Poor Alexander and his terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day! I think the only thing worse would have been if it were his birthday that day. He has another book, where he used to be rich last Sunday, anybody know that one? Some of Alexander’s very bad day could have been avoided – if he had not gone to bed chewing gum, he would not have woken up with gum in his hair, right?! And some of it was not his fault. He can’t do anything about having only cereal in his cereal box. What he can do, though, is decide what he will do about these things. He chooses to wallow in his bad day. I say, there’s another way.
We will all find ourselves in a mud puddle at some point in our lives, probably many. They are unavoidable, even by people who are well-planned and organized. Sometimes it is as simple as tripping over something unexpected. Or, sometimes everyone else saw it coming but us. We can even be walking along doing everything right, and still end up in a mud puddle due to someone else's actions! We were pushed! But, no matter how we ended up in the mud puddle, we are responsible for what happens next. We always have a choice on how we react to the events in our lives, and mud puddles are no exception. In order to get the most out of life, we must pull ourselves up out of the mud.
Last year, I started up the After-School Program at the school where I teach. At the end of the year, we had a wonderful opportunity to take the kids over to the Children's Museum and have the space pretty much to ourselves. We even had guides to take us through the different stations. Well, my group was made up of the third and fourth graders. We went all over the place! We went through the obstacle course, we played digital dodge ball, we even raced down the structures from the third floor to the first. By the end of the trip, the kids were hot and sweaty and ready for the water play area outside. The boys immediately started exploring and experimenting. The girls were more hesitant. I don't like this differentiation, so I went over and encouraged the girls, it's OK, get in there and PLAY! So they did, just as much as the boys. I was so proud of myself! I took pictures of the kids, enjoying all the smiling girls AND boys. The predominant feature of the water area is this big bucket, which gets filled from many different sources. When full, it tips over and spills back into the play area. Not onto any people, but there is considerable splashage. I was anticipating the joyful laughter as kids were suddenly splashed from an unexpected direction. Well, I did hear screams, but not happy ones. The majority of our population is African-American, and white girl here had forgotten a cardinal rule: Black hair, once it is done, is not meant to get wet. "My mom is gonna kill me!" and fast-running girls coming towards me. My fellow chaperone, a woman I have known and worked with for many years, was just laughing and shaking her head. She has two girls of her own, and a handy supply of pony tail wraps in her purse. I spent the bus ride home putting hair in pony tails, and dismissal time walking girls to their cars to talk to parents. Thankfully, everyone was OK with the wet hair. Nobody's mom killed them, or me! But there's a mud puddle I won't be stepping in again!
Like me, you are going to stumble into some unexpected or unforeseen mud puddles. Fortunately, they are usually pretty shallow and easy to get out of if you do it right away. It might be embarrassing! I had to tell the parents that the girls had been doing the right thing by hanging back, and I had encouraged them to get closer to the water. I had led them astray! But what else was there to do? I still had weeks to go with the girls and their families. Was I to complicate things by not helping them calm down? Or sit by as they became more upset when their hair frizzed up? What would my relationships with the families be like if I had dismissed crying children, unescorted, to the cars?
Remember we are responsible for pulling ourselves up out of the mud puddle. The first step to getting out of the mud puddle is to acknowledge that you are in one! Don’t sink further into the mud puddles by pretending they don't exist. So, step one: Acknowledge your misstep. Step two is to apologize to anyone you may have accidentally splashed with the mud. Look around! We are on a journey with many people alongside us. When we fall, it may have an affect on others. Apologize for getting them a little dirty. Finally, step three, clean up. Do any repair work that needs to be done, physically or in relationships. Mark the area clearly in your mind so you won’t step there again! Lesson Learned.
Some mud puddles are a little deeper, and harder to get out of. They may involve other people, other issues. Since these can be different every time, and even from person to person, we need to learn how to find effective ways out of these deeper puddles.
One of my early years teaching, I switched to a new grade level and decided to teach all the subjects. It was very exciting to me at the start, a new challenge! I am called to work with the stragglers and strugglers, so that’s who poured into my classroom on the first day of school. It might have been too big of a bite all at once. I started working longer hours, basically until my head dropped at night. I was looking in all my books for how to help these kids. I still couldn’t do it. I felt myself slipping, so I decided to ask for help from the curriculum specialist. To no avail, she did not show for our meetings. Here I am, up to my waist and sinking fast with new curriculum to learn, a classroom full of struggling students, and no support. I already felt overwhelmed with everything that was expected of me. When my principal came to me and said, instead of “good job, Tracy, I see you are working so hard,” she read me the riot act because my kids were not showing the expected growth by mid-year, I sunk to my neck. Panic set in – I felt I was doing all I could, and even when I tried to stretch a hand out and ask for help, I was grasping at empty air. I was so wound up in my panic that I couldn’t even think straight any more. I really, really wanted to just say, “It’s her fault! She won’t help me!” But I couldn’t. For one, that sounded awfully childish to me, no matter how I tried to word it. But more importantly, that would not help the kids catch up. No matter what someone else is supposed to do, I am ultimately responsible for their learning. I realized I could not keep doing what I had been doing. All it was getting me was deeper in the mud. So I took a sick day. Call it a Mental Health Day! I’d like to say I spent the entire morning just on me. But truthfully, I cried myself to sleep that night and then slept ‘til noon. But in the afternoon, I was able to take a fresh look at my mud puddle. Still neck deep in it, I hadn’t gained any ground! But I was in a better frame of mind to think. I eventually discovered that I had other resources than just my one co-worker. There were other teachers available, there were workshops offered by various groups away from my school. There were other ways to pull myself up. I still had to work hard the rest of the year, but this time with more direction. And one or two more “Sick Days”! By the end of the year, most of my kids were back on track, and I was out of the mud puddle.
