Thank You, Langston Hughes

The talented Langston Hughes reminds us of the choice we all have in his moving story, “Thank You, Ma’am”

Our world is fraught with anxiety, filled with the uncertainty of COVID-19 as our death toll continues to mount. The almost full calendar year of pandemic life has rendered many of us depressed. Factor in the economic stress and growing political tension, it is no surprise that many of us are also quick-tempered. After all, when we are experiencing pain it’s normal to react. 

How we react to pain makes all the difference.

As an English teacher to middle school students, I bear the gift and responsibility of educating minds through literature. Students “buy in” when they can connect a text to both the world around and in them. With the escalating violence at the US Capitol, I felt a need to choose a story that could palpably demonstrate an invaluable commodity: kindness.

 It’s easy to be kind when we are in a good place, when our needs are met and we want for little or nothing; kindness becomes, for many of us, a challenge when we are in pain.

The social activist and prolific Harlem Renaissance writer, Langston Hughes offered my students (and humanity) a short but profound and palpably moving example of kindness in the face of pain with his story, “Thank You, Ma’am.”

The story involves a young teen who attempts to steal a woman’s purse on the street at night. Instead of reporting the boy to the police, the woman brings him home and gives him a warm meal. Her kindness alters the boy’s behavior, his perception and—although we can only infer—the trajectory of his life.

I want my students to know that each of them has the power to make a choice every moment; I want each of us to remember that, despite how painful life can get at times, we always have a choice to be kind. This is not a call to be a doormat. Langston Hughes’ character, Mrs. Luella Bates Washington Jones is portrayed as a strong, no nonsense woman. She is that rare mixture of confident and compassionate, perceptive yet matter of fact.

So, as you go through your morning, your day, your week, your life, regardless of wherever life may take you, channel your inner Mrs. Luella Bates Washington Jones. A simple gesture of kindness can change someone’s life in ways you may never know—including your own.

The Happiness Test

How we treat others is a strong indicator of how we feel about ourselves

A student stormed into class this week, his own personal hurricane. 

“You okay?” I asked.

He shook his head, his eyes filled with a mixture of hurt and anger. “These kids said I looked like a 3rdgrader. They were making fun of my height.”

Despite our masks, I could hear a snort-like laugh emerge from a girl in our classroom. 

Ah, middle school: the realm where cruelty is often the dish du jour. And at that moment, the girl’s laugh caused the boy’s eyes to tear up.

“You want to know a secret?” I asked. The room fell silent. “When someone is mean, it’s about them. They aren’t happy with themselves.”

The girl who had, just seconds before, snorted a laugh said, “I like making fun of people.”

“Maybe it makes you feel good for a little while, but it doesn’t make you feel so good in the long run. Besides, if you were happy, really happy with yourself, you wouldn’t feel a need to make someone else feel bad.”

The girl nodded slowly. While the mask made it hard to “read” her face, my gut says she “got” the lesson.

Despite most of our readers experiencing life post 6th grade, the Middle School Mentality persists: the colleague who passive-aggressively puts you down at a meeting, the ex who continues to threaten court, the driver who tailgates.

The pandemic has caused an incomprehensible domino effect of loss and change around the world; it is not, however, an excuse to be cruel to others, ever.

If you are choosing to read my work, chances are you can relate more to the boy in my classroom than the snort-laughing girl. You are kind, compassionate and proactively trying to live your best life. 

We are spiritual Russian dolls in this life, living with the layers of who we were at each stage and carrying those perceptions with us along the way. We are the 6th grade boy, horrified and angry by other kids’ cruel words; we may also be the girl who laughs at the pain of others because deep down, we aren’t happy with ourselves.

So, the next time someone snaps at you or cuts you off in traffic, consider the “Happiness Test.” When someone is acting out in an aggressive or cruel way, it’s a reflection of THEM, not YOU. The aggressor or bully isn’t happy with themselves. 

The good news? You don’t have to join them. 

