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Father’s intention to practice more kindness

December 31, 2018

A father’s intention to practice more kindness

Recently, a Kindness Calendar arrived in my inbox. It was Thanksgiving weekend, when conversations in our home were about family and gratitude. I printed the one-page calendar, noting that each day of the month was a simple, suggested act of kindness, printed in a colorful square.

“December 1: Encourage more kindness. Share this calendar with others,” appeared in a red square. So, I taped the calendar to the bottom edge of the world map, which hangs on the wall in full view from our kitchen table. I mentioned the calendar during dinner and invited us, individually and as a family, to consider doing some of the listed actions.

Coincidentally, we had already planned a family act of kindness, which aligned with the second (green) square.

December 2:  Support a charity, cause or campaign you really care about. Gathered around our table, enjoying bowls of steaming, homemade, potato soup, daughter Zoe reflected, with enthusiasm, that we were two for two because we had participated in the 5K Hot Chocolate Run that morning – an annual fundraising event that raises awareness about the need to end domestic violence and relationship abuse.

Early successes helped build momentum and without much effort we were on the path to many acts of kindness that month, including Zoe leaving positive notes for others to find, and younger brother Adam offering spontaneous hugs to family members. My wife, Lori, and I were delighted with the rippling kindness.

Along the way I was inspired to learn more and visited the website of the organization that produced the calendar, www.actionforhappiness.org. The site includes calendars, classes and additional resources, including a two-minute video entitled ‘The Science of Kindness.’

I learned that kindness is considered an interpersonal skill that, not surprisingly, is developed through practice. Kindness – the quality of being friendly, considerate and generous – is linked to greater life satisfaction and lower stress. In short, being kind feels good and releases chemicals within the body that promote calmness, happiness, healing and lower blood pressure – for the person who acts with kindness, the person to whom kindness is offered and to people who witness an act of kindness.

All that goodness can result from simply engaging in one daily, random act of kindness! While this is compelling reason to engage in serial acts of kindness, I admit there are times when I am just not in the mood and don’t want to be bothered with acting kindly. It’s not that I ever want to be mean-spirited or disinterested, I just have my kindness button on pause, I rationalize.

This left me wondering, though, “What gets in the way of my desire to act kindly towards others, especially those I love most, as well as strangers and those whom I find challenging?” Feeling tired or stressed, are the usual culprits, yet I know I am capable of being kind when I experience those feelings.

Doing a bit more reading, a revelation awaited me in an article entitled, “A Kinder World Begins with YOU.” One message of the article is that it’s much easier to act kindly toward someone when we regularly act kindly toward ourselves, and conversely, when we rarely act with kindness toward ourselves it is more difficult to act kindly toward others. The wisdom encoded in this belief produced an Aha! Moment, for me – a moment when, despite the obvious ad profound nature of the message, and the fact that I am sure I have heard this before – I began to understand and accept the idea at a much deeper level.

The answer to my original question about what gets in the way of acting kindly toward others is really nested in the question of what gets in the way of me acting kindly toward myself. While I have some initial thoughts, that’s a question that warrants much more consideration.

In the meantime, our family continues to be inspired by the Kindness Calendar. Even Santa (actually it was Mrs. Claus) supported our family efforts by slipping into each Christmas stocking a tiny tin labeled Be Kind, which includes 18 cards with a prompt for an act of kindness.

Heading into the New Year, I decided to make kindness my central theme for 2019, when I will endeavor to frequently exercise my kindness muscles, including being more kind to myself so that I can be more kind to others. I’m feeling optimistic that the ripple effect of kindness in our family will spark more kindness for others too. Imagine the possibilities…including bumper stickers, too, which read:  Make America (more) Kind Again.

John Engel of Florence can be reached through his website fatherhoodjourney.com.

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Celebrating Halloween in Frightening Times

November 14, 2018

As published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Halloween is my favorite holiday. As a kid I probably would have ranked Santa above jack-o-lanterns, but, as an adult, and especially as a father, I have come to newly, appreciate the significance of this autumnal celebration.

