Fear · retirement · Spirituality

A night in the wild

Do something every day that scares you.

When I retired two years ago, I found this saying on a magnet and put it on my refrigerator so that I would remember that it was time to push myself and try new things. I’ve decided that a scary thing every day may be too much, but a challenge most days keeps me from getting too bored with myself.

So when my friend Angela asked me if I was interested in joining her and two other friends on an overnight camping trip to Cumberland Island, followed by two nights in Savannah in an AirBnB, I got excited. I had always wanted to go to the secluded island on the southern tip of Georgia and see the famous wild horses. The trip was going to fall two weeks after my second vaccination and seemed like the perfect way to break out of isolation.

But spending the night in a tent was a little out of my comfort zone. I had not camped in over twenty-five years, and most of that was in the backyard when Adam was little. Fortunately, Angela had reserved a site that was near a bathhouse with toilets and cold showers, so we weren’t exactly going into the wilds. Angela, Rosanna and Marissa were all experienced campers and I figured they could keep me alive for one night. Still, it was not going to be the Hilton. It felt both scary and challenging.

I had to borrow a sleeping bag and tent from Adam. He patiently showed me how to put the tent up in his yard, all the while muttering about how he never heard of old retired ladies going camping. I let him know that I was not over the hill yet and that the other three were younger than me and not retired. Plus, these are some of the most active women I know. One of my fears was that I would not be able to keep up with them.

I spent a week planning and packing for my big night outside. On Saturday morning we met to cram all of our gear into Angela’s car. We looked like we were staying for a month with all of our coolers, folding chairs, and backpacks. But we managed to get it all in and took off to spend a night at Saint Mary’s, where we would catch the ferry the following day to the island.

We were up at 5:30 the next morning for a run on the empty streets of the town — did I mention this was an active group? — then loaded back up for the short drive to the ferry. We had to move all our stuff onto the ferry, then, after a beautiful cruise, move it off the ferry and make our way to the campsite. (This was hilarious, but I will save that story for another time.)

Cumberland Island was wonderful! The palmetto plants and trees covered in Spanish moss seemed like something from a movie set. I kept waiting for Tarzan to swing through the bushes. With no vehicles and few people, it was quiet and relaxing. I decided that even if I got eaten during the night, it would be worth it.

Working together, the four of us managed to get my tent up and hammocks strung in the trees for them. We ate lunch and took off to explore the southern end of the island on bikes. After a few hours we came back, got our beach gear and walked the short distance to a magnificent expanse of pure white sand and ocean. Although a little too cold for swimming, the sun was hot and the water was soothing on my tired legs.

By the time I crawled into my little tent that night, I figured I would be exhausted. It had been a pretty full day! But I had trouble settling down. The weather was muggy and I laid on top of the sleeping bag, worried that I would be too hot to sleep. I kept thinking I heard the armadillo we had seen earlier and was waiting for him to poke his pointy nose in at me. Then the wind started to blow and little leaves fell on my tent and sounded like rain. I got worried about Angela, Rosanna and Marissa sleeping in the hammocks out in the weather. Would they need to come pile in with me if a storm came up?

My little tent

But despite the wind and night noises, the day finally caught up with me. The air cooled and I slid into the sleeping bag. Before I knew it, I was sound asleep. I woke up feeling surprisingly refreshed. I had done it!

We made our way back to civilization and enjoyed our hot showers, but we all agreed that we wanted to go back and stay longer next time. I think a few days on Cumberland would definitely be good for my soul. 

I’ve been thinking about overcoming fears and challenges in my life and here are a few observations:

  1. Each of us has different fears to overcome. Sleeping outdoors in a hammock was too much of a challenge for me to take on, but Angela, Rosanna and Marissa loved being under the stars. Riding a bike around the island was out of the comfort zone of one of our group, but she soon adjusted and was riding like a pro by the time we stopped. And as we were leaving, I ran into my friend Janice Wycherly, who was on the island to backpack in the wilderness section by herself for several days! That takes some courage!

I know people that overcome challenges every day by just getting out of bed. I hope that as I push myself I will become more sensitive to the obstacles others face.

2. Taking on a challenge and getting through it makes me more confident to do the next thing. Now that I’ve spent the night in a tent, what’s next?

3. I need other people to help push me out of my comfort zone. Throughout the trip, the four of us worked together, encouraged each other and laughed at ourselves. I’m thankful for friends and family who help me be my best self.

    We all felt God’s presence in the stillness of the sky and ocean around us. I felt Him there with me in that tent, probably telling the armadillo to poke around somewhere else. I sometimes have to remind myself of His presence when I start to worry about what the future may hold. Knowing that God goes with me in the small challenges in my life gives me the peace to know He will be with me in the big challenges that will come. 

