Sunday, August 17, 2014

One reason I'm thankful for blogging

Last Saturday we were finishing our weeklong vacation. We drove back from Kennebunkport, Maine, to Boston, waiting for our 7:20 p.m. flight. We spent most of the day wandering the streets of downtown Boston.

Our first stop: the ducklings in the Public Garden. (The bronze statues were installed in 1987 as a tribute to Make Way for Ducklings, the classic 1941 picture book by Robert McCloskey.)

In May 2006, we spent a few days in the Boston area. Our family was complete then -- Steve, me, 4-year-old Cooper and not-yet-1 Katie. We spent some of a day wandering the streets of downtown Boston. And we visited the ducklings.

In 2006, Cooper climbed on a duck and we took a photo. And we placed Katie on a duck and took a photo. But in 2014, I couldn't remember exactly which ducks.

So, last Saturday, in the middle of the Public Garden, I pulled up our family blog and found a post about our Boston trip. I couldn't find Cooper on a duck, but I did find baby Katie on a duck. Using the photo as a guide, Katie found the same duck and sat on it again. More than eight years later.

This time without Steve. That's worth an entire post by itself. I'm weeping now, just thinking of our 2006 experience and last week's.


Soon I'll write about the missing Steve piece. Until then, here is tiny Katie and a little bigger Katie -- on the same duckling.

May 2006
August 2014

Before church this (very rainy) morning

Saturday, August 09, 2014

Let's bring the vacation vibe back home

Goose Rocks Beach, Kennebunkport, Maine
From today's Briefing:

We’re wrapping up the best week of the year — our summer week away.
I love everything about this week. Navigating unfamiliar roads. Discovering new-to-us restaurants. Experiencing in person what I’ve only read about before.
Most of all, I love escaping our daily routine.
In the past week we have not once run errands to the bank, pharmacy or dry cleaner. No one has been ferried to and from a music lesson. No one has practiced an instrument. No one has attended a meeting.
In the absence of busyness, I’ve been more acutely focused on our little family — not just the logistics of us but the actual us.
I’ve been reminded of Cooper’s deep well of patience and tolerance. Every day of vacation, we’ve been at the beach. And every day, he draws tiny fans who admire his ability to dig giant holes and tunnels in the sand. My six-foot 13-year-old answers question after question.
“How long have you been digging? Why is there water down there? Why is that tunnel not falling? How old are you? Where do you live? Can I help?”
He always lets them help.
I’ve seen how confident Katie has become. Some of our adventures have presented opportunities for climbing. Katie hasn’t been scared of a single tumble of rocks. She considers all the pathways then forges ahead, leaping when necessary.
She’ll eventually turn and find that I’m still standing, still staring, still not certain that I’ll cross without falling. She leaves no man or woman behind.
“Put your foot here, Momma,” she coaches. “You can do it!”
All three of us are reminded of how very little we actually need.
The cottage we’re renting is dated yet comfortable, with huge windows facing a river. It’s significantly smaller than our Frisco house, and it holds a lot less stuff.
We’ve not once felt deprived. In fact, there’s freedom in managing less of everything.
Here’s the challenge: When this blessed week is over — it’s always over too quickly — and we’re back at home, 1,900 miles from our cozy cottage, how can we better escape the busyness?
It’s an essential question, especially with two weeks left before school begins again. How do we keep connected when we’re running in different directions? What can we prune from the busyness so that we’ve got some protected downtime?
Our family calendar is already filling with dates — band orientation, curriculum night, Scouting events. We’re only weeks away from homework, guided reading and sectionals.
Already the most protected time of day is dinnertime. On school nights, we eat dinner together at home — even if that means eating at 4:45 to make a meeting on time. It’s the one guaranteed daily moment for catch-up, reflection and venting.
Can we be bold enough to say no to some expected events — and do so without guilt? Can we skip a meeting or two? Politely decline a party invitation?
It’s easy to say yes now, but in real life, we get sucked right back in. We live 51 weeks at a hectic pace, knowing that at week 52, sometime in the heat of summer, we’ll escape and reset before leaping back in.
The three of us are leaving Maine a little more relaxed, a little more freckled and a little more inclined to carve out some lazy Saturday mornings at home — no beach necessary.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at
Katie, Cooper and Tyra aboard the Pineapple

Monday, July 28, 2014

Times can be tough, but gratitude moves us forward

From Saturday's Briefing:

