The guitar teacher who made a difference.

Yesterday I had a rare moment of clarity.  Time slowed down and the audible buzz that seems to accompany all of my movements silenced itself.  I could almost feel a repetitive warning, saying this is important, pay attention!  This is important, pay attention! pounding in my chest.

After an unusually hectic Sunday morning, I arrived just in the nick of time to my daughter’s end-of-the-semester guitar recital.  We do this twice a year and always look forward to it, but this one was special because it was Emma’s last at her current school – she’ll be off to high school in the fall.  I watched thirty minutes of tiny Kindergarten bodies barely able to hold their guitars and marked the passing of time by noticing that the fifth graders were getting really confident and attempting more challenging pieces.  I’ve enjoyed seeing the same faces on stage and in the audience semester after semester.

Before I knew it, it was Emma’s turn, and her teacher made a little speech before she played.  This is when the moment happened.  Patrick is a quiet, unassuming and gentle man who’s never flustered.  While he was introducing Emma, he fought back tears, covered it by strumming his guitar for a few seconds, and then they moved into her song.

After her performance, she sat down next to me, let her own tears flow and whispered, “I had no idea it was going to be like that.  I will miss him so much.”

I just sat there stunned.

When Emma was in the first grade she wanted to learn how to play the guitar, but I insisted she learn the piano.  She has long fingers seemingly made to span the keys, and the truth is that I had always regretted quitting piano lessons myself.  I quoted a random recommendation I had read that said all musicians needed to start on the piano because it offered a basic knowledge that could then be applied to other instruments.  I told her she had to take piano for at least two years.  Emma obediently agreed, and off she went each week to a group lesson and eventually to her own private lesson.  She did well, but was never passionate about it.  When the time came to sign up for the third year, she reminded me of our deal.  “You’re quitting?”  I asked in astonishment.  “No, I am not quitting, I am goal oriented, and taking guitar lessons has always been the goal.  Piano was just a way to get there,” the nine-year-old responded.

Through a referral, we found Mr. Patrick Francis to teach her, and he told me how to buy the cheapest, smallest guitar.  For the first two years, Emma wanted her younger brother and me in the room with her and Mr. Francis.  We’d color, read books and listen in.

Emma has always been a tightly wound achiever-perfectionist sort of person.  Mostly, the world has acknowledged that by setting the bar just a little bit higher than she can reach.  It feels like well-meaning teachers and coaches are often pushing her to do and be more.  I see what they see.  She is a creature humming with potential, and they think if they just light the fire hotter, or wring one more accomplishment out of her, they will have harnessed it all.  It’s really hard to be that kid, the kid everyone thinks can do anything and smile while she’s doing it.

Mr. Francis took a different approach with her from the beginning.  Guitar lessons were her time to relax and explore her passion.  They’d listen to Beatles songs on his iPod and then he’d teach her how to strum along.  When she was in fourth grade she wanted to learn Dani California, but she didn’t have the confidence to sing along at her recital, so Patrick sang the song while she strummed.


During a particularly stressful time last year, she asked him if she could skip the recital.  For weeks she had been worrying about and dreading it.  “Of course you can skip it,” he assured her, and they resumed their weekly practices.  She never felt she had let him down, or that she hadn’t met an expectation.  Patrick’s just that way.  He rolls with it, and lets her take the lead.

Patrick moved to Asia for about a year and Emma tried two other guitar teachers.  David lasted a few months, and Randy lasted a few weeks, and then she took a hiatus from the instrument.  It sat, mostly untouched, in her room and I didn’t mention it.  When we received an email from Patrick that he, his wife and new baby were returning to San Francisco and he’d be teaching again if she wanted to continue, Emma’s face was bathed in excitement.

They picked up like they had never been apart.

I’ve been right there watching this relationship, this education and this growth in her, but I never really saw it until yesterday.  In a flash, I saw how this man’s influence had offered my daughter a chance to become more of herself.  He was able to stop the achievement train in her childhood for just thirty minutes a week.  Where other instructors may have been able to squeeze another effort or accomplishment from her, Patrick was able to quietly grow her confidence in herself and her love for the guitar.

In my stunned moment, I saw it all.  I saw the fragile-yet-determined little girl lug her guitar into his classroom and sit silently while he tried to figure out what kind of music would spark her interest, and I saw the confident fourteen-year-old comfortably gushing to him about her new favorite band.

