Wednesday, August 31, 2016


There's recently been a teacher's note that went viral about why she was not going to assign homework this school year:

It states that homework will not be assigned, and that studies have been unable to prove that homework improves learning. She goes on to give ideas or time better spent in the evenings such as eating dinner as a family, reading, playing and getting more sleep. I agree with her list of alternatives - all those things make for a more well-rounded, kind, and more confident kid. I have not taken the time to look at studies about the topic, although I'm pretty sure that if I looked hard enough I can find studies that support and debunk her theory. But, I can recall my experience with homework and the struggle I have as a parent when my daughter comes home time and time again with no homework.

I got homework in nearly every subject every night. We were assigned work to do in the class room and if that wasn't complete by the end of the lesson, it was added to the homework already assigned. Aside from core subjects, I had weekly spelling words, religion homework and memory work. I recall falling asleep on my textbooks, crying because my bedtime was approaching and I was not finished, worrying that I would forget the order of letters for my weekly spelling test, and even doing homework in the back of a family room during a funeral.

Homework was serious business in my household. But, we still did all the other things on the list the teacher provided. Family dinner was a must and the books were to be put away before my mom set the table. The rule was that homework and studying had to be done by bath time, which was about half hour before bedtime. If I could not meet that deadline, I knew I was going to lose out on a privilege or treat later that week. I found the time to read for fun, play with my siblings and friends, and even get about 10 hours of sleep per night. I also rode my bike and played in the snow, despite having hours of homework. 

Maybe I was a super nerd, but for the most part, I enjoyed doing homework. It wasn't necessarily the act of the work, but doing a good job, turning in neat and completed assignments that showed my understanding of the subject matter, and making my teacher and parents proud were important to me. Aside from that, I felt a sense of accomplishment at the end of week when I knew that I had kept up with everything that was expected of me. Sure, there were times when I didn't want to do it and whined and cried about it, but that was not the majority of the time. 

Looking back, having regular homework taught me a lot about myself, what I am capable of and how to study. That feeling of doing a good job and taking pride in my work stayed with  me well beyond my school days. It is part of my every day whether  at work or writing a story. It was what pushed me to get an MFA in writing even though I know that publication is possible without an advanced degree. 

I learned to be disciplined. Playing, reading and being with family and friends were all more attractive ways to spend time that doing homework, but I knew those things were waiting for me at the finish line and the faster I did my work, the sooner I could get to them. Homework taught me to prioritize my time, which has paid off in the time management I use on a daily basis. People often ask me how I find time to blog, write novels, raise a child, work and full and part time job, volunteer and make time for a social life. It's thanks in part to learning how to set and manage time from the days of sitting at my kitchen table completing assignment after assignment. 

If I hadn't created the habit of homework plus studying for weekly spelling and memory tests I might have been one of those first-generation college undergrads who doesn't survive their first semester because they don't know how to study. As sad as that sounds, I saw a lot of that my first year in college and am proud to this day that I did not fall into that statistic. 

Day after day my daughter comes home with no homework. I have had to implement a daily reading and math practice regimen in order to try to help her develop some of the habits and learn some of the life lessons that regular homework taught me. It's tough, though because she knows she isn't getting credit for it and she doesn't understand the long-term benefits those habits can lead to. I get it. I didn't see it at her age, either, but I didn't have the option of resisting. I knew good grades would be my ticket out of my neighborhood and there was no time to waste complaining or bucking the responsibility. Besides, my parents would never have allowed that kind of slack and poor attitude from me. I try, but I am afraid that I am failing to create the same helpful lessons in my kid. I fear that she will become a statistic and will be ill-prepared to face the self-motivation and resolve it takes to be a high achieving adult. When she gets to college, I worry that she won't know how to manage her time to ensure success because she will expect to learn everything she needs to know from lecture, not having a clue the extra time and attention professors expect to happen beyond their class. 

