Deng Linlin surpassed her teammate by a tiny margin of .10 for the gold, Sui Lu, who ended up with the silver, broke out, not in smiles, but in tears. She sobbed on her coach’s shoulder, causing Deng Linlin to cry as well. Sui Lu refused to smile in photos and, once rid of the photographers, promptly ripped off her silver medal in temper. One might judge her for being a snot, but she has been training since the age of three, so one can only imagine the pressure she might have been under.

She’s not the only one who might need a little perspective check. Russian Aliya Mustafina was quoted as saying, “I’m not used to winning just one medal. You get a taste for it and you want a second medal, then a third.” And fellow Russian Victoria Komova expected golds, considering her efforts a complete failure as she only snagged two silvers.

We were kind of used to all that high drama. I still remember watching the Olympics in the ’80s, when the event was little more than a thinly veiled muscle match between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, as each tried to prove themselves superior to the other via their nation’s athletes.

Heck, I still remember Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding.

However, a few teenage-girl snits aside, I began to wonder if there is a change in the attitude these athletes bring to the Games. I watched as American Sam Mikulak kissed the vault and swapped handshakes and high-fives with his fellow competitors after he scored fifth. I watched as German Fabian Hambuchen slipped from top position to second after Epke Zonderland’s stunning performance on the horizontal bars, and Fabian registered his own disappointment only briefly before clapping Epke on the back and shaking his hand in admiration. The two were exchanging hugs and congratulations like dear friends by the time they received their medals.

There’s more, too. We were watching the women running, and feeling a bit of pity for the women whose countries and religions ensured they were covered head-to-toe, as they came in dead last, long after everyone else had crossed the finish line. We speculated that perhaps their countries thought it wasn’t worth investing in those athletes because they were women, and perhaps wanted to prove to their audiences back home that “See? Women can’t perform well.” Except, if anything, it does the exact opposite. Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Brunei were pressured to have women compete (thank you, IOC!), and now they are forced to reveal the comparison: how well women athletes perform when you invest in them, compared with the countries who hold them back. It’s not the women who do poorly. It’s about an entire nation’s attitude. Their performance says nothing about the women as individuals and says everything about the power of women’s rights.

Tahmina Kohistani, from Afghanistan, was one such athlete whose nation did not properly support her efforts. But the surprise was, when she arrived at the Olympics, how many others cheered her on. She writes, “I wasn’t pleased with my time – I had trained so much, worked so hard. But it was still a good experience, and definitely the most important of my life. It was so good to be able to learn from all the other girls. I talked with a lot of the other runners, and they were all encouraging me….But I knew I was not going to win a medal when I came here; I am here to begin a new era for the women of Afghanistan to show people that we can do the same things that people from other countries can do. There is no difference between us.” Instead of coming to the Olympics and encountering sour and threatening rivals, Kohistani found support, mentorship, and encouragement. Instead of being trampled on, she was lifted up and given a chance to make a change for women back home.

This is what I believe the power and the promise of the Olympics and events like it can be. When it shifts from a muscle match to a show of true honor and sportsmanship, when competitors are not enemies but mentors to learn from, and when athletes demonstrate through camaraderie and hard work, skill, and determination what people can achieve, the Olympics can help pave the road of progress.

The Olympics has always been political. But I’m happy when the politics of sports means that countries are pressured to invest in their girls and that competition is not a zero-sum game – there is more to sport than winning the gold. There is teamwork and there is inspiration. Let us do better and be better, not to beat the other guy up, but to make us all the best we can be.

Each Thursday, we come together to celebrate living life with intention by capturing a glimmer of the bigger picture through a simple moment. Have you found yourself in such a moment lately? Share it with us! 

Live. CaptureShare. Encourage.
This week we’re linking up at Corinne’s!

A Crosswind

An open landscape stretches out to the horizon line, the simple planes of view marred only by a crossroads and no signs. On an otherwise still day, a sudden shift in the air and temperature marks change, a disturbance, a sign to perk up one’s ears and pay attention because we cannot count on continuity.

I notice a tree beside me is bending with the gale. Dust fills my nose, desiccating the airways. Loose pebbles and debris clatter across the road, propelled by the force. I hug my jacket tighter.

I feel cold, though it is not cold.

And yet, I ignore the gale. One foot steadfast in front of the other, I push forward on the same trajectory. I follow the path I’m on, though I know the path of least resistance lies another way.

I keep marching towards the horizon beyond the horizon line – towards the secrets I know are there but just can’t see. I know new vistas are waiting.

I do not make that left turn. I keep going forward, because something tells me that the harder path is the higher path, and sometimes you learn more by staying than by leaving.


In Gratitude, I Seek Intention: A Renewal

I haven’t been living with intentionality of late. Even when I know how I should act, and how I want to act, I find myself incapable of turning intention into action. Impatience turns my head. Irritation twists my words. Even when I feel gratitude, I don’t exude it. Sometimes I make myself smile in the hopes that my expression will worm its way into my heart and settle me down.

It’s an effort.

Mostly, I think this stems from the fact that in just a week, we’ll have spent a year abroad. First, there are the practical matters: uprooting your entire life and starting anew means a lot of bureaucratic things are up for renewal at the same time. International driving permit renewals, lease renewals, car registration, immigration documents…the list goes on. What was once confusing and nerve-wracking before becomes confusing and nerve-wracking again, and it all takes a lot of effort to sort out.

And then there’s the heart renewal: where you realize you’ve survived a year. One year is ending and another begins. The honeymoon is over and you are no longer new transplants. You don’t make mistakes nearly so often, but when you do goof up, people cut you less slack because you’ve been here longer. You should know better.

But moving to Thailand in the first place was an act of living life with intention. It was a demand we placed upon ourselves to live exactly the life we wanted, not one prescribed for us. And I am grateful for the freedom we have to make such choices. In gratitude, we wanted to make the most of our freedoms. We pushed ourselves out of our comfort zone to remind ourselves exactly who we were when all else was stripped away. We questioned our most basic assumptions and molded a foundation of our own making. We created our blueprint for life.

But that blueprint is not a one-time deal, or we would negate the very action that helped us create it in the first place.

Living with intention is not something you do just once. It’s a habit of thought, a daily challenge for the soul.

So today, one week before our year anniversary of living abroad, I want to renew my vow to live life with intention. In gratitude, I seek to remember the purpose of this day. Let me not turn over the keys to my autopilot. Let me steer my own ship. And when the waters grow rough, let me guide my vessel with a steady hand and leave the waters smoother in my wake.

Join in celebrating this month of gratitude with the Bigger Picture community!
This week, you can find us at Alita’s!

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