Watch Your Step

I met my wife when we were both in ninth grade. On my first trip to her house, she introduced me to Snowball. He was a gentle, midsized horse with a huge heart for his owner. Over the next few years, we would take several rides together, and I learned that Snowball had a bad habit. After a few hours on the trail, he liked to take a nap. If you were lucky, he would decide to take it while everyone had stopped for lunch, but many times he would take it as you walked the last few miles of the ride. You could tell that he was napping because he wouldn’t be nearly as careful with his feet, and then he would trip, wakeup, and hopefully catch himself before both horse and rider hit the ground. He usually did, but there was always that moment between tripping and waking up that left the rider in limbo, hoping that he would right himself before he hit the ground.

As Melissa and I take weekend hikes, there will usually be a joke about Snowball. The joke usually happens at the end of the walk when one of us is tired and misses a step or neglects to step high enough to clear a rock or stump. If I can be honest, after hours on the trail, I can settle into a bit of a trance and, like Snowball, take a bit of a nap on the trail. I know it’s not smart, and I need to be more aware, but time and fatigue take their toll, and it’s easy to drift off and not be fully present in the moment.

Each Friday, I go through a process to prepare for the upcoming week. Usually, late in the afternoon, I take about an hour to look at schedules and priorities and make sure I am ready for all of the events ahead of us. I borrowed a one-page weekly planner that I found several years ago and modified it a bit to make it my own. One of the things that it asks me to do is select a word for the week. Last week that word was “Present.” One of my goals was to stay fully present in the activities that I engaged in throughout the week. Being fully present takes energy and gets more challenging as fatigue sets in. Fatigue leads to mistakes. Fatigue slows down productivity.  

As we think about intentionally staying present in what we do, we must remember the tension that fatigue creates for us and those who work with us. It is true for both educators and students. While we have students in school, we still need to be attentive and watch for the errors caused by the fatigue of a year-long battle.  

Several years ago, I found myself at the end of a long hike in the southwest, walking on a small ledge. A missed step could easily be catastrophic and possibly fatal. I knew that I had a tendency to get sloppy with my foot placement late in the day, but on this day, I was fully aware of each step I took. There was no drifting off on this day; I was fully present in the moment. As we settle into the tensions associated with the prolonged battle, we must be fully aware of the emotional toll it has taken on each of us and make sure each step we make moving forward is carefully and deliberately made. 

Sharpening

I got a pocketknife for Christmas when I was 13 years old. It was an olive green lock blade buck knife with a bright shiny blade that was sharper than any knife I had ever had in my life. As we usually did on Christmas, we left mid-morning for my Grandfather’s house. He lived out in the country, on a farm, well past where the pavement ends. That Christmas morning, while the family prepared lunch, I sat on the front porch to whittle. Or to at least try and learn to sculpt with my blade. Unfortunately, my practice did not go as planned, and I ended up with an inch long gash on the index finger of my left hand. When mom saw it, we immediately headed for town to find someone to sew it up. I did my best to get her to at least wait until after lunch, but she would have none of it. After all, I was a growing boy, and lunch at Grandpas was usually outstanding. I had my priorities. Unfortunately, we headed for town, not waiting for lunch.  Five stitches later, I was all sewed up and hungry. It took more than three hours to get stitched up, and I never got Christmas Lunch at Grandpas that day.

Over the years, the scar has faded but was still recognizable enough to use it to remind my nephews at Christmas to be careful when using a knife, especially before Christmas dinner. While the scar faded, my love for knives didn’t. It seems I have always had a bit of a fascination with knives. As I have grown older, I pay attention to the quality of blades and the kind of steel used. It doesn’t matter if it goes in the kitchen or your pocket; I enjoy a good knife as much as anyone.  

Knives need to be sharp and ready for whatever task might come their way. When cooking in the kitchen, nothing bothers me more than pulling out a knife to find it so dull I need to saw my way through the next cut. When I was younger, I ruined more than one blade learning the finer details of using a sharpening stone. Sure, there are many new devices and tools to help you get just the right angle, but I find the practice of slowly running a blade across a stone to hone an edge both relaxing and rejuvenating. For me, it is a bit like therapy. Sitting quietly at the kitchen table with a couple of knives and just as many sharpening stones of differing textures is relaxing.  