It’s been kind of a crummy week around here. The kind that tempts you to wallow in woe.
Schedules didn’t align exactly as I’d hoped, so my children have been gone for 13 of the past 14 days.
In the middle of that, the air conditioner stopped working — not during the blessed dip in temperatures but just after, when real summer returned.
A dear friend is in the middle of a crisis, one without an easy answer.
Grump, grump, grump.
After a middling amount of complaining, there’s not much to do but move on and seek a grateful attitude.
Last week, Cooper and Katie flew by themselves to Washington, D.C., to visit their uncle so that I could attend an education conference in San Antonio.
I’m thankful that they felt comfortable flying without an adult. That their uncle joyfully takes a week of vacation to care for them. That they were able to ride roller coasters at Hersheypark, explore Gettysburg and visit multiple museums in our nation’s capital.
We all arrived back in Frisco in time to spend a day together, and then they were off again, this time to a weeklong sleepaway camp in East Texas.
I check the camp website daily for photo updates, and from what I can spy, Cooper and Katie show no signs of homesickness. They appear independent and engaged. That’s the whole goal of parenting, right? To help grow little people into secure big people who can handle daily life on their own?
I’m thankful that they have found a camp that they enjoy and want to return to every summer. I’m thankful that they are gaining new skills and meeting new people, without the aid of a single electronic device.
My big plans for this week centered on massive, long-overdue house projects. My closet is a disaster. The playroom needs organizing. I’m behind on filing. The garage needs some serious pruning.
I woke Monday ready to attack. The house had other plans.
The thermostat at 7 a.m. showed 79 degrees. Upon further investigation, I discovered the giant air-conditioning unit behind the house wasn’t running.
The trouble — the expensive trouble — was diagnosed late Monday. The inside temperature was 85 and rising.
No amount of determination will help overcome sweltering inside conditions. My big decluttering plans were begrudgingly put on hold.
It takes some work to find gratitude when you’re hot, facing a giant bill and letting go of goals.
And yet, I’m thankful for my savings account, which allowed me to pay cash for the repair. I’m thankful that I have plenty of friends who offered cooler shelter. I’m thankful that while I was escaping my house I was able to watch two movies in a blissfully air-conditioned theater, renew my driver’s license and finally deliver the minivan to the dealership for a safety recall.
I didn’t meet my original goals, but time wasn’t wasted.
I spent some of that time on the phone with a long-distance friend who’s facing the biggest struggle of her life. I’ve listened as she debriefs, formulates steps for moving forward and somehow finds humor in despair.
I’m devastated for her. But I’m thankful that even with distance we can connect. That she’s found the strength to wake up each day. That we could talk about the value of a human: You aren’t defined by your spouse or your children or your job. Your value is independent of all others, rooted in your faith and in your character.
I needed that discussion as a gentle reminder that character includes how you react to disappointment and to plans that change. That character includes expressing gratitude all the time — especially when instinct pushes toward discontent.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at

Monday, July 14, 2014

Imperfect youth is a useful experience

From Saturday's Briefing:

I spent a great deal of my childhood imagining an ideal childhood.

My parents would still be married. We would still live in our North Dallas ranch-style home. Mom would stay home, with lots of time for cooking, baking, cleaning and volunteering at school. Summer would include sleep-away camp for me and fun road trips for the whole family.

My vision was influenced by sitcoms, by the novels I devoured, by disappointment in reality, by my suspicion that every other family around was more normal.

I didn’t often consider that my dream world probably didn’t exist anywhere. And I sure didn’t spend any time imagining how my actual circumstances were preparing me for adulthood and eventual parenthood.

I find myself thankful all the time for some of those nontraditional experiences. My mom, despite her personal struggles, offered valuable lessons about acceptance and creativity, friendship and responsibility.

I know that it’s OK — preferable even — to be countercultural. I don’t consult popular opinion for decisions on video games, social media, music and movies.

I try to support my children if they choose a path outside the norm. This time last year, Katie started considering a vegetarian diet. She eventually settled on pesce- tarianism — vegetar- ianism with seafood — and has been loyal to her decision since. I know that my mom would have embraced a similar choice from her own children.

My mom also taught me the value of a messy space, someplace in the house where it’s acceptable to doodle, cut, paste, paint, sculpt. It’s the reason our kitchen table is rarely clear, why there are constant projects in process around here, why I’m forever buying spools of ribbon. The mess can irritate me when I’m seeking clutter-free peace. That’s why we keep the family room as tidy as possible, as often as possible — I can escape there and avoid eye contact with glitter glue.