The Unspoken Struggle

There is a silent but desperate pain in many teens and tweens in our 21st century world

As a writing teacher, I have the bittersweet gift and responsibility that comes with reading the many hidden thoughts of tweens and teens. An English teacher is often informally consigned to the role of therapist, a safe repository of one’s typically dormant insights. While a significant number of students’ essays contain innocuous content, there are sometimes those red flags that require I share my concern with the school psychologist. Unfortunately, I’m seeing an uptick in red flags.

Since the pandemic, we know there’s been a rise in mental health concern. According to MedScape (www.medscape.com), depression symptoms have “jumped threefold, overdose deaths…increased in 40 states, and 25% of young adults have suicidal ideation.”

It is no surprise then that our adolescents are demonstrating an increase in anxiety and depression as well. This past week, I’d assigned my students the following prompt:

“Write about a time when you have felt or experienced a struggle in your life. Did it resolve? If so, how? If not, why?”

Regardless of ability (i.e. ELL learners, GT students and everything in between), my students were eager to write about their struggles. They were also hungry to be heard. Shortly after posting the assignment, a barrage of emails appeared with the following inquiries:

“This really helps. Can we do more of these prompts?”

“I normally hate writing, but I like this assignment. Can I do more than one?”

“I have a pretty big struggle. Would it be okay if I shared it with our class?”

There’s a sense of safety in writing, in getting our thoughts out onto the page. Writing also creates an immediate sense of being heard—even if it’s just for an audience of one—YOU!

Several of my “red flag” essays end with a request to not share their anxious thoughts and/or depression with anyone. They write of observed or experienced domestic abuse, estranged parents, gender uncertainty, cancer, the loss of a loved one, and bullying. The overarching emotion that binds them is a sense that they are alone and unworthy.

I want to hug each of these students. Instead, I tell them the truth: they are courageous for sharing their stories and they matter. 

The Gift of a New Year

Discover the WHY behind our hunger for a New Year

To say that 2020 was a challenging year is akin to claiming triple bypass surgery is a standard procedure. If someone were to enter our planet for the first time, while we might be inclined to hold their hand, inviting them to sit down as one would to see a therapist after the death of a loved one, where would we begin?? (Besides which, we can’t exactly touch this fictionalized visitor to our planet who really needs a mask–pronto;-)

The pandemic, the protests, the killer bees, the Nashville bombing—words just fail to articulate the unprecedented and harrowing past 365 days.

And yet, COVID-19 didn’t officially hit the worldwide stage until mid-March, so the mask-wearing, toilet-paper-fearing shortage, social-distancing, government-lockdowns weren’t experienced for a full calendar year.

And yet again, it feels like more than a year. After all, the Gregorian calendar began with the sudden and tragic loss of the beloved basketball player, Kobe Bryant on January 26th of the very year we are on the heels of bidding adieu.  

Any great loss plays with our sense of time. So, it’s no wonder that this year, our concept, our understanding of time seems to render us in a perceptual fog of sorts. As of this writing, 341 thousand Americans have died as a result of COVID-19; worldwide, the death toll is over one million.

Humankind is emotionally starving for a return to normal. Deep down, we wonder if we will ever return to normal. If we grow still, we wonder if our pre-COVID world was all rainbows and unicorns anyway. We revel in the silver linings found throughout this roller coaster of a year; we ask ourselves: What is normal anyway??

There is no magic switch that will turn on as we ring in this New Year. Writing 2021 on our academic papers, our checks, our contracts—none of this will stop the rising death toll, increase the limited ICU beds across the county or bring back our departed loved ones. 

So why do we need, more than ever before, to celebrate and welcome in 2021?

New Year’s is a symbol of hope, of a fresh start, of wonderful possibility. It represents turning a corner, closing a door, so we can open up a new one.

A New Year is a gift, an opportunity to try again. It is Time’s present of a new blank page. It is the closest Time offers to an actual restart button.

I encourage you to revel in the gift of possibility this New Year brings. May the symbolism and fact of a new calendar renew your spirit—and by extension, humanity.

The Gift of a Broken Pipe

Happiness can often be found in the least place you’d expect…

Earlier this week, my neighbor called me. 

