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The joy and pain of the 1st Day of School

Today was a BIG day.

For many students across the country, today they embarked on new learning adventures with the advent of a new school year. Mommas beamed and maybe shed a few tears.  Some maybe even celebrated. Photos were taken on the front steps or in front of the school to record this annual rite of passage.  Our family participated in this ritual along with everyone else.  Although some of us started earlier with post-secondary studies, we have four members of Team Stevens currently attending or teaching school, and today, we celebrated the mess of out of our high schooler and our first-year teacher!  As a veteran educator, today can often feel like Christmas morning waiting to unwrap the possibilities of all the learning and teaching that will happen. 

Front porch picture of author's high school daughter surrounded by a deer sculpture, wicker rocker and flower pots.
First day of school
Image of text that says '222 1ST GRADE CLASSROOM Ms. Stevens'
Classroom sign for our first-year teacher

But different than what I am seeing in social media lately, the emotions associated with today’s first day of school were not completely one-sided.  So much of what I have seen in recent days, weeks, and months is so slanted that the message almost reads, If you don’t live, think, worship, believe, speak, or vote the way I do, then you are wrong. Plain wrong. Definitely wrong.

Earlier this summer, I spoke at a women’s event were I sharing about two things that I believe are slowly destroying women in this country.  One of those things was the fear of the other.  Whether we subscribe to the sentiments or not, we are bombarded with messages that those who are different from us are to be feared.  Moreover, those messages often suggest that there are no areas of gray when it comes to daily living especially when it appears everything can only exist as polarized opposites.  

To anyone who has received those messages, just don’t believe them. I stand as the antithesis to that faulty logic.  I celebrated my daughters today, my own teaching and continued learning, and my son in medical school.  I praise God for the opportunities we have to learn and all the ways we will use our learning to help others, including ourselves.  But at the same time – literally, physically, emotionally, spiritually – my heart ached for what I didn’t have today.

But I have learned that not everything in life is as simple as black or white, because I deeply understand joy and sadness can co-mingle.  One of the babies we lost, whom our son Sawyer lovingly named, Tim, would be a senior in high school this day.  Even through my cheers and happy well wishes for all that was, my heart ached for what wasn’t.

And, that is okay. I, like every other human, is allowed to live a diversely complex and complicated existence.  I wouldn’t say I am comforted knowing that this day full of hope and anticipation is also met with sadness by other grieving families for whom this day is emotionally challenging. But being equipped with that knowledge reminds me to reach out to those in my care whom I can just simply say – Your baby mattered too.

My heart will make it through, but today I needed to say his name.  My soul needed to be reminded that while I never held Tim in my arms, my body once cradled his tiny form, and my heart loved him from two tiny pink lines.  That same heart has loved him every day since and always will.

Happy birthday Reed!

Hey Reed –

Happy birthday!  I can only imagine that birthdays in heaven truly are something special.  I messaged my friend today who shares your birthday to tell her how thankful I am to celebrate her on this day because knowing I can makes not celebrating you a little bit easier.  I am so thankful God made her my friend for a myriad of reasons, but this is definitely one of them.  Her sweet response explained that she was having a good day, but she was certain that your heavenly celebration was even better.  On this side of heaven, I am thankful for all the little signs of you today, like the temperature reading on my computer being your football number much of the day and the cardinal singing without stopping while I was working outside.

We continue to miss you, but we feel blessed and at peace that we are the keepers of your legacy.  Just tonight on a quick run to pick up Sister’s birthday present we stopped by another store, and I saw some really awesome dog toys.  Unlike Hucky (please give him a giant squeeze from me because I miss him all the time too), our current pups seem to go through their toys really quickly.  I was looking for something fun and different than what they have had recently.  Among the toys was the perfect stuffie with long legs for dragging around and substantial weight for ruggedness, the only draw back was it was a cheetah.  Nope. Not going to happen. I simply cannot.  The Reed Stevens Legacy Program where we give away Reed-A-Cheetahs to the surviving siblings of any child who dies at Avera McKennan is going strong. Even writing that gives me waves of bittersweet emotions. Pride because your love for others lingers in every family that is touched by your generosity, but sadness because we are awaiting the arrival of another batch of cheetahs any day now.  This has been a long and complicated year with the pandemic, and knowing the rapidity with which we went through cheetahs this year breaks my heart.  Yet, knowing how much those cheetahs mean to our family, I simply could not allow a cheetah of any fashion to become relegated to the dog toy graveyard, much like Sid’s backyard in the original Toy Story. 

I just could not.

While the year has been hard, the realignment of priorities was much needed.  Being forced to be still and be isolated at times helped us to realize that our life goals of loving Jesus and loving others will forever be the most important things in our lives.  Although we wish we could somehow move Minnesota next to Florida while we drag North and South Dakota with us, like the opening of the Scrambled States of America game we all loved to play, we realize how large the ache we have for missing you carries over into time we missed with others we love this past year.  We decided to finally make a big dream come true and we bought a lake place.  I think you would love it there. 

