The Only Thing You Shouldn’t Miss-According To Oprah & Me

The other night I sat at our dining room table, across from my daughter and her forever friend, A. It was late, and everyone else in the house had long since gone to sleep. As tired as I was, I couldn’t pull myself away from the moment – the chance to look across at them, remembering their fourth-grade sleepover faces and times before life threw boys and jobs and college and adulthood in their path.

I could see it in their eyes. They’re feeling the insidious creep of growing up, the heaviness of choices that at times seem overwhelming and exhilarating all at once.

I wasn’t exactly sure how much to say. I didn’t want to sound preachy or teacher-like. They both passed my 8th grade English class long ago.

So I listened. I hesitated, I looked in their eyes as they shared their fears and hopes, and finally, I took a breath and broke in.

Life isn't always a clear path ahead.
Life isn’t always a straight path ahead.

“I’m proud of you, you know,” I said, pushing my glasses to the top of my head. “It takes guts to listen to your heart. It takes a lot of courage to admit that the path you’re on isn’t the path that you want – that where you thought you wanted to go when you were 17 might not be the destination you want to head in right now. And that’s ok.”

They both looked down and back up at me. “Thanks, mamawolfe,” A. replied. I couldn’t tell if she was going to smile or cry.

“Life isn’t always a straight path. In fact, for most of the people I know, life was a curvy, squiggly, up and down and all around kind of a journey – especially in college. The idea that someone could know enough about themselves to make a decision about their future when they’re only 17 is crazy – you should know that decisions can be changed, courses can be altered, and if you listen to your gut and trust the journey, everything will work itself out.” My words hung there for a minute until the corners of their mouths started to turn up, their eyes met mine, and by the end, the three of us had exhaled.

I watched as they hugged and whispered goodbye, promised to see each other soon and that they would miss each other.

The only thing you shouldn’t miss

Later that night, after I’d tucked my girl in and kissed her goodnight, I was browsing online and came across Oprah Winfrey’s quote, “The only thing you shouldn’t miss is what matters to you”.

I know – you’re saying ‘easier said than done, Oprah’ right about now, aren’t you?

Of course, we shouldn’t miss what matters to us. Makes perfect sense, doesn’t it. Why would we spend our time paying attention to those things that in the long run really don’t mean a thing?

But why do we miss it so often, then? What does matter most, I wonder?

These are the kinds of things I think about when I’m taking my dog for long walks. Or lying under the air conditioner on a hotel room bed, alone. Or when my hands are immersed in sudsy, grapefruit scented warm water and I’m unconsciously scrubbing the remnants of last night’s pasta sauce off the Teflon coated pan. Definitely when I’m elbow deep in dirt and weeding in my garden.

One thing you shouldn't miss- spring flowers in your garden.
One thing you shouldn’t miss- spring flowers in your garden.

When I was in my twenties, what was mattering most to me? Did I even know?  I remember feeling like my two girls did tonight – the fear, the insecurity, the cold sweats and second thoughts and absolute stupefaction over what life had in store for me once I graduated from college.

I stumbled alone, crossing my fingers and hoping the Universe would reveal the shortcut I needed to take to get where I thought I should be. It wasn’t a straight line for me, either. The circuit was tumultuous, terrifying and exhilarating, for sure, and for the last 25 years, I’ve towed the line in teaching.

All along, I’ve been trying to figure out just what Oprah reminded me of – what matters most.

Maybe it’s turning 50 this year, or perhaps it’s been watching my daughter move away and my son battle health challenges that has cleared the path for me. Because today, more than ever, I’m realizing that the words I shared at my dining room table were words I needed to remind myself – “It takes guts to listen to your heart. It takes a lot of courage to admit that the path you’re on isn’t the path that you want.”

The passageway of my life is narrowing with age, but widening with perspective. I know now, more than ever, that listening to my intuition and trusting the journey is the route before me.

I know that like the crack of daylight at dawn, it’s the glorious moments of each day, the little extraordinary ordinary moments that offer a glimpse into the world, are what matters to me.

These are the only things you shouldn’t miss.

The only thing you shouldn't miss
Just an ordinary, extraordinary moment with my two babies- what matters most.