Sharpening requires two critical components. It requires both Focus and Friction. Without focus, you will quickly find yourself making another trip to the doctor to sew up a wounded or missing appendage. You must also focus and be keenly aware of the blade’s angle and pressure as you move it across the stone. The wrong angle or amount of pressure, and you will never reach your desired results. As you can imagine, focus is essential. The right kind of friction is just as important. Working through sharpening stones of differing textures and resistance one by one will gradually leave you with just the right edge on a blade. Honing a knife is a deliberate, intentional process. By moving patiently from one stone to another, carefully selecting just the right amount of friction, you can make the blade just a bit sharper than it was before. 

I learned an important lesson early in life, “We must each be responsible for our own blade.” How sharp it is, what we do with it. It is ours and ours alone. Knives and learning have a lot in common. Honing takes a lot of work, and it is an ongoing process. This process helps us prepare for the future and the world that lies ahead. One way we do this is through reading. Former General and Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis once said, “The problem with being too busy to read is that you learn by experience (or by your men’s experience), i.e. the hard way. By reading, you learn through others’ experiences, generally a better way to do business, especially in our line of work where the consequences of incompetence are so final for young men.” Reading sharpens our ability to see and prepare for the world ahead of us. Literacy and critical thinking are essential elements in the educational process. Sharpening these skills matters.

We must teach our youth to be constant learners, honing their experience with the experience of others. During World War II, Winston Churchill said that we each have a moment in our lifetime where we have an opportunity to do something special. I believe that my generation may be living in that moment right now. Along with responding to the challenges that we currently face, we must also prepare the next generation to respond when their moment comes. We do this through the critical skill of sharpening.

“To each there comes in their lifetime a special moment when they are figuratively tapped on the shoulder and offered the chance to do a special thing, unique to them and fitted to their talents. What a tragedy if that moment finds them unprepared or unqualified for that which could have been their finest hour.”

Winston Churchill

The Power of Positivity

When I first walked through the doors at Hazelwood Elementary after being selected as the new principal in June, I was greeted by a blue sign with the school’s five core values: Positivity, Respect, Integrity, Determination, and Effort. This week, I want to focus on the first of those values. While we all know a positive attitude matters, we have all struggled with it at some point. I will be the first to admit that sometimes I  struggle with remaining positive.  When things are going good, I fight the voices in my head telling me that this is too good to be true and something bad must be about to happen. If things aren’t going well, the voice reminds me that I got myself here, and now I will have to get used to it. It will never be any better. Being positive isn’t always easy. 

Our students must understand the power of positivity. They must be reminded that their attitude matters. Positive schools can become a powerful force in their communities. It requires principals, teachers, support staff, students, and parents to unite behind an attitude and belief that we can make it better. Positivity keeps us from settling where we are and helps us see and understand that we have the power to make it better.

In the last ten months, I have learned the importance of positivity in keeping students in school and keeping our doors open. While teachers did a fantastic job of maintaining a learning environment that worked while students were at home, most teachers will tell you that the difference in student growth between a virtual environment and a school environment is significant. Not only is it in the best interest of our local economy to keep our school open, but it is also in the best interest of our students. Their future depends on our ability to keep them safe and keep our doors open.  

We have been very fortunate that our schools have not been the epicenter of cluster events. Our teachers and support staff have worked incredibly hard to keep rooms clean and sanitized. Our students have done a great job of keeping masks on and maintaining appropriate distancing throughout the day. This couldn’t have happened without the hardworking of everyone involved.

As we returned from break and began assessing student reading levels, we realized that our students are making positive, meaningful growth. Some of our students that had fallen below grade level while being out of school during the spring and summer are now reading on grade level and are back on track.  

The next three months will be critical to helping all of our students get back on track. Most experienced educators will tell you that the period between the return from Christmas Break and Spring Break is the most important 12-14 weeks of the school year.  This is the time when students make the most growth.  

We want to encourage our students each and every day to make tomorrow just a little bit better than today. This habit of constant ongoing positive improvement will make a difference. Showing up each day with a better attitude and a willingness to work harder and grow more will help shape your child into the adult they become. As a young boy, I watched my dad get up every morning, pack his lunch and leave before the sun came up for a blue-collar job. He never complained about hard work, and he set the expectation that tomorrow would be better than today. Watching him shaped my work ethic and my attitude. I encourage you to help us shape the next generation, one day and one student at a time.