Over the weekend, we had a bunch of people you loved over to visit and others have lake places right close to ours.  We spent the time loving them all and spending time with the m.  Uncle Davy had the grand idea last night to walk to the Dairy Queen, and all of us decided to get Blizzards in honor of you, even if a day early.  We are nothing if not creatures of habit, since not all of us were present, we enjoyed Blizzards again tonight.  I am 100% certain you would approve, but I also know you would question if I was actually your mother having ice cream two nights in a row.

I am still that woman who on this day I realized her dream of becoming a mom.  But I am also the mom for whom the aches of every day life ebb and flow because grief is such a terrible companion.  I was reminded of that pain in such a profound way on our drive home from Alabama that I don’t think I will ever be able to remove the etching of that raw grief from my soul. 

On our trip home, we stopped at a rest area in Kentucky and we were taking a long walk to stretch our legs on the paved sidewalks throughout the location.  As we rounded a corner of the building, there was a tiny little bird hopping around and squawking the most pitiful sound.  I watched the little bird very closely to see if she was injured, because clearly, she was in distress.  She seemed to be physically fine and as you know, even if I did catch her, what could I have done for her while still driving back to Minnesota. Not to mention potentially breaking environmental laws while I was at it.  I said a quick prayer for her in my heart, and we continued to walk as we neared the next corner of the building where I realized the cause of her distress.  A tiny barely hatched baby bird had been knocked from its nest due to the high winds and was clearly gone.  My heart broke into a million pieces and my eyes welled with tears, because that precious little momma bird was telling the world, one Kentucky rest-stop patron at a time that her heart was shattered because she had lost her baby bird. 

I will never forget her anguish or the depth of her pain because I know what it is like to lose my baby bird. I have learned that even though we are doing well doesn’t mean we are always okay. In that moment watching the gut-wrenching scene, I recognized all the ways the momma I was before losing you isn’t exactly the same momma who writes to you every year.  This momma carries the gigantic hole in her heart, but uses that emptiness to love others every chance she gets. Just like her baby bird once did.  She will always love you and all her kids (biological or otherwise), and she will never tire of sharing your light with the rest of the world. 

You will always and forever be my sunshine.  Hug all my people, Hucky, and maybe that baby bird for good measure if nothing more than for your momma’s heart.

Loving you fiercely until I can hug you again. 

Love, Mom

Choosing my superpowers

Happy Monday Y’all! 

I am mustering every ounce of positivity that I can on this blustery snow storm Monday, especially since during the last week I was going on walks in t-shirts.  Yes, in Minnesota. Mother Nature definitely packed a punch with her rather exclamatory – Spring Break is over folks. Now, let’s get back to business.

We have a snow day today on campus, which seems ironically at odds with that last sentence. Although I didn’t travel for Spring Break, I did travel metaphorically speaking.  This journey is one that took a long time to unpack, but once I did, I really feel that I emerged on the other side feeling much more comfortable in my own skin.  More importantly, even if I didn’t physically travel to find respite, I have uncovered a newfound peace, and isn’t that what breaks are for?

It has taken me a very long time to come to terms with the fact that my very existence is offensive to some people.  Wow!  Read that bold statement again, just to let it sink in.  I promise I will explain, but the reality is that being an educated female, Christian scientist/educator/professor ticks many of the boxes of people who love to dismiss others.  Although I have felt (and in some cases been explicitly told) these sentiments, pursuing my doctorate really brought to light the messages – both subtle and overt – that I experience on a regular basis. 

Here is a smattering of some things that have been said – yes out loud – to me.

Why are you taking time away from your family to get a doctorate?  You don’t really need that.

How can you say you’re a Christian and also be a scientist?

So, were you not successful as a scientist and that is why you became a teacher?

You know, colleges are just places of indoctrination for the liberal way of thinking.   

I’ve heard these and countless others, and every time I am shocked. There have been many, many times that I am 100% positive that I was noticed more for my bra size than the capacity of my brain, and as such, have been dismissed for my questions, suggestions, and responses.  While I don’t feel I need to justify my existence or answer any of those questions, I will acknowledge that within this country, we still have a long way to go, baby.  There exists a strong anti-science and anti-intellectualism movement within the United States, and well, as much as things move forward, we are simply not there yet when it comes to girls and women being valued for their intelligence.  Hence, the bold proclamation that my very existence is counterintuitive to those ideologies.

But, here’s where the story gets really good.  I can be defeated by this, or I can choose to rise above it.  The choice is ultimately mine to make. I not only choose to be comfortable in my own being, but I will also claim my education, interests, and talents (given by God and polished through dedicated hard work and study) as my superpowers.  I choose to use those superpowers to live a life of loving others and to bring positive change to the world.

And so, it was, one day last year prior to the pandemic really reaching the Midwest.  The first publicized case in Minnesota wouldn’t be for another month.  I volunteered to be a driver for a friend who needed to have a surgical procedure in the cities.  While she was in surgery, I caught up on grading (not one of my superpowers for the record) and watched as families came and went as other procedures began.  One family had a little girl who was waiting so patiently in the beginning to have her arm reset after breaking it.  It was clear that as time wore on, she used up her goodness and mercy and was becoming really antsy.  Her parents were trying everything to keep her occupied, not with much success.  As any superhero educator would do, I had my Mary Poppins-esque teacher bag along.  I pulled out some printed pages I no longer needed and a few colored pens.  I explained to her parents that I am a teacher, indicating I was a safe person, and wondered if the little girl could still draw with one hand.  Just as I gave the sweet little girl the make-do entertainment, I was called back to the recovery room to get the instructions to care for my friend, and I thought I would never see her again. 

