Monday, October 30, 2017

That time lice taught me about happiness

I'm going to be all over the place tonight. I know this now. The last couple weeks have been kind of nonstop and full of stuff. Work stuff and school stuff and friend stuff and sibling stuff and kid stuff and spouse stuff. You know all the stuff. 

When I sit down to write any thoughts, it's as if they're dollar bills swirling around one of those money-blowing machines. What's the thing I want to say? What's the thing to share? What can I hang on to?

Today, oddly enough, I find myself clinging to the bills marked "happiness."

And, oddly enough, I think it started with the lice.

Yeah. You read that right. 

The lice.

As in the lice we found casually crawling around both girls' heads a couple weeks back. The lice that required the application of some pretty pungent shampoo followed by hours and hours and hours of combing through their hair in search of wayward bugs and eggs.

I now have an intimate understanding of the word nitpicky. Up until a couple weeks ago, I'd never describe myself as being particularly nitpicky. I've always felt pretty laid-back a little bit more loose-y goose-y when it came to details. No, it wasn't until I was literally picking for nits that I realized just how nitpicky I can be. It was a real moment of clarity and self-awareness. 

But that's not where the happiness came in.

That came from all the time I got to spend with my girls. All the hours they had to sit in front of me as I sorted through their hair section by section. I haven't studied their scalps so closely since they were infants. And it brought me back to those moments of their babyhood– when I had to be so careful and so gentle and so thorough. How I had to invest so much time in them. As they've gotten older and more independent, those moments are becoming fewer and further between. It filled me with a sense of peace almost that I could still be that sort of mother to them. Who could embrace them and care for them in their ickiest moments. 

Nitpicking. It's both humbling and kind of empowering. 

And also amusing.

Because then I got to experiment with fun hairstyles the girls would never, ever, ever let me do otherwise.

And then there was how nonplussed the girls were by the whole thing. They weren't freaked out by the bugs. Weren't embarrassed either. We told them that until we'd done the second RID treatment, they shouldn't hug any of their friends. We practiced this whole routine where if a friend was going in for a hug, they'd hold out their hand and say "Stop! High five!" 

Lily went off script a little on the way to school one morning when she ran into her friend and shouted proudly, "Stop! High five! I have head lice!" 

As Brad tells it, her friend's mom (our friend and neighbor) did a double take and might have gone a bit pale before asking Brad if she'd heard Lily correctly. To be absolutely clear, at this point, she had no living lice on her head. Still. The mention of lice living or dead would make anyone a bit cringe-y and a bit itchy.

Good news though. We're officially lice free. 

Big win. More happiness.

This whole lice episode happened just a week before I was schedule to spend five days in middle school subbing for a special ed teacher. I'd agreed to the job a while back. As it neared I found myself kind of regretting that I'd signed on to do it. Middle school hasn't become any less anarchic since I first started subbing. And special ed is its own unique brand of chaos. A unique brand of chaos that I've had zero training for. I worried that I was way in over my head. 

That worry was not unfounded. I kind of lost track of the number of times I had to ask myself what hell I was doing– like during garden club, when I watched in horror as one of my students nearly decapitated a kid planting seeds during some especially exuberant hoeing or all the times I had to pray that the kid who just ran out out of the classroom shouting bathroom would actually return. 

They kind of run you around in circles, these kids. Completing two worksheets on mixed numbers seems straightforward enough, but doing it with students who wander the classroom reciting entire episodes of "The Littles" or who spend a majority of the class making fart noises on their arms while their classmates groan in annoyance or who refuse to even look at the work in front of them because they're already convinced there's no way on earth they can do it– trying to get work done under those circumstances is nothing short of a miracle. 

Part way through the week I was forced to accept that it was OK that I had no idea what I was doing. That there was no one single formula that would work in these classes– except for patience. So much patience. And the willingness to plow ahead through the absurdity. And to laugh about it even. And to celebrate any win, no matter how small.