After our night on the island
Back to School · retirement · Spirituality · Teachers

You Got This

About this time last year, I was out shopping and enjoying one last day of freedom before pre-planning started for the school year. As hard as I tried, I couldn’t shake the “back to school” anxiety that had kicked in and my stomach was already twisting into knots. I knew that no matter what I did to try to get ahead of the tide, the first weeks of school would be overwhelming and exhausting.

Most of my worry was self-imposed. Even after twenty years as a media specialist, I was always afraid that I wouldn’t measure up. I wanted to do my best to help the teachers at my school, who would be working feverishly to get their classrooms set up and needed their technology working.  I wanted to make sure the new staff members felt welcomed and had their questions answered.  I wanted the media center to be cleaned up and inviting when the students came in. And there were always endless meetings and new policies to take in and books to be ordered and computers to be cataloged. On top of all this, I was coaching Cross Country, which started up immediately. Once the first weeks were behind me, I knew I would settle into a comfortable rhythm, but the dread of going back hung over me like a cloud. Could I do it one more year?

Then God spoke to me as I pushed open the glass door to TJ Maxx. Sitting atop a display was a small square sign that said, “You Got This.” I needed to hear those words of encouragement!

I bought it for $5 and put it by the check out computer in my media center. When I did my beginning of the year spiel with the students, I encouraged them to have confidence that they would make it in middle school. I hoped that seeing the sign might give them a little boost each day, but it was really there for me. I needed to hear God’s voice telling me “You got this” on a regular basis.

 “You Got This” could be a modern translation of Philippines 4:13, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” That verse is telling us that we can get through whatever comes before us, only just not by ourselves. On my own I can push through and get some things accomplished but to do my best in life, I need to be in sync with the Holy Spirit inside me. And when those times come when I can’t see how I’m going to make it, this verse gives me the assurance that I don’t have to do it all by myself.

 I’m learning to take every little detail of my day and give it over to God. Once I’ve prayed about what’s worrying me and asked Him for what I need — patience, clarity, focus, stamina, forgiveness, understanding — then I feel freed up to do the work necessary. And here is the anxiety cleansing part — I hear God saying, “You Got This” and I can go forth in confidence.

Sarah Ban Breathnach, in her devotional book Simple Abundance, writes about the delicate balance between our expectations in life and reality. “If your reality lives up to your expectations, you’re happy. If it doesn’t, you’re depressed.” Her advice is to do your best, then let go of the outcomes. “You dream. Show up for work. Then let Spirit deliver your dream to the world.”

This year I’m writing magazine articles and planning a beach trip instead of stressing over getting everything ready for the first day of school. But life is never without it’s bumps and I still need the encouragement of the “You Got This” sign, which now sits in my junky computer room at home. As I dream new dreams and transition to my next phase of life, I need that reminder.

My prayer is that no matter what you are facing today, you will know with assurance that “You’ve Got This” with the strength of Christ.

media center · Middle school · retirement · Teachers

There’s a Gorilla in the Library

            This past week I retired from twenty years working as a school media specialist. I had accumulated lots of stuff in my “second home” over the years and for the last months I have been bringing home my books, pictures, and extra sweaters. I gave away many of the cute knick-knacks that teachers are lovingly given and threw tons of papers out.

            I left a few things for last – the framed American Library Association poster by Stephen Kellogg that hung behind my circulation desk, my electric tea kettle and my gorilla, Booker T.

            Yes, I’ve had an almost life size stuffed gorilla in my media center for the past fifteen years. I saved him for last because I wanted him there for my retirement party, since it was his retirement also. He is a pretty old gorilla.

            Booker’s story starts in 1973 in Mooresville, NC. My older sister Anne had a boyfriend known as Big M, but whose real name was Jerry Miller. They dated during most of her high school years and the big black gorilla was a gift from him. The gorilla sat on her bed as she breezed in to change for her date or talk to her friends on the phone (the kind that was plugged into the wall).  I’m sure there was some private joke between her and Big M about the gorilla, but I never knew it.  Maybe he was supposed to represent Big M, and he did bear some resemblance.

            Great big stuffed animals were a thing back then. I had an almost life size Saint Bernard that we got with the green stamps Mama got from the A&P. I remember sitting at the kitchen table licking those stamps and putting them into the books. It must have taken lots of stamps to get my Saint Bernard.

            I don’t know if Anne’s gorilla was bought with green stamps, but he sat on her bed even after she went off to college at UNC-Charlotte. Like many high school romances, Anne and Big M were not destined to be. Their relationship ended, but she kept his gorilla close.

In January of Anne’s freshman year in college, my parents found out that her backaches were not caused by stress or poor posture when she sat on her bed to study, but from the return of the cancer that she had as a little girl. About the time we moved to Greensboro in 1975, Anne started chemotherapy. The gorilla was on her bed or on the floor, keeping vigil throughout those dark days of nausea, pain and drug induced sleep.