But mostly, I saw that where my role ended as a mother, I had been lucky enough to find another adult who agreed to lead my child.  She needs more than I can give her, and not just because I can’t teach her guitar.  On the list of forty developmental assets for adolescence, number three reads:  Other Adult Relationships | Young person receives support from three or more nonparent adults.  She needs to see herself reflected from many angles in order to know and discover who she is and decide who she wants to be.  In our modern lives filled with busyness, and with family scattered around the country, finding healthy relationships with those “three or more nonparent adults” is tricky to say the least.  As I saw Emma and Patrick standing there together, my heart leaked a little.  So much is ending for her right now, and so much new is just around the corner.  Gratitude was oozing from my soul that Patrick had been a part of what had brought her this far.

I don’t know where Emma will be in ten years, or whether she’ll still love the guitar as much as she does now.  It doesn’t really matter.  No matter how she turns out, I’ll have some other adults to thank for helping her get there, and Mr. Francis heads the list.

A few weeks ago she brought her iPhone to her lesson and played Patrick songs from her new favorite band.  He hadn’t heard of One Direction, but they chose a song for the recital.  Below is the video of their final performance.  To Patrick:  Thank you for investing so much quiet and intentional energy into Emma.  Your patience and gentleness were just what she needed to flourish.  I hope that people somewhere someday pour bits of themselves into your baby boy.  Perhaps then you will know how deeply we appreciate you and what a difference you’ve made. 

Grasping Ash Wednesday

I asked my twelve-year-old son at dinner last night to explain to me his grasp of the meaning of Ash Wednesday and Lent.  It took him a while to stop asking if he was “right,” and just relax into explaining his understanding of it.

On Ash Wednesday we take the ashes from the burned palms from last year and wear them on our forehead.  We spend forty days fasting from something that is bad for us because Jesus spent forty days in the wilderness.

I quickly texted some friends and asked them to ask their children.  I was guessing that if I wanted to understand the tradition, I needed to ask the next generation of participants, those who embrace it with hearts wide open.

The ashes are from the palms from last year’s Palm Sunday, and we put them on our head on the first day of lent to remind us that we came from dust.

To me, Lent is a time of preparedness as we prepare to remember the death of Jesus.

We also think about all Jesus has done for us, so we fast and give up things we love in the name of Jesus Christ.

Lent is the time where you get to focus on your spirituality and God, by listening and learning about Jesus’ suffering. If I give up Internet time or junk food I want to do so not just to say “I gave this up” but because I’m inspired to prepare for Easter and better appreciate His suffering not mine.

When I was growing up I heard nothing about Lent or Ash Wednesday and our church didn’t follow the centuries old liturgical calendar. I didn’t know any Catholics except my great-grandmother and she was housebound, so I didn’t witness her religious rituals. Now I understand that many Christian traditions follow the Church calendar.  In fact, my own church will be holding an Ash Wednesday service this evening, and one of my favorite Pastors posted a beautiful piece about the day and its meaning.

But my first encounter with Ash Wednesday came only eight years ago.  I was scheduled to speak at an elementary school on the topic of “Passing on Faith to your Children.”  A large group of mothers showed up, and just across the hall from our meeting room was a chapel where many of their sons would be celebrating a service for Ash Wednesday a little while after our own meeting had begun.  After a few minutes of warm up, I dove into my notes about the ultimate importance of modeling and connecting with our children with whatever faith we held.  As I spoke of the value our children receive from watching us, most of those moms flew out of their chairs and raced across the hall to join their boys in receiving ashes.  It was affirming to know that my words had inspired them, but I learned about double checking dates and conflicts before organizing an event like that!

Today, I have loads of friends who participate in Lent and for a few years I watched from afar.  We moved our lunch dates around so we they wouldn’t be tempted by a chicken burrito on Fridays and I supported their chocolate fasts.

Two years ago I began writing spiritual reflections on Scriptural passages as they were calendared in the Catholic Church liturgical calendar.  I learned that every day of the year all Catholic priests speak from the same set of scriptures. Each week I would read the passage designated for a particular Sunday and attempt to write a thoughtful response.  By living inside this organized rhythm of Scripture, I began to see how the cycle of the yearly calendar led me through many important stories and passages to see the Bible for what it can be: a narrative of God’s love for us.

In my role, I wrote only about the specific Gospel readings (ya know, the Scriptures that come from Matthew, Mark, Luke and John and mostly tell stories about the life of Jesus), but there are actually four or five scriptures combined for each day that always include an Old Testament passage, a Psalm as well as something from the Epistles.  If a person attends Mass every day for three years straight she will likely hear a sermon from every piece of the Bible.  And if a person wanted to organize herself for daily reading, she could click here.