I didn’t, but as we were loading up to leave the hospital, one of the nurses came running back with my pens and this beautiful drawing. 

This picture made my day, because I got to be her superhero when she needed one.

Because I have had to deal with parameters and beliefs others have about me and my life, I could easily absorb them and make them my limitations.  I just simply choose not to, even if they hurt and shock me every time. 

I choose to ignore the non-sense and to make the change I want to see in the world, even if it is one waiting room and one little “student” at a time, I will show up to use the superpower of being an educator every . . . single . . . time.

Shine on, my friends.  Use your superpowers today even if the rest of the world tells you can’t fly.  Take it from me and Buzz Lightyear – you KAN FLY! And, oh the difference we will make!

Love lingers

Hey Reed –

Every year on this day, I cannot believe how much time has passed and yet, in the moments where my heart forgets I can’t just tell you some really great news, it seems like a blink of an eye since you went home to Jesus.  There are so many, many things that have happened around the world this year that have made me feel that if you were here your heart would just simply break.  But within our family, other good things have happened and those would make you smile. 

As we’ve learned about grief and trauma, there is an ebb and flow of good days and those where the aching for heaven consumes us. And February still happens. We knew it was inevitable. The sadness of the month arrived. 

But there were and forever, I guess, will be the moments of divine love that surround us all.

Last night, the trauma of today seemed to be remembered by every cell in my body.  I tossed and turned, almost like my body was fighting because it didn’t want to face this day reliving life without you and with the sadness your siblings will carry forever.   

As we got up and faced the day, a heavy fog hung close to the ground as we drove out of town for a bit.  The symbolism was uncanny.  The sadness our hearts carried enveloped us as we drove around, but just like the miracle of Easter, the sun came out and we were able to walk in your woods and remember all your shenanigans.  Watching an unreal experience of crows chasing an owl made me pause in awe because it seemed as if heaven was reminding us that the intense pain of February only lasts so long. 

Throughout the day, message after message of love and support came flowing in, chasing away the sadness.  Family, friends, besties, and former and current students offered beautiful heartfelt remembrances, and we felt wrapped up in that love.  Through them all I was reminded that February’s pain is not stronger than the love of heaven.

I think when one experiences profound loss, you also have the chance to realize the preciousness of life.  Tragedy also has a way of helping you count your blessings. Nothing will ever replace you, but the love shown to us today and every day remind me of deeply God loves us. Just the other day, I had a beautiful conversation with Mama Joy and in it, I shared that even though I will always miss you, God knew how to fill the ache.  We lost one son, but somehow gained nine others.  From those others, we have been blessed with the most amazing grandchildren who even though DNA doesn’t connect us, the love of heaven certainly does. Hearing their giggles, watching them grow, and knowing that we can share your light with each of them is a gift immeasurable.  I can only imagine that you had a hand in telling Jesus exactly what our hearts needed, and I hope you smile when Lydia, who favors you a lot, asks all kinds of questions about you.  I know my heart soars when I tell her all your stories.

Faith, hope and love and the greatest of these is love. Clearly, my sweet boy, you are missed and loved by many. We’ve learned that while we are separated by the veil between heaven and earth, the love we all share lingers. 

Loving you forever until we can hug you again. 

Love, Momma

When you just have to be creative

I don’t know about the rest of the world, but enduring this pandemic has been challenging, but not always devastatingly so. My life pre-pandemic always seemed to fly by at lightning speed, filled with busyness.  Some necessary. Some of my own doing. The colossal pause created vacillating emotions: relief because I have so strongly desired a way to slow down and rest and sadness because I am a naturally a doer.  The former, in many ways, has been short-lived, but I have enjoyed the moments of intentional quiet and a less harried rushing around. The latter has been fulfilled by being an educator teaching in a pandemic. Every day is an adventure as I try to find ways to engage to connect and build relationships with students in order to support their academic dreams. These efforts rely on my education, my practical experience, and every ounce of creativity I can muster.

Creative thinking is something that many (including me) would argue is not limited to only certain facets of life.   Yet, I think many of us fail to recognize how much creativity enriches our lives and brings a peace we often desire. After spending a month in lockdown, I realized how desperately I needed activities outside of work where I could use my creativity.  Pinning more things to Pinterest boards worked for a bit, but that effort didn’t sustain me. 

When stores opened again in Minnesota in the Spring, my mini-me and I embarked on a walk across town backpacks, masks, and a spirit of adventure in tow to the hobby store to indulge our need to create something.  My fingers longed to do something more than type keystrokes on a computer, and crocheting sounded like the perfect solution. Being in the fresh air and moving with purpose brought joy in every step.  Inside the store, we lingered a bit longer, not because we really wanted more than the couple items we sought, but because looking at something other than the walls in our house was refreshing.  After selecting a few skeins of yarn, we were on our way to the checkout, when an endcap with woodland themed jelly roll quilt strips caught my eye. 