For daughter Zoe and son Adam, now 12 and 9 years of age, talk of Halloween starts in September, just as they settle into the rhythm of school schedules. This year they unpacked boxes of decorations in the basement art studio and secretly planned upgrades for their spooky front-yard scape. Reflecting their growing maturity, they assured my wife, Lori, and me, that putting up Halloween decorations before October 1st was excessive, though quickly realizing that date was a Monday, they decided September 30 was a reasonable alternative.

Adam’s circular, front-yard, flower garden became a creepy graveyard, where dying marigolds were replaced with handmade tombstones, a skeleton figure and sunken shovel. Giant spider webs of fine, silk-like thread material stretched over shrubs and porch railings. A scarecrow — old clothes stuffed with dry leaves from the sugar maples lining the southern edge of our yard — sat in a lawn chair, a straw hat perched on its basketball head. Strings of orange lights outlined the front window and breezeway and, eventually, two carved pumpkins were added to the steps, welcoming visitors at our front door.

Their timely efforts and boundless energy left a full month to create costumes. Zoe decided to be a peacock. She made a shawl from a piece of fabric, to which she hot-glued colorful feathers; cut cardboard wings from a box, which she painted purple, sprinkled with glitter and attached elastic bands for looping around her biceps; and repurposed a feathery mardi gra mask, a relic from Lori’s past, adding both a festive and nostalgic flair to her aesthetically pleasing attire.

Adam’s outfit reflected a decidedly ghoulish motif. He upgraded the full-body skeleton costume he wore last year, by wearing carefully ripped old clothing over the skeleton features and drippling fake blood on the exposed bones and skull-mask. I thwarted his initial plans to add a store-bought, fake battle axe, intoning that it might terrify the preschoolers and kindergartners at his school’s Halloween parade. We settled on a walking staff with a tiny skull mounted on top, a compromise that leaned more to his favor than mine.

A week before the big day, Zoe and Adam confidently shared, with Lori and me, upgrades to their trick-or-treating route, announcing, matter-of-factly, they would be traveling without us this year. That Lori and I would even consider approving their plan, says much about the nature of our neighborhood and community — and my growing appreciation for Halloween.

Roughly one-block from our home, along the main thorough fare that runs through our village, sits a small community park. Each Halloween many hundreds of costumed people of all ages gather, share laughter, snap photos and delight in the scene, more festive than macabre. After nightfall, at the family-friendly hour of 6:00 p.m., local police temporarily close the main street, and a rag shag parade meanders four blocks to the civic center, smiling onlookers lining the route. Eventually the crowd spills into the surrounding neighborhoods where porch lit homes and troves of treats await.

The child in me loves the sense of joy that Halloween brings to children and adults alike, and I’m inspired by Adam’s and Zoe’s creativity and initiative.

For me though, Halloween has come to offer a broader, social narrative, too. When children confidently navigate neighborhoods, march up porch stairs, pound on doors and ring bells, project their voices in a reciprocal exchange — tricks for treats — with strangers, they are actively experiencing and creating a sense of community. And, when adults and children join together, wearing silly or spooky costumes, and stroll through the village center, it’s a joy-filled, intergenerational act of reclaiming public spaces to foster safety and community connection.

In Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, first published in 2000 and updated in 2012, acclaimed sociologist Robert Putnam observed that Americans have become increasingly disconnected from friends, neighbors and their communities. The book’s title is derived from Putnam’s observation that while the number of Americans who bowl has increased over the years, the number of Americans who participate in bowling leagues — and a long list of other forms of community and civic engagement — has dramatically declined.

Putnam’s insights seem frightfully accurate in our current, politically divisive and perilous times. Still, I am heartened that while nationally we are bowling alone, in our local communities — ours and no doubt many others — we are not trick-or-treating alone. It’s a small but promising sign, and a reminder that creating safe and connected communities is the trick to ensuring the treat we call democracy.

John Engel of Florence can be reached through his website fatherhoodjourney.com.

