Patti LaBelle Rocks the House

Mom and I went to see Patti LaBelle in concert at the Paramount. The extraordinary, powerful, beautiful quality of her voice rocked the house. God blessed her with that amazing voice, and bingo, success. Right?

Listening to her made me think about what she had going for her in the first place. We’ve all got to start somewhere. We’ve got to have something to work with (and most of us, if we’re honest, know that we do).

Patti LaBelle started with that voice. And at some point I bet she said to herself something like, “I want to sing in front of an audience,” and proceeded to take steps to make that her reality. I am sure there were obstacles and challenges along the way that she did not anticipate. Probably a bit of luck came into play as well, and some supportive people, and I bet she worked hard when she would have rather taken it easy. She has no doubt had her own limitations, setbacks and heartaches, but at 73 is a phenomenal example of someone who kept going, doing the thing she loved over and over till she makes it look easy, giving a gift — the gift of her voice — to the public countless times. I stand in awe.

When you look at people like this — people with incredible talent, a loyal and highly competent team,  seemingly boundless determination, vibrant energy — it’s easy to feel like Yeah, well, I could never be like that. It’s true. I will never be like that.

For one thing, there is only one amazing Patti LaBelle. We each walk a different road. But she did not get from being a young woman with a dream to being a highly successful, well known performer overnight. She got there one day at a time using the same 24 hours each day as everyone else has. She used them to build something good for herself and for others. She did not sit back waiting for things to happen that would further her dream, but instead “took the bull by the horns,” as we used to say.

I wish more people would look at what she did over time and continues to do every day instead of at what she has as a result of what she did over time and continues to do every day. Look at the action — and the determination, support and character defining it — instead of at the outcome. Look at the journey, admire the journey — not just the end point. For me, that outlook makes her performance so much fuller and richer.

Habits of Good

My cousins Matt and Austin grew up in New Hampshire playing hockey incessantly, or at least that’s how it seemed to me. Every time I visited, one or both of them had to be at practice at 5 in the morning or some other crazy time, and the next day the same thing. I wondered if they were training for the Olympics. But no. When I asked my aunt about all the practices, she simply said, “If they are busy doing something fun, and it makes them tired, they won’t have time or energy for getting into trouble.”

This reminds me of CJ, the washroom attendant I admire so, who occupied his time so fully with doing his job and so consistently with being the nicest guy you’d ever want to meet, that he didn’t have time to complain.

The holiday season that’s fast approaching will, as usual, cause people fill their time with lots of fun activities and lots of good works, and on the surface this seems above reproach. We will not only be buying presents for our loved ones and going to special parties and dinners, we will also be singing carols at nursing homes, giving turkeys to the needy, deciding what to do about the Salvation Army Santas collecting on the street corners — pass them by altogether, give a few dollars to each one, tell the next one you gave to the last one?

When we were homeschooling for all those years, we were not the homestead-on-the-mountaintop sort. It was important to me that my kids develop a sense of community. Besides attending local theater, watching local crafters in their studios do their glassblowing or basketweaving or woodworking, and being part of Little League and other sports, we  made it our business to serve and interact with people in other situations.  Together we prepared and delivered meals for the emergency shelter, attended events that included a wide swath of culture and characters, and visited the elderly. I didn’t want my children to think that everyone lived the same way and I didn’t want them to get the idea that the world revolved around them.

One year in November I called a local nursing home to set up a time for our little coop group of kids to come in December to visit the residents and maybe sing some Christmas songs. The woman who answered the phone made me think about the frenzied few weeks of the holidays — and giving in general — in a different light.

She graciously said, “Your offer to come is much appreciated, but frankly we are inundated at this time of year. When January comes, the residents can feel like everyone did their good deeds and can now forget about them for another year. Really, the better thing for you to do is come at random times when they don’t expect anyone to be thinking about them. That’s what really makes them smile.”