My mom is why I root for the underdog and why my children embrace them, too. She was often underestimated, and she reached out to folks in need, even when she didn’t have much to give. She didn’t gather friends because they were popular. She built relationships because it was the right thing to do.

This week our little family has been talking about Central American children who are risking their lives to travel to the United States. About five minutes into our conversation, Katie asked if she could make stuff to sell to raise money for those children — a legacy from my mom, no doubt.

My chaotic childhood taught me the value of responsibility — often because it wasn’t modeled or because it was forced on me and my sister. We took charge of many meals and loads of laundry because someone had to. I learned early on that no one was going to double-check my homework or keep track of when projects were due. That was my job.

My own children are learning responsibility differently, portioned out because they need to learn, not for survival. I constantly remind myself to not shield them from work but to teach them how to work — and then to let go gracefully. I’ve got a whole lot of letting go still to accomplish.

It’s tempting now to shelter my children from disappointments, to maneuver around situations, to hide the fact that folks make bad decisions or use hurtful words. I’m forever cautious about what they see, hear and experience. I want to protect them as long as possible.

And yet I want them to learn to cope with disappointments, to feel the weight of an unavoidable situation and know that they can endure and emerge stronger.

Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at

Monday, June 30, 2014

Practice may not make perfect ...

From Saturday's Briefing:

Mistakes are necessary.
When we are rational, we know this. When we are reflecting on a journey, we can clearly identify the errors that became teachable moments, that propelled us a little farther.
In the moment, though, we’re less likely to embrace the imperfections.
After Katie’s first-ever gymnastics lesson, many years ago, she sobbed, distraught over her inability to perform a cartwheel.
That’s when I realized that I hadn’t prepared my tiny daughter for growth.
She didn’t yet understand that some tasks, indeed most tasks, require instruction followed by practice. Over and over. And even then, perfection may be elusive.
She did not want to practice with the hope of eventually becoming good at cartwheels. She wanted to be excellent at cartwheels right now.
She’s getting better. Not at cartwheels — she stopped practicing that particular skill long ago. But she’s getting better at maintaining control and moving forward when expectations aren’t met immediately.
For her birthday last week, she received Spirograph, the plastic gears drawing set. (It’s remarkably similar to my 1970s version, except putty replaced the thumbtacks, and felt-tip markers replaced the ballpoint pens.)
Katie expected to bust open the box and begin creating perfect spirals in multiple colors, just as advertised.
But as any Spirograph veteran will tell you, those spirals don’t come easy.
After you ensure that the outer gear is stationary, you have to figure out how to move the inner gear with precision at the exact right speed.
Katie experimented Saturday afternoon, changing speed, adjusting hand positions, altering pen pressure, changing pens. She’d get close to a perfect spiral on paper, then her clenched hand would slip. Then she would start over.
Sheets of paper were flying. She exhausted the entire supply in the box.
She was frustrated, yes, but there were no tears — only determination to get it right.
Finally, she presented me a colorful circular badge. The ideal Spirograph spiral, representing dozens of less-than-perfect incarnations.
And then she tried the football-shaped gear. The whole process began again.
A similar scene unfolds daily in our house, during the 20 minutes Katie practices violin.
She’s played for a year and a half, and it’s remarkable how much she’s improved since those super squeaky days, days when I was certain she’d chosen the wrong instrument. Yet we are far, far away from musical transcendence.
At her lesson this week, Katie played a piece that she thought she’d memorized.
Indeed, she had memorized the notes. But the rhythm was off — especially obvious when accompanied on piano.
I sat two rooms away, reading a little and listening a little as Katie’s instructor would stop, point out the timing error and ask Katie to try again. And again. So many times.
Neither Katie nor Tammy was willing to give up. Despite clear directions from Tammy, despite genuine grit from Katie, despite a deep well of patience from both sides, Katie never quite combined the accurate notes with the accurate rhythm.
Not yet.
Neither teacher nor student will be satisfied until the piece has been conquered. And when that mountain has been scaled, there will be an even taller, rockier climb next, an ascension littered with missteps — some of them squeaky — that eventually lead to the top.
No one is born a fully developed athlete or engineer or musician. Indeed, we’re all practicing at whatever matters to us — parenting or marriage, tennis or cycling, cooking or painting.
When we revel in the mess and celebrate what we’ve learned, we’re bound to enjoy the journey — and we’re more likely to complete it.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at