Broken Car – Opportunity to Strengthen Community

November 14, 2018

As published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, Thursday, October 25, 2018

Inevitably, when I travel for work, something at home breaks. So, in preparation for a recent trip, I proposed a new family agreement. If something breaks and requires my attention when I’m away — unless it’s an emergency — I don’t want to hear about it when I walk in the door; the next morning is soon enough.

Of course, something broke while I was away — and it was an emergency, or at least in urgent need of repair. Actually, the break started an hour before I departed for my trip. While returning home from delivering son Adam to soccer practice, a loud noise erupted from under the car I was driving, the older, but generally reliable, of our two family-vehicles.

It sounded as if I had hit an object on the road and that the object ricocheted up, hitting the bottom of the car, so I hoped. But the road was clear and glancing in the rearview window confirmed the absence of any debris.

At home, I wiggled part way under the front end of the vehicle to grab hold of different parts, testing to see if anything was loose. Standing, I grabbed with both hands under the front fender and pulled up and down. Then I pushed down on the fender, repeatedly rocking the car. Though I could not identify any obvious problem, I had an uneasy feeling about the situation.

It was too late to rent a car and first thing in the morning I was due to start leading a three-day professional training more than 100 miles from home — not something I could reschedule. So, since my wife Lori would only need to make short trips in town while I was away, I headed off in our newer vehicle, leaving the suspect car at home.

The next day, back in my hotel room and before leaving for dinner, I called to check-in with Adam and big sister Zoe about their day. During the call, my wife Lori arrived home and shared that while returning from work a loud noise exploded from under the front end of the car and the steering immediately started pulling to the right.

We decided the vehicle was unsafe to drive and began problem solving how Lori — who works full time and is a graduate student — would navigate life with two kids, and no car while I was away. She and the kids focused on scheduling rides and I focused on fixing the car.

Immediately, Adam, distraught about missing open house at his school that night, sprang into action and asked a neighbor for support. They gladly agreed to fit Lori, Zoe and Adam — along with their family of four — into their mini-van, to and from the school event.

For the next two days, Lori patched together rides to and from work with a colleague and neighbor. Friends with whom we often carpool for gymnastics practice did double duty, ensuring that Zoe and her friend, made it to and from the YMCA.

Zoe, who generally commutes to middle school by bike, rode with a neighbor on the day when heavy rain would have made for a challenging ride, and Adam routinely made use of the school bus, that stops less than one block from our home, to get to and from his elementary school.

From afar, I downloaded an app from our insurance carrier and scheduled a tow-truck to take the disabled vehicle from our driveway to a preferred repair shop. Fortunately, the cost of the tow was covered by our insurance and the driver, who called me to confirm details when he arrived at our home, was timely, friendly and helpful.

From my hotel room, I placed an early morning call to our trusted, long-time mechanic, who promptly made room in the schedule for our car. Hours later I had a message that the car needed struts and springs replaced and that the parts were already ordered. It was not an inexpensive repair, but still better than a new car payment. The car was repaired and, thanks to another neighbor who drove Lori to the repair shop, was back home before my return.

When I walked in the door, there were lots of hugs and kisses. And, just as I had requested, there was no mention of anything that needed to be fixed. Instead, at supper, we raised our glasses and toasted the sweetness of community, and the wonderful support of friends, neighbors and local businesses.

As Lori and I reflected on the experience, we observed that it’s often much easier to offer support than to ask for it. We speculated that if we were more comfortable seeking support from others that perhaps they would more readily reach out to us in times of need, too.

So, I have proposed a new family agreement. When things break — ours or our neighbor’s, whether or not I am traveling — let’s consider it an opportunity to strengthen community connections, and not merely a problem to fix. And while that’s not exactly a new idea, it’s a welcome reminder when I travel for work, or any time.

John Engel of Florence can be reached through his website fatherhoodjourney.com.

Listening to night sounds, and more

September 30, 2018

Listening to night-sounds, and more

As published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Recently our family enjoyed our week-long end-of-summer tradition: camping along the shores of Lake Champlain.

The Adirondack Mountains tower to the west, to the east rise the Green Mountains, and the lake stretches north, crossing the Canadian border into Quebec.