Spread out the good, she was saying, and it will do more good than if a lot of good is crammed in all together. Too much good all at once can be counterproductive, and maintaining a balance is healthier for many reasons. My aunt didn’t send her boys to a hockey camp for a week or two and then leave them to their own devices for the rest of the year. CJ doesn’t speak kindly some of the time. Both of them developed what could be called Habits of Good

When I see the word “habit,” I think of nuns. What they wear is called a habit. They wear it every day. The woman on the phone at the nursing home was suggesting the same for us — that visiting the residents would be not a sometimes-thing, but instead, a habit, sure and steady. For us, her suggestion turned into a relationship with one individual who ended up spending his last days on earth at our home. We became his family.

Time is short. We all know that. We all know that something could happen later today that utterly changes our world. Therefore it’s a good question: In the time we have each day, do we wisely allocate time for ourselves, time for others, time for good? Might we want to rethink how we divvy up our days, perhaps shift our energy to something that matters more, consider developing some habits of good? 

Keep the Joy

We lived in Vermont during the homeschool years, half an hour or so from the facility that produced Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. When family and friends came to visit, we took them for the tour that ended with a sample of whatever flavor they were making that day — always a good reason to make the drive, unless you are like me and wonder why they can’t just be making chocolate every time! My everlasting confusion about crazy flavors aside, I remember the tour being rather homespun. In the short movie at the beginning, Ben and Jerry both spoke fondly about the early days of the business in a renovated old gas station in Burlington, and they made sure to include their bumper sticker slogan: “If it’s not fun, why do it?”

I can hardly believe it now, but the first few times I saw that movie, I’d cringe when they came to that part. “Ha!” I’d say to myself. “You don’t know anything about real life. You’re just a couple of guys who struck it rich with great ice cream. Easy for you to say — how hard can making ice cream be? There are a lot of things that aren’t fun in this life, but you have to do them anyway.”  

Now I cringe that I used to think that! What a humbug I was!

Obviously we have to do a lot of things that aren’t fun. Cleaning the bathroom comes to mind. A lot of what life throws our way is not fun. Anyone who has been to an ER lately will agree. A lot of people do not help make the day fun. Are there any grumpy people in your life?

My grandfather lived with us from the time I was eight years old. If it was sunny, that hurt his eyes. If it was rainy, he couldn’t work in the garden. If it was a glorious spring day, then surely it was going to rain. A glorious fall day, winter was coming. Spectacular summer day, too hot. Full moon shining on freshly fallen snow, freezing out.

No wonder I turned into a humbug. No wonder I scoffed at Ben & Jerry.

But so many things are better when we see them through the lens of fun, of joy, of delight, of beauty, of wonder. Why does it take us humans so long to figure that out?!

Very many moons ago when I decided that homeschooling my kids was the thing to do, I had no idea I would embrace Ben & Jerry’s philosophy and that it would shape and affect so many parts of my life. In fact, it landed on my list of reasons to take on this gigantic task, though in retrospect this item looks more like a goal rather than a reason. Three words summed it up for me:

Keep the joy.

Those three words were my shorthand for: Whatever you do, start by looking on the bright side. You can say this any way you want: see the glass half full, highlight the good, be optimistic, expect the best, manifest hope.… Then make sure it’s as engaging and fun, as likely to bring a good outcome, as you can make it. The keyword here is joy. Then do your best to keep things going that way (keyword: keep). Doing a thing with good spirit can happen randomly or because you have to or because someone is paying you. Continuing to do it joyfully, this doesn’t just happen. This is where choice comes in. We have to choose to be of good cheer, then actually behave that way, then choose that again — until it becomes such our pattern, our norm, our M.O.

What I see now is that no matter how you express it, two good things happen if you choose to Keep the Joy. First, the thing (whatever it is) gets done with less suffering. That is, you suffer less. I don’t know how this can be a bad thing. Why would people want to do the thing that means more suffering if they can in any way lessen it? Even if you just have music playing in the background while you clean the toilet, you can at least marvel at the gift of music or the technology that brings it into our homes or the power of someone’s voice. Or you can sing along!

Subsequently, if the thing you are doing is not as bad as it could be, if it is indeed better because of your choice to improve it with a mindset that refuses to be an Eeyore, you are more likely to want to do it again — or at least to complain less the next time you have to do it. And less complaining is a way to lessen the suffering for those around you, a way to make someone else’s world a little brighter — and that is a good thing too!