I know.  I went for skeins of yarn and here I was tempted by the oldest marketing trick in the book – the endcap display. I’d always wanted to try one of these quilts, but I came for yarn, not more fabric. My thoughts raced on practicality and necessity, but settled on the knowledge of recent news of a new baby due later in the year who would need a quilt.  But woodland animals.  Who could resist?  Turns out, not me. 

Also, turns out that my longing to be creative is not surpassed by my belief in my ability to multi-task with superhuman strength.  I didn’t dig out the quilt until several months later.  In my defense, I also completed my doctoral research, defended my dissertation, allowed students second and third chances to wrap up spring semester and taught summer school.  Sewing the quilt top was a fun as the tutorial I found.

By the time, I circled back to the quilt, I quickly realized that 1 jelly roll was not enough, but sadly the store was sold out. And now, the baby was due soon; so, off to the store for coordinating fabric to make an outside border and backing.  Thankfully, the cutest little fox fabric was available that coordinated well with the adorable fox in the original fabric. 

Since the original jelly roll creation was too thin and long, I had a bit of extra that could be used to make a taggy blanket.  But then it hit me that I didn’t have a big sister gift for the new baby, and stumbled across a cute tutorial. (Okay, that really happened after spending hours on both Pinterest and YouTube, because I cannot read patterns and needed something simple to follow.) I decided to really go out on a limb to create a coordinating stuffed fox and used some of the fabric for the fox’s belly.  The creativity just kept pouring out. Thank heavens!

The final products reminded me how much I love creating things and how essential the process is to me. Whatever brings you joy, my hope and prayer is you make time to enjoy doing it. I have learned in this worldwide pause that creating something with my hands for someone I love is giving the very best of me. 

Wherever you are today, how might your creativity be used to love someone else?

Comfort and Connection

Maybe it’s getting older.  Maybe it’s the time of year. Maybe it’s the realities of living during a pandemic. Lately, I have spent a fair amount of time in reflection . . . just simply longing. My yearning has little to do with material things.  I am also not hoping with persistent angst of returning to “normal” because there are many aspects of that existence I simply do not miss.

As winter settles in, I find that this year is no different than other winters.  While I love the beauty of the four seasons in Minnesota, I will forever be a Florida girl, and the melancholy gray of winter often drains me.  I long for summer sunshine, but mostly I long for the comfort of the sights, smells, feels, and joys of my childhood days and all the people associated with those memories. Sadly, some of those people have gone on home to Jesus, but my heart aches to have my Mama’s breakfast with biscuits and eggs or my Nannie’s chicken and dumplings.  Oh, to be able to talk in circles with my Papa, and to have my hands grasped by my Granddaddy’s followed by his quintessential Hey Granddaughter! would be one of the greatest joys in a time that isn’t what any of us envisioned. 

While wistful dreaming always brings a smile to face, I decided late last summer and early fall to take tangible steps to bring the connection I long for into my winter months, especially my February.  I embraced years ago the Scandinavian concept of hygge (which I have to believe my adopted Norwegian grandmother, Leone, is beaming in heaven and probably telling my Southern grandparents that was one of her contributions to my development). Rather than focusing on all that is not, I have become intentional about doing the things that bring me joy – finding comfort in keeping intentional connection. I’ve been cooking in my Nannie’s cast iron skillet more, and even developed a black-eyed pea recipe that I know she would adore.  Just like my youngest says at her bakery business stand at the Farmer’s Market, I’ve enjoyed a few foods (biscuits and cornbread, y’all) that are definitely good for my soul, but maybe not for my hips, and I have not lost one minute of sleep over that decision. 

Many years ago, on a visit to my Mama’s house, we went through the closets of the front bedroom that was once mine when I lived with her and Papa in graduate school.  She was ready to clean out some things, and in our exploration, we discovered a few quilt tops that had never been finished.  I asked her what she was going to do with them.  Her response was nothing. She didn’t quilt much at that time, preferring to crochet instead.  As I had only recently gotten into quilting, I asked her if I could have them.  So, with little space in a minivan with four kids, I packed up three quilt tops when we headed on up the road back to Minnesota. 

When we got home, the busyness of life filled our days and those quilt tops were packed in the back of a closet at my house.  Apparently, the apple didn’t fall far from the tree as those beautiful heirlooms (based on the paper piecing on the back some of the newspapers dated to the 1960s) went from closet to closet.  That is until, I decided to be intentional in preparing for the quiet and reflective moments of winter.  As the leaves started to turn, I pulled those old tops out, bought some batting, and fabric for the backs. I spent weeks tying the quilts as they were never really meant for machine quilting, and then completed the binding, using the backs as the borders.  With each one, I thought of the connections through time and love that those pieces of fabric brought to me.

Now as winter has settled in, when I have those moments of longing for warmer places and a whole lot more sunshine, I wrap up in the warmth of one of the quilts. Bathed in memories, the fabric and stitches embody the love shared across generations and remind me of the faith and hope they all passed down to me. Even though longing still comes, the love that transcends heaven and earth will carry me through even the darkest days.

