Monday, February 23, 2015

Living proof

From Saturday's Briefing:

The sun has set. The wind chill is 43 degrees, but from atop the metal bleachers, I swear it feels like 33.
Katie and I are huddled together, struggling to wiggle our fingers and toes.
“You’re a good sister,” I tell Katie.
“I’ve never been this cold,” she says through chattering teeth.
When we arrived to watch Cooper’s first race, the sun was shining. No gloves or scarves or hats were required. Now, four hours later, I stare longingly at families — forecast-checking kinds of families — draped in sturdy quilts and down jackets.
At last, we hear the starter gun we’ve been waiting for. We watch a cluster of boys thin out into one lane. I keep my eye on the tallest boy, my boy, and each time he passes the stands — four times for this race — I holler, “Go, Cooper!”
He finishes in fifth place. Katie and I scramble down the bleachers and wait just outside the track fence — both to congratulate him and to hasten our departure.
We arrive home, and a different type of race begins. The kids need to unpack backpacks and lunch boxes, shower, eat, complete homework. I need to fold clean laundry, wash dishes, answer emails and read over lesson plans for the next day.
In the middle of that frenzy, I consider my current level of mom guilt — that emotional weight I carry as provider, nurturer and guardian of two humans.
I should have been more prepared for the weather, with more blankets and outerwear.
I should have insisted that Katie study spelling words while we sat for hours. I should have folded that basket of clothes last night. I should have taken care of the dishes before work this morning.
My mom list of “should haves” is long. I’ve built up years of missed opportunities. Of moments when I should have stepped in and others when I should have stepped back. Conversations when I could have been more patient, more hopeful, more trusting.
Yet worse than carrying around self-inflicted guilt is letting that guilt take control. So I try to shake it off (a phrase I can no longer say without hearing Taylor Swift in my head). I try to offer myself grace — and then try to accept it — but I’m not always convincing.
And then, in the midst of all that rushed school-night busy-ness, I rediscover an antidote to mom guilt: my own children.
Cooper was studying for a test on The Count of Monte Cristo when Katie walked through the kitchen for her nighttime cup of water.
“Good job tonight, Coop.”
A few minutes later — and an hour later than usual — she was climbing into bed. Cooper walked by her room.
“Love you, Katie!”
“Love you more!”
And just like that: poof! My mom guilt vanished — at least for the night.
My occasional lack of planning and my temporary oversights are insignificant compared to what matters most: a home that offers shelter from the cold. A home in which each person is valued. A home where each person is loved beyond measure.
I pray that my children continue to praise each other, that they’ll lavish each other with kind words and that they’ll forgive each other’s mistakes. Mine, too.
And I pray that when my “should haves” list gets too long, I’m able to remember that my “did it right” list is perhaps even longer.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at
Cooper, in between races, last Wednesday

Saturday, February 07, 2015

Not a shield but a guide

From todays' Briefing:

Moments of clarity are unpredictable.
Both children are away, one at a science competition, the other at a friend’s house working on an art project. I’m cleaning out the refrigerator and washing dishes in preparation for my weekly grocery trip.
That’s when it hit me, when my role as a parent became completely unambiguous.
My epiphany in the midst of the mundane: My job is not to shield them from pain and discomfort but to guide them so they can cope with pain and discomfort.
That’s not easy for a bubble-wrap momma like me.
In my earliest mom years, my goal was to completely protect Cooper and then Katie from any and all trouble. No sickness, no turmoil, no dysfunction. No raised voices, no processed foods, no violent images.
I thank God for that foundation.
When Cooper was 6 and Katie was 2, their daddy was diagnosed with incurable cancer. My illusion of control was stripped away. Trouble that I could never imagine showed up, uninvited, and moved right on in.
Ever since then, we’ve been coping.
In the middle of my Saturday chores, I was wondering about each child. How was Cooper’s presentation? After reviewing other projects, did he expect that he and his group would win an award? What if he wins and I’m not there to congratulate him? What if he doesn’t win and I’m not there to console him?
How was Katie’s project? Was her vision (as usual, grandiose) coming to life? Was she working well with her friend? Was she being bossy?
So many questions. All answered by a much bigger, more important question: Am I equipping my children to adapt?
I’m trying mightily, but it’s a tough job.
Katie did, in fact, struggle with the art project. We had barely climbed into the minivan after leaving her friend’s house when she burst into tears.
“The archway we made isn’t as good as I expected,” she sobbed. “It barely stands up. It doesn’t look good. We didn’t get enough done.”
(The archway is made of aluminum cans and packing tape, with a cardboard box base. It’s a fine piece of architecture, created by two creative 9-year-old girls with high expectations.)
I let her cry. I ask a few questions. She acknowledges that she’s tired and volunteers to lie down for a little rest.
Meanwhile, I check Cooper’s competition online and notice that the awards ceremony is being live-streamed at this very moment.
I stare at my laptop, watching groups accept accolades for months of innovative, hard work. I’m afraid to walk away, just in case.
At last, my lanky son and his two buddies bound through the lecture hall and onto the stage to accept congratulations for “excellence in systems integration.”
Cooper’s smile reveals that he’s totally surviving without me in the room.
He won’t always win a special award. There will be moments when, despite diligence and extreme effort, he won’t be first or best. There will be moments when, in the words of his sister, life “isn’t as good as I expected.”
Of course, I want my children to steer clear of trouble, to stay healthy, to be rewarded for hard work.
More than that, though, I want them to find joy in tough circumstances. I want them to know when it’s time to rest. I want them to win — and lose — with grace. I want them to revel in the sunshine — and be prepared for the storms.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Clearest view of fight for civil rights lies outside the comfort zone

From Saturday's Briefing:

Cooper was 4 when I first read to him the picture book Rosa by Nikki Giovanni. He’s been a student of the civil rights movement ever since.

He devours books on the Civil War and Abraham Lincoln. He can name heroes of the 1950s and ’60s and discuss key court cases and legislation with clarity.

He has watched countless movies and documentaries. He has read historical fiction.

We have stood near the Woolworth lunch counter, instrumental in the desegregation movement in Greensboro, N.C., and now housed at the National Museum of American History. We have stood on the National Mall, imaging what the grounds were like during the March on Washington of 1963.

Yet nothing compares to experience — at least as close as you can get 50 years after the fact.

Cooper joined other teens plus some parents and ministers on a civil rights bus tour last weekend. The group traveled to Jackson and Oxford, Miss., and Memphis, Tenn. They toured museums and worshipped together. They watched documentaries. They visited with the Rev. Ed King.

King is a veteran of the civil rights movement, an instrumental force in helping African-Americans register to vote in the 1960s, and a colleague of the late Medgar Evers. And he has stories — often harrowing stories — to tell.

It was after the visit with King that Cooper sent me this text: “I never knew how horribly they treated African-Americans and whites that did not agree with them.”

My first reaction: goosebumps and tears.

My second reaction: How could he not know, after all of his research?

My third reaction: This is why we can’t shelter our children too long. This is why we have to allow our children to experience life outside our comfort zones.

No amount of reading, watching television or even standing inside the Lincoln Memorial compares to talking with someone who lived through and struggled through those pivotal years in our history.

After Cooper returned home, he explained more. He described how authorities abused people who were demanding voting rights. How King and his colleagues were tortured. How King, a white man, was willing to stand up for African-Americans, even when it wasn’t socially acceptable.

Even with all these years of research, “It means more to talk to the person and know what they felt,” Cooper says. “It makes me think more about the people who were treated badly.”

Cooper’s weekend away encapsulates my own struggles with raising children in an affluent community.

We live among children who know very little about struggling. All of their needs are met. They’ve never experienced poverty. They are fortunate.

They are living the way all children should live.

Yet there are children nearby and all over the country who don’t have the luxury of being pushed out of their comfort zones — because there is no comfort zone at all. They live with racism and poverty, with poor education options, with crime, with unemployment, with inadequate health care.

They are living the way no child should live.

I do not want my own children to feel guilty for their relatively easy way of life, but I do want them to appreciate their way of life. I’m not certain they can fully appreciate it until they experience something different.

Cooper, already a well of empathy, needed to look into the eyes of a man who was tortured to fully understand the inhumanity of unchecked power. Now that my 13-year-old son is armed with both research and the voice of a survivor, I have a feeling there’s no limit to what his compassion can fuel.

Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Happy to go along for the ride, so to speak

From today's Briefing:
I’ve officially become the mom who is content to drive children to amusement parks and hold all their stuff while they take off for daredevil adventures.
I’ve become the kind of mom I once pitied a little, the one I assumed was having no fun as she saved seats or carried a giant bag of gear.
Teenage me was mistaken. Teenage me didn’t understand yet that grownup fun sometimes is simply rooted in the happiness of children — and the absence of achiness that might come from a bumpy ride.
The shift was evident last summer, when I took four kids to our nearby water park. They are all old enough to wander on their own (always in pairs), to check in periodically and to make good decisions in my absence.
I didn’t stick a toe in the wave pool. I didn’t lollygag on the lazy river. I didn’t swish down a slide for old-time’s sake. I settled in on a lounge chair, smothered myself in sun block, sipped water and read an entire novel. I snacked a little, visited with my charges when they appeared, served lunch — all from the comfort of my chair.
All five of us left cheerful — four with raisined fingers and a little too much sun, plus me, relaxed and ready to tackle another book.
My status was reinforced last weekend, when we set off for a bigger park, armed with new season passes (a generous gift) and plans to conquer the biggest roller coasters in Texas.
Our first stop was the giant pirate ship that moves back and forth, back and forth, making passengers feel like they just might tip out. I was game to sit on the very back row with Cooper, who’s never met a roller coaster he doesn’t like.
After just two sways of the ship, I was queasy. I gripped Cooper’s arm. I closed my eyes. I yelped a little.
It would take me a couple of hours to recover. While the rest of my party gallivanted on coasters, I remained grounded, holding eyeglasses and maps, scoping out our next destination, looking forward to tales from the adventurous riders.
At last, one of my childhood favorites pulled me back in. Yet, the mine-train car seemed a tiny bit tinier than I recall. And the ride itself, though exhilarating, was also a tiny bit rockier than I remember.
I was happy to reclaim my role as mom-who-holds-all-the-stuff, happy to take photos of my waving children, happy to listen to what they loved most about each ride.
Finally, we’d ambled as much as we could, stood in lines as long as we dared. We were ready to drive home — but wait, not until one more ride.
We snaked our way to the front. We climbed in to impossibly snug cars. We zoomed up and down hills, we screamed (or at least I screamed), we laughed. I was, yet again, a little queasy and tiny bit achy.
As we searched the parking lot for our minivan — with a little less pep in our step — we recounted the day. We compared favorite rides and plotted strategy for the next visit. Which ride should we dash to first? Which roller coaster can we bypass?
I’ll run, skip or walk to all of them. I may bypass most of them. As long as I’m with my people, and my people are enjoying themselves, I’m happy to go along for the ride — figuratively speaking, of course.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at

Sunday, January 04, 2015

Hands of God

She designed a bookmark -- a drawing of animals on one side and poem on the other -- and sold them for $1 each. In three weeks, she sold almost 600 bookmarks and earned $921 from generous friends. As she says, that's enough to buy three water buffalo, three flocks of chicks and three sets of honeybees.

Today she was recognized in front of our church congregation for her efforts in raising money for Heifer International. Her total represents more than 10% of the total funds raised by our church during Advent.

A Heifer representative attended both services today to thank Holy Covenant for the donations and to thank Katie in person. Our new missions committee chair, Joy Lasley, also thanked Katie and gave her a pair of gloves -- "to protect the hands of God." Joy reminded us that we are ALL the hands of God and challenged us to help others in 2015.

Joy asked Katie why she wanted to raise money. Her answer: "A lot of people have all of what they need and most of what they want. And some people don't even half of what they need. I want to help people get what they need."

During both services, my big-hearted 9-year-old child received a standing ovation. 

Katie, who served as acolyte at the 8:30 service, wore the gloves this morning as she lit candles on the altar. 

And what song did our pianist play as she lit the candles? "Creation Will Be at Peace," one of Steve's favorite anthems. (You can listen to the version from his memorial service here.)

All my tears this morning represented a full heart.

Before church this (very cold) morning