I felt pretty good about myself when I remembered to hide the Play-Doh before the class with a habitual Play-Doh eater arrived. My pride was quickly tampered when said Play-Doh eater showed some problem-solving skills and grabbed a glue stick and ate a chunk of it. I mean, they are trying to teach these kids to have some flexible thinking– so, if you think about it, it's kind of a win.

(I made a note to myself to hide the glue sticks, too.)

But this same student– a boy who rarely talks except to ask repeatedly for an iPad (he liked to watch "Sesame Street" during downtime)– surprised me when he started singing "Here Comes the Sun." I sang it back to him, "here comes the sun" and he did the "doo, doo, doos" and then I sang, "and I say" and he sang "it's all right." 

And then he asked for an iPad (uh-gain).

But I didn't care. Because my heart was smiling. 

You know, this what you get in this life. These moments. This is it. That's what special ed has taught me. We're all fumbling through this life in our own ways. Whether we're the (substitute) teacher trying to show students how to add fractions or we're the student who's overwhelmed by fractions and who just wants to listen to the theme song for "Strawberry Shortcake" 15 times in a row (she may be small, but no task is too tall). We're all kind of winging it. Instead of panicking– maybe we just need to go with the flow. 

Don't worry, be happy.

This is hardly revelatory, I know. Boy do I know.

I have an entire page-a-day calendar about happiness that keeps reminding me of this exact thing almost every day.

There's a whole self-help industry that's centered on teaching all us broken people how to be happy. And in the end the message is always the same, it's the little things. 

At the start of the year, under advisement from Liz Gilbert, I bought a jar that I was supposed to fill with notes about what made me happy each day. That jar is far from full. Not because there haven't been things that have made me happy every day, but because I haven't made it a point to write them down. To acknowledge them as more than just an isolated passing thing. 

The thing is, while these moments that make us happy might be fleeting and finite, strung together, they strengthen the fabric of our lives. And anyway, they're only fleeting because we forget them so quickly. We don't allow them to become more permanent in our brains. We allow them to run off into obscurity because we don't think they're important enough. But they are.

They are important enough. They're the most important.

"And I say, it's alright."

This week as I'm grabbing at the bills swirling around me, I'm aware of so many more moments that are worth noting. Like instead of staring at the night sky polluted by the lights of the suburbs, I'm staring at the sky in the middle of nowhere. There are so many more stars. All the stars.

Here are some from the past week:

  • Taking the girls to see my friend Stephanie's dad, who I hadn't seen in years, and listening to he and Lily exchange terrible jokes (he was always known for the dad-est of dad jokes. i.e. "What do you call a bear with no teeth? A gummy bear." Har. De Har. Har. Har. Lily has met her spirit animal.)
The girls, posing with anthracite coal, shortly after Stephanie's dad says,
"Come over here! I'll show you what anthracite coal looks like!"

  • The girls making dying cow noises back and forth with my 17-year-old nephew Finny as we pulled away from their house. To be clear, the dying cow noises were awful. But engaging in obnoxious shenanigans with their cousin? Priceless.
  • Listening to one of the students last week ask another teacher for a ride home because he didn't want to ride, "the junky bus." Because what kid doesn't think the bus is junky?
  • Getting a surprise package with Stephanie's handwriting. The same handwriting she's used for letters and packages to me for the more than 20 years I've known her. How lucky am I to have such wonderful friends for so much of my life?

  • Randomly giving a mom and her 12-year-old daughter, in town from Arizona, a ride to the Metro station and learning that the girl is a near pitch-perfect incredible singer after she serenades us.
  • Jovie as Poppy from "Trolls" and Lily as Elena of Avalor.

Subbing in special ed last week was exhausting. I came home every night wanting to sleep forever. My brain hurt. So did my feet. But on Friday, when another special ed teacher asked if I could come in for her on Monday, I said, yes.

Because they're teaching me about how to be a better human. 

A portrait of me. Drawn by one of the students I taught last week.

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