The rush to return to normal

When my pursuit for the jaunty chapeau was almost over, I kept telling myself – Soon, very soon, you will get to return to some semblance of a normal life. For those who have ever pursued graduate studies, we know the dissertation process is not one for the faint of heart.  Recently, I engaged in a conversation with friends who shared “war stories” of vision, wrist, and back issues just to achieve their dreams of a terminal degree.  So, returning to “normal” seemed like an appropriate reward for four years of hard work.  Only in my case (and that of all the other graduates of 2020), the ending was rather anticlimactic because of COVID-19 pandemic restrictions.  Instead of normal, the entire world got a big whopping wallop of not normal.

At the beginning the challenges with coronavirus, with so much misinformation and perhaps overly hopeful wishing, led many to believe that the whole pandemic would be done by fall. Much like when my OB-GYN said based on my mother’s childbirth experiences, our first baby would be born by ten o’clock, fall came and went with no return to normal.  (For the record, ten o’clock came and went and came and went again before that baby made his appearance in the world.)

As infection rates and deaths progressively grew worse, a sliver of hope was on the horizon with the vaccine.  Conversations shifted from “How are you holding up?” to “What’s the first thing you are going to do post-pandemic?”.  (Also for the record, I intend to live up to what my husband says I need to have as warning sign. Look out world! She is a hugger! I am going to hug people – lots of people – perhaps all the people!) The wistful and hope-filled shift was subtle, but definitely detectable.  Like every other human, (Okay, maybe not a few of my much more introverted friends, but in general, most human beings) I am ready to return to some sense of normal. 

But here’s the thing, that normal doesn’t exist anymore.  I am NOT being pessimistic, but rather being transparently honest. Every fiber of my being clings to hope, but I know we must honor the sanctity of humanity and all we have experienced. We have to come to terms with the heart-wrenching losses of people, of livelihoods, of traditions and so much more.  So many losses, tangibly and painfully real, as well as those that exist only in our hearts and minds.  Some wounds rose to the surface in 2020 that if we want true community in this country, we must address because we cannot continue to ignore the real pain that exists within the fabric of our society.

While some will emerge from this pandemic relatively unscathed, others will have lost their entire worlds.  Some will rush to return to normal while others will still be trying to define what their life will look like.  Anyone who has experienced deep loss, especially those who have lost in tragic ways, knows that one cannot simply return to normal.  That previous life or existence isn’t waiting for us in the future.  In grief circles, this is referred to as the new normal.  For others, like me, time is marked by the before and after of the tragedy.  I mark time as before and after the bus crash that changed everything in my life.  This measurement isn’t always a conscious one, but it surfaces when asked to remember something from the past.  I have often heard my husband’s family mark time this way after beloved family business was lost to a fire. I doubt they even realize that they measure time in this manner, but those touched by tragedy are unable to separate themselves from that tragedy.  No matter how hard we try it is always a part of what we carry forward.

As hope emerges to the surface akin to that first breath of air racing in the lungs after seeing who can hold their breath the longest under water, I sincerely hope we emerge with an intentional kindness and grace to recognize that for some, the new normal will be not be an easy transition.  As some will describe first world inconveniences, others will have lost their grandparents, their parents, their siblings, their cousins, their spouse, their childhood friend, their children or even their businesses, their farms, their careers. The year 2020 will be the one that we wish they could erase from their memories, but the pain of that year will be one that lingers. For some for a lifetime. 

In the world of teaching and learning, we frequently have conversations that trauma informed practice will be needed extensively even when the old way of doing school returns.  Yet, I haven’t heard any conversations of boldly and bravely preparing to love those for whom the pains and losses of coronavirus will not be easily overcome.

Using my teacher educator speech, those who know better, do better.

My humble prayer is that in the rush to return to normal, we, who know better, shine brightly for those who will need to be kind and gentle to themselves for a bit longer or for as long as they need. Pack our Kleenexes, our listening ears, our crying shoulders, and every ounce of grace, patience, and love we possess.  If pandemic history tells us anything, the world will heal physically even if our waiting can seem like the beginning of the Narnia tale where it was always winter, but never Christmas.  Maybe, just maybe, instead of exerting all our wishing for the pandemic to be over, we could shift that energy, those prayers, to using our waiting time, asking for illumination on how to love others who will need us most on the other side of this mess.

To my students

I know many of you already know this, but I love you.

I tend to tell you that often, but I feel that today you may need to hear it a bit more than every other day I say it.  I am a big believer in overusing those three words, and don’t get me started on giving a hug when one is needed (even if I can’t right now).

I know we don’t all have the same lived experiences and that we all have different beliefs and fears and hopes and dreams associated with the election outcome.  Even though I have not lived your stories, I want you to know that I will never take for granted the sacred trust you place by sharing them with me.  You teach me new ways of looking at the world each and every day.  It sometimes feels like we are all part of one of those hidden picture puzzles and after hearing your stories, more of the picture of life – life in America – is revealed. 

In hearing both ends of the spectrum on the reasons behind your thoughts on the election, I want you to know that my ears and my heart are listening because if no one has ever told you this before, you are worth listening to.  You are amazing and your ideas for a better world bring me inspiration. Every. Single. Day.

