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.

TED Talk from Sharon Brous: It’s time to reclaim and reinvent religion

Sharon Brous powerful TED Talk is a great part of the global conversation that needs to happen to heal the brokenness in our world. It fits perfectly with my message of optimistic realism. You can watch her video and/or read some of the highlights below.


4 Principles of Religion

Wakefulness. Our world is on fire, and it is our job to keep our hearts and our eyes open, and to recognize that it’s our responsibility to help put out the flames. We suffer from psychic numbing: The more we learn about what’s broken in our world, the less likely we are to do anything. We shut down at a certain point. Somewhere along the way, our religious leaders forgot that it’s our job to make people uncomfortable. It’s our job to wake people up, to pull them out of their apathy and into the anguish, and to insist that we do what we don’t want to do and see what we do not want to see. Because we know that social change only happens when we are awake enough to see that the house is on fire.

Hope. Hope is not naïve, and hope is not an opiate. Hope may be the single greatest act of defiance against a politics of pessimism and against a culture of despair. Because what hope does for us is it lifts us out of the container that holds us and constrains us from the outside, and says, “You can dream and think expansively again.”

This is what religion is supposed to be about: It’s supposed to be about giving people back a sense of purpose, a sense of hope, a sense that they and their dreams fundamentally matter in this world that tells them that they don’t matter at all.

Mightiness. It is true that I can’t do everything, but I can surely do something. I can forgive. I can love. I can show up. I can protest. I can be a part of this conversation. “I am strong, I am mighty, and I am worthy.” In a world that conspires to make us believe that we are invisible and that we are impotent, religious communities and religious ritual can remind us that for whatever amount of time we have here on this earth, whatever gifts and blessings we were given, whatever resources we have, we can and we must use them to try to make the world a little bit more just and a little bit more loving.

Inter-connectedness. It’s so hard for us to remember how interconnected we all are as human beings. And yet, we know that it is systems of oppression that benefit the most from the lie of radical individualism. Phobias and racism of any type are all of our problems. Emma Lazarus was right when she said until all of us are free, we are none of us free. We are all in this together.

Our hearts hurt from the failed religion of extremism, and we deserve more than the failed religion of routine-ism. It is time for religious leaders and religious communities to take the lead in the spiritual and cultural shift that this country and the world so desperately needs—a shift toward love, toward justice, toward equality and toward dignity for all. Our children deserve no less than that.

Friday Writing Challenge: Tattoos

Writing Prompt #2: What tattoos do you have, or what tattoos would you get, and why?

My one and onlyJuly 31, 2013: I’m sitting on a table watching Bryan artistically carve my children’s names into my ankle. The pain is so intense that I’m screaming out obscenities–words that explode out of my mouth even as my clenched teeth try to hold them in. A few times Bryan looks at Carol Linn, wondering if he should stop.

I’m sure Bryan is not used to seeing people like me in his studio. At 48, I was getting my first tattoo–reluctantly. I had always wanted to get a tattoo but was too afraid of the pain to actually do it. As the years passed, I not only refused to get one, but I became opposed to people marking up their bodies with ink. I didn’t mind the small, meaningful tattoos, but large, body-covering tattoos seemed to be a sickness–those people proved that tattoos were addicting; they couldn’t stop even if they wanted to. Yet, there I was, in pain, getting my first tattoo, clutching the table even though my mind was telling me to run away from the pain.

Why, then, would I agree to this?

Carol Linn is my middle child, the child most like me–the girl in the middle, the one who wanted to stand out yet wanted to belong. Like me, she fought for independence through her pre-teen and teen years in a family who confused control with parenting. Like me, she struggled with identifying with her place in this world.

When I looked at her, I saw my perfect little girl, lost and confused. I thought my job as her mother was to make her see herself the way I saw her–or, more accurately, the way I wanted her to be. I thought my words and actions could influence her decisions.

For her 16th birthday, she got her first tattoo. Her dad went with her to sign the permission sheet, while I stayed home and cried. It was painful thinking about her intentionally scarring her beautiful skin–the skin I created. Her body began in my body: I carried her for nine months; I went through intense pain to give her life–and now, the perfection, the miracle would be forever scarred. I couldn’t look at her tattoo when she got home. She was beaming with joy; my heart ached. With every tattoo, my reaction was the same: I cried and ached and refused to look at her intentional scars.

What I didn’t know was that my attitude was creating different types of scars–scars within Carol Linn and scars between us.

