Choose to be Teachers and Students

My daughter and son-in-law asked me to speak at their wedding. I was honored but also hesitant–what could I, of all people in their lives, say about marriage? The only thing I know without a doubt. With their permission, here’s my speech:

As we gather to celebrate your journey together, I want to share with you a little wisdom I’ve acquired along the way. After 15 years in education, I’ve realized a very important fact: We never stop being students. As a matter of fact, even without an education degree, we are all teachers as well.

This concept applies perfectly to our relationships. Every thought, word, and action speaks volumes for those willing to listen, watch, and engage. If we choose to be diligent observers of the people in our lives, we learn the important aspects of who they are. But as much as people observe us, they can’t know everything about us, unless we teach them. We must not be afraid to share the inner workings of our hearts with those we love and trust.

Therefore, Nicole and Tripp, you must choose to be teachers and students of each other.

As much as you think you know the person standing in front of you, there is always something to learn about each other. You must be willing to teach the other what makes you happy, angry, or sad; you must be willing to learn how to ease each other’s burdens and how and when to give each other space.

I know from watching the two of you together, that you have already learned much about each other and are not afraid to teach each other about your needs.

But as time goes on, each of you will change and grow—sometimes together; sometimes apart. But if you make the commitment to always be a student and a teacher, you will learn about the changes and teach each other who you are becoming. You will learn to give each other space and comfort when you each need it because you will teach each other when and how. Just as teachers can’t expect students to know what they have not been taught, you can’t expect the other to know how to meet your needs.

Teach each other with patience and love. Engage with each new stage with diligence and passion. Be dedicated students of each other and your relationship.

Just as you have chosen to marry each other today, Nicole and Tripp, may you choose to be teachers and students for the rest of your lives.

Blessing 27: Nelson

Ian, David, Rob, Nelson, and Mike in August for Rob's wedding.
Ian, David, Rob, Nelson, and Mike in August for Rob’s wedding.

My father-in-law, Nelson Hawkins, was a blessing in my life for so many reasons.

Even during the last few years, things between us didn’t change. Nelson continued to send me Mother’s Day cards, birthday cards, and Christmas presents–something no one would have expected him to do–yet he never stopped treating me like a daughter-in-law, and that was such a blessing. That was just his way; Nelson was always thoughtful with the people in his life.

As much as Nelson’s unconditional love for me blessed my life, the biggest blessing was in the example he left all of us, especially these last few years. Nelson truly showed us how to live.

After his heart attack a few years ago, most people would have slowed down and settled into a comfortable, sedentary life–but not Nelson.

This year alone, at 76 years old, Nelson went to Pasadena, CA for the Rose Parade and Charlotte, NC to drive the track and go to the NASCAR Hall of Fame. About once a month Nelson went to Nashvilles (a country bar in Henrietta) to dance the night away. He was a member of the Broadway Theatre League and went to a play every 2 or 3 months. Every month, he traveled somewhere for a concert; most recently he went to Buffalo, Canandaigua, and Long Island. And of course, Nelson was in Homestead, Florida for a NASCAR race when he died. Meeting Jeff Gordon was on Nelson’s Bucket List and he was one day away from watching his NASCAR hero race again.

But that’s not all. Nelson had a full schedule for 2016: Daytona 500 in February; Kissimmee, FL in April with his sister Joyce; Buffalo in May for a Carrie Underwood concert; and Watkins Glen for a NASCAR weekend in August of 2016. It makes me sad that he won’t get to do all the things he planned, but it makes me happy that he was living his life and doing what made him happy.

Nelson’s life embodied this poem:

This is your life.

Do what you love, and do it often.

If you don’t like something, change it.

If you don’t like your job, quit.

Stop over analyzing; life is simple.

All emotions are beautiful.

When you eat, appreciate every, last bite.

Open your mind, arms, and heart to new things and people;

we are united in our differences.

Travel often; getting lost will help you find yourself.

Some opportunities only come once; seize them.

Life is short.

Live your dream.

Nelson lived his dream; he taught us that every moment of our lives is worth living. Nelson didn’t sit around, waiting for his life to end; he died living.

Legacy of Love

Mother’s Day 2014

It’s hard to believe that I’m at the half-century mark in my life. As the years pass, I can’t help but reflect on my life and the people who have shaped me and the people I have shaped. As a woman, I have been blessed by loving women in my life. That love came at a cost: My grandmother and mother went through painful situations, yet they survived with more love to give, not less. The best legacy they gave me was the legacy of love. As a mother, I hope to do the same for my daughters. On Mother’s Day this year, I wanted to honor the beautiful women who have showered me with love.

Here is my legacy of love:

Baba Vicky

Baba and Dedo with me and my brothersBaba Vicky was the strongest, sweetest, smartest person I have ever met. I praised her often, but she was too humble to accept my praise, especially when I praised her intelligence. I remember one time, after a deep conversation about life, I told her:

“Baba, you have so much wisdom. What would I do without you?”

“I try my best . . . but how can you say that? I have broken english . . . I can’t read or write . . . I’m dumb . . .” and then she shook her head in disbelief.

I corrected her: “Baba, don’t ever say that! What you know about life, about people, could fill a book. I have learned so much from you.”

She chuckled, and then grabbed my hand and gave it a squeeze. She always had the softest hands. “You make me feel good,” she said.

“You make me feel good, too,” I said back. After a brief moment of silence, we fell back into our conversation.

