schooled by a six-year-old

When you finally begin to unpack, rearrange, and reorganize the luggage of life (literal and/or figurative), you are always bound to find treasures. They often make up for the hassle and hard work, as well as the more painful findings.

This round has been no exception.

While (finally) unpacking some boxes from my (last summer!) move, I came across this little gem from my girl’s first-grade journal:

quality_edits

After allowing the initial gushing and wave of nostalgia to wash over me, my daughter’s simple yet wise-beyond-her-years words made me stop and think.

We so often use the word quality when describing our lives and the items and moments those lives produce. We spout the terms quality assurance, quality control, and quality management in our work life; we try to have more quality time in our home life and relationships; we discuss quality of life when facing challenges such as illness, injury, work-life balance, and aging; we seek out the Quality Inn signs on road trips during the alphabet game to find that ever-elusive ‘Q’.

But do we ever really stop to think about the word in its simplest form and meaning?

Quality Inn Sign_full

For a six-year-old unaware of these coined phrases that often lose their meaning with overuse and under-implementation, the word quality simply comes down to the desire for an ideal approach to each and every endeavor — whether at school or at home, whether assigned or initiated — to 1) take one’s time (that is reasonably given as needed); 2) check one’s work (against clear expectations and guidelines); 3) concentrate fully (by being in the moment and reducing distractions and multitasking); and to — consequently — 4) be able to do one’s very best.

At the end of the day, don’t we all want to do our very best? Is this really too much to ask — to be given the tools (including time and training) needed to reach our full-quality potential?

For many workplaces — and sadly, many schools — it is.

In too many instances, we are on a “fast track” of results-oriented learning, teaching, producing, packaging.

Too often we allow others to dictate the definition of quality to us, and we forget that quality is not a job that is “as good as can be expected given the current constraints / workforce / budget / deadlines / contract / student ability / teacher ratio / structure / process / [fill-in-the-blank].”

We are persuaded to buy in to the emergency appearance of quality. Often, we feel we do not have a choice; we feel forced to forfeit pride in our work.

But then just as often we are wrongly called out as part of both the cause and consequence of this illusory “quality” that comes with an inevitable expiration date — and price.

Admittedly, quality is a subjective term and is often measured in tandem with (and tragically too often eclipsed by) its ‘Q’ partner: Quantity (which is, incidentally, not even remotely helpful in the alphabet game).

Here’s what Merriam-Webster has to say on the subject:

Quality — a distinguishing attribute; superiority in kind; degree of excellence; peculiar and essential character; an inherent feature.

Quality is inherently inherent. It distinguishes a person, a piece of work, a path.

When someone at work says, “It isn’t personal; it’s just business,” I have to take pause and wonder what that intrinsically means about that person, that workplace, that work.

Rockwell

If you agree with Norman Rockwell (as my father did and had this painting hanging in his office as an operations manager for thirty-five years), quality of work is personal; it defines the person.

Since Olivia was old enough to toddle around and forage for resources, she has invested countless hours working on projects until the outcome was “just right” by her — and only her — standards.

Be it a sprawling town constructed of cardboard, clay, paper, and plastic, complete with buildings, bridges, moats, roads, homes, schools, and stores; a poster board menagerie of sea otters adorned with calligraphy headlines, colorful borders, and hand-made drawings; or a Powerpoint presentation of sculpted grey clay cats set against a vibrant red backdrop; the message of each project was clear: Olivia would not be rushed and would not stop working until she achieved her own high-quality end goal.

Historically hurried by teachers, art and music tutors, fellow students, and friends to “work a little bit faster” — Olivia has found a way to push back and demand the time and space needed to complete her work to her own satisfaction.

I am proud of my rising eighth-grader for standing her ground in the name of quality. At times, my own frustration and desperation have threatened to take over — in my own work and in the guidance of my daughter’s — as the late nights and approaching deadlines loomed; but in the end, Olivia has always pulled it off, and on her own terms.

These four tenets of quality — captured by my first-grader (and forever-friend as noted below by another found treasure) — sing out to me now as I ponder my next job, relationship, project, path:

  • Take my time.
  • Check my work.
  • Concentrate.
  • Do my best.

20130715_193404

~

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thoughts from the AITC club

Well, here I am again: AITC.