In this place — now sacred to our family — at the shore’s edge, around the campfire and under the cover of sugar maples, red oaks and white pines, there is space and time for my wife, Lori, and me to notice and appreciate the ways in which our daughter, Zoe, and son, Adam, have matured since our last visit.

So after rushing to wrap up work details, jamming loads of gear into the car, driving four hours, setting up camp and then starting to relax, we were all excited to crawl into our family tent, where we each lay silently reading, as the coals from our first campfire of the trip grew dim. One by one headlamps switched off, as tiredness gave way to sleep — for the others — while I lay listening to the night sounds.

The sounds seemed to grow louder as I listened, almost overwhelmingly so. I noticed the steady buzz was really an uninterrupted cacophony of discrete sounds. I was certain some sounds were crickets, emitting chirps by rubbing a hind leg and wing together. I later learned that katydids, also called tree crickets, which play their song by rubbing wings together, were also members of this nocturnal ensemble. Together, these tiny creatures created a pulsing rhythm comprised of high and low pitches, and a whirling and winding that would crescendo, then start anew, endlessly, throughout the night.

How many crickets and katydids inhabit the woods surrounding our tent, I wondered. How distant does the sound of a single cricket, and a chorus, travel? How long does a cricket chirp — do they tire and take a break while others sing, or do they all continuously chirp until morning’s light? I wondered, too, what the sounds meant: what were the inhabitants of these woods speaking — and hearing — each night?

The nightly practice of listening and wondering attuned my hearing to other sounds as well. Each evening, as Adam and I strolled to and from the campground’s showers, his inner thoughts spilled into the cool, quiet air.

“Why is campground toilet paper so thin,” he mused one night, which led to a conversation about the seemingly unrelated topics of economics and wiping, as we strolled back to our tent.

“Can you snort?” he rhetorically asked, on another evening’s walk. Without pausing, he continued, as if he had rehearsed a demonstration speech for school. “I have three snorts. A short – snort! A long – s n o r t! And a loud – SNORT!! I can make music.” And, he did.

Each cloudless night, amidst a string of other topics, we noticed the night sky, too. Adam wondered aloud about the stars, planets and the glow of the waxing, nearly full moon, revealing mysteries of his richly, developing mind and curiosity.

My listening — to Adam and the crickets — deepened during our week in the woods, bringing me closer to my surroundings, family and myself. And with Adam now 9 years-old (as of 12:40 p.m. on the day we drove to the campground!) and Zoe nearing 12, my wife Lori and I realize the importance of preserving this — and other — family rituals, cherishing the special moments, close connection and life insights they afford.

So, at 9:00 a.m. sharp, on the first business day of September, I logged onto the campground website and, with much surprise and delight, successfully reserved our favorite camp site for August 2019. At dinner that night, we all lifted our glasses in celebratory toast! And later, after the others were asleep, in the darkness of night I padded to the kitchen sink for a glass of water. Through the open window I heard the chorus of night sounds, reminding me to listen.

John Engel of Florence can be reached through his website fatherhoodjourney.com.

Babysitter training – for leadership development and gender equality

August 26, 2018

To be published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, August 29, 2018

I recently attended a babysitter training class. The day-long course, offered by the American Red Cross – on a Saturday – convened in an unassuming building located in an industrial park. Truthfully, my daughter Zoe, soon to be 12, attended the class. I sat in the lobby, at the unoccupied reception desk, working on my laptop to finish a couple of pressing work projects.

When I was 12 there was never mention of babysitting as an income earning activity, for me – or for any of the boys I knew. Rather, I mowed lawns and did other manual labor to make a few bucks and learn something about the world of work.

So, I was curious to see what might be offered in a babysitter training course aimed at 11-16 year-old youth. Throughout the day I chatted with the class instructors, peeked through the window of the classroom door a couple of times and checked in with Zoe during breaks and lunch. I also paged through the Babysitter’s Training handbook Zoe received.