That Day and Today, We Were and Are All Americans

More than two hundred years ago this week, a band of unlikely American brothers stood together to protect the freedom and future of our young country. In the early 1800s, New Orleans became part of the United States and was already its most diverse city. In early January, the British turned their attention to the American west with plans to void the Louisiana Purchase and take the Mississippi and the land to its west for Brittian. The move would cripple the young country and profoundly change the history that we now remember.  The first move of their plan would be to take the Port of New Orleans.

The war of 1812 was in the process of ending, but word had not yet reached the band of 11,000 British troops that had sailed into the Gulf of Mexico with their sights set on the Port of New Orleans and the riches that awaited victory. The American capital city had already fallen the autumn before, with both the White House and the Capitol building burned in August of 1814.  In January of 1815, the best and most experienced of Brittian’s troops were leaving their boats for the American bayou. 

Standing in their way was an American general and future president. Andrew Jackson was undoubtedly an interesting and polarizing historical figure. Jackson was a Scotch-Irish lawyer and slave owner from Tennessee. As a young teenager, he was captured during the Revolutionary War. During his capture, he refused to polish a British officer’s boots and was left with a permanent scar across his hand and forehead for his discretion. He despised the British and lead a small army that stood in the way of the best the British had.

The ethnic hodgepodge that made up the small army held their ground and pushed the British back into the Gulf. The effort was helped along by both the poor planning and hubris on the part of the British. American casualties numbered around 60 while more than 2000 British soldiers fell trying to take the small port. Regardless of your opinion of Andrew Jackson, before the Civil War, among the slavery of the south, he somehow brought together backwater marksmen and militia members from Tennessee and Kentucky with Cajuns and Creoles. Both Black and White, Slaves and Freemen, fought for Jackson that day. Immigrants from Germany, Italy, Ireland, and Scandinavia all came together to protect their new country from invasion. Many had only been Americans for less than a decade.  This great coming together saved our legacy as a country.

This week, teachers have struggled to find the words to describe the historical significance of what we witnessed on January 6th, 2021. For the first time since the fall of 1814, the Capitol of the United States was breached. I am not sure I have found the words just yet, but I know that history is full of stories ready to be taught. I do know that months after our capital burned, a diverse group of young soldiers found common ground and stood together in New Orleans.  

The greatest battle that day may not have been with the British. We are, at times, our worst enemy. The greatest defeat that day was with the divisive tendencies of the worst part of our nature. Sometimes, we seem to forget that we are countrymen. At the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Battle of New Orleans, Jackson said, “Natives of different states, acting together, for the first time, in this camp, differing in habits and in language have reaped the fruits of an honorable union.” That day and today, we were and are all Americans. That is the lesson that we need to teach our children. 

Moments and Memories

Sometimes you will never know the value of a moment until it becomes a memory.

Dr. Seuss

This Christmas far exceeded my expectations. I must admit, after an exhausting year, I set the bar kinda low. I just planned that this Christmas would be no different than any other day since mid-March when the world shut down and life as we knew it changed forever. Then it started to snow.  I think someone was confused, “We can’t end a year like this with a white Christmas,” we need it to be seventy and sunny, the exact opposite of what might be on most of our Christmas cards.  Snow at Christmas would be too perfect for a year like we have all had.  Then I woke up to four inches of snow.  

Our Christmas began this year at my mom and dad’s house on Christmas Eve. For the first time in my memory, my mom had names on her presents. I wasn’t sure if we should celebrate or worry about her. At any rate, none of the kids opened crockpots this year, and that was a small victory. I could tell more stories than you are willing to sit through about what happens when mom forgets what she has wrapped and has to guess which gift is yours.  We all got the right gifts the first time, no one had to swap.  It was perfect.

However, she did continue her tradition of telling my little brother what dad “wanted” for Christmas.  She does this from time to time with my little brother because he continues to fall for it. This year dad “wanted” a set of sawhorses. Evidently, this lack of sawhorses prevented dad from completing many of the items on Mom’s retirement “to do” list. It’s an ongoing list with no real hope of an end.  He will put the sawhorses in the basement with the stapler he “wanted” a few years ago. Bro, next time buy the gift dad “wants” and wrap it but put mom’s name on it. On second thought, don’t; it has become a fun part of our family story.  