 

Jennifer Wolfe

Jennifer Wolfe, a writer-teacher-mom, is dedicated to finding the extraordinary in the ordinary moments of life by thinking deeply, loving fiercely, and teaching audaciously. Jennifer is a Google Certified Educator, Hyperdoc fanatic, and a voracious reader. Read her stories on her blog, mamawolfe, and grab free copies of her teaching and parenting resources.

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reading with mamawolfe: Wild by Cheryl Strayed

Like many avid readers, my bookshelf overflows with piles of ‘to-read’ or ‘in progress’ titles.  Being one who cannot part with a favorite, volumes of old friends mingle with the new, making for quite a commotion in space.  I peruse, sort, and even dust the titles carefully, always wishing for more time, for those moments when no one needs me and I can cuddle up with someone else’s thoughts for a little while.
It is rare that I finish reading multiple chapters of a book in one sitting, let alone the entire book in the course of a weekend.  Moms and teachers just don’t have that kind of time.
Recently I found a book that wouldn’t let me ignore it.  I’d heard about Wild, by Cheryl Strayed – everyone seemed to be talking about if after Oprah announced it as her first pick for her revised “Oprah Book Club 2.0” last year.  The problem for me, aside from a disconcerting lack of time for myself, was that I always bristle at the mainstream.  When something becomes a big seller, it makes me nervous.  Not because I think I’m somehow more “ivory tower” than anyone else is, but because I’m really, really choosy about how I spend my time.
So when I cracked the cover of Wild, I was ready to be unimpressed.  I was surprisingly disappointed – not in the writing, but that I could not put it down.
After the first few pages, I grabbed my writing notebook and began jotting down quotes.  Like this one on page 51: “Fear, to a great extent, is born of a story we tell ourselves, and so I chose to tell myself a different story from the one women are told.”  Ok, Cheryl, you’re speaking to me now.  To the woman who kissed a Komodo dragon in Indonesia last summer.  To the one who is trying to write and hoping someone is listening.  To the mom of two teenagers.  I’m hooked.
Wild tells the autobiographical story of Cheryl’s early twenties, when her life had absolutely spiraled down into a place where many of us would simply give up.  From an unorthodox, meager childhood, to the early, tragic death of her mother, to a young marriage and eventually hitting rock-bottom abusing heroin, Cheryl’s story was not unbelievable.  I could feel the absolute plausibility of her words, seeing many women who could have easily fallen into the choices she made.
What I could not believe is her courage.  And independence.  And her somewhat reckless decision to hike the Pacific Crest trail, alone, without any experience.
But I admired her courage, her independence, and reckless decisions.  I felt connected to her.  I, myself, have hiked day trips on the Pacific Crest trail, but never would I have considered going all the way from the Mojave Desert to Oregon.  That takes some guts.  I understood how she made her decision, “how few choices (she) had, and how often (she) had to do the thing (she) least wanted to do.”  I’ve been there-as a mom, an educator, and a woman.  Sometimes, it seems like I’m there on a daily basis.
Cheryl’s journey reminded me of the power of the human spirit, the struggle so many of us go through to find ourselves, and the power of mind over body.  While some might mock her for her reckless unpreparedness, none could fault her for her determination.  When Cheryl could have simply escaped into the depths of an anonymous life, blaming everyone and everything for her problems, she instead set out.  “I asked for the shelter of my tent, for the smallest sense that something was shielding me from the entire rest of the world…”
Through her journey, she discovered the shelter of the world, the gifts that the universe has for those of us courageous enough to listen.  If you’re feeling overwhelmed, overworked, or out of time for yourself, please stop and crack open the cover of Wild.  You’ll be glad you did.

Jennifer Wolfe

Jennifer Wolfe, a writer-teacher-mom, is dedicated to finding the extraordinary in the ordinary moments of life by thinking deeply, loving fiercely, and teaching audaciously. Jennifer is a Google Certified Educator, Hyperdoc fanatic, and a voracious reader. Read her stories on her blog, mamawolfe, and grab free copies of her teaching and parenting resources.

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Struggle

NPR’s recent story, “Struggle for Smarts: How Eastern and Western Cultures Tackle Learning” really got me thinking.  I’ve spent 22 years teaching junior high, and 16 years parenting, so the question of how do I teach kids to tackle struggle resonates in my everyday life.  The NPR story focuses on struggle and intellect – how that looks in the classroom and at home.  It made me think about the bigger idea of struggle, determination, and perseverance – traits that as a mom, I find creeping up in my life every day.