I was especially surprised and delighted by two elements of the training. First, the topics covered in the class not only included basic care for infants and children, age appropriate activities, first aid and safety protocols, but professionalism, growing your own business, and leadership, too. In fact, the first section of the handbook is titled, A Guide to Leadership. The section includes information about how to be a leader and highlights key leadership skills, such as respecting diversity, communication, motivation and decision making. This section ends with an overview of child abuse and neglect, including definitions, examples and steps to follow when abuse is suspected.

Second, I was impressed by the inclusive approach reflected in the curriculum and its delivery. The main instructional video featured two teenagers, an African American girl and a Caucasian boy. The two teens were equally involved in communicating important training messages, for example the boy demonstrated how to spoon feed a baby and the girl demonstrated bottle feeding. Two instructions lead the class, one female, a highly regarded trainer according to office staff, and the other male, an early childhood educator with a master’s degree in child development.

And yet, all 19 participants in the training class were girls. Not a single boy! While I was not surprised, I was disappointed. I asked the instructors if boys ever took the class and they assured me they did. Though when I pressed for more details I learned that for approximately every 100 class participants only 1 or 2 boys attend the class.

I left thinking that the American Red Cross has done a fabulous job creating a class that promotes a form of leadership that values caretaking, nurturing, safety, and diversity – a form of leadership in short supply in many sectors, and at many levels, of American society. That very few boys take the class – or work as babysitters – is such a missed opportunity.

To me, encouraging boys to receive training in childcare and to work as babysitters, when young, could promote a host of positive outcomes, including more men working in caregiving fields, such as early education, nursing, and elder care, to name a few. In turn, more children would observe and experience the inherent caregiving and nurturing capacities of men – qualities that are generally dismissed, devalued or displaced by conventional and outdated ideas that men can only be strong, tough and assertive.

Such a shift might also result in more men feeling comfortable and competent as nurturing and engaged fathers, something I struggled with when I became a father at age 40, having had very little experience with child care and caregiver roles.

And when more fathers equally share care taking roles and responsibilities with women – tasks that are traditionally more heavily shouldered by women – children might come to experience a new normal – boys having equal interest in babysitting.

I am delighted that Zoe is developing her leadership and caregiving capacities, and I’m excited that she is motivated to seek out opportunities to serve families and their children as a child care provider, earning a few dollars in the process.

And, I am equally committed to promoting the idea that Adam, and other boys, take a babysitting class and work as babysitters. It’s not that I am interested in boys displacing girls from babysitting jobs. Rather, I believe the benefits of having all children develop caring and nurturing leadership capacities is what we need more of – in our families, communities and beyond.

John Engel of Florence can be reached through his website fatherhoodjourney.com.

 

Father harvests sweet lesson from a peach tree

August 1, 2018

An edited version of a column published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, July 25, 2018

Six-years ago we planted fruit trees. Two apple and one reliant peach, a variety hardy enough to endure New England winters. Each was semi-dwarf, meaning less than full size at maturity, so as not to over crowd our small front yard, nor tower over our single-story home.

The trees were part of a vision, long in the making, which my wife Lori and I held. We imagined a simple home, nested in a small community, where we would raise kids, grow food and connect with our neighbors.

I vividly recall the day we planted the trees. I carefully marked and dug the holes, mixing in organic fertilizer and compost. Our son Adam, age 3, proudly helped position the middle tree, a Concord apple, which was at least double his height, pushing the soil in place and patting it firm. The neighbor boy, Jasper, his father Jerome at his side, placed a Gala apple tree in the hole closest to their house, and at the edge of our yard. Finally, daughter Zoe, age 6, with Lori supporting, gleefully planted the peach tree.

For years we nurtured these trees – fertilizing, watering and pruning them, supporting their growth and helping them thrive.

The apple trees have produced some fruit, though never abundantly, and most years the squirrels and insects consume more than we do. The peach tree, however, has many times produced 400-500 peaches in a single season, plenty for us and the squirrels.