I worked with a man named CJ for about 12 years. CJ could be called the washroom attendant, which is a nice way of saying he cleans other people’s messes. In my view and in my experience, cleaning the toilet is not only not fun, it is icky. CJ cleans them as part of his job, day in, day out. Now in his mid-70s and still working full time, he shows up for work on time, greets everyone cheerfully and by name, gets the job done, always has a kind word. Every time you see him, there he is, the epitome of a joyful person, full of politeness and kindness, doing the epitome of an icky job.

A few weeks ago, as he was on his way to clean the toilets again, I ran into him and mentioned that the locker room doors had been locked earlier when they should have been open. He smiled at me, exuded kindness, assured me he would check on those doors being still locked at that hour and then said “It’s always so nice to see you, Miss Patricia!”

“CJ,” I said, “You never complain!”

“I don’t have time,” he said with his beaming smile. And on his way he went.

Oh, for more CJ’s in the world!

Mashed Potato Technique and other Unconventionalities

Last night I watched incredulously as my mother and my grown son Samuel make a pool of gravy inside their respective little mountains of mashed potatoes. Maybe it’s better to call the whole thing a volcano — the potatoes being the mountain and the gravy being the lava. To both my mother and my son, this is the normal, obvious, what-other-way-would-you-do-it technique.

In case you are not clear, let me explain. You create the structure by making a depression in the top of your potato-mountain and filling it with gravy. You then eat around from the outside, dipping each forkful of potato into the gravy-lava. Some people (I won’t name names) rotate their dinner plate, no kidding, so their fork can pierce the mountain at just the right angle. Assuming a healthy appetite, excellent gravy and creamy and fluffy mashed potatoes, you eventually of course you have eaten enough of the mountain that it can no longer hold the gravy-lava, but no one talks about this part. Perhaps you just hope no one sees the breakdown. Perhaps you have to plan it just right so you never have a lava spill. 

I cannot say. I do not reside in this mashed potato camp. I confess to not having given it much thought. Surely, I now see, there must be a great variety of techniques out there besides the lava-mountain one, each with their own peculiarities and advocates. (May you choose as your inner potato voice leads you!) Before this meal, I had not understood how serious some people are about this food, and was chided for allowing some lava to dribble down the face of the mountain as I was serving one of them. (No tip for this server!) When I questioned the seriousness of my error (I probably also gave the you’ve-got-to-be-kidding look), I was told, “Mom, you’re an accomplished eccentric. You should understand these things.”

“An accomplished eccentric.” This nice compliment easily made up for the teasing that followed in regard to my own inferior, poorly executed mashed potato technique, which is clearly not consistent with Samuel’s description of me, though I think I could make a case for the two of them being the eccentric ones on this point. It’s unfortunate timing though, seeing as I am addressing unconventionality here. Nonetheless I will try to carry on. 

Potatoes aside, being unconventional has been a great ride! I have reveled in unconventionality to the point where it helps define me. Unconventional not in the crazy, scary sense, you understand, but in the benign, mashed potato sense. That is — at least let us hope this is true — no one really cares how you eat them as long as you don’t make a mess. Certainly I (generally) play by the rules and abide (many) norms — at least most of the time I think — or maybe I am so set in my odd ways by now that I don’t even know where I veer off the track!

Choosing to (and having the freedom to) homeschool my children beginning in 1988, and having done it for nearly 20 years, was then and can still be regarded as an unconventional choice. I know it gave me the opportunity to develop certain ways of thinking more fully than I probably would have otherwise. When all is said and done, chances are good I learned and grew at least as much as my children did. But in the beginning, I didn’t know that would happen. What I did know was that if I didn’t at least try, I would wish I had.

When something odd, unusual, different, peculiar, eccentric, unconventional (pick your descriptor) is calling your name — ask yourself not only what happens if you do it, but what happens if you don’t. Let that be one of the questions you use to evaluate the choice to make your list of why you are doing that something.