I am surprised to report that, as these lush and languid days progress, daily writing has become more — rather than less — difficult.

Why is it so challenging to sit with the blank page? Why are we able to sit in our office chairs for hours on end and write on demand at the behest of a business, but when given the opportunity to sit and write for our true selves, we blank out and run for distraction?

I take these distractions now and run with them because I can; I am no longer punching a peripheral clock.

A long drive through farmland chasing a magnificent moon.

A brisk walk through town stopping only to observe tiny bits of nature at work.

These moments away from the desk become the fuel for the next thoughts.

Here is one moment: trying to capture the flagrantly full moon out my window while driving. (I know — not safe — and yet, there I went.) Eventually I handed my phone to my daughter, who was only about one-quarter helpful upon being abruptly interrupted from her ipod playlist.

physics of you

The result is an eerie reflection of my seeking self, and a tiny dot of a moon (or is that the camera flash?) caught between my arms. This feels like that strange, dreamlike in-between place of never quite arriving at a destination while watching yourself from outside yourself.

Here is another thought-moment: the juxtaposition of a fluttering butterfly alighting upon a large pile of dog dung.

20130710_115027-1-1

One creature’s waste as another’s nutrition; the cycle continues…

These tiny moments — at once ethereal and down-to-earth — become expanses of fields in which to wander and play and word search (being watchful of the dung-mines, mind you, aka the ‘mud-pudding’ of the insect world).

As I stop off for a large cheese-and-pepperoni pizza topped with parmesan (my daughter’s favorite — which I think her usual half-helpful, glass-half-full self deserves), I am grateful for and somewhat fortified by my dead-on horoscope from C-ville Weekly:

“Breakthrough will probably not arrive wrapped in sweetness and a warm glow, nor is it likely to be catalyzed  by a handsome prince or pretty princess. No, Sagittarius. When the breakthrough barges into your life, it may be a bit dingy and dank, and it may be triggered by questionable decisions or weird karma. So in other words, the breakthrough may have resemblances to a breakdown, at least in the beginning. This would actually be a good omen — a sign that your deliverance is nothing like you imagined it would be, and probably much more interesting.”

I am glad I am not in charge of imagining up my own life. I’ll stick to the daily AITC (ass in the chair) club and see where that takes me next. ~

physics of you

all the places i have lived

all the places i have loved

 

tiny shard shells felling away

a metronome stripping on an

 

emergency stretcher of time

tandem tending to the

 

meetings of

the minds

 

rewinding the cusp

of the fallen

 

reshielding the wall

of the forgotten

 

to cultivate this

cursive flight of the

 

curlew; these astounded

physics of you.

 

~

born free (nine times)

Here I am in my third week of unemployment. Feels like the right time to take some inventory — on this, the day of independence.

I am most certainly ’employed’ — in writing, reading, drawing, walking, playing around on the piano, with my cat, with my kid, with my new phone. I’m even (gasp!) cooking and baking. In some ways, I feel more employed than ever. Or perhaps deployed?

Now if only I could get myself and my kid up and out of bed before noon.

But then again … why? (especially given that we were up until 4 a.m. having a ‘Lord of the Rings’ marathon complete with popcorn and freshly-baked brownies)

I’m reminded of the quintessential icon of independence in our house: Queen Charlotte.

Queen Charlotte

Charlotte is the symbol of doing what one wants, when one wants, without having to justify it to anyone.

charlotte_sleeping

Whether it’s sleeping, window gazing, eating my plants, or giving us the evil eye, Charlotte is in charge of her own life.

charlotte_window

If I stopped feeding her, I am confident she would find a way to get outside and find her own food. She’s crafty like that.

charlotte_wink

And, so, on this day that signifies my favorite number and our country’s birthday, I am going to lock away the guilt (a useless emotion, as noted by a very wise friend) in a very large strongbox and do what I want to do, when I want to do it — i.e., walk downtown in the rain with my kid and watch a matinee of ‘The Great Gatsby’ followed by Splendora’s salted caramel gelato and some festive fireworks.

Speaking of which, this hilarious pic posted by The Feline Friends Cat Sanctuary in my hometown of Massachusetts as a reminder to keep all pets indoors during this raucous celebration is what got me thinking about cats in the first place:

cat_fireworks

Happy 4th!