You are bound to find yourself in a few deeper puddles along the way, though I hope they are few and far between! These can be more complicated, and you may need different ways to effectively get up out of these puddles. First, stop digging and flailing! If you keep flailing you will only make a bigger, deeper hole. This makes it all the more difficult to climb out. So stop! Second, take a deep, relaxing breath. I took a whole day! The wonderful folks who research how our brains work have found again and again that we cannot solve problems when we are in panic mode. The only thing I could think of while I was neck deep in the puddle was to blame others. Hardly a solution. Breathe. Next, think about your puddle, what is your mud? You know what you have been doing isn’t working. And you might not be in control of all of it! I could not make my co-worker do her job, that is on her. I can only control me. Look for other resources, other avenues. Ask other folks for help if you can. Finally, start climbing out. It is hard work, and you may have some slip-backs. Remember to breathe. Keep at it until you are out. Go ahead, do a victory dance!
So we have shallow, fairly easy-to-escape puddles. We have deeper, panic-induced puddles, which take some work but are escapable. And then, occasionally, we fall and quickly sink deep into an ocean of quicksand. These are not simply puddles. These are the ones we get lost in, where we are sucked under before we even have a chance to catch a breath. In here, we convince ourselves that the quicksand is all there really is.
I think my adult life has followed a fairly typical pattern. I moved away from home and went to school. I met someone and got married. I got a job, we had some kids. We bought a house. I had many names. I was mom, teacher, wife, friend. Daughter. Dog-owner. Sister. Festival-goer. Beer Snob. Many things! And then one day in an August several years ago, my mom died. I was completely blindsided by her death. She was not 100 and at the end of a full life. I had just visited her a few weeks before, and spoken to her on the phone only days before her death. I was in shock. I came out of it a little bit when I went to close up her house. I cried at the appropriate times, I seemed to be moving through the grief process. But I found that as the months passed, I had only one name. The Girl Who Has No Mother. When Thanksgiving rolled around, I looked around and saw, not the family in front of me, but the empty chair. At Christmas, even at school, someone would mention their plans for the holidays and I would go to the bathroom and break into sobs. I have no mother. This is what I mean when I say an ocean. It was all I could see. I sat in that quicksand for months, not even trying to get out. I couldn’t see a way out. When you get sick, what do you do? You call your mom. When you are hurting, what do you do? Call your mother. What do you do when you have no mother? After a long time sitting there, I called my friends. One very dear friend rowed out into the middle of all that mess, grabbed me by the hand, and pulled me into the boat. OK, so you don’t have a mother. You are now The Girl Who Has No Mother But She Has One Good Friend. It took the help of several more people to get me out of the quicksand completely. And even after being out of it for many years, I still find stuff between my toes now and again. Mother’s Day is a complicated holiday for me. But it is no longer hopeless.
May you never, ever find yourself in this kind of puddle. I would not wish this on my worst enemy, as the saying goes. But life is not all sweetness and light. There is a line from a song I will share with you later that says, “We crawl in the dark sometimes and think too much.” If you do find yourself here, I give you permission to scream and holler about how unfair it really is. Shout it to the world! But don’t stay there. Don’t get lost. You cannot get out of these alone. There’s only one way out of this one: talk to someone. Your friends will not mind, call them. We have a minister, he’s been through some quagmires of his own. Call him. If you think your ocean of quicksand is so bad you don’t want anyone you know to hear of it, seek out a therapist. But talk to someone. This will be a long process to get you un-stuck. Keep talking. There might be times when you get so tired, you feel like giving in to the quicksand. Keep talking. We might not be able to pull you quickly and easily out of the muck, but we can hold you while you rest. Even when you think you are clear of everything, you will have moments where you find you missed a spot! They won’t be as bad as drowning, but still keep talking.
So, why can’t you just sit there and wallow in the mud? Because you don’t really want to be there. You don’t have to be. You can find a way out of any hole you may have fallen into, be it a shallow puddle of a misunderstanding or a vast ocean of pain. You can do it, and if you need help you can find it. It may not be a simple, easy fix! But you can get clear of it. Start now. Begin today.