If you attend Catholic mass (or any other denomination that follows the liturgical reading schedule) on Sundays during Lent you will hear two familiar stories: Jesus fasting in the desert and winning the fight with temptation, and Jesus taking Peter, James and John up to the mountain top.  I wrote about those stories during Lent last year, and appreciate that the calendar has circled us back to them. This year you’ll also hear about Jesus cleansing the Temple, the famous John 3:16 that you’ve seen on posters at football games, the Kingdom principle of giving up your own life for Jesus and gaining it back, and finally on Palm Sunday you’ll hear about the woman with the alabaster box.  Temptation, Ecstasy, Righteous Anger, Love, Self-denial, and finally, Humility.  Seriously, the 2012 Lenten season is packed with good stuff!

Last year about this time, I was deep in pain in my mama’s heart. I was alienating people around me with my constant worry and stress and I was beginning to feel crazy.  I couldn’t sleep well and I certainly wasn’t thinking clearly.  Along came Ash Wednesday and I decided to participate.  I gave up worry and tried to replace it with trust.  It was the single biggest game changer of my 2011, although one friend encouraged me to pick something easier for my first try, like chewing gum.  Every time my stomach began to roll and the obsessive thoughts entered, I had a reason to ignore them.  I would close my eyes and take a deep breath and imagine trust flowing in through my nostrils and down into my lungs and flowing to every part of my body, pushing out the stress.  There simply was no room left for it.

So perhaps my son was right that Lent is about giving up something bad for us.  Or maybe the other kid is right that we must give up something we love.

I am reminded of the story of the blind men touching an elephant and trying to describe what it looks like.  Each was feeling a different part – the smooth tusk, the wrinkled skin, the rough and sharp toenail.  Each was right, but none was grasping the whole picture.

Maybe the whole picture is too big to see.  Perhaps some years I need to learn that in the end I am nothing but dust and other years I need to know that my celebrations from last year will end in ashes this year.  Sometimes I need to fast in a way that pains me and other times I need to fast in a way that saves me.  Some years it’s a stretch for me to get over my petty self and connect with His suffering.

But each year, I probably could use the forty-day reminder that redemption is on the horizon. Resurrection is bigger than differences in tradition, worries in my heart, grasps of understanding, chocolate and chewing gum.  Alleluia, He is Risen will ring in my ears soon.

Valentine’s Day: Whatev….

If I write one more blog post about marriage or love I think even  I  will throw up in my own mouth a little bit.  Seriously, enough already! It gets to be nauseating listening to someone pontificate about love.  But, tomorrow is Valentine’s day, so I think I have one more gushy post in me and then I promise I will stop.

Am planning to spend VD with a bestie girlfriend and my favorite son.  We’re going to cook, chat and have a great time.  I’ll miss my husband a teensy bit, but no more than I would on any given Tuesday night.  He’s not the grand gesture kind of guy, he’s more the I-love-you-today-and-I’ll-love-you-again-the-same-amount-and-with-the-same-devotion-and-stability-tomorrow type.  He’s definitely the kind you marry.

This week I came across an essay I wrote a while ago about love.  At the time, I was working on a book idea that explored each month of the year through the eyes of a spiritual seeker-mother-wife-modern woman.  Some day I may gather up all those months and do something with them, but for today, in honor of Valentine’s Day and as a tribute to my dear stable man, I offer you “February.”


February is the month that always shines bright red in my mind.  Surely this must be because I’ve had years of Hallmark marketing overloading me with images of cupids, shiny doily hearts, red roses and chocolate boxes tied with a red bow.  But in my mind, each month brings a new color and February is definitely all painted in red.

The subject of February might seem obvious, it’s Love.  Right now I am humming that popular Michael Bolton song Love is a wonderful thing. This song was released when I was eighteen years old and in the throes of discovering what love can be.  The song says, well, obviously that it’s a wonderful thing, but also that it will make ya smile through the pouring rain, Turn your world into one sweet dream, and finally it promises that it will take your heart and make it sing.

It’s raining as I type and I can hear the drops pounding above me on the skylight and at least for this morning, I am very sick of the rain this season.  It seems like it has appeared too often, stayed too long, and given us all cabin fever.  I am still smiling, however.  Is it love that is making me smile through the pouring rain?

In February falls a holiday that has caused way more grief for men and women than it has ever helped: The dreaded Valentine’s Day.  I remember some doozies from my dating days, particularly from teenage years.