Be safe. Be yourself. ~

i can’t believe i drank the whole thing

I wish I were referring to an icy milkshake (even with the brain freeze), a sparkling bottle of riesling, or a lukewarm pint of port, but, no — in the last twenty-four hours, I’ve downed four liters of a mammoth cocktail of dread: sodium chloride, sodium bicarbonate, and potassium chloride.

Some of you know what I’m talking about: the god-awful colonoscopy prep drink.

For many, this procedure marks a milestone of a certain age deemed by medical practitioners as the time to scan for colon cancer. For me, this procedure comes at a much younger age — and as a bittersweet tie to my father who died of colon cancer at 63.

My father was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis in his early 30s, which developed into colon cancer by the time he was in his 50s despite having his colon removed. I am 39. According to my doctor, I am ‘overdue’ for this very intimate scan.

As I rapidly swallow mouthful after mouthful of what tastes like watered down cigarettes stewing in a very salty ashtray — mixed with just enough of a tinge of ‘cherry flavoring’ that I will not eat anything cherry-related for months — I think of my father. He went through this procedure multiple times.

I text my mother to commiserate. She tells me, “Your dad was a trooper — but he was never able to finish the whole thing.”

Image

I don’t think I will be able to either. Not without vomiting, passing out, or otherwise going insane.

I tell my daughter that I feel like Dumbledore in the Harry Potter scene in which he has to repeatedly drink the poison so Harry can get to the horcrux. Olivia unsympathetically huffs, “Mom, Dumbledore was drinking actual poison; he was in pain.”

True. Yet fictional. I keep waiting for some kind of pain to kick in, for some of the possible side effects (nausea, bloating, cramps, death) to occur, but the main aversion remains the taste. And the smell. And the feel of this foul liquid going down my throat and into my very empty stomach.

Over the course of the evening as I alternate between gulps of hell and gulps of Gatorade, I watch the level drop in the beastly container. By the time I turn in for the evening (I’ll spare you the other grisly details, only to say that imbibing the drink was far worse than what was going on at the other end), I’ve finished off three quarters of the solution.

I text-whine my friend, who’s been through this before. “Do I really have to finish the WHOLE thing?” She assures me that I need to fully follow all directions, or the doc may not be able to see everything and I may have to have this whole thing done again.

That’s enough to spur me on to set my alarm for 5 a.m. this morning to finish off the remainder of the rancor before heading into the outpatient center. I sip the last of the solution instead of my usual morning coffee. Sip by sip. Glass by glass.

I think of T.S. Eliot measuring out his life in coffee spoons.

I think of one of my mother’s favorite sayings which inevitably always ends up in song: ‘Little by little, inch by inch; by the yard it’s hard, by the inch it’s a cinch.’

I think of my father.

I try not to think about the violation to my body by a stranger that is about to occur in a few hours.

I text my mother to tell her how much I miss dad and to remind her that he wouldn’t have been such a trooper if it hadn’t been for her loving yet no-nonsense nursing during those difficult years.

Dad follows me to the outpatient center.

Image

The man next to me in the prep room also waiting for a colonoscopy has his same birth month and year. The nurse, anesthesiologist, and surgeon each ask why I’m having this procedure so young, to which I respond with another telling of my father’s condition and recent passing.

As I sit waiting, I think about the time I broke my arm and how dad was with me through the whole experience: driving me to the hospital, calming me, reassuring me that I would be okay and be able to play the piano again, distracting me with his story of his own broken arm as a young boy and how it had completely healed.

As the nurse hooks up my IV, I remember all of the IVs, hospital stays, surgeries my dad endured. As I listen to the man’s wife in the area beside me chat nervously while they await the procedure, I am reminded of my mother by my father’s side through it all.

I find myself in a calm state. Though I am alone, I do not feel alone. I feel surrounded by a peace that only God, and the spirit of my father, can bring.

 

Post script:  The procedure went well; while I did not lose the rumored (and let’s face it, coveted) 5-7 lbs. (more like 2) from the prep process, and my last view on my way out was the surgeon checking his email right before beginning my procedure, the taste of those saltine crackers upon waking was down-right heaven.