“Sheri, there’s water coming out from your garage door. Are you home?”

No, I wasn’t home. It was also rush hour, that time of day when you can double the time it takes you to arrive anywhere.

“If you are okay with it, I’d like to call my plumber.”

You know it’s not good when your neighbor is eager to call a plumber on your behalf. 

“The water from your garage is spilling onto my side.

Fortunately, the plumber (Daniel Barrientos—professional and informative) arrived within 30 minutes of receiving my neighbor’s call. 

In order to determine the problem (broken PVC pipes) and implement a solution (new PEX pipes), I would need to go without water for 24 hours.

Going sans water for any amount of time is challenging, but not having water in the midst of a pandemic after working outside both that day and the next, well…let’s just say I wasn’t looking forward to the experience.

Yet losing access to water offered me two unexpected gifts: knowledge and appreciation. Here’s what I learned in those LONG 24 hours:

  1. A toilet requires A LOT of water in order to flush (1.6 gallons per flush—Source: SFGATE). 
  • PVC pipes are inexpensive and easy to work with, but they can only be used for cold water
  • PEX pipes are extremely versatile and temperature tolerant (Source: Olympus Insurance)
  • The PVC pipes on my home were repaired several times before by the previous owner, though never actually replaced

When the water finally, blessedly was turned back on 24 hours later, I started singing, literally singing. There was water to cook with, bathe with, wash my hands with, make coffee with, clean with—it was HEAVEN ON EARTH!

Did I want to experience 24 hours without fresh running water? Absolutely not. But the appreciation I felt after that first shower was a true gift. Washing my hands under running water was a gift. Throwing clothing into my laundry machine to wash felt luxurious. Blow drying my clean, soap-scented hair felt amazing and hearing the steady hum of the dishwasher once again rendered me on top of the world.

Maybe you are reading this considering a metaphorical or literal “broken pipe” in your own life. Sometimes, it’s the broken pipe that helps you feel whole again. Sometimes, we need to lose something in order to recall its invaluableness.

Our perception of life creates our reality. Prior to the broken pipes, I took water for granted, didn’t even notice it. It was only in its absence that I felt parched on every level for it; only with the limited supply in my drawn bathtub that appreciation for it grew.

Losing water, if only for a mere 24 hours, raised my appreciation for it tenfold. When we appreciate something, we are dwelling in a happy space. 

Wishing you a deep and far appreciation of this life and all of its gifts.

Supermarket Sweep Life

There’s an unspoken “Supermarket Sweep” mentality pervading our lives.

            There’s a popular American game show, now in its 10th season, called Supermarket Sweep. The premise involves contestants racing against a timer to acquire “high-dollar goods within their allotted time. The team with the most…[number] of valuable items in their cart wins the $100,000 prize.” (source The Today Show). The appeal of the show is understandable: the rush of adrenaline to get as many items—hopefully more highly-valued than others—into one’s cart in a finite and small window of time (typically 1 minute and 30 seconds).

            The fast-paced game show hosted by the talented and humorous Leslie Jones is, no doubt, entertaining. We may watch, experiencing a hit of dopamine as the contestants race against the clock; we may experience pleasure, living vicariously through the frenzied contestants as they practically leave skid marks, stomping haphazardly through the many grocery aisles.

            Yet somehow, our lives tend to feel like we are no different than those Supermarket Sweep contestants. As a secondary English teacher, I see it with my students: the race to get an assignment in, the rush to read through an essay prompt without taking the time to consider the prompt itself. As a mother, I’ve witnessed the Supermarket Sweep mind spinning—no different than the contestants’ carts speeding down aisle after aisle. The mental guessing game of What If thinking, is its own conveyer belt of recycled worry.