One boy bought me a white fluffy teddy bear, which I pretended to find thrilling and then I heard his father whisper to him, “See I told you she’d like it; they all love teddy bears.” But inside I wanted to scream But I am not five years old! Another boyfriend and I had a very intellectual discussion about Valentine’s Day and I shared my thoughts that couples should find ways to make each other feel loved and special regardless of the date. I told him that I found Valentine’s Day to be a pitiful excuse to lavish material things onto a relationship and call it cared for. I told him about an older couple I knew who had been married for thirty years who ignored Valentine’s Day altogether and instead had a little basket in their bedroom where they would each place gifts for the other.  They upheld this ritual just here and there throughout the year.  She baked shortbread cookies for him and put them in there; he purchased her new sewing scissors and she was excited.  My boyfriend agreed with the philosophy and therefore did nothing on the big day, and of course…. I was crushed.

Finally, one of my favorite boyfriends, a real sweetie… [to keep reading about love, click here…

Tough Love? None for me, thanks…

I spent some time this weekend with a dear friend and mentor.  Although he’s current on all parenting and educational research and trends, sometimes he seems to come from a different era.  While the rest of us are helicoptering and s-mothering, he’s relaxed about kids and has great faith in their future.  He constantly tells me not to worry and to take the long view with my own kids.

A few years ago, he and I were at the park with a pack of kids.  Two of them went exploring and were gone too long. I was trying to play it cool with him and disguise my rising panic, but I knew we were in real trouble when he turned to me and calmly said, “Seems like it’s time to call the police.”  When the most Zen dad around is worried, fear has already entered every cell of my body.  The police did come that day and an organic search party began to help us look.  Of course, within minutes those two prepubescent girls strolled in chitchatting and gesturing with each other, engrossed in their own stories with no awareness of my alarm.

Although he reacted that day, most of the time he doesn’t.  I call him crying about this or that and with as much respect and listening as he can muster, he gently blows me off. I am not throwing him under the bus!  He is a rare gift in that he offers empathy without joining in with my neurotic fear.

Last week, I confessed to readers that listening is not my strongest gift and I prefer to fix.  Pressing the publish button on that post appears to have unleashed an intention into the universe. My listening and not fixing pledge has been tested almost every day since, and I think I failed most of the opportunities. But these chances to practice have been great.  Here is what I’ve learned:

1) I don’t like suffering. 2) I see no upside to it. 3) If we’re honest, most of us deal with a large dose of it.

When I am exposed to another’s pain, I cannot always imagine the healing that will eventually come.  I feel the hurt right in the moment and it crushes me.  As I get better at the not fixing part, I want to stay good at the emphasizing and comforting. I struggle to embrace my friend’s casual approach to heartache, struggles, and pain and see them all as part of the process of growing up, building character and becoming stronger.  Although this notion helps me gain perspective, something about it doesn’t ring absolutely true.

This week I read Renee Alston’s memoir, Stumbling toward Faith.  Although her story offers some redemption, it’s mostly a story of great pain and loss. What she faced didn’t, in fact, make her stronger.  It just broke her.

I recently discovered my new favorite blogger, Glennon, who writes mostly about parenting and sometimes about recovery.    I had a little Aha! moment when I read her bio: My best guess is that I was born a little broken, with an extra dose of sensitivity. Growing up, I felt like I was missing the armor I needed to expose myself to life’s risks – rejection, friendship, tender love.

Growing up with an extra dose of sensitivity pretty much describes me. I could be wrong, and maybe the ultimate story of my life will prove different, but I don’t believe I gained much from pain. I think back on the adults who were around and served as positive guides along my path – professors, youth pastors, parents, grandparents, neighbors, aunts.  Guess what?  Every single person on my list was someone who was gentle, nurturing and kind to me.  No dogmatic, demanding teachers or anyone who made me work for their approval make my list. Only people who provided a safe, grace-filled space for me to feel loved ever motivated me on to greater heights.

When I hear coaches yelling at kids, teachers pitting kids against each other, parents criticizing B+ grades, husbands belittling wives at cocktail parties, or girlfriends competing with or betraying each other, I just cover my aching heart.  I never think, Oh goodie, this will make them stronger.

I know there is more than one way to skin a cat, so I am guessing that others are motivated by pain. And although I can agree that I have sometimes learned lessons from tough times, I think the place where growth-during-difficulty happened for me was in the space where loving people were holding me up.

So, that’s what I am going to keep offering in the face of unfair, mind-blowing difficulty.  Come to me for some old fashioned TLC, baby!

And while I am doing all that hugging and nurturing, I will also try to emulate my friend.  I will attempt to take the long view more often with my own children, keep the panic at bay and put more faith and trust in the God who holds them in the palm of His hand.