Educators do not take an oath like physicians do, but the day I became a teacher, my life as an individual was over.  I know that some will read that and think I have lost my mind, but truth be told, there isn’t a single moment of any given day that I am not thinking about, worrying about, praying over, and hoping for you. So today, is not really different in that sense, but I see your faces, I see your worries and fears, and I hear your cries. 

For many of you, this is your first election where you were legally old enough to vote and all of the uncertainty is agonizing and frankly exhausting.  We regularly talk about COVID fatigue in class, and all the divisiveness and, frankly, general malaise of disrespect spewed about is draining.  Right now, more than ever, I want to make sure you are safe – emotionally, physically, and mentally.  We’ll get back to academics, but today – do the things that bring you joy and comfort. 

I want you to know that if I had an oath, mine would encompass all the things I currently do: cheer like crazy at your successes and big moments, push you farther than you thought you were capable because you are more talented than you know, sprinkle water on your hopes and dreams to help them grow, talk/text into the late hours because you need a campus “mom”, sit next to you while you cry, bring snacks when I can, go for walks in the fresh air, laugh with you, and bring the very best I have to offer in every class.

You know how I always say that we (the faculty and staff) are here to help and that if I don’t know the answers, I will go with you on an adventure to find them.  In that way I walk alongside you, but there are other times, where you may need a little more.  In those moments, if you need me, I will walk behind you to catch you when it feels like you are sinking.  I will be there to offer a hand up if you stumble, and I will tell you all the ways I do so every day, just so you won’t feel embarrassed.  And if the moment ever comes where you are in danger, you better believe, I will stand in front of you. I will protect you from whomever or whatever wishes you harm. 

I don’t talk about this side of my life to you much, but a few years ago, I had the opportunity to speak in my parents’ church.  I spoke about my journey through grief.  It was a moment that I will never forget because it was a huge church and I had the opportunity to talk about how our words and our actions matter on a topic nobody likes to talk about in America.  And right now, a whole lot of people aren’t willing to talk about things that make them uncomfortable, and yet, those conversations are how we bring about change.

Here’s the crazy part. The thing I remember most about that day was the bulletin handed out had some pretty amazing words.  Words so profound that I still carry them around in my bag. In some ways, I have restructured them to be my oath to you.

To all who desire to learn,

To all who want to grow,

To all who remain curious,

But also, to all who are weary and seek rest,

To all who mourn and long for comfort,

To all who feel lonely and isolated and desire fellowship,

To all who hunger and thirst for change,

To all who need to be reminded how incredible and amazing they are,

And to all who need someone to listen,

This professor opens wide her door and heart for you!

Loved by the best

In a world where people are obsessed with collecting material things, I balk at that sentiment with one exception.  I love to collect the fellowship of new friends and hold them dear in my heart, maybe for a fleeting moment, maybe for a few seasons of life, and some for the rest of their days. Have a rough day in school and need a place to pray, not only will we probably be friends, but so too will our children.  Sit next to me on a plane, and we will most likely be swapping Christmas cards and story ideas for a lifetime.  Reach out to me about wanting to help others as healing for the grief you are experiencing and you will become one of our family’s dearest treasures.   Be my neighbor or my nanny and you become my family.

My niece tells me that I have never met a stranger.  She is probably correct in that assertion.  I simply love people. I love even more when they pick me which is why I feel like my whole world has been knocked off its axis.

Meet “my “Grandma Ruth.

I didn’t so much as pick her as she picked me.  Grandma had been a part of my world for a long time as we attended the same church for many years, but she “officially” became my grandma following the bus crash.  She knew and understood grief, but she also understood loving Jesus, teaching, fellowship, hospitality, writing, loving others, and laughter – all the things that quintessentially define who I am.

Following the bus crash, she began to send me messages of love and encouragement – just not in the traditional way for someone her age, like phone calls and cards.  Oh, she did that too, but I often referred to her as my techo-granny.  The first messages came on Caringbridge, then on this blog, then via email, and ultimately on Facebook.  The depth of her care saw beyond the surface and saw how deeply in the midst of our world spinning out control with endless doctor and therapy visits, multiple surgeries, tired days after fitful nights of lost sleep, and that through the haze of exhaustion I simply needed fellowship.  She saw to making sure that I (just Kandy – not mom, not wife, not educator) wasn’t lost in the shuffle, just the way I imagine a shepherd looking over its weakest sheep.

Those messages turned into an open invitation to join her and her friends for Show & Tell.  See when they never let you graduate out of the 4th grade (the grade she taught for the majority of her career), meeting for coffee and showing off your latest quilting or sewing project becomes Show & Tell.  Sitting around a table or crammed into a booth at Hardees depending on how many of us were there, I felt loved and cherished.  I was the only one who didn’t qualify for an AARP card and I felt that I had been invited to sit at the cool kids’ table. 

By this time, she had become more than the sweet whitehaired tiny phenom at church and she simply became Grandma. She became such a mainstay in our lives that for a very long time our youngest truly believed her that her middle name of Ruth was because she was named after Grandma Ruth.  Because all of my children love her as deeply as I do, we never thought to tell Sal otherwise. 