I have friends who are teachers who have expressed the frustration of policing homework and I get that, too. But, maybe I'm old-school, but I believe students are missing an opportunity to learn something well beyond the subject matter or preparing for tests when homework is taken out of their educational experience. I wish I could find a happy medium that would relieve my fears about my daughter's lack of preparation for the real world, yet not add undue stress to teachers. In the meantime, I am grateful that I grew up with teachers who believed I could do the extra work, parents who believed in my abilities, and that I was smart enough to get more out of it than the assigned task and subsequent quiz score. To those teachers who assigned homework and expected it completed and on time, I thank you. I hope my daughter runs into more like you throughout her education so she, too can learn more about herself and all that she is capable of.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

A Reason

I was practically clapping and cheering in my seat as I read an article the other day. It was titled: 

Everything Doesn't Happen For A Reason and it articulated a lot of what I have felt since becoming a widow.

Growing up Lutheran, I believed that everything happened for a reason, and that reason was God's will. That was ingrained in my head and I believed it without reason to question. Having a relatively tragedy-free childhood, that belief was never challenged.

Now that I have been through not only my loss, but heard of others as well, the saying "Everything happens for a reason" is like acid on my heart. I don't buy it. How can there be a logical reason why a person as caring, driven and kind as Warren is gone? What reason can possibly make sense? 

I heard that so many times during the wake, funeral and weeks after Warren died, and I was thinking too foggily to respond appropriately. But that didn't stop it from being one of the more painful things I ever heard. It implies that there is a reason greater than logic, greater than love, greater than what Warren and I deserved, greater than what everyone who loved Warren deserved. I could not - will not accept that as truth.

That statement is hurtful even when it does not apply to me. How can a mother watching her child suffer from illness believe that there is a purpose more potent than her love and will and protect her child? How does that statement bring comfort to someone who is in pain, wondering how they are going to survive a tragedy or horrible incident? 

Do the refugees of war sleep better at night knowing that their loss and suffering have a purpose they may never know? Do rape victims feel safer because their pain was for a reason that perhaps they can learn and grow from?

In times of hurt, people often want to find a scapegoat, but we know deep down that it will not bring comfort. Implying that we should be looking for a silver lining in the face of devastation diminishes our healing process. Part of the process involves questioning why the hurtful incident happened, but I am willing to bet there hasn't been a reason offered that feels satisfactory to the person asking. There are more sensitive ways to offer support to the grieving because to us, there is no reason great enough to justify the pain of our loss. All the reasons in the world do no lessen the blow of the tragedy, and trying to explain it away only devalues something that is of utmost importance. 

Please, the next time you are looking for the words to comfort someone who is in pain, grieving, scared, or in need of some form of healing do NOT invalidate them by telling them that there is some greater purpose for their suffering. If you're at a loss for words, say that. If you are scared for them, share your feelings. If words fail you hug them. 

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Still In the Family

When I became a widow there were a lot of things I learned from other widows about the new world I had become a part of. One of the things that was surprising was how many widows were completely ignored and dismissed by their in-laws. Many had children with the deceased, yet the grandparents of those kids removed themselves from their lives after their loss. I heard sad story after sad story about families walking away and not looking back, or causing more drama to the lives of those surviving the loss. In fact, within the widow community, the common term for in-laws is out-laws. 

That would be devastating to me. One of the greatest gifts I got on my wedding day was a set of incredible in-laws. From Warren's parents and sister, to his aunts, uncles and cousins, they are ALL family. My family. My daughter's family. They didn't turn their backs on us just because our initial connection was gone. We mourned together. We remember him as a family. The love is genuine and lasting, even as they meet my new love interest and see how much my life has changed. Our relationship is deep and goes beyond a piece of paper. 

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I take it for granted until something reminds me how lucky I am. Most recently, it was a visit from my parents in law. They came for a week and it felt so good to have them in my home. They are a wonderful couple, but aside from that I paid attention to how much of a family we are. They get along great with my parents; they shower my daughter with love and attention; they genuinely enjoy spending time with my siblings and their children; they support me and take pride in what I do with no pretense that ties my accomplishments to Warren.

The day Warren died my mother in law told me that she wanted me to find love again. When I found it she wanted me to feel comfortable introducing him to her, knowing that I have her support. At the time I thought it was terribly insensitive and couldn't imagine the day I would do so. Fast forward four and a half years when I did just that. I was nervous and had no idea how it would go. I shouldn't have been worried. She was gracious and welcoming. My nervousness melted right away. They got along and we laughing and sharing stories right away. My father in law was just as accepting. We shared meals and time and it never felt awkward. 