She finally told me one day: “Mom, it hurts me that you don’t support something I love and that has become a part of me.” After that, I tried to support her decisions for her life–even the scarring ones. We seemed to be on the road to healing; however, it wasn’t until I confided in her that I had always wanted a tattoo that our paths merged. Carol Linn’s eyes lit up: “It would mean so much to me if you got a tattoo with my tattoo artist.”

So, I found myself clutching that table. While I screamed out F-bombs, Carol Linn rubbed my shoulder, telling me to breathe through the pain. She held my hand and told me to squeeze it hard. She cried and smiled as she watched the swirls and hearts form on my ankle, birthing a new bond with my intentional scar.



Writing is my exhale. I’ve realized I’ve been holding my breath for far too long. At least once a week I will exhale, which I hope leads to a healthier breathing pattern. I encourage you to join me by either sharing your writing on my blog in the comments or posting a link to your own platform. Here’s to breathing!

Next Friday’s Writing Challenge: Five of your earliest memories.


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.

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 #20: Blossoming as a Writer

Photo by Carol Linn Hawkins
Photo by Carol Linn Hawkins

Fight for your right to write. That’s the slogan my students chose for our journalism class last year. It was so appropriate for a student-run newspaper that has to battle against censorship. We had a passionate staff that year, wanting to change the world with their school paper. Little did I know back in August of 2011 that imperative sentence was going to be so meaningful to me. In fact, I proudly wear that shirt in honor of my one-year anniversary as a blogger. Continue reading “Blessing #20: Blossoming as a Writer”

Blessing #15-18: My Family


Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays: I love cooking the entire meal; families all over the country are getting together to laugh and rehash memories; it is also a day that reminds us to count our blessings, a necessary part of our emotional and mental health. However, this Thanksgiving I made my meal while shedding bitter-sweet tears. I was saddened by the thought of all my loved ones so far away this year, while thankful for another year with my son. I chuckled at the memories of holidays past, while distressed that my family has been separated by miles and unforgiven words and actions. Continue reading “Blessing #15-18: My Family”

Blessing #14: My Students, Ripples in the Water


“I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the waters to create many ripples.”  ~ Mother Teresa

My journey to keep my dream alive has created a wonderful habit: I count my blessings when dark thoughts creep in. Now, whenever I feel the walls closing in on me, I immediately look outward at the things that are beautiful in my life, and those walls disappear. Continue reading “Blessing #14: My Students, Ripples in the Water”

Blessing #13: Dennis and Lori


Part of my writing journey has been to count my blessings, to focus on the things I’m thankful for rather than the things that are going wrong in my life. Not only does this heal my soul, but it has also helped me become a person who can see joy in everything. It has helped me become a person who is thankful for people in my life that I never would have been thankful for before. Not that these people don’t deserve thanks, but I would have missed how amazing they were because I would have been concentrating on my problems.

Two people that truly deserve my thanks are Dennis and Lori. Dennis is my daughter Nicole’s father, and Lori is his wife. There were days, years really, that I would not have been able to say that I was thankful for Dennis. As Nicole grew up and Dennis became an active part of her life, I was thankful that she had a relationship with her father, but it was truly based only on my daughter’s needs.

After Dennis and Lori met and married, we developed a cordial relationship. I instantly liked Lori, which made me respect Dennis for choosing to marry such a great person. She’s someone I could be best friends with, if we were geographically closer.

Even though I genuinely like Dennis and Lori for the wonderful people they are, what prompts me to write about them as blessings is how they have been taking care of my daughters. Dennis taking care of Nicole is understandable; he’s her father. However, he has helped Nicole pursue her dreams in the film industry and included her in his writing projects, getting her name in front of influential people. Lori loving Nicole, her step-daughter, is commendable; it is not easy being a step-mother; it is not easy to be patient with another woman’s child, but she has welcomed Nicole into her home and developed a strong bond with her. If that isn’t enough, Dennis and Lori have done the same for Carol Linn who only shares blood with Nicole, but has now become part of their family. Now, that goes beyond any expectations.

It has been hard for me to have my girls on the other side of the country. I can’t just get in the car and go visit them. I can’t take care of them anymore, not that they need me mothering them, but there are things I could be doing for them, but I’m not the one they turn to. They aren’t coming to my house to do laundry; they go to Dennis and Lori’s for that. Their family dinners don’t include me; they laugh and break bread with Dennis and Lori. If their car breaks down, it’s Dennis they call. If they need advice, Lori is there for them.

As painful as it’s been not to be with my girls, I am so blessed that they have Dennis and Lori to fill that space in their lives. I know Nicole and Carol Linn are being taken care of; I know they are loved. My heart still hurts, but Dennis and Lori are the balm that blesses my soul.

Thank you, Dennis and Lori, for being a blessing in my life.