She always gave me the best advice. When I talked to her about someone who had hurt me, she told me:

“If you want to be forgiven for the mistakes you’ve made, you have to learn to forgive others. We all need forgiveness at some point in our lives.”

I’ve tried to honor that advice, but it’s sometimes harder than it sounds.

When I told her I hoped to have a marriage like hers and Dedo Gus’s someday, she told me:

“If you want to have a good marriage, love him the way you want to be loved, and do what makes you happy. That’s how he will learn how to love you and make you happy.”

She had so much wisdom.

Baba Vicky’s wisdom had humble beginnings. Velika Popovski (Kordovich) was born on March 12, 1921 in Bukovo, a small village outside Bitola, Macedonia, a former Republic of Yugoslavia. She was one of eleven children, but only five of the eleven survived to adulthood. They had a small plot of land with a few animals. Baba Vicky worked hard with her hands all her life: She took care of her siblings, worked the land during planting and harvesting seasons, and cooked and cleaned for her family. Wherever she was needed, she did her job well. She completed a 4th grade education in a one-room schoolhouse because that’s all that was available to girls in the small village.

Her life changed, she would tell me with a smile on her face, the day Kosta Kordovich (Dedo Gus) came back from America. Everyone knew he was looking for a wife to take to America with him. During the mid to late 1930s, it was customary for the young Macedonian men to go to America, make their fortunes doing the jobs that many Americans refused to do, and then come back to their villages to find a suitable wife. For women, these men were their only ticket out of their laborious lives.

Velika didn’t bother trying to get Kosta’s attention like all the other eligible girls. She felt she was too plain and too poor to get the desirable Kosta’s attention. Her distance may have been what grabbed his attention in the first place, but Dedo Gus told me, “I know quality when I see it.”

After just a few days, Kosta knew that Velika was the woman he wanted to marry. His family was very upset. They felt that she was too plain and too poor for their son, especially when he had his pick of any girl he wanted. He refused to listen to their complaints, and Velika and Kosta were married on November 13, 1938.

Baba Vicky moved out of her parent’s home and moved in with Dedo Gus and his family. She knew they didn’t approve of her, but Baba Vicky was comforted in knowing that Dedo Gus loved her. His love helped her to hold her head high.

Shortly after they were married, Baba Vicky became pregnant. She earned the respect of her new family by working hard and not complaining. In August of 1939, Dedo Gus was told he had to leave Bukovo without Baba Vicky because of the turmoil in Europe. Her paperwork wasn’t ready, and WWII was imminent. Dedo Gus had earned his American citizenship, and if he did not leave Yugoslavia at that time, he would lose his citizenship.

Dedo Gus left on September 3, 1939, and Baba Vicky gave birth to Ana, my mother, on September 4, 1939. Baba Vicky and her mother-in-law comforted each other, and my great-grandmother depended on and loved Baba Vicky as if she had been her own daughter. The two women formed a strong bond. Baba Vicky was heartbroken that her husband had to leave, but it did not break her. She stayed strong for her daughter. As time went on, her in-laws looked to Baba Vicky for strength and guidance.

Six years had passed without a word from Dedo Gus. Everyone told Baba Vicky that Dedo Gus had forgotten about her and probably found another woman in America. She refused to believe the rumors. She refused to leave his family. After years of waiting and never giving up hope, she finally received all the letters he had sent her over that six-year period. The war had stopped all mail for a number of years, and then sorting out the backed-up mail took another few years. My grandmother’s heart soared; Dedo Gus was alive and well, and waiting for her to join him in America. It took another six years for the government paperwork to come through. In the meantime, Dedo Gus sent goods from America to his wife and daughter. They went from being pitied to envied in a few short months.

They eventually received visas and gained passage to America in 1951. Baba Vicky was excited to see her husband, and happy that her daughter would finally meet her father; but she was also scared. Twelve years was a long time. What if he had changed? What if he didn’t love her anymore? She also was not naïve enough to think he had been faithful to their marriage that whole time. She had no idea how she was going to face what awaited her in America, so she faced it head on, putting everything that happened in the past where it belonged.

I am blessed to have Baba Vicky as the matriarch of my family. Her story illustrates her strength and courage that made her the woman I came to know and love. I am thankful that she shared her stories with me and gave me advice that still rings true today. But more than that, I am indebted to her for the examples of love she left me. These are the prominent memories of my beloved matriarch, memories that revealed deeper truths than even her wonderful advice:

She put love in every meal she made. That’s what made it taste so good.

She always did her best job. She had pride in her abilities, so it didn’t matter what anyone else thought of her, which made everyone love her more.

She made everyone feel important, a special kind of love.

She laughed at herself often; she knew life was too short to take herself too seriously. That is how she loved herself.

She smiled every chance she could, bringing joy to those around her.

When she loved someone, she held his or her hand for as long as she could. That’s why she kept her hands so soft.

My grandmother, Baba Vicky, was an amazing woman. I miss her so much. She died in 2008, but her mind left her a few years before that. During the last few years of her life, she didn’t remember much. She could recall things from her youth, but she didn’t remember who I was most of the time. I like to believe that during those last moments of her life, as we stood around her bed, God gave her back her memories, so she could see how much we all loved her. I placed my hand in her soft, now frail hand, and even in her weakened state, I felt a tiny squeeze before she took her last breath.

Baba Vicky’s legacy of love is filled with courageous decisions and love in its purest form.