It could have gone very differently. Finding romantic love could have meant losing familial love. or brought on shame, but instead, it showed me true humility and honesty. They want my happiness as much as their son did. It's a reminder that family isn't limited to blood. It is a choice to show unconditional love and acceptance even when you don't have to. It lasts beyond tragedy and loss, death and legal documents. I am so lucky to have learned it from personal experience and examples. I hope it is a lesson that is carried on by my daughter and the kids who have seen and felt the same love that I have from the family who said their "I do's" about me the same day I said mine about them.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Back to the Grind

After ten days of paradise, it's time to get back to reality. While I wish paradise never ended, I get a feeling of purpose whenever I return from a trip. It serves as a reminder that traveling is essential to my soul. I need to find ways to make it a regular occurrence in my life. Very little else in life feeds my soul the way that travel does.

The change of pace and scenery refreshes my creative juices. It lights a fire that wanes with the confines of every day life. When I am away from my routine my brain works differently, it is more alert, even though my body is usually fatigued.

In an ideal world, I would get back from a trip and have time to seclude myself and write. Since that isn't my life, I have to be satisfied with the knowledge that I had some time away from the norm and recall that energy in the moments I can steal away to get some words out.

If I had been traveling without kids, I would have taken my laptop and set aside time to write while listening to the waves, or at night to the din of the coquis. But spending 12+ hours entertaining kids and making sure they are tired out, while also de-escalating their spats along the way. it took a toll on me and by the time they were finally in bed, my brain wasn't thinking about stories.

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So, I am back to looking for spaces between life where I can write in the cracks, orchestrating a few uninterrupted hours of solace to allow for the after affects of vacation to kick in and get some writing done. The challenge is doing so before the grind takes over and the mindset vanishes. Sadly, that happens so quickly, the window of opportunity is tiny, like that of a Hobbit's home and if I don't grab it I will lose it. I guess that means I need to plan another trip - and that's not such a bad idea.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Isla del Encanto

I am often asked, "Where are you from?" while I know it's a disguise for, "Why do you look so different than what an American 'should' look like?" It's a loaded question for me. But, the truth behind all the PC layers is that my blood runs thick with Taino, European and African blood that took root on a small island nation that belongs to the US in the way that indentured servants belong to their masters. 

This week I get to explore that place with my boyfriend, daughter and nephew. My daughter is quick to identify as Latina, but has only explored the Mexican side of her culture. She has never been to Puerto Rico. My nephew went as a toddler but is old enough now to create lasting memories. My bf has never been out of the country so this should be entertaining.

As a child I visited my family in Puerto Rico a few times. I mostly recall the food, playing with my cousins, the beach and my grandparent's homes. As an adult Warren and I got to spend time in various parts of the island I had never seen before. I still laugh at the memory of him trying to cover his Mexican accent with one he thought was more Puerto Rican, and being disappointed when asked where he learned Spanish. That was typical of Warren, though. He would visit a country and jump into the culture, love it and accept it without judgement. That is what I want to show my daughter and nephew. 

Puerto Rico is beautiful and we'll certainly enjoy the mountains, the beaches and the rain forest. But I want the kids to come away with more than that. As a child I had a diverse group of friends, neighbors, and family members. I loved how so many elements of my heritage could be found in theirs as well. Being a blend of three continents makes for a rich tapestry of foods, music, vernacular, and appreciations. I had family members as blue-eyed as my Polish friends, and some as dark as Harold Washington, the first black mayor of Chicago. 

Learning about the history of the island and the Puerto Ricans who made that history instilled pride and a feeling that I come from strong, assertive and resilient stock. That isn't unique to Puerto Ricans, and I am thankful to share that with other nationalities and cultures. It is a good reminder when times are tough and I want to chuck it in the fuck-it bucket to remember that my lineage consists of these traits and I can live up to them. 

During our time on the isla del encanto I hope to gift that to my daughter and nephew. Being in the place of their descendants, seeing first-hand the place that so many have fought and continue to fight for, hearing the accents that make up the Puerto Rican colloquialisms, getting to know our family who call the island home, walking through historic landmarks that have come to define the island globally are all on the agenda, along with lots of comida criolla, salt water and tan lines. When we get back, I hope that the kids will walk with a little more pep in their step, feel more connected to their history, and feel proud when they get asked that unavoidable question about where they're really from.

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