At some point, she was simply Grandma to all of us.

There are so many precious tender memories that my heart’s song could sing, but I think these are some of my favorites.  

Grandma was talented, though I often felt that she considered herself rather plain.  She was a writer and wrote her life story about which, I am completely biased, but honestly could be made into a movie.  She shared her writings with me, and I had a front row seat to her most precious memories.  Marrying the love of her life on Christmas Day at a military base while he was training for World War II and to celebrate, going to the movies afterward is the one of the most romantic love stories I have ever read. She also began to sketch some of those memories later in life.  Those sketches became cards that she gifted to many of us for Christmas.  She once asked me if I had used them all up and then had a sheepish little grin when I told her I couldn’t bear to part with them because they were her work.  They were simply too precious.

Artwork by Ruth Lee

She watched and prayed for my children through their successes and their hardships.  She loved listening to Sal sing and was so proud of Erin following in her footsteps to become a teacher. I am certain that Sawyer attending the University of South Dakota rather than her beloved South Dakota State University was considered a necessary evil.  Their rivalry was one where they loved to tease each other.  So much so that following her first stroke, she still gave her feisty fist raise. We brought lunch to her family members after church that day and sat with Grandma while they ate.  When more family arrived and the doctors were there to chat, I kissed her on the forehead and told her I loved her.  She was unable to speak and her lucidity was coming and going so soon after her stroke.  I stage whispered because her family are all also State fans that I had called Sawyer to tell him what had happened.  Knowing he was aiming for medical school, I shared that he had one thing he wanted her to know besides how deeply he loved her and everyone expected some morsel of health advice. Then I said it.  Go Yotes!  That familiar spark entered her eyes and she raised the only fist she could and laughed. 

Grandma moved from her mom suite to a nursing center which is where she celebrated her 100th birthday. A decade prior we cut short a family vacation so that we could drive through the wee hours to make it back for her 90th celebration.  But now, with coronavirus restrictions, she was on the other side of a series of glass windows with a phone with ear buds so she could hear us.  At first, she didn’t recognize us, but we just kept talking and telling her we loved her.  Then that spark came back again and she put up to the glass her beautifully aged hands, the ones that once had held mine, that had created beautiful quilts and artwork, and that had wiped my tears.  I put my hand up on the outside window wishing desperately I could hold hers just one more time. In barely an audible whisper, she said, “You are my girl.”  I sobbed the entire way home.  It was her birthday, but I was the one who took home the largest gift.

I know in my heart that the picking of me to be her girl was a direct off-shoot to her greatest sadness, losing her first son while her sweet Bob was still overseas fighting the war.  She was an octogenarian when a dear friend and I hosted the first ever October 15 – Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Ceremony at our church.  Grandma was in attendance and wept for that precious little boy and thanked me over and over for the ceremony because back then we didn’t have such things.  Her grief still real six decades later reinforced that we never get over the loss of a child.  We live, but we carry that brokenness with us.  She frequently told me that she knew exactly the first thing she would do in heaven – I’m going to rock my baby.

The moment I heard of her passing, I knew she had found a rocking chair somewhere in a corner of heaven and she fulfilled her lifelong yearning amidst what I imagine to be one of the biggest homecoming celebrations ever in heaven.  I also imagine a red-headed boy giving her one of the biggest sneak from behind squeezes ever and thanking her for loving his family so fiercely (even if she cheered for the wrong team).

My world feels a whole lot emptier as she was my very last grandmother. Biological and adopted, I have been loved by the best.  To her actual family, thank you for sharing her with all of us, because I know we are not the only ones. 

Grandma – I will always carry all the lessons you taught me about writing, about creating, about loving and serving others, about teaching, and loving Jesus and I will love you forever. 

Save a rocking chair for me to hold my babies one day. 

Love your girl – K

Breathe in, breathe out

One of my cousins who has a heart like mine for loving others, regardless of their story, participates in a ministry called “Mother to Many” which serves homeless youth in Washington state.  Over the course of the last week, I have been a safe landing spot for several women and teens in my life who have been dealing with one of life’s hardest lessons – losing someone they loved. I’ve often wanted to create a sign for my front deck (which I imagine is an actual front porch with a swing, some rockers, comfy cushions and big ol’ pitcher of iced tea) where the sign would sit.  A girl can dream, can’t she?

“Braggin’ and Bellyachin’ Allowed Here”.

We were made to fellowship. Women need a tribe, a circle, an inner sanctum, and if my wistful front deck can be that spot, the welcome mat will always be out.  If you need to celebrate, I will cheer with you.  If your heart has nothing but lament, I will hold your hand, wipe your tears, and rock next to you.

The women in my story are all like my own daughters, but I think my dear friend, Joy, who upon my announcement of first going back to chase the jaunty chapeau of doctoral studies, proclaimed that because she knows me as an extra momma to many in our community, that my official title upon graduation would not be Dr. Kandy Noles Stevens, but rather the more appropriately fitting – Dr. Momma K.  Throughout the last four years, she has always used that title in every exchange and perhaps she won’t know until now, how deeply and profoundly her belief in me encouraged me – EVERY. STEP. of the way.