 Ana

Outside the movie theaterMy mother’s love has also shaped my world. Even when it doesn’t make a lot of sense to give, she gives to loved ones without batting an eye. I attribute this to her tender heart; however, one does not become tender without a lot of pain.

Ana Kordovich (Galovski) was born in Bukovo on September 4th, 1939. The day before her birth her father was called back to America because of the turmoil in Europe. This led to a 12-year separation that tormented my mother’s heart.

During those war years, everyone suffered, but young Ana had unique pain that stemmed from a fatherless childhood. One of my mother’s significant memories was when she and my grandmother had to escape an Italian invasion by quietly walking through an ice-cold river up the mountain; the other young children had fathers to carry them. Another painful memory is the way village children taunted her with vulgar names because Ana didn’t have her father present. These experiences left a permanent scar.

She and my grandmother were finally able to get government approval to join my grandfather in America right before Ana’s teen years began. Ana’s first encounter with her father was filled with wordless tears and tight embraces. Even years later, when I asked my mother and grandfather about the day they met, they could only respond with tears; no words could express the love rushing into the void.

Ana struggled with learning English at first, but quickly caught up and earned high grades in school. In her twenties, Ana met and fell in love with an incredibly handsome man; Ana and Jovan married before she truly knew what she was getting into. As handsome as he was, my father had a darkness in him that equaled his looks.

It wasn’t until I became an adult and heard these stories that I was able to understand how incredible my mother truly is. With all this pain in her past, how did she not become bitter? Once I became a wife and mother, I better understood my mother’s heart.

When I was younger, my mother’s high-spirited yells used to embarrass me at my brother’s soccer games: One time a referee actually threw a whistle at her, telling my mother to do a better job. About eight years ago, a volleyball referee almost threw me out of a game for yelling at him about a ridiculous call against my daughter. Now, I know that my mother’s love for her children forced her immediate defense of their being wronged, no matter where she was, no matter who it was.

In my teenage years, I judged her for staying with my father for so long: He was abusive, an alcoholic, and a gambler. I wondered how she could be so weak. Now, I understand her choices had more to do with her love for a man who could be kind and gentle and charming most of the time; more to do with her love for her children and the fear of their growing up without a father in their lives–a pain she knew too well; more to do with the hope that my father would become the husband and father in our lives that she so longed for. She refused to give up on him, not out of weakness, but out of love and compassion and hope. Like my mother, I believe in the vows I made, promising to love, honor, and cherish, in good times and bad.

When I went to college, I thought I was so much smarter than my mother and her high-school diploma. All I knew is that she worked for an insurance company. Later, I discovered that she started as a secretary, worked her way up to an account executive, and built up her own insurance book of business. Not only was she smart, but she had a strong work ethic, an understanding of personal relationships, a respect for individuals (not the size of their wallets), and a faithfulness to her word and the needs of her clients. The most amazing things she has been able to accomplish with her high-school degree are surviving a divorce (in 1979, divorce was not as common as it is today), raising three children on her own (all of whom went to college), pay off her house, bail her children out of financial set-backs, and still have enough to provide for her grandchildren.

My mother is a blessing not only to me, but also to so many people. She lovingly gives to others, even if they don’t deserve it. Because my mother loves with a tender heart, she gives grace, rather than justice.

My mother’s heart is larger than the average heart: It has the propensity to love deeper, give greater, and forgive fuller than any heart I have ever known. I am thankful to have been raised by such a woman; I am blessed by her legacy of love.

My Formative Years

My children :)I don’t regret my past. It made me who I am today: A compassionate woman who makes a positive impact in this world.

People are shocked when I say that after hearing about my less-than-ideal upbringing: My father was an abusive alcoholic; I was beaten many times during his drunken rages. Also, as a girl, I had less value in my European family than my brothers; when I was sixteen, I met a man who knew my father for ten years, and he remarked, “I knew John had two sons, but I never knew he had a daughter.”

I grew up as a shy girl with very little confidence in myself, which is very different from who I am today.

It wasn’t until college that I considered myself even somewhat attractive. I found it quite surprising when I received any attention from the opposite sex, but I liked it. What I also discovered is that college boys liked me a lot better when I’d been drinking. Unfortunately, it started a vicious cycle of drinking and falling in love with the wrong boys. I ended up binge-drinking and binge-chasing young men who only wanted me for one thing…that is until I met Dennis. Dennis and I went out on dates; I met his parents; I hung out with his friends; he thought I was beautiful. I was his girlfriend. He was my first legitimate relationship. I had never been so happy.

But then, we heavily celebrated my 21st birthday–I didn’t remember much. A few weeks later I discovered I was pregnant.

I was devastated when Dennis changed his mind about marrying me. I had to move in with my mother as I prepared to become a mother. I felt a scarlet letter burn my chest as some of my family members were so disgusted and embarrassed by me that they couldn’t look at me. The day I told my father was the first time I ever saw him cry. Thankfully, I had people who stood by me and supported my decision to keep my baby.

Those nine months slowly changed my life. As I felt my baby grow, I felt my confidence grow as well. I started thinking about the kind of woman I wanted to be for my child. Who I was at the time would not be good enough. I depended on the legacy of love I received from my grandmother and mother to become the mother I needed to be.

I transformed myself through their examples and the growing love in my body.