My nephew nearly scared us all to death at Christmas this year because he had decided he was old enough to carry a pocket knife. He said he would need it to open his presents, but thankfully, we could get them opened before he took matters into his own hands. I showed him the scar from the year I got a pocket knife for Christmas and decided to teach myself to whittle. We spent that Christmas in the ER while dinner was getting cold. It didn’t seem to phase him; he thought the scar looked cool. He did leave with all of his fingers and toes, so we can count that as a win. Sometimes the memories you don’t make are just as important as those that you do.

In the past few years, our Christmas gifts have become much more focused on memories. My mother has always been a bit sentimental. This year mom glued one of my matchboxes to a piece of wood and made a Christmas scene with it. She has always been crafty, and I am sure she saw it in Southern Living or one of her craft magazines. It was a neat gift, and my mind immediately went back to the five-year-old version of myself. Each Saturday, my grandfather would take me to the five and dime on Main Street. There was a massive selection of matchbox cars on the back wall in the basement corner, and we would pick out one. I would take it back to his house and add it to my collection. It’s funny how a memory will return. For just a few minutes, I was standing next to him again.

Mom followed it up with another gift from our family history, a framed 5×7 black and white photo of my grandfather’s Gulf station on Main Street from back in the sixties. It must have been Christmas because the lights are hung across Mainstreet.  After Christmas, I will find the perfect spot for it in my office. It’s good to have reminders of how much time and energy has been invested in getting us to where we are today.

I was blessed with two amazing sets of grandparents. It was kinda like the city mouse and the country mouse. My mom’s parents lived in Hazelwood, just a block away from the old school site. My dad’s parents lived more than twenty miles outside of town in the country, well past where the paved roads had turned to gravel and far enough out that you only went to town once a week.  I affectionately called my dads dad Papaw, a title my dad took when his first grandchild was born. Many of those trips out into the country to see my Papaw began at the drug store to pick up pipe tobacco. He didn’t like filters and rolled his own cigarettes. Over the years, Papaw had become proficient at rolling a cigarette with one hand while driving with the other.  He taught me how to do it, but we decided it best not to tell my dad. This year for Christmas, my brother gave me a candle that smells just like his pipe tobacco and a box of butterscotch candy just like Papaw kept in a small glass container on the nightstand next to his recliner. After getting home, I lit the candle, sat back in my rocker, and had a piece of butterscotch. For just a moment, I was back in his house, hearing his bigger than life stories again.  

It’s the pictures of forgotten times, the smell of pipe tobacco, and the taste of butterscotch that I will remember from Christmas this year. Those perfect memories that you savor like a fine meal. On Christmas morning, my wife gave me a framed quote for my office that summed up the last few days. The great philosopher Dr. Seuss once said, “Sometimes you will never know the value of a moment until it becomes a memory.” It’s really up to us what we make of our moments and which ones we allow to become our memories.

Jimmy’s Gift

It is a simple plastic ball the size of a small apple, round and wrapped with a plastic decorative image. It has a single wire attached at the top, and it has yellowed a bit over the years with age. More than twenty years ago, during my second Christmas in the classroom, I asked each of our students to bring an ornament for our Classroom Christmas Tree. The tree stayed up for the entire month of December, and on the last day, before we went home for Christmas break, the students would take their ornaments back home with them.  

That Christmas was especially memorable for me. My son was born in November and was only a few weeks old as we approached his first Christmas. There was a different level of excitement in the air. I was teaching second grade at the time. The last day before Christmas break was an early dismissal, and most classes returned to their room after lunch for a Christmas party. During the party, there were cupcakes and individually wrapped gifts for each of my students. Several students had also brought gifts for me, and the students asked that I open them before the end of the day. You could sense their excitement as I opened each of their gifts. I am sure there were coffee mugs and gift certificates. I can’t remember each one. As I finished up with what I thought was the last gift, Jimmy came up and handed me a hastily wrapped gift. He had taken some of the discarded wrapping paper and a box from the Christmas party and used it to wrap his gift for me. You could tell he was proud to be able to give me something. I remember him telling me that he was so happy that I was his teacher.

I knew Jimmy’s family from the community. His parents were separated, and his mother worked hard to provide for herself and her only son. They didn’t have much, but Jimmy was clean every day when he came to school, and she tried to make sure he did his homework and had what he needed for the day. Jimmy’s dad wasn’t in the picture, but his mom loved him and did her best to provide for him.