            Adults are far from immune to the Supermarket Sweep mindset. Whether it’s the rush to get food on the table or the desperation to install a pool (and everything in between), when we put ourselves on this self-imposed time limit to get things accomplished, we run the risk of a few things:

  1. A lack of self-awareness
  2. Greater physical stress on the body
  3. An affinity for anxiety and/or depression

Without knowing it, I spent a good deal of my young adulthood with the Supermarket Sweep mentality as a steady companion. My cart was regularly filled with items that I didn’t necessarily want but falsely believed I needed to make me feel like a “winner”: the right college, a boyfriend, friends—the key was to have these “things” so that I could feel good. Say yes now was my unexamined mentality. It didn’t matter how I felt about what went into my spiritual cart; all that mattered was that I had put something in there.

I encourage you to consider the items you may be placing in your spiritual cart. Choose them carefully and consider the possibility of removing items that no longer serve you. Your life matters and while we each have an expiration date on this planet, we are not in a race or competition with Time. Care about what goes into your spiritual cart; the only appraiser of value for your cart’s items is you.

The Validation Dish

There’s something I notice lately, something women tend to do more than men. Something girls tend to do more than boys. I’ve seen manifestations of this affliction most of my life: the apology without real cause, the explanation that is typically unnecessary, the quick laughter to mask the hurt. But it wasn’t until recently that I noticed a visual/auditory pattern as well: parenthetical statements.

Huh?

Hear me out. The other night, I was out with a group of women, and I noticed a regular pattern, subtle but distinct, to the banter of us. Statements like:

“I haven’t felt the same since I got COVID, well, I think I haven’t felt the same.”

“I just want a man who is, you know, kind. I don’t need to care about his looks, not really, you know. I just want him to be, I don’t know, nice.”

“I told him I was still reading, so why did he turn off the light. That really pissed me off—that’s bitchy of me, probably it is, right? I don’t think he meant it to be mean, but I was reading in bed, so it’s like I don’t matter, right?”

You see what I mean?? I felt this out-of-body aha moment that night, noticing a specific kind of halting cadence to our statements, like a toddler learning to walk, but not quite ready to let go of the furniture.

I kept thinking, most men would articulate those sentences, sans those parenthesis—they would be the figurative toddler standing, teetering, falling and getting right back up without any need to grab onto a nearby chair!

Those same statements, uttered from the mouths of men might sound more like this:

“I haven’t felt the same since I got COVID.”

“I just want a woman who is kind.”

“I told her I was reading, and she turned off the light. 

#3 would be a clear conclusionary statement or likely would not be articulated in the first place because our imaginary gentleman wouldn’t need the big V: validation.

If you are a man reading this, feel free to disagree. After all, this is an opinion- piece and I am speaking in generalizations. There are women out there who possess the confidence to speak without a barrage of caveats weighing down their sentences; there are men who throw pauses into their words like a trapeze artist on a balance beam!

It’s one thing to be uncertain and articulate that uncertainty. It’s another, more subtle yet dangerous thing to crave validation or worse yet, lack faith in yourself.

Here’s what I know:

My friend’s breathing is more labored post COVID.

My friend wants to meet a kind, nice man who she is attracted to and deserves to be attracted to.

My friend was pissed that her husband turned off the light when she was reading.

When we sit with how we feel, when we accept all of our emotions, we no longer feel the deceiving call for external validation.

Whatever your gender, I challenge you to pay attention today and notice how you speak, how the sentences form on your tongue and in your mind. Embrace your inner compass, without the need to justify, apologize or gain the approval of others.

 External validation is a hunger that never satisfies. Go within for approval and you’ll never starve.

The Gift of Discomfort

            When we allow ourselves to experience pain, true healing and growth begins.

My friend *Camile cried to me over the phone this past weekend. She suspects that her new husband is cheating on her. If her fears are correct, this would be her second marriage strained, if not destroyed, by infidelity.

Fact: Camile husband keeps an extra cell phone for his work as a doctor. 

Fact: Camile is not allowed to know the number or have access to this additional phone.

Fact: The two haven’t been intimate since COVID began…

Flash back to three years ago when Camile discovered her first husband (now an ex) sexting with his nurse. Once Camile caught him red-handed, her ex said he “wanted out anyway.” 

It’s worth noting that for month’s prior to Camile’s sexting find, she’d wanted to confront her then husband. But each time, the mere idea of broaching the topic made her queasy with discomfort.

