Reading Lessons and A Note About Gratitude

The last couple of months have been a whirlwind of activity–beginning with a serious career adjustment. I “hit the streets” in Midtown as a sales rep for a food distribution company, and the learning curve has been massive.  Serious highs, and serious lows.  I joined our local pool board just in time for the chaos of summer and started a boxing class at the gym around the corner.  I signed up to teach “Julie’s Can and Jam” classes at a local co-op, where I’ll teach 21 and up classes on making homemade jam and the canning process.  At the same co-op, I’m re-launching some new branding for my detergent line and attempting to improve my image and marketing.  Last, but certainly not the least, I began teaching reading classes for the elderly, two nights a week.

I get overwhelmed sometimes, and then anxious about daily to-do lists left undone and the tasks of the week that I’m not sure I’m completing with the attention they deserve.  I dream about sending an order of groceries to the wrong food truck, and I’ll wake up in the middle of the night thinking about whether or not I sent the correct allergen-free pan spray to a particular account.  I stress about not knowing enough, not working hard enough or long enough, and not knowing how to ask the questions that make sense in my head.  And then I met a few people with amazing attitudes and a seriously challenging situation in life.

My “students” for evening reading classes are incredible, resilient people, who at the ages of 70-85 are looking to better themselves, and learn to read.  Their reading levels vary from Kindergarten to 2nd grade, and are quick to set goals about their future.  “Ella” told me that she throws away all her mail because she can’t read it anyway, so what’s the point? Tomorrow we’ll begin reading her mail together and making sense of it. “Wallace” told me that he’s never been read to before, and can only drive within a mile radius because he’s memorized all the street signs…beyond that mile, he wouldn’t be able to read the signs and get back home.  “Nellie” cried tonight when I read her a Bible story, because the only time she’s been read to is over the pulpit at church, and when I told her that she’d be able to write a thank you note by the end of summer, she wept openly and told me she never imagined she’d be able to master such a task.  Talk about a reality check–and a serious dose of gratitude.  I’m a month in, and they do their homework, get excited about evening class, and thank me profusely at the end, in spite of the fact that they have harder lives than I’ve ever even read about.

I know that I’m a blend of blessed and fortunate, and as stretched as I feel these days, I’m super thankful for my new batch of students who have already taught me much more about life than I’ll ever teach them about reading.  I also love that my role of teacher will never really be over.

Grandma Rocke, A Self Help Book

In a portion of my recent interview with my dad’s mom, I was shocked and humbled by some of her responses. I asked her for a fond memory of her parents…and she launched into the details of her dad’s premature death, and the fact that she then became her mother’s right hand. While these were details that I did want to know, it didn’t answer my question, so I redirected her to “fun” family nights, vacations, weekend getaways, etc.

Silence. Vacation? “No, honey. The first time I took a trip was with your grandfather for our honeymoon.”

My mind flashed to the camping trips my parents took me and my four siblings on every summer of my youth. We camped in every state except for Hawaii and Alaska, and while we were always on a budget, we did incredibly fun outdoors activities, like white water rafting in Oregon, camping next to the California Red Woods, and hiking down into Crater Lake. One year we even splurged big time and went to Orlando for Christmas.

My grandmother, however, had not been privy to these childhood luxuries. She helped raise her siblings, cooked, canned, and gardened at a young age; she dropped out of high school her sophomore year when she joined the church. After committing her life to the Lord, the expectation was that she was grown enough to quit school and get a job; her situation was taking up a job as a nanny with a local family, making $2 a week in turn for caring for two children.

She didn’t attend school dances, participate in local activities, sports, or otherwise usual childhood experiences. She helped her mother, raised her siblings, and served the Lord.

Nicholas and I recently booked a cruise to the Eastern Caribbean, and it’s literally the only thing we talk about at night…we read cruise reviews until we fall asleep, and check our “cruise countdown” app every morning.

I recognize the stark difference in my current life and that of my grandmother, and I listened in awe of her as she spoke so matter-of-factly about her life. Her voice didn’t resound with an invitation of pity or empathy for the childhood she experienced, the challenges of being married to a beekeeper who often didn’t make enough money to get through the Midwestern winter, or her current situation as a patient/guest at the nursing home; she speaks of her past with the same tone of voice she does about the Chinese food she had on Monday for her 98th birthday celebration. She sees the world through a lense of thankfulness. She’d never dream of being ungrateful of her experiences or wishing for more.

Every time I call her, and ask her about her care, she raves about the nursing home: the food? “Amazing. I couldn’t dream of more. Do you know they have unlimited ice cream? And for my birthday, they were willing to go to any local restaurant and get me anything I wanted. Of course, I asked for Chinese food.”

She’s incredibly resilient, and has so much to teach me.

I keep ordering and reading books about leadership, inspiration, and otherwise “self help” type books for my new career. The reality is, all I really need to do is keep interviewing my grandmother, and replay the audio when I need to refocus. Her life stories, experience, and wisdom is more powerful than any book I could order from Amazon—and I get the bonus of hearing her sweet, raspy voice with each replay on my audio. What a gift she is to me.