When I opened the small box, I found the white ornament that he had brought to place on our classroom tree. He said he wanted me to have it to remember him. And remember him, I do.  

Each year, just after Thanksgiving, we put up our family Christmas tree. In the ornament box, there are dozens of typical ornaments that we pick between to place on the tree. We have accumulated more ornaments than one tree can hold. There are also about six unique ornaments that we use each year. Most are valuable to our family for a variety of reasons, and they have their own boxes. They spend their lives from late December through Thanksgiving wrapped carefully in tissue paper and stored in their own box for safekeeping. Some are expensive ceramic and glass-blown ornaments that we select and use each year. Jimmy’s ornament also has its own box and is treated like the valuable ornament that it is. When my son was in second grade, we told him the story as a reminder that this season is about having an attitude of giving. It’s the only ornament that must go on the tree each and every year. It’s a reminder that giving matters. It is also my reminder that while we hope to have a lasting impact on our students’ lives, they will have just as much of an effect on us.

Please know that I changed the name and circumstances in the story slightly to protect the student’s identity. However, if he read the story and remembered the event, it is similar enough for him to realize it’s about him. I would also want him to know how much the simple gift meant to me!

Dear Santa,

I must apologize that I have taken these once every year letters for granted.  In past years, I would usually ask for something crazy like a new gaming console or one of those new Ford Broncos that we might see some time in the next year.  I also usually end up being very satisfied with socks, underwear, and if I’m lucky, some chocolate.  However, I will not turn down the new gaming console or a Bronco if you have extra ones lying around that can fit in your sleigh with everything else that you’re carrying this year.

If I can be honest, I am much more appreciative of the simple gatherings with family and conversations with loved ones this year with everything going on.  I realize that, like socks and underwear, we might have taken these times together for granted.  Having family gatherings with pie, pound cake, and wassail was a forgone conclusion for the last forty-plus years of my life.  I can fix a pound cake and wassail and even have my grandmother’s recipe.  Unfortunately, they never taste the same as they did at her house.  I miss those days sitting in my grandfather’s orange leather living room chair opening Christmas gifts. I’m sure you remember the one I am talking about, it was orange!  Not a unique shade of Brown, it was ORANGE.  And I loved it.  If you have a way to recreate those memories, would you please permanently add that to my list.  I feel a little humbled to need to include these family gatherings on my list, but they mean more now than they ever have. 

I also realize that the fatigue of fighting Covid-19 over the past year has left all of us a bit tired and grumpy.  As you know, communities are fighting over masks, politics, and vaccines, and our community is no different.  I am sure that these are well-meaning people, and I would hope that you exercise some grace when deciding which of these fine people have met the threshold to be included on your naughty list.  I do have faith in our people, even the ones I can’t entirely agree with, and I will vouch for each of them.  If you have some special magic that might minimize our frustration with this mess, something that will make us more neighborly, I would like to add it to all of our Christmas lists.  

Finally, I would like to let you know that I have already received far more than I deserve, so if you need to use the space on your sleigh for someone else, I certainly understand. I will not take this as a slight.  But, if you feel the need to bring me socks, t-shirts, or underwear, remember that I am a bit of a stress eater, and you might want to go with a size larger this year.  

Best wishes and stay healthy,
Todd Trantham

Waiting Well…

I have never been great at waiting.  I would go to great lengths at Christmas to find my presents as early as possible.  It almost became a game for my brother and I.  Years ago, we were due to receive a new game console for Christmas.  My mother had made the mistake of leaving the receipt laying on the dining room table after a shopping trip.  We found it and knew that the console must be hidden somewhere in the house.  Since I was in Middle School, we had reached the age where we could be “trusted” to stay at home for short periods of time.  On a cold early December afternoon, while mom was gone to the grocery store, we set out to find our Christmas gift.  After about 30 minutes, we found it in the back of the basement.  In a dimly lit corner, covered by a quilt, was the new console and several much-requested games.   Since we had spent a good portion of mom’s shopping time, we decided to wait until the next trip to the store to go any further.   About a week later, mom left again and we put our well thought through plan into action.   We had everything we would need: scissors, packing tape, and a stopwatch.   We started the stopwatch and pulled the game console out.  We carefully cut the tape that packaged the console, took the console out, and hooked it up. We proceeded to play our new games for about 30 minutes.  At the thirty-minute mark, we stopped, carefully packed everything back up, and used the packing tape to make it appear just like it did before we pulled it out.  We placed it carefully under the quilt and made everything look like it did before we started.  As we were putting the packing tape back in the drawer where we found it, mom pulled up.  We have finished just in time.   