Within months of Camile’s split from her ex, before the divorce was even finalized, she started dating the man who is now her current husband.

Tonight, as Camile broke down to me, I could hear the familiar tinkle of a glass that had accompanied our talks back in 2017.

“What are you drinking?”

It was a rhetorical question. My dear friend’s imbibing companion was always the same: Riesling.  While she isn’t much of a drinker, she does become a fan of the white grape wine whenever heartache arises.

Camile chooses wine in lieu of facing her pain. I tend to go for the chips and ice cream. Some of us choose inedible comfort food when a challenge of the heart grows imminent: gambling, smoking pot, retail therapy.

The last time I heard Camile drinking her beloved Riesling was during her divorce proceedings. Once her current husband entered the picture, I can’t recall her enjoying the beverage.

To avoid pain and suffering is human nature, but sometimes, the very thing we are trying not to experience actually prolongs if not worsens it. Camile never truly mourned the end of her marriage, never honored her feelings of anger and betrayal. Tonight, those lessons are knocking on her door again. 

What lessons are knocking on your door? What pain and heartache do you run from and subsequently continue to experience?

There is a gift in acknowledging everything from discomfort to heartache. If we don’t pause long enough to accept the gift, we run the risk of repeating pain in merely a new guise.

 While it sounds counter-intuitive, when we allow ourselves to experience pain, true healing and growth begins.

The Wallis Simpson Dish

The Duchess of Windsor offers a cautionary tale to pay attention to our whys, so we can change our patterns and experience different results

The other night, I took pleasure in watching the 2011 Netflix W.E. It’s a romantic historical drama, directed by Madonna, that sheds a different light on the famous love story between King Edward VII and the American socialite, Wallis Simpson. 

King Edward is known as the intrepid man who gave up the monarchy in order to marry the twice-divorced woman he loved.

Sounds romantic, yes?

History paints a picture of a man who wooed someone tirelessly, who sacrificed his royal status in order to be in the company of the woman he adored.

Madonna’s portrayal of that history offers an entirely different perspective: Wallis Simpson’s.

According to both the historical film, W.E. and historian Anne Sebba, (That Woman: The Life of Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor), Wallis never wanted to leave her second husband and marry King Edward. She was content to be the King’s mistress. She neither wanted King Edward to upend the British monarchy nor be the cause of it.

What fascinated me about this story is the why behind Wallis’s actions, the why behind her choices. Why did Wallis agree to marry someone she was content to be mistress to? Why did she want to be a mistress in the first place?

Unearthing the why of our actions is the bedrock of change.

Wallis’s father died a mere five months after she was born. Subsequently, her childhood involved watching her mother’s dependence on the Warfield’s (Wallis’s paternal side of the family) fortune. The purse strings were manipulated by a controlling uncle.

As an outsider, the why behind Wallis’ actions grows clearer as we look at those early years: Wallis grew up dependent on men for money. It is what she knew. It is no wonder then, that she used her quick wit and independent nature to attract affluent men with power.

Yet if we look closer, there is a paradox in each of her romantic relationships:

Husband #1: Earl Winfield Spencer Jr., a US Navy aviator. Externally, the aviator held a position of power and respect. Behind closed doors, Spencer Jr was an abusive alcoholic.

Husband #2: Ernest Simpson, described as an ironically “dependable” man who asks for Wallis’ hand in marriage while he is still married to another. Wallis, most interested in security, agreed.

Husband #3: King Edward VII is described by a staff member (Hon. John Aird) on vacation with the King and Wallis, “the prince…lost all confidence in himself and follows W around like a dog.” Again, there is this need for power and stability—both of which the King fulfills due to status and their seemingly co-dependent relationship.

A trove of affectionate, candid letters between Wallis and her second husband exist between 1936-1937. In these secret letters, both Wallis and Simpson refer to King Edward condescendingly as “Peter Pan.” 

An excerpt from one of Wallis’ letters to Simpson stands out:

“I don’t understand myself, which is the cause of all the misery. Give me courage. I’m so lonely.”