Nicole

Nicole is still a blessing!Nicole Marie Galovski was born on July 9th, 1987. I held her in my arms and fell instantly in love. She had big blue eyes and platinum blond hair. She seemed to respond instantly to my voice. I cried from pure joy, the first I had experienced in my life up to that point. Nicole was perfect, and I couldn’t understand how I could have anything to do with something so angelic.

The transition from me to us came with its challenges, but Nicole and I weathered them together. I continued to live with my mom, so I could provide a safe, loving environment for Nicole. Even though I had a college degree, I didn’t apply for any teaching jobs. I couldn’t imagine putting my baby in daycare, so I watched children out of my mother’s home during the day and worked in a restaurant at night and on the weekends when my mom was home to watch Nicole. I made plenty of mistakes, but I learned from them so I could be a better mother.

Even though those years were difficult and far from perfect, I wouldn’t change anything about them. Nicole changed my life for the better. Her presence in my life removed me from the downward spiral I was in. I hate to think about the life I would have led if it weren’t for Nicole. She became my reason for living, not just existing from one intoxicated state to another.

People have told me over the years how proud they are of me for not choosing abortion. I am extremely thankful for that decision as well. But the truth is Nicole saved my life. I was on a destructive path that only a miracle could alter; Nicole was that miracle. God gave me Nicole so I could get and stay on the right path. I’m nowhere near perfect, but I’m definitely closer to the person I need to be because of Nicole.

Nicole is a grown woman now. She is strong and confident and witty and beautiful–everything I wanted her to be because it was everything I wasn’t at her age. She lives two thousand miles away from me, but she still keeps me on the right path. A few years ago she wrote me a letter in response to a difficult situation I didn’t handle very well. Nicole lovingly pointed out my mistakes, and added, “you’ve told me everything I’ve been doing wrong for 24 years (and I hope will continue to do so), and that has helped me out more than anything else; it’s changed me for the better even if it made me mad initially.” Even during her admonishment, she praised me for the mother I had been in her life; even with the distance, we weathered this challenge together. I appreciated her perspective and her candor. She saw that I had stepped off my path and lovingly brought me back–again.

That letter marked the day our relationship changed: We now come together as two women who have an unbreakable bond, even though we don’t get to spend nearly enough time together. I am blessed to be her mother. With Nicole in my life, my legacy of love continued in her and through her as we taught each other unconditional love.

Carol Linn

10-2D4DEA04-51412-1280My understanding of love was challenged most deeply by one person: my second daughter Carol Linn. Our troubles began when she turned 12 and escalated to an explosive moment when she was 18. At that point, she left my home to venture out on her own. As painful as that was, it was absolutely necessary for the salvation of our relationship.

Before she moved to the other side of the country, I knew there were wonderful things about her; however, they were clouded by the rebellious teenager that challenged our relationship every breathing moment. I loved the woman she was becoming, but struggled with the child she still was. We needed distance. We needed clarity.

For me, it has finally come, but I’m not sure if Carol Linn has clarity yet. Does she know and understand how much I love her? If she doesn’t, I have confidence that someday she will. Why? Because she is who I was at 20. She is the child who fulfilled my mother’s curse: “I hope you have a daughter just like you someday, so you know how I feel.” I do understand now. I just hope it doesn’t take another 20 years for Carol Linn to love and appreciate me the way I love and appreciate my mother now.

Recently, I apologized to my mother for the pain I caused her as a teenager. However, I also thanked her for the blessing she thought was a curse. Carol Linn is and has been a blessing since the day she was born. Throughout my pregnancy, I prayed that she would be a girl; I was blessed when I held her in my arms for the first time. She was perfect in every way: She had a full head of black hair, perfect eyebrows, big brown eyes, and beautiful fingers and toes.

As she grew, she proved to be a mischievous child, always getting into and out of precarious situations. When Carol Linn was a year and a half she would climb out of her crib after I put her down for a nap and get stuck on the changing table. She would call for me to come rescue her. She seemed to know what she wanted but didn’t know what to do once she got there. She had such confidence in herself, even at this age.

She also had courage. After we said goodnight to the girls, Carol Linn would crawl out of bed, crawl into the playroom to get a toy, and crawl back into her bed, like a little ninja, without us ever knowing or hearing her in the adjoining room. In the morning she would have a bed full of Barbies.

I think it was this self-confidence and courage that allowed her to verbalize her anger. She was four years old the first time she told me she hated me. I had sent her to her room as a punishment for something. She wrote “I hat Mom” on the wall with a permanent marker. After we made up, she crossed out “hat” and put “luv” instead. As funny as that story is, it didn’t prepare me for the number of times I heard “I hate you!” during her teenage years. I didn’t believe that she meant it, but she was pretty convincing.

I know I made a lot of mistakes as her mother. That could be what led her to be indifferent towards me as her parent; she didn’t seem to need me in her life. I wanted her to depend on me, but she never did.

I got so caught up in her disobedience that I forgot the ultimate goal as a mother was to raise an independent woman. Carol Linn was independent already. Instead of realizing that, I battled with her; we despised each other. We hurt each other in ways that made it difficult to find our way back to each other. In February of her eighteenth year, I naïvely thought I would gladly say goodbye to her the day we brought her to the airport. Instead, I cried uncontrollably the whole time.

I didn’t want to lose my child; I just wanted the pain to end. When she left, the pain did vanish. None of the past year mattered anymore. But it was too late because I lost my child anyway.