As a parent, I’ve tried to show my kids the easiest path – I’ll be honest.  Does anyone like to see their kid make painful mistakes, or take the twisting road rather than the straight? Watching our children collapse in defeat or cry in frustrations makes us feel helpless and wish we could change the outcome to spare them the agony of defeat, frustration, and yes, struggle.

No one mentions struggle in the parent handbook.

With babies, we think we will do it right.  We’ve read the books, watched, the videos, and for me, I had seen enough rotten parenting in my first six years of teaching to know I would do it differently.

None of that prepared me for those moments of struggle.  The moment when my daughter cried in exhaustion after her first weeks in kindergarten.  The moment when she had to understand her math problem – in Spanish.  The moment when she fell off the balance beam at a gym meet, or had to deal with ‘mean girls’ for the first time.  The moment when my son struck out in a baseball game, crashed in a ski race, or tested for his black belt.

I felt utterly helpless.

But in those moments, something came to me.  I suppose it was that same tingling feeling that comes to a boxer when they’re down, or a scientist on the brink of a cure.  It felt that profound, that important.  It was that split-second moment when struggle could tip the scales.

Parents know that moment.  It feels like your heart will tear out of your chest, wanting to protect, run away, shield them.  It plows through your head like a tsumani, spilling your thoughts and emotions all over and eventually, hopefully, turning you upright, to the air pocket, and in the right direction.

Don’t give up.  Persevere.  Fight.  Push yourself.  Never quit.  You can do it.  Come on, peanut.  Stick it.  Ski fast, buddy.  You’ve got this.  Run fast.  Indomitable spirit.  Study.  Don’t be afraid.

Mama loves you.

In the end, struggles happen.  Our world thrives on them.  We look to Eastern cultures and marvel at their test scores, their focus, and their determination.  We look to Western cultures and are inspired at their individuality, their creativity and problem solving.  We wonder if we’re doing the right thing.

We look to our children and know that struggle will not escape them, no matter how much we wish them safe travels down the yellow brick road of life.

So parents, what are we going to teach them?

If you’d like to read more of my analysis of the NPR story from a teacher’s perspective, please click over to my Yahoo article, “Are American Students Getting Through School Too Easily?”


Jennifer Wolfe

Jennifer Wolfe, a writer-teacher-mom, is dedicated to finding the extraordinary in the ordinary moments of life by thinking deeply, loving fiercely, and teaching audaciously. Jennifer is a Google Certified Educator, Hyperdoc fanatic, and a voracious reader. Read her stories on her blog, mamawolfe, and grab free copies of her teaching and parenting resources.

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Uncovered Beauty


At this time last year, I was drowning in snow.  Every weekend I slogged, dragged, shoveled, pushed and slipped my way around the Sierras during a record setting snowfall season.  Snow was the center of every conversation and the focus of every day.  I grumbled, complained and wished it would just go away.  

This winter, however, is a completely different story.  Dirt lines the path to our cabin, and rocks and trees jut out of the mountainside.  Lack of snow is the topic of every conversation now, and the gloom and doom its absence brings to our local ski resort and mountain communities.  Everyone whines and gripes and wishes it would come back.

As I spent another afternoon in the lodge, preferring a table and chair to skiing in snow that sticks like butter, I decided I needed to reframe my outlook and headed outside.  The lack of snow makes taking a walk much easier than ever, and as I headed away from the lodge and out of the parking lodge, I found myself breathing more deeply and seeing things I had never noticed before.

Snow does a good job of covering things up.  It hides imperfections, blankets trash, and mulches out the summer debris.  Everything small disappears, covered by something so soft, pure, and beautiful that most people don’t even notice what is missing.
Everything has changed this year.  Nothing is hidden.  The baby conifers don’t have to struggle to stay upright.  The mule ear leaves, brown and withered, line the sledding hillside.  The rocky peaks stand majestic and sharp, and the creeks and riverbeds glow green and mossy.