Wallis wrote the above just days before King Edward VII abdicated the throne, for her. She was living with a man who adored her and yet she felt “so lonely.”

Chances are, you are not an American socialite nor married to British royalty. However, its’ likely there are patterns in your personal relationships. Wallis offers a cautionary tale to pay attention to our whys, so we can change our patterns and experience different results.

Wallis was a paradox: her independent spirit that men found attractive is what they wanted to possess. Her hunger for financial security and power caused her to sacrifice emotional freedom.

When we place our financial or spiritual well-being onto another, we are limiting and serving a detrimental dish to ourselves and others.

Holiday Shopping Made Easy

2020 Holiday Gift Guide

The holidays have a tendency to sneak up on me each year, but with the backdrop of our pandemic reality, time seems particularly skewed these days. How are we less than two months away from a new calendar year??

Whether you are one super-prepared holiday shopper, or you are scratching your head, wondering what gift to get your family and friends this season, consider the following venues to get your shopping groove on–you won’t be disappointed:

(1)Teri Case, the author of TIGER DRIVE and IN THE DOGHOUSE (a personal favorite:) offers gift-givers the chance to read GREAT BEGINNINGS: AN ANTHOLOGY, for free. Here’s the link: https://BookHip.com/NMLQAW

The overflowing-with-talent, Teri Case created a beautiful (and free!) anthology entitled Great Beginnings. More than thirty authors–myself included–joined together to share the first chapters of their books. This anthology includes the first chapters of everything from award-winning fiction to non-fiction. It’s the perfect gift for an avid reader. Consider it a literary appetizer for the book lover in your life.

Thanks to Katie Carlisle Gonzales for creating a one-stop-shopping source

(2)This 2020 Gift Guide was made possible by Katie Carlisle Gonzales, someone a dear friend and colleague of mine (author, Cathey Nickell) met, (well, virtually anyway!) through a Facebook group called Moms and Ladies of Southwest Houston. Katie had the idea to create a holiday shopping guide. The guide includes links to over 30 businesses, offering a wide variety of shopping items that you might not think of or know about otherwise. Check out the link here >>> https://bit.ly/34OY1qO

Bring a mask!

(3) How about an open-air outdoor holiday shopping market? Expect to see about 30 vendors at the 16th Annual Heights Holiday Market from 10am-4 pm, Saturday December 5th, at The Church at 1548 Heights Blvd. Author Cathey Nickell will to be autographing and personalizing her two children’s books: Arthur Zarr’s Amazing Art Car and Yazzy’s Amazing Yarn. Artist Bonnie Blue will bring her “Women That Rock” artcar/van, and she’ll be selling her hand-painted driftwood Santas (and more). Such a fun photo op for the kids! You’ll also find a coffee truck, a taco vendor, and so many amazing one-of-a-kind gift ideas, so please join us if you’re in the Houston area. Masks are required for both vendors and visitors. #houstonheightsholidaymarket

Thank you, Kristine Hall and Lone Star Literary Life for creating a thorough Holiday Gift Guide!

(4) I’m also in another online Holiday Gift Guide,thanks to Lone Star Literary Life, a wonderful organization that helps readers find stories and helps Texas authors find their ideal audiences. Owner and publisher Kristine Hall has put together a Holiday Gift Guide, and I’m in it! You can find my book, The Friendship Diet: Clean Out Your Fridge, Get Real with Yourself, and Fill Your Life with Meaningful Relationships that Last here >>> https://www.lonestarliterary.com/content/2020-hgg-nonfiction-books… and if you go to the Lone Star Literary Life website, Kristine has put together some other gift guides for fiction and children’s books as well (go to the LSLL website and look under the “Features” tab).

There is no doubt, 2020 has NOT been an easy one. I hope you find a potential gift(s) for your loved ones. The epithet applies now more than ever: It’s the thought that counts. A gift need not cost anything, it’s the idea behind the present itself that matters. It is also in the act of giving, of thinking of others, that our lives tend to experience greater sweetness.

Wishing you a sweet and healthy end to 2020 and a fresh start, bursting with wonderful possibility in 2021.