Now, she has the freedom to choose her own destiny; freedom to live her own life, far away from me. She needed distance, so she could test her wings. As much as it still hurts to have lost my precious little girl, it needed to happen. I had to make room for a new relationship.

Carol Linn has been living with her sister Nicole for two years now, and I can truly say I love the woman she has become. I tried so hard to make her become someone she wasn’t that I missed out on the amazing person she already was. I wanted her to be me now, not the me I was at 18. I made so many mistakes at that age; I wanted her to learn from my experiences. Life doesn’t work that way though. She had to choose her own path, her own way, on her own terms, exactly how I did it.

With distance and time I think I have gleaned an understanding of Carol Linn’s frustrations. I tended to point out the differences between her and Nicole. I know how that felt. I could never measure up to my older brother. It made me angry. I’m sorry I did that to her.

All the time I spent being frustrated with Carol Linn stopped me from acknowledging her wonderful qualities: She is kind to people, and she forgives often, but protects her heart. She lends a hand to anyone who asks, even if it’s someone who has hurt her before. She loves to read and write. Her sense of humor is amazing. She catches on to things quicker than I ever do. She has great taste in music and movies. She also has an innate ability to see the beauty around her and to frame it through her camera. I am so impressed with her pictures.

While she was under my roof, it bothered me that Carol Linn hid her life from me. But now, I see the truth: I was jealous and insecure because I wasn’t part of her private life. I now understand what admirable qualities Carol Linn possesses: She can keep a secret; she keeps her private life private.

In addition to learning to appreciate all of her wonderful qualities, Carol Linn has taught me to let go of the things and people I have no control over, including the past. I wish I could take back those angry words I said so many years ago, but even Carol Linn would say, “Don’t have regrets, Mom. It will be okay. It’s in the past. Move forward.”

She has also taught me the true meaning of love. It’s easy to love someone who treats me well. But how do I love someone who challenges me and despises my opinions?

I just love her. That’s all. I love her because she is Carol Linn, that same beautiful human being I gave birth to. She doesn’t have to agree with me, think I’m the best mother ever, or believe that I made the right choices for my life. I just have to love her, love the woman she is.

As I sat in Nicole and Carol Linn’s apartment on a recent visit, I watched them take care of their home and each other. They have an obvious love for each other that only sisters can have: They share private jokes, knowing smiles, and comforting cuddles. They give each other the freedom to go their separate ways with the security of a family to come home to. In some ways, it was bittersweet for me: I know I didn’t always provide that type of home for them, but I’m thankful that despite my mistakes, my love provided them with enough guidance to create that security for themselves. Their love consoles me and fills me with joy.

Our legacy of love has been filled with challenges, but it’s those challenges that shaped us; it’s part of the love my grandmother and mother offered to me and what I offered to my daughters. And it’s that same love I see in them, and the love they give to me. None of us have lived perfect lives, but we have learned to love deeply in this imperfect world. I know that my daughters’ lives will be filled with love, wherever their paths take them, because they are endowed with this legacy.

You can judge me if you want to

You can judge me if you want to, but before you do, know that I primarily stayed in my marriage because of my son.

Ian has been through so much in his nine years: He battled a cancerous brain tumor at four-years-old with his father right by his side, giving Ian the strength and courage to fight. Ian has battled children (and some adults) calling him names because they just don’t understand why he is different. At school, as his brain slowly heals, Ian struggles to keep up with a curriculum that is moving too fast for him.

Add to that the tears and arguing that would fill our house during the past two and a half years. Even though he didn’t know the reason behind it, he knew something was wrong. Ian would beg me: “Mommy, please don’t get a divorce. That would make me really sad.” My heart crumbled. How could I add more sadness when I knew the truth would eventually cause him immeasurable pain?

So when you judge me for staying in this marriage, know that I couldn’t separate Ian from his father until the foreseeable future did it for us.

You can judge me for standing by my husband, but before you do, know that I took my vows seriously.

When I got married, I wanted it to be forever, through good times and bad. I envisioned growing old with him and weathering the inevitable storms of life together. I have forgiven much over the years because I was holding onto forever. When this came up, I merely forgave again.

You may think I’m a fool for believing in forever. You may think I’m pathetic for forgiving a man who admittedly wouldn’t have done the same if the roles were reversed. You may think that I have displayed weakness through and through.

Even though there were times I let your labels cling to me, and I felt like a weak, pathetic fool, the truth of the matter is that my choices came from strength and conviction: I wanted to do what was right by my son because of the love I have for Ian; I wanted to support a man whom everyone else abandoned, no matter how many times I wanted to run away. Staying was anything but easy. Staying challenged every moral fiber of my being. I had my moments of weakness, but, for the most part, I stayed the course, following the path of love, forgiveness, and compassion.

I knew by staying, some of you would think I was in on it, even though what he did went against every philosophy of life I have.

However, what I didn’t know is that some of you would turn your backs on me because of it–because you hated him for what he did; because it was easier to cut me out of your life than stand by me; because you didn’t want your names associated with mine in case people did to you what you are doing to me.

What I didn’t know is that some of you would turn your backs on Ian because of it–because you thought my sweet, innocent boy must be ruined because of the choices his father made; because you thought Ian must not be raised correctly in such a home as ours; because you didn’t want your children to be treated the way you are treating mine.

What I did know is that some of you would callously talk about Ian and me because it gave you something interesting to talk about–because it made you feel better about your own lives; because you’d rather talk about me than to me; because you didn’t want people adding your name to the gossip you shared about my life. That’s why I sheltered myself from your shallow presence.