Wandering down a path I had never seen before, I suddenly realized the new beauty that surrounded me.  What last year was shrouded in white, today gleams rich with earthy greens, browns and greys.  I began to think about all that I had missed last year, and how much there was to see with this reframed perspective.  Leaving the path to go deeper into the forest I stopped, inhaled, and looked back at the mountain.  It began to snow.  
Instinctively I turned towards the warmth of the lodge, then paused, and continued down the road.  Once uncovered, I wasn’t going to miss this chance for beauty.  
It’s all in how you look at it.

Jennifer Wolfe

Jennifer Wolfe, a writer-teacher-mom, is dedicated to finding the extraordinary in the ordinary moments of life by thinking deeply, loving fiercely, and teaching audaciously. Jennifer is a Google Certified Educator, Hyperdoc fanatic, and a voracious reader. Read her stories on her blog, mamawolfe, and grab free copies of her teaching and parenting resources.

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Old Growth: Towering Redwoods and the Family Tree

We depart sunny Miranda early on this July morning.  40 parents, grandparents, children, aunts, uncles and cousins squeezing into a parade of wagons, hybrids and SUVs.  As we enter the Avenue, a canopy slowly begins to grow over us.  The sunlight dims and our car instantly becomes neighbors with the towering trees hugging the road.  Past Rockefeller Grove, the Founder’s Tree, and the beauty of the Eel River, we travel deeper along route 254 into the Humboldt Redwoods State Park.  One after another, the massive posts from times before swish by as we creep towards our destination.  The line of cars, carrying generations of family, pull off the highway and we spill out into the forest.


The Winifred Brown Bell Grove, along the Avenue of the Giants, is a turnoff like many others along the road.  Noted by the standard California State Park brown and gold lettered sign, we park and douse ourselves with bug spray to guard off the mosquitoes bound to exist along the way.  The 40 descendents of the Brown family gather for the required photo to document our journey to this magical space.  Children and dogs pose with anticipation, eager to scamper along the path, destination unknown and really unimportant.  It’s the journey amongst the trees that they look forward to.

As we move deeper into the grove, lush emerald green ferns replace the dirt corridor of the entrance.  Their verdant carpet encroaches on the foot space, cautioning us to tread lightly-poison oak adding another element of excitement.  The air cools, making me glad to have my warm sweatshirt.  We pause, photographing a huge tree or a massive, upturned root hosting a bevy of fern and new growth.  We caution the children again, hoping that they stay focused and on the path.  Stellar Jays announce their presence, golden butterflies dart through my line of sight.  The group spreads out, some going left on the longer loop, hoping to extend the sensory delight just a bit longer.  I can’t see my son or daughter, but I sense that they’re moving forward along the path.  Someone will be watching them.

I pause, absolutely mesmerized by the sight before me.  Where did this glory come from?  How could I not have known this existed?  How can this image remain untouched, unchanged, for centuries?  Such splendor, such lushness, such beauty, such…bigness.  Freedom.  Growth.  Awesomeness.  I am so undersized, honored to be in their presence.

I look up, and only a sliver of blue sky is visible between the towering trees.  I am small, almost insignificant in this landscape.  My children and husband catch up to me, and we pose amid the ferns, part of a larger family group yet perfectly isolated at this moment.  Like the seedlings that once began this landscape, I realize again that my offspring have immense potential.  Nothing limits them; nothing keeps them from achieving their dreams.  Their growth, nurtured by their guardian hosts, stretches before us, soaring with possibility.

What I learned at Winnie’s Grove is that growth happens.  Hosted and nurtured by our families, cautiously curious as we dash along the path of life, we all contribute to the development of our children.  Time inches along, slowly and subtly raising them to heights we may never know.   Hidden groves and untapped potential lie before them, their existence eager for exploration.

What I’m still learning is how to let go and let them wander among the giants.  They will turn left or right as they choose, hopefully remembering the path  leading back to their hosts, their strong family tree.

Jennifer Wolfe

Jennifer Wolfe, a writer-teacher-mom, is dedicated to finding the extraordinary in the ordinary moments of life by thinking deeply, loving fiercely, and teaching audaciously. Jennifer is a Google Certified Educator, Hyperdoc fanatic, and a voracious reader. Read her stories on her blog, mamawolfe, and grab free copies of her teaching and parenting resources.

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