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Long Distance Calls and A Pending Interview

Phone chats with my grandmother are some of my happiest minutes, especially when the minutes turn into hours.

As I child, I loved time with my mom’s parents, as they were easy to love, patient beyond what I deem normal, and had pretty wild imaginations. From “Honky Tonk’s Pizza Parlor” (see an early post dedicated to this) to the jaunts to a local lake in the summer, and basement billiard lessons, they really were a bag of surprises.

As close as I felt to them growing up, I would have never imagined that as a 30-something, I’d be lucky enough to still have regular, lengthy, important, and grounded conversations with my now 93 year old grandmother.

Tonight on my trek home from Kentucky, I chatted with her for more than an hour, and as usual, we covered recent news in about ten minutes, and then launched into the good stuff—old stories from a time I can only stretch my mind to imagine as I hear the age in her voice, her childlike laughter over old valentines she found from 1915, and the jagged cracks of emotion when she retold something about grandpa.

I sometimes feel guilty for moving away, because I only visit a couple of times a year, and there’s never enough time in a dinner or evening with her. But the truth is, it was the moving away that instigated the phone chats, and I imagine we talk a lot more than we would if she was right under my nose. It’s easy to say I’d visit all the time, and maybe I would, but I wouldn’t trade anything for those long distance calls.

I made a laundry list of questions that I want to know about her younger years, her marriage to grandpa, her perspective of the egg business, etc. and asked her tonight if we could “schedule” some interview time. It’s selfish, really…I want to capture as much of her spirit as I can; I lost this chance already with grandpa and don’t want to squander the present with her. So her interview begins this weekend (especially if she’s snowed in–I’ll have a captive audience!) 🙂

At work last week, the trainees were asked to think about our motivation–why we want to be successful, and what our goals are. When thinking about what motivates and inspires me, I saw her face in my mind and remembered her voice on the phone a couple years ago when I was telling her about my master’s degree. She told me she was proud of me for working so hard–and that’s a moment I’ll never forget.

I can’t wait to start her interview, as I know it’s more time I get to hear the great stories of our family; more importantly, it’ll be a document that can outwit time.

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Getting Away: Coming Home

After months of anticipation, last week was finally cruise time, NCL Getaway style.  When it comes to vacations, my husband and I are like small children–“Is it time yet? Are we there yet? It’s not over yet, is it?”  We plan and scheme and anticipate with reckless abandon.

Actually, Nicholas does all the planning: he makes dinner and show reservations for each night, chooses and books the excursions in port, coordinates the travel documents…you get the idea. 

My planning contribution shakes out a little differently. I plan outfits.  Three costume changes a day is quite a packing commitment, especially when there are shoes, handbags, jewelry, hair-flowers, hats, and sparkly eye shadows to consider.  I take this task seriously, and spend excessive amounts of time making lists, and then piles, of all my vacation necessities.

We flew out of Atlanta on a Friday morning, were saddled up next to the Westin pool in Miami by 1pm, and shamelessly blared Bob Marley on our new “Beats” system. Instead of the 2-day mental disconnect process that usually ensues, we were distressed and disconnected from anything unpleasant by the time we ordered our burratta and wood-fired pizza for dinner.  The following morning we embarked on the Norwegian Getaway, headed straight to the pool for the “Sail Away” party and settled in for our 7 days of cruising bliss through the Eastern Caribbean.

To say that we aren’t “go-getters” on vacation is the understatement of the century.  We don’t hike, we certainly don’t jog unless we’re being chased, and while activities like scuba always seem like a good idea, we’ve come to decide that it’s actually much too strenuous for our good time.  We opt for pool/beach leisure, good food, cocktails, and sunscreen.  Rinse and repeat for 7 days with a show here and there, and a bit of night time Craps in the casino. That, my friends, is how we roll.

The down side to all of this vacation chatter is the inevitable dread that settles in about day 4 or 5, when we realize that we’re past the half way point, and have more dirty clothes on the floor than we have clean in the closet.  At this point, I’m done trying to keep our little cabin space picked up, and instead start making piles of dismembered outfits that must be repacked soon.  This is about the time that we start to discuss our next vacation—where, when, and with whom, just to distract us from the ticking clock.  We’re infamous for actually booking our next vacation on the flight/drive home in order to curb the certain depression the strikes upon our return.

Our vacation last week was fantastic, but the difference in the norm was that we didn’t dread the end; we instead said multiple times how long the trip felt (in a good way) and were actually excited to get back home.  It makes a difference when we talk about “going home” and genuinely refer to the house we live in as “home” and Atlanta as “our city.”  I’ve always prescribed to the idea that “home is wherever I’m with you” (insert Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Heroes) but home has never felt so good as it does now in Atlanta.

This is all to say, my ship has come in.  As thankful as I am for an amazing cruise, I’m even more grateful for the contentment of “welcome home.”

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