Looking back, this was a small part of a long line of examples where I struggled to wait.  Patience was never one of my gifts.  Even as I got older, I found that I needed to wait until close to Christmas to shop for gifts.  If I purchased these too early, I would never be able to wait and I would end up giving them away before we ever made it to Christmas.  One year, I gave my wife her Christmas gift a week early.  Not because she asked for it, but because I just couldn’t wait any longer. 

We all have faults, and at the top of the list for me is waiting.  I hate waiting.  I don’t even wait well when I am cooking. If the recipe says to cook in the oven for 45 minutes, somewhere around the 40th minute, I am ready to take it out and try it.  When the recipe calls for something to rest for 15 minutes after cooking, I only want to give it ten minutes.   I somehow missed the lesson in school about patience.   

A few years ago, I received my lesson in patience.  In a visit to the doctor’s office, he found an abnormality in one of my scans and wanted to wait a month and do another scan to make sure that there wasn’t a change in the results.  A change would indicate that the severity of the issue was more significant than he expected and would result in an aggressive treatment plan.  Over the course of the next month, I waited.  I waited and waited.  Fortunately, the results came back and all was fine. There was no change in my scans and I could breathe a deep sigh of relief.  Even though I realize that I am not great with the “In Between Time,” I have started to appreciate the necessity of these moments and the power that we can gain from waiting well.  Like a great cake, smoked pork or an amazing gift, some things simply can’t be rushed.  The waiting is part of the process.

We all have faults. The key to growth is taking the time to recognize the real us on the inside.  Understanding our faults helps us recognize when we might be cheating ourselves of the opportunity of the moment.    I have finally embraced this part of who I am.  I’m not proud that it led me to several moments where I opened the gift before it’s time had come, but I am far more aware of that part of me.   My patience is developing, but sometimes I still wish it would hurry up!

Each life is made up of mistakes and learning, waiting and growing, 
practicing patience, and being persistent. –
Billy Graham

Solving Puzzles

Being a child of the ’80s, I have some great memories.  Many of these were made wearing parachute pants or a Members Only Jacket.   I remember when Lady Diana became a princess. When  Chernobyl reminded us how fragile the world really was.  We tasted “New Coke” and didn’t like it!  We played with Cabbage Patch Kids and Glow Worms, GI Joes and Micromachines, roller skates and Big Wheels.   We rode in the back of trucks, didn’t wear seat belts, and somehow survived to adulthood.    One toy created in the ’70s didn’t hit the western market until the early 80s and had sold over 100 million before 1982.   We all had one, but most of us had no idea how it worked.

Erno Rubik was a Hungarian architecture teacher at a college in Budapest.  The cube that bears his name was first made of wood and used as a classroom teaching aid.  It took him a month to figure out how the thing worked after he created it.  Six years after it was created, it broke through the control of the communist bloc when it was introduced to the west.  The toy made Professor Rubrik the first self-made millionaire behind the iron curtain. Today, more than 45 years later,  it has an almost cult-like following.  

I received my first cube when I was in elementary school.  I spent about a month trying to figure the thing out before I gave up.  I could solve one side, but I would only make the other sides more mixed up in doing so. Finally, I did what all my friends were doing, I broke it apart and put it back together to solve all the sides.  Essentially, I cheated.  I became proficient in my technique and could “solve” the puzzle in under two minutes. 

I forgot about the cube for several years until I was given one as a gift in my first year as a school administrator. I was an assistant principal and figured out very quickly that being an administrator was a lot like solving the cube.  Each day I would face problems with complex solutions.  Trying to solve one side of the problem often only caused more significant issues with the other sides.  Eventually, I figured the cube out and realized that you couldn’t just see one side of the cube. You had to solve the cube as a whole.  Life has a lot more in common with this six-sided cube than we might realize.