All of this has just made me appreciate the few who did stand by me from the very beginning, without judgment, even more than I already did. I am truly blessed by those beautiful few and their unconditional love.

So you can judge me if you want to for making the choices I made; you can add more pain to our already difficult lives. I can’t stop you. But before you do, know that you are being judged by the same measure.

 

Blessing 24: David

I’ve been counting my blessings for over two years now; it has helped me get through some difficult circumstances. Every time I’ve felt pain beyond belief, I’ve tried to find the things in my life that make me smile—the things I’m thankful for—so I can move away from depression and towards joy. Some days it’s been harder than others to find those things, but counting my blessings has worked beautifully: I’ve been getting through these difficult days happy and productive.

However, of all of my blessings, I’ve been painfully aware that I haven’t counted my husband as a blessing yet. Why? Because he has been the source of most of my difficulties these last two years. I haven’t been ready to truly look at how he has blessed my life because I could only see the pain he has caused.

However, it’s time. It’s time to remind myself of all the good things he’s brought into my life, so I can get through these next few days…months…years.

The best blessings he has brought into my life are our children. Carol Linn and Ian are two of the most important people in my life. They have brought so much joy and love into my world that I wouldn’t be the same without them. Thank you, David, for our children.

David married me, a single mother, and provided a home and a family for me and Nicole. Regardless of some of the difficulties in all of our relationships, he took on that responsibility when others did not.

David has also brought laughter to my life. He is funny and quick-witted. Even through some dark times, his sense of humor has been a source of great laughter.

Through Ian’s cancer battle, Dave remained strong and helped me find my strength, so I could be the mother Ian needed. I would’ve been over protective of Ian if David had not been around. David taught me to trust Ian’s instincts, so that Ian could be the strong, courageous boy he is today.

As we have gone through the years together, I’ve learned a lot about love. I have a deeper understanding of what love is now. I know the kind of love I’m capable of giving and receiving–of what I will and will not accept in my life. I know we love each other, and I can accept and give that love, regardless of the limitations that we both have had throughout our marriage. I have also learned that in order to fully understand how to love another person, I have to love myself first: I have become my own best friend; I have learned to ask for the things I need. I can now recognize when someone isn’t showing me love because I wouldn’t treat myself that way.

Through our marriage, I have also learned that I can love and teach and guide those in my life, but I can never change people or make them follow a path they don’t choose for themselves. It has freed me up to love unconditionally: I don’t just love the people in my life who do what I say or what I think is right. I love and support people who matter in my life. This understanding has also helped me identify the people who only bring pain to my life. I can love them from a distance, pray that they find their own healing path, and let them go.

Through loving David, I have discovered that I was an enabler and how damaging that can be for all people involved.  Feeling sorry for someone and making excuses for his or her bad behavior only hurts everyone involved. It’s been a slow process, but I have stopped making excuses for other people and have called them out, when they needed it, which is a more loving response then making excuses for them.

Through David’s presence in my life, I have also learned some valuable lessons indirectly because I stayed by his side these past few years:

I’ve had to dig deep and find my true moral compass: What do I believe is right and wrong? I had to stop listening to what other people were telling me to think and feel, and I had to stop making decisions based on what others wanted me to do. I was so afraid of losing family and friends if I made the “wrong” decisions. I have learned to trust myself and my reasons for the choices I make, regardless of who thinks I’m being ridiculous or weak or taking the “easy way out.” I may not have made perfect decisions, but they were my decisions for my reasons. I won’t make excuses for them or care who believes I did the right thing. I have finally empowered myself–a choice I could not have made without David in my life.

I have learned that trying to understand a person, without enabling and without taking on his problems, is what makes the difference in life. Every person has a story–David is no exception. We all come from a place that is defined by what kind of love we have and have not received in life. I have realized that I don’t want to be a person who adds to someone else’s negative cycle, but I also don’t get angry or feel insecure when someone doesn’t show me kindness because I know it has nothing to do with me. I can understand and love a person without my self confidence being affected.

I have also learned that who I am and the choices I make have to come from within me, have to be anchored in my belief system. I cannot react to stimulus, like a small boat in the ocean being carried every which way by waves and currents. I started learning this lesson a long time ago, with my father: I needed to be the daughter I wanted to be, not the daughter I thought my father deserved. My choices can’t be a reaction to someone else’s behavior. I have to be the wife, mother, teacher, and woman I want to be, anchored by love. Retaliation and revenge are destructive behaviors. I want to understand, love, and build up people, regardless of their choices and behaviors.

Finally, I have learned that running away from pain is never an option. There were many days I wanted to run away, but I needed to see this thing through–for me, for Ian, for David. If I ran away from this pain, I know it would have come back to me in worse ways. I had to learn these lessons in order to become the woman and mother I need to be now for me and my children. I faced everything head on, and I would not have this new-found strength if I made any other choice. I know I did everything I could. I have no regrets.

Red Rocks 2011I have learned all these things because of David. The push and pull of our relationship has made me a stronger, more loving person. I don’t think I could have learned all these things any other way. Thank you, David, for blessing my life.

Blessing 23: Pain, the Great Teacher

God grant me the serenity 
to accept the things I cannot change; 
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.