So, life has brought me back to the place I love now that the textbook readings and exams are over to having the time to be a “Momma to Many” and wiping tears, while listening to the tales of sadness after sadness has been a noble calling.  The unfortunate thing is the loss hasn’t been from an actual death, but rather the ending of a friendship.  From the teenagers in my world to the mommas, discontent and leaving others out or behind seems to be running rampant, and from what I have seen, the women and girls of the world are hurting.

Much like not knowing you lost the plug to your Yeti cooler while driving across country with red snapper caught fresh in the Gulf of Mexico, I wish I didn’t know the stench of losing a friend.  Sadly, both malodorous experiences are ones that clings to your soul.  The fishy smell in my vehicle eventually went away, but the heartache of betrayal and loss never really do. I have learned some truths through my experiences and to be honest, writing about it is about the very last thing I want to do today.  For those who’ve followed my writing over the years, they know that I often wrestle with God about the things I don’t want to share like having someone formerly very dear me tell me that I am doing a horrible job of remembering my son. I just don’t want to share this story, because frankly, the pain cuts too deep.  But just like the horrible truths a momma learns after losing a child, there are corollary truths following the loss of a friendship and for some reason unbeknownst to me, God really wants me to share because I keep waking up in the night thinking about this blog.

In the same way that I can only imagine a prize fighter picking themselves up and assuming a pugilistic stance, protecting themselves from life’s body blows, these sweet women have picked up the shattered pieces of their hearts and came to me with the shards in their hands.  Together we wiped away the splinters and bandaged the wounds as I shared three lessons I have learned when a friendship runs its course.

  1. Despite how we believed a friendship was supposed to last, some people are only meant to come into our lives for a brief moment, teaching lessons we needed at that time, and others will be there for a lifetime. It is easy to confuse the two, but the life long friends show up with your favorite drink and a hug when they know you are going to face a terrible day and you didn’t even utter a word. They sit on your deck and hold your hands as you cry because there was another bus crash. They call simply to breathe God’s words into your ear and pray so fiercely that you find yourself not knowing whether to cry or to celebrate, ending up doing some sort of awkward dance of both.  Finding these women may take well into adulthood, and for some, that girl has been with you since childhood.  Whomever they are, love the momentary friends lightly and let them go, they were never meant to stay.
  2. Some of my sweet women are grieving friendships that started off wonderful, but slowly over time ignored signs that much like the frog in the boiling pot of water indicated clues that the situation was becoming toxic. The ghosting.  The negative things said behind the back, but never to the face. The little things that grow into big things, until an explosion happens.  I have learned the hard way, my dear ones, that in the long run these momentary friends really are doing you a favor.  No matter how deeply it hurts, they really are. For those of us raised with the values of forgiveness and turning the other cheek, leaving behind those friendships which have really soured can be incredibly difficult.  I once heard Christian author and speaker, Julie Barnhill, address this very concept. In any toxic relationship, God isn’t mincing words, forgiveness still needs to happen, but we were never called to hangout with basement dwellers.  Did you read that correctly?  If not, read it again.  God still calls us to love, but we were never asked to be someone else’s punching bag or toxic waste dump.  In the sacred rhythms of life, breathing prayers in, breathing prayers out, and moving on may be the greatest gift of those friends. 
  3. Finally, the granddaddy lesson of them all, Jesus truly gets it. I think in the midst of deep pain we (well, at least, I know I do) forget that while fully God, Jesus was also fully human.  He wept outside his friend, Lazarus’s grave. Much more like me, he got mad and flipped tables.  And he also knows the pain of betrayal and loss of friendship.  Remember he started with twelve friends, whom I would call the inner sanctum, but his time on Earth ended with eleven.  When I first heard a speaker share that truth, I wept, because it was closely following the words that to this day still make me cry, you are doing a horrible job of remembering Reed.  I cried knowing that Jesus knew who would betray him and knew the consequences of that betrayal. While I could say something so trite, almost trivial to another hurting, I understand.  I’ve been there before. Little comfort would be found in those words, but pouring your heart out to Jesus, sage wisdom and endless comfort can be found with him.

Loss of any kind hurts.  Losing a gal pal has its own kind of sting. Beautiful girls – take time to grieve your loss. Mourning is necessary, but allow God to collect those tears in his bottle, knowing that he designed you for fellowship with other women and knowing God has other doors to open while you praise him through tears, sometimes loving from afar, while standing in the hallway.  Hold lightly to those momentary friends, saving space for the tribe of women he planned to hold you close to their hearts all of your days.  For they will be the ones who will walk with you to the finish line, holding your hand and maybe your iced tea, and praying with and for you, every single time.


Some of your lifeline friends will also forgive you when the ocean and salt air makes for interesting hair.  For the record, I only see love and support in this photo.

On heaven’s time, Jesus not only understands the depth of your pain, he once lived it.  And here on Earth, I don’t have all the answers, but what I can promise is there will always be rockers, iced tea, a hug, and a listening ear at my house.

Breathe in, breathe out – you are loved and cherished, even if it at this moment, it doesn’t feel that way.