Homeschooling can be like anything else — part of the journey. It happened to have been part of mine, weird, out of reach or unthinkable as it might be for you. What I learned along the way does NOT apply strictly to homeschooling though. It applies to life. Even if you are not homeschooling, never would, never could, never even considered it (and frankly always thought those people were nuts), you might want to think about the reasons I chose it, the reasons I, we, you, they (pick your pronoun) choose anything.

As often happens when we say things, a few words can be shorthand for many others. A succinct thought encompasses a broader scope than it lets on. My list of Why I Choose Homeschooling actually included

  • What sets this choice apart from the alternatives?
  • In making this choice, choosing this path, what might I accomplish that I might not be able to accomplish some other way — both for myself and for those around me?
  • How might this choice (and my choices within this choice) provide something that’s better than something else I might choose — both for me and for those around me?
  • What happens if I make this choice, and what happens if I don’t?

Can’t these same questions be asked of any choice we might make? Perhaps we should be asking them when we face a new fork in the road and have to explain, even just to ourselves, Why I Choose __X__.

A Good List in the Early Homeschooling Years

Every now and then you find a stick that walks. You don’t find one every day so when you do, it takes you back a little. You see what looks like a very thin stick. But appearances are deceiving. It’s not a stick. It moves slowly and carefully sometimes. It appears to be tuned in to its environment. It responds to air movement and touch. It’s an insect. You see this, you know this, but you stare at it a while because it looks remarkably like a stick.

I live in a little house in the big woods of Virginia. My house and airbnb cottage are both surrounded by trees, so on the ground off to the side you find the typical forest floor mess: fallen branches and tree trunks in various stages of rot, leaves from years ago next to the ones that fell yesterday, acorns by the tens of thousands, clay that tries to pass for soil, stones of all sizes, dried up seed pods.

Guests at the cottage not long ago, a super nice couple looking to be in their 30s, had two daughters aged 4 and 9. One morning I awoke to the sound of delighted squeals outside that went on for at least five minutes, the girls clearly having found something that had their attention and wasn’t moving too fast. On the ground next to the cottage they had found a walking stick.

From my bed I imagined they had found the turtle that visits the garden now and then, a specimen just as comical as a stick that has eyes and antennae. Regardless, I basked in their reaction to it. I didn’t need any actual words to tell me they thought something was very cool. The delight of discovery. How many of us can say we have we have had such moments recently?

The family was here for a “Homeschooling Day” at Monticello. In the brief interactions I had with them, I was not only impressed with their approach and dedication, I was reminded of the many years that homeschooling was our life, our choice. Here was a family in 2017 doing what was completely within our scope of “normal” back when you didn’t have a cell phone. I was reminded of why it seemed the best thing to do, some good advice I got and what I did to keep myself on the right track.

The first thing I understood about homeschooling was that it’s not for everyone, and therefore the first thing I had to decide was: Is it right for me, and if so, why? In my own head I had to justify the decision and something told me that sooner or later I would be called upon to state these reasons to others.

Very early on, my friend Crissie and I went to a homeschooling seminar. Among other helpful bits of advice, the speaker said that a time would come when you, a well meaning, hard working, homeschooling mom, would wake up  in the middle of the night, fretful, panicked even, and say to yourself: What was I thinking!!??

That’s when you will need your list. Make a list, he said, and post it on your fridge until you have looked at it so many times that you can see it in your mind’s eye when the same fretful thought occurs to you in the grocery store or the park or your car. Make a list of the reasons you choose this path. Keep it simple, unwordy, short. If you have thought it through carefully, your list will serve you well over time. It will be the anchor that holds you fast when your boat is tossing about.

I did what he suggested. In a nutshell my list of reasons defined my approach, my values, my priorities. It helped me better evaluate and often say no to competing approaches, values and priorities. I posted it until it etched itself in my brain and became such a part of me that I hardly remembered I had a list any more, in fact didn’t need it. I trained myself without knowing it.

So much about my homeschooling experience parallels other situations. How many times have I thought — about other important decisions: Stop, think, articulate your reasons. Of course I don’t always do it. Time is short! But a good list of why you’re doing anything will serve you well.