It’s not surprising that the serenity prayer is used in conjunction with addiction healing. Addictions usually come from people trying to escape pain; however, addictions only keep people in painful situations. The serenity prayer helps people to look at their pain as a teacher, rather than as a punishment. Pain teaches us where our weaknesses, triggers, and insecurities are, where we need to grow and develop so we can be who we were created to be.

Emotional PainI won’t pretend that pain doesn’t still bring me to my knees. I cry; I feel the tightness in my chest and throat when someone hurts me. I get angry when something goes awry, regardless of cause. I’m sad when people I love are hurting. I feel shame when I screw up. I’m scared when I can’t control the things that happen in my life.

However, I don’t stop there. I feel all the emotions and then evaluate what I have done, can do, and will do because of those painful emotions. I own what belongs to me, seek the courage to change what I can, and let go of the rest.

I can’t tell you how many times in my life, especially the past four years, I’ve experienced an ache in my chest, tightness in my throat, and tears dangerously close to overflowing at a moment’s notice. But instead of being weakened by these things, they only made me stronger.

I have allowed myself to feel pain in all of its uncomfortableness: the fear of losing loved ones, the anger of being betrayed by people I’ve trusted, the ache of questioning my self-worth. I feel these things so I can fix what I can and forgive the rest. Just like a burn teaches us to stay away from fire, the fear of losing a child has taught me to love my children more deeply; trusting the wrong people has taught me to trust myself more; questioning my self-worth has taught me to be a person who makes a difference in this world.

I have known people who avoid pain their entire lives, at all costs. Instead of embracing life and all the joy and pain it has to offer, people avoid situations that may cause pain; therefore, limiting the amount of joy they can experience and give back to the world.

These people look at pain as their enemy, rather than their teacher. We see it all around us: People who self-medicate with all types of addictions–food, drugs, alcohol, TV, pornography, sex–anything rather than feel the pain.

What do they feel instead of pain? Mostly, anger. Some people would rather be furious than patch up the wound; they’d rather let the bitter infection slowly shrivel their hearts, than forgive, let go, and move on. They protect their hearts with what they think is an impenetrable wall; they pretend to be tough; they act like nothing gets to them. However, that wall also hinders them from experiencing the beauty around them. Without pain, we are not living, not really.

These people think there is strength in staying angry, but it only weakens them. Every painful situation becomes emotional baggage they carry around with them, whether they realize it or not. They can never move forward; they can never experience the joy of a life lived with self-confidence and purpose.

I know from experience that this is a beautiful way to live. No, I’m not joyful all the time, but through the acceptance of pain in my life, joy always surrounds me.

How did I get there?

I started with forgiveness (Blessing 21). If I didn’t forgive, I would only be another victim who is defined by my pain; forgiveness allows me to drop the pain that tries to consume me and become the woman I was created to be–who I was when I was a child, before I tried to please everyone around me. I wanted to reclaim the person I lost along the way; the person who didn’t have to prove herself; the person who didn’t have fear of rejection; the person who was open to the love in the world before she let people in who were too lost and confused to recognize that love and value it. Forgiveness helped me burn away the negativity and become my authentic self.

Forgiveness has also allowed me to see that other people have their own triggers and insecurities, for their own reasons. Embracing my pain has also allowed me to understand that I can’t fix other people. I can’t take their pain away or make them choose a different path. I have had to put people who struggle with emotional baggage in two categories: “Those who have to be in my life” and “Those I don’t need in my life.” The people who have to be in my life–like family, colleagues, and students–I accept, encourage, show kindness to, but most importantly, I clearly distinguish between what is their baggage and what I’m responsible for. Those I don’t need in my life, I cut loose. I’m thankful for the lessons I learned from those people, wish them well, and move on. I hope they find their own healing path, but I don’t need to subject myself to their emotional baggage anymore.

In conjunction with forgiveness, I had to let go of my stories—the stories of being a victim, of how people have hurt me, of blaming the people and circumstances in my life that filled me with self-righteous indignation. These stories had power over my life; the longer I held onto them, the longer I was imprisoned by them. The stories made me concentrate on the negative things in my life—things that couldn’t be changed or bring me happiness—like people who did not love me and material things that didn’t improve my life. By letting go of the stories, I figured out what work I had to do in my life to become all that I was created to be. Being a victim elevated my insecurities, which then dictated my choices based on my weaknesses, not my strengths. Letting go of my stories made me stronger and more determined to fight for what is mine, what is purely me.

Through this course of action–forgiveness and letting go of my stories–I’ve reclaimed who I’ve wanted to be, who I was created to be—a writer, a mother, a teacher—bringing joy and love and encouragement to those who are in my life.

Embracing and figuring out how to heal my pain was difficult. It’s also a road I had to walk by myself. No one else can heal my pain. For a long time I looked for someone or something to heal me—to complete me. But that only happens in movies. Through embracing the pain in my life, I learned how to become the person I was created to be.

Blessing 22: The Teaching Profession

If we are honest, we would have to acknowledge the fact that we are all teachers to some extent, whether we want to be or not. We have children and adults all around us who are watching us and learning from our actions and words. We don’t have to be celebrities or athletes to garner that kind of attention. Some may shrug off the responsibility and say, “I’m not a role model. Children should look to their parents to teach them right and wrong.” Sadly, I have encountered parents who don’t want to acknowledge their roles as teachers to their own children.

That is why I wanted to acknowledge the profession I love for the blessing it is; I want to point out that being a professional teacher means that I, as well as countless others, choose to be a role model, that I choose to prepare children for their futures. Teaching is truly the most important job in the world–a job that gives and receives blessings.