I have kept a Rubik’s Cube on my desk or shelf for the last fifteen years.  The cube has more than 43 quintillion possible moves.   That is a forty-three with eighteen zeros behind it.  However, the cube can be solved with as few as twenty-seven moves.  The trick is to figure out the right twenty-seven moves. Today, with a youtube video and a few hours of work, you can teach yourself to solve the puzzle consistently.    I usually pick it up at least once a day.  Solving the cube reminds me that even the most challenging problems have a solution.  It reminds me that having the right strategy matters.  It also reminds me that I usually have two choices in handling the most complicated problems. I can put in the work to figure out the problem, or I can do what I did with my rubik’s cube when I was a kid.  I can pop all of the blocks apart and put them back together.  I can cheat.  While we can always trade putting in the work to do things right for what’s easy, it is usually a practice reserved for those not prepared to handle the bigger problems.  While it might work for a time, it will never prepare us for the larger issues that we will face.  It doesn’t make us better.  

“Our whole life is solving puzzles.”
Erno Rubik

Pink Ice…

Thanksgiving at my grandmother’s meant many things.  It meant a properly roasted eighteen-pound turkey.  There would always be two pans of dressing, one with and one without onions.  Someone always hated onions, and Granny wanted to make sure everybody was happy.  There would be more vegetables than I can name. We would have cranberry sauce out of a can, evenly sliced, and placed in a serving tray. It meant authentic brown gravy. It also meant both pie and pound cake.   But mostly, for all six grandkids, it meant pink ice.  When I was very young, and some of my cousins were still waiting for their parents to meet, Granny decided to treat us with pink ice.  She would make several gallons of pink lemonade for Thanksgiving and then pour some of it into ice trays to make her famous pink ice.  Looking back, it wasn’t that hard to make, and it didn’t require any unique ingredients, but we only got it at Thanksgiving and Christmas, that’s what made it special.  The grandkids would also get in trouble at some point during the day for drawing out the word “ice” in our best southern slang and making the “i” in ice sound more like an “A.”  It changed the meaning entirely and was another one of those things my mother hated.  The question wasn’t if someone would get the eye from mom, just a question of if I would get it before or after my brother.  

I wouldn’t trade anything for the “pink ice” memories I have of those Thanksgivings.  As I look back at those years, I failed to appreciate at the time how special they were.   I am so thankful for the memories, but I miss the moments.  Family.  Togetherness.  Drawing names for Christmas then putting up the Christmas tree together. It’s those simple moments that we only get once that make these times so unique.   The pink ice that Granny made didn’t take a single extra ingredient.  She had already made the pink lemonade she would use, and she already had a dozen ice cube trays in the freezer.  What made it meaningful was the thoughtfulness and care she took to make Thanksgiving a little more special for her grandchildren.   So often, the most meaningful memories last a lifetime and cost very little.  

For many of us, we need Thanksgiving.  We need a short break from the day-to-day grind, and we need a moment to recenter ourselves.  The last nine months have been extended and unforgiving. This year, there seems to be enough anger and hurt to go around.  Anger and hurt because of the circumstances we all face with the dangers that surround family gatherings.  Anger from all the things we lost in the last year and all of the moments we have missed.   A wise man once reminded me that anger is rooted in the idea that we are hurt because something has been taken from us.  And we are somehow owed.  The only way to truly experience thankfulness is to let go of the hurt and appreciate what we have and what we have had. 

Dr. Seuss once said, “You ought to be thankful a whole heaping lot, for the places and people you’re lucky you’re not!”  We can always find someone who has it better than us, but we also find just as many that have it worse than us.  Beginning to play the comparison game is a dangerous decision that often leads to more heartache than healing.  We take transportation for granted until we have a hurricane and fuel supplies run low, we forget that we are blessed that we don’t have to walk to work.   We usually take the electricity in our homes for granted until a nasty storm leaves us without power or running water.  I don’t make it a habit of being thankful for that until the weatherman starts calling for snow. I haven’t ever appreciated the simple act of gathering for a holiday meal with our family like I do after being asked to be mindful of social gatherings. And, I never really appreciated having students in the school building until they had to stay home.   Now, I feel so much more blessed to stand out at the car line and welcome them into the building each morning.   If this season teaches us anything, I hope it is to be more thankful and less entitled.     

As we get ready to celebrate Thanksgiving, I will take a few minutes to appreciate all of the things we did get to do this year.    I am determined to be more appreciative than I have in the past.   I will do a better job of seeing blessings that I have missed and possibly even find a “pink ice memory” to pass on to the next generation.