But growing fruit is fickle business, so I was recently reminded. It was early, morning dew still glistening on the grass, I hastily left the house for work, pitched my bag in the car and climbed into the driver’s seat. Glancing right as I put the key in the ignition, I gasped at the site of the peach tree. The main stem, the trunk, had snapped in half and the top six feet of the tree hung down to the ground, at least two hundred peaches clinging to its branches.

A few days before, I had noticed the tree was a bit top heavy and leaning toward the street. I had climbed a step ladder, wrapped a piece of cloth around the trunk, and then a rope around the cloth, and pulling the rope firmly I anchored the other end around a fence post I have driven into the ground. The tree stood straight, mostly, though I suspected that the increasing weight of the growing peaches would put additional strain on the trunk and branches.

Late winter, before the buds on the tree emerged, was the ideal time to prune the tree, strategically cutting branches back and removing smaller or unhealthy limbs, which likely would have prevented the over-growth that led to the tragic break. But late winter, and then early spring, I continually found other ways to occupy my time, whenever I thought about the fruit trees. Pruning just never made it to the top of my to-do list.

So, as I pulled out of the driveway, I wondered if vigorous pruning late this autumn, after the leaves have fallen and the first frost has visited, would save our tree for years to come. This thought was eclipsed by worry that my pruning neglect meant our family would no longer enjoy an annual yield of juicy peaches.

When I returned home that evening sadness lingered, and I began to realize the important symbolism of the broken tree. These past years, while the peach tree flourished, so too did other parts of my life, including commitments to family, community – and especially work. While I cannot undo harm to the tree, I vowed to carefully trim unnecessary parts of my life – before they break – in order to save the parts that matter most.

So while the tree will yield fewer peaches this year (and perhaps beyond), harvesting this important life lesson offers enduring sweetness.

John Engel of Florence can be reached through his website fatherhoodjourney.com.

Father reflects on daughter’s early years

June 29, 2018

As published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, June 27, 2018

Our eldest, daughter, Zoe, has always loved school. She finds comfort in the learning, structure, and rhythm of the experience. When at home, starting at age 3 and for many years after, Zoe fashioned her own classroom, where she recreated daily lessons and activities.

At age 9, Zoe informed my wife, Lori, and I, that she would one day attend college in Vermont and then become a teacher.

As Lori, younger brother, Adam, and I — sitting on hard plastic chairs, lined in neat rows along the hardwood floor of the room where Zoe ate more than 1,000 lunches — watched her stride across the stage to accept her certificate of promotion from fifth grade, I had some moments of reflection.

Zoe was tall, beaming and at-ease. I felt a sense of joy and pride that she had navigated with grace so many opportunities and challenges during these early years. I remembered the untimely death of a teacher who skillfully stretched Zoe’s intellect and self-confidence, annual science fairs, dealing with the news of school shootings, lockdown drills, monthly community meetings, standardized testing, gardening and friendships.

And, I recalled how supporting Zoe through each of these experiences — and more — stretched my understanding of fatherhood, appreciating that together, as a family, we grew along with her.

I also tearfully recognized the end of her elementary years as further evidence that time moves in one direction, leaving in its wake memories that fade, and my helpless wish to keep her, and Adam, youngsters forever.

It was the principal’s closing words that brought me back to the present. “Remember to be yourself and be nice,” he instructed. For Zoe and her peers, it was a fitting and final lesson, and a poignant reminder for the adults in the room, too.

For me, the sum and sequence of these seven words offers a creative tension, where all of us — young and old — are challenged by both discovering and being one’s self, and by responding to the world’s desperate need for more niceness.

In this way, I appreciate that Zoe has been part of a learning community where she and her peers have been offered a protective space to glimpse these life lessons.

As Zoe stepped off the bus, which she affectionately calls a giant cheese block, for approximately the 2,000th time, Lori and I were waiting, silently remembering each last day of school in the preceding five years. We welcomed her with hugs and kisses.

At home, she eagerly shared her yearbook, with its many memorable photos, signatures from friends and teachers, and her stated hope that 20 years hence, in the year 2038, she will be a second-grade teacher.

John Engel of Florence can be reached through his website fatherhoodjourney.com.