Anne lost her fight with the cancer a year later, a few months after her twentieth birthday. Our whole family and her many friends were stunned. How could this have happened? We slogged through the best we could.

Her bedroom at our house in Greensboro remained the same for years, her sewing machine in the corner, her clothes in the closet, and the gorilla sitting on her bed. But somehow life moves on after indescribable grief. I left for college and seminary, then to Birmingham, met and married Keith and we moved to Calhoun. Keith and I bought our old house and Adam came along. My parents moved Anne’s things out of her room and it was now Adam’s place to sleep when we came to visit. The sewing machine and gorilla were gone.

Right before Christmas 2002, Daddy died from the ravages of Parkinson’s disease that had taken away the dignified man I had always known. He had been Mama’s whole life and she was lost, her purpose for life gone. She knew she did not want to stay in the big house all alone and made plans to move to an apartment at Friends’ Home West in Greensboro.

On a rainy morning before Thanksgiving in 2003, Adam and I helped Mama clean out the attic as she began to pare down over fifty years of her life. I remember so well sitting in Daddy’s small office at the bottom of the attic stairs, surrounded by the smell of his cigarettes and the memorabilia of his life at Clemson, his time in the army during WWII and his career with Burlington Industries. I brought down the Barbies and Johnny West horses from my childhood and we had fun going through all the memories.

Then I saw something bound up in plastic dry cleaning wrap. It was Anne’s gorilla. I knew that Daddy couldn’t let him go. Considering that he had spent several summers in the hot attic, he was in surprisingly good shape. I took off the plastic, sprayed him with Lysol and carried him to Georgia, sitting in the front seat of my car.

At the time I was the media specialist at Red Bud Elementary School. I figured the little kids would love him. I took him to school and sat him on a little chair next to me in my reading area. We had a contest to name him and one of the boys came up with the name Booker the Reader, or Booker T. for short. There was a popular wrestler by that name and with his short stubby arms and massive shoulders, he did have a wrestler look to him. The name was perfect.

At the beginning of the year I would introduce Booker T. to the children and tell them that he guarded the books each night. The kindergartners’ eyes would light up as they pondered this possibility.  Could it be true that this stuffed gorilla came alive at night?

For the next six years, Booker was a part of my library, along with a life size Big Bird donated by a teacher. He allowed the children to give him hugs and pat him on the head. At Christmas he wore a Santa hat and a red and white striped Cat in the Hat one for Read Across America week. He must have done a good job protecting the books, because they never got stolen at night.

In 2010 I decided it was time for a change and moved to Valley Point Middle School to be the media specialist.  I was excited, but unsure about the middle schoolers, who seemed like a strange and unknown breed made up of hormones and attitude. I had not learned yet that they were just little kids trying to adjust to bodies that were growing and changing at alarming rates.

What should I do with Booker T? How would a stuffed, almost life size gorilla go over in middle school?

I told our counselor Anthony about Booker’s history and asked him what he thought about bringing him to school. “I think if you tell them the story, they will understand,” said Anthony. And that’s what I did.

Booker T came to the media center and sat on a little chair by the window. As I introduced myself to the students that first week, I finished by telling them why I had a gorilla in the media center — that he had belonged to my sister who died of cancer and that I thought my parents had given him away until I found him wrapped in plastic in the attic.

The students at my school were from mostly low-income families and many had known more heartache in their young lives than is fair. When I shared that I too had experienced grief at about their age, they quit being goofy for a few minutes and listened. I think they suddenly saw me as a real person, not just this white headed lady standing up there telling them not to tear up the books. Something shifted, just for a second. Some would come up to me later and tell me about a baby brother or sister who had died or a parent or grandparent. Booker added a touch of whimsy that broke down walls and opened up a connection that may have taken longer to forge without him.

For the last nine years Booker was with me at Valley Point, sitting quietly on his little chair. The middle schoolers didn’t pay him much attention, other than the occasional rowdy boys that knocked him over or picked him up off of his chair and wanted to try wrestling him. I had to patiently remind them that Booker was old and needed to be treated gently, and they soon lost interest. I never knew how much they even noticed him.

In my last week, a group of sixth grade girls made a poster for me to say good-bye. They included pictures of things that they thought represented me — cross country runners, a writing pad, some vegetables (because they knew I like to garden), a heart over a silhouette of a woman and children, books of course, and a picture of a gorilla. Maybe one day they will look back and remember that crazy librarian who had a gorilla in the media center.

Booker and me at our retirement party.

Now instead of guarding the books, he can sit out his days at home, keeping me company and giving me the quiet encouragement he has for these many years.