Am I biased? Possibly.

How did I become a teacher? I had amazing teachers who awakened my dormant curiosity, teachers who were the spark that lit up my world. I also had compassionate teachers who reached out to help me beyond the content of the classroom. It is because of those amazing teachers that I chose to be one. I intentionally decided that standing in front of young adults would be my life’s work because I wanted to awaken dormant curiosities and light-up teenagers’ worlds; I wanted to be that teacher who saw the pain in someone’s eyes and reach out beyond the content of my classroom.

Obviously, not everyone chooses the path I have chosen. There are many other professions and career choices out there. How did those people become what they are? Through teachers. None of us could be what we are without teachers.

There is not one person who hasn’t been affected by a teacher. We all have horror stories, myself included, but we also have teachers who have blessed our lives, changed us for the better.

Although I am sure I had some wonderful teachers in elementary school, I can only remember a few negative experiences that shaped my life during that time. It’s not until high school that I have memories of two outstanding teachers.

Standout TeachersMr. Ronald Poness was my Social Studies teacher my sophomore year. He was a tough sounding, no-shit-taking Vietnam War veteran. Mr. Poness would walk around the room with a yard stick in one hand, and, if a student started a side conversation or someone tried to be a clown, Mr. Poness would slap the yardstick in his hand and stare down the culprit. Nonsense stopped immediately. Every once in a while, he would slap the yardstick down on someone’s desk to wake us up or just scare us. We would jump out of our socks and then giggle nervously; Mr. Poness would just stare at us with this seemingly evil smirk as we settled back into our seats. He had no problems with classroom management, and we all respected him for it. Not only did he make history come alive, but he also had a compassionate side; however, I’m not sure how many students were aware of it.

I was one of those sit-in-the-back-of-the-class-and-not-say-a-word kids. I tried to become invisible in Mr. Poness’s classroom; I was terrified of him the first few weeks of school. But Mr. Poness saw me; he saw through my protective front. He asked me to stay behind one day after class and told me he noticed that I looked sad. I eventually told him about my parents’ divorce and all the fears that went with it. He listened to me and corrected my self-blaming. He was an adult who was truly on my side. He told me he would always be there for me if I needed to talk. I thanked him for his kindness. I still remember the serious look he gave me and the deep gravel of his voice when he said, “Yeah. Don’t let it get around.” And then he smiled and winked at me.

From that day on, he would walk past my desk and check on me with a tap on my desk and a small smile. If I smiled back, he would wink and continue walking around the room intimidating students with that yardstick. If I didn’t smile, he would wait after class to see how I was doing. I don’t know if I would’ve made it through that year without him. Mr. Poness was a teacher who made a difference in my life beyond the content of his subject matter.

Mrs. Martha McAdam was my English teacher junior year. I never liked English until I had her as a teacher. Mrs. McAdam had a love for literature that transcended the basic story—she loved language and creativity and shared and encouraged that in and with her students. She was the first teacher who was able to coerce me into speaking out in class. I was terrified that my thoughts would be mocked or tossed aside; on the contrary, she glowed every time I spoke and told me how bright and insightful I was. I had never heard those words from any teacher before. I sat a little straighter in class and started raising my hand to offer my thoughts. I read everything she assigned and started to develop my own love for literature. Mrs. McAdam was a teacher who helped me take my first steps towards discovering my path as an English teacher.

In college, Dr. Roger Stephenson was my first English Professor. I was told by a high school teacher my senior year that I would never make it in college English, so I was terrified that I would fail Dr. Stephenson’s class. I waited anxiously as he handed back our first essays. I remember hearing him ask, “Where is Pauline Galovski?” I slowly raised my hand. He held up my essay and waved it at the rest of the class. I wanted to slide to the floor and crawl out the door, I was so sure he was going to berate me. Instead, he announced to the class that I was the best writer he had ever had in his freshmen class. I was shocked. He then recommended me for the college writing lab—as a tutor. Dr. Stephenson was instrumental in my decision to be an English major; I haven’t regretted that decision a day since.

Dr. Robert Butler was my English professor sophomore year. He was also head of the department at the time. He was a kind, eloquent man who loved literature and furthered my love of literature; however, Dr. Butler has a place in my heart, not just because of the knowledge he instilled in me, but also because he convinced me not to drop out of school. I had some issues at home that I thought I needed to take care of. I went to the Bursar’s Office to start the process. An hour later I was called to Dr. Butler’s office. He told me he was notified of my decision to leave school, and he begged me not to. Dr. Butler listened to my fears and countered them all with compassion. And then he shared his fears with me: He feared that I would never return to school and the world would lose a great English teacher. Needless to say, I stayed.

Not only have I been blessed by wonderful teachers, but I also work with amazing teachers. I’ve watched colleagues change students’ lives; I work with teachers who take their profession seriously; teachers who have inspired countless students to follow their own educational and professional dreams; teachers who have inspired students to find out who they are and stay on that path, whatever it may be. These colleagues are just as much a blessing in my life and the lives of others as the teachers who shaped my path. I could write pages and pages about these teachers, but I am hoping that this post will encourage their students to share the impact they have made.

Teachers are blessings; I hope we never forget how important they are in our lives.

Have you had a teacher or teachers who blessed your life? Who made a difference? I’d love to read your story! Share your